Crafty Mysteries – Talking With Lois Winston

Today, I welcome Lois Winston, USA Today bestselling author of the popular Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series to the blog.Lois Winston

The adventures of reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack continue in A Stitch to Die For, the 5th book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Lois Winston.

Ever since her husband died and left her in debt equal to the gross national product of Uzbekistan, magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack has stumbled across one dead body after another—but always in work-related settings. When a killer targets the elderly nasty neighbor who lives across the street from her, murder strikes too close to home. Couple that with a series of unsettling events days before Halloween, and Anastasia begins to wonder if someone is sending her a deadly message.

We asked Lois to tell us a bit about the new novel and her process.

Winston A StitchThis is your fifth Anastasia Pollack mystery, not counting the mini-mysteries that have been published.  I know you have a background in crafting – where do you get your ideas for the mystery?  Do you draw on real life?  What was the inspiration for A Stitch to Die For?

I once had an editor reject a book because she found the plot totally unbelievable. When my agent sent me the rejection letter, I laughed out loud because I had used a national news event as the basis for the plot. I guess the editor never bothered to watch the news or read a newspaper.

I’ve always found that truth is stranger than fiction, and both local and national news are a treasure trove of material just sitting there for authors to mine. In A Stitch to Die For I’ve incorporated two recent items from the news into the plot—the rash of swatting incidents occurring across the country and several court cases involving salt poisoning.

 You seem to have a gift for coming up with fun names for your characters but also ones that have a secondary meaning or aspect to them.  What goes into naming your characters?

I’m not someone who can use a placeholder name and keep writing until I find the perfect name for a character. I really need to find that name first for the character to come to life on the page for me. Like many authors, I use a baby naming book and online sites, but I also employ more unusual methods, especially for my antagonists. Their names might be anagrams or a slight twist on the name of a school bully or a smarmy ex-boss. It’s quite cathartic.

 Your books are full of humor.  Is that something you have developed and use techniques for or does it come naturally in your writing?  Any tips for authors who are trying to interject humor into their books?

Humor isn’t something that can be forced. I’m also not sure it can be learned. Either you’re funny or you’re not. I’m not a funny person in real life. I can’t tell a joke without forgetting the punch line or messing it up. However, when I tried writing chick lit back in the late 90’s, I discovered (much to my surprise and amazement) that I could write funny. Humor is very subjective, though, and not everyone will get any author’s particular brand of humor. As much as people love the humor in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, there are those people who don’t find them funny at all. You’re never going to please everyone. That’s the first lesson every writer needs to learn in this business in order to survive.

 The Examiner’s series of five articles profiling you is something I don’t see in other newspapers and is great exposure.  See Lois Winston – More  How did that come about?

Pure happenstance. Syndee Barwick, a fellow member of Liberty States Fiction Writers  had taken a job with the Examiner and asked me if she could interview me. Of course, I said yes. I was expecting one short article. I had no idea it would turn into a five-part series. I was thrilled!

 I know you make personal appearances.  Other thoughts on marketing for today’s authors?  Especially for those with first or second novels who are newer to that aspect of this business?

Try to think outside the box. Unless you have huge publisher marketing support behind you, you’ll probably be disappointed in bookstore signings and talks. I’ve been to more than my share where I stood around for two hours with people walking out of their way to avoid eye contact. I think they’re afraid that if they start chatting with you, they’ll be forced to buy your book.

So instead of traditional venues like bookstores and libraries, look into non-traditional places such as women’s groups, service organizations, and street fairs. Play on a theme or character from your book. For instance, if your amateur sleuth works in a nail salon, ask your local nail salon to host a book event.

If you do decide on a bookstore signing or speaking to a library group, don’t go it alone. Invite other authors to take part. A group of three or four authors will tend to draw a larger crowd than one author no one has ever heard of.

 Anastasia has her own blog at Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers.  How did that come about?

Social media had taken off by the time I sold the series, and I knew I had to get involved in promoting my book via social media. I am an avowed hater of Facebook, and although I have a Twitter account (@anasleuth), I’m not convinced Twitter helps authors sell books.

So I turned to blogging. But so many authors already had well-established writing-themed blogs. I didn’t think it made sense to add one more to an already crowded field. So taking my own advice, I started thinking outside the box.

I didn’t want to preach to the choir by featuring posts that only appealed to fellow authors. I wanted a blog that would draw in people beyond my writing world to attract new readers for my books. Since Anastasia is the crafts editor at a women’s magazine, I thought, why not make the blog an online version of that magazine? So Mondays through Thursdays I feature articles about crafts, recipes, decorating, health, finance, beauty, fashion, and travel—the types of articles you’d find in a typical women’s magazine. On Fridays I feature Book Club Friday where I invite other authors to talk about their books. Guest authors are also welcome on the other days as long as they can tie their post into one of the above themes.

