We’re Not Making This Up

Miramichi 018Kate Flora: Of course, as fiction writers, we are making some of it up. You all know that. What many readers don’t realize, though, is how, even in midst of creating fictional characters and fictional crimes, we’re constantly doing research to try and make it realistic.

I was thinking about research and reality this morning as I’m preparing to do a workshop for aspiring crime writers next weekend on guns and violence. As a desk-bound suburban woman well into her middle years, I have to work hard at writing realistic police procedurals featuring male cops. Along the way, I’ve taken a citizen’s police academy and a police taught RAD self-defense class. During the part of our police academy where the students were the cops and the cops played bad guys, I got a ton of insight into a rookie’s first days when I tried to do a traffic stop, caught my baton on the door handle, and slammed face first into my own car window in front of my entire class.

img_0995I’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com (described as Disneyland for Crime Writers) started by the wonderful Lee Lofland http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ and wish I could go back every year. I’ve hung around with evidence techs apparently instructed to show me the worst pictures they could, just to see how I’d handle it. At a national writer’s conference, I’ve played at being an evidence tech myself, learning to lift fingerprints off a glass.

I’ve done a lot of riding around in police cars, late at night, talking quietly with officers about what they’re seeing, trying to see the streets through their eyes. Had those fascinating conversations as they read the streets and houses like a roadmap of crime and interpersonal violence. The body in that basement, the murdered girlfriend, the killer who ran down that alley and shot himself right there. I’ve sat through traffic stops where I watched the officer’s wary body language, and later debriefed about the process and why it is so important to see the person’s hands. I’ve gone on a stakeout where I spotted the bad guy. Interviewed a witnesses’ husband and got a detail the police didn’t know.

I see police officers and stories about the police through different eyes now.

And then there are the books. In Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine there was img_0997fascinating entomological evidence, which led me M. Lee Goff’s book, A Fly for the Prosecution. Working on a story about an excavation where bones are found led me to a whole host of books about bones and forensic analysis. Trying to make my cops feel authentic was helped by Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure and Investigation. Trying to make the crime scenes feel authentic led me D. P. Lyle’s Forensics.

Since we can’t make our bad guys obvious or one-dimensional, understanding human psychology becomes surprisingly important. Yes, much of what we write we know from observing the people around us. Deviants, psychopaths, and sociopaths can be found anytime we drive on the highway or stand in a airport line. But books can be helpful in developing them and understanding how bad guys are shaped by their families and childhoods. There’s no better dark reading than any of the books by FBI profiler John Douglas and cowriter Mark Olshaker.

img_0996I even have two criminalistics textbooks, scored at library yard sales, and my own copy of Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation. That last comes with this story: I decided to preview investigation textbooks, and so I borrowed a copy of this through my local library. When the book arrived, the male librarian was reluctant to give it to me. “Are you sure you want to see this?” he said. “It’s pretty graphic.” I said I did and he reluctantly handed it over. It is pretty graphic. It also have fabulous checklists which help make my fictional investigator better at his job.

Our mystery reading audience can be a pretty tough crowd. And we sometimes have to do some tough work to be sure we meet their standards.


That Old Autumn Feeling

tumblr_maiujcqypo1r3sm6co1_500As writers we sometimes feel blessed — or cursed — with a continuing education. Every day we write we are on some learning curve or other, struggling to remember what happened yesterday in the story, where it’s going, what the research says, and how to put the perfect sentence together. The advent of brisk fall weather reminds us of back-to-school, even though most of us haven’t been to actual school for decades. Autumn is a time of endings, but also beginnings. New pencils, new friends and old, clean reams of paper, spotless notebooks ready to be scribbled in: this is autumn.

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This 9/11 we remember the victims of the terrorist attacks as well as honoring the first responders and those who still suffer physical and psychological trauma from that time.  And here’s to us getting out of the Big Muddy to paraphrase Pete Seeger.

