Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: XK9s

This is a photo of the complete painting, “Oak Park Halloween.” It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.

Rejoicing in Our Differences:

Lucy A. Synk’s Oak Park Halloween

By Jan S. Gephardt

“Rejoicing in our Differences” is a new series of larger-scale paintings by my friend (and frequent XK9-painter) Lucy A. Synk. The theme also could be an unofficial motto for Weird Sisters Publishing. Yes, Lucy, G., and I are all white women of a certain age. You might not look at us and instantly think “diversity!” But all three of us are creative types who both value, and seek to nurture and celebrate, diversity.

Privileged in some ways? Certainly. It comes with the skin, whether we like it or not. Had it easy? Well, we’re all women. We’ve spent decades bumping into patriarchy, in male-dominated creative fields (name one that isn’t), and earning lower wages than men. Make of that what you will. But diversity isn’t a contest. And this isn’t a story about who’s more “oppressed.”

It’s an invitation to celebrate, to ally with others, and to spend a little time rejoicing in our differences. In the spirit of the season, please spend a little time looking at Oak Park Halloween.

This is a photo of the complete painting, "Oak Park Halloween." It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.
The full painting Oak Park Halloween, 2019, by Lucy A. Synk.

Every Painting is a Journey

Lucy’s journey to creating this painting took her through job changes, moves from state to state, and a bout of homesickness for a beloved place she’d had to leave. For a while she had an illustration job in Chicago, and she settled happily into the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. There she found friends, a compatible faith community, and a place of architectural and natural beauty.

Even after she had to relocate, the fond memories lingered. And they fed an idea for a painting. No, a series of paintings. In 2018, before SARS-CoV-2 had even hinted at darkening our horizon, she began to build on her ideas for a series of paintings that explored the many ways in which the United States has ample reason to rejoice in our differences.

As she says in her artist’s statement, “Even more importantly than providing entertainment or decoration, art should also inspire, teach, and encourage people to think, wonder and grow. My work often has symbolic or fantasy elements without fitting any single category but reflects my search for unity in the diversity not only of my own interests, but in the plurality of American culture.”

A Sharp Break with Disunity and Hatred

Oak Park Halloween draws on Lucy’s memories, but it’s not meant to be taken as history. The painting was specifically inspired by one particular Halloween in her diverse, family-friendly neighborhood in Oak Park, IL. But the painting does not portray any specific street or group of people. She was hoping to evoke a feeling of Halloween fun that many can relate to and enjoy.

In today’s political climate, that almost makes it a radical protest painting. “Rejoicing in our Differences,” as a message, cuts sharply counter to the majority of things we see in the media these days.

As I write this, they’re doing jury selection in Georgia, for the trial of three men who are using a fugitive slave law from 1863 as their defense for killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. White supremacists are going on trial in Charlottesville, VA, for civil rights violations stemming from a the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. And hate crimes are at a shocking high.

But just because Americans don’t seem to be rejoicing in our differences right now, that doesn’t mean the message isn’t important. Some (me, for instance!) might say it’s more important now than ever. That said, let’s walk through Oak Park Halloween.

From Lucy’s original drawing through color images and roughs, to a black-and-white tonal study, the painting’s development went through many steps.
You might notice a bunch of changes to details through these varied steps in the development of the painting. The black-and-white tonal study at lower right was done to check contrast and value range. (Images are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

How do you Paint a Crowd Scene?

Of all the things in the world that there are to draw, people are by far the hardest, especially for untrained artists. Even trained ones can have difficulty. We come pre-loaded with a lot of ideas that have nothing to do with how humans (or other things) look in objective reality. Which is why the proportions in kids’ drawings are so frequently distorted.

And if you think one human is hard, just wait till you tackle a crowd scene!

Take another look at Lucy’s painting above. Yes, it is a tour de force. But how does an artist manage a crowd scene? It’s kinda like eating the proverbial elephant “one bite at a time.” Except, in this case it’s drawing (and then painting) one small group at a time.

Five children in costume have arrived on the painting-viewer’s “front porch” for trick-or-treat.
The brother and sister in front portray Marvel’s Black Panther and one of his elite Dora Milaje, the Wakandan royal guards. We have a Vulcan Starfleet Science Officer from the Star Trek Universe to the front girl’s left. The child in the red hoodie portrays Coco, from the movie of the same name, and the girl in the purple witch costume might be portraying Hermione Granger. Since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, in this pre-Covid painting, these children wear face paint, rather than masks. (Image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

The Porch Kids

In the front-center of the composition, a group of five kids appear larger than the others, many of them staring directly at the viewer. They’re there to both center and focus the painting, and to invite you into it. The idea is that they’re standing on the viewer’s porch, awaiting your interaction and generosity.

As the most prominent group, they also are the most diverse, in keeping with the overarching theme of rejoicing in our differences. Since kids normally trick-or-treat in friend groups, how might these kids have met and formed friendships? I bet you’re already imagining a story for them—exactly as the artist hoped you would.

Lucy did a lot of research to create each group in the painting. Many of the costumes are based on DIY (do-it-yourself) outfits she found online, or combinations of them. She also took some important (pre-Covid) safety concepts into consideration. For example, since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, these children wear face paint, rather than masks.

