Monday, February 8, 2016

Body Language

I'll be giving a workshop on body language at a conference next year and thought I'd dive into a little of it here. Just out of curiosity... how many of you "people watch"? How much do you pay attention to people and the things they say with their body, not their words?

I've found that body language actually speaks louder than words. (Actions too, obviously, but sometimes it's more subtle than that.) I thought - just for fun - I'd post an old pic from last year with actor and romance cover model Michael Foster. (We took this picture in the makeup and hair room at the show were working on.) Now what does this picture say to you? Don't cheat and look below for what I was thinking/feeling. Take a look and see if you can figure it out before you continue.

For starters, you can tell I'm nervous. I'm not looking at the camera. And... I won't even touch the guy! Yes, my arm is in a cast, but I could've touched HIS arm and I didn't. You can tell he has tremendous confidence and he's used to looking at the camera. The man has no fear! (And really, why should he with that bod! Haha!) He's got his arms around me like I'm a model from one of his cover shoots! I'm embarrassed. You can tell that by my red face and goofy grin. So... did you guess all that?

As writers, we know it's important to cover everything because we want to set a scene. What's the temperature? Are we inside or outside? What's the ambiance? What's happening? Is it loud or quiet? Are other people around? There are a TON of details to get across and limited time to get that info out. Part of all that detail is getting across our character's feelings.

But what if you're in one character's head and need to get across another character's feelings. We show it through body language, right? One of my favorite things is being in someone's point of view (POV) and showing how certain things make them feel by what they do with their body. That way, when I'm in someone else's POV and show that first character using a specific body language, the reader knows exactly what they are feeling...or hiding.

I try to give all my characters little quirks or certain mannerisms specific to them. It's one of the things that helps define them and makes them stand out for the reader.

The other important part of giving characters specific traits is to make sure you use the strongest words possible when moving them around. A quick example... anytime I read a sentence where "someone 'went' to the door..." (or 'went' anywhere for that matter), it makes me stop and think about what would've been a stronger word choice. Sure, the word 'went' works and sometimes maybe it's the strongest choice, but wouldn't you rather see what the character is made of or what they are feeling in that specific moment of opening the door? Maybe she 'glided' to the door. Or he 'stomped' to the door. There are dozens of verbs that can be used to describe what a person might be feeling just by showing how they crossed a room.

Or maybe you've given your character a 'tell.' My heroine, Ellie, in Danger Zone had a huge secret and every time she lied about it (or anything), she spun the ring on her finger. So every time I was in someone else's POV and that character - and the reader - watched Ellie spin her ring, the reader knew she was lying.

The best part of writing body language traits is that we have so much to choose from. Facial expressions, posture, muscle tension, nervous ticks. Just start at the top and work your way down and figure out how many different body language 'tells' or 'quirks' you can come up with.

So... any particular traits that you've noticed about people over the years? Or maybe YOU have a specific trait that's specific to you... Want to share?

Friday, February 5, 2016

What makes a book a DNF?

How often have you come across the dreaded syndrome of a book being a DNF i.e. Did Not Finish?

I used to pride myself on finishing any book I started as a matter of principle, and because even if I wasn't taken with it at the early stages, it might improve and become a favourite.

Well not any more, I'm afraid!

I don't know about you, but I have 100s of books in my To Be Read pile, whether in paperback or e-format. There are 100s of new ones appearing every day. And - to be honest? - I'm getting on in years *cough* and life just feels too short to waste on an endurance tussle with a book that doesn't engage!

I really like the modern way of giving excerpts when you go to buy a book online. I can immediately tell if I'm going to enjoy the style - and so often I'll read an *author* I love, whatever they write. And I confess I've often initially passed on a book, then returned to it later and found it to be a hidden gem. But that's less often than it used to be.

I recently revisited a fellow blogger's post from some years ago where readers discussed what would make them give up on a book. In the spirit of full disclosure, here are my particular reasons:

 * Writing style is stilted or overly melodramatic.
 * Dialogue isn't realistic (a biggie for me).
 * Neither protagonist engages my sympathy.
 * I have a strong feeling I want to 'slap' a character because of their behaviour or attitude (though that may be due to my occasional(!) lack of tolerance *g*)..