You have written mini-books (novellettes) and short stories that involve Anastasia.  I’m curious as to whether these are planned or the stories simply weren’t complicated enough for a novel – or if these are to keep these stories in front of your readers while you are writing the longer novels?

They were planned as short books to keep the series active and whet readers’ appetites while I write the longer books.

 I know Anastasia changes and her family dynamics change over the course of the books.  Do you have a overall story arc for Anastasia that will carry through the novels?  And does that also apply to the short stories and mini-books?

When readers tire of Anastasia, it will be time to retire the series. I hope that isn’t for a long time because I enjoy writing about her and her dysfunctional family. I could always have her win the lottery and settle down on some tropical island with Zack. Now, whether or not he comes clean about his possible alphabet agency affiliation at that point is still up in the air.

 How do you keep track of all the details in the earlier books so that you don’t have contradictions? I know writers who have series have lots of different methods for this.

I keep a database where I list the characters for each book and their physical attributes. I also keep a calendar for each book, jotting down what happens on each day as the story unfolds in order to keep my timeline accurate. In addition, I don’t delete the files for the previous books from my computer. That way I can do a quick search whenever I need to double-check something from a previous story.

 Any final words of wisdom for our readers/writers on how to have and maintain a successful writing career writing mystery novels?

Success means something different to each of us. Some people feel successful only if they’re making a boatload of money from their books, others if they’ve made a bestseller list or won a significant book award. Still others consider themselves successful just from having published a book or a series. You have to decide what’s important for you in your writing career and work toward that goal. You can’t measure yourself against any other writer. If you do, you’ll never be happy with what you’ve achieved.

Lois – Thanks so much for stopping by.  More about Lois: 

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. Visit Lois/Emma at Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog, Follow everyone on Tsu at, on Pinterest at, and onTwitter @anasleuth. Sign up for her newsletter at


Winston A Stitch





A Stitch to Die For



Unexpected Learning Opportunities

Literary opportunities can pop up when you least expect them. This past weekend provided one for me. Town HouseIt was Marblehead’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza—fireworks and a special five-day event called Festival of Arts. From July 1st through the 5th, our town celebrated all forms of art including drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting, photography, crafts, films, and writing.

4th Photos





I availed myself of the opportunity to view the hundreds of exhibits housed in various buildings around town.  What a pleasure. I also participated in Writer’s World, the writing aspect of the festival. Although my short story submission didn’t garner any awards, it did appear in the binder containing submissions for all to read. And then they had workshops. I’m going to share here the highlights of the two that I attended.

Rejecting Rejection: Getting Your Work Out There.

Phyllis Karas, author of memoirs like the Onassis Women, Street Soldier and Brutal (books with recollections of two men in Whitey Bulger’s mob), Where’s Whitey, its sequel, Hunted Down, to be released this summer, and An Actor and a Gentleman about Louis Gossett Jr. Over the past 35 years, Phyllis has seen her work regaled and rejected. Her message to us that morning was to reject rejections and keep putting our work out there. Her one-word description of her writing success—Luck.

Some of the stories depicting Phyllis’ research raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and her treks to the jails were the least upsetting. She even had a death threat. I don’t know if I could be that dedicated. Her current work in progress, which I can’t wait to read, will be out sometime in 2016. In it, she recounts stories of the women from Southie who lived with the Irish mobsters, survived the ongoing violence and death, and what that world did to them.  After reading Street Soldier many years ago, I can’t imagine how those women stayed sane. Perhaps some didn’t.

After listening to the stories about the world of murder and mayhem, I was relieved to Onassis Womenhear Phyllis talk about a book she’d written in 1980 which I haven’t read but just purchased. The idea for The Onassis Women bore fruit on a vacation to Greece when Kiki Feroudi Moutsatsos, the owner of the B & B where Phyllis and her husband stayed, revealed that she had been the personal secretary to Aristotle Onassis during the last six years of his life. Kiki needed someone to help her write the story. When Phyllis found that not only was Kiki’s claim true, but the lovely B & B had been purchased with money left to Kiki by Onassis, she realized that she had lucked out once morel.

That book changed Phyllis’s life. A large publisher gave her $1,000,000 for the book. She was interviewed by major magazines, and Dateline NBC did a story on the book. Since then, she’s had success and rejection. And, that was her message, reject rejection. Learn to accept that your book might be dismissed by some, but never give up on your work. Put it out there again and again. If you feel you’ve exhausted every option and know your story is good, self-publish. Don’t give up.

Ekphrastic Storytelling

What? Ekphrastic? Come on. That’s not a word. And if it is, do I want to write something that sounds like it should be in the Kama Sutra?

Turns out it is a word, and authors like Keats, Wilde, Melville, and even Sylvia Plath have used this technique. I’m sure a few of you out there already know what I’m talking about. Once I learned what it was, I realized that I’d also done it often. Ekphrastic storytelling is simply writing that is inspired by art. The writer uses painting, photography, sculpture, etc. to fuel his imagination. I did this recently at a Scribbler’s Ink workshop, although no one used that big word.

