Sunday, December 28, 2014

Tributes: Mary Stewart and P.D. James

Two of my favorite novelists left us this year: Mary Stewart, age 97, and P.D. James, age 94. 
I discovered Mary Stewart during the last semester of my senior year in college. I had already signed a contract to teach Spanish in Las Vegas, Nevada and was eagerly awaiting to graduate and head west. One weekend when most of the students had gone home, I found myself bored and needing something to do. Another girl tossed me a couple of books and said, "Here, read these." I glanced at them and thought they didn't look like my type of reading. After all, I was used to reading "the classics". One looked like it might be a tawdry romance novel but the back cover blurb (at that time I didn't know what a blurb was nor had I ever read a tawdry romance novel) appeared intriguing nonetheless. So, I read My Brother Michael that weekend. And my life changed forever.
A decade or two later, I became familiar with P.D. James through the PBS series featuring her sleuth Adam Dalgleish. Then while visiting my mother and stepfather at their home on Lake Texoma, I discovered the Adam Dalgleish books. Because I had seen a few of the TV programs, the actor Roy Marsden who portrayed Dalgleish formed the fictional character in my mind. But my stepfather insisted the casting had been wrong. The actor, according to him, was nothing like the fictional character. Apparently Ms. James had similar thoughts of the casting. It didn't matter to me. I began to read the books and the actor's portrayal stayed in my mind. There are only two or three left that I haven't read and I look forward to them. Her last published novel was in 2011.
But I digress. I went to Las Vegas and discovered a world completely different from the Oklahoma small town where I grew up. My teaching load was very easy. I had four high school Spanish 1 classes and 2 study halls. And I started to read pop fiction. I bought all kinds of paperbacks but when I saw a book titled Decision at Delphi I bought it because the setting of My Brother Michael took place near Delphi. And thanks to Mary Stewart I fell in love with the books of Helen MacInnes, which lead to my love of Robert Ludlum and I could go on and on with each new favorite author. I also skipped school a lot. We were given 13 sick days that year--something unheard of in Oklahoma back then. Every time I discovered a new Mary Stewart novel, I took a sick day and stayed home to read. And because her novels of romantic suspense took place in "faraway places", I headed for Mexico soon after school was out. Mexico wasn't really a faraway place but it was different and exciting and tropical. A few years later I spent four exciting years in Puerto Rico. Spain, Portugal and England loomed in the distant future.
My first published novel, The Pig Farm, was inspired by my adventures in Puerto Rico, which also inspired me to write my first romance novel, A Caribbean Summer. And many more books followed. My short story Margarita (from The Doorbell Rang, Four Twisted Tales) was inspired by my adventures in Mexico. Would I have written these books if I hadn't read My Brother Michael? I have no idea. The irony is that not long ago I reread that book and was astonished at how low key it was and how the romance, if there was one, barely appeared. But the suspense was there and the locale was intriguing.
I hope the "magic of Mary Stewart" and the mysteries of P.D. James live on forever. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Writing Humor

First of all, let me explain. I haven't the foggiest idea of how to write humor. And, of course, what's funny to one person may not be funny to another. Although many of my books are called humorous, I don't start them out that way. And if they do produce laughs or a grin, some kind of subconscious thinking on my part took over. Who'll Kill Agnes? is considered to be quite funny according to many of the reviews it has garnered. But when I started writing it, my intention was the opposite. I had intended to write a serious little mystery with the two policemen as intelligent and thoughtful but as I started writing, I realized I couldn't create characters smarter than I. Also, for reasons I don't understand, their characters just sort of took over and the words that came out of their mouths surprised even me.

The husbands in Death by Salsa were inspired by real friends. The scene in the book where they compare each other's salsa and say something like, "My salsa is hotter than yours." and the reply is, "No, mine is hotter," was part of a real conversation. When I started writing the book, I again planned a serious murder mystery with different adventures for the two husbands. But when they started an adventure without their wives and turned off the main highway going in a different direction, their fictional personalities apparently had a different perspective than my original one. Many readers have told me how much they enjoyed the antics of the husbands and could identify with the wives. I'm glad these fictional personalities were able to entertain.

In my novel The Pool Lizards, which is a satire of middle aged people trying to stay young, I created the characters from many years of living in apartments, particularly Las Vegas, Nevada, Colorado, Texas and Florida. The crazy antics of apartment dwellers provided no end of stories and entertainment. The story and characters are fictional but are typical of the experiences I observed. Also, I was an assistant manager of one apartment complex and had an inside view of a lot of craziness.

