Malice Domestic 2019

If you haven’t been keeping track of the Agatha award nominees, now is a good time to jump into the fray! I have too many nominees that I love this year, especially in Historical Mysteries and Short Stories! You can read all the short stories at

Below are the nominees this year!

Best Contemporary Novel

Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan                                                                                     Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny                                                                             Cry Wolf by Annette Dashofy                                                                                             Beyond the Truth by Bruce Robert Coffin                                                                     Mardi Gras Murder by Ellen Byron

Best Historical Novel

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen                                                       The Gold Pawn by LA Chandlar                                                                                                The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey                                                                    Turning the Tide by Edith Maxwell                                                                                           Murder on Union Square by Victoria Thompson

Best First Novel

A Ladies Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman                                         Little Comfort by Edwin Hill                                                                                                       What Doesn’t Kill You by Aimee Hix                                                                                       Deadly Solution by Keenan Powell                                                                                           Curses Boiled Again by Shari Randall

Best Short Story

“English 398: Fiction Workshop” by Art Taylor                                                                     “The Case of the Vanishing Professor”  by Lara Laskowski                                                “Bug Appetit” by Barb Goffman                                                                                                “A Postcard for the Dead” by Susanna Calkins                                                                      “All God’s Sparrows” by Leslie Budewitz

Best Young Adult Mystery

Potion Problems (Just Add Magic) by Cindy Callaghan                                                       Winterhouse  by Ben Guterson                                                                                                   A Side of Sabotage by C.M. Surrisi

Best Nonfiction

Wicked Women of Ohio by Jane Ann Turzillo                                                                        Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson                                                   Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox                                                                       Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy J Cohen                                                                          Mastering Plot Twists by Jane Cleland


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Daniel Jose Older – Salsa Nocturna Stories

Readers ask where we get our ideas. I’ve told some about how a whole book was driven by a poor lady I first met in a low security mental hospital in Hastings, Minnesota many years ago and later, updated by a news article I read about an eighty-something murderer in Wisconsin who murdered her sister and brother (likewise in their eighties) before she disappeared without a trace. The book was my first and is not published although I’ve promised myself that I will revise it again now that I’m a decently-developed writer. Still, if you read the book, you might not see how investigation of what drives these off-kilter people ended up as a book about a Sheriff ready for retirement investigating his lifelong friends.

My recent trip to Indiana for the Midwest Writers Workshop, reminded me of how fascinating these connections can be. I was very interested in the mystery writers at the conference, the agents, and also Daniel Jose Older.

The current book I’m working on is Young Adult so I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Young Adult authors. His critique of my work was interesting and very much from a literary point of view which I find as valuable as those who focus on the marketability of a project.  He also answered some questions that I still had about YA writing. Thank you Mr. Older! The truly fascinating side of him as the creator of Salsa Nocturna and as a writer, was the glimpse that he gave us of his inner self in his presentation on the last night of the conference.

It started with gallows humor. He gave us punch line after punch line about his experiences as an Emergency Medical Technician in New York. We laughed and laughed although he warned us that our laughter would end. And it did. The horror of what he experienced wasn’t only in his words. It was in the way he leaned over the podium and looked at memories only he could see. We were enthralled.

Give Salsa Nocturna a read. That mysterious emotional sharing that I’ve always loved in the writings of authors like Margaret Atwood is there. 

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Conferences are a great way to figure out where your writing stands in the scheme of things. They’re also a way to add to your list of writing friends and find a agent for your next project. I’m one of the first people to say don’t give up too soon on marketing your work. But we keep writing and moving forward too. I don’t think we should stop writing just because we haven’t sold something. I’ve been focusing more on work in progress now.

KillerNashville is a great conference if you’re working on mysteries or thrillers.  The Midwest Writers Conference was lots of fun too although I think the mystery writers are a tighter lot than some of my other writing friends. A special treat at both the MWW and KillerNashville was William Kent Kruger. Special thanks to him! The agents at KillerNashville and Beth are also in order. I do like their agent/editor round tables.

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Everything old is new again…..

Okay, it’s an old, old story. Life gets in the way, creates a space that doesn’t want you to write. You hurt your hand, or in my case your shoulder. It’s hard enough to keep doing the work that pays the mortgage much less type in your spare time.

Don’t stop writing every day, no matter what! If I’d had a glimmer of how hard it would be to come back, I wouldn’t have given myself so many excuses! Okay, so now that I’m done beating myself up, what made me think of blogging again? Those WordPress guys do send an email once a year saying we’re going to charge some money to your credit card. You don’t mind, do you? I read the email and thought about blogging and quickly went back to revision hell. Yes, I will finish this book!

