Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Favorite Agatha Christie Novel

I don't know when I started reading Christie but I've been reading her most of my adult life. Out of her 80+ novels and short stories, I have read 65 of them and hope to read the rest. I fell in love with Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple from the beginning and continue to enjoy them on PBS's Masterpiece Theater. The actor David Suchet is the quintessential Poirot--he has nailed the character to perfection. So many actresses over the years have played Miss Marple that I don't have a favorite.

But my favorite Christie novel, They Came to Bagdad, does not feature either of those sleuths. It's a stand alone among all of her works. I read it in 1989 and it was the one novel of hers that I enjoyed the most. I have even mentioned it in one of my novels, Who'll Kill Agnes? In fact, that novel, a satire on gracious Southern living has quite a bit of Christie influence and some people have told me that the novel reminded them of Hyacinth Bucket (Boo-kay)in the Britcom, Keeping Up Appearances. However, I wrote the novel long before I ever saw that show.

But I digress.

According to Wikipedia, the book "was inspired by Christie's own trips to Baghdad with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan and is also one of few Christie novels belonging to the action and spy drama genres, rather than to mysteries and whodunnits."

The novel centers around a young tourist named Victoria Jones who discovers a dying secret agent in her hotel room who says three mysterious words to her before he dies. Without giving away more of the plot, suffice it to say that Christie's own marriage to an archaeologist may have been the inspiration for one of the characters in Victoria's life.

I have always been a fan of international intrigue and this one entertained me more than most.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Not to Jump Start the Morning

If there is anything I must have to get me started writing in the morning, it’s a cup of strong black coffee. Years ago, when I first moved into an apartment after moving out of my house, I had not yet purchased a coffee maker and was drinking—pardon the expression—instant coffee. But instant is better than none at all I told myself each morning.

One morning I was groggier than usual and stumbled around my tiny kitchen going through my daily ritual of coffee making. The ritual was simple—fill the mug with tap water and add several teaspoons of instant coffee granules then pop the mug into the microwave. My big, dark brown mug was a Christmas gift from a friend who had made it for me in a college ceramics class. For some reason I became quite attached to that mug and had to have my coffee in that particular one.

That morning when the microwave dinged I took out the cup and began to sip the coffee slowly. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted. That was the best cup of instant coffee I had ever had. I continued to sip slowly, relishing the hot liquid as it went down. Then for some reason I glanced down into the dark mug and noticed that the liquid didn’t look as dark as it usually did.

Suddenly, it hit me—I had forgotten to add the coffee granules. I had been enjoying a mug of hot water!

But I wonder--what if I had not noticed I was drinking hot water? Would I still feel that jolt of energy that coffee gives me and start writing with renewed energy? I'll never know because I immediately added coffee granules to the water.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Interview with Marilyn Levinson, Mystery and YA Author

This week I am very happy to have Marilyn Levinson drop by for an interview. Please tell us about yourself, Marilyn.

For years, I wrote novels for children. My first book, AND DON’T BRING JEREMY (Holt), came out in the late 80s. It was a nominee for six state awards. NO BOYS ALLOWED came out in 1993, and is still in print. RUFUS AND MAGIC RUN AMOK (Marshall Cavendish) was selected by the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council for “Children’s Choices for 2002.”

More recently, I’ve been writing mysteries. I was delighted when two epublishers offered me contracts. A MURDERER AMONG US is coming out in June, 2011, with Wings ePress in both ebook and paperback. GIVING UP THE GHOST (title to be changed) will come out in the spring of 2012 with Uncial Press.

Interview Questions:
1) What kinds of books do you like to read?

I love to read mysteries, of course, but I enjoy well-written mainstream novels. In fact, I’ve started writing about some of my favorites under Great Reads on my website

2) Who are your favorite authors, past and present?

So many favorites. From the past I love Edith Wharton, the mystery writers of the Golden Age of Mystery: Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham. Of the most recent authors, there are far too many to name.

3) Are there any authors who have inspired you to write and, if so, who are they?

I read mysteries as a child: Trixie Belden, Judy Bolton, Nancy Drew. I’m sure they influenced me and encouraged me to write mysteries.

4) How do you choose your characters’ names?

