Wednesday, April 17, 2019


In revising my current work in progress, I found I focused more on the way a character slips a clue into the conversation or drops a telling point while engaged in an irrelevant activity and less on the dialogue itself.

In every conversation, in life and in fiction, two interlocutors have different goals. They could be lovers or best friends or enemies or co-workers—any two individuals—and no matter their relationship, each wants something different. This may not be spelled out for the reader, or even for the writer, but if the character has authenticity he or she will want something specific.

Consider a conversation between two co-workers who are on a team to develop a program for a fundraiser. They both want the fundraiser to succeed because if it doesn’t, each one will look bad but also their jobs may be in jeopardy. But under that umbrella are hidden other interests. One may be acutely aware of his subordinate position on the committee and want desperately to show what he can do. Another might be aware that there is a general air of competition around them, and this makes her nervous. She wants to focus on the work, and not on the interpersonal problems. Another member of the team may be struggling with a crush on one of the others and think twice or thrice on everything he says in order to not make a bad impression. And together they and the rest of the team have to come up with a plan. They agree on the over-arching goal but nothing else.

Two women have lunch together, and both work as editors in different publishing houses. But one wants to quit and find something less stressful to do, while the other is hankering after a raise and ways to impress her boss. As colleagues, it’s important they get along, but they are at opposite ends of the professional spectrum now.

One of the ways I ensure my characters sound different as they work their way through the dialogue is to match their vocabulary with their feelings. Of the two editors, only one will feel “trashed,” her suggestions “ripped to shreds,” and her editing “picked apart.” The other woman will hear instead which passages “missed the mark in her comments to the author,” and look for more sensitive phrasing she can use in her work. In her conversation, she wants “possibilities,” but not “dead ends” or “corners” with no way out.

The competitive co-worker on the fundraising team may be looking for a colleague’s weak spot by listening for “not sure that will work” or “we haven’t tried that before for a reason,” all those phrases that suggest timidity. This is his opening, and he’ll take it with “we can make this work” and “I’ve got a great strategy for this” enthusiasm.

For a mystery writer, any dialogue can be an exchange of significant information between a character and the reader, but it is different between the characters themselves, and that’s what I try to keep in mind as I write and revise.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Naming Characters

Revising my current work-in-progress requires one or two new characters, so I’m trying to come up with names that suit their role and personality. This is a task that is both fun and important. The wrong name can make the character feel like a misfire in the story, and throw off the reader.

Some years ago I submitted a manuscript to an editor I knew who had accepted other work from me, and when she returned it she pointed out that all the character names began with the letter P. Until she wrote that, I hadn’t noticed. How had I missed that? I was clearly in a rut.

Over the years I’ve tried whatever name comes to mind, which is what often leads to characters with the same initial letter, the same cultural background, or names so similar that they confuse the reader. Then I tried a couple of name generators, but they tended to produce names all from the world of WASPs.

Like any writer I have various print resources, including a book that brags it has 15,000 baby names organized by language, ethnicity, gender, and including definitions and some famous individuals by them. Reading through these lists can be fun and distracting, and not always productive.

Did you know that Mhairie, Scottish from the Hebrew Miryam, means “bitterness,” “rebellion,” and “wished-for child.” The last definition is lovely, but a child carrying the first one could resent her parents mightily. Dyami means “eagle” in a Native American language, and would perhaps carry the child to great heights.

Most of these techniques or devices didn’t satisfy me. When I used what I thought was an easy to accept but unusual name, one of my Beta readers struggled with it, so out it went. And yet I see more and more in print names that I’ve never encountered before and whose origins I can't begin to identify—a sign of our expanding world and cultural environment but one that doesn’t really help me.

Instead of looking around me for the perfect name I’ve taken a closer look at the character and tried to get a name that seems to speak about who he or she is. Hence the main character in the first book of my new series, Felicity O’Brien, is both Irish and endowed with happiness and occasionally bliss, but also with a love of knowing. She is the daughter of women who also bore unusual names that spoke to their character. Her mother, Charity, is shown to have an especially generous heart in the first book. Not every character has an unusual name, but I enjoyed calling the owner of the local sawmill Dingel Mantell, and his daughter Padma. 

