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Tag: Deborah Crombie

Deviled eggs, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Brownies with chocolate chips, and the movie “Wreck-It Ralph.”

Stuff that Works

By G. S. Norwood

Do you have trusted favorites? Movies you always turn to when you’re sad? Music that somehow never grows old? Maybe it’s a series of books that feature such a beloved setting and characters you can slip away into them whenever the world makes you weary, and find yourself at home amongst friends. Do you long to pull on your favorite sweater, and settle down in your favorite chair, with your favorite tea in your favorite mug? Congratulations! You’ve found yourself some stuff that works.

“Stuff that Works,” by Guy Clark (Paul Adamietz and his You Tube Channel)

Americana music legend Guy Clark defined stuff that works as, “Stuff that’s real. Stuff you feel. The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.” Here’s some of the stuff that works for me.

As You Wish

My relationship with The Princess Bride goes all the way back to William Goldman’s original novel. I discovered it at a little science fiction book store just off campus when I was working toward my BFA in Theatre. I read it in a weekend to escape more academic reading assignments, then started sharing it with my friends. And I even brought it to the costume shop where I worked over the summer. If an actor was assigned to help us, but had no sewing skills, we would demand dramatic readings for entertainment. The sword fight on the Cliffs of Insanity was a big favorite.

A montage of images from “The Princess Bride.”
One thing that works: The Princess Bride. (Credits below).

So I was eager to see what Rob Reiner had done with the story when the film came out in 1987. Warren had no experience with the story, but trusted my judgement, and he loved it so much we went back a second time to take his mother to see it. Then we visited my mother at Thanksgiving and took her to see it, too. Now I divide my friends into those who quote The Princess Bride and those who have no idea what the rest of us are laughing about.

I watched it again not long ago, and am delighted to say that it still holds up just fine.

Dried Leaves in Water

Somehow, I never picked up the habit of drinking coffee. I remember, when I was a kid, my parents’ morning coffee smelled so good as it was perking. But, when I begged for a sip, the bitter brew tasted just horrible. They drank it black, and never thought to sweeten it with milk and sugar for a child’s palate.

Tea was a different story. Mom used to give us hot tea with buttered graham crackers when we came home from school in the afternoon. We always had iced tea in the summer. By the time I got to college, my taste for tea marked me as a slightly eccentric individual. (Even back then I enjoyed having that kind of reputation.) Now I start nearly every day with a cup of hot tea.

A mug, a plate, and a teapot near G.’s tea kettle.
All set for dried leaves in water! The ceramics are all by Alex Macias. (Photo by G. S. Norwood).

My taste for functional pottery grew out of my love for tea. Now my mug collection threatens to take over my kitchen cabinets, and nearly all my dishes are handmade pottery creations.

A Home in Notting Hill

I have never been to England, but I feel as if I have friends in Notting Hill. This is because mystery writer Deborah Crombie does such a great job of evoking the sights, sounds, and criminal intent of London in her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels. She calls them “novels with a body in them,” and has created such a beloved cast of characters that I can’t wait to read each book as it comes out. Opening a new Deborah Crombie novel is like sitting down with old friends over tea, for a nice long gossip, to catch up on what they’ve been doing. Going back to re-read earlier books is a joy as well. Escaping the stress and boredom of the mundane world with a trip to Notting Hill is a coping mechanism that has worked for me for years.

Deborah Crombie and all of her books that were published as of May, 2021.
Mystery novelist Deborah Crombie and her book covers to date (credits below).

Random Pleasures

There’s lots of other random stuff that works for me. Stuff I can go back to whenever I feel stressed or just too tired to think. The animated film, Wreck-it Ralph is a good example. Weird, I know, but I’ve watched it more than a dozen times.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s cover of the old Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia song, Ripple. You can play that one at my funeral, if you’re not sure what music is appropriate.

A soft gray sweater tunic I picked up one year at Chico’s. It’s baggy. Shapeless. It came in purple and gray. I leaned toward the purple, but it looked horrible on me. The gray, however, was cloud-soft, flattered my face, and lived in my closet for years and years and years. I always look forward to the onset of cold weather because I know it is waiting for me.

Deviled eggs, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Brownies with chocolate chips, and the movie “Wreck-It Ralph.”
Some of the Stuff that Works for G. (credits below).

Stuff That Works

Deviled Eggs and Fudge Brownies are not necessarily to be eaten together. But these two simple foods are my go-to recipes when I need to contribute to a pot luck dinner. I am a traditionalist on both fronts.

The deviled eggs have mayo, yellow mustard, and a dusting of paprika. You can use vinegar, pickle relish, Dijon mustard, or any number of other “gourmet” variations, but they won’t taste right. The original is always the best.