The names simply come to me. I like my main characters to have interesting names. I was a Spanish teacher, which might be one reason that many of my female protagonists’ names end in an “a.” Lydia is my sleuth in A MURDERER AMONG US. Although, the sleuth in my work in progress is Lexie--the name of our neighbors’ dog and of a character on a favorite TV show.

5) Are you a plotter or a “pantser”?

I roughly plot out my novels, but leave plenty of room for surprises. Every time I sit down to write, my characters surprise me.

6) What kind of writing schedule do you have?

I find I write best late in the late afternoon, about the time I’m supposed to be preparing dinner.

7) How do you choose your titles? Do you have a title in mind before you start writing or does something occur after you have begun to write or after you have finished?

Titles usually come to me in the early stages of a book, though twice I’ve been asked to change a title, and was able to come up with something else. I like having a title when I start a novel because a good title reflects the essence of the story.

8) Do you base your characters on real people or are they completely from your imagination?

My characters are creatures of my imagination. I think in the first novels I wrote for children, the characters were often composites of people, real and imagined.

9) Have you used real life experiences in your fiction or is everything from your imagination?

A writer’s imagination is fueled by what he/she experiences, reads, and hears. I never use a real experience per se, whether it be something that happened to me, to someone I know, or was something I read about in the newspaper.

10) When did you realize that you wanted to write novels?

When I was in elementary school, I started writing stories. I returned to writing when my sons were very young. I started writing short stories, but discovered I’m essentially a novelist.

11) Where can readers find your books?

NO BOYS ALLOWED! is available through Scholastic and Amazon
A MURDERER AMONG US can be purchased through Wings ePress, and will soon be available in Amazon paperback, Amazon Kindle and Fictionwise.

Thank you, Pat, for letting me visit.

And thank you for dropping by.

Plotter or Pantser?

Not long ago, I read a comment by John Grisham in that he writes an outline for his novels and by following it, the novel is easy to write. So, I decided to follow his advice and wrote a detailed outline for my latest work in progress (WIP), The Groundhog Lounge. And, it was the easiest novel that I have written so far. I finished the rough draft in two months. Of course, I still have a lot of editing, rewrites and polishing to do but the story itself is finished. I have done this before with my novel The Pool Lizards, which took me about two years to finish. I hope this time I can complete the current WIP in much less time.

However, for Death by Salsa, I wrote a brief summary of what I wanted my two male protagonists to achieve. But as soon as I started writing it, they took off on a journey that was as much a surprise to me as it was to them. Every time they arrived at a small town or bump in the road, the people they met were not only strangers to my protagonists but to me also. I knew what their destination was but had no idea how they were going to get there. This novel was one of the most enjoyable that I have written.

For romance, although one knows the outcome, the journey is the adventure or the mystery. With my romances, I usually start with a setting such as the Island of Palmaltas for A Caribbean Summer or Texas and Connecticut for Amorous Ambush and Colorado for A Colorado Destiny. For one of my WIPs, I have in mind an A-frame house set in the woods of Vermont and for another a cabin on a lake inspired by my walks around Lake Texoma. Two of my completed manuscripts (not yet submitted) resulted from dreams I had. But although I have a setting in mind for my romances, I also have a theme or plot in mind, which, as I go along, I tend to change. Many things happen along the way that I had not anticipated. This happened, especially, in A Colorado Destiny where towards the end, the hero behaved in a quite unexpected manner, to say the least. And, it’s my favorite part of the book. The first complete manuscript I ever wrote was the result of a dream but the novel itself has nothing to do with dreams. Another novel came from my own repeating dreams and I used those dreams throughout the novel. For that one, I wrote the ending first. I knew exactly how I wanted it to end. One might say authors and readers know exactly how a romance is going to end but this one, I hope, will be a pleasant surprise.

So, am I a plotter or a pantser? I’m both, of course. I plotted (outlined) The Pool Lizards and The Groundhog Lounge. For my romances and at least one mystery, I wrote “by the seat of my pants”, never knowing exactly how the protagonists would arrive at their destination. And many times I combine the two techniques.

Whichever way I go, I have fun writing and my wish is that my books will be entertaining for my readers.