Occasionally, I do come out of my personalized version of the foggy moors to go to a writing thing. The SCBWI is one of my favorite haunts. I love the Sisters in Crime folks too. I went to Bouchercon in Cleveland last fall. (Unfortunately, that’s where I hurt my shoulder.) This weekend I went over to the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland for the first time in about six years. I don’t often make it to the Maryland Writers Association events but I always read their emails and a couple of weeks ago, there was one about a humor workshop that would be taught by Laura Oliver. One Saturday afternoon off, I decided, would not break my slow writing tempo.

Laura is a great teacher. She had good videos including one of Ellen D. doing a stand-up about procrastination. I’ll enjoy trying out her techniques. She has a book out now too called The Story Within which I’ll recommend to my students because it’s a good inspirational book.

I always come away with something when I go to these workshops, a tip about this or that. What I find is most useful though, is how they feel. There’s nothing like talking with other writer’s to remind you how much you love writing. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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Getting Back in the Game

I’ve been off for a while, out of whack. Every writer probably goes through a phase where we get kind of stalled and can’t write. This year has been one of mine. Okay, so you’re totally out of it, you don’t even want to bring up that empty page on your computer. What do you do?

Beginning of this year, I just didn’t do it. I let myself wallow in the dumps. Looking back, I imagine that was probably all that I could do and it didn’t seem like a good idea to torture myself with writing when I could barely get myself to work every day.

Second quarter, will I go into the locker room with some momentum? I try but life gets in the way and I’m preoccupied with family issues. I’m not dead in the water. I’m just not moving as much as I should.

Third quarter, I go for the gold. I go to a writer’s conference and even sign up for an agent review. This was gustsy since I’d been fumbling the ball and should have been finished with my revisions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t because of Mom duties and all. The only other time I took my children’s manuscript out into the public eye had been last fall and that hadn’t been pleasant. But we writers are hearty stock. I go to the SCBWI conference and meet a great agent who has great ideas to help my manuscript. The problem is, I’m still not off the bench. I’ve been staggering through this past year, writing a bit here and there, and I’ve lost my writing-everyday habit. What was I thinking?

First quarter, you dummy, I say to myself. How could you not remember how hard it was to get the habit in the first placc. Writing has always been theraputic for me. I learned that lesson from my music. The act of “creating” has always felt good. Emotionally, it’s akin to that high I used to feel when I would run a couple of miles. I should have forced myself to write.

Second quarter, you  dummy, I say to myself. When are you going to stop letting other people get you off track? I should have forced myself to write.

Third quarter, that’s more like it, almost. I’m not in full swing. I need to establish my routine again. I’ve tried varying my schedule to allow for writing at different times of the day but that hasn’t been working. I’m still not done with the blasted revision of the book. This might be a time when I would set the book aside in the past. With a great agent waiting in the wings, at least I hope she’s still waiting or at least open to my submission, I need to finish.

Here’s a link to a blog I received today.  

What more can I say?

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SCBWI Post Conference

The SCBWI regional conference in Frederick, MD this past weekend was fabulous. Congratulations to Edie and Lois!  I’ve never seen such a great line-up outside of a national conference!

Had a critique session with agent Molly Jaffa which was great, too. Decided it was not a pitch session and that seemed to work well. She gave me a good critque with much needed advice on how to deal with the beginning and a thumbs up on the concept of the book, thank goodness. I’ve talked to only one other agent about my kid’s book and he was quite a disappointment. I may have been off because my mom was so sick but just didn’t seem like he knew much about what was going on. Hey, even losing her voice, Molly gave a ton of excellent advice to me personally and in her break-out and panel sessions.

Everything is so personal with a regional conference, you end up talking to editors and authors while you’re eating lunch or just hanging around. Enjoyed meeting everybody!Richard Peck was very accessible and I think the kids really missed out when he stopped teaching.  From work on beginning lines and beginning pages to the big picture, loved hearing him talk about micro editing and high concept. Take this bit, if a lead character hasn’t found his voice by page 40, he figures he has the wrong character in the lead. Never heard anyone give that advice before, but yeah, I get it. Also, was invited to a new critque group.

Lots to work on, so signing off now. Always know it’s been a good investment of time when I’m anxious to try out all the good advice!

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Chill Time

The beach is a great place to just relax. I’m pretty good at turning off thoughts about my day job these days but life is always interrupting our creative lives too. And then I have been reading more on line lately but I don’t regret spending the time, seeing what other writers are doing. A new friend had a post on her blog that really struck me. This writer (Tara Ford) from the UK if I remember correctly, had a post about seeing one of her characters! That is something only a writer can understand.

I did have that same experience for the first time maybe about six months ago? It was the younger version of one of my main characters in Miss Bascom which I’m planning on revising again. He was just outside a restaurant a few blocks from my house leaning against a post, looking at his phone. I wasn’t too surprised to see him. I did set the book in my neighborhood and I probably saw him sometime before I wrote the book and just didn’t remember. I don’t normally base my characters on anyone outside of my imagination but I guess it’s natural to remember a “type” or some such. I felt like going over and knocking the phone from his hand because it looked so unnatural to me.  In the early 1980’s, he wouldn’t have been using a cell phone – I don’t think they were even around yet. But there he was, probably sending a message to one of his “girls”. Miss Bascom would have had a fit! 

Anyway, chill friends. A small vacation from writing is a good thing too as long as it’s just a vacation.

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Pitching Agents

I love that title although it reminds me that after sweltering in the 90-something heat yesterday, the Orioles pitching was less than adept. Actually, I’m procrastinating as usual about my preparation for a meeting with an agent in about two weeks. Since we’re going to the beach next week, I should be working on my pitch today. Blah, blah, blah, my anti-writer self says. Either you hit it off or you don’t! But my logical, pro-self is saying you have to put some effort into it unless you want to rely on sheer luck.

I previously did do a little research before I choose her for the SCBWI conference because I wanted to make sure she might be interested in my tween fantasy novel. Some agents who represent children’s books only do YA or middlegrade and some of them dislike fantasy for some reason. I suppose that’s a result of too many neck-biters. Okay, so somewhere between talking to a friend about a make-over for my postage stamp front yard (evergreens are growing over the windows) and deciding if Earl Weaver (you need to be a baseball fan here) is worth cooking in 100+ degree heat, I googled Molly Jaffa.

The few times I’ve queried agents since I dumped my bad one (that was for a mystery I wrote pre-Hopkins), I always take a look at their literary agency’s internet site. If they don’t have one or have a minimalistic approach to a website, I think that’s a good sign that they aren’t looking for clients or if they are, I should probably look for another agent. Ms. Jaffa has a good bit of information on her page – yeah, that probably means she’s looking for clients! Take a look!

Now I remember. She says she likes “fantastical” but no werewolves or vampires which leaves my book in the “okay” territory. And she also likes books that introduce the reader to a new world and “Stories featuring characters with strong passions, talents, or smarts – or characters in search of theirs – resonate with me.” All this is to the good because I already know that she’s a member of ARA -Association of Authors’ Representatives – which is a must.  Also, I’ve heard plenty about the Folio Literary Agency which I take as a very good sign, of course that’s a risk too since this would will be my first published book and I might be too inexperienced for them. I’ve already signed up for the session so I decided I’ll just have to do my best.

From her agency’s website I’m jotting down, no typical fantasy creatures or animal characters, social issues, historical fantasy, main character’s unrealized talents. Her favorite all-time books includes a childhood favorite of mine, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a good talking point and I’ve been meaning to read, The Astonishing World of Octavia Nothing which might give me a good reference point for my book(s). I put the “s” on there since I’ve unfortunately or fortunately written the draft of book number two  in the series since the idea germinated during Nanowrimo the year after I drafted the first book.

I also look at interviews that show up when I google an agent and keep track of how current those interviews are. There’s an excellent one by O’Neale dated February 2012. I’ve revised enough so I don’t have her typical turnoffs in my manuscript but it sounds like she wants the writing to be “pristine” so I’ll plan on telling her I can’t send the manuscript until I’m done with another revision “scrub.” She sounds very professional which once again is good and bad. Still I like her style and I need to be more professional in my approach too if I’m going to get this book published. She also says she likes to edit a book several times which is fine with me.

At this point, I have a little more background and I’ve decided to take a break and read my most recent Poets & Writers mag and there’s Molly Jaffa again with a great new hair style. The article is about Folio and how the agency works. Once again, the professionalism of the agency impresses me. I’ll need to add something to the pitch to sweeten the idea of working with me if I’m going to have a chance. And I’ve got it! A short conversation I had last November with Lin Oliver at the end of a breakout session at another SCBWI conference. An editor from Scholastic who was listening in certainly did seem like she was interested so that might be a good lead for an agent. I know Scholastic published Harry Potter but I’ll need to check out some of their other titles to see how my book might fit into their list. “My book is a cross between Harry Potter (My main character is also male and has had a rough start in life) and…” Well, maybe not Harry Potter, that does sound presumptuous on my part and the first Harry book is sort of fairy-tale like while mine is more rooted in a contemporary world or somewhere inbetween. 