Our guide, KL Periera, author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, also manages The Grub Daily, a blog for the whole writer and is a long-time instructor of amazing adult and teen writers. We began the class with a great short story based on a strange photograph. KL asked us to differentiate between historical truth, the reality of the photo, and narrative truth, the emotional truth we felt. I found it difficult to ignore what I thought about the scene and settle on the reality. As a paranormal author, I’m always looking to find the story behind what I see, and then give it a little twist. Some Ekphrastic prompts.

KL handed out cards she’d brought from the Louvre. She’d selected some of the stranger paintings and asked us to look at them and then think up a few questions about what we saw. The painter’s rationale was printed on the back. My Tintoretto painting (I’m ashamed to say I forget the name of it) showed a naked Susanah after her bath outside by the woods being attended by two women. Off in the corner two rat-faced men watched. The card said that the women left Susanah, and then those two men raped her. Horrible.

As I looked at it, one huge question came to mind. Why was she outside having her bath? Maybe that was how they did it in those days. I don’t know, but I thought it odd. So, I made up a tale to go with it. In my story, Susanah was the mistress of a wealthy man who put her up in her own pied-a-terre. Not quite a penthouse though, more like a hunter’s lodge where she bathed by a stream. I surmised that her attendants left Susanah there to await her lover.

The exercise helped me to understand how much more there is to truth than I realized. The next item KL gave us was an old photograph. The one I chose had a group of people posing for the camera. My question—why were they there? Here’s a paragraph I wrote about it:Exercise photo


We came together in the warmth of a September afternoon to celebrate. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children. Our smiles would suggest it was a happy occasion. And, of course, it was. We were still alive—the last thirteen in our Clan—seven women, six men. Last week we were twenty-five. Last week we hadn’t discovered the house.

Before this brief class, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than a family reunion in the photo. Thanks to KL, however, a story insinuated itself in my head. Now I perceive the world a little differently which, although a good thing, could be trouble. When am I going to find time to write all those new stories popping up in my head?

I never expected to discover excellent free literary support during the Fourth of July weekend. Stay cognizant of the happenings in your vicinity. Check out nearby weekly/monthly events online or in local newspapers. Surprises await. And remember—Keep Writing!


There is lots going on in July!

bloody calendar finalIf you haven’t visited our Calendar page recently (under “When” on the menu bar), we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ve loaded it with all kinds of great activities for writers, including conferences, contests, workshops and more.

This month is especially jam-packed, with “THRILLERFEST” in New York City, Camp NaNoWriMo, the RWA and Writers’ Digest annual conferences, plus a long list of exciting workshops. And for those planning ahead, subsequent months have plenty of craft and related opportunities, too.

Make it a point to check out the calendar regularly, as we’re always adding new information. If you know of an activity not appearing here, please drop us a line at and we’ll try to add it.

~ Brit

On the Right Side of the Law

I’ve always liked stories about lawyers and the law,atticus “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starting me off in a big way in childhood. Being from the South, the book has always had a special resonance with me, and, really, who doesn’t love Atticus Finch — or Gregory Peck?

Now that I’m writing my own novels, I’ve learned to appreciate lawyerly books – and movies and TV —  even more, not just as pure entertainment but also as little instruction manuals on how to tell rich and satisfying tales, no matter the genre..

When you pick up crime fiction, even bestsellers, the odds are about 50/50 that you’ll get both a well-done plot and fascinating characters.

But legal entertainment – books, movies and TV — is different. Characters and plot, of necessity, are closely intertwined, so that the story is carried by both.presumed innocent Think of Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” for example, with its deep, multi-layered hero, Rusty Sabich, and a perfect plot that holds you right to the end. You can’t lose with a combination like that.

Part of the magic is that courtroom dramas are mysteries in and of themselves. The law, an arcane instrument at best, is a ready-made setup for suspense. Add defendants (people with BIG things to lose), prosecutors (those having righteousness on their side, at least some of the time), witnesses (folks holding pieces of the puzzle) and you almost always have strong, fully defined characters.

Finally, every courtroom has a ticking clock, which just makes the witches brew that much better.

Yes, some legal entertainment is deadly boring. But scoop up your average crime fiction and compare it to your average legal crime fiction and I bet you’ll find a difference.

FOR TV WEEK - DO NOT PURGE! -- The cast of THE GOOD WIFE: from left to right: Makenzie Vega as Grace Florick, Mary Beth Peil as Jackie Florick, Graham Phillips as Zach Florick, Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, Chris Noth as Peter Florick, Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florick, Christine Baranski Diane Lockhart, Josh Charles as Will Gardner, Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos, and Archie Panjabi Kalinda Sharma Photo: Justin Stephens/CBS ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc, All Rights Reserved.   *********** IMAGE EMBARGO. THIS PHOTO MUST NOT BE USED  UNTIL AFTER 9/12/2010 Tv Week Fall Preview  *************

The cast of THE GOOD WIFE. Photo: Justin Stephens/CBS ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc, All Rights Reserved.