I know I also don't like to read too many similar themes in a sequence. And I also know for the more heavyweight topics - even if I'm looking forward to reading the book - I need to have the time and mindset ready for it.

Here are some of the other issues raised by fellow DNF-ers:
- Unbelievable/implausible situations for our hero(es).
- Factual errors.
- Too many characters or too much head-hopping/confusion as to whose story it is.
- No conflict (excluding slice-of-life stories that can have their own charm).
- An author's soap box showing through too often.
- Poorly crafted or unimaginative writing.

My favourite comments? From the two ends of the reading spectrum:
* I just have to give them all a fighting chance!
* some books are so bad I just have to finish and see how bad they can get!

We all know that one reader's delight is another reader's dread. That's human nature, and thank heavens for the variety.
But what are YOUR deal-breakers?

PS this is not to be taken as criticism or finger-pointing at any book or author in particular. Please make sure your comments relate to styles/plotting/characters in general :).

Clare London

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


by Janis Patterson

I’m not a mother, but I can imagine what it’s like to send your child off to school the first day. Suddenly your world is never going to be the same – perhaps it will be better, or maybe worse, but it’s guaranteed it will be different. Your child is not altogether yours any more. Although nothing is quite so cosmic as something dealing with a child, there are other things equally wrenching.

A book, for example; in many ways books are like our children. We conceive them, carry them around (in our minds) for a while, then bring them into the world in a protracted and generally painful process. Then, when we have done all we can do, we must send them out into the world if they are to develop and prosper. First to editors, who all too often crush their spirit and try to remake them until our books fit their vision. It’s a painful process – and I must admit, all too often I’ve thought what a pity it is that it’s illegal to kill an editor. Many times it might even be considered a public service.

Mothers shouldn’t have favorite children – I don’t see how they could – but authors have favorite books, and I’ve just sent mine on the first step out into the world. This is a straight cozy mystery called A KILLING AT EL KAB. Yes, this is the book The Husband and I went to Egypt to research last year. It will be released in March, one year exactly from our time there. I’ve always loved archaeology and Egyptology, so that make this book special, but what makes it extra special to me is that I’ve pledged one quarter of the royalties will go to the El Kab dig house for restoration. (Yes, there really is a dig house at El Kab, and physically it’s exactly as I describe it in the book – the builder’s grave in the courtyard and all.) This house is a world treasure, and needs restoration.

Anyway, the book is finished to the best of my abilities and I sent it to my editor – the inimitable Laree Bryant – just a couple of days ago. It was not easy. I kept wondering if I should have done this or that… but I also know that too much tweaking can kill a book dead, making it dull and lifeless. I know Laree is a good editor, honest but gentle, and that my book will be safe and prosper in her hands, but still… It’s the first time I’ve let it go. Now it is free to go places and see people on its own, to reach into places I could only dream of, to take on a life of its own. My book will never again belong just to me again.

And even though it’s the right thing to do, my life will never be quite the same.

By the way, if you’re in the Bonham, Texas area on this coming Saturday, 6 February, thirteen wonderful romance authors and I will be featured at the Eighth Biennial “Romance in Bonham” panel discussion/reader event. It will be held from 11am to 1 pm at the Bonham Public Library, 305 E. 5th Street. Please come by if you can – it’s free, of course.

Monday, February 1, 2016

I SPY: Burnout

Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.


TODAY'S POST: I-Spy something beginning with ...


Burnout. Such a short, simple word, but with such a high impact. When it happens, it can derail even the most dedicated artists. For people who thrive on exploring their creative selves, mental exhaustion hits hard, but we only have so much energy—mental or physical.

So what does one do when one hits that invisible wall?

Survive, revive, and thrive.


I blogged about “The Write Balance” a few years back. As a counselor (in a former life), I’m aware how important finding balance is to maintaining health and happiness…and as a human with people and projects pulling at me from all directions, I’m just as aware how difficult that balance is to achieve and maintain on a daily basis. 

This time, when my turn to blog came around, the only writing craft or career-related topic I could think of right now was the one thing that has consumed me for the past several weeks: Recovering my lost mojo. My motivation. My sense of balance. Whatever you want to call that need, that drive to create, I had lost track of it sometime back in early December. It's possible I misplaced it earlier than that and was just going through the motions for many weeks, meeting deadlines but feeling no joy in the process.

