Friday, December 12, 2008

Historical Mysteries

As I begin to write my first historical mystery, I look back on some of my favorites: the Hilda Johannson series by Jeanne Dams, Steven Saylor's and Lindsey Davis' Roman mysteries, Sharan Newman's mysteries, and my recent discovery: "Dark Fire," by C. J. Sansom. Each series is written about a very different time and place, but all these books provide signposts for me in how to research and what to include or not include.

My goal is to create a story rich in historical detail, where the setting draws the reader in and make him want to read more, without overwhelming him with facts that have no relationship to the plot. A delicate balance, indeed. Jeanne Dams, who has recently given me advice on how to use the wonderful Sanborn maps of the Midwest, does it very well (thank you, Jeanne!).

My topic: 1920's central Illinois, with a male physician who is an amateur archaeologist as my protagonist. This gives me all sorts of new territory to explore: the history of my own home town and county 80 years ago, history of medicine (with a little help from my ex-pathologist husband), Prohibition, women's fashion and flappers, and Illinois archaeology.

It helps that I work for an organization that employs both archaeologists and historians of the discipline of archaeology in Illinois, the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program. For a little taste of what they do, check out this on line exhibit .

Friday, July 25, 2008

Kindle Publishing

To Kindle or not to Kindle, that should be the question for every author who retains rights to his or her published material. Since I have two ebooks and several online short stories to offer, I was excited to see a new device (with a wireless download feature) that was actually selling.

When I wrote my first Lisa Donahue mystery novel, "Bound for Eternity," several agents and small publishers were interested enough to read it and comment favorably, but the major objection was, "we don't know how to market it." I was surprised: surely a story about an Egyptian mummy and murder in a creepy old attic museum had some selling points?

This forced me to think hard about what I had to offer as an archaeologist to the marketing of fiction. Since "Bound" was based on a real mummy project at the University of Illinois, I realized that my best "sales gimmick" was to market the novel along with the non-fiction book "The Virtual Mummy."

Self-publishing is not for everyone (and yes, there is definitely a stigma attached to it), but it my case it proved a successful strategy for getting the novel out before the companion book went out of print. I used iUniverse, which meant I retained my rights to everything except the final formatting of the manuscript and the cover design.

A month ago I decided a Kindle edition of "Bound" was worth trying, especially since preparing it cost me nothing but my time. The website is streamlined and user-friendly, and in a few hours I had reformatted the manuscript and a prepared a new cover.

To my astonishment, uploading the Kindle edition generated a favorable, new review in Midwest Book Review within days.

I expect no more than a modest increase in sales for my novel, but I'm thrilled at the new exposure. An electronic edition will never go out of long as there is a server to offer it and a program like Amazon's.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


I first met Libby at the Love is Murder convention in Chicago. Libby has two mystery series and many short stories to her credit, and a brand new book, Easy Innocence, coming out in April. She is also a past president of Sisters in Crime.

How have your other careers in television news and video production influenced your fiction writing? Do you "see" scenes the way other writers "hear" voices in their minds?

I do. In fact, I have to see the “film” in my head -- establishing shots, CUs, pans, and moves -- or I can’t write it. The other element that’s helped enormously -- and I know it came from my film background -- is pacing. I think I have a good notion of when the action needs to be ramped up… calmed down… and when to cut to other scenes. I was an assistant film editor for a couple of years, and that had its effect.

Your series protagonist, Ellie Foreman, appears to have some similarities with you in terms of background and choice of profession. But where did your cynical female cop, Georgia Davis, come from?

Beats me. I’m still not sure. Probably the dark side of my personality. Actually, Georgia was a supporting character in my second and third “practice” novels (I wrote 3 unpublished novels before the first Ellie book), so she actually pre-dates Ellie. I always knew I was going to come back to her eventually. It’s not that she’s cynical as much as she’s been raised closer to the bone… ie on the street.. In addition she has some emotional baggage which weighs heavily.

Tell us about Easy Innocence, the book that comes out in April 2008. Is this a departure for you? How?

