J.L. Greger is a scientist turned novelist. She includes science and international travel in her award-winning mysteries and thrillers: The Flu Is Coming, Games for Couples, Dirty Holy Water, Fair Compromises, and seven others.
A woman scientist and her FBI colleagues rush to find who poisoned the food at a political rally with botulism toxin in order to kill their target—a woman candidate for the U.S. Senate.
A number of physicians and biologists have become novelists, including Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Homes series), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). Agatha Christie worked in a pharmacy during World War II. Several have commented that they wrote novels because they wanted to arouse interest in the medical sciences and public health among their readers, i.e., Robin Cook (Coma) and the inventor of birth control pills Carl Djerassi (Cantor’s Dilemma).
Do novelists impact readers’ interest in science? Maybe. A number of undergraduate women and minorities majoring in biology at one university claimed Abby Sciuto, the forensic scientist for many years on the popular T.V. show NCIS, was a role model because she was a caring person even though she was a scientist.
Their comments were particularly interesting because the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have invested millions of dollars trying to recruit women and minorities into scientific fields but have had limited success. It seems many students think of scientists as being weird, white males. One can’t wonder if this stereotype was enhanced by fictional villains, such as Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Strangelove, and Dr. Moreau.
As scientist and dean, I can tell you that recruiting and retaining women and minorities to faculty positions is not easy. Furthermore, it’s not fun being the only woman on a government panel.
What I decided to do? I decided to write mysteries and thrillers with a woman scientist Sara Almquist as my protagonist. Sara is a feisty woman who tired of the constant bickering among university faculty members and became a consultant on epidemiology for the FBI and other agencies, including the USAID, an arm of the State Department concerned with agriculture and public health issues internationally. She has a love interest but is too independent to marry him. He calls her “a nosy do-gooder,” and she reluctantly agrees with his assessment of her.
In each of the mysteries and thrillers in my Science Traveler Series, Sara investigates a different scientific issue as she helps law enforcement agencies solve murders. They include weight loss schemes, industrial sabotage in the biotechnology industry, and bubonic plague in livestock.
In my newest mystery FAIR COMPROMISES, Sara Almquist and her FBI colleagues rush to find who endangered the lives of a hundred attendees at a political rally by poisoning the food with botulism toxin. The poisoners’ target was a woman candidate for the U.S. Senate; the rest were just collateral damage. As these agents track clues from a veterans’ hall in Clovis to health spas of Santa Fe, they must make a multitude of personal and professional (perhaps too many) compromises.
What is known about botulinum toxins? One of the hottest anti-aging products offered at health spas is BOTOX or related botulinum products. I suspect many clients get rid of their wrinkles or make their lips look luscious, and pouty know little about the injections they are getting.
Botulinum products, such as BOTOX, are produced by the same bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) that grows in improperly canned vegetables and meat. Perhaps a few of you remember your mother using a pressure cooker when she canned vegetables to prevent the lethal effects of botulinum toxin.
Your mother was right. Scientists have found botulism toxin is the most toxic natural compound ever discovered. It literally paralyzes muscles. Hence, the victims of botulism poisoning die of paralysis of the muscles needed for respiration. The death rate used to be 90%. Now with an antidote, the death rate is 5-10%.
During World War II, botulism toxin was considered as a potential weapon of war. In the 1980 and 1990s, scientists discovered tiny amounts of it could be used and injected into muscles that spasmed in various neurological conditions. They also figured out that tiny injections of botulinum toxin would prevent the muscle contractions that caused crow’s feet around the eyes and worry lines.
How is botulinum toxin used in FAIR COMPROMISES? In this mystery, state public health officials quickly determine that botulism poisoning has caused double and blurred visions and headaches in dozens of people who attended a political rally the day before. The health officials requested the help of the FBI when they realized the symptoms of the senate candidate at the rally were much worse than those of others, and she was progressing rapidly to respiratory paralysis. They think she may have been targeted.
Thus FAIR COMPROMISES is a medical mystery in which the source of the toxin must be identified. At first, improperly home canned food served at the rally appears to be the source of the toxin. The mystery turns from being the analysis of a severe food safety breach to the investigation of a diabolical murder attempt using “cosmetic” botulism toxin when Sara, with the help of a talented lab crew, discovers a more sinister source of the toxin at a health and beauty spa in Santa Fe.