It wasn't until my health started suffering (both physically and depression) that I had to admit to myself that I'd hit a wall. Whether it was the current work-in-progress that threw that wall in my path or the holidays and a couple family emergencies combined with deadline after deadline throughout 2015, or just my inner two-year-old coming out to throw a tantrum, I just. Didn’t. Wanna. Anymore.

Image from:
When my physical health started to fail and I wasn't enjoying time with my kids during the holiday season, I knew these were signs I needed to slow the heck down. I had to focus on survival, making the holidays as bright for my kids as possible, and rest my poor, tired brain.

I worked on nothing but enjoying each moment, especially with my family. I read as much as I could. I communed with nature and binge-watched movies, trying to reabsorb any and all forms of creativity and storytelling while not having to work on my own stories. My only job became to nurture and restore myself.


I was convinced (and more than a little worried) that I was done with writing. Kaput. For about two weeks, until the holidays passed and the kids were back in school, I focused on family stuff. During that time, I hung out with family, played mindless online games where I grew crops and entire towns populated by imaginary people who didn’t care if I finished my book. I also jumped into several household projects that had been bugging me—such as repainting and reorganizing my pantry. 

And I tried not to think about the manuscript that I’d already put weeks of hard work into, that already had a beautiful cover and two-thirds of a rough draft and was now languishing on my computer.

And I assessed what I wanted. Was this career still my goal? Was I simply tired? Did I need to try something new, even if it was simply switching to a new genre of writing?

Emailing with friends (writer friends who've been there, in particular) was helpful at this time. And I think the self-preservation part of me was trying to keep one foot in those writing waters. I wasn't ready to give up the career I'd fought so hard for.

My friends kept asking me "can you really walk away from this?" And, "what would you do if you didn't write?" The tone suggested that, as a writer, I couldn't NOT write. But I thought that maybe I could walk away and not look back. After years of working toward this career. (This was scary.)

So, analyzing why you're pursuing a goal—Money? Passion? Fame?—can help you discover whether the pursuit is still worth it for you.

For me, I need to finish a project I've started. I've always been that way. So I'll get back to it and finish. And I enjoy being a writer. At least, I'm discovering that I can revive that joy, now that I've had a break from the deadlines. It also helped to remember I could take a step back and it didn't mean I was quitting. I just needed perspective.

Photo from:


The answers didn’t come easy. In fact, I’m still working on finding that inner "zen." I'm not sure where this path is taking me, or whether a different path might be better. But after about four weeks of regrouping, of doing other “writerly” things other than working on the book I’d stuck in the corner, and totally non-writerly things like finally working on getting my youngest's baby book together (he'll be 6 in a couple weeks!), I decided to reopen the work-in-progress and take a peek. It wasn't so bad. I know it went off the rails somewhere, otherwise I wouldn't have stopped. And when my brain's rested, I'll find the answers. Despite my recent struggles, I have faith in this process.

Slowly, I'm getting back into the groove. (After all, I've already got that beautiful cover and don't want to waste it!) I'm learning that I need to pace myself, and part of that was setting time limits and reassessing goals. Instead of having a daily word count or page count goal, I've switched to a time goal. I know that, if I put two hours a day into this manuscript, eventually it'll get done. And I'll probably build up my stamina again in the process.

When committing to a word count or page goal seems daunting, or exhausting, I know I can still manage a time goal. One or two hours seems manageable.

And one day, that energy will be back and I'll thrive again.

Have you suffered burnout in your job? Have you had to take a step back and reassess? Do you have any tips or tricks of the trade for recovering from burnout and/or maintaining balance?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Rocking The Day Job

By Cathy Perkins

Waving from warm, sunny Orlando. Quite a change from this past month’s endless snow.

photo by Cathy PerkinsI wish I could say I’m on vacation. Instead, I’m rocking the day job, teaching at my firm’s management school and taking a (shh! really boring) mandatory class, made bearable by my peers (who also have to take it).

