Monday, December 21, 2020

Murder Goes on Vacation

A Detective Scott McGregor Mystery Novella

The long, dark nights of editing and revising are over, and the writing solstice of publication has arrived. Scott McGregor’s second case, the mystery novella Murder Goes on Vacation, is now available on Amazon.

Fresno Police Detective Scott McGregor was looking forward to an exciting weekend with his girlfriend in Las Vegas, until a suspicious death changed his plans. With no jurisdiction in Vegas, McGregor is warned repeatedly not to interfere, but he investigates outside the law, turning up leads before the LVPD. While working the case, he ignores his girlfriend. Will solving the murder be the death of his relationship?

The euphoria of publication lasted moments … Then my publisher read me the riot act. You will publish Forever After in 2021, and you won’t wait until December to do it! Fortunately, the plot and clues for the third story are already laid out. I just need to develop the characters, write crisp dialogue, and describe the stunning Puget Sound landscape.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Santa Knocked Twice

Four elementary-aged children barely controlled their excitement as they sat around the festively-decorated tree on Christmas morning. Gaily-wrapped presents spilled out from under the evergreen branches. Mom sat in her rocking chair beside the tree, her serene demeanor controlling the children’s burning desire to ravage the pile of presents in search of those with their name.

On Christmas Eve, only the presents we had given each other were under the tree. Those gifts were handmade or purchased from the five and dime store with money saved from our meager allowances. Overnight, large wrapped gifts joined the smaller, more modest offerings.

Our excitement level grew from the time we woke and ran downstairs to look at the presents under the tree. Mom cooked our favorite breakfast, but we rushed through the meal. After clearing our dishes from the table, we sat by the tree to wait for the family to assemble. After a few minutes, Mom joined us, but Dad took the time to brush his teeth. Couldn’t he have delayed that as we had?

Suddenly, there was a knock on the living room door. Mom looked surprised, not expecting a visitor on Christmas morning. She opened the door to Santa Claus! He walked in carrying a large, misshapen bag over his shoulder and wore the widest smile I’d ever seen. Each child in turn received gifts as Santa pulled packages from his bag and called their name. Santa’s visit thrilled the children as much as receiving additional gifts.

At the wise age of nine, I knew the secret. As soon as he came through the door, I recognized my father. He wore red, thermal long johns; a red, long-sleeved shirt stuffed to make him look plump; a black dress belt; a red and white Santa hat; and a beard of cotton balls glued to a piece of cut-up bed sheet. His bag was a pillowcase.

The younger children may or may not have recognized him; I never asked. What I remember most from that childhood Christmas morning was Santa. He looked as excited giving gifts as his children were receiving them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Egg on My Face

Sometimes I take avoidance techniques too far. But sometimes those episodes spur a new story idea. That’s what happened yesterday.

I slept late, then had my regular multiple mugs of tea on the patio snuggling with my dog. Time to work on my writing projects.

Well, not quite yet. First, I needed to critique two submissions for Saturday’s online meeting. Then I cooked and ate lunch and piled the dirty dishes in the sink. I decided to do some stretches and exercises to get my blood flowing and my brain cranking. So, I turned on the TV and rolled out my yoga mat on the living room rug. Then I laid on the floor and watched television with my dog.

It was getting ridiculous. I needed to edit one book and write more for a new book. Time to buckle down.

But I felt a bit peckish and needed a snack first. The pantry yielded nothing exciting. The refrigerator door opened to nearly empty shelves. Why did I decide to banish sugary and salty-crunchy snacks from my house at this time?

But there were eggs. I boiled an egg in the microwave for a quick, low-calorie, high-protein snack. After the resulting trip to the emergency room, I came up with another story collection idea.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

November 2020

Whew! What a month November has been so far!

NaNoWriMo. The annual online writing event, National Novel Writing Month, is held in November. I have attempted and failed to write 50k new words during November three out of three times. Gotta love consistency. But this year it’s been tougher than usual to focus.