Ditto the brownies. Make ‘em from scratch. Use butter and Baker’s unsweetened chocolate. Replace the walnuts the recipe calls for with Nestle’s Toll House Morsels. You won’t regret it.

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To find stuff you can reach for, time and again, when you need just the right thing without overthinking it. What is some of the stuff that works for you?

IMAGE CREDITS:

We definitely have a lot of people to thank for the imagery in this week’s post, starting with Paul Adamietz and his You Tube Channel for the “GUY CLARK STUFF THAT WORKS” video. If you enjoyed it, please give him a thumbs-up (and maybe subscribe?). While we’re on the relatively simple images, we’d like to thank G. S. Norwood for the photo of her MUG, PLATE, AND TEAPOT, all created by Alex Macias, of Alex Macias Ceramics of McKinney, TX. All of the montages were assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. Credits for the montage images are grouped by montage.

For the PRINCESS BRIDE montage:

We thank the following: Fototelegraf, for the movie still of Fred Savage and Peter Falk as the grandson and grandfather. Kentucky Sports Radio, for the photo of Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), and Fezzik (André the Giant). All Posters, for the kiss that “left them all behind,” featuring Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright). On roughly the next row down, we acknowledge with gratitude: Abe Books, for the 1984 cover of the edition that G. read, of William Goldman’s book, The Princess Bride.

We were delighted to find Kelly Martinez’s “Movies from Another Point of View” on Buzzfeed, with the “Have Fun Storming the Castle” photo of Carol Kane and Billy Crystal as Valerie and Miracle Max (the latter recently quoted in a different post on this blog). Thanks very much to Amazon, for the nice image of the original movie poster from 1987. And for the center-bottom photo, once again featuring Elwes and Wright as Westley and Buttercup, we’d like to acknowledge (and urge you to investigate) All Roads Lead to the Kitchen’s recipe for “Fire Swamp Fireball Cocktail.”

For the montage of DEBORAH CROMBIE and ALL HER BOOKS:

We are delighted to thank Ms. Crombie herself, via her website. Since G. mentioned the Notting Hill setting, we were pleased to find the photo of Deborah Crombie at Falafel King in Notting Hill, London (2009) in her website’s photo gallery. And we gratefully acquired the images of her book covers (with helpful ordinal numbers!) from her website’s listing of The Books. Many thanks and much love, Deb!

For the STUFF THAT WORKS montage:

Many thanks to IMDB, for the Wreck-It Ralph movie poster. A big thank-you to Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s website “Photos” gallery, for the photo of Gilmore on stage. The mouth-watering photo of fudge brownies with chocolate chips comes from Food and Thrift’s post, “Chocolate Chip Fudge Brownies . . . and Breast Cancer Awareness!” (YES! There’s a recipe there, too!). Now we’re both grateful to blogger Elizabeth, and craving brownies. Finally, author G. S. Norwood is also the author of the deviled eggs (and the apple pie in the background), as well as the photographer for the last image on the right. Many thanks to all!

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.

Indie Issues

Lately, I’ve been increasingly bothered by a cluster of tendencies I call “Indie issues.” They crop up in the writing of otherwise-competent self-published authors, and they happen often enough that I’ve started to recognize them.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, too. No, I’m not talking about plain old bad writing. Of course, beginning writers often write less well than seasoned pros. And yes, a number of Indie writers don’t yet know their craft. To get to “good,” a writer has to go through a period of “bad.”

If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good. –Steven Galloway, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Steven Galloway/Wise Famous Quotes)

Those aren’t the “Indie issues” I’m calling out. I want to focus instead on the problems that happen when otherwise-good writers try to produce a certain kind of book too quickly, in a format that’s too short.

“Indie issues” described

A book that’s not the right length for the story develops all kinds of problems. It may have the potential for a great plot. Maybe the characters have interesting quirks or intriguing problems. There may be some pretty sound action sequences.

But the book comes off feeling half-baked. The pacing doesn’t always feel natural. Characterizations come off oddly shallow. Contrived plot twists may sometimes force the action. The novelist may attempt to grapple with important themes or interesting problems, but these don’t resonate through the characters’ lives in authentic ways, because everything is moving too fast. The writer does more “telling” than “showing.”

The result may be good enough writing. But it’s not great or memorable writing. And that, I would argue, comes from trying to keep the story too short.

A perceived need for speed

Before new writers launch into independent publishing, they may harbor illusions about being able to tell the story they want to tell, with no gatekeepers to interfere.