A collection of drawings, a color study, and a tonal study for the “Porch Kids” group.
These are just some of the developmental sketches and studies Lucy worked through for the “Porch Kids” group. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Fantasy and Science Fiction Elements

Lucy and I met at a science fiction convention. A deep, abiding interest in these genres continues to be an important part of our lives, even outside of the field. Oak Park Halloween isn’t meant to be a “fantasy genre” painting in the way that some of Lucy’s work has been. But with fantastical elements dominating popular culture, of course she made sure there was broad representation for many beloved stories.

Thus, you’ll find Star Trek, Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, Dr. Who, and others among the more traditional witches, vampires, fairy princesses, and caped heroes. Lucy also came down rather heavily on the side of DIY costumes. Not only did she want to avoid infringing copyrights, she wanted to celebrate parental ingenuity while “rejoicing in our differences.”

Five different details from the painting show a variety of costumes.
From left to right, (1) The Jedi Knight and his little sister (on the Tauntaun) portray characters from the Star Wars Universe. The child with the pink bag is meant to be a vampire. However, her tiny fangs do not show, since her whole body is only 7” high. (2) A little astronaut, in the actual painting about 3½” tall, wears an orange, NASA-style jumpsuit. The artist is inspired by all the little girls who yearn for such future careers. (3) The child dressed up as the T.A.R.D.I.S. is based on a popular DIY costume concept that proves particularly confusing to her observer—a nod to Dr. Who, as portrayed by “Tenth Doctor” David Tennant. (4) A toddler enjoys a first Halloween, guided by Dad. The DIY costume uses glow sticks to create a light-up “stick man” from a black, hooded onesie. (5) Wonder Woman and her parents Hippolyta and Zeus are based on the artist’s great-niece and her parents, for whom themed family costumes are a tradition. (All images © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Getting the Details Right

Having been an “inside observer” of the two-year development process from early sketches to finished painting, I can tell you a lot of thought went into those houses across the street. Based on architecture in Oak Park IL they might be, but none of them is an exact portrait of an existing house. As with the kids they host, they are “of the general type.” But each one tells its own story.

You might be surprised at the care given to small details, such as placement, size, and color of the moon. The exact moment of twilight, and how to paint it, inspired another spate of thinking and second-guessing.

For an artist, the light has to be just right. If it’s off, or if a shadow falls wrong, the illusion fails. We often hear about the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for a reader to self-immerse into a story. But to appreciate a painting we also need to willingly suspend our disbelief that this collection of light and dark color splotches “is” the frozen moment in time it purports to be. One wrong shadow or highlight can ruin it.

Sketches and color studies of houses and the sky.
Sketches and color studies offer a glimpse of Lucy’s decision-making, and the thorny question of how big and where to position the moon. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Homes that Harbor no Hate

As I noted above, each of the houses “across the street” tells its own story. I like to think of them as the “Hate Has No Home” House, the “Welcome to All” House, and the “Teal Pumpkin” House. Each embodies a sub-thread of the overall “rejoicing in our differences” theme.

The house at upper left in the painting, with a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign at right.
The yellow house at upper left in the painting is haunted by a fairly traditional group. We have several princesses, ghosts and a pumpkin-head. Some might recognize the sign in the window as a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign, shown at right. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. Sign by Hate Has No Home Here).
The house portrayed top-center in the painting. Next to it is a quote from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement: “In this series of paintings, I am expressing my love for America and its wonderful diversity. In these dark times there has been so much negativity, I wanted to express the joys of everyday life. Good memories from happy times and hope for a future that we will not only preserve and protect but grow into a deeper and better people.”
We have Batman, the Cowardly Lion, another witch, and assorted other traditional costumes at the middle house. The host couple in the doorway are a mixed-race pair, typical of a growing number of American families. The group on the sidewalk to the right portray an assortment of Pirates of the Caribbean. The quote is from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement about her “Rejoicing in our Differences” series. (Image © 2019, and words © 2021 by Lucy A. Synk).
The house at upper right in the painting, alongside a poster about non-food treats that are fun.
The children at the house with the orange gables in the painting’s upper right include a portrayal of Princess Leia. Note the Teal Pumpkin on the porch, which indicates that this house gives prizes suitable for children with food allergies. Rejoicing in our differences includes making a happy, accepting place for everyone, even if they face special challenges. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest).

Rejoicing in Our Differences

Lucy certainly recognizes that her “Rejoicing in our Differences” theme asserts an aspirational goal. But then, she’s lived a life of diverse inputs and challenges. She started with a BFA in Drawing, Painting, and Photography from a small college, then pursued an art career that included a stint at Hallmark Cards, freelancing as a fantasy artist, and work as a natural history illustrator and muralist.

“My work has always been very diverse, spanning multiple mediums and subject matters,” she says. As both natural and human history has shown, diversity makes a system stronger, even if not everyone is comfortable embracing differences. The most vibrant, creative, and innovative times and places have come at a crossroads of cultures, when diverse ideas and viewpoints make new ideas possible.

As Lucy wrote in her artist’s statement, “In these dark times, there has been so much negativity.” Perhaps you’ll agree that we’d do better to meditate on what Lucy calls America’s “wonderful diversity.” Based on that, “Rejoicing in Our Differences” may be exactly the medicine we need.

