Tropical Trilogy

It’s getting cold here in Michigan and after six months of reading almost exclusively historical romance, I turned to the last in Elin Hilderbrand’s trilogy set in contemporary St. John in the Virgin Islands, where the sun always shines (unless a hurricane blows in) and it’s hot, hot, hot.

EH writes two novels a year and has been doing so for many many years. She publishes her Nantucket books every Spring/Summer and then does another novel Fall/Winter. Her books (and this trilogy is no exception) are light, fun, romance novels with more than a pinch of drama.

One of my favorite tropes in these type of novels is the betrayed wife. Husband dies and wife finds out he has a secret life. In this case, a mistress and child in a fancy (9 bedroom) villa on St. John. That’s the start of it, so it’s not a spoiler to say it. I think it might even be part of the back cover blurb.

One thing EH does that I’d like to do someday is have four or five points of view. So she has the betrayed wife chapters, and then the grown two sons each have their own chapters, and the father of the mistress and the best friend of the mistress…they all have chapters. I like reading those kind of books and I’d like to write them.

I am just a few chapters into my next book, the second in a series, and I have been thinking about trying it. My publisher is very open to things like that. I’m lucky that way. Meanwhile, I await my November 2 release of the first in my new series “Jane in St. Pete.” Pre-order on Amazon here.

The Way Writing Works

I am no artist, but I do find it helpful when writing a novel to sketch out the main area of action for easy reference. Location in mysteries is important. Where was the body found? Where do suspects live? In my case I can’t keep an entire condo community that includes a bayou and nature trails and who can see what from their condo window all in my head.

I use watercolors my artist friend Ali sent me for Christmas a few years ago for two reasons. One, the use of color quickly locates the pool, for example, or shows orientation from one building to the others. I only put four condo blocks in my imaginary community just to keep things simple. The other thing is color cheers me up, no matter how sloppily applied to the paper.

At times, it’s nice to just switch over from writing to drawing. I spent a bit of time on the above masterpiece, as I used Prisma colored pencils as well as a regular No. 2 pencil before the final wash of watercolor. The Prismas make colors and shapes step a bit boldly to the forefront of the watercolor. Can you find my gator in the bayou? Top left corner. LOL this is NOT what I was going to blog about today!

So, back to writing and how to do it book after book year after year. You have to start and it won’t be pretty. I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld and he said looking back on his early jokes, they weren’t very good, but those early words were the bridge to get him to where he is now. (Rich and famous.) He actually has a new book, a memoir, and he calls it a writer’s book. Because he shows how the placement and construction of his words make the jokes work.

So you need to start on one side of the bridge to eventually reach the other. Every day, writers open their notebooks or laptops and start at the beginning of the bridge. What helps is to have some little sliver of something in mind. I often wake up with a sliver and bring it to the bridge. It can be anything. Part of a conversation. An image. I usually know a little bit about where I’m going, and that’s all I need to cross that bridge.

Because when I start with that sliver, there is some kind of mechanism I don’t understand (maybe magic, grace, imagination, or all of them) that takes my fingers and types words. 3-5 pages a day on my very good days. The more you show up with your sliver, the more good days you will have.

This bridge/sliver/magic feels like flying. Not in a plane, or even like Superman, but just sort of your floating mind zipping along, keeping pace as your fingers cross the cosmic bridge. Does that sound fun? It is. That’s why I do it. It is SO fun. After 3-5 pages I blink and feel a long rush of deep pleasure. I did it again! And then it happens again and again, as long as I show up with my sliver and laptop.

It’s more complicated than it sounds. You should have a plot map of some sort for mysteries. Mystery Writing Plot Map may even even pop up on a search engine. If not, many many books show you how to make them. Characters, setting, murder details, clues help you dream up the sliver.

Then there’s the other thing. Every scene has to have a purpose. Either move the plot forward or show character development. Twists are good too, but not too many. I don’t worry too much about my scenes having purpose in a first draft. Reading through a completed draft, I check every scene. Does it need to be there? Why? I am sorry to say that you must do this on the sentence level and the word level too. How does this sentence contribute to the story? If it doesn’t, but it’s beautifully written or uses a cool word, you have to cut it.

Some famous writer called this revision process at the sentence and word level “killing your darlings.” Because sometimes you can write things you really love but they just do not serve the plot. Or, you could be a poet and not a mystery novelist at all. You get to decide. Everything is within your power. It’s your world, you made it. Maybe you even made a painting.

