Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quilting vs Plotting

     A friend of mine quilts absolutely beautiful pieces. I am in awe of how she can design, plan and pull together such wonderful quilts. What look like bits of fabric all mismatched and odd sized confound me as they become a beautiful quilt.
     She in turn, seems amazed by what I do. She wonders at how bits of dialog and events all mismatched and oddly stacked in my head can become a mystery. She admits to enjoying mysteries but never figuring out ‘whodunnit’.
     My sixth Grace Marsden mystery, The Innkeeper: An Unregistered Death, has elements of the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Sue made this quilt for me after I told her about the book.

     The quilt features symbols used by abolitionists to guide freedom seekers to safety or to relay messages.
     Quilts would have one message/symbol stitched into the piece. This quilt shows four symbols. The four corners depict the Monkey Wrench (get ready to leave—gather tools you may need). Between the corners you’ll see Flying Geese (directional prompt—follow the spring migration--North). The left panel depicts Crossroads (advising a change in direction). The last panel is The Log Cabin (seek shelter or safe haven).
     Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. It was imperative that an oral and visual system of directions be created. It would be dangerous for any directions or safe house descriptions to be written down in case the papers were found by slave catchers.
     When Sue presented me with the quilt I gushed at her work telling her how in awe I was of her ability.
     She laughed and told me she felt the same about my writing.  How could I pull the threads of all those odd bits into a plot that led to a great ending?
     We insisted that the other had the greater talent and began to compare our processes and results. We compared the excitement that the glimmer of the idea for the project creates. How we let the idea steep in our minds as we go about our days. How we begin to ‘sketch out’ what’s been percolating in our heads.
     We search for the right ‘fabric’ and the best ‘layout’ for our vision. Mine become characters and plot; Sue’s become material and pattern. I layer my story with secondary characters and hold it together with multiple ‘threads’ of the storyline using a backdrop of place and description and history. Sue uses just the right amount of batting under her pieces to give the quilt substance and warmth. She’ll stitch in the ditch, securing her pieces with inconspicuous seams. She tries her best to avoid ‘bearding’ (tiny tuft of batting that pokes through the hole made by the needle). She finishes with an appropriate backing. I try to write the events seamlessly (no holes in the story) so as not to pull the reader out of the story. Along the way, we both encounter ‘difficult threads’ and have to use a different needle or plot point.
     We enjoyed sharing our process and finding so many similarities to our creative expressions.
     Has anyone else discovered the overlap or common process with different art forms?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Say it Ain't So...

        Two weeks ago I put up a post, KISS KISS or BANG BANG, in which I wrote about how it felt to end an eight year, seven book series. Would I end the Grace Marsden Mysteries with 'happily ever after' or a high body count?
        The response from different quarters surprised me. Some friends who didn't know the series ended with The Reenactor: A Staged Death, jumped on my email with statements of solace and disbelief. Author friends, who know how quirky this business is, asked, “So, what’s next?”
        One reader, whom I ran into at another author’s signing, asked if her calling the publisher would help. I hugged her! Other readers emailed their sadness at no more Gracie stories. I sent them smiley faces and virtual hugs!
        Why does a series end? Just when you get used to the characters and you’re looking forward to the next adventure, the stories stop.
        In the case of Grace, calling the publisher won’t help her ‘ride again’ in what would have been book eight, working title, The Mystery Maven: A Clueless Death. My publisher and I, mutually (I won’t say it was 50-50) decided during the writing of book six that number seven would be the end of the series.
        They look at sales, they look at Return on Investment, and they make a decision. My publisher is doing more with E-books and the possibility that I would continue in E-book format only didn't appeal to me. You look at the options and make the best decision.
        SO, what’s next? That’s the question I prefer to answer. Thank you for asking! I’m excited that to say that Harlequin Worldwide Mystery has picked up the second in the series, The Lion Tamer: A Caged Death, for their mystery catalog. AND what about that great title for book eight? Sometimes, coming up with a title is the toughest part of the book. When you write a series, you have bits and bobs of ideas for new stories running through your head most days. I’ve managed to write down most of them and I’m confident that the title won’t die on the dust heap.

Monday, October 3, 2011


When the time comes do you end your series with sweetness and light or with a high body count? How do you say ‘good-bye’ to your characters when a series ends?

Do you end the storyline in such a manner that you can never go back unless you tap the unsatisfying (in my opinion) ‘revivalist’ trick of a dream sequence, or mistaken identity or a miraculous recovery.

Do you end the series in a manner that leaves the possibility, as unlikely as it may be, that all or some or a few of the characters could return?

Do you choose an interesting secondary character and spin off a new series?

The decision to end my series became reality while I worked on the sixth book, The Innkeeper: An Unregistered Death. I am grateful for the advance notice that gave me the opportunity to start pulling in the nine book arc I’d thought the series could be. Knowing two years ahead of time gave me the distance I needed to begin to find what I hoped would be satisfying conclusions to the characters’ stories.

It was a gift and a curse. 
As I began to write this last book, I started by doing something I’d never done with the other books. I outlined. I outlined points I wanted to make, situations from earlier books that I wanted to wrap up, relationship resolutions. I had outlines for secondary characters even some tertiary characters.

Then, I experienced something that had never happened before with the earlier books…writer’s block. I sat paralyzed by the thought that I didn’t have the next book to expand a theme, develop a character, massage a plot twist or resolve a relationship. I sat dead in the water at my computer, fingers frozen over the keys while I reviewed my outlines. 
Who has struggled with this dilemma? I’d love to hear how you handled, The End.

If you haven't yet read all six of the previous Grace Marsden Mysteries, you can read the first chapter of each one and then purchase the ebooks for just $.99 each -- but only for a limited time -- at

Monday, September 26, 2011

Vinalia Rustia

The joy of gardening came late to my life. My mother gardened – vegetables and flowers. I weeded. As a little kid, my first job involved pulling the weeds that grew up in the crushed stone driveway at our house. My mom didn’t trust me to pull weeds in the vegetable garden. Even in my daydreaming state I couldn’t mistake a white stone for a weed.

It wasn’t until I was an adult with my own home and lots of yard that I discovered the desire to garden. My mother tutored me and gave me many of her plants. She mentored, I weeded. Some things never change.

I thought of populating the garden with dainty wind chimes and whimsical fairies and angels. I searched for a garden muse that would welcome visitors to my garden.

Venus the major deity of love and beauty, started as a goddess of gardens and vineyards. August 19 was the “Rural Festival of the Vine” which celebrated the harvest. The feast was held to ask Jupiter to not send storms, hail or heavy rains or floods before the grapes could ripen and be harvested. Venus was honored during the festival as goddess of vegetation and gardens.

Before I could find the appropriate statuary to pay homage to my muse, the rains came, then the heat, then the mosquitoes, then the WEEDS. Gone was my dainty, pristine garden. Graceful was out. At the entrance to my mature garden, under the peony bush, stands a plucky gnome named Arthur.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Sitting in my garden, as I do most Sunday mornings, I am content to absorb the sights and sounds. The coffee is poured, the paper collected from the end of the driveway—it’s 6:00am.

The title isn’t what you think. I am a happy but at times hazardous gardener. My chiropractor grins when I call some Monday mornings begging for an emergency appointment. Aspirin stock soars during the season.

Cutting down long overlooked chokecherry saplings isn’t difficult unless you misjudge the trajectory and the tree deals you a glancing blow on the shoulder.

The deep wheelbarrow filled with dirt from my newly dug fire pit went wobbly on me and I power lifted one side rather than let go and spill the contents. My right arm didn’t work well for a week.

Why do I risk it? I can’t stay away. Over the years of child rearing, working, writing, and living the garden has become my haven, my solace and my therapy. Digging in the dirt is cheaper than therapy. Of course, the plants, the mulch, the garden art, the ancillary necessities might cost as much as therapy but you have something lovely to show for the expense.

Most Sundays I sit quietly and write in my journal grateful for the aspirin the night before and the strong coffee in the morning. We’re having unseasonably chilly weather; I’ve brought a light blanket with me to the garden bench—the one close to the house. The sun is coming up behind the neighbors pine trees.

Is this heaven? No, it’s a garden.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Welcome to the Mystery Garden

The name might seem odd for a blog. Unless the stories are always about mysteries that take place in a garden-- Herbalists for Hire or Shovel Ready: How to Prepare Undetectable Graves, or Plotting whilst Potting.

Sunday morning is my quiet time, my cup of coffee in my garden time, my journaling time. In most weather I’m in my garden at one or more strategic sitting areas. In the early spring my choices are several but by this time of year, the choice is made by which sitting area isn’t grown over with weeds. 

So what’s the mystery?
1. Why do my weeds mimic real plants and grow amidst them until it’s too late to pull the offensive weed without yanking up my intended plant?  
2. Why doesn’t Preen work for me like it does for the woman down the block with a weed free garden? No mystery there. She tells everyone at the ladies club that she Preens a ton (well, 40 lbs at least) but she hires laborers to come in the night and pull the weeds. It’s called moonlighting!  
 3. Why do I buy white phlox but the next year it comes up pink? I tried to establish a White Garden. It’s pink and yellow now. It’s pretty so I leave it alone.  I’m a laid back gardener who tries to see the intrinsic beauty in the weed not yet appreciated by horticulturists. It helps the guilt of sitting, sipping and thinking on Sunday mornings.

I have thought up plots while contemplating my garden. I found all the poisonous plants in my garden—you would be amazed how many—and researched them.  I used Fool’s Parsley in an attempt to kill a dinner guest in the second book. After that book, no one accepts my dinner invitations.   I’m working on a short story about a turf war between garden fairies and garden gnomes. Mostly, I think about my life and my family. I sketch the gazebo I’d like to have in the garden. I doodle new gardens and dream of free mulch and the people to spread it.

One thing is never a mystery—where you can find me on Sunday mornings. So please, stop by each Sunday, bring your coffee and relax.