IMAGE CREDITS

Oak Park Halloween, the painting, the studies, the sketches, and the detail images, all are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk, and are used here with her permission. All rights reserved. The “Hate Has No Home Here” poster design is courtesy of Hate Has No Home Here. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

A hot, hazy Dallas skyline

My Summer Getaway

By G. S. Norwood

Well. I finally did it. I made it safely through months of writing major grant proposals. Organized three far-from run-of-the-mill concerts. Took on some new job responsibilities, on top of the two full-time jobs I’m doing already. And I survived. Now, my friends and readers, it’s time for my summer getaway.

I’m looking for a place that will allow me to relax. Spend some quality time looking at outstanding scenery. And be much, much cooler than Dallas, both in temperature and in vibe.

Not that I will actually get away. Between a resurgent coronavirus and the high cost of pet sitters, this year’s vacation is definitely going to be a staycation. Still, I’ve discovered a way to escape to a summer getaway destination without leaving my favorite chair.

Reading. Yep, that’s right. I’ll trade the 100-degree-plus heat of Texas for some prime summer getaway locations through the magic of books. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, family connections, and one stroke of good luck, I plan to immerse myself in several mystery and science fiction series set in places much cooler than Dallas. What more could I ask of a vacation?

Nantucket is Nice

Brant Point Lighthouse by Brian Thoeie.
The Brant Point Light during a gorgeous Nantucket sunset (Insider’s Guide to Nantucket/Brian Thoeie).
Cover of “Death in the Off Season,” by Francine Mathews.
Death in the Off Season (Francine Mathews).

Francine Mathews launched her career as a mystery writer with a series of books about Meredith “Merry” Folger, a detective on the small police force that keeps Nantucket Island safe for the year-rounders as well as the tourists. Starting with Death in the Off Season, Mathews reveals the private face of Nantucket the summer people rarely see.

The island teems with cobblestone streets, cranberry bogs, fishing boats, and homes that pass down through old island families, generation after generation. Mathews makes all of it come alive. You can feel the sea breezes and all but taste the salty air. There are six books so far in the Merry Folger series. More than enough to last through as long a vacation as you choose to take. Or to create a quick summer getaway no matter what time of year it is.

How about the UK?

The Isle of Skye's main town, Portree, and Constable country: Flatford in Suffolk.
Colorful Portree is the biggest town on the Isle of Skye, and Flatford in Suffolk is the onetime home of the artist John Constable. (Planet Ware/Global Grasshopper).
Cover of “A Dream of Death,” by Connie Berry
A Dream of Death
(Connie Berry/Amazon)

I stumbled onto Connie Berry’s Kate Hamilton mysteries by happy chance. Berry has just released the third book in the series, and was featured on my (other) favorite blog, Jungle Red Writers. She offered a copy of her new book to one blog commenter chosen at random. Lucky me! I got the book! Along with a tasty bonus of shortbread and tea bags, plus two very nice bookmarks. (And you know how I feel about bookmarks.)

While awaiting the arrival of book #3, The Art of Betrayal in the mail, I did the only civilized thing: bought books #1, A Dream of Death and #2, A Legacy of Murder on my Kindle. I wound up “chain reading” them. No sooner had I finished the first, but I picked up the second. By the time I was done with that, book #3 was right there, ready to start. After two weeks, I felt like I’d had a lovely (although somewhat murderous) summer getaway in Scotland and Suffolk, and only had one question: Where’s book #4?

Escape to the Wilds of British Columbia

A lake in British Columbia with rugged mountains in the background.
A gorgeous view from Yoho National Park in British Columbia. (Planet Ware/Lana Law)
Cover of “A Killer in King’s Cove,” by Iona Whishaw
A Killer in King’s Cove.
(Iona Whishaw).

British Columbia might be suffering through an epic heatwave at the moment, but in 1947 the climate there was darn near perfect. At least, if you believe author Iona Whishaw. In her Lane Winslow mysteries, Wishaw paints the Kootenay region of British Columbia as a hotbed of English ex-pats, Russian refugees, Soviet spies, and weary veterans, still recovering from the trials of World War I and the more recent World War II.

Into this paradise comes Lane Winslow, a young woman who grew up in Latvia and Scotland, speaks numerous languages, including Russian and French, and just wants to get away from it all. Lane spent the war working for British Intelligence, parachuting into France to help the Resistance, and learning many life-or-death skills along the way. Smart, funny, independent, and always curious, Lane’s character is based on Wishaw’s own mother. She’s just the kind of heroine I like to hang out with for a long summer getaway.

There are eight books so far in the Lane Winslow series. Whether you read them end-to-end as I did, or parcel them out like bites of candy from your big birthday chocolate box, don’t miss them!

The Ultimate Out of This World Summer Getaway

XK9 Rex takes a ride through an exurb of Orangeboro.
Motoring in Orangeboro is particularly thrilling with the windows down. (Weird Sisters Publishing/Jody A. Lee).

Of course, the weather is always perfect on Rana Station, the setting for my sister, Jan S. Gephardt’s book What’s Bred in the Bone, as well as the upcoming A Bone to Pick. Yes, I have read them both. Multiple times, as it happens. And I plan to read A Bone to Pick at least once more, when the final edition comes out September 15.

Rana Station, as it turns out, is the ultimate summer getaway. It’s chock full of interesting characters, unusual cultural customs, aliens, dogs, alien dogs . . . And crime. There’s lots for Jan’s XK9s to sniff out and understand as they explore their new home and examine new ideas about their very nature.