How are these bits of science in FAIR COMPROMISES useful?
- It’s a reminder to home canners to follow recipe instructions carefully.
- It helps consumers appreciate the scientific basis of public health regulations in regard to food processing and cosmetics.
- It reminds women to get the facts before they select to “beat the aging process” with just an easy injection or cream.
- Maybe it will generate interest in the science in general.
J.L. can be contacted at: https://www.jlgreger.com
FAIR COMPROMISES is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Fair-Compromises-Science-Traveler-Greger/dp/1735421421
Barbara Nickless is a Wall Street Journal and Amazon Charts bestselling author. Her newest series features forensic semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding—a man whose gift for interpreting the signs left by killers has led him to consult on some of the world’s grisliest cases.
“Dr. Evan Wilding is absolutely my new favorite fictional human.” (Danielle Girard, USA Today & Amazon #1 Bestselling Author of The Ex)
Dark of Night: When an historian is found dead from a cobra bite, only Dr. Evan Wilding can read the signs around her strange death—and follow the path to the priceless treasure behind her murder.
Groups: Mystery Writers of America (including the Colorado chapter—RMMWA) and Sisters in Crime (including Sisters in Crime – Colorado).
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I’m fortunate to have a room of my own, filled with books and decorated with items that inspire me—Egyptian paintings on papyrus, black and white photos taken in Africa, globes, and maps. I wish I could say I don’t allow any distractions, but I’m not that disciplined. My phone and internet access are right there in the room with me. But I always start my day with the phone in a drawer, and I don’t allow myself to log on to the internet until lunch unless I know there’s something I have to take care of.
Tell us about your writing process: I wish I could go straight from my bed to my desk—Dennis Lehane says he prefers to write first thing in the morning when he’s still in a dream state. But I have to start my day with breakfast, or I’d pass out at my computer after the first hour. So, breakfast while I read the news, then I make coffee and head upstairs to my study. I spend the morning writing new material and the afternoon editing and doing research, taking an early afternoon break for exercise. The late afternoon and evening hours are for items related to the business of writing or social media. Maybe a glass of wine and some reflection on the day’s work. Almost always a walk. I try to preserve my weekends as much as possible to spend with family and friends.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The fact of a deadline. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m so very grateful to have a deadline because it means my book will go out into the world after my publisher has worked their magic. But I never feel I can give the book everything it deserves. It’s a bit reminiscent of a time in college when I was taking a trig test, and the professor gave us a twenty-minute warning. After that, all my brain could process was “twenty minutes.”
What are you currently working on? I’m writing the third book in the Evan Wilding series, tentatively titled Play of Shadows. It’s about sibling rivalry, domineering fathers, and the question of how early in life humans show a penchant for evil. It’s also about mazes and the minotaur and the undeciphered hieroglyphic script of Crete.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? Yes, in the most wonderful ways. The combination of moral support, shared stories, and practical craft lessons is invaluable. Writing can be lonely, and even though I’m a profound introvert, I’ve learned that having a writing community is priceless.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? For me, it’s describing men and women from the POV of a man. As a writer, I have to portray a woman the way a man (in particular, my protagonist) would see her—the details he would notice, the things about her he’d find most important. And I have to be equally careful to describe a male character the way another man would see him.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? It’s more the other way around. If I’m not bringing everything to the table, I’ll disappoint my characters—and I’ll be disappointed in the results.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Separate your goals into two categories: Those you have control over (improving your craft, reading a lot of other authors, how much time you spend at the desk) and those you don’t (whether or not a particular story or novel sells, how it will be received by the reading public, what the reviewers will say). Focus all of your energy on the things you can control and do your best to forget the rest.
Readers can reach me through my website: https://www.barbaranickless.com
And they can buy my books on Amazon (or at any other bookseller): Amazon Barbara Nickless
Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have been named Best Cozy Mystery by Suspense Magazine, won a Readers’ Favorite gold medal and a RONE Award, placed first in the Chanticleer International Book Awards, and third in the Arizona Literary Awards.
Her nonfiction titles, Writing the Cozy Mystery and A Bad Hair Day Cookbook, have won the FAPA President’s Book Award and the Royal Palm Literary Award. Active in the writing community, Nancy is a past president of Florida Romance Writers and the Florida Chapter of MWA. When not busy writing, she enjoys reading, fine dining, cruising, and visiting Disney World.