Then they learn about Amazon’s algorithms. They bump repeatedly into the seemingly iron rule that to succeed financially in this business they must write as fast as possible. Ideally, they should publish a new title at least every three months. Wait too long and people will forget who you are! Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

There’s a sound reason for this push to write fast. It works! Publishing new stories frequently will  catch the attention of Amazon’s algorithms—and that will bring the story to more readers’ attention. Write fast, publish as often as humanly possible, and focus on small collections of books (trilogies and tetralogies). That’s the formula.

Traditional publishers do this, too. And it’s currently the most reliable Indie approach for actually making money on this writing thing. As long as what you write is well-suited to the “speed” model, you can write some really excellent, entertaining, worthwhile, and vivid fiction.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Here’s Diane Kelly (with her dog Junior). She provides an excellent example of the “shorter and often, but good” model. (Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

What does “well-suited to the model” mean?

I don’tmean “formulaic.” I don’t mean falling back into clichés. I don’t mean sloppy writing or shallow characters or other such flaws.

The stories best-suited to the “fast and often” model are generally fairly short (between about 250-350 pages). Genre can be anything. Mysteries, adventure novels, thrillers, romances, westerns, and a host of others can and often do sparkle at this length.

From humor to grimdark and all things in between, it’s fully possible to conceive, write, and polish a really excellent story in a matter of just a few months, once a writer has unlocked the necessary discipline and skills.

Length makes a difference

Depending on a number of characteristics, any given story has an ideal length. The idea will just naturally “work best” at that length.

(Lorrie Moore/Writers Write)

Some ideas are best-suited to flash fiction. Some work better as classic short stories (the SFWA standard for the Nebula Awards is up to 7,500 words), while the “sweet spot” for others ends up about novelette (7,500-17,500 words), or novella (17,500-40,000 words) length. Technically, anything longer than 40,000 words is a novel.

But I’d like to argue there are “degrees of novel,” too. And a lot of great story ideas are perfect for that 250-350-or-so page-length. A lot—but not all. I think the “Indie issues” I’ve encountered lately stem from a mismatch of story idea to length.

No, you can’t just trim down some ideas

If you’re locked into the idea that to have a serious career you absolutely have to publish a book every three months, six months, or other arbitrary (but short) time period, your mission is clear. You absolutely must develop a mindset that creates ideas well-suited to that length.

All well and good. But what if the idea that feeds your soul and keeps you up at night needs more room? What if the story’s more complex, the interactions more multilayered, or the setting/culture(s) require more words? What if you have a lot of “moving parts” to orchestrate?

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou, Wisdom Quotes.
(Maya Angelou/Wisdom Quotes)

Going to greater lengths

What if, to shoehorn it all into a 350-page novel, you’d have to amputate major elements and essentially destroy the story?

If you’re an Indie who only gets ideas for long, richly complex books that take a lot of labor and time to create, you have a real problem—and potential “Indie issues”—if you’re convinced the “write fast and publish often model is the only way to go

I beg of you, please don’t amputate big chunks and publish half-baked books. There is another way. It may be harder and longer, but it exists.

A different kind of books

Did you ever notice that some writers only publish a book every one or two years? That’s not because they’re lazy or slow, or because they need serious editing.

It’s because they write a different kind of books. Books that need more “room” (400-500 pages or sometimes more). And books it’s impossible to write, polish and publish in just a few months. Let’s look at a couple of internationally bestselling mystery writers whose books follow this “bigger books” pattern.

Author Louise Penny with soon-to-be-released “Inspector Gamache” novel #17, “The Madness of Crowds.”
Longer novels, produced at longer intervals, have catapulted Canadian author Louise Penny to much-deserved international bestseller status. Have you discovered her books? (BookPage/GooglePlay).

Maybe you’re familiar with the work of Louise Penny and her “Inspector Gamache” novels. Or perhaps you’re a fan of Deborah Crombie and her “Kincaid and James” mysteries. If you are, you know that they have wildly successful series and tens of thousands of devoted fans.

Looking at some facts, ma’am.

I collected some statistics on both writers’ careers. The stories they needed to tell weren’t shorter, faster-to-produce stories in a variety of trilogies or other short series. Instead, each has developed a long-tailed series that follows the stories of the same handful of “core” characters.

Penny is set to release Book #17, The Madness of Crowds, in August (it’s already a bestseller, based on presales). Crombie’s most recent was #18, A Bitter Feast, released in October, 2018 (yes, that long ago. That’s an eternity in “Indie time,” but her devoted fans are willing to—impatiently—wait).

Deborah Crombie with the cover of her book “A Bitter Feast.”
Photo of Deborah Crombie from her website is by Steve Ullathorne. The cover photo for A Bitter Feast is from the detail page on Crombie’s website. (Deborah Crombie/Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

Since Book #13 of each series, these two award-winning masters of their craft have produced consistently longer books than the “Indie standard” of 250-350 pages. Penny averages 412 pages per book, and she produces a new one approximately every 12 months. Crombie averages 447 pages per book. Her average interval is 19.3 months between books.