Yes, it’s a departure in several ways. First, it’s a PI novel, not amateur sleuth. Amateur sleuth novels get tricky after a while -- how many dead bodies can Ellie come across as a video producer? Why would she even get involved? Having a PI is an excellent solution to both issues. Second, EASY INNOCENCE is a much darker book than I’ve previously written. Still, I hope readers will still find the same level of suspense.. maybe even more. Finally, it’s a more personal book. The idea came to me as my daughter was passing through high school. I was recently separated and feeling unequal to the task of parenting a teenager. EASY INNOCENCE is in some ways every mother’s nightmare.

Will Ellie Foreman come back in another book?

Yes. I’m writing an Ellie-Georgia book right now. Both characters, both voices. It’s proving to be a little tricky.

Which novel or short story you have written is your personal favorite, and why?

Of my novels, I like AN IMAGE OF DEATH the best. At least until now. IMAGE, which incidentally is the novel that introduces Georgia (she and Ellie are working the case at the same time) says things I didn’t know I wanted to say, primarily about women and the choices they are forced to make in order to survive. As for short stories, two recent ones, HIGH YELLOW which was in A HELL OF A WOMAN, and YOUR SWEET MAN, which was in CHICAGO BLUES were also departures for me, and I like the way they both turned out.

You've lived in other cities besides Chicago. Do have plans to set any future books in say, Philadelphia, or would you "rather be dead" than do that?

Ah… you’ve hit a sore spot with Philadelphia. I don’t want to offend any Philly readers -- and I DID set a chapter or two of AN IMAGE OF DEATH there -- but I don’t see myself setting any novels there. I went to college in Philadelphia and thought the streets were too narrow and the food too fattening. I liked the Second Fret, though. I set HIGH YELLOW in my home town of Washington, DC, which was fun. But again, I don’t see myself setting entire novels there. I belong to Chicago and it belongs to me.

How do you juggle your other career(s) with your writing and touring schedule and being mom to a teenager --do you cheat on sleep?

It’s a lot easier now. My son is in law school in California, and my daughter in college. So I have more time than before. Unfortunately, it hasn’t made me any more productive. (I wonder why..) In fact, I think I was more disciplined when I had less time. I find myself playing a lot of Spider Solitaire. Wonder what that means???

Who is the one writer, alive or dead, you would most like to meet?

Shakespeare. I’d love to pick his brain. I’d love to pick his brain.

New crime fiction authors are encouraged to join writers' organizations whenever possible. Which organization has been most rewarding for you personally?

No question, Sisters in Crime… hands down.

You've been interviewed many times before. Is there a question no one has ever asked that you're just dying to answer?

What would you do if you couldn’t write fiction?

For more on Libby, visit her website here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Turning Points

Exactly seven years ago, my husband Charlie and I set off on a safari of Kenya and Tanzania to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We quickly discovered that a trip in a safari vehicle--one with a top that comes off so tourists can take pictures without getting eaten by animals--is a kind of confinement. You're not allowed to walk around, you have to have an iron bladder, and you'd better like your fellow passengers, including the tse tse flies.

The first part of the trip was great--I saw Olduvai Gorge and some of the oldest skulls on the planet lying around loose in the Nairobi museum. We headed south into Tanzania and a guide wrapped a boa constrictor around my neck so Charlie could take a picture of my horrified face. We enjoyed watching lions and flamingos in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Then we had the accident. A tire blew so suddenly that our vehicle tipped over and rolled on a perfectly good road in the Serengeti. One man was thrown out through the open roof and killed instantly. Three others were injured badly enough to end up in hospital, including Charlie.

I was uninjured because I'd found an ancient, tangled seatbelt and put it on. My seatmate, Andy, who was only 11, hung on safely to the driver's seat. We became roommates back in Nairobi after our relatives were hospitalized.

Charlie had 8 broken ribs and a punctured lung. That meant staying in Kenya an extra three weeks until he was well enough to fly. But he was alive--and the man he'd changed places with on the morning of the accident was not.

As we reflected on this, I realized our lives would never be the same. Neither of us would take our marriage--or life itself--for granted again.

But sometimes good things come out of terrible experiences. My husband, a physician, decided to retire early to make mixed media art. I realized it was time to take my fiction-writing seriously and began to work harder on my first novel.

Eventually I wrote a short story "Safari," inspired by the African experience. It conveys some of the experience of traveling with strangers in a small vehicle in an exotic setting--and a different kind of "accident."

To download this story, go to Echelon