Covers for Books # 1 and #2 in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.
The cover art for Jan S. Gephardt’s What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

And this is the perfect time to dip into the first of the series, What’s Bred in the Bone. Both the books are longer than average—about four volumes if we count pages like we’d count dog years. By the time you finish What’s Bred in the Bone—then go back and savor some of the best parts—it will be time to dive right into A Bone to Pick! That will make your summer getaway last right on through the fall!

What books, characters, or universes do you turn to, when you need a summer getaway? Please share some of your favorites in a comment!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Dallas Magazine and Getty Images for the view of a sweltering Dallas, TX skyline. We appreciate the Insider’s Guide to Nantucket and photographer Brian Thoeie (for whom we could find no online profile) for the gorgeous sunset photo of the Brant Point Light. The cover for Death in the Off Season, by Francine Mathews, is courtesy of Mathews’ website. We appreciate it!

We’re indebted to Planet Ware for the photo of Portree, on the Isle of Skye, and to Global Grasshopper, for the iconic shot of Flatford, Suffolk (no photographer credits for either image). The Flatford view was immortalized in John Constable’s groundbreaking painting The Hay Wain. The cover of A Dream of Death, first of the Kate Hamilton Mystery Series, is courtesy of Amazon. Many thanks to all!

Planet Ware strikes again, this time with a photo from Yoho National Park in British Columbia by Lana Law. Thank you! We also want to thank Iona Whishaw’s website for the cover of A Killer in King’s Cove, the first book in the Lane Winslow Mystery Series.

Finally, the “tourist image” of motoring through exurban Orangeboro on Rana Station is a detail from Jody A. Lee’s cover painting for A Bone to Pick, second in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy of science fiction mystery novels. That cover is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee. Her cover painting for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Please reblog or re-post these images with a link back to this post and an attribution to Jody A. Lee and Weird Sisters Publishing. We appreciate it!

The authors featured in this post are Jen J. Dana, Kylie Logan, Margaret Mizushima, Jodi Burnett, Diane Kelly with dog Junior, and Ann Vanderlaan with dog R. Kane.

K9 Mysteries

“K9 Mysteries” is a category that doesn’t currently exist. Well, it doesn’t, if you ask Amazon or the BISAC categories. But I want to wrap up our Women’s History Month series (a day late; sorry!) on women writers of mysteries, romance, and science fiction with some brilliant practitioners of this officially-nonexistent art form.

The mystery genre is chock-full of subcategories: cozies, thrillers, police procedurals, noir, and on and on. And many of those categories have subcategories: paranormal thrillers, for example. Or cat, dog, or animal cozies. But there’s no official niche for K9 mysteries. This is how sometimes-bizarre mismatches happen in listings such as Amazon’s Top 100 Lists.

But I’m here to plead the case for a separate “K9 Mysteries” subcategory. These are often closer in focus and tone to a police procedural detective mystery than an “animal cozy.”

Why a separate “K9 Mysteries category?

K9 Mysteries center on a human handler and his or her working K9. The detective is usually a professionally trained dog handler: an FBI agent, police K-9 handler, or search and rescue specialist (sometimes more than one of those). Like many in law enforcement, many also have a military background. You’ll meet a few of these folks and their K9s below. The professional status of the detective alone should distinguish this class of stories from animal cozies, because by definition a cozy centers on an amateur sleuth.

Also, a well-trained working K9 (real or fictional) is usually a German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Bloodhound, or other such breed. Their nature and work has relatively little in common with typical cozy mystery companion animals such as cats, Yorkies, or Dachshunds (lovable and perceptive though they might be).

The XK9 Pack consists of ten fictitious, sapient police dogs.
A gallery of “Pack Portraits” showing each of the ten members of the XK9 “Orangeboro Pack.” Top L-R: Razor, Elle, Crystal, Petunia, and Cinnamon. Bottom L-R: Scout, Victor, Tuxedo, Shady, and Rex. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

And yes, I fully admit that I have a Pack of ten dogs in this hunt. My XK9s would fit into yet an additional niche subcategory, Science Fiction K9 Mystery. Yeah, I’m not holding my breath for them to establish that one. Meanwhile, let’s talk about five female masters of the genre, who really know how to handle their K9 mysteries.

Diane Kelly

Among the first K9 mysteries I encountered was Diane Kelly’sPaw Enforcement” series. These books follow the adventures of Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9, Brigit, with regular appearances by Megan’s primary romantic interest, firefighter Seth Rutledge and his explosives detection dog Blast.

A former state assistant attorney general and graduate of the Citizens Police Academy in Mansfield, Texas, Kelly’s research has resulted in a realistic portrayal of a patrol officer’s daily life and the kinds of mundane—and not-so-mundane—situations first responders deal with. She writes about Fort Worth with an authentic understanding of the local geography and climate that I appreciate.

Kelly’s tone throughout the books is more lighthearted than some of the series featured in this post. There’s also a romance element that (mostly) takes a back seat to the police work and each book’s mystery plot line. As a reader, I enjoy seeing the relationship between Megan and Seth evolve slowly over the course of multiple books.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Author Diane Kelly (shown here with dog Junior) writes the “Paw Enforcement” K9 mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Jodi Burnett

Indie writer Jodi Burnett’s website calls her writing “suspense with a hint of romance,” and there are plenty of both in her Amazon-identified bestseller Avenging Adam (now also available as an audiobook). The first of her F.B.I. K-9 series, of which there currently are four books. Burnett publishes exclusively via Amazon.