“Big Books” aren’t limited by genre

Some of the most influential books ever written fall into this “big books” category. For instance, in my “home genre” of science fiction, the hardcover edition of Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune weighs in at 528 pages, according to its Amazon listing. A game-changer when it came out in 1965, the genre has never been the same since.

We’ve heard a lot of buzz about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower recently. Its hardcover edition is 336 pages long, but the sequel, Parable of the Talents, goes to 416.

Big sf books are still being published. N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became weighs in at 448 pages in its hardcover edition. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun runs to 464 in its hardcover.

Dune by Frank Herbert, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin, and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
Some “big books” of science fiction from the past through the present. (see IMAGE CREDITS below).

Is there a place for “big books” in Indie fiction?

I can hear the complaints already. “But those are all traditionally-published!” True. Big corporations with big promotional budgets have bankrolled all of my examples. Indies don’t have big bankrolls for huge promotions. Does this mean people who write “big books” can’t make it as an Indie?

I hope to God it doesn’t! What’s Bred in the Bone weighs in at 464 pages in paperback. And if I can get A Bone to Pick published by September, that’s a little more than 2 years’ interval between them. So I definitely have dogs in this hunt!

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Lori Lesko/Wise Famous Quotes)

A different model of success to counteract “Indie issues”

It looks to be a longer, much-slower-paying game for an Indie who writes “big books” and refuses to succumb to the “Indie issues” that go hand-in-hand with compressing a long story into an arbitrary shorter length.

But traditional publishing has made the longer form work profitably. The careers of Penny, Crombie, and many others demonstrate that truth. And that doesn’t only hold for the big-budget books. But it absolutely is a longer, heavier lift.

If we Indies can’t find a way to make “big books” work for us, then ultimately we aren’t going to have as many deeply-thought-out, in-depth books available to read in the future. And that carries with it the seeds of a profound loss for the field of fiction, as well as for the reading public everywhere.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Wise Famous Quotes for the Steven Galloway and Lori Lesko quotes. The montage of Diane Kelly and her “Paw Enforcement” series reprises its appearance on this blog. The Deborah Crombie illustration is also from this blog. I appreciate Writers Write for the quote from Lorrie Moore, and Wisdom Quotes for the quote from Maya Angelou.

I’d like to thank BookPage for the photo of Louise Penny, and GooglePlay for the photo of her The Madness of Crowds cover. Finally, I’m really grateful to the Bookmark for the cover image of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Thanks to Octavia Butler’s website for the covers of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I’m grateful to N. K. Jemisin’s website for the cover of The City We Became, and to Rebecca Roanhorse’s website for the photo of John Picacio’s striking cover for Black Sun. All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt.

Top Row, L-R: Deborah Crombie (with Dax), Anna Lee Huber, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Catriona McPherson, and Louise Penny. Middle row: Ingrid Thoft, Jenn McKinlay, Julia Spencer Fleming, Paige Shelton, and Rhys Bowen. Bottom Row: Hallie Ephron, Elly Griffiths, Maggie Robinson, and Amy Pershing. (See complete photo credits in IMAGE CREDITS below).

Mystery Woman

By G. S. Norwood

Male authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were pioneers in crime fiction—a genre which arose in the mid to late 1800s.  Even Charles Dickens tried his hand, with his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But, from femmes fatales to the distraught daughters of the landed gentry, there has usually been a mystery woman at the heart of any crime novel. And it wasn’t long before women began to put their own distinctive mark on this form of popular fiction.

Dame Agatha Christie

At left is a montage of 36 of Agatha Christie’s book covers. At right, a black-and-white shows her in her home, typing.
Masterful mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote at least 77 books, of which the montage at left shows 36 covers. (montage: Cocosse Journal; photo: Getty Images, via Forward).

One of the first women out of the gate in the race to include female voices in crime fiction was Agatha Christie.  And what run she had! She sold her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916. Her 66th and final novel, Sleeping Murder, was published in 1976. Over the course of her 60-year career, she defined the conventions of the mystery genre for all the generations since.

She wrote a continuing series of novels that featured professional private detective, Hercule Poirot. Her Miss Marple character became the archetype for all the amateur sleuths who populate today’s sub-genre of “cozy” mysteries. Her 1926 novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was voted “Best Crime Novel Ever,” by the British-based Crime Writer’s Association. Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, set the world record for longest initial run of a play—November 1953 until the coronavirus pandemic shut the theatre down in March 2020. 

Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other crime writer. Her novel, And Then There Were None, is one of the best-selling books of all time. She was rarely out of the best seller lists during her lifetime. Her works have spawned countless plays, movies, homages, and outright rip-offs.

Is there a way to dispatch your enemy that Christie didn’t think of first? Her victims were stabbed, clubbed, strangled, and shot. She served in hospital pharmacies during both World Wars, and was rumored to have spent at least some of her time there studying up on deadly drugs and poisons.

By the time this mystery woman left the scene, the genre was well-entrenched in its traditions—many of which were pioneered by this one redoubtable writer.

Kicking Butt and Taking Names

P.D. James with the covers of her two Cordelia Gray novels.
P. D. James’ fictional detective Cordelia Gray kicked butt in 1972. (Express/SecondSale).

About the time Christie’s career was winding down, a new type of mystery woman stepped onstage. Christie led the way, of course, with amateur sleuth Miss Marple’s sharp tongue and very pointed knitting needles. Then in 1972, British novelist P. D. James took a step back from her investigator Adam Dalgliesh to offer us a professional private eye who was a woman—Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

But over in America, the genteel female detective caught the wave of mid-century feminism.  Somewhere along the way, she swapped DNA with the grimmer male private eyes of authors like Dashiell Hammett and John D. MacDonald to give birth to a whole new breed. Sara Paretsky’s V. I. “Vic” Warshawski was as hard-boiled as the big boys, a woman, and completely ready to kick your ass if you suggested there was anything wrong with any of that. 

If fictional detectives had embraced feminism by the early 1980s, it was glaringly apparent that Mystery Writers of America had become something of a boy’s club. All the critical acclaim, major awards, and fat movie deals were going to male writers and male detectives, even though MWA had been founded to promote the work of all mystery writers. Paretsky was a leading force in founding Sisters In Crime, an organization meant to promote the careers of female mystery writers. Both organizations now actively support efforts to be more inclusive of diversity in all its forms.

Sara Paretsky and covers of her 20 V. I. Warshawsky novels.
Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible, and a montage of her 20 V. I. Warshawsky novels. (CrimeReads/FantasticFiction).

You Can’t Keep Secrets from the Help

From 1992 through 2000, author and activist Barbara Neely published four Blanche White novels that are not only outstanding mysteries, but give readers a fascinating window into the Black female experience rarely seen in detective fiction. 

Blanche White was the antithesis of her name, and far from the femme fatale. Heavy-set and dark-skinned, Blanche was a mother, a housekeeper, and far smarter than the greedy, pretentious, entitled snobs she worked for. And you know what they say—you can’t keep secrets from the help.

Neely broke new ground and crushed a lot of stereotypes with her Blanche White mysteries.  In December 2019, Mystery Writers of America awarded Neely their 2020 Grand Master award.  Neely died in March 2020.

Black mystery writer Barbara Neely with covers of her Blanche White mystery series.
In a field dominated by white people, Barbara Neely drew on her activist instincts to inform her Blanche White series. (YouTube/Goodreads/Bookshop).

Killer Romance

Giving Dame Agatha some stiff competition for that best seller title, romance writer Nora Roberts entered the mystery field in 1995.  Roberts is a prolific writer with more than 225 titles to her credit.  Her books have spent a cumulative 1,045 weeks on the on the New York Times best seller lists—the equivalent of 20 years.  With more than 400 million copies of her books in print all around the world, it’s estimated that 27 copies of her work are sold every minute.

When she launched her In Death series under the pseudonym J. D. Robb, Roberts was looking for a way to release more books each year without being in direct competition with herself.  The novels written as Nora Roberts tended toward classic romance and romantic suspense.  She wanted J. D. Robb’s books to be completely different. Featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband/partner Roarke, the In Death mysteries are futuristic police procedurals that combine gritty street life, adult behavior, crackling dialog, and characters who have continued to evolve over a span of 52 books and counting. 

I confess!  I have read and enjoyed all of the books in this series, and sometimes re-read a favorite when I wanted the opportunity to slip back into the very entertaining community Roberts/Robb has created.

Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb, with a montage of her “In Death” novels.
Nora Roberts in her J. D. Robb persona, with many of the covers in her “In Death” series. (MysterySequels/USA Today).

Find Your Own Favorite Mystery Woman!