But don't get me wrong--I love all of these characters, even the ones who commit fictional murder. But not every reader finds them funny. Many fail to see the humor and I understand that but for those who do get a laugh once in a while, the writing is worth it whether I intended it or not.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Favorite characters are not always the main characters

Let me clarify my title a bit. Yes, I love my main characters. I couldn't write about them if I didn't. But sometimes a supporting or minor character will pop up out of nowhere and that character will dwell in my mind for a long time.

Although I love the male and female protagonists in my romantic novel A Caribbean Summer, my favorite characters are two supporting ones, namely Amos, the brother of Peppy, and the mysterious "Johnny" who doesn't appear until close to the end. From my point of view, "Johnny" puts everything into perspective.

In my mystery novel The Chameleon Chase, one of my favorite characters is the one and only murder victim! Originally, I had not planned to kill that character but there was a time and place when I needed a victim so I had to make the sacrifice. I do realize that particular character might not be endearing to the reading public or seemingly all that important.

And I can never forget Nutty Norma in The Pool Lizards. She isn't exactly my favorite character in that book but she provides a lot of entertainment. I even brought her back, briefly, in The Groundhog Lounge.

And in my mystery novel Death by Salsa, I kill off four supporting characters whom I really, really like. I also kill off some despicable ones also. To tell the truth I like most of the characters in that book, especially the two married couples: Hannah & Clay and Sherylynn & Marty. But the mysterious Tex is the one who intrigued me the most.

In Who'll Kill Agnes? the police chief's wife is one of my favorite characters. She plays a small role but always seems levelheaded next to her bumbling, misguided husband. I may bring her back in a short story or two.

In my short story titled Margarita (the first story in The Doorbell Rang), the title subject is my favorite of all the characters I've created so far. Her life is the life that sometimes I wish I had had. I created her in my mind soon after my own adventures in Mexico and had a premise for a story or novel. But I never wrote the story until last year. As most of my stories go, it went in a slightly different direction than I had intended. And at the moment, not only is the title character one of my favorites but so is the story.

Monday, January 6, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2013

The following books are the ones I enjoyed the most. This was a strange year for me and I didn’t come close to my annual goal of reading 100 books. In fact, I only made it through 42 books. But there were some exceptionally good reads among them.

I discovered many new-to-me authors and look forward to more of their books. I had never heard of Lee Child until a Facebook friend mentioned seeing him on TV. I immediately researched him and a friend gave me one of his books: One Shot. Needless to say, I am now hooked on his novels. Perhaps the most exciting discovery was Ben Rehder’s Bone Dry. He has been described as the Texas answer to Carl Hiaasen. High praise indeed and I tend to agree. For international adventure and intrigue I was blown away by Max Tomlinson’s Sendero, a thriller set in Peru. Paul J. Levine’s To Speak for the Dead also blew me away with a surprise ending. And Andrew Mcallister’s Unauthorized Access was a page-turner with a rip-roaring climax.

I have read three of Andrew Peters’ books and this year The Saundersfoot Suicides was a clever and hilarious tale of murder with unexpected twists and turns. Joan Conning Afman never disappoints and her Kingsley Woods was a fun and spooky read that had elements of Stephen King and Dean Koontz.  And another all-time favorite who never disappoints was P.D. James in her novel The Private Patient. With a complex but satisfying plot, I barely noticed that her protagonist Adam Dalgleish was not the principal player.

But amidst all the murder and mayhem, romance had its place also. For romantic suspense Marie-Nicole Ryan’s Broken Promises resulted in a very sensual, exciting story with surprising twists and turns. Under the Midnight Moon by Jean Joachim was a sweet and spicy love story. Caskets and Corruption by Cindy A. Christiansen, a humorous and romantic suspense novel, was fun from beginning to end.

For cozy mysteries, Marja McGraw’s They Call Me Ace was an intriguing character-based story. To Have and To Kill (The Wedding Cake Series) by Mary Jane Clark, finds the heroine in the midst of a killing spree. Another very new to me author, Jinx Schwartz, introduced her entertaining protagonist, Hetta Coffee, in Just Add Water. I can’t wait to read the next installments in this series. In Over Her Dead Body, Karen Vaughn demonstrated a wacky sense of humor.

I read two of Marilyn Levinson’s books for young readers and found them enchanting, intriguing and insightful: Getting Back to Normal deals with the death of a parent; Rufus and Magic Run Amok is about a boy with magical powers and his experience with bullying.

I ended the year with nine short stories by Elmore Leonard. The last story was one of the best stories I’ve ever read. And that’s not because it took place in my birth place of Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I have no idea if he really visited Okmulgee but he got his facts right and the characters were not only good ole boys, Oklahoma style, they were also Elmore Leonard style. The title was Tenkiller and anyone from Oklahoma would know what that meant.