Publishing. My personal publishing schedule dictated that the second Detective McGregor mystery would move from the self-editing to the copyediting stage on November 1. Due to unavoidable circumstances, my manuscript didn’t make the leap on schedule. So, while I lined up another copyeditor, I had additional time to self-edit.

Writing Classes. Online Sisters in Crime (SinC) Guppy classes opened for registration, and there were so many Guppies trying to register, the site crashed. I was able to get the 2021 classes I wanted.

Election. Yup, that happened.

Pandemic. I cancelled my annual Thanksgiving weekend Bluegrass Turkey Jam. I had hosted it for 20 consecutive years, and I was going through Turkey Jam withdrawals. My son sent me this YouTube video to help me make it through until next year.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Genre Experimentation

I’ve been dipping my toe into different genres lately.

Detective McGregor’s first and second stories (The Disappearance of Millicent Hart – 2018 and Murder Goes on Vacation – Dec 2020) are police detective mysteries. The third story (Forever After – expected 2021) is a thriller. The fourth story (Publish or Perish – ??) is a cozy with McGregor’s girlfriend taking the lead in solving the case because McGregor has a conflict of interest. The rest of the McGregor series arc is plotted as detective mysteries.

A children’s picture book (Emma’s Best Friend is a Robot) was published last fall. A second children’s book is with the artist.

Last month, I sketched out a premise for a science fiction story about a computer virus. Definitely an example of current life influencing art.

I’ve even tried a bit of fantasy. A short fantasy piece about a slug rodeo and riding competition was published in an anthology last year. Earlier this year, I attempted a fantasy novel. But by the time I created the cover image and title, there wasn’t anything left to say. Because, after all, it was just a fantasy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Promoting Literacy & Celebrating Community

AHHAH (Arts Holding Hands and Hearts)
explains their purpose as “empowering youth, strengthening families, and mobilizing communities through literacy, mindfulness, and expressive arts.” AHHAH’s programs have touched and improved the lives of many people in the Coatesville and Kennett Square area, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The programs are online now in keeping with safety precautions during the pandemic. But a child can still have a bedtime story read to them, and people of all ages can participate in mindfulness or yoga sessions. (See AHHAH’s Facebook Videos.)

AHHAH held a “Labor of Love” fundraising campaign Labor Day weekend. Videos were released throughout the weekend with dramatic readings of poetry written by youth participating in AHHAH programs. AHHAH expressed gratitude to their volunteers and supporters, and six individuals were presented with Community & Volunteer Impact Awards. I am honored to be one of the six.

Individuals can make a difference, especially during stressful times. If you need help, reach out to those around you. Friends, neighbors, or other community members may need your help. Something as simple as a kind word can brighten someone’s day. As individuals or by working together, we can help improve the lives of others.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Undisciplined Writer

I admit it—I’m an undisciplined writer. I’ve gotten sloppy in my retirement, enjoying my time off even though I’ve mostly stayed at home this year. There’s no reason NOT to write. Is it a COVID slump? Perhaps, although it might be the senior citizen version of youthful acting out.

My productivity ebbs and flows, but when creativity and inspiration hit, it’s not always focused on writing or the most effective use of time. This week, I created a party game for a book launch scheduled early next year for a book that’s still being edited. Today I was double-booked for webinars. I tried and failed to watch them simultaneously.

It’s been busy on the literary front, but I’m being pulled in five different directions by five different writing projects. I’m not getting anything accomplished.

I really should make a schedule and stick to it. For example, go to bed at a reasonable hour rather than binge watching series reruns until midnight. Don’t skip my daily walks. (My dog reported me to the ASPCA last week.) Most importantly, schedule writing times during the week and PEN them into my calendar. I have too many erasers handy to use a pencil.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

House Cooling Party

Oppressive August and September heat waves blanketed SoCal with high temps and high humidity. My new air conditioning system was installed during a heat wave, and my house is now comfortable.

The result? An urge to celebrate with a dinner party, christened a house “cooling” party by my son. My dinner parties are opulent affairs (wink- wink-) with one-to-three socially-distanced guests and their dogs. My son and grand-dog (Finn) visited with me, Libby (my dog), Hazel (Libby’s other best canine friend), and Hazel’s owners.

