Beating Myself Up for No Good Reason

AKA Some New Year’s Resolutions

When I retired in May 2004, I immediately got cracking on my long-time dream of becoming a full-time writer. I started with an ambitious project: a dozen historical mystery novels set in Kansas City beginning in 1899 with January Jinx and ending with Deadly December in 1910, the year my mother was born. This project went great guns. And by spring 2007, I’d outlined the whole series, brainstormed thirty-six possible titles with my daughter’s help, researched and put the first book through seven drafts, and researched and drafted the second, Fatal February.

But a weird thing happened in April 2007 when I went to a book signing with a writer whose work I’ve come to admire. At that time, this author was well along in her contemporary mystery series, which still continues. With her husband she’d written most of a historical series set in Victorian and Edwardian England. On her own, she’d started another historical mystery series featuring a well-known, beloved children’s author.

Thinking that she’d be encouraging to another historical mystery novelist, I went up to her with one of her books in hand for her to sign. But when I told her I was writing a series of mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900, far from being encouraging, she dumped all the bad things about writing historical mysteries on me. People will criticize your research, she said, and the market for these books is small.

And I bought it. I accepted her wisdom as gospel. I decided that my hard work wasn’t good enough and that I might as well quit before I wasted any more time on it. I didn’t tell her about my Ph. D. in English literature, which says more than a little something about my research skills. I didn’t mention my experience teaching hundreds of college students how to do research and put their information together in readable papers. I didn’t tell her about the dozens of stories and nine novels I’d already completed.

Basically, I assumed that given the poor market for historical fiction, the project was worthless. So I abandoned it. Not only that, but I went into a funk and didn’t write fiction at all for two years. A long time for a fiction addict like I am. This and some other set-backs caused me to fall into a depression that I didn’t come out of until I got excited about writing fiction again in May 2009, a full five years after I retired.

But a funny thing happened this past autumn while I was busily self-publishing Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel and Cinderella, P. I. and other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories. I started thinking about how January was coming around again and wouldn’t it be great if I could bring January Jinx out in January 2014? If it was any good, of course.

So I pulled up the file and started reading. And you know what? I’d forgotten how much fun that book was and what a good job I’d done in incorporating the research without letting it bog the story down. Not just taking my own assessment for its merits, I asked my dear friend and art teacher, Barbara O’Leary to look at it again. She too found it to be lots of fun.

And so I’ve resolved to quit making the same old mistakes about my writing that I’ve made over the last twenty-five years.

Here are some of my specific resolutions for 2014.

1) I resolve to quit beating myself up for no good reason and equating a project’s potential low sales to its merit. After all, selling is hard for everyone these days. Consider, for example, the way Charlie Lovett’s agent couldn’t get an American publisher interested in The Bookman’s Tale until the agent had already sold Charlie’s excellent first mystery novel in eight foreign markets.

2) I resolve to have more confidence in my abilities. By the way, I’m not alone in being dogged by a lack of confidence. Recently, I found out from one of Louise Penny’s Facebook posts that she suffers from the same thing in spite of the way her Inspector Gamache novels keep racking up awards. She gets out of her funks and gets going again. So should I.

3) I resolve not to abandon any more projects until I’m sure they’re not worthwhile. This resolution includes work I’ve already published that I’m not marketing assertively enough.

4) I resolve to go back to projects that I abandoned. These include a big epic novel set in Ancient China around 200 B.C. It features. . . . I’m considering giving it a fantasy twist like George R. R. Martin has done to British history in. . . . Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. First I need to finish Wings, the sequel to Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel.

This all means I’d better get cracking, especially since I need to clean and reorganize my study, so I can find the hard copies of my orphans and the research materials that went into them.

In the meantime, you can read Walls as an eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) or as a trade paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9899504-1-1) and Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories as an eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI) or as a trade paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9899504-4-2).

And after resolving my issues with the cover, I’m pleased to announce that January Jinx, the first Calendar Mystery, set in Kansas City about a hundred years ago when living could get deadly, is now available for Kindle. (www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4).

Best, Juliet

(This isn’t the final version of the cover.)

JJcov

Juliet’s Favorite Reads for 2013

Becoming a publisher in addition to being a writer has cut into my reading time quite a bit this year, so instead of my usual rate of four books a month, I read fewer than three a month in 2013. But the five I’ve chosen would stand out in any year. (Please note that not all were first published in 2013 because sometimes it takes me a while to discover the book everyone else read the year or so before.)