Names that were once common seem unusual to us now, even idiosyncratic and peculiar, and among these I often find just the right one for a particular character. This is a task in the writing of a novel or short story that seems obstructive when I want to get writing, but in the end I generally feel so comfortable with the person I've uncovered with the appropriate name that I count the time well spent.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Looking Back on Thirty Years: 1988-2018

This year I will have been writing and publishing books in the mystery field for thirty years, since A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery came out in 1988, published by G. K. Hall. Does anyone remember them? Founded by a Mr. G. K. Hall in the 1950s, the publishing house changed hands a few times, and in 1985 was sold to Macmillan. I remember the event because I went in to sign my contract and as I handed it back to the editor, she said, “This is the last contract we’re allowed to sign. Macmillan bought us and showed up last night.” The whole thing began to sound like a hostile takeover, the foreign army massing on the border. The senior editor was told not to come in the next day, and that was only the beginning. My book was published, and I went on to edit a series of reference books on popular fiction, but G. K. Hall has become an imprint of others, and few remember this house.

I was fortunate to sell Murder in Mellingham, my first mystery, to Scribner, and merrily went about taking things for granted. In the middle of my three-book contract, Scribner was purchased by Simon and Schuster, and the mystery editor, Susanne Kirk, was told to switch from mystery series to stand-alones, and to reduce the number of titles annually from 24 to 12. My third Mellingham mystery, Family Album, appeared in 1995, and that was that.

In the 1990s publishing was going through one of its usual upheavals, with editors leaving to become agents and writers picking themselves up stunned from the sidewalk. The late Ed Gorman, one of the saints of this business, stepped in with an idea to start an imprint for established mystery writers. Thorndike Press liked the idea, and I signed up with my Mellingham series. Five Star published Friends and Enemies in 2001 and A Murderous Innocence in 2006. Why the first gap of six years? I can claim I was occupied with The Larcom Review, which a friend and I co-founded in 1998 and with the co-editor responsibilities I took on for the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing(1999), but in reality I was still trying to sell the Mellingham series.

Eventually I set Mellingham and the beloved Joe Silva aside and turned to one of my lifelong loves, India. I offered Five Star, by now purchased a few times and owned by Gale, Cengage, the first in a new series set in India. Under the Eye of Kali: An Anita Ray Mystery appeared in 2010, and has been followed by three more Anita Ray novels at modest intervals of two years. And then Five Star/Gale, Cengage dropped its mystery line, and my colleagues and I were once again outside staring at the pavement.

Apparently I’m a slow learner (probably goes with being a slow reader) but by now I had learned my lesson (helped along by my agent, Paula Munier). Time to try something new. From this great insight came a series about Felicity O’Brien, who has recently inherited her family farm where she gets involved in not one but two murders. Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery appeared in September 2018. That’s just a couple of months ago. Midnight Ink announced it was dropping its mystery line in October. The second book in the series was ready to go, due in November. But there it sits, on my desk, homeless.

Now, really, I ask you, is this any way to manage a career?

When I’m not being flippant, which I admit is one of my less endearing coping mechanisms, I look back on my path to publication and marvel that despite the best efforts of publishers to thwart my progress I have managed to write what I wanted to write, publish a number of books that received good reviews (and brought me modest royalties), and enjoy the friendships of numerous other writers and reviewers. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences, workshops, and annual-get-togethers, meeting new people and telling stories about the writer’s life.

I can berate myself for my own missteps, of which there are many—not knowing my limitations as a writer, taking too long to start a new series, getting sidetracked with that pesky income problem—but in reality many other writers who made none of my mistakes found themselves right there next to me on that piece of concrete, listening to that door slam behind us.