This week has made me think about careers and balancing. I know authors who have ditched their day job to write full time. Many others are like me—working full time at a job that pays the bills and offers health insurance. Since it’s the season to count your blessings and make plans for the new year, I’ll start with gratitude I have an interesting job that sends me money twice a month. J

Layer in writing, volunteers gigs, and the rest of my life, however, and it’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a number of blog posts talking about time management and work/life balance. While I try to implement some of the tips, consistently, the best advice I’ve received is "write every day." Even if it’s only a line or two, put those words on the page first thing in the morning. Otherwise, the day’s demands can catch up (and overwhelm) leaving you exhausted at the end of the day.  Creative energy? What's that? As much as I hate to admit it, I find if I get out of the “habit” of writing, days or weeks can slide past.

What about you? Are you rocking the day job? Writing full time? Balancing other commitments? 

What’s your best advice for maintaining balance or finding time to write?

Oh. Even the deer came are curious about the steel frame for the giant window. (Did I mention we're also building a house?)  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Five Things You Hope Your Readers Never Find Out About Your Creative Process

 Ah the glitz and glamor of the life of a professional, fulltime writer!

From the time I was a child--fourth grade, to be precise--I knew I was going to be a professional writer. I knew because this is what all my teachers told me. Granted, there was some earlier confusion with my third grade teacher because I thought she said RIDER and I remember being flattered but wondering how the heck she knew I loved horses and went riding whenever possible.

By fourth grade however, my teachers were enunciating more clearly, and I got the message. Oh. I was going to be a WRITER. Not nearly as exciting, but okay. They seemed so very sure, I just figured they knew.

I pretty much envisioned this  writing career as me living in a castle by the sea and wearing a peignoir much of the time. Obviously some writing would take place...but I was still perfecting my penmanship on those long rectangular sheets of paper with the blue dotted-lines, so the mechanics were vague.

By the time I hit college I understood quite a bit more about how writing and the publishing biz worked. By then I had mastered handwriting (yes, I was still working longhand) and I preferred men's silk pajamas to peignoirs, but the rest of it...yes, I confess I did still believe that ultimately I'd be working in a castle by the sea. Candlelight and gauzy draperies figured largely. Possibly also harpsichord music.

The reality is a bit different. Actually a lot different. For sure I thought I would have more free time--even if only to accomplish such things as laundry and paying bills. I thought I would be writing one, maybe two books a year. I imagined I would only be writing and that other well-paid people would be taking care of all the rest of whatever it was that might be needed. Handling my translation rights. Picking up my dry cleaning.  

Here are five of my writing realities. And I invite my writing colleagues to share their own writing realities:

1 - I haven't had a facial in six months. Actually, I haven't washed my face in six months. Okay, I exaggerate, but during that frenzied home stretch that every project eventually reaches...grooming is one of the lowest priorities. And sometimes even hygiene is at risk.

2 - I will eat anything that is not likely to kill me and takes no time to prepare. Last night I had smoked oysters and Japanese snack crackers. Yeah, right out of the tins in both cases. It was neither  glamorous nor delicious but it also didn't take long.

3 - I poured whisky, Irish cream, and half-and-half directly into the coffee machine yesterday. I've lost two pairs of reading glasses this week. I narrowly missed taking Tylenol PM in place of aspirin this afternoon.

4 - I sleep wearing wrist braces. The Velcro strips on the braces keep catching on my flannel sheets.

5 - I obsessively listen to the same CDs over and over--no, it's not harpsichord music--or sometimes the same CD, as in singular. You know how most writers are always talking about closing the door so their loved ones don't bother them when they're working? My dear SO closes my office door first thing in the morning, frequently joking-not-joking about locking me in. I believe the word "barricade" has been used. More than once.

So...a life fraught with peril if nothing else. Anyone else out there willing to share a little of the working writer's reality?

Monday, January 25, 2016


I just attended a talk by a renowned Canadian editor and publisher by the name of Douglas Gibson. He edited the likes of Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell, and Margaret Atwood… CanLit royalty. What was most interesting to me was the fact that he is “of a certain age.” He retired from editing and publishing at age 65, then reinvented himself as a writer, then as a performer. Now, at 72, he travels the country in a one-man play in which he dishes about the famous writers he edited.

A couple of years ago, I saw Maria Muldaur at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton, New Brunswick. (Never been? Oh, you have to go. It’s a fabulous festival.) I’d always liked Maria Muldaur but had never seen her perform. She had to be escorted onto the stage (poor eyesight, I think). That’s when I took a look around the audience and noticed the predominance of gray and white heads. Hoo boy. I braced myself for a nostalgic trip led by a woman clearly past her prime.