Right now I’m watching “The Good Wife,” which stars Chris Noth as the wonderfully philandering Illinois State’s Attorney, Peter Florrick, and Julianna Margulies as his long-suffering wife and a defense lawyer to boot. I love the way the authors dump misery on Lockhart Gardner, the fictitious firm front and center in this thoroughly engaging story. It just gets worse and worse, yet LG is a firm you pull for – and, more than that, believe in. When they drink champagne after triumphing over yet another adversity, you sip the bubbly, too.


Will Gardner, played by actor Josh Charles, in “The Good Wife.”

You have to especially appreciate Will Gardner, a fully flawed but fundamentally decent man who trades both personal and professional knockout blows with avaricious prosecutors on a daily basis. How a guy like this can get up and go to work in the morning stumps even my innate optimism. But he is just one of a large and ever-changing troupe of characters, a swath of humanity that is painted with a wide palette and knowing brush.


Maxine Peake as Martha Costello, Q.C.

Before this series, I watched “Suits” and “Silk,” both first-rate, the former American and the latter British. Both totally different from “The Good Wife” in all respects except for the superb plotting and characterizations. I hated for “Silk” to finish but completely agreed with the show’s producers and writers that they had a perfect ending. Kudos to them for refusing to be cajoled into extending the series beyond its natural life.

Patrick J. Adams and Gabriel Macht in "Suits."

Patrick J. Adams and Gabriel Macht in “Suits.”

As far as “Suits,” I’m waiting for Netflix to load the last two seasons. A nice, tasty treat awaiting me.

On the print side, I just finished J. F. Freedman’s “Key Witness,” a book I read closely for its many plot twists and compelling characters. Mr. Freedman is also the author of “Against the Wind,” a much celebrated Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection. This is my next read.

Over the past year, I’ve revisited many legal novels, including virtually all the original Grisham books. the brethren While it’s hard to find one that isn’t terrific — and instructive — I have to give “The Brethren” the gold star.

Wit, originality, unforgettable characters and a corker of a plot —  how could you not be inspired to write even better after finishing it?

Some others I’ve been enjoying:

1.    Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller Series. The first book out was “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which was made into a great movie starring Matthew McConaughey. I find the series much lighter and more digestible than some of Connelly’s pure crime novels.

2.    “Death on a High Floor,” by Charles Rosenberg. I’ve read this three times. That’s how good it is.

3.    Randy Singer’s legal novels. He has nine by now, all excellent. His debut book, “Directed Verdict,” is somewhat of a classic.

4.    The “Solomon vs. Lord” series by Paul Levine. Good characters, good plots, just good entertainment.

There are many, many many more terrific books and movies and TV shows —  “Boston Legal” and “The Practice,” possibly the best ever, are left out of the above discussion solely because I haven’t yet sprung for the cost of buying these series on DVD and the last time I saw them was years ago.

judgement at nurember 2

One of the best casts ever. Did you catch “Captain Kirk” at the bottom?

“Rumpole of the Bailey,” Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Verdict,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Fracture,” “Judgement at Nuremberg,” and “My Cousin Vinny” I watch about every five years. They’re coming up again soon.

Ditto the Perri O’Shaughnessy books, as well as those of Nancy Taylor Rosenberg,Steve Martini, Linda Fairstein, Lisa Scottoline, William J. Coughlin, John Lescroart — and gee, Mom, are we there yet?

Knowing that I’ve failed to mention, well, a ton, I’ll conclude by saying the ones I’ve included above are a few that have been influencing my work of late by reminding me what a truly enthralling story includes.

signs finishedDo you have a courtroom favorite that’s helped with your writing? If so, we’d love to hear from about it.

And the list grows….

lawyer revised and flippedTil next time.

Escape Your Writing Distractions

book by MargoLike many of my friends and compadres, I have a wish list. Right up there at the top is beloved, prize-winning novelist. Yes, beloved. I want my readers to love me. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen unless I publish a novel.

I do have a finished manuscript that is crying to be heard. All I have to do is tweak it–a lot. How hard could that be?

My writing day goes something like this. I pull up my manuscript and begin to read, trying to get a feel for my pacing. A beep heralds a pop-up on the screen with my latest email. Hmm. Maybe I should deal with that before I go any further.

You see where this is leading? The first thing I need to do, if I can’t ignore the distraction, is turn off the message pop-up. Emails, though they need to be handled, are not vital. If something is world-shattering, I’ll get a phone call. And, that brings me to the next irritating distraction, the phone.