# 5 – Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2013)

When I spotted this novel on the new and current shelf at my local library, its intriguing title and cover drew me to it. I picked it up, scanned the cover with the picture of a dragon shown partly in anatomical detail, and read the back cover. I put it back since mostly I read mysteries. But the clever concept of a fictional memoir of a lady scientist writing about her lifelong study of dragons drew me back. I checked it out and read it with great pleasure. This story of a bookish young girl drawn to dragons from an early age and determined to find out more about them in a somewhat Victorian setting did not disappoint. The Tropic of Serpents, the second in the series, comes out in March 2014 and I’ll buy it in hardcover, along with the trade paperback of the first.

# 4 – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

When I found out how this book was written, it intrigued me for a rather specialized reason. It’s a fictionalized compilation of emails, articles from scholarly magazines, school documents, letters, etc. As such it goes back to two early traditions in English literature: the epistolary novel, that is, written in the form of letters, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and fiction written in diary form, like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (I have a vested interest in the latter style since I wrote my dissertation about thirty-plus pieces of fiction written entirely or partly in the form of journals. And actually, A Natural History of Dragons fits into the third tradition for the novel in English: the fictional memoir like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.) But no matter why I picked Semple’s novel up, I read it because it’s a touching story of a loving daughter trying to find where her eccentric mom has gone.

#3 – Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of the Hat (2011)

I’d been a fan of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries for their humor and exotic setting in Communist Laos for some time before I discovered Cotterill’s new series with Jimm Juree, a young woman journalist who lives with her eccentric family in a southern Thailand resort town. Just thinking about the title and other quotations from George W. Bush that start the chapters makes me laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable, lively read.

#2 – Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (2013)

I’m putting this first novel near the top of the list not because one of my former students wrote it or even because it’s beautifully constructed of three different plot lines skillfully interwoven, but because at its heart it contains a touching and timeless story of a young man who finds the love of his life through books, loses her, and finds her again, also through books. It is not my top pick only because of my pick is

#1 – Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In (2013)

When my friend Sally Ooms gave me this book for my birthday this year, I hugged it to my heart and beamed. (You can see my joy in my picture on my Facebook profile page.) The ninth in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series demonstrates this masterful writer at the top of her game. The bad news for those of you who haven’t read these books is I can’t recommend this book to you. The good news is you get to read Still Life, the first in the series, and the other seven wonderful books that precede How the Light Gets In.

Giving Thanks for Mysteryscape

Among the many things I’m giving thanks for this year is Mysteryscape, the independent bookstore at 7309 West 80th Street in old downtown Overland Park, Kansas. How come?

As a reader, I love fiction. And though I’ve downloaded eBook versions of several works of fiction to my iPad, including my own stories and books, I still prefer reading books with paper pages. (I’m not alone in this.) And when I’m choosing, the lists, blurbs, samples, reviews, etc. of on-line sell pages just don’t quite do it for me the way browsing the shelves at a brick and mortar bookstore do. For one thing, I like to pet books. I like to be surrounded by them.

Sadly, there aren’t  many places around the KCMO area anymore where I can page through books since Borders has folded and several other bookstores have as well. Our local libraries are very good, but honestly, I’m often too impatient to wait till my name tops the waiting list for popular titles. Besides, I like to support my favorite authors by actually buying their books.

And now, let’s take a little, verbal visit to Mysteryscape.

The broad, windowed façade promises Young Adult, Supernatural, Thriller, Suspense, Mystery, New & Used on the left and on the right Coffee, Tea, & Nosh, Gifts, Events, Book Clubs. Believe me. Mysteryscape delivers on all these promises. Racks in the windows also display, for instance, seasonal offerings and favorite authors’ latest works like the most recent V. I. Warshawski or Stephanie Plum.

Stepping between two carts of used books parked outside and entering the store, you’ll see on the right a large antique table covered with stacks of goodies. These currently include Airball, My Life in Briefs, a William Allen White selection, by my friend and former student Lisa Harkrader.  Historical, British and international mysteries line shelves on two side of this table.

Straight ahead on the right side of the aisle stands a small table holding books from the Mystery, Ink series, edited by my friends Suella and Larry Walsh. And across the aisle shelves labeled Great Escapes hold works by local authors including my own Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel with its distinctive cover.

Directly to your  left sit comfortable leather chairs and a couch that invite you to pluck a new hardcover from a favorite writer off the shelf and plunk yourself down for a brief browse.

A little farther south from the new arrivals on the east side of the store, you come to more treasures including the “First in Series” shelves. These might be unique to Mysteryscape now that the late and lamented I Love a Mystery is gone. A recent study of this section bagged me Storm Front, the first in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels, and Wool, Hugh Howey’s first book. I was immensely cheered to discover that Howey originally self-published this New York Times bestseller as it gives me hope my own self-published books will do as well.