On a happier note, I am glad to be attending this year’s Bouchercon in New Orleans doing a couple of panels, celebrating Down & Out Books’ 5th anniversary, and participating in group signings for anthologies I’m in – The Highway Kind, Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, Crime + Music, Occupied Earth and Blood on the Bayou.

Lise McClendon

img_2048Lise is not happy about NOT attending this year’s World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, in New Orleans. It’s always a blast, a sort of writers high school reunion. So she adds this silly photo from last year’s event in Raleigh, NC, to remember the good times.

Katy and Lise hope there are some big chairs in New Orleans. Because what is a convention without giant seating?! Laissez les bons temps rouler!

This August marked the release of Lise’s newest Bennett Sisters novel, The Things We Said Today. The third full-length novel (there is also a novella) comes two years after the last things-we-said-webone, The Girl in the Empty Dress. To mark the occasion and thank readers she is giving away copies of Blackbird Fly, the first in the series. Click here to get the details. 

The new one finds the five sisters in the Scottish Highlands for the oldest sister’s wedding. But does she even want to get married at the ripe old age of 55? Weather, whisky, and intrigue threaten to shatter the happy day.

Lise also refurbished her website at lisemcclendon.com and would love to hear what you think of it. Also check out how to join her review team. Free books: were two better words ever combined?

J.D. Rhoades


J.D. (aka Dusty) will also be at Bouchercon in New Orleans this week, September 15-18.  Come by Mardi Gras “D” at 4:30 Thursday for the panel “Telling Lies”, moderated by the extremely funny Johnny Shaw. See if you can separate true stories from lies told by professionals!

He just turned in final edits on a new Jack Keller novel, HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL. Check out the cover!

Kate Floraimage003

Here is the cover for Kate’s soon to be released 5th Joe Burgess police procedural, Led Astray. Watch for it on Amazon.

In other news, A Good Man with a Dog, the memoir Kate co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden, won second place in the 2016 Public Safety Writers Association annual writing contest.

May your pencils be as sharp as your mind! Happy autumn 🍁🍂

A Wish List for America 🇺🇸

american-flag-clip-art-free-2There seems to be a lot going on in America. You’ve probably noticed.

Despite our 24-hour news cycle, the report from the heartland is not all bad. America continues to be a land of opportunity and promise, a place where civil rights are mostly respected, where despite too many guns, most people don’t shoot each other. Where we tolerate differences and our neighbors’ penchants for motorized vehicles. Where your religion is your own business. And who you vote for doesn’t make you enemies. There is reason for optimism.

However… This is also an election season that, whoever you’re rooting for, there seems to be something to dislike. Plus there is violence in our streets, a heat wave, forest fires, tempers flaring, emails leaking: it must be summer. This exceptional year has provoked in some of us here at the Muse a wish for an improved country, a better America. We aren’t policy wonks or futurists. Just some seasoned writers with seasoned opinions.

We love you, America

… land of the free and home of the brave. And we want you to continue to be the greatest experiment in democracy. What can we do as citizens to make our country better? At the very least we can make some constructive suggestions. Here’s our wish-list, in no particular order, for America 2016 and beyond.