STYLED FOR MURDER – Hairstylist Marla Vail realizes the dead body in the bathroom wasn’t part of her mother’s home renovation plans. To flush out the culprit, she must tap into a pipeline of suspects. Can she demolish their alibis and assemble the clues to nail a killer?
Get Your Copy Here – https://books2read.com/StyledforMurder
Do you write in more than one genre? Not at present. Years ago, I started out writing SciFi/fantasy romances and later switched to mysteries. Currently, I write the Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring hairstylist and salon owner Marla Vail. This series has 17 full-length titles, a novella, a short story, and a cookbook. Permed to Death is book number one, but readers can jump into any installment to get started. The first four books are also in audiobook format, and I have box sets as well.
What brought you to writing? I’m an avid reader but can’t always find the stories I want. Sometimes you have to write the book of your heart that you can’t find anywhere else. I learned how to write a novel from a book called Structuring Your Novel and also by outlining stories I liked for the structure and pacing.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I work in my home office with a view out the front window. I don’t play music and prefer silence in the background.
Tell us about your writing process: I write a first draft straight through with few corrections. Then I’ll begin revisions. This may take two to three rounds and often more until the book is done to my satisfaction. I write early in the morning and spend afternoons on marketing and other author tasks.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Starting a new book is the hardest part for me. Until the characters come alive on the page, it’s slow-going at first. The story may not take off until the second half, when it begins to write itself. I have to trust the process because I always feel I’ll never make my word count. And yet, I do. Somehow the pages get filled in.
What are you currently working on? I’m working on Star Tangled Murder which is book #18 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. Marla and her husband, Dalton, attend a battle reenactment over July 4th weekend where a fake skirmish turns up a real dead body. Currently, I’m in the revision phase.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? I rely on my critique partners to steer me on a straight path. Otherwise, I belong to Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Novelists Inc., Florida Writers Association, Independent Book Publishers Association, and Florida Authors & Publishers Association.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took me a couple of years to write my very first book. That’s not the one that sold, however. I wrote six books before a critique partner inspired me to write a futuristic romance. Circle of Light was my first published title. It won the HOLT Medallion Award and began a trilogy for Dorchester Publishing. Aside from my mysteries and two nonfiction titles, I’ve written eight romances and a romantic mystery novella.
How long to get it published? Circle of Light sold within six months of submission. It was an agented query. That was the seventh novel I’d written. I still have rejection slips for those early manuscripts.
How do you come up with character names? I create names that are appropriate to the character. I keep a spreadsheet now, so I don’t duplicate them. If you’re planning a series, do this from the start to make things easier.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run wild? Marla is independent and won’t let anyone slow her down once her mind is made up. She’s a dependable, caring friend and definitely not on the wild side. While she can be impulsive, she has a practical nature and focuses on getting things done.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Subplots involve what is going on in a sleuth’s life with her friends and family. For example, Marla meets Detective Dalton Vail in book one. They both have conflicts to overcome before they can be together. These play into the next few stories until they’re engaged. Then there’s more conflict before their nuptials. It’s a push/pull situation. When they’re finally married, they work together as a team to solve crimes. Meanwhile, Marla’s mother has a role, as do Dalton’s parents and his teenage daughter from a previous marriage. There’s plenty of fodder for subplots among their relationships.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? When Marla starts getting too close to the truth, the killer will do what they must to stop her or warn her off. One caveat with a cozy is that nobody gets terribly hurt, at least not the sleuth. And definitely not her pets, either.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I used to write a synopsis before beginning the story, but for Star Tangled Murder, I mostly winged it. However, I already knew my suspects and the victim. It helps me to plan as much as I can ahead of time, so I have a direction to follow.
What kind of research do you do? This depends on what I set out to learn. I like to discover something new with each story. That’s what makes it exciting for me and keeps things fresh for my fans. For example, Easter Hair Hunt was fun to research. The setting was based on Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. Topics that interested me for this story included beekeeping, Fabergé eggs, honey production, love bugs, postage stamp collecting, and Russian nesting dolls. Now for Star Tangled Banner, I’m into tea growing, fire starter kits, buttons, and battle reenactments, as well as the Seminole wars and historic Florida circa early 1900s. Styled for Murder involved Marla’s mother, who found a dead body in her shower during a bathroom remodel. For that story, I learned about copper thefts, among other topics. I like to share these topics with my readers in a fun manner.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Mostly I use fictional locations, although these may be based on real ones like above. Sometimes I’ll mention real places depending on what happens in the story.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’d like to put more of my mysteries into audiobook format and my revised earlier romances into trade paperbacks. Then we’ll see.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Join a professional writing organization, attend workshops and conferences, expand your contacts, and follow other authors. This is the best way to learn the business of writing. Meanwhile, keep the faith and keep writing.