Some people have distinctive ring tones for those close to them. That’s a pretty good idea, because if the call isn’t from a significant source, you don’t have to bother with it. And, if it is from someone on you’re A-list, it can probably wait until your momentum plays out.

2013-01-16 08.40.40Sometimes, we’re not even aware of the many distractions that pull us away from our work.

I have two cats who often demand my time — one loves to play and will jump on my desk to try and recruit me. He’s persistent and aggravating. The other spends most of his time sleeping, but sounds off if he wants me to open a window or if it’s close to feeding time. Neither animal cares about me or the fact that I’m in the middle of averting some earth-shattering crisis.

If it isn’t the cats disturbing me, it’s the man I love.Us at Fenway

My husband always pops into the office after work to say hello and give me a kiss. Nice! I love it, but the kiss usually paves the way for a question.

“Are you writing?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Good. Have you seen my whatever?”

Now, I have to stop what I’m doing to try and figure out where I last saw the stupid whatever. It finally comes to me. But, when he looks and can’t find it, I have to join in the hunt. All right, I don’t have to join in, but I can’t stand wondering if he really checked everywhere. You know, like looking underneath things. By this time, I am so out of my story, I often give up.

Thankfully, I’m not always that distracted. Sometimes I’m deep in the zone where I can ignore most of the chaos. But, on days when my concentration is barely contained, I need help. That’s when I run away. EscapeYup. Some days I have to run away from home to get any writing done.

A few of my favorite writing escapes take place in surroundings where I can enjoy nature’s serenity. My back yard has served me well. Sharing my space with the comforting sounds of busy little critters relaxes me, and my Muse loves it. Also, since I’m lucky enough to live on the coast, any place where I can see the water has become a major source of inspiration. I drive to places like the beach where I can sit in my car, push back the seat, and listen to the crashing waves. Castle rock close upThere’s always paper and a pen in the glove compartment.

Sometimes I run to the library. Of course, I have to ignore all those interesting covers waving at me as I trek through to find a comfortable space, and I do hate it when the quiet is broken by the crack of someone’s voice. My last foray into the land of books ended shortly after I got there. I guess I was too close to the Help Desk.

I’ve had a lot of luck at coffee shops where the buzz of talk quickly melts into the background. The same has been true at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Lots of good writing gets done while I enjoy a hot cup of coffee. The downside of these last two? Friends. You’re liable to run into people you know who have to say, “Hi.” You could ask them not to bother you, but . . .

Then, there are the places where you usually have to wait: doctor’s offices, auto repair shops, hair dressers. Good time to use paper and pen.

For more serious writing time, like when you have a deadline, a weekend away from home may be what you need. I’ve taken myself to a motel for a few days of uninterrupted peace. I make sure to get a room where I can bring food, so I don’t have to break away from the flow of my ideas.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a distraction-free zone and don’t need a quick get-away to write your masterpiece, I applaud you. But for those of you who sometimes need thme Donald Maasse kind of solace that you can’t get at home, I’m with you. It took me a long time to realize that it was okay to run away from home. Now, whether it’s a few hours or a few days, escape has become a viable and valuable option.

Some links you may find interesting:

Do you have any favorite writing hideaways? If so, please share. I’d love to hear from you.

And, remember. . . Keep Writing.


Mysteries: Why I Love Them

I’d like to add to the often quoted phrase that “we are what we eat.” I also think “we are what we read and sometimes write.”

9781450250986_COVER.inddIn 2005, when the idea of writing a book first appeared in my head, I decided to start with a memoir. Looking back, that made sense. Start with what you know, right? My book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), is a piece of my heart. I’d spent thirty-four years teaching high school English in a small town, and at that point I’d taught another eight years in college. Teaching was all I wanted to do. It was a calling, a passion, a love affair. I loved, loved, loved it. The prospect of retirement pleased the part of me that would have time to read books once again, but I needed something more. After writing, marketing, and selling that teaching memoir while I worked at the college level, I decided that I’d like to try my hand at fiction once I retired. But what to write?

All my life I have read and loved mysteries. As a child I read the typical mystery list which included Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and the Hardy Boys. Then I graduated to all of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and some Jules Verne that hinted at mystery. (The Mysterious Island was one of my favorites.) I also loved historical fiction and one of my favorites in that category was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It’s no wonder I ended up graduating from college with a history major, English minor. So the first reason I love mysteries is that they have been part of my enjoyment of reading since I was very young. They take me away from the mundane present.

I also love to figure out problems. I’m a list-maker, a problem-solver, and a former teacher and mother of young children. In both the teacher/mother roles, I spent a great deal of time solving problems. Often I read a mystery cover to cover because I want to find out how it To-Do-Listcomes out, and I couldn’t figure it out before the writer explained the outcome. Then I want to go back and look for the clues I didn’t notice because the writer was clever enough to hide them in plain sight.