Please add your own ideas. We need all the help we can get. wishlt

  • Change election day to Sunday. The lack of voter participation makes democracy even harder.
  • Make mail-in ballots the norm, like several states already do. Or at least make voting by mail simple for everyone.
  • Return to the practice of teaching civics in school, so that our citizens better understand the concept of “separation of powers” and how that is supposed to work.
  • Appoint a defense spending czar who will once and for all make defense contractors tow-the-line, no more million dollar showers stalls that electrocute our troops.
  •  National health care that covers everybody, period.
  • Or at least the public option, essentially Medicare for those under 65
  • Standardize voting throughout the country. Everyone uses the same method of counting ballots.
  • Add mandated civic responsibility and participation–and not just hours of community service that might look good on a college application.
  • Repair the nation’s antiquated and crumbling infrastructure, with a system like the WPA, which enabled our immigrant grandfathers to support their families during the Depression.
  • Strict limits on electoral spending at all levels, financial campaign reform that vaporizes the PAC system
  • End all corporate participation in elections. A corporation does not vote.
  • Restore arts and music funding to our schools through defense spending cuts
  • Repurpose military funds and personnel by closing down unnecessary bases around the globe and removing mega-corporations from the military trough. Soldiers can peel their own potatoes, for example, just like their fathers and grandfathers did.
  • Appoint a civil rights commission formed by leaders of black and other communities of color, police departments, activists in all social justice fields. Provide local outreach for dialogue, reform, and education.
  • Fix all the gun control loopholes: shows, online sales, waiting periods.
  • Fund our mental health facilities, especially at the Veterans Administration, but also in community mental health everywhere. Provide funds for in-hospital stays for the indigent.
  • Expand public housing. Provide tax breaks for redevelopment of slums. Provide incentives for low-income residents to own and maintain their homes.
  • Train physicians without tuition fees. Give every high school graduate two years of tuition-free college to train and study.

d50f23c4-206c-4d26-9460-96e1ace6b47b–Wish-list contributors: Gary, Taffy, Kate, and Lise

If there seem to be a lot of free things on this list, there are. Your government should help you, that’s what it’s for. It’s not a place to make money. You pay taxes so that the government works for everybody. Nobody is going to be giving out cash soon or paying off your mortgage. But it should help you live a decent life, in relative comfort with freedom from hunger and the elements, with medical care, and if necessary, a leg-up to improving yourself. It should provide relative safety from crime and fire and dreamer1-298x300disaster, and help when tragedy strikes.

You may say we’re dreamers, but we aren’t the only ones, right?  What’s on your wish-list for the USA?

It’s going to take all of us, together, to get this done.


The Mysteries of Fatherhood

Last month my wife Gilda and I had the pleasure to take a brief week-long vacation to Florence, Italy.  Our American friends were already there, having rented an apartment on the south side of the Arno River which bifurcates the historic city and we stayed with them.  As they say, it was a whirlwind tour which involved seeing the famous Statue of David, renting a car to drive to Bologna, Puertomaggiore  and other environs — “Take the second right out of the roundabout.”

“I took the second right.”

“That was the third,” Gilda would point out.

“I can count,” I would insist, “that was the second.”

Fortunately Siri’s calm directions often resolved our navigational problems and allowed us to enjoy our day trips and the food in local cafes.  For even though my wife’s laptop and phone were hidden but nonetheless stolen from the rental, after the thieves busted out the rear window of the hatchback, and getting back to town that night we were locked out of the apartment after yours truly left the keys some damn place, we had a great time

Walking around a section of Florence one day and marveling at the centuries old architecture, the old daily comic strip Dondi flashed in my head.  The kid, Dondi (the photo for this post is a still from the film based on the strip that starred David Janssen – TV’s Richard Diamond, Private Eye, as the G.I), was a button-eyed war orphan who was befriended by an American G.I. in the closing days of World War II.   Man and boy grow close and the soldier turned veteran and his wife adopt Dondi and they live in Midville, U.S.A.  Dondi never aged so as the strip kept going for many years, his past wasn’t alluded to much.  Nowadays, if Dondi was to be updates as a show on the CW, he’d be an Afghan war orphan befriended by a lonely G.I.  We’d start with him as a tough 11 or 12 year old trying to adjust to small town U.S.A., both damaged individuals helping the other heal. Then if the show was renewed, the second year we’d skip ahead five years to Dondi as a troubled but goodhearted hunky teen who must solve the murder of his basketball coach.


The Bicycle Thief, which emerged from the Italian neo-realism period of post WWII films, is another example of a relationship between father and sons.  In the film the father is scraping together work in the war ravaged Italy Dondi has escaped.  He gets a job pasting up movie posters but has to have a bike to accomplish the tasks.  He has a bike but had pawned it and his wife gives him their sheets to pawn in back.  Then on the job, the bike gets stolen.  We follow man and son on an odyssey across this rugged landscape of Rome to find his bicycle as each learns something about the other, and we the audience see what war on your doorstep does to a country.