Next comes the local author section. Here you’ll find more copies of Walls. Soon the trade paperback of Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories will join it.

Turning your back on the local authors shelves, you’ll see many more packed shelves offering mysteries in assorted subcategories. Here you’ll find your culinary and craftsy mysteries, for instance.

Beyond the cozies lies Mysteryscape’s popular section for Young Adults with many intriguing offerings. Next to this section looms the door to the bookstore’s back room that holds small tables and chairs. Here you can linger over coffee and a nosh.

If you do a 180 from the Young Adult section, you’ll spot the desk and probably one if not both of the storeowners, Acia Morley-Hall and Cheri LeBlond. They will smile in welcome and possibly call you by name as they do me.

Since the store’s launch in 2012, Cheri and Acia have worked very hard to make Mysteryscape a place for book-lovers. They offer several different clubs including the Women of Intrigue group focused on women mystery writers and sleuths. They host book signings and other author events, including the upcoming Local Authors Book Fair on December 14 from 1 till 3. They provide a location for the meetings of Border Crimes, our local chapter of Sisters in Crime. Recently, Border Crimes held its fifth anniversary celebration at Mysteryscape. Our special guest was Hank Phillipi Ryan, author of best-selling The Other Woman and also the immediate past president of the national Sisters in Crime.

All of this provides a clue to the biggest reason I’m giving thanks for Mysteryscape this year. For all that on-line booksellers do for readers and for authors, they can’t supply the company of real, living and breathing readers that you can talk to and share your love of fiction with. You’ll find us at Mysteryscape though.

Thank you so much for all that you do, Acia and Cheri.

To keep up with Mysteryscape events, go to www.mysteryscape.com.

Best, Juliet

 

The Hunger Name Games

Naming Characters Can Be Hard

When I joined an online fiction writers group some time ago, the current topic of discussion was naming characters. I identified with this since I had a terrible time naming a set of characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. I won’t say who they are precisely but here’s a hint: there are seven of them and they’re all extremely short. Initially I gave them names that alluded to these characters as presented in the first Disney full-length animated feature. But I worried through several drafts that the Disney lawyers would not consider this fair use and would sue me up side and down the other for copyright infringement. So I finally decided I had to revise the names and also the characters of my little seven.

But how?

Suzanne Collins supplied the answer to my question in the thoughtful, systematic, evocative way she named the places and characters of The Hunger Games. Character names also suggest things about the nature of the characters and often hint at the roles they’ll take in the plot.

Effie Trinket, who escorts Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark to the Capitol for the games, has a downright satirical name that reminds this English major of Mr. Thwackum and Squire Allworthy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. She could hardly be more aptly named. Doll-like, superficial, and artificial with her pink wig and heavy make-up, she counts for very little in the overall world of the Hunger Games.

Overall, the names of girls and women in The Hunger Games resonate with meaning and portent. And often they arise from nature. In our world the plant katniss doesn’t exist, but in the world of the Hunger Games, it’s a healing herb. The last name Everdeen reminds us of evergreen, a kind of tree that’s always alive and green. What better name than Katniss Everdeen for the savior of her world? Katniss’s little sister Prim’s name evokes that character’s innocence. Her full name of Primrose evokes her sweetness. The tribute from District 11 is named Rue, which is a healing herb in our world, but the character’s name also evokes her rueful end.

The names for men are evocative, too, especially that of Katniss’s fellow tribute from District 12: Peeta Mellark. Presumably Peeta is derived from Peter, but it’s pronounced “pita” as in the Greek bread. Peeta is the son of a baker who earlier saved Katniss’s life by letting her have some bread when she and her family almost starved.

Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, the drunken Haymitch Abernathy, doesn’t have an out and out symbolic name. Yet his name evokes the strong Scots stock that populated Appalachia in the 18th century. And as a West Virginian born and bred, I must remind you of my home state’s motto: “Montani semper liberi.” Mountaineers are always free. Take that, you decadent Capitol citizens.

Many of the men from the Capitol have names that allude to ancient Romans, for example, Seneca Crane, the game designer, and Caesar Flickerman, the television host. (His last name perfectly evokes the flickering screen images that Panem citizens watch during the games.) These names make us recall ancient Romans with their cruel and bloody gladiatorial games. At least Roman gladiators were grown-ups trained to fight instead of children aged 12 through 18 chosen by lottery without consideration of their abilities to defend themselves and survive.

Speaking of Panem, I’ll do a little riff on place names. “Pan-” as a prefix means “all,” suitable for a nation’s name, but in The Hunger Games series, Panem is a country in which the individual identities of its states and regions have been replaced by nondescript Districts and numbers, from the rather privileged District 1, source of luxury goods, through the ill-fated District 13, destroyed many years earlier. Panem also alludes to “panem et circenses” or the bread and circuses with which the leaders of ancient Rome soothed the populace.

Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem, is very aptly named for the ancient Roman leader accused of robbing the populace of their bread. And while his last name comes from nature, Snow is a cold, mindless, harsh force.

You probably thought I’d forgotten Gale Hawthorne, Katniss Everdeen’s fellow hunter and confidant. But really his name provides an excellent example of Suzanne Collins’s systematic and thoughtful naming of the characters in The Hunger Games. His last name evokes one of America’s greatest writers, but also the sweet-smelling flowering shrub hawthorn, that has lots of thorns. Furthermore, his first name Gale evokes another mindless, powerful force. As you read Catching Fire and Mockingjay, you’ll be wise to keep an eye on Gale Hawthorne.

And so, with Suzanne Collins’ excellent examples in mind, I finally resolved my difficulties naming my short characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel.

Seven? I asked myself. What else has seven? I wondered. Well, duh, the days of the week. And for that–oh joy! We have a popular nursery rhyme. And so my little people became members of the same family, got names or nicknames and at least one character trait apiece. The oldest is Moon, “fair of face” in spite of being extremely overweight. Next comes Toot, “full of grace,” especially with his hands. Wednesday’s child, “full of woe,” is Mopey, an epic poet always moaning and groaning about his work. (As a writer, I really identify with Mopey.) Thursday’s child is Thor, who has “far to go” because he’s completely deaf. His twin sister Frieda, the tiniest of the seven, is “loving and giving.” Saturday’s child Whip “works hard for a living.” As the mining company foreman he makes sure the others work hard, too. And finally Sunny, born on the Sabbath Day, is “bonny and blithe and good and gay,” that is, he has a really sunny, upbeat personality.

You can get to know these characters even better by reading Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel now available through Amazon.com as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) or a trade paperback (ISBN 978-0-9899504-1-1).

And I’m very pleased to announce that Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories is now available as a Kindle eBook featuring Cinderella, P. I. in SIX NEW STORIES, twelve stories altogether, “twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball.” Buy it for only $2.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI.

 

Hello Again, World!

Two months ago some pervert hacked my website and I was so offended that I took my website down. But more than one person has pointed out that a writer who publishes her own work needs a presence on the Internet, some central address beyond her Facebook and Twitter pages. So here I am again.

In this first installment of my blog reborn, I want to talk about what sorts of posts I made in the past before I lay out plans for future posts.

(Please don’t worry about my losing my previous installments. When I was in graduate school at Ohio State, I had a class with Richard D. Altick, the great Victorian scholar and author of the lively book called Scholar Adventurers. Altick warned us in no uncertain terms to make copies of our dissertations, even going so far as to advise us to keep a copy in the freezer in case the house burned down. So now I print hard copy of all my work. I also back up all my work on my computer and to other devices that now include an auxiliary hard drive. If the house burns down, I can grab it and run. This discussion reminds me to copy my finished books to the flash drive I keep in my purse in case the house burns down while I’m out and about.)

Back to my past blog: For nearly two years, as Juliet Kincaid, Fiction Addict, I wrote about the lessons that I learned from the books I read–mostly mysteries–that help me write my own, fairy tale mysteries featuring Cinderella, P. I., twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball. These essays often included very detailed analyses of fiction I admired along with how I could apply those insights to my own work.

They were lots of work, you bet your bippy, sweetheart. For instance, I spent nine hours (three writing sessions for me) on a piece about James Church’s superb A Corpse in the Koryo. These nine hours were in addition to reading it.

Downside: Spending that much time every other week on somebody else’s work severely cut into my own writing and slowed my progress. And I simply can’t take the time to do that sort of blog now. (However, this past year, I’ve occasionally republished some of these blogs as “golden oldies” with updates on the writers’ careers and how I’m doing on my own “Work-in-Progress.” I might do some more of that.

Later in 2012 I also began to write about myself as a Late Bloomer, someone launching a career after age 60. Also I reflected from time to time on aging generally including where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m going.

These feel more comfortable to me for future subjects though I reserve the right to write about just anything I please. Hey, there are among the perks of being an old gal.

Enough for now. You can expect more installments on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month. To receive notifications, please subscribe to my blogs through RSS.

Best, Juliet

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Currently available as Kindle eBooks are five of my fairy tale mystery stories including the first, “Cinderella, P. I.,” and Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. All feature Cinderella twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball.

You’ll find “Cinderella, P. I.” at www.amazon.com/dp/B00BAZPXEM and Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel at www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI.

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