Hazel’s owner, Tim, suggested the photo op for the House Cooling party—wearing heavy coats inside the newly air conditioned house.

And how is this related to writing? I had dinner with my muses. All the canine and human guests are in my books. Hazel was the neighbor’s dog in Emma’s Best Friend is a Robot. The spin-off, Hazel, Hero of Dog Beach, is currently with the illustrator. Finn and Libby have cameos in the second children’s book, and Libby played an important role in the first McGregor mystery. My son is Detective Scott McGregor’s best friend. (My daughter, Scott’s girlfriend, was unable to join us due to prior commitments.) Hazel’s owner, Diana, works in the Fresno Police Records Department and alerted Scott to a clue in his first case. The adults attend Scott’s house parties where Tim often plays and sings.

The following weekend, another heat wave struck bringing temperatures near the one-hundred-degree mark in the full shade … and another air-conditioned, socially-distanced doggy play date / dinner party.

The heat waves aren’t bothering me as much as they used to.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Photographing Meteors

Perseid meteor photo by Wayne Woodcock

Guest post by Wayne Woodcock

(Research Assistant for the Detective Scott McGregor mystery, Forever After)

2 cameras.
5 nights.
13.25 hours.
12,225 exposures.
10 really good pictures, maybe.

I used two cameras shooting the nighttime Perseid meteor showers. A Sony a6300 with Olympus 55mm f1.2 lens using an OM to E mount adapter, shooting wide open, four second exposures ISO 1000. The other camera was a Sony a6500 with 16mm f2.8 lens and fisheye adapter, shooting wide open, 25 second exposures ISO 1250. Both cameras were set to manual focus and exposure and continuous shooting, locked on using a wired cable release. Shutter speed was calculated using the 300 Rule to reduce the star trail movement in each picture and exposure adjusted by changing the ISO setting.

Images were recorded continuously for at least two hours each night. The morning after each photo session, I spent hours backing up to an external HD and processing the still images.

Using the Sony Imaging Edge Viewer program, I was able to create time lapse movies from the thousands of exposures as videos that lasted a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the number of exposures in a session. Meteors streaked partially across the sky. Planes and satellites crossed the entire view region, both moving slower than the meteors.

StarStaX Perseid meteor photo by Wayne Woodcock
Using StarStax, I created star tracks that showed the circular movement of the stars around the North star. Meteors, planes, and satellites showed up as straight lines crossing the concentric star paths. The StarStaX photo was compiled from 327 exposures taken over 23 minutes (elapsed time).

Every night I saw spectacular meteors in one direction while the camera lenses were pointed to a different quadrant of the sky. I got about ten really good still shots. The time lapse movies are fun to watch trying to spot the meteors.

It has been about 30 years since I had last done any nighttime photography. Way back in the days when rolls of film were sent off to be processed before you could see what you had as images. So I looked on the internet, read some articles and watched some videos. That is where I found out about the 300 Rule, StarStax and tying a hand warmer to the camera lens to keep it from fogging up.

Wayne Woodcock is an amateur photographer who has traveled the world and seen all seven continents through his camera viewfinder.

Wayne and Joan, of husband-wife “Team Woodcock,” added depth and different perspectives to the research gained from the August on-site exploration of the settings for Detective Scott McGregor’s third case. As experienced researchers, they are occasionally available for assignments to exotic locations.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Book Research

Moran State Park, Orcas Island, WA
My third Detective Scott McGregor mystery is set in the San Juan Islands in Washington State’s Puget Sound during the annual mid-August Perseid meteor showers. I visited the setting so I could write about it more convincingly.

My research assistants and I explored the islands for dastardly locations and situations to make the heroine of my story suffer immeasurable agonies: being hungry, injured, and scared while lost in the forest and pursued by someone with evil intentions. All of this sadistic behavior on my part is supposed to make for good reading.

Book research is hard work. My assistants and I stayed in bed & breakfast inns on two different islands. We trekked countless miles through dense forests. We viewed fabulous scenery from scarily high overlooks. We braved the midnight cold to watch meteor showers. We consumed alcohol in waterfront taverns and island breweries. Ya gotta feel sorry for authors, right?

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Story Structure in TV Shows

Halfway through the season of a recently binge-watched mystery drama, I realized it was a cozy. It met the major requirements for the genre described in a Nancy Curteman blog: an amateur sleuth; a murder occurring before the story began; a small pool of suspects; the sleuth becoming a target for murder; and no sex, violence, or cussing.

And halfway through the season I knew whodunnit. It wasn’t the actions the character did or didn’t do, but how the actions were presented. I recognized the approach from studying the craft and writing mysteries myself. I enjoy watching mystery shows and observing how plot points are played out, especially when it’s accomplished in a subtle manner.

Recently I’ve been re-watching Midsomer Murders, an English detective series based on the books by Caroline Graham. The detective, DCI Barnaby, has a seemingly endless supply of village suspects, and there are often multiple murders. Keeping track of clues and connections in this series can be difficult, and the identity of the guilty person can be a surprise until the end.

The Midsomer Murders scenery is beautiful, but before you pack your bags for a lovely English countryside vacation, you may want to read this blog post: Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Writing and Procrastination

Sometimes the words just won’t write themselves. If this month were a writing race, I’d still be at the starting gate. I haven’t been motivated enough to prod myself into action.

My favorite part of writing mysteries is designing the crime, creating clues, and implicating innocent people. Making the plot work is a skill transferred from developing countless flowcharts during my computer programming years. The plot structure for Forever After, the third McGregor mystery, is already in my current manuscript. Now I have to fill in the gaps, and that’s less exciting for me.

To feed my procrastination tendencies, an annoying time-wasting habit has crept back into my life: watching television. Several years ago, I cancelled the cable tv and rediscovered spare time. I used that time to write. I have access to old series, though, and recently I’ve binge-watched seasons of several English and New Zealand shows I’d previously never heard of.

If only a giant Monty Python (BBC comedy) foot would drop down from the sky and kick me back into action.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Déjà Vu, All Over Again

During March, I revised and re-edited the second McGregor mystery, Murder Goes on Vacation, and sent it to beta readers. The beta readers gave me emotional feedback on how the story worked for them: what they liked, what bombed, whether story elements were misplaced, etc.

During May and June, I used beta reader and critique group feedback to re-re-edit the second book. I just sent this version off to be reviewed with an eye toward literary errors, which will lead to yet another round of editing.

Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel with all the editing passes required to massage a rough draft into something a reader would want to read. It would be easy to put the draft down and walk away from it. I entertain that thought from time to time. Just move on to the third book—the new and exciting story. But I’m writing a series, and I really need the second book.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Yardwork Approach to Writing

Historic Craftsman in Houston, Texas
Yardwork, like housework, is often only noticed when it hasn’t been done. Fortunately, I have an excellent house cleaner. Yardwork, on the other hand, is up to me. Sometimes I get it done in a timely manner.

I spent seven hours Friday weeding, trimming, mowing, filling dog holes, and performing other overdue yardly duties in preparation for the Saturday doggy play date and human dinner party. I’m pleased to say the yard looked quite presentable for my canine and human guests.

That’s all well and good, but my publisher is probably wondering what yardwork has to do with a writing blog. During those seven hours, I had plenty of time to think about Detective Scott McGregor’s house and yard and wonder whether he does his own yardwork.

Scott has an old Craftsman house; he likes the clean, straight lines and no-nonsense architecture. His manicured yard has a neatly-trimmed, flowering hedge around his covered front porch. The back yard’s covered patio is a necessity in Fresno’s sweltering summer heat. A high-end barbeque grill—his pride and joy—is built into an outdoor kitchen island.

Does McGregor do his own yardwork? If I do, he does too. He just does a better job.

Monday, June 1, 2020

McGregor Mysteries in Three Sizes

Plot ideas come easy. Making the time and effort to write them, not so much.

My McGregor mystery series arc is already plotted, but book ideas keep materializing. Some of the ideas aren’t fully fleshed out with well-defined sub-plots complementing the main story line, but the back burner in my brain is always simmering some concoction. I decided to write the extras as stand-alone novels occurring after the series arc of character and relationship development.

One day, as I avoided revising and editing the second McGregor mystery, it occurred to me to write the stand-alones as short stories. That would make McGregor mysteries available in three sizes. The first book, The Disappearance of Millicent Hart, is a short novel; the second case, Murder Goes on Vacation, is a novella.

I mentioned the idea to my publisher, and she suggested a book title and cover image. The first short story has been plotted and its first scene written. Now I’m dividing writing time between revising and editing book two, writing the first draft for book three, and creating short stories.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Writing Productivity

During the last nine weeks, many of the literary-related items on my to-do list have been crossed off. In late March, I edited my second McGregor manuscript (yet again), and sent Murder Goes on Vacation off to beta readers. In early April, I sent a mock-up of the second children’s picture book, Hazel, Hero of Dog Beach, to the illustrator. I also reached my April Camp NaNoWriMo project goal of writing 20k words for the first draft of the third McGregor mystery, Forever After. (I’m a Camp NaNoWriMo Winner!)

In addition to writing, I attended many meetings and classes. My writing organizations and critique groups met face-to-face online. My four-week Criminal Investigation class and writing craft workshops were also online. Another online writing class starts next week.

I’ve been so busy and have so many more online events scheduled, that I actually deleted a few. Obviously, there’s no time to rest during retirement.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Dogs Wearing Hats

My sidekick, Libby, wears many hats and helps me with yardwork. Being a Border collie mix, she could do it on her own, except she has trouble starting the lawnmower. Instead, she specializes in keeping the squirrels and lizards at bay.

Libby’s not thrilled with the Shelter-In-Place lifestyle. (I don’t mind as much. I SIP through quarantine with writer friends during virtual happy hours.) She misses our dinner parties and doggy play dates.

I’ve been sitting at my computer and writing more during the lockdown, much to Libby’s dismay. (She prefers long walks on the beach at sunset.) I’m enjoying Detective McGregor’s 3rd case, Forever After, which is set in Washington State’s Puget Sound during the August meteor showers.

Libby is even more dismayed, though, when I get bored. As my friend so aptly texted, “Day 43 of quarantine. Dianne starts playing dolls with Libby. Who’s a pretty good sport.”

Monday, April 13, 2020

Virtual Happy Hour

This spring, the world is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic with its devastating health and economic impacts and the resulting focus on social distancing and staying at home.

In accordance with the “new normal,” I join other writers for Virtual Happy Hour on Friday afternoons. On Sunday afternoon, I took a picture of my glass of wine against the backdrop of my SoCal rose garden, already in full bloom. I emailed the picture to family and friends across the country and invited them to join me in a toast.

Pictures started pouring in. My daughter sent a shot of her imported bottled beer in front of the bright and airy view from her apartment’s large windows. My son sent a picture of his glass of scotch in front of his computer monitor where he waited for server maintenance to finish so he could play Warzone. An East Coast friend sent a portrait of a can of domestic beer in her lovely kitchen. The funniest picture, though, came from my brother in the Pacific Northwest—a toaster.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020


from a painting by Leonardo Digenio
I signed up for online writing classes through the national Sisters in Crime - Guppy Chapter.

Sisters in Crime was originally created to support women mystery writers in the predominantly male field, but now SinC welcomes sisters and misters from around the world. The organization’s online programming includes webinars and online classes that teach the writing craft.

One of the techniques I learned in Linda Rodriquez’s Writing is Revision class is to develop the characters more deeply through freewriting. Taking a first-person approach, I wrote about the characters’ deepest secrets, fears, desires, obsessions, and motivations to learn what triggers could make them carry out certain plot points in the story.

I learned so many secrets about one suspect that I got the urge to blackmail him. With blackmail money coming in, I wouldn’t have to depend on book royalties. Of course, payment would probably be just as imaginary as the actual blackmail. Probably imaginary bitcoin. At least I wouldn’t have to report the income or pay taxes on it.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Collateral Damage

I was looking forward to writing a blog post about the incredible experience I would have at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in San Diego March 12-15.

I arrived a day in advance, full of anticipation and excitement at attending my first ever literary convention. I attended four author panels on Thursday before learning LCC was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. I met lots of people and have good memories from my day at Left Coast Crime. I can’t wait for next year’s convention in Albuquerque!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… my next Sisters in Crime online class, ‘Writing is Revision,’ begins on Sunday. Time to get back to work on the second McGregor mystery, Murder Goes on Vacation.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Mystery Critique Group

After beta reading for a writer friend, I was invited to join Cozy CRIT-ters, a newly-created critique group for authors of cozy mysteries.

Cozy mysteries follow a set of guidelines including: an amateur sleuth solves the crime; the murders are bloodless or occur off the page; and the story does not include violence, sex, or foul language. (This partial list is from Nancy Curteman’s blog post ‘The Characteristics of a Cozy Mystery.’)

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries are cozies, but the Detective Scott McGregor mystery series don’t seem to fit in the same category. McGregor is a police detective, not an amateur. The murders do generally occur off the page, and usually before the story begins. The McGregor mysteries do not include violence, although sex is occasionally referenced, and a few mild swear words crop up in some stories. I label my books as ‘police procedurals with a touch of cozy.’

Fortunately, the critique group also accepts ‘cozies with an edge,’ so I’m in. At least until they discover the third McGregor mystery begins as a cozy but is highjacked by thriller.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This lovely statue sits on a park bench in Carmel, California, a few blocks from the ocean. It wasn’t until I looked at the photograph that I noticed the woman was holding a valentine heart.

In the second Detective Scott McGregor mystery, Murder Goes on Vacation, Scott has a girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets involved in a case while they’re on vacation and doesn’t spend as much time with her as they had planned. They both question whether their relationship is working and have to make some difficult decisions. Will they split up or attempt to have a relationship that lasts a lifetime?

Wishing you a lifetime of love and happiness.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Beta Reading

A lady in my local writers’ organization asked me to read and give feedback on a short story she’d written. Although I had beta read for someone I know well, I was slightly nervous to read for a new acquaintance who had won an award for her writing.

She asked for my opinions, thoughts, and suggestions, and as I read, I realized it was easier than I’d expected. I’m not a grammar or punctuation expert, but I could tell when the story’s tension rose and fell. I recognized passages that were smooth and relayed humor or insight, and I noticed when prose was choppy or rough. I simply read the story and made comments and suggestions in the margin.

The bravest thing I’ve ever done was giving my first manuscript to someone else to beta read. When it was returned, I was shocked by all the comments even though they were supportive and helpful.

I grew as a writer while beta reading the short story. Too bad I forgot to run a spell check.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Book-Themed Parties

During the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I joined the Tea Travellers for a walk-in-the-footsteps trip up the California coast by train. The trip celebrated J.S. Devivre’s Tea Cozy Mysteries, a five-book historical series set in Pacific Grove in the 1920s. As in the books, we visited Hearst Castle and Carmel, and stayed in the Pacific Grove Victorian bed and breakfast that was the fictional protagonist’s home.

Now that Detective McGregor’s second case, Murder Goes on Vacation, is almost ready for beta readers, I’ve been thinking about a book release party. The second book is set in Las Vegas although McGregor is on the Fresno police force. Both locations are unwieldy for an afternoon book launch party. The Las Vegas setting is a computer convention, but I’m guessing computer stores don’t allow parties in their aisles. However, there are some casinos in the area…

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year!

Last January, I made a list of resolutions for 2019, but failed miserably keeping most of them. This January, I prefer to list my accomplishments from last year.
  • Retired 
  • Published a children’s picture book 
  • Traveled far and near 
  • Kept in touch with family and friends 
  • Became more involved in my local writers’ groups 
  • Donated to my favorite non-profit organizations 
  • Signed up for online classes in 2020 to improve my writing skills 

One of my mature friends told me he got wiser with age and stopped making New Year’s resolutions. I’m jumping on his boat.

Best wishes for a happy and fulfilling New Year!