I have fifteen minutes at this conference but I think that I should be able to do my initial pitch in a one-liner, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. That’s where I’ll start. I have a lot to think about!  Later…

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Do You Outline?

I think I said in one of my early posts that I did do an outline for my first book. I carried around a stack of note cards and wrote down scenes as I thought of them. I figured about three scenes per chapter, twenty chapters for a compact mystery. I suppose if you were going for 75,000 pages that would be about 22 chapters. I organized them into a plot line that had a murder at the beginning, and then two climaxes after. If I was missing a logical link between different scenes, I added those in as I put the cards in order and pinned them up on the wall so I could keep thinking about whether or not the plot made sense.

I haven’t done an outline since then because I wanted to keep the spark in my writing but I think that I always end up working on my plot before I’m done. Organic translates into chaos for me. In my classes, I ask my students to write a short bio for their main character, too. This is a great way to keep track of  your characters so they don’t end up with a different hometown or even a different name!  Eventually, maybe I’ll come up with a way of putting a book together that works on every book.  Right now that doesn’t seem to be the right answer for me.  Each book seems to have its own way of growing from those first couple of ideas that I put together.  Until then, I’ll keep trying all of those great ideas that seem to pop up! 

Here’s a link from Martina Boone that has some interesting tools.

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What I Write About

Yes, I did write yesterday, all day. I was only revising ten pages for a critique at a SCBWI conference but I was transposing old verbiage into my current style. Probably would have been easier to rewrite from scratch but then I would have had to do the scrub down again. I thank the muse that I do keep improving every year except in 2008 when I drafted my tween novel during NANWRIMO (national novel writing month), I was scrambling for my 50,000 words and still very inexperienced even with a writing degree. The book is an alternate world reality story which I originally brainstormed with my son Peter – giving me the name for that genre of M. P. Stojak. That works for me. 

My literary (adult) novel came back recently and I’m anxious to get back to it for revisions that will take the quality of the book up a notch.  I had an idea this weekend about how to handle the point of view which was long over due! Still, for revision sake, immersion in the genre I’m working on at the time helps keep me on track. I’ve been reading YA and middle grade. The best so far is the Hunger Games. I was completely overwhelmed by how Collins pulls the reader through the story and glad to see that a best seller was so well written. It’s been a while since I’ve been so impressed. I was even thankful for the Kindle app which allowed me to pull down the last two books when I couldn’t get to a book store. Last summer I did read George R.R. Martin’s books (fantasy) since I remembered when he won the Omni short story contest so well. That’s been some time ago when I was single and living in Chicago. My sister’s first husband let me borrow his copy of Omni. (I was very poor!) He was (is?) a voracious reader but was more interested because George was his Northwestern roommate. With his success on HBO, I was curious about the books.  Quite a wonderful, complex world he’s created but honestly, those thousand page books should be edited down, don’t you think? 

The first two dreadful books that I wrote before I went to Hopkins were mysteries. My mom liked them but others thought they needed a lot of work but I did come close to getting one accepted by a small publisher and had a read-thru by a larger publisher. Some day, I may revise them and put them out into the electronic world for those voracious mystery readers. I was hoping that I would be done with the tween book and have early fall for my revisions to Infidelity because I want to work on a mystery during NANOWRIMO. I started one last year and just couldn’t focus because of my mom. May not be able to drag myself away from Infidelity (first drafted in 2007). We’ll see.

This is a very me-me-me post! Just remembered that I still haven’t responded to one of my students about her story and that is well over a month ago- ouch! I’ll do that tomorrow. (Today, I’m off to play with one of my musical groups at Fort McHenry for the 1812 celebration)  I had two reasons for this post – first, one of my new followers commented that he would like to know what I write. (My published works are short stories and poetry in literary mags and anthologies.)

The second reason was because of an article I read in the Guardian this morning. It’s an article about economics and made me think very Margaret Atwood-ish. Infidelity does gently question the American Dream. I have thought for some time that I would like to write a sharper-edged story – not so far in the future as some of Ms Atwood’s books and not about technology. More about how much is enough. That will be an epic I imagine so best not to work on until I’m retired and also not subject to rules about writing about the government!   Take a look!

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