A Better Life, based on a short story by Roger L. Simon (creator of the Moses Wine ex-hippie private eye series) is a kind of modern day version of The Bicycle Thief.  An East L.A. gardener and his teenage son have a strained relationship, what with the kid gravitating toward the gang life and the son embarrassed by his old man’s thankless work.  The two give us a look at Southeast L.A., far from the damn near lily white one percenter enclaves encountered in Entourage, and come to understand one another better as they search for his stolen pick-up truck.

Not to let fathers and daughters off the hook, in Naomi Hirahara’s Gase-Gasa Girl, her retired gardener amateur sleuth Mas Arai travels from Pasadena to New York City to aide his grown married daughter Mari with whom he also has a strained relationship.  As these things happen, Mari’s ex boss’ body is discovered by Mas and he’s drawn into solving the crime while he and his daughter navigate their relationship.

In comics there’s numerous father-daughter super-hero and super-villain relationships and probably one of the most complicated is Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia al Ghul who is Batman’s baby’s mama.  At times father, head of the League of Assassins, and daughter are aligned and at other times she’s trying to off her pops.  Kids.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

I’m Not a Panster, I’m a Cooker


Miramichi 018.JPGYou all know how it goes. There is a panel of authors sitting before an audience. The presentation is done and now it’s time for Q&A. Once in a while there’s a question that is delightfully quirky or unpredictable, but most times, along with questions about where we get our ideas, someone will want to know whether the writers outline before they write.

The answers will vary. Some of the writers will be serious outliners, the kind who have a detailed, sixty-page outline before they write word one. They are likely the same folks who carefully keep notebooks about each recurring character. Who give their characters birthdays. Who remember that in book two, Uncle Henry and Aunt Rita were feeling estranged from the main character. Who will have carefully noted when their character’s sister burned down the house or shot the neighbor’s dog. They will have a note on the name of that deceased dog so they won’t use it for another dog later in the series. These people, though I long to emulate them, are just too organized.

Others will work from a shorter outline, possibly the one they submitted to a publisher to Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.18.22 PMget another contract. These writers generally know the story they mean to tell, although most will readily admit that the book they end up writing often bears little resemblance to the outline they submitted. Usually, neither the author nor the editors cares when this happens.

Occasionally there are those who admit they start at the end of the book and work backward, making sure that everything that happens leads to that already designed and inevitable ending.

Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who sit down at the keyboard (formerly Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.19.23 PMknown as the typewriter), type Chapter One, and have at it. Many of them will admit that at the end of the writing day or a scene or a chapter, they have no idea what will happen next. For them, much of the joy of writing is in that journey of discovery. It’s in somehow having their creative minds lead them forward into the next chapter. And for pantsers—while they will admit to those moments of despair when they don’t know what to write next and no fluttery little muse is whispering in their ear—this approach generally works.

I am neither an outliner nor a pantser. When I wrote my first mystery—one of the three that reside in a drawer labeled: In the event of my death, burn these—I wrote the pieces I knew. From there, I made an outline of what I needed to write to connect these pieces, and finally, an outline of what needed to still be filled in. I wrote the next in much the same fashion, feeling my way along. Probably following that line that is attributed to many writers including Doctorow that writing is like driving a night. You can only see as far as your headlights but if you keep going, eventually you will get there.

That felt a bit shaky and disorganized, so for the next book, I wrote an outline. Following that outline lasted exactly one chapter. At the end of chapter one, in a book that I had planned to be about real estate and corrupt bankers, a student walks into my protagonist high school teacher’s classroom and says: “You’ve got to help me, Mr. M. I’m in big trouble.” The book became about that trouble.