Was I ever wrong. Maria Muldaur, also 72, blew me (and everyone else) away. She might have been past her prime, but she sure as heck found another prime along the way.

A few weeks ago, I read a post by Dean Wesley Smith in which he referenced a comment from a reader who regretted starting to write so late in life. Dean understood completely. He spoke about his own experience of feeling like he should have been writing his own, original work much earlier than he did. Then he asked, So what?

That’s my question, too. So what if you started writing at 50 or 60 or 90? Is it what you want to be doing? Does it bring you joy? Fill your well? Give you a reason to get up? Then who cares how old you are when you start?

I admit to a few moments of doubt. Moments when I wonder why I should bother, because really, isn't it rather late? But that's wrong-headed thinking. We should be grateful to have discovered our passion at all. Many people go through life puttering, with no idea what that fire in the belly feels like.

Besides, there are advantages to being an older writer. The kids are grown and (mostly) out of the house. You’re no longer the family chauffeur/breadwinner. Your career may be starting to wind down. All of which translates to more time to dedicate to learning your craft, practising and creating.

I’m approaching 60 and some days I feel like life is galloping by and it’s all I can do to hang on. I’ve got so many stories to write, and so much to learn about this writing stuff… I figure another 40 years ought to do it. Maybe.

Ask yourself how old you would be if you didn’t follow your dream, whatever that is. That’s right. You’d still be the same age, only not as happy. At least now, you’re doing what you were meant to do.

I find myself inspired by Douglas Gibson, Maria Muldaur, and Dean Smith. Who are your inspirations?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

They Come In Threes...

My grandmother was the queen of old adages. One that consumed her was the, "They come in threes..." motto. If two people she knew passed away she was on pins and needles and would literally heave a sigh of relief when her perceived "third person" passed. 

My grandmother had two sisters. Two out of those three lovely ladies died on the same exact day of the year in separate years. My great aunt, the third sister, is still with us and is as strong as an ox. But every year when April comes around I am sure she's checking that calendar, and I'm sure when that date passes, she heaves her own sigh of relief.

Naturally, this week after the passing of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I'm reminded of my grandmother's obsession. Sadly, we've lost too many talented stars. The truth is that there is no magic "three rule" in death or any other matter. But if it is something bad, it makes us feel better to think that after we've reached that number everyone is safe again.

There's no need to fret, though. Good things come in threes, too!  The 3 Little Pigs, The 3 Musketeers, Hanson, 3-ringed notebooks, the Wise Men...and awesome trilogies!

My BLUE-LINK series is about to end with the third book, DUSK. (LOL, I caught you all rolling your eyes out there!)

Can you name some more great things that come in threes?

Maureen A. Miller

Monday, January 18, 2016

The box set

My 2016 started off with some exciting news courtesy of Carina Press. My Dylan Scott mystery series is to be published as two box sets. The first 5 books in the series will come first and, a month later, the last three in the series will appear in a second box set. 

Once the excitement of this news had worn off (okay, so maybe it hasn’t quite worn off yet…), I started thinking about box sets and how many I owned. 

If we were talking DVDs, the answer would be several. For example, in the days before I had access to Netflix, I had to buy the Dexter series and the Breaking Bad series in box sets. Had to. No question. But how many book box sets do I own?

As I child, I owned quite a few. These would have been Christmas or birthday gifts, and I do feel that having an all-inclusive set of favourite books is a real treat. Beautifully presented and sometimes a limited edition - wonderful. 

So how many do I own? Well, I had a good think and surprised myself. Without checking the hundreds of books that are scattered around the house, I can’t swear to this, but I think the grand total is, um, zero. Nil. Zilch. There are certainly none on my Kindle.

Just look at this lovely offering from our very own Toni Anderson. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Do I own a copy? No. (Sorry, Toni. :)) Why not? Because I own all the books singly. As soon as I know one of my favourite authors has a new book coming out, I pre-order it. I wasn’t blessed with enough patience to wait for box sets. :)

Am I the only person who doesn’t own a single box set? Writers, are your books in a box set and, if so, what do you like most about them? Readers, how do you feel about the box set? Do you own lots? Do you buy the box set even when you’ve already read the books in the collection? Do ebooks work as well as physical copies when it comes to the box set? Curious minds need to know all your thoughts on the box set. Thank you. :)

Friday, January 15, 2016


One of the things I hear authors complain about most is finding balance in their lives. From finding enough time to write, time to market their books, exercise, down time, spend time with family. 