In recent years, one of my favorite mysteries is The Chatham School Affair by Robert H. Cook. He creates the world of a private school and a young student who is the son of the head master. Into that world comes a terrifying, evil event. Cook is very clever in givingCook_Chatham-Affair the reader pieces of the jigsaw puzzle here and there. He flawlessly combines past, present, and future in his narrative, and he does so seamlessly so the reader is constantly left guessing the details of this terrible event. Only at the end does the reader see how it all fits together. Masterful!

My reading inclinations also move in the direction of mysteries that create another era. David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead create the mid-1800s in London with a rich, well-researched setting and intriguing mysteries. The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett is a beautifully researched story that goes back and forth between the present day and london-fogShakespearean London. I loved that story with a mystery at its heart. Those are books that I couldn’t put down, and I hated to leave that period of time. I’ve rarely been interested in current-day settings. Always, I want to go back in time and read about an era I never experienced. However, I also like my creature comforts, so drafty castles are much more intriguing if I read about them rather than live in them. If the era I’m reading about has a mystery at its core, I love it.

I also enjoy mysteries because they show us—at arm’s length—a darker side of human nature. I think, living in a small town, I have a curiosity about this kind of person, but I’d like to explore his psychology from my easy chair between the pages of a book. It’s much less bother when I don’t have to worry about weapons in real life. I may research them for my Endurance Mysteries, but it’s strictly for the purpose of my books. Counting the third book that I’m currently writing, I’ve researched shootings, stabbings, and poisons. Obviously, I like equal opportunity murderers that use a variety of weapons.

If I am typical, I think this theory, “we are what we read/write,” holds true for why readers and writers are drawn to their particular book choices.

What do you think? Is this true of you too?

But and Therefore – A Tool For Your Storytelling Toolbox

How many of us have been telling a story, gotten through one part and said, “And then…”  I think we’ve all done it. I know I have.  And it works to keep the story moving.  In writing, it’s a bit different.  I attended a workshop this past weekend and while I learned a lot of things, the most important was to substitute “and then” or to know that if my scene ends and you would say “and then,” that it’s not working as well as it should be.

So what should we be saying?  The answer is “but” or “therefore.” It’s an important concept that I hadn’t grasped in quite the same way as I did sitting listening to someone else talk about it.  And then  (pun intended), they referred us to a short clip of Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about how they write their episodes and the importance of this concept.   See below.

Parker and Stone


Writing Advice from Parker and Stone



So, what do you think?  Does this make you think about your chapter endings or scene endings and what comes next?  Do you have other tools you use?

Mind Mapping

Recently, I came across some software for “Mind Mapping,” a snazzy virtual visualization technique that is currently all the rage.  Although the concept of Mind Mapping dates back some 25 years, Mind Mapping software is much newer. So, always on the lookout for things that will help organize the gazillion bits and pieces of information I collect in the process of writing a novel, I set off to investigate this phenomenon. Little did I know what I was getting into.

First, I found the motherlode site, http://www.biggerplate.combiggerplate a kind of clearinghouse for any and all things Mind Mapping, including links, resources, maps, even events. The folks at biggerplate were kind enough to allow me to download multiple maps from their site so I can share with you the best that are related to our craft. Here is one such mind map from Catherine Franz, an eye-catching exploration of the source of inspiration. 40_Writing_Ideas_To_Pull_From_LifeMs. Franz used MindManager to create this map. I found the software to be somewhat business-oriented, as most Mind Mapping programs are, and not particularly user-friendly. But Ms. Franz did create an attractive and helpful map with it so that may say more about my lack of proficiency in using the program than about the software’s paucity of friendliness.

Here’s a mind map that speaks to the author’s skill as a visual thinker:

How to write a great story

— Produced using imindmap ( by The Thinking Business, United Kingdom, courtesy

Having just learned about beat sheets (I posted about them on April 18), I was intrigued to find this imindmap8 depiction of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” (For more about this concept see

her's journey newest

The Thinking Business, United Kingdom, ©2013 Jayne Cormie. All Rights Reserved.

You can view the original of this map at

Here’s another version of “The Hero’s Journey,” this one “incorporated with the Seven da Vincian principles developed by Michael Gelb.”

the hero's joourney

Betsy A. Pudliner,

One thing I can definitely say about mind maps – primary colors and large, clean fonts trump pastels and tiny type every time, no matter the quality of the information.

Another comprehensive site worth a visit is


This blog bills itself as “dedicated to my Certified Idea Mapping Instructors, my clients, Mind Mapping and Idea Mapping practitioners around the globe.” It also produces “Using Mindmaps,” a free magazine available at the Google Play Store and Apple Newsstand.

Here’s a great (if decidedly intimidating) map from that site:

shakespeareThis map, also from, isn’t about the writing process, but it has a tangential appeal:

intuition-mind-map-SmallThis one is easy to read and precise:

6 thinking hats

An xmind6 map ( from

But this one is definitely more eye-catching:

6 hats new

A mind map summary of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats – produced using imindmap software.