I’ve lost count, but at book twenty-four or so, I’ve evolved into what I call a cooker. Not meth, thank goodness, but plotting. When an idea comes to me—often only a phrase, or a person in a difficult situation or whatever—I begin the process of wondering. Who is this person? Why is he or she in this situation? What’s in the past that led them here? And once that musing leads to a protagonist and a victim, I wonder about why the victim is dead, what my protagonist’s connection is, and then my mind begins to fill in the details about the crime scene, the clues, the killer, the other suspects, and how it will all be unraveled. I don’t write it down, but I remember it.

During the cooking period, I can get quite lost in my own head. Plot ideas or critiques of what I’ve planned can come flying at me at any time. While driving. In the shower. As I go to sleep and as I’m waking up. During this time, I joke that I should wear a tag like Paddington Bear that reads: Please Look After This Author. Thank You. If Found, Please Return To . . .”

That in-my-head plan can still get knocked awry by a character seizing control—an event that used to scare me but now I embrace. But mostly, I follow the story line I’ve cooked up.

So if I zone out during dinner. If I suddenly get a glazed look in my eyes. If I suddenly whip out my phone and begin typing—please smile indulgently. I’m not being rude. I’m just cooking.

Books, workshops, and more stories

A round-up of author/member activities

Kate Flora reports that her new book (a co-written project) is now out in Good Man with a Dog Cover-2the world: A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods by Roger Guay with Kate Clark Flora. Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-5107-0480-0

She also has a short story, Anonymous, in the Malice Domestic collection, Murder Most Conventional.



44FunkBBGary Phillips has several short stories coming out over the summer and into the fall including his second Decimator Smith story in Black Pulp II (an anthology he co-edited); his first Sherlock Holmes story in Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Holmesophiles Laurie King and Les Klinger; a car and crime tale in The Highway Kind from Mulholland Books; with the peripatetic Robert Randisi, has his third Silencer (a character who is a homage to 1970s paperback vigilantes) outing in 44 Caliber Funk; and a tale in the Bronze Buckaroo collection that revives the black cowboy character popularized in several 1930s films played by singer-actor Herb Jeffries — who wasn’t any parts black but that’s a story for another time!

Katy Munger is busy conducting a number of special events, workshops, readings, and appearances as part of being named North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for 2016. To read her blog and obtain the latest information on upcoming events as well as how to register for them, please visit the Piedmont Laureate website



Taffy Cannon is pleased to announced that her nonfiction guide, SibCare: The Trip You Never Planned to Take will be published shortly. This guidebook for people dealing with sibling illness or disability can be previewed at SibCare.org.



The Bluejay Shaman new coverLise McClendon is finishing editing her next Bennett Sisters novel to be released in August. In the meantime she’s serializing her first mystery, The Bluejay Shaman, on Wattpad, as part of the Smashwords/Wattpad Mystery/Thriller promotion. This novel debuts Jackson Hole art dealer, Alix Thorssen, working in western Montana to clear her brother-in-law, an anthropology professor at the University of Montana, of murder of a New Age seeker. Check it out on Wattpad — it’s free!  In preparation for the new novel subscribers to her newsletter will receive a free e-book copy of Blackbird Fly, the first Bennett Sisters novel. Sign up here.

Lise will again be leading a day-long novel workshop with Deborah Turrell Atkinson at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference on June 22. Details here.

BSL AUDIO CoverThe five Thalia Authors Co-op authors who wrote a novel together as Thalia Filbert— Kate, Katy, Taffy, Gary, and Lise– would like to thank readers who have generously offered their reviews and comments on this unique project. Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge is still free for Kindle Unlimited readers and as an audiobook for new Audible subscribers. We’d love to hear what you think of it! Write a short review like Martha did:

Tasty novel
By Martha Mon May 5, 2016
As one who has followed cooking shows and loves mysteries, this gave me a wonderful taste of both. There were absolute laugh out loud moments that had my tears flowing! Thank you. Please write another.