It's so easy to get stressed when one of those things is out of whack, and things get out of whack because there's never enough time to do everything. 

My body has a limit on how long it will spend at a desk without hurting--and if I push it I pay the price for a week. So I don't push it. I am kinder to it, taking more breaks, I use a standing and sitting desk, do yoga etc. My kids and husband, while independent, all actually like to spend time with me--plus often need a chauffeur. I decided a long time ago that if my kids need me for something (not just being whiny brats :))--if they want to tell me about their day and their problems, discuss homework or teachers, then I'll be there for them. Always. It doesn't mean I don't nod and eventually reach for the noise-canceling headphones because my daughter can talk the hind legs off a donkey. But as she swings between garrulous and silent moody teen, I take advantage of the times she wants to chat.  I'm largely self published these days and still do everything myself (except covers, editing, and formatting--these I hire out). That's a lot of different pressures on me from different directions and I didn't even mention the dog, the geckos, and the fact I live in Manitoba which, during the winter, is a pressure all in itself. 

I treat writing the way most people go to work (9-5), although I walk the dog first, usually listening to a research book on audio. Then I turn off the internet (Freedom App) for at least three hours while I get my head into my story. I take regular breaks throughout the day and admit to checking my email and FB on my iPad during tea breaks (if I could stop that, I would). If I'm in full writing mode I aim for 2.5 K new words on the page. If I'm editing then I do as much as I can.

When the kids come home from school I give myself permission to switch to other things. Facebook ads seems to be the marketing thing du jour. Or writing blog posts :) If I'm on chauffeur duty I pack up the laptop and headphones and do some more work wherever I happen to be (sometimes I'm at my most productive during those forty minute shifts). After we've eaten dinner I generally crash for 2 hours of TV with the family and then I read in bed. Every day repeats pretty much like that one. It's my balance and I've worked long and hard to get it just right.


2016 is not looking good for routine. We're looking to get our kitchen and my office renovated. This project is in flux, LOL. We're also going to travel for six months with DH's work. This will be awesome but I have a house, kids, schooling to organize--not to mention the dog and geckos to be taken care of. Thankfully we have an excellent dog/house sitter who stays here. But I'll need to adapt to the changes of being on the road and living in far off and unfamiliar places, and I'll need to get super focused for shorter bursts of writing time if I hope to achieve anything.

This is the reason I haven't set up any preorders for my next two books in the COLD JUSTICE SERIES (except on iBooks which is flexible). I'm hoping to write the rough drafts of both books before I leave in the summer. The idea of having deadlines/or disappointing readers when I have a year that is so uncertain distresses me and affects my sleep patterns (I forgot I used to be an insomniac until I woke up in a cold sweat worried about kitchen renos). Stress is bad for me which is why I've tried to eliminate it from my life (duh). My hubby tells me not to worry, but it's like telling a glacier not to melt under the hot sun. 

So--wish me luck on my next set of adventures for 2016. Happy New Year by the way! Any tips for writing while on the move? Any tips for living in Japan? Or surviving kitchen renos?


Some new release news regarding the COLD JUSTICE SERIES. For those of you who've read A COLD DARK PLACE, I've written a short epilogue where former assassin Alex Parker may, or may not, propose to FBI Agent Mallory Rooney.

It's available exclusively in a new box set of six Romantic Suspense series starter books.  99c for the six full books and each author has written a special epilogue to her own story that connects these Romantic Suspense worlds!


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Romance of Jessica Fletcher

Hold on to your Liberty scarves, everyone. Guess what? I just realized I have at least five things in common with my favorite TV and book detective, Jessica (J.B.) Fletcher. And they’re pretty much indisputable:

1.      I write murder mysteries.
2.      I live in a small New England town.
3.      I use my middle initial in my pen name.
4.      I own a yellow slicker, sturdy boots, and a trench coat.
5.      I do not care for radishes.