I’ve only read the first in the series so far, but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner. The K9 work came across as authentic (the intra-office romance was less so, for me). It certainly was entertaining enough that I anticipate reading the rest of them. Note that the series’ protagonists change with each book, moving among a group of agents who know each other and are associates. Example: the romance of the second novel is set up in the first. We also meet the third protagonist in the first novel.

Burnett lives on a ranch southeast of Denver, Colorado in the Rocky Mountain region about which she writes. The F.B.I. agents of the K9 series work out of the Denver office. This offers an interesting variety of locations for the action, from urban to remote wilderness. She also has written the “Flint River” suspense trilogy, set in Montana, and recently a new K9 mystery, Renegade, first in a new series set in the Black Hills of Wyoming.

Jodi Burnett wrote the four books of the F.B.I. K-9 Series.
Author Jodi Burnett writes the “F.B.I. K-9” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Kylie Logan

The amazing Constance Laux has deep roots in Cleveland, Ohio and is the daughter of a Cleveland Police detective. She writes prolifically under (at least) ten pen names (!), including Kylie Logan.

She was an established romance and mystery writer before she turned her hand to K9 mysteries. Indeed, she has written many cozies, Including the “League of Literary Ladies” series, which includes cats (and also is set in Cleveland). But she made this list because of her current and growing “Jazz Ramsey Mysteries” series, featuring a protagonist who trains cadaver dogs.

Laux/Logan has written stories set in a variety of places, but the fictional Jazz Ramsey lives in familiar territory—Cleveland. Based on an interview by local author Charles Cassaday, it seems she was inspired to write about cadaver dogs after a presentation to a dog club she belongs to. An Urban Exploration tour of the Tremont neighborhood gave her the ideal setting. As part of her research, she observed cadaver dog training, which she described as “incredible.”

Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, wrote the three books of the Jazz Ramsey K9 Mysteries Series.
Author Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, writes the “Jazz Ramsey” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Margaret Mizushima

We return to Colorado with Margaret Mizushima, who lives on a small ranch in the northern part of the state with her veterinarian husband. They have two daughters. The unmistakable parallels with Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries main characters that include a veterinarian with two daughters, living in essentially the same part of the world, explain some of the authentic “feel.”

The stories center on Sheriff’s Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9, Robo in the fictional town of Timber Creek, Colorado (there isn’t a town, but there is a campground by that name in Rocky Mountain National Park). The series begins when Mattie, a seven-year department veteran receives her first call as a K-9 officer. There’s a slow-burning, evolving relationship between Mattie and the local veterinarian, Cole Walker, a divorced father of two daughters with workaholic tendencies. Mattie, with a history in foster care, has her own personal issues to sort out, along with the perplexing murder cases that come her way.

Mizushima started writing after she sold a rehabilitation agency she’d started during her earlier career speech pathology. (See? It’s never too late!) Since then, she has won a variety of awards and become active in the writing community in the American West. She’s six books into the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries series. As a fan, I hope she continues it for a good long time.

The 6 books of the “Timber Creek K-9” Series with author Margaret Mizushima.
Author Margaret Mizushima writes the “Timber Creek K-9” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Sara Driscoll

Author Sara Driscoll, creator of the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series, is actually two people: she’s a collaboration between Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan. Confusingly, Fantastic Fiction uses Danna’s photo on the Ann Vanderlaan listing.

There’s a photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan on her Amazon author page, and I also found it by way of her rescued dogs. (She’s sharing the photo with R. Kane, her rescued American Bully). So many aspects of the series and especially of protagonist Meg Jennings’ twin sister Cara (a dog trainers who owns two rescued dogs) suddenly made new sense, once I learned this.

The supporting cast in this series is one of my favorite aspects. Not only is Meg’s clever twin sister an ongoing part of her posse, but the women also have parents who run an animal rescue operation (and are quite a resource, themselves). And then there are their gentleman friends, Todd Webb (firefighter/paramedic) and Clay McCord (investigative reporter and avid local history buff). Together or separately, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Add to this combination a series of fascinating puzzles, new terrain and a new, fiendishly clever murderer in each book. It all adds up to a fascinating series in which I keep wondering how they can possibly top the last one—and then they do.

Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series under the pen name Sara Driscoll.
The “two sides” of Sara Driscoll, collaborating authors Jen J. Danna (at left) and Ann Vanderlaan (at right with R. Kane), who write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Comments Welcome

I know I’ve barely begun to survey all the outstanding K9 Mysteries writers out there. I also haven’t even mentioned excellent male writers such as Steven Henry or Robert Crais, to mention only a couple. If you’d like to suggest others my readers and I should check into, please leave us a comment and tell me who I missed.

I also welcome other comments (keep them positive and relevant, please!) about this post if you have them. Perhaps you’ve met some of these writers, or have other thoughts. That’s why I’ve tried to make it as easy to leave comments as possible.

IMAGE CREDITS:

All montages in this post were sized and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. Many thanks also to the talented Lucy A. Synk, who painted the ten “Pack Portraits” (©2020) showing the characters in Jan S. Gephardt’s XK9 books.

I’m grateful to Diane Kelly and her website for most of the cover images for her “Paw Enforcement” series (scroll down to it on the “books” page and click on individual titles for buying options), as well as her author photo. Thanks also to Barnes & Noble for the cover of the first book, Paw Enforcement.