Seinfeld’s book is called “Is This Anything?” The interviewer, Mara Reinstein, asks why his fans might want to read his jokes instead of listening to him tell them. He said he wanted to show the crazy amount of time and work he spends crafting his jokes. Then he said “I think this is a book for writers.” I’m buying it.

Healthy Aging

My husband is a model of healthy aging. He stays active, is physically fit, eats and drinks mostly healthy foods in moderation. He has a calm, even demeanor…most of the time. Since he’s been retired, he has kept candy and other things not healthy for me around the house. I believe he should be able to do this, and I should be able to handle it.

As for me, I admire him and try to emulate him, but chronic digestion problems, since I first discovered I had GERD in my early 40s (I’m 65 now) have just gotten worse. I read and research everything about my condition and keep up with my doctors. I have a gastroenterologist, same guy for 20 years, who put me on a double dose of PPIs (protein pump inhibitors) when he discovered I had Barrett’s Esophagus, which is a precursor to esophageal cancer.

The immediate problem was my stomach was producing too much acid, which sat in my esophagus all night. Acid doesn’t just sit, though, it eats away. And that’s how the cancer starts. Lucky for me, after a few years on these PPIs, the Barretts had healed. I was lucky. But while they have benefits, PPIs do take their toll on the body. For example, they kill the bad bacteria in your gut but while doing so wipe out the good bacteria that enables nutrients from food to be absorbed into the body.

I told my doc that (he already knew) and he said, “So your choice. Die of cancer or hope you can get along without PPIs.” He did say, a few years later, that I could try reducing my dose from 20 mg to 10 mg. I got horrible reflux the day after I tried that. My primary care physician is working with me on this and the other unhealthy side effects of PPIs, specifically IBSD and pre-diabetes. I’m tapering but slower.

I have tried natural remedies and many diets (vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, Starch Solution, South Beach) with little lasting success. Gradually my IBSD symptoms got worse. I can no longer tolerate wheat, sugar or dairy. Some vegetables that are highly acidic and most fruits are also off the table. No alcohol, coffee or tea. No caffeine at all. I stick to this diet most of the time. You think I’d have lost weight, but no. I have read and researched and this inability to lose weight is a sign of negative gut health.

I’m 65 and I do not want to be diabetic. Nor do I want to continue to grapple with the horrors of IBSD. People who have not gone through this will say “Take a probiotic.” Yes, I tried that. My body doesn’t tolerate them well. My doc gave me a referral to a dietician and also some pills that are fiber and peppermint oil. That’s where I’m at. I’m writing this in hopes that if you have anything going on like this, you’ll recognize that heartburn is the start of a long painful road.

I wish I would have known more about the medicine I was prescribed. I wish I had known what foods I was consuming were contributing to heartburn, and that it would lead to acid reflux, then on to IBSD. But I didn’t know and so I’m coping. I just keep researching and trying things to make my gut healthy again. Meanwhile my husband eats and drinks whatever he wants, in moderation. He’s always been moderate in all areas of life and I have been…the opposite. But I’m learning. It’s never too late.

And after 35 years, I’m still in awe of his ability to not eat an entire box of chocolates in two days. One thing I have discovered is that if I cut all sugar, I won’t crave it or any carbs that turn immediately to sugar in the body. It takes me three days of “no sugar” white knuckling and I’m back to better health. I can do anything for three days. Some things I’ve learned along the way really have helped. And who knows, maybe peppermint oil pills are the cure I’ve been looking for for so long.

Covid Marketing

Jane in St Pete has a release date: November 2. One day before the USA elections. I’m happy to have a long pre-pub to-do list so I don’t dwell too much on the election, the pandemic and the state of the world. But the question remains: how to market my new book during a pandemic? I usually set up signings with writing or reading groups at the local library or a conference. Not happening in 2020.

My publisher has given me electronic ARC (advance review copies) of the book, so instead of going into the world, I’m sending an open invitation to book reviewers and book bloggers to contact me at cindy@cynthiaharrison.com if you’d like to review the book. I don’t usually market this way, writing a blog post about reviews. But a Twitter friend gave me the idea and, in these strange times, I thought Why not?

I have electronic ARCS for ePub (Nook) and Mobi (Amazon). If you want a copy, I’ll put you on the list for a free ARC. I checked this morning and the pre-order link is not up on Amazon, so reviews can’t be posted there yet. Should be any day though, then I’ll send your ARC. That’s the deal: a free e-book for an honest review. And the review needs to be posted on Amazon.

The novel is about a widow (Jane) who upends her life completely (quits her job, moves from Detroit to Florida, sells her house and gives away its contents) when her husband dies unexpectedly. In St. Pete she befriends an artist who is killed a day later. The police are interested in talking to her about that.

So what if that sounds interesting and you want to read the book but you’ve never written a review before? That’s fine. Here’s a quick how-to-review. You will have to google getting the Mobi code onto your Kindle. It’s easy but I don’t do it all that often so am not confident instructing you. But I’ve reviewed hundreds of books so I’m confident there.

The review need not be long or use special book reviewer jargon. You can pretend you’re talking to a friend. Put it in your own words. First you have to find the book on Amazon with the search bar. Then decide on how many stars. 1-5 with 5 being the best. Then somewhere near the stars are the words “Write a Review” and there’s a link that takes you to a text box. Your review can be as short as “I really liked this book because (fill in blank). Typically people will talk about the character, plot, or setting. Many reviewers summarize the plot. You don’t need to do that, and please don’t give away the ending: “I was surprised the murderer was X.”

And do say that you were given the ARC by the publisher (The Wild Rose Press) in exchange for an honest review. That’s it!

Doing it Different

Al just got back from a long weekend of golf up north, a yearly trip he takes with some of his friends. I used to dread these weekends, because Al worked so much and didn’t often take a whole weekend off. I worry about him like a Mother Hen when he’s gone. This year was different, because he’s retired. He’s here every day. I can spare him the odd weekend with the guys. I still miss him, but this past weekend in particular, I was about to burst with wanting to do nothing but write.

I’m one of those writers who likes absolute silence when I’m working. It’s always been that way. It might be the only thing that has not changed in my writing life. I’ve written a dozen books, ten of them novels, and the process changes every single time. It annoys me when what used to work, doesn’t. But only slightly. I’ve read enough interviews with writers to know that every book is different, and every book feels like an impossible thing at the beginning.

Which is where I am with the second book in my Jane series. I had 25 pages and I wanted more. Maybe 25 more. I’ve done it before, 12 pages (or more) in a day. Well, this weekend I may have gotten two or three new pages, but they were not pages that advanced the plot much. I added several lines and one important clue. But before that, I had to figure out where I was at.

Organizing myself took all day Saturday. There are a few things on my writing stove. I was cooking with all burners Saturday. I had another note from my editor about galleys for Jane in St. Pete. That was easy enough, just check off the task bar in my TWRP cubby. Then there was the free short story. It is something I have wanted to do for awhile and I finally got it up on the landing page. I want to change the end…just a little bit…but I decided not to do that.

Then I had to sort out what my critique group has seen and what I needed to send. We’ve had a month off, so it’s been awhile. None of that was “real” writing, but it took time. I had to clear the decks before I could move forward.

One organizing tool I use each time early in a draft is to write down a short reminder of every scene and the page numbers. You wouldn’t think it would take an entire day to do that. But then I got the really good idea that didn’t add up to a lot of words but will be very useful. I find if I just go into the story, sometimes gems appear.

So I felt lucky with that gem. With Saturday’s writing done, I was happy but tired. I treated myself to a subscription to BritBox. McDonald and Dodds! Set in Bath! I had a Traverse City Cherry Bourbon while I watched and relaxed, knowing my work was ready to dive straight into the next day.

Sunday morning I woke up determined to advance the plot. The good, useful idea from Saturday did advance the plot, or rather it added complexity. Of course I was greedy for more. As is my habit, I read through the pages I thought so perfect the day before. I was going to send them to my critique group and I didn’t want anyone pointing out editing or spelling mistakes. I like a meatier opinion.

With that in mind I worked and worked on the pages I’d already done. I added a few more lines here and there. Switched up new, better words. One problem I always hear about from my group is that I don’t describe enough. I tend to gloss over description and even character in favor of plot. Gotta keep it ticking. This time I did add some character description and a few other logistics, but no new scene. And it was already getting dark out plus I was tired and hungry.

So much for my weekend of progress. It was certainly a weekend of writing (and BritBox) but not a whole lot of progress. That’s okay. I remember Louise Erdrich saying that she goes over and over every page until it is as good as she can make it. Then she goes to the next page. I’ve never done that. Until now. And it wasn’t a choice. I felt compelled.

Looking back, I think it was a good thing. Less revising down the road. Maybe. Who knows? This is a new road. And I’m excited about both the turn the story and my technique have taken. One thing I have learned about writing mysteries is that you really can’t be a pantser (as I have been all my writing life). You need to plan. Not everything, but some things.