The godsend for me and perhaps many others has been the rise of print-on-demand services and publishers, and the many writers who have shared suggestions and ideas, contact information and feedback on various new houses. I self-published two Mellingham books, and am looking at new small presses to continue the Anita Ray series. 

And then I did what I hadn’t expected: I began a stand-alone, in a voice that matches none of what I’ve done before. It was loads of fun, and I’m hoping my agent and an editor will like it.

I expected this thirty-year review to go in a different direction, but here I am, looking back at a ride that in hindsight seems to have worked out better than I could have predicted, and has brought me safely to this point where I have a track record I'm proud of, more options for more books, more short story ideas, and lots of friends in the world I have chosen. There’s nothing better than this.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Midnight Ink--The Second Time Around

By now the news that Midnight Ink has decided to end its mystery line has spread through the mystery reading and writing community, and we have moved on to other topics. This is the second time this has happened to me (and probably a few others on the MI list). In 2016 Five Star announced it was dropping its mystery line just as my fourth Anita Ray novel, When Krishna Calls, was coming out. This time Midnight Ink made its announcement a month after my first Pioneer Valley mystery was released, Below the Tree Line. I was just about ready to send in the second book in the series, due the first week in November, when I read the news on Facebook.

The first time this happened the news hit me hard because I was excited about the fourth Anita Ray book. Krishna seemed to achieve something I'd been working toward for a few years, and to have it dropped was especially disappointing. But I got over it and moved on. Now I face a different question. Will Felicity O'Brien and Tall Tree Farm continue? I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath. I still have a fifth Anita Ray sitting on my bench of projects, right in front of my desk, and the second Felicity O'Brien will now sit right next to it.

In May, while waiting to hear back from a Beta reader, I wrote the opening scene of a stand-alone mystery that has been floating around in my brain for several months, perhaps over a year. I had several other things I was doing, so I gave myself the task of writing a scene a day until the other manuscript came back from my reader, and after it did, I kept on writing a single scene a day until I reached the end, at sixty-five thousand words. I put it aside to work on the second book in the Pioneer Valley series, to meet the approaching deadline.

Over the following weeks I occasionally thought about the "other" novel I'd started, about possible story lines that could be added or a character who could be more fully developed, and I began fine-tuning the draft, because it really was only a draft. The wordage grew, the ending surprised me, and I saw a story and shape I hadn't intended. Meanwhile I finished book two in the Pioneer Valley series.

I don't know if my agent will like this new story, or if she'll be able to sell it. This is not the kind of thing I usually write. It's first person, and more of a suspense story than a traditional mystery novel with an amateur sleuth. Still, the plot flowed once I started writing, and I didn't censor myself. I wrote out of curiosity, so the story has perhaps less of a tight shape than I'm used to, but so what? I made it from beginning to end.

Years ago when I was just starting out I came across a short piece with advice to writers. The main point was this: Editors play musical chairs every five years. The meaning was this: there is no security in this business; be ready for change. It's good advice. 

A small press has asked to see the fifth Anita Ray or the second Felicity O'Brien, or anything else I'd like to show them. I'm thinking about it. But I'm thinking more about the new direction I've been on for the last several months. This is a good time to try something new, and if changing direction can help me grow and improve as a writer, then I'm glad to give it a try. I don't know where I'll end up in another year, but I hope this time my novel will find a publisher that will stay in business for a while. I like having a home.

To see more of my books, go here and here.

And to learn more about Susan and her work, go to

Friday, October 26, 2018

Where do my characters live?

Writers have to get the details right in order to create what John Gardner called “the continuous dream.” This means if I choose a location that is near a highway, I have to get the exit numbers right, the scenery as the driver pulls onto the roadway from the ramp. When a character begins speaking, his language—grammar, vocabulary, inflection—should match what we know about him or her. Details matter.

One of the features of story invention I spend time thinking about is where my characters live. Unless I have a specific home in mind for an important character, I can’t feel the story growing because the character has no context. I have to know where each character lives. This means research.