I found a handy-dandy blogging assistant:

100-Blog-Post-Ideas 3 (2)

Authored by Chuck Frey using mindmanager (

A little tough to see. To view the original, go to: You can download five free maps a month from biggerplate.

There are a number of maps along the lines of this one by MindGenius using the MindGenius software



And a good many like this from Although it addresses non-fiction, it has application to fiction as well:

Writing-WellDigital mind maps, unlike 3 X 5 cards, are just plain fun. From the site of Mind Mapping’s inventor, Tony Buzan,, is this creative look at a subject which would ordinarily elicit yawns:

basic english grammar buzan blogThere’s a lot to think about in this map:

spiderThe author, Paul Foreman, has made an industry of helping others create mind maps. Here’s his site: and here’s one of his most engaging maps:

books-to-read-next-mind-map-paul-foremanThis is the way he describes this map: “The Books to Read Next Mind Map Template will help you to plan your reading. It offers space to add 52 book titles. You can plan your future reading or summarise what you have read to date, plan study material, learning and developmental reading or fiction.” Nuf said. I bought the map.

One enterprising mind mapper put her skills to work on a business card:

business cardHere’s a nice explanation of the Mind Mapping process as it pertains to writers:

And this is a book planner by the same author:

I’d originally planned to provide a definitive list of all available Mind Mapping software, but, the deeper I got into the subject, the more I decided against it.  Given the quantity and variety of items – Wikipedia alone has 32 links — to do the topic justice you really have to research the programs — and sites like Paul Foreman’s — yourself.  These links can give you a running start:

Also, Paul Foreman offers a number of free, downloadable e-books, including one with catchy templates you can use right away. This is the page:

A few observations before you begin:

1.    If you’re a visual person, hands down you’ll enjoy using Mind Mapping software. If you’re an artist, you’ve probably invented a program already.

2.    If you’re an organized person, Mind Mapping will appeal to you.  If you’re disorganized, take it from me, bringing order to chaos lies in your brain, not in a piece of computer programming. But go ahead and give it a try anyway. Most software comes with a generous trial period. imindmanager is an exception, with a trial of only seven days. You can request an extension; they very kindly granted me one.

3.    If you’re a plotter, Mind Mapping will surely be right up your alley. If you’re a pantser, you’ll probably be left with a lot of white space on the page.

4.    Many of these programs are BIG. In my notes I have “taking a long time to download” and “STILL not finished downloading, grrr.” Just make sure someone else in your house isn’t watching “50 Shades of Grey” while you’re (endlessly) trying to download your software.

5.    Be aware that most programs are not specifically designed for writers. I think Scapple and the Brain come the closest. Even the almighty Scrivener has been mentioned as Mind Mapping software.

Still, writers have found creative ways to use programs that were obviously not developed with the author in mind. In addition to several examples above, Miquiel offers this MindManager story template at (Note: this and many other maps are interactive.)

Story-TemplateHere’s the Library tab of this template partially exploded:

story template library explodedOf course, you’ll have to buy the software to make it work.

Iain Broome, author of A IS FOR ANGELICA, has a nice description of how he uses MindMeister ( to create stories: (Unfortunately, the links in the post have expired but the screenshots do a good enough job of explaining the concepts.)

Joanna Penn has some thoughts on using Mind Mapping but, echoing her name,joanna penn her maps are in longhand. What does that tell us? Hmm.

6.     Finally, Mind Mapping is a great way to procrastinate. (Please, no yelling.) It’s a toy, a potentially useful one, in the right hands, with the right purpose, and the right discipline, but a toy nonetheless.  All you have to do is spend some time at “Best Mind Maps” or to realize that Mind Mapping is nothing more than doodling on a grand scale. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, After all, isn’t doodling all about letting your mind’s creative juices flow?

Bottom line, if you haven’t tried Mind Mapping, why not give it a whirl? With dozens of programs out there and most offering trial periods, you could be mapping for weeks before ever having to plunk down a dime.  And some programs are free. Even better.

So – happy Mind Mapping —  and do post your maps here for us to see. I’m planning to contribute mine – as soon as I can get those pesky boxes to line up…and keep the text in the balloons…and move that one item I thought should be last but now I want it to go 3rd from the top…and if I can figure out how to make the purple lines thicker…and how on earth can I keep the photo of the hotel before the photo of the crocodile lagoon but after the waterfall…

Ah well.

Til next time.

Twisted History: Playing the “What If” Game

TwistMost story plots are based on previously written fiction or our own history. Writers love to reach out and give the past a little twist, playing the “what if” game in the hopes of creating ideas unique enough to propel their story onto the best seller lists. You see “what if” all the time in Science Fiction where the ordinary and known world is flipped upside down. The lure of Science Fiction is the possibility that what you’re reading might actually materialize in the future. We readers are fascinated and disturbed at the same time.