I was in my twenties, living in New York City, when the long-running CBS show Murder She Wrote first hit the air. I worked in publishing—as an editor, not an author. But even then, I wanted to be just like Jessica someday.

First and foremost, of course, J.B. Fletcher was a super-successful mystery novelist. A fictional one, yes, but for some reason I preferred to think of her as a living, breathing queen of suspense like another of my idols, Mary Higgins Clark. Jessica was smart, well-read, and considerably more observant than I, with Holmes-like powers of deduction and a keen sense of intuition, especially when it came to human nature. Not to mention, Jessica was also compassionate, kind, and committed to justice for all. What could be more important than that?

Plus, she knew her way around a Royal typewriter (I was at least three months into my publishing career before I finally mastered the IBM Selectric). Eventually she graduated to a computer and Windows 3.1 (probably more easily than I did). Oh, and here’s another thing J.B. Fletcher and I have in common: We both work at our kitchen tables.

Which brings us to Jessica’s hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine. Who wouldn’t want to live in a coastal Mayberry? We won’t even talk about J.B. Fletcher’s irresistibly charming Victorian house. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I was disappointed to learn those heartwarming, New England-y shots of “Cabot Cove” were filmed in Mendocino, California. The actual house is there, too: the present Blair House Inn.

But the interior of 698 Candlewood Lane? Originally, it was a set for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (Ouch.) I guess that means the cozy kitchen wasn’t real. Well, no mind. Here’s another thing J.B. Fletcher and I have in common: We both drink tons of tea. Hers hot, mine iced. And I do have some equally lovely china cups and plates. A few may be on the chipped side.

I can’t say that, back in the eighties, I envied J.B. Fletcher’s practical-but-stylish, matronly-but-feminine wardrobe. But as I’ve gotten older, and since I’m a New Englander, I share her fondness for classic tweed blazers and warm sweaters that nicely skim the hips. I haven’t grown into those scarves yet, though.

While always humble, Jessica was highly popular and something of a celebrity in Cabot Cove. Not quite as many people have even heard of me in my own tiny town. More of them are starting to recognize me, though, thanks to the yellow knit, crime tape scarf I got for Christmas this year. But if any of my neighbors or our local constabulary knocked on my non-Victorian door to ask for help solving a murder, I’d probably lock myself in the basement and cower. Guess that was another thing I admired about Jessica: her courage. Even with a suspect threatening her life, which was practically every episode, she stayed cool.

As a prolific and highly professional writer, Jessica was usually on some kind of deadline or other, but she was a champion multi-tasker—and quite good at saying no, unless someone’s life was at stake. (Maybe not one of my strong points. Sigh.) And she did travel often, with all those extravagant dinners and speaking engagements and promotional trips, courtesy of her publisher.

Ah, the rock-star writer’s life. Those days are long gone, I’m afraid. On the other hand, in those same good old days, Jessica wrote as J.B. Fletcher—in part to preserve her privacy, perhaps, but more likely to downplay the fact that she was a writer who happened to be a woman.  In quite a few of those Murder She Wrote episodes, Jessica and the other female characters encounter incidents of sexism that will make you cringe. Not because they happened back then—but because they still do. Through it all, though, Jessica remained above the fray.

J.B. Fletcher would probably have a few things to say about all the changes in publishing today. But she was always a pragmatist. She didn’t always approve of her book covers, or the plot changes a new editor requested, but she let her stories do the talking. Clearly, Jessica loved her work, and she focused on creating the best books possible, backed by solid research. Yes, she watched her sales figures and general trends, but bottom line? She kept her fingers to the keyboard.

Jessica, if you’re reading this, you may be concerned I misled readers a tiny bit by using the word “romance” in my blog title. Yes, I know you’ll always be true to your late husband, Frank Fletcher, and that you and Dr. Seth Hazlitt were just friends, and ditto that guy from Scotland Yard. It wasn’t a marketing ploy, or anything. I meant “romance” in the larger sense, you see. Um…Jessica?

Well, anyway, I’ll keep working on being more like you. In the meantime: Next, on Murder She Wrote (theme song here)

Monday, January 11, 2016






During our last meeting, one of my critique partners said something that’s been resonating in my mind ever since:  “I used to read for escape,” he said, “but now I write for escape.”