I'm not the only one who seeks the perfect setting. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were Nonecan't be set in any house. "Crimson Shadow," the opening story in Walter Mosley's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, introduces Socrates Fortlow and his two-room apartment, in a location that defines the story. Where a character lives matters.

I haunt open houses, review real estate sites on line, and study my friend’s homes. Not everyone I know lives in a place that would be suitable for one of my characters or a story, but I occasionally find one. When Chief of Police Joe Silva moved to Mellingham, he was a single man committed to a new job in a small town. Instead of buying or renting a house, he at first rented a condo, until he got a sense of the new community. This put him in touch with a landlady, an elderly woman who lived upstairs and knew everyone in town. For Joe’s new home, I chose the two-family home owned by a friend of mine. Before I began using it, however, I asked her permission.

In Family Album, the home of a particular character is important to the plot, so I chose for that person a home that I recalled from my youth. It has been renovated and expanded beyond recognition for some, but the original structure gave me what I wanted, and I could use it without worrying about infringing on someone else’s right to privacy.

In the Anita Ray series, I faced a similar problem. I stayed at a family-owned and operated guesthouse in Kovalam, South India, and returned over fifteen years later to find it greatly altered and expanded. But the core was still recognizable to me, and I remembered well how it had been. Nevertheless, I drew a diagram of the two main floors, numbered the rooms, and made minor adjustments to the original building. This was the home Anita lived in throughout the series, beginning with Under the Eye of Kali. For traditional family homes, such as the one in The Wrath of Shiva, I used traditional Nair homes I’d visited throughout Kerala. Since these followed a standard design, I didn’t worry about using them. An important location surrounded by heritage trees appears in When Krishna Calls

For Felicity O’Brien’s home in Below the Tree Line, I adapted a late seventeenth century farmhouse. These homes also follow a standard design, so I wasn’t using anything unique or unusual. Tall Tree Farm has a farmhouse, a barn, and various small outbuildings that are really just sheds.

In my current work-in-progress, a suspicious death occurs in a Victorian house in a seaside setting. The death and its aftermath require a house with certain features—two staircases, an old cellar with a dirt floor, and rooms that flow. I found the perfect location nearby, and toured it during an open house. So far, as the story progresses, I haven’t had to make any adjustments to the structure, and I can move on to the homes of some of the other characters in the story. Once I have a solid location, one I can also move around in, the possibilities of the site become clear, and the story develops additional, often unexpected dimensions.

To visit Felicity O’Brien’s home, go here.
To visit the other series, go here.
And to learn more about Susan and her books, go here.

Friday, October 12, 2018

More about Writers and Their Animals--Sheep

Below the Tree Line

In my new mystery, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O'Brien has three sheep on her property. She has taken on the job of caring for them to earn some extra cash from the fiber artists who own them. I wondered how worthwhile this could be for the artists, so I began my research there. One pound of wool can produce up to ten miles of yarn, and one sheep, depending on the breed, can produce from two to thirty pounds of wool a year. That's a lot of mileage out of one smallish animal. The main artist in the group, Nola Townsend, uses the idea of owning her own sheep and raising her own wool as part of her sales pitch. Felicity is impressed. 

For additional research I made my annual visit to the Topsfield Fair, which includes a sheep and goat barn, which is mostly sheep. I went with a good friend, Carol, who likes sheep as much as I do. We spent well over an hour there getting a good look at the residents. This was judging day, and some of the contestants were not happy, bleating and bumping, and others were blase. Most being examined for the meat market had been sheared and tidied up. Unless sheared, the fleece on a sheep will keep growing forever, sometimes getting so heavy that the animal has trouble moving. Domesticated sheep don’t shed.

This brings me to the strange fact that sheep have been domesticated so long that if released into the wild, they don’t become feral. Sheep were the first animal to be domesticated. The oldest wool cloth dates to 10,000 BCE. 