Today, women are killin’ it in the field of mystery fiction.  No matter what your taste, from the coziest of cozies to the hardest of hard-boiled, you can find many outstanding mystery novels by women. Any one of these excellent writers are guaranteed to give you a great reading adventure:

Louise PennyJulia Spencer FlemingDeborah CrombieElly GriffithsJenn McKinlayCatriona McPhersonHank Phillippi RyanHallie EphronRhys BowenPaige SheltonAnna Lee HuberIngrid ThoftMaggie Robinson

This montage shows photos of the fourteen women listed in the final section of Norwood’s post.
Top Row, L-R: Deborah Crombie (with Dax), Anna Lee Huber, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Catriona McPherson, and Louise Penny. Middle row: Ingrid Thoft, Jenn McKinlay, Julia Spencer Fleming, Paige Shelton, and Rhys Bowen. Bottom Row: Hallie Ephron, Elly Griffiths, Maggie Robinson, and Amy Pershing. (See complete photo credits under IMAGE CREDITS below).

And add a bright new talent to the long list of fine mystery women! Amy Pershing published her first mystery, A Side of Murder in February 2021.  It’s a delight.

Do you need another clue?  Get reading!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Cocosse Journal for the Agatha Christie novel-covers montage, and to Getty Images via Forward, for the photo of Christie at work. We are grateful to Express for the photo of P.D. James, and to SecondSale for the Cordelia Gray book covers. Many thanks to CrimeReads for the photo of Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible. Also to FantasticFiction for the cover images for all twenty of the V. I. Warshawsky series covers (in separate images). Jan S. Gephardt assembled the montage.

We’re really grateful to YouTube for the photo of Barbara Neely at Book World Prague in 2012, to Goodreads for the Blanche on the Lam cover, and to Bookshop for the covers for Blanche among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go. In addition, we’re thankful for the photo of Nora Roberts personifying J. D. Robb, we thank “MysterySequels.” And we deeply appreciate USA Today for the “Wall of In Death” montage of covers.

Contemporary Mystery Women

In addition, we have what seems like a bazillion people to thank for the Contemporary Mystery Women collection. Jan S. Gephardt put together this montage, too. On the top row, we really want to thank Deb Crombie for the photo of her with her German Shepherd, Dax, WBOI for the photo of Anna Lee Huber, Tor Forge and photographer Chitose Suzuki for the photo of Hank Phillippi Ryan at home, Enterprise and photographer Sue Cockrell for Catriona McPherson’s photo, and BookPage for Louise Penny’s photo.

Also, we’re really grateful to Sisters in Crime of Puget Sound for the great action shot of Ingrid Thoft, to Jenn McKinlay for her photo, and to Peter Hedlund IMGP7808.jpg (original image) and Wikipedia for the photo of Julia Spencer Fleming. In addition, many thanks to Goodreads for the photo of Paige Shelton, and to Criminal Element for the sunny picture of Rhys Bowen, all on the second row!

Finally, several whoops and a holler of thanks go to Wild Mind Creative for the photo of Hallie Ephron, to The Norfolk Wildlife Trust for the Elly Griffiths photo, and to Poisoned Pen Press and photographer Jan De Lima for Maggie Robinson’s photo. Lastly on Line Three, Penguin Random House provided the photo of relative newcomer Amy Pershing. And we thank them for that.

Deborah Crombie interviews G. S. Norwood about her new story, “Deep Ellum Blues.”

Urban Fantasy: Let’s Get to the Root

Deborah Crombie interviews G. S. Norwood

Bestselling mystery writer Deborah Crombie loves to get to the root of an intriguing puzzle. A long-time friend and critique partner of G. S. Norwood, she watched Norwood’s new novelette, Deep Ellum Blues, take shape over many weeks. Now she has some questions.

The cover for “Deep Ellum Blues”
From Weird Sisters Publishing LLC, Artwork © 2020 by Chaz Kemp

G.’s Writing Roots

Debs: Have you always wanted to write? Your late husband (Warren C. Norwood) was a wonderful writer. Were you drawn to him because you wanted to write, or did he inspire you to write? Or both?

Gigi: I tried to write my first story when I was about 4, although I didn’t get very far. I sent Random House my first request for guidelines when I was ten. When I was a freshman in college one of my professors told me that I wrote well enough to consider a career as a professional writer, and that’s when the serious dreaming began. All that was a good decade before I met Warren.

To be honest, the day after I met Warren, I bought his first book and read a few chapters before I met up with him again. I had to make sure he was a good enough writer that I could respect him in the morning. Turned out, of course, he was, and I learned a lot about the craft and the business from him.

Get to the Root of one important influence: G. and Warren C. Norwood were married for more than two decades before his death. This collection shows four snapshots from their life together.
Get to the Root of one important influence: G. and Warren C. Norwood were married for more than two decades before his death. This collection shows four snapshots from their life together. From the personal collection of G. S. Norwood.

Debs: Your background is in the theater and performance. How does that influence your writing?