Where to Find Nancy:
Lori Robbins is the author of the On Pointe and Master Class mystery series. She won the Indie Award for Best Mystery, the Silver Falchion for Best Cozy Mystery, and is currently a finalist for a Mystery & Mayhem Book Award. Short stories include “Accidents Happen” in Murder Most Diabolical and “Leading Ladies” in Justice for All. She is also a contributor to The Secret Ingredient: A Mystery Writers Cookbook. Lori’s experiences as a professional dancer, English teacher, writer, and mother of six have made her an expert in the homicidal impulses everyday life inspires.
Latest Projects: Lesson Plan for Murder, the first book in my Master Class mystery series, will be re-released in September. The third work in my On Pointe mystery series, Murder in Third Position, will release on November 22nd. All are published by Level Best Books.
A killer in the shadows. A ballerina in the spotlight. One missed cue, and the curtain will fall on Leah Siderova’s career. And her life.
Despite my devotion to crime fiction, I’m not in the market for a Glock. Nor do I plan to engage upon a high-speed chase anytime soon since I still get nervous merging onto the Garden State Parkway. As for courage under fire, I would never follow a suspect down a dark alley if there was the slightest chance of running into a rodent of any size. And don’t get me started on the topic of creatures with more than four legs. Staring down a threat like that is simply not happening unless I was armed with an industrial-sized can of bug spray and could aim it from a remote location.
Perhaps this is why I prefer to write and read stories with amateur sleuths. One of the great pleasures of this genre of crime fiction is it enables a vicarious experience that allows us to be a better and braver version of ourselves. We’re given the opportunity to investigate with a detective who possesses the deficiencies most of us share. And when a flawed hero or heroine overcomes weakness and delivers justice, this feels like a win for ordinary people everywhere.
As a writer, my heroines pose a creative challenge of no small proportion. They won’t leap into danger unless forced to do so, and even then, they constantly threaten to pack up and go home. The only way to credibly place these risk-averse characters at the heart of a murder investigation is to make the impossible seem inevitable, and narrowing my protagonists’ options is how their transformation from hesitant to heroic happens. Actions that would have been unthinkable on page two become the only means of survival on page two hundred. In order to make their journey believable, I imagine myself in my character’s place. That’s why both my mystery series are inspired by lived experiences.
My first career was as a dancer. It’s a world I know intimately, and because it’s filled with inherent conflict, it works well as a dramatic framework for a murder mystery. A ballerina’s professional life is brutally short, even without a fictional crime thrown into the mix, and this vulnerability makes dancers extremely susceptible to all kinds of pressure. An added element of tension is the fact that dancers aren’t simply in competition with each other. They’re also in competition with themselves: their own bodies and their own frailties. The stresses dancers face didn’t need much in the way of exaggeration to provide plenty of motivation for murder. The emotions are real, even if the situation is fiction.
Much of what makes the amateur-sleuth genre of crime fiction so satisfying is that an unexceptional person is challenged with the opportunity to do extraordinary things. But the quests aren’t one-dimensional. In Murder in First Position, for example. Leah’s journey takes place externally, in the context of a murder investigation, but it also takes place internally as well. She learns there’s more to life and to her than being onstage. You don’t have to know the difference between a plié and a pirouette to understand the heartbreak of losing a much-loved job or the triumph of achieving a hard-fought victory.
Ideally, the mundane elements of an amateur sleuth’s life become her superpower, and tapping into those resources is how armchair detectives connect with their fictional alter egos. The English teacher in Lesson Plan for Murder uncovers the identity of the killer using clues from the literature she teaches. The ballerina in the On Pointe Mysteries draws upon her knowledge of stagecraft to hide in plain sight.
Amateur sleuths bring order out of chaos armed only with their wit, their intelligence, and their determination to see justice done. There’s nothing ordinary about that.