Many thanks to Jodi Burnett and Amazon for the author photo of Burnett and the book covers for the F.B.I. K-9 Series.

I had to be something of a sleuth, myself, to dig down through the pseudonyms and find a decent photo of Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan. I am grateful to ScripType Publishing and photographer J. Kananian for the photo of Laux/Logan (holding The Scent of Murder, no less!). Many thanks to the Mystery Book Series website’s Kylie Logan page, for the book covers of the Jazz Ramsey books.

Many thanks to Margaret Mizushima’s website for both her author photo and the cover images of the “Timber Creek K-9 Mystery” series books. Click on the listings for book descriptions and varied buying options.

And finally, I want to extend my deepest appreciation to Jen J. Danna/Sara Driscoll’s website for the “F.B.I. K9 Novel” series covers, to the “Wording Well” blog, for the photo of Jen J. Danna, and to the “Coffee with a Canine” blog for the photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan.

Shady and Ace

Hints and glimpses

To anyone who asks, “Can you tell me about your book?” I can only offer hints and glimpses. Of course, that’s all any of us can offer, short of a full read.

But which hints and glimpses?

It becomes marketing

It becomes marketing, whether we authors and our might-be-readers care to think of it that way or not.

The quote from Cassandra Clare reads, “I thought . . . that we could at least talk about books.”
(PictureQuotes)

We not only want to give the asker a good idea of what our story’s about—we want them to think it’s interesting. That it could be a fun and fulfilling read.

That they really need to read it (buy it) right now.

So the hints and glimpses can’t be any old snippets. We want to give our might-be-readers the good stuff. The most intriguing glimpses. The best provocative hints to pique their curiosity. We want to give clues to “What kind of story is this?” To make our ideal readers sit up and think, “Oh, that sounds promising!”

And then, crucially, to click through and make it their own.

What goes into good hints and glimpses?

Oh, man, if we could formulate that and bottle it, no ad campaign would ever fail again! The fact is, no one quite knows. Each book is different. Each reader is different. The variables go fractal real fast.

It’s not that people haven’t tried. For instance, I’ve gotten some helpful guidelines from teachers such as Bryan Cohen (full disclosure: I’ve only taken his free “Challenge” courses so far). Alex Wong has some good suggestions. And I’ve heard great things about Robert J. Ryan’s guidelines from trusted friends in the business.

But after a while no formula, if followed too closely, yields fresh results. Every blurb, every tagline, every story sentence will start to sound the same. It’s kinda like watching too many movie trailers in a row, when they’re all built on the same structure.

(Auralnauts)

Wait. Nostalgia moment! Remember movies? In, like, theaters? With surround-sound and a huge screen and sometimes even kinetic effects built into the seats? *Sigh!* Will there be any movie-theater survivors after Covid-19?

Visual + verbal cues

I’ve been thinking about this question of what makes for good hints and glimpses, a lot recently. My design work over the last couple of weeks for Weird Sisters Publishing focused on ways to create a single image that might rouse someone’s curiosity about one of our stories.

Maybe you’ve followed my “creating a cover with . . .” posts. (for Deep Ellum Pawn with Chaz Kemp, for The Other Side of Fear with Lucy A. Synk, and most recently for Deep Ellum Blues, once again with Chaz).

If so, you’ll recognize some of the elements I used: developmental images from Chaz augmented the messages of words and cover art, as in this one for Deep Ellum Pawn.

The picture shows a Hell Hound next to the cover of “Deep Ellum Pawn,” with the words: “The Golden Fiddle is back. The Hell Hounds are Ms. Eddy’s problem now.”
(Deep Ellum Pawn artwork ©2019 by Chaz Kemp)

Likewise, you may recognize Mudcat from the cover-creation post for Deep Ellum Blues.

This picture shows Mudcat playing his tobacco-burst Strat next to the cover of “Deep Ellum Blues,” with the words, “Will Ms. Eddy intervene when an old adversary threatens a young musician in Deep Ellum?”
(Deep Ellum Blues artwork ©2020 by Chaz Kemp)

Chaz Kemp creates his images purely digitally, building up the image in layers. This makes it easier to change the sizes and positions of the elements in the composition. It also makes it possible to use the developmental images for purposes such as the blog posts and ads.

New visuals for the XK9s

But both of our XK9 cover artists, Jody A. Lee for What’s Bred in the Bone, and Lucy A. Synk, for The Other Side of Fear, are painters. They might make sketches beforehand (see the cover-creation post about Lucy’s work). They also may go back into the image with Photoshop to adjust small aspects. But they don’t produce the same kind of digital images in layers.

It makes the sketching and developmental phases more crucial! I can hardly wait to tell the story of how Jody and I worked together on the cover for A Bone to Pick.

It also creates a need for a different kind of character-developmental image. Lucy and I have been working on a series of “Pack portraits.” These are individual images of each XK9 in the Orangeboro Pack. I plan to use them for a variety of things, including “Character Profile” blog posts in the future.

This is a screen-capture of the sign-up form, which features Lucy’s painting of XK9 Petunia at the top with the words, “Join the Pack!” There’s an actual sign-up form you can use at the bottom of this page if you’d like to receive my monthly newsletter.
(Artwork © 2020 by Lucy A Synk; form by ConvertKit)

But you might already have spotted XK9 Petunia Yeller-Melody on my newsletter subscription form (sign up at the bottom of this post, to get first looks at things like the cover artwork Jody just delivered for A Bone to Pick!)