The oldest breed is the Jacob sheep, so named because it is mentioned in the Bible. Which brings me to a detail I hadn’t known about, though like many other details the evidence was in front of me for most of my life. In Psalm 23, the line “He leadeth me beside the still waters” is not merely a sweet, pastoral description; it is meant as a literal reference to appropriate care. Sheep can’t drink from moving or running water because of the structure of their snout. If they tried to drink from a flowing stream, they’d drown or choke to death. They also have no upper teeth.

When you look into their sweet faces and strange eyes, you are also seeing an animal that can look behind it without moving its head. Their peripheral vision is 270 to 320 degrees, compared to that of humans at 155 degrees. I still find the black slits in a pool of yellow disconcerting; it completely undermines the animal's cuteness in my view, but the shape of the eyes helps the animal see predators approaching. Sheep flock for the same reason fish school--to make it harder for predators to succeed. Both fish and sheep cluster less when the threat declines.

But sheep aren’t stupid. They recognize faces—sheep and humans—which Felicity learns, to her good fortune. And they are like humans in one other respect. They are the only other species whose gay members remain so for their entire lives, meaning they remain sexually interested only in their own gender for life. 

To learn more about Felicity and her visiting sheep, go here:

To learn more about sheep, go here or here:

To learn more about my books, go to 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Writers and Their Animals

I've been thinking about writers and animals lately. Many of us like to be around animals, to sense that connection to the natural world we sometimes seem to have lost in other areas of our lives. We may be drawn to a particular animal, as though a certain one expressed how we see the world. Instead of the world arranging for us to encounter our totem animal, we choose it. 

Some of the totems for writers are easy to spot. Clea Simon loves cats and writes movingly about them. The same goes for Susan Conant and Paula Munier with dogs. Sue Star admits to a fascination with moose

By Photo Dharma, Sadao, Thailand
My favorite creature has been the elephant. A Bengali friend named after this creature at first disliked her name until she saw the drawings at Ajanta, the famous Buddhist caves in central India. The elephant figures on the cave walls are graceful and beautiful, and lift the spirit.

My first encounter with an elephant occurred in 1976, in India, when I was walking down a roadway without sidewalks in the early part of the afternoon when the stalls were closed and people were at home. On the opposite side, coming toward me, was a mahout and his elephant, a large one. The animal had no chain on his leg, no rope. As we drew closer, the elephant looked at me, turned and crossed the street, coming straight at me. The mahout gave one command, and the animal turned back. I must have looked interesting.

I got used to seeing elephants on the street and lined up at festivals. They seemed to be everywhere, especially in the countryside. They are less evident in cities today except during festivals, but out in the villages they are still a presence.

In recent years I visited the royal family's elephant, Dakshini, who stayed in a small field near a palace. Her job is to appear in festivals and temple rituals throughout the year. She's relatively small, and now elderly, but sweet and careful around people. The mahout let me and two friends feed her carrots and apples, and get to know her, and we visited regularly, feeding and petting her, and talking as though she might understand us.

We think we know these animals from stories on television and information provided by zoos, but standing close to Dakshini taught me more about her than any scientist could. She gave the sense she was adjusting to us, a demonstration of the elephant's quality of compassion and intuition. I was surprised to learn elephants can purr, just like cats, and they communicate not only by trumpeting and touch but also by subsonic sound that travels faster than sound through air. They can run/walk up to twenty-five miles per hour, but can't jump. All true.

In recent years my attention has turned to sheep, for a specific reason. We had sheep when I was a child and they've reappeared in my newest mystery. In Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery, Felicity O'Brien has three sheep to tend on her farm, along with a dog and cat. In an ordinary day Felicity has to be mindful of the coyotes and later she discovers a bobcat living in her woods. But these aren't the real threat to her farm. 

Animals are only a sideline for Felicity, but in growing fond of the sheep she sets in motion a small incident that will turn out to be life-saving.

To learn more about Felicity O'Brien and Tall Tree Farm, go here: