2016 – what a year you’re going to be

Have you ever heard the phrase, “You get what you focus on?”

This is Stanton Hall, an antebellum mansion in Natchez, MS. I keep a photograph of this magnificent home by my computer. It's how I envision Stratton House. Beautiful, huh?

This is Stanton Hall, an antebellum mansion in Natchez, MS. I keep a photograph of this magnificent home by my computer. It’s how I envision Stratton House. Beautiful, huh?

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in those six words. And in 2016, I’m applying them to my writing career.

Ever since Celebration House was published by Tirgearr Publishing in August of 2013, I’ve been talking and blogging and blabbing on about the sequels to it. Well, this is the year. This is the year of Celebration House.

I’ll admit there are some hurdles. To begin with, I signed a contract with Tirgearr Publishing in April of 2013. According to the contract, they have exclusive rights to the book for five years. That means, I don’t have the right to publish my own creation via Baskethound Books in any form – audiobook, print or e-book – until August of 2018 unless I pay them $500. Okay. $500. Got it. Let us shake hands and wish each other well.

Then, there is the task of writing the two new books. I’ve started and stopped several times. I’ve had a few diversions, such as writing a novella, A Beautiful Day in Alaska, and my first cozy mystery, Death Goes to the County Fair, as well as the screenplay adaptation for Bone Girl. But those projects are done. Or perhaps I should say done enough for now.

But there are some structural problems with Celebration House. I wrote that book years ago, and I don’t write that way anymore. So, I’m adding new scenes and deleting the passages where I tell and don’t show. I’m reworking the book so it’s clearly a romance and not women’s fiction.

And I’m having a blast! I love revisiting my heroine, Carrie, as she fights to save a falling-down antebellum mansion that was built 100 years before she was born. I’m happy to be back among the cast and crew of that book, including my hero, Maj. Stewart, who still looks so much like Hugh Jackman; they could be brothers. I love catching up with the other ghosts who demand Carrie’s attention, like Col. Stratton for whom the house is made, and his wife, Virginia. Violet is still my favorite.

And then there are my new heroines. Beth Kozera, the nurse who helped Carrie in Celebration House, stars in Volume 2. Beth, like me, knows nothing about running an event venue. She and I are going to learn together. We started by interviewing the manager of the Van Valey House here in Everett, Washington. That event venue is owned by the City of Everett, so now I’m querying owner-operated locales to ask my many questions.

The third, and last installment, stars Melanie, Carrie’s older sister. Melanie is the most complex character I’ve ever written. She’s the villain in the first book, so how I turn her from criticizing shrew to the heroine is going to be a writing feat. Fortunately, I’ve got a mighty tool: I’ve got grief. Oh, the things grief does to us. I’ve already written the prologue to Melanie’s story, and I still can’t read it without crying.

What? Tears? Oh, yes. Keep a box of Kleenex nearby. You’re gonna need them, my friend.

Can you hear how excited I am about this project? Honestly, it’s the best antidote to the winter grays that descend upon me every year.

I’ve got my cover artist lined up and my proofreader. I still need an editor who knows, really knows, romance. I haven’t found her (or him?) yet.

Any sex scenes in my books? Nope. Sorry. But I’m going to create so much sexual tension that the reader will wish there were sex scenes. I’m honing my skills. I’m joining a local chapter of Romance Writers of America, and I’m either going to find a critique group or start one. I’m busy!

And target reader, I know who you are. After almost three years since I first published, I finally know who my target reader is. How sad is that? You are my Aunt Mary Rose. You are my co-worker, Joelle. I’ll spare the demographics and just say this: Target Reader, you are going to love, love, love these three books.

So, when will they publish? I don’t know the exact month and day. I’m still working out those pesky details. But I know this: 2016.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Beth Kozera and I go looking for an event venue

Remembering why I write

A few months after my debut novel, Celebration House, was published in August of 2013, I received an email from my older brother, Kevin. He and I had lost touch over the years and hadn’t seen one another since the late 1990s. Kevin said that he and his wife, Kathy, had purchased my ebook and would like to have a print version. Where could they buy one?

My response to my brother was something along the lines of, “So, you’re the one who bought my book,” and that there was not currently a print version available. For my brother and I, my small success in writing was the catalyst, I think, for us to reconnect. A few months later, as 2013 came to a close, my brother wrote to me again to tell me that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was fighting for his life. He died July 30th.

And so began my journey into grief. It’s a private trip into one of the darkest places I’ve ever known. Unlike other struggles, like my divorces or child-custody battles, there’s no villain for me to attack. No one person against whom I can wage war. My mother died 12 years ago, but losing a sibling is a different genre of grief. Please forgive me if this sounds cold, but most of us expect to lose a parent. We don’t expect to lose a 51-year-old brother.

In August, I began working on the sequel to Celebration House. If you know my novel, you know how it ends. You also know that the heroine of the second book, Beth, walks a similar path to mine. Like me, or perhaps because of me, Beth feels overshadowed by sadness, remorse and perhaps guilt. She has little patience with the bridezillas who rent out Carrie’s house – she still thinks of it as Carrie’s – and doesn’t always know what to do with the tidal waves of emotions that pummel her daily. One of my favorite scenes is when Beth relates to a friend that her sadness has sat outside in the hot summer sun and rotted, turning into anger she can barely contain.

I stopped writing Beth’s story. Who would want to read it? Instead, I began working on a cozy mystery called Death Comes to the Ogallala Fair. My reasons for doing this are, I’ll be honest, a little financial. Cozy mysteries sell. They’re fun. They’re lighthearted. They’re not, well, sad.

I wasn’t sure I could do this. I mean, the death of my brother moved the foundation of my mental health a good three feet. So how could I kill people?

It was easier than I thought! Because to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, True Lies, I only kill bad people.

Something happened as I struggled to write my 1,000 words each day and piece together characters and a setting for the mystery. I began to have fun. Real fun! I would laugh out loud at the outrageous things happening in the small town of Ogallala, Missouri. (Yes. I know there is no such place, but I just love saying it: Ogallala. Ogallala. Say it with me. Ogallala.

The town itself is based on Pleasant Hill, Missouri, where I had the privilege of being a newspaper reporter for a year before taking a job with The Sedalia Democrat. Oh, did I mention I set it in 1988? Yep. No cellphones. No internet. Somebody break out the George Michael cassette tapes.

The novel is complete fiction, but like my other books, the people who live on the pages are based on people I know, including my former bosses and co-workers at The Pleasant Hill Times. I’ve elaborated on the sheriff because, well, I wanted to. And the ultimate villain? It’s…wait. I intend to finish this book and hawk it for $2.99. I better keep that to myself.

I am reading the Amazon bestselling books in this genre, and I purchased two e-books about how to write a cozy mystery. Right now, I’m crafting the characters. I want to create a protagonist who the reader cares enough about to stay up until 2 a.m. to see what happens to her. I want to intricately plot this book. I want to whittle my storytelling with my sharpest-edged knife. And I want to laugh, or rather, keep laughing at the things these new people in my life say and do.

The few pages I’ve shared with my critique group have been well received. They like the idea of this small town where a killer is loose and the sole reporter for The Ogallala (See! Isn’t it fun to say?) Gazette stays just one step ahead of the murderer. Or perhaps, murderess?!? Oh, this is going to be fun. One of my critique partners compared it to the Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. I would never go that far, but I will say this: it helps.

Kevin and PoppyWriting dilutes and on a really good day, dispels my sadness. And sitting on the desk next to my computer is my favorite picture of my brother, Kevin. He is with me still.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, have I gone too commercial?