Gigi: Although I’ve spent most of my theatre years backstage, my real interest is in directing and writing. The great thing about directing is that it teaches you how to deconstruct the play, figuring out the structure of each scene, the pacing of the overall story arc, and the motivations of each character. Knowing how to analyze the way those parts go together has given me a tremendous cheat sheet when I want to create my own characters, plot, setting, mood, and action scenes.

Debs: You write urban fantasy, women’s fiction, and mystery. What ties all these genres together in your work?

Gigi: I tell stories. Each of the genres you mention has a different set of tools I can use to tell the story I want to tell. Should it be a straight-up mystery? Do I blend suspense with romance? Can I let stuff blow up in magical ways? I use whichever set of tools seems to fit the story best, and I am certainly not above using all of them at once if I need to. But if you get to the root, it’s just the way I think about the world. I’m a very practical woman who believes there are magical energies at work in our lives every day. When I put magic into a story, I’m just writing what I know.  

Two moods of Miz Eddy for two covers, as portrayed by Chaz Kemp.
Developmental images of Miz Eddy, L-R for Deep Ellum Pawn and Deep Ellum Blues, ©2019 and ©2020 respectively, by Chaz Kemp.

Debs: Ms. Eddy, the protagonist in Deep Ellum Pawn and now Deep Ellum Blues, is such a fabulous and unique character. What was your inspiration for her?

Gigi: When I was a kid, I read a series of children’s fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander called The Chronicles of Prydain. The inspiration for Alexander’s fantasy world was The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh mythology and folklore that dates at least as far back as the 12th century. My fascination with those stories led me to read more deeply about folklore from many different lands and introduced me to a wide range of magical characters.

When I got the idea for Deep Ellum Pawn, I didn’t really know who or what Ms. Eddy was. I had her name, and I knew about the pawn shop, but the rest revealed itself to me, slowly, as I began to write the story. Once I had an idea of what she could do, I had to do more research to figure out what kind of magical being she might be. Once I found it, I realized, “Well of course that’s who she is!” I really enjoy introducing ancient, magical ways to understand the world into modern, urban settings.

The “Deep Ellum Pawn” cover side-by-side with the “Deep Ellum Blues” cover.
From Weird Sisters Publishing LLC, cover art for Deep Ellum Pawn © 2019 by Chaz Kemp. Cover art for Deep Ellum Blues © 2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Now We Get to the Root: The music

Debs: Guitars, and guitarists, are central to Deep Ellum Blues. What connected you to guitars? Who are some of your favorite guitarists?

Gigi: Guitars are the dominant instrument of popular music. Some of the most iconic American guitar players of the early 20th century performed in Deep Ellum, or recorded just down the street at 508 Park, the Warner Brothers film and recording distribution center for the Dallas area. So Mudcat Randall, one of the main characters in Deep Ellum Blues had to be a guitar player.

A pen-and-ink drawing of a Stratocaster electric guitar.
Artwork of Mudcat Randall’s tobacco burst Strat ©2020 by Jan S. Gephardt.

I’ve met a lot of guitar players over the years, particularly when I hung out regularly at Craig’s Music in Weatherford, Texas. I have a lot of respect for the working guitarists who used to fill the bars and dance halls with music, before the pandemic. People like Warren’s adopted brother, Gerald Ray, or Fort Worth blues guy, Dave Millsap, keep music alive on the local level, and teach it to the next generation of players.

Outstanding singers, songwriters, and guitar players like Guy Forsyth, down in Austin, or Kevin Welch, formerly of Nashville, feed the music industry from just below the radar. And then there are the more recognizable names among my guitar heroes, like Keb’ Mo and the always amazing Sonny Landreth. I have enough Sonny Landreth stories for a blog post all his own. If you play guitar—particularly slide guitar—and you don’t know who he is, just trust me. Go look him up and prepare to be amazed.

A pen-and-ink drawing of an acoustic resonator guitar from Gretsch.
Artwork of Mudcat Randall’s Gretsch resonator ©2020 by Jan S. Gephardt

Debs: Can you give us a playlist to listen to as we read?

Gigi: I actually put together a set list for Mudcat’s two nights at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum, while I was writing the story. It will be published as part of the e-book, and we’ll probably post it on the Weird Sisters Publishing website. In the meantime, check out music by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keb’ Mo, and Sonny Landreth. That will get you started.

Rooted in the Crossroads

Debs: Deep Ellum is a character in itself. Tell us why this area and its history are so special?

Gigi: Crossroads and margins have always been magical places. The geographical location that is now Deep Ellum was once the shallow edge of the Western Interior Seaway. Later, before European settlers came to the area, several trails used by Native American people met and crossed there. As Dallas grew into a city, Deep Ellum was the neighborhood where people on the outskirts of White society—Black people, but also Hispanics, Germans, and Jews—built lives for themselves.