            This insight stuck with me because I’ve had much the same thought—and more than once.  When you write, you create a whole new world, with new people, new places, new happenings, all of which you control and willingly enter.  It’s your own special place where everything goes accord to your plan—except for one inconvenient fact.  The characters often have minds of their own and take turns and detours you never anticipated.  That might seem to contradict the idea that writing is escape, but on further thought, it doesn’t.  Not knowing what happens next is part of the Big Escape.

Case in point:  When I began The Design is Murder, #5 in my Murders by Design Series, I had no inkling that a little five pound dog named Charlotte (that's her below) would become a major player in the story, but she did. 

Charlotte even helped nab the killer.  In fact, she was so delightful, I couldn’t bring myself to have her spayed, never mind bump her off.  So as she came more and more involved in the plot, her antics provided a welcome diversion.

            And then there was boorish Stew Hawkins (that is not him above!).  No manners, no couth, he bought a trophy wife who three weeks later ended up dead.  Yet halfway through the book, I started thinking, “You know, I’d go out with this guy.”  Who’d have guessed that?  Not DH.  Not even moi.  The thing is Stew was so outrageous, so over-the-top that the more I wrote about him, the more he drew me into his life.  And the more I fled, however temporarily into his world, the more the problems of the real world faded.

            As for reading to break away from the everyday—which most of us do as well--here’s a radical view by memoirist Mary Kaer.  In The Week Magazine, she’s quoted as saying.  Reading is socially accepted disassociation.  You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore.  It’s better than heroin.” 

Hmm.  I wonder which drug Ms. Kaer would compare writing to?  I refuse to say Viagra.


How about you?  Have you ever experienced writing as escape?  If so, when in the story did the realization strike?


Jean Harrington is the author of the award-winning Murders by Design Series available on Amazon.  Link is:


Friday, January 8, 2016

Character Role Models

By Sandy Parks

Readers love the underdog, who comes from bad life circumstances and grows into a strong hero or heroine. Imagine the street urchin, who fights his way to become becomes rich and famous, or the gal disowned by her dysfunctional family, who goes on to be the perfect nanny for someone’s children or the best bad ass detective at the precinct.

It is highly unlikely that a child who grows up on the streets will suddenly develop a sense of what is right and wrong, and why morals even matter without intervention at a young age. If your character is tough and from the streets, then you need to show how he learned gained the savvy to run a business (and work with the people in it) without someone in life to plant the appropriate seeds of behavior.
Since Daughters Day is coming up, I thought this family photo, of a father pinning on his daughter's new flight wings in front of her aircraft, was a fitting role model photo.

In order to be believable, we have to know a character gained heroic traits somewhere in their past. It is when your character encounters the adventure/thriller/mystery/romance you create, that those traits surface. In all likelihood, somewhere in their life, a role model has intervened. It may even be somebody the character doesn’t recognize as one.

Think about Luke Skywalker trapped on Tatooine, working on his uncle’s moisture farm. Basically he is an orphan raised by relatives who don’t understand his dreams. Moviegoers know that not far away crazy, old man Obi Wan is watching over him and telling him tales of the galaxy beyond his reach. He’s teaching Luke to expand his mind and be a dreamer. Luke also sees his uncle working hard to support his family and take care of a nephew who at times acts rather ungrateful. He raises Luke because it’s the right thing to do. Whether Luke knows it or not, those traits do rub off and perhaps give him the fortitude to not give up, and understand what people who love one another are willing to sacrifice.

What if your heroine was a street urchin abandoned because her mother is an addict and her father is in jail. Is it a minister at the nearby church who gives her money for odd jobs and teaches her about growing prize orchids that leads her to some day save and scrimp to build a gardening empire?

Think of the stories about twins separated in childhood. What makes one good and the other evil? One had a positive role model somewhere, maybe not the other. It can be a teacher, a minister, a storekeeper, a homeless man (many have some incredible backgrounds of their own), an aunt, or a Jedi.

How does a woman know the right kind of man to add to her life if she lost her father at a young age? How does a man in a family of five brothers and no mother know when he finds the right woman? Put a woman in his life when he is young that teaches him about strong women, or smart ones, or nurturing ones, or ones with a sense of adventure.

So when creating a character background, don’t forget to have a role model somewhere who plants the seeds of what make her heroic.