Look at some of Science Fiction’s “what If” possibilities. What if man could fly? What if man could go to the moon? What if people could actually see each other over the telephone? I know. Those things used to be fodder for Science Fiction, but that genre has a disconcerting habit of coming true.

Hollywood loves the fantastic scientific twists. One of my favorites–What if someoneJurassic Park actually extracted dinosaur DNA and recreated those animals? Oh, that one’s crazy. That could never happen. It’s just a story. Right? Don’t be so hasty with your denials. History has taught us to beware of the word, impossible. Think cloning!

Laboratories are wonderful incubators for possible twists. Things happen there that can change our lives, often as the result of a mistake. In 2012, an accident at a pharmaceutical firm caused the death of 40 people. See Fungal Meningitis. There are more than a few stories waiting to be told there.

So, feel free to use your imagination. Search through actual historical events and then twist away to add excitement and suspense to your story. Devise a reality-based danger. Nothing is more terrifying than inserting a believable and deadly possibility into an ordinary setting. Take, for instance, Britt Vasarhelyi’s three-part story about the two young women who disappeared into the exotic Panama jungle, Britt’s Story. jungle wordle

She details the chilling story of two women who simply went for a walk and never returned. What happened to them? Depending on your genre, you can come up with different scenarios, each one more terrifying than the other. The hook is that the explanations are plausible. Unless, of course, aliens or fantasy creatures are involved. Although. . . In any case, after reading the story, I resolved to stay away from jungles, no matter how beautiful they are.

MoonOnce you try it, you’ll find that the history-twist method can be very entertaining. Just for fun, take some important events in history and tweak them to see what you can come up with. You might look at major events like the Apollo 11 moon landing or the set-up of the International Space Station. But, perhaps you want something less sensational. Government regulations make great literary fodder. Then you have local politics and politicians. They can always inspire a little fear. Having trouble trying to make a politician more dangerous? Anybody read, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter?

One method I often use when I’m looking for inspiration, is to work up a reasonable history or back story for my characters. Who might their ancestors have been? In what types of activity might those ancestors have been involved? Then I play with keywords on the internet. I let my browser wander from one article to another until I find something that piques my curiosity, no matter how weird it might be. I want something that will add a unique twist to my manuscript.

My mind analyzes the information and then asks questions. “What if something terrible happened here or something terrible simply waited?” What if some person did something a little differently? What if someone didn’t do what they were supposed to? How will that little change affect my characters, my story?

Sometimes an insignificant-seeming twist in the past can effect a major alteration in the future. When you play the “what if” game, it’s amazing how satisfying changing theWhat If future can be.

Remember, keep writing!



Writer’s Problem: Timelines

At a recent panel at a local writer’s meeting, one author talked about the challenges of writing a historical novel.   I didn’t think it applied to my current day novel but I found that there were a lot of the resources that could be helpful for me as well.

The first was creating a timeline, which I also do.  This provides the backbone of an historical novel.  However, in any novel, keeping up with what day something happened and how the time works is important.  For the historical novel, it also includes people who you might meet at particular times, locations of major events, customs, music, diseases, words used at the time.  While I don’t have that particular need, my characters all have backstories and some of these items like what music they would have listened to growing up and favorite catch phrases might be useful.

Other tools that the historical writer uses are maps and internet searches for calendars. I certainly use maps and have mine on a bulletin board for real places. For imaginary places, I find that creating a map grounds me when I am working on the action or where characters are at any particular point in time.  Combining it with a timeline is helpful since I can track the movement easily.

An interesting part of the timeline process for one of the historical novelist was color coding.  One color for historical events, one for events in the main character’s life and one for fictional events that help move the story along.   For my stories, I could see that color coding the plot and subplots might be helpful to see how they tie together and whether one subplot is happening too slow or fast or taking up too much time.

Another tip for historical novels is using old photographs or paintings. It can give you a sense of the time, dress and other factors.  I use current photographs of real places for my stories. I also try to find a picture in a magazine or painting that reminds me of my main characters.  That way I have a face or figure to gaze at if I am lost at what comes next or what they might do.  It helps ground me in that character.  One of the authors mentioned that she uses actors as her models or actors in a particular role in a film as a jumping off point inspiration for her characters, including tone of voice and expressions that her character might use.

Finally, the researchers used Google Earth for visual research of places that they couldn’t travel to.  They also used weather and astronomical sites, including a site that provided information on the moon at different times.  All of the authors mentioned that their best tool is a research librarian.librarian

It was an interesting hour and I came away with a few ideas to use in current day novels as well as any other story I might be writing that has a historical aspect to it.  What about you? Do you write historical pieces? If so, are there any tips or practical tools you use that you are willing to share?