It was where people from the upper reaches of society went when they wanted to “slum it.” The streets were lined with pawn shops, private clubs, and theaters, as well as the barber shops and dry goods stores that served the people of the neighborhood. That’s prime territory for musicians and entertainers of all types.

Deep Ellum was then, and continues to be today, a place to go when you want to have a slightly edgy good time. The people who have built their businesses there always say there’s a special spirit about the place that gives Deep Ellum its unique vibe. Now we know who that is.

Get to the root of this interviewer: Deborah Crombie with the cover of her book “A Bitter Feast.”
Photo of Deborah Crombie from her website is by Steve Ullathorne. The cover photo for A Bitter Feast is from the detail page on Crombie’s website.

About our Guest Interviewer, Deborah Crombie

Internationally acclaimed author Deborah Crombie has seen her British police procedurals, featuring detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, climb into the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list. Her latest release, A Bitter Feast, is the eighteenth novel in the series.

This post is a re-blog from The Weird Blog. My sister’s story Deep Ellum Blues is set for release on September 30, 2020. I thought you might enjoy Deborah Crombie’s interview of G. S. Norwood.

Wayfinding in an unknown world

I’ve been thinking about maps, recently, for a number of reasons. I participated in a stimulating panel discussion about them last February at Capricon 38, in which we discussed historical maps, as well as the vital necessity of maps to writers engaged in worldbuilding. From the opening credits for Game of Thrones to nearly every video game in use today, maps are key to unlocking fictional worlds.

“Game of Thrones” Main Titles from Elastic on Vimeo.

I’ve been busily engaged in developing and and refining maps, drawings, and models of Rana Station, the eight-toroid habitat space station where my XK9 novels are set, for several years. If I don’t have a clear sense of how the terraced hillsides of my characters’ home Borough on Wheel Two look, or where things are in relation to each other, how will my readers ever have a clue?

I’m still working on a post about my Ranan maps–also still working on refining the maps themselves! They’ll be a subject for a future post. No, today I just want to share some of my favorite maps from other creators’ worlds, and talk about how necessary they are.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth: so many classic places! What would a quest novel be without a map?

Not everyone likes maps, or finds them relatable. This boggles my mind, but it’s true. I know perfectly wonderful people who relate to maps about as well as I relate to trigonometry (math-challenged artist, here, which really blows when I’m trying to get “space stuff” right! This means, however, that I always try to triple-check my numbers, and have better mathematicians “check my work.“).

But for a writer–not even specifically the writer of science fiction and fantasy; I mean almost ANY writer–you need to know where things are in your fictional world, how far away they are from each other, and what they look like.

Some of my all-time favorite, Ultimate Awesome maps are the ones found in the Deborah Crombie mystery novelsLaura Hartman Maestro creates them, and while they are based on real places in the real world (where Deb really goes in person, to do her painstaking research), they also incorporate places mentioned in the story, as well as animals and sometimes humans from the story, as well.

Laura Hartman Maestro’s map for the Deborah Crombie contemporary mystery novel Garden of Lamentations.

My friend Diana J. Bailey (wife of the fantasy and sf author Robin Wayne Bailey) is a retired Geologist/Environmental Scientist with the EPA, who frequently gives map critiques to fantasy and sf writers. She has a whole, exasperated spiel about how too many people haven’t figured out that tributaries run DOWNHILL.

The Mississippi River and its major tributaries: we don’t often appreciate the strategic and economic importance this navigable river system had to the development of the United States, but my friend Diana Bailey makes a strong, eloquent case.

She also likes to point out how essential it is to understand that land-forms and water flow dictate patterns of travel, which influence commerce, which influences society, and defines “what is a strategic location?” for any given fictional world. One of her pet peeves (mine, too, and I know we’re not alone) is a fictional world that doesn’t make geological sense.

Water is a crucial resource, as my friends in Yemen will tell you from bitter experience. It defines where people (and all lifeforms) gravitate. Geography and landforms also create barriers and/or passages for travel. No matter what stage of development your world has achieved, it almost certainly has a historyIt almost certainly has an economy. And it almost certainly has had some of those elements molded and adjusted by geography.

Writers fail to learn about this, or fail to use it in their worldbuilding, at their peril.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Vimeo and Elastic for the Game of Thrones Main Titles sequence from 2011; to Gizmodo’s io9 for the Tolkein map of Middle Earth, to Deborah Crombie’s “The Maps” page for the Garden of Lamentations map by Laura Hartman Maestro; and to Mondo Trudeau’s guide to World Geography Class at Caddo Magnet High School, for the map of the Mississippi and its tributaries. I appreciate you ALL!

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