Incorporating covers with characters

Here’s what I put together for What’s Bred in the Bone. It uses Jody’s cover, Lucy’s “running Rex” image, and a tagline built from successful Amazon ads.

A full-body image of Rex gallops toward the cover of “What’s Bred in the Bone.” Below, the text reads, “In his quest to share an important clue with human investigators, XK9 Rex lands himself and his Packmates in mortal danger. How can he save them?”
(What’s Bred in the Bone artwork ©2019 by Jody A. Lee and ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk)

Finally, here’s the picture for The Other Side of Fear. All the artwork here is Lucy’s. The tagline is taken from a successful Amazon ad. Since then, I’ve rewritten the book description. Read it on multiple platforms.

In this picture, XK9 Shady play-bows next to the cover of “The Other Side of Fear” and the words, “A voyage of self-discovery with an uplifted sapient police dog, “The Other Side of Fear” is a science fiction novella set just before the events in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.”
(All artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look “under the hood” at some of the ways we at Weird Sisters Publishing develop our pictures and messages. Please sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to receive monthly “insider scoops” and first looks at new projects and art.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to PictureQuotes for the Cassandra Clare quote, and to Auralnauts, for the “How to make a Blockbuster Movie Trailer” video. Weird Sisters Publishing and I are deeply grateful to Chaz Kemp, Jody A. Lee, and Lucy A. Synk for all the wonderful pictures they’ve blessed us with.

This illustration shows many diverse ages, races, and cultures.

Politics on Rana Station

In last week’s post I promised to talk about politics on Rana Station this week. As I said in that post, I built the Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

Those experiences inspired the guiding question, What kind of environment would allow ALL of my students to reach their full potential?

Three children play in an outdoors setting with found objects.
Natural spaces offer many free-play options, which are good for kids. (uncredited photo from Community Playthings)

I’ve spent most of my career teaching both urban and rural students from lower-income areas. I knew our current system definitely wasn’t cutting it.

But the more I studied, the clearer it became that the problems were bigger than schools.

Children do well where everyone around them does too

Thriving children come from thriving communities with good safety nets and essential needs provided for. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have such a system. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that fact plainer than ever, and it was already painfully clear to anyone paying attention.

Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020.
Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020. (Photo by Maria Khrenova/TASS/Getty, via Yes Magazine.)

When I taught in more well-off parts of Johnson County, Kansas, I saw places where many students did succeed. Those kids were never hungry. Most had excellent medical care. Their families enriched their backgrounds with travel, summer camp, outings museums, zoos, concerts, or other experiences.

Children still sometimes “fell through the cracks,” often for the same reasons inner-city or rural kids did. Only about 5.3% of Johnson Countians fall below the poverty line, but for those who do, services are sparse and mass-transit leaves much to be desired. But even kids from well-off homes could suffer from mental health issues, domestic violence, or drug habits that impacted all aspects of their lives.

How could Rana Station do better?

I didn’t build my fictitious space station to be a political manifesto. I knew from the start that I couldn’t geek out on “mastery learning,” decriminalization of addiction, restorative justice, or other pet ideas, and still write an entertaining science fiction mystery. (Instead, I opted to do that in blog posts. You’ve now been warned!)

A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019.
A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP, via Baltimore Sun.)

But I could write the station’s governmental system into the background of the action as a thought experiment. Insert ideas as they became appropriate. Discard things that slowed the narrative.

What’s different on Rana Station?

As I noted last week, I don’t believe in utopias. There’s no possibility of a “perfect system,” if it’s run by imperfect beings—and everyone’s an imperfect being. But we can try to do better than whatever our current system has become. That’s what I’ve tried to reflect in the politics on Rana Station.

I do believe strongly that diverse cultures foster a more resilient society, so I’ve tried to depict a variety of cultures and species in these books. There are four different kinds of sapient beings among Rana’s citizens.

Faces of different ages, races, and cultures fill this illustration by "Franzidraws."
I believe a diverse community builds in greater creativity and resilience. (Illustration by “Franzidraws.”)

Ranan law and civic culture regards all backgrounds, body-colorations, family configurations, and cultures as equally acceptable. Readers of my two currently-published books know there’s no stigma attached to homosexuality. I have plans to expand that to other gender identities as well. My research goes forward, and as I learn, I hope to find good opportunities for representation.

My love of diversity “outs” me as a dedicated multiculturalist. Just don’t expect all this diversity not to generate differences of opinion. After all, emotions and conflict are the soul of good fiction.

Other than diverse sapient species, what’s different?

Many of the human characters live in large, extended families of relatives, in-laws, and sometimes friends who’ve become “family by choice.” Their residence towers are multi-household dwellings, kind of like an apartment building, only everyone’s a relative. Space to grow food is at a premium on Rana, so they build up, not out.

How do these large, extended families keep from killing each other? In part, cultural norms have grown up to govern “best practices” in extended-family dwellings. But some people just don’t thrive in these settings. They are free to move out—or sometimes the family decides to evict them. And for disagreements or mediation, they have Listeners.

A child psychologist and a young girl talk.
Listeners on Rana Station are trained mental health specialists. Here, a more Earthbound child psychologist and a young girl talk.(Photo by Valerii Honcharuk.)