I’m a member of the NY/Tristate Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America [NY], and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
I’m most active on Instagram, but I also post on Facebook, with the occasional tweet thrown in. Honestly, I’ve tried and failed multiple times on Twitter.
Lisa writes novels, short stories, Victorian mysteries featuring authentic details, and scholarly work about the young H. G. Wells. When she’s not researching and writing, she can be found pontificating about online pedagogy, gardening in root-bound soil, or watching classic movies. She was born in England but has lived in California most of her life.
My thanks to George for asking me to talk about my writing practice and my books! I’ve chosen a few topics to address.
New! Murder at an Exhibition – A Victorian mystery about a photographer’s Murder and how his assistant Bridget and her friend Jo unravel the mystery.
Writing process challenges – The most challenging part of my writing process is that I keep interrupting myself to do research. Let’s say I am writing a scene where my character needs to get across town, and I decide she’ll catch an omnibus. I’ll actually stop and research omnibus routes in 1862 London, checking how often they run and where they pick up. As a historian, I find it’s unreasonably important for me to be accurate, and that means interrupting my writing to be sure.
I also interrupt myself for research just because I don’t know things. Once I even contacted an astronomer to find out which direction the moon would be coming up for a scene. Yes, I could just keep writing, make a note and get back to it later, but I get fascinated when I have a question! I love learning.
Character names – Don’t you just love it when a character’s name evokes something about them? Although I think Charles Dickens went over the top with this (Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times comes to mind), I do like the idea that names should somehow reflect the personality of the character.
Detective Inspector Cuthbert Slaughter, for example, has a very old English name, and he’s a fairly stable and old-fashioned person. Cyril Price, an actor/manager at the Surrey Theatre, has a stage-actor name. Jo Harris, who illustrates for magazines, has a strong name because she’s an intelligent and assertive person. Tommy Jones is the exception: he has a deliberately ordinary name, but he’s not ordinary at all.
Character names are also part of historical accuracy. I want to know what names people really used in the 1860s. So I look through lists of names common in Victorian England, but I also get great names from directories. Sometimes I can find out the real names of people who, for example, had shops on a particular street, so even the publican or grocer might have an actual historical name.
I also base some of my characters on famous or semi-famous people. And sometimes this happens on accident—I’ll read in the Illustrated London News that a person I’ve never heard of designed a building, or I’ll see a daguerreotype of a woman whose expression is just priceless. If I know the names, I’ll find out more about them and build sub-plots around them. Or I’ll just have them pop into a scene—I did that with Mrs. Catherine Dickens in Murder at Old St. Thomas’s. I have a lot of fun doing historical “guest stars.”
And yes, Thomas Crapper really was a plumber and entrepreneur who sold bathroom fixtures.
Plotter or Panster? You’ve probably gotten the idea already that I like serendipity when writing, which makes me an inveterate “pantser.” I have tried plotting; I really have! But it feels like stopping in the middle of a movie and guessing what’s going to happen. I know a lot of authors say the characters take on a life of their own, and sometimes so does the action. I may have a vague idea of the beginning and the overall theme, but I don’t know what’s going to happen until I start writing.
Historical Research – While historical research comes naturally to me after decades as a trained historian, researching for a novel is different. I need breadth more than depth. Rather than finding out everything, there is to know about one topic and then reading articles where historians analyze the perspectives on that one topic. I have many things to research at once—clothing, manners, food, water systems, building materials, omnibuses. And because I’m a stickler for reality, if I cannot find or access something (like a train timetable), I will change the story or the action to create something supported by the sources.
So I’m one of those historical fiction writers where the emphasis is on the historical. I use the newspapers, magazines, art, books, and material culture of the time. Accessing online databases, library resources, and city directories—these are all just part of deepening the story. My goal is to write novels and short stories that could only have taken place during the mid-Victorian era in England. The past is not just a passive setting but rather a place where our commonalities can be seen across time.
Contact me at https://www.facebook.com/grousablebooks
Books and buy links: https://grousablebooks.com/books/
Before the Time Machine (literary fiction)
Murder at Old St. Thomas’s
H. G. Wells on Science Education (1886-1897)
Sisters in Crime (and Partners in Crime San Diego Chapter)
Historical Novel Society
H. G. Wells Society
Social media groups
Facebook: Historical Novel Society (and UK chapter), Historical Fiction Lovers Book Club, SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers, Instagram (@grousablebooks), TikTok (@grousablebooks), Goodreads.