Listeners are trained psychologists and social workers. Like physicians and other physical-health-care professionals, They make up part of the health care infrastructure. Unlike in our contemporary USA, mental and physical health care is viewed as a universal right. So are access to food, education, and shelter.

What kind of system do the politics on Rana Station reflect?

Rana’s list of basic rights might seem to peg me as a socialist for some, although that would technically be incorrect. In my opinion, these are basic infrastructure elements that any reasonable government should provide.

A system that doesn’t supply essential benefits to the people who support it with their votes and taxes is pretty darn corrupt, in my opinion. Why have it, if it doesn’t benefit all of its citizens, including those experiencing hard times?

People gather around a raised bed at a community garden in Oakland, CA.
Unlike in the United States, food insecurity is virtually unknown on Rana Station. Here, a group gathers at the Acta no Verba Garden in Oakland, CA. (photo by Leonor Hurtado).

My sympathy for restorative justice and Summerhill-type “free schooling” might make some think I’m an anarchist at heart, but that’s not my philosophical home. Observant folk might also notice I didn’t “abolish” the Orangeboro Police Department, among other things.

The presence of a vigorous business community and varied personal-income levels on Rana Station might argue that I’m a capitalist. That’s probably accurate, although I regard capitalism in much the same way I do fire: uncontrolled, it can consume and destroy everything. Appropriately regulated, it can power widespread benefits.

Politics on Rana Station, and unintended consequences

If Rana sounds like a nice place to live, it might suit you in the way its founders (both fictional and me) hoped. But that warning about utopias holds, here.

The system has its weak links, failures, and faults. The Orangeboro cops and their counterparts on other parts of the Station find plenty of work to do. “Enemies, both foreign and domestic,” keep Rana’s leaders busy, as well.

And they open up lots of opportunities for stories I hope you and I can both enjoy.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Community Playthings, for the uncredited photo of the children at play. I’m grateful to Yes Magazine and photographer Maria Khrenova of TASS/Getty Images for the photo of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrators in New York last summer (June 2020). I appreciate the Baltimore Sun and photographer Matt Rourke/AP for the photo of the demonstrator who called for safe drug-use sites in Philadelphia last December (2019).

Thanks very much to 123RF for the “diverse community” illustration by Franzidraws, and for the photo of the psychologist working with the young girl, taken by Valerii Honcharuk. I also appreciate Food First and photographer Leonor Hurtado, for the photo of the community garden group from Oakland, CA.

Finished—Sort of

You may have noticed (If so, bless you!) that I didn’t post much on my blog last week. What’s up with that? Massive stuff going on in my life, that’s what.

My first novel, finished in 1979, actually was written on one of these.

My first novel, finished in 1979, actually was written on one of these (manual Underwood).

I very recently finished a full draft of a science fiction novel.

This is the fifth novel manuscript for which I’ve been able to write “The End” in my adult life. The working title of the current opus is Going to the XK9s.

XK9s are forensic olfaction specialists, (dogs) whose universe-class noses make them something of a forensic analysis lab on four legs, and whose genetically-modified verbal-logic enhancements have pushed them over “the line” (wherever that lies, exactly) into sapience.

Rex looks a bit like real-life hero dog Lucas, who in 2015 saved his partner, Deputy Todd Frazier, after Frazier was ambushed by three assailants.

Rex looks a bit like real-life hero dog Lucas, who in 2015 saved his partner, Deputy Todd Frazier, after Frazier was ambushed by three assailants.

My protagonist is Rex, the “Leader of the Pack.” The other POV characters are his opinionated mate Shady and his somewhat beleaguered human partner Charlie.

My logline (still a work in progress) reads: A genetically-engineered police dog must innovate crime-solving approaches on a major case to prove his Pack is sapient and deserves freedom, before enemies—both from the Project that created them and from the criminal underworld—can destroy them.

I’ve mentioned “the novel” in past posts, most notably in the Space Station DIY series (an outgrowth of my research, since a large space station is the primary setting for the novel).

The XK9s were inspired by recent scientific explorations of dog cognition, recent discoveries of dogs’ ability to sense medical conditions by scent, and canine capabilities in search and rescue, drug enforcement, and bomb detection.

Present-day forensic olfaction specialists in training.

Present-day forensic olfaction specialists in training. Photo by Reed Young.

Since I travel in science fiction circles, I meet a lot of people who are “working on a novel.” People who actually have finished one are rarer, but simply finishing a draft doesn’t mean it’s done.

Publishing today: a whole new set of learning curves!

Very few people “take dictation from God” on the very first draft, most certainly including me. Once the novel is “finished,” the editing begins. In my case that means hacking through thickets of luxuriant verbiage to focus, polish, and pare it down to a streamlined, more readable length.

After that, professionals will review it. And after that . . . Oh, my. Publishing has changed almost beyond recognition since I worked with agents and editors in the 1980s. Lots of large learning curves ahead!

But meanwhile, it’s time to celebrate a nice milestone.

IMAGES: Many thanks to PenUltimate Editorial Services for the manuscript-finished typewriter image; to ABC News, for the photo of heroic Belgian malinois Lucas (read his story); to Gizmodo, Smithsonian Mag and photographer Reed Young for the photo of bomb-sniffing dogs in training; and to CyberSalt, for the “Good Luck” road sign.

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