Monday, March 28, 2011

Writing My First Children’s Mystery Novel

My guest today is Jean Henry Mead, a mystery/suspense and western historical novelist. She's also an award-winning photojournalist. Today's she's talking about her children's mystery.

Post by Jean Henry Mead

I considered writing an autobiographical children’s book for years before sitting down to write  one. Solstice Publishing released it recently as Mystery of Spider Mountain and I’m well into the second novel of the Hamilton Kids' mystery series.

I’m a former news reporter with seven published nonfiction books and four novels, but I wondered about the language of middle school children. My five kids were grown and I had no grandchildren nearby in the 9-12 age range. So I read a number of books written by others although none of them were in the style I planned to write. What to do? A flyer from the Institute of Children’s Literature arrived in the mail, so, on a whim, I submitted the test and was immediately accepted as a student. No surprise there. Still, I wondered whether I was wasting my money because I already knew how to write. It just goes to show that no matter how much experience you have, you can always learn more.

I’m not getting paid to sing the praises of the institute, but I must say that it was well worth the tuition. My instructor, Louise Munro Foley, an experienced children’s writer, served as my mentor as I took my time writing the novel between other projects. One of the things I learned was that children must solve the mysteries on their own with only minimal help from parents and other adults. And I was encouraged to watch children’s Saturday programming to learn their   “language.”

Fiction is rooted in fact and my three protagonists spent their formative years at the foot of a large hill in southern California, as I did with four younger brothers. Because the hill was inhabited by trap door spiders and an occasional tarantula that arrived on a banana boat from Central America, I called it Spider Mountain.

My brothers and I were close in age and explored our "mountain" together. The apron was filled with tall, blue lupines which bloomed nearly year round, and halfway up the hill was Dead Man’s Tree. We called it that because a thickly-knotted rope hung from a limb that we swung on. At the end was a large loop. That prompted stories about horse thieves which we imagined had been hanged there.

A dirt road encircled the hill at three levels but was so chocked with rocks and clumps of weeds that even a bicycle would have had difficult passage. So we wondered how the people who lived at the summit were able to reach their home, and imagined everything from rock climbers to space ships and helicopters, although we’d never heard one in the area.

When I was twelve and old enough to babysit brothers who were nearly my own size, we climbed our mountain to spy on the mysterious house. What we found was a chain link fence restraining four large vicious-appearing dogs with mouths large enough to swallow a child whole. Or so we thought. It didn’t take us long to scramble back down the hill to our own house. And, of course, we never told our parents.

When I began to write, I wondered again who those people were and how they arrived at their hilltop home. The house itself was a mystery but I had to decide which crime(s) the residents of the house had committed. And how the Hamilton kids would be able to bring them to justice. I then thought of the Ouija board we used to play with. That’s when the spirit Bagnomi materialized and talked to the kids via the board.

My four brothers had to be reduced to two to make the story manageable. Even so, they were as unmanageable as my own brothers had been, so their widowed grandmother came to live with them—as ours had done. However, our grandmother didn’t have bright red curly hair like Ronald McDonald, and wasn’t interested in finding a husband. Even children’s books need humor and the Hamilton Kids’ grandmother provides that and more, along with an adopted Australian Shepherd with a penchant for chewing furniture.

Writing for children has opened a new vista for me, which I hope my young readers will enjoy as much as I enjoyed the writing. I'm currently working on the second novel in the series, The Ghost of Crimson Dawn, which takes place here in Wyoming, where the Hamilton Kids visit their Uncle Harry at his mountaintop ranch. There's a bit of autobiographical plotting in that book as well.

The book is currently available on Kindle and will be released in print later this spring. The third novel in my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense novel, Murder on the Interstate, is also due for release any day and I’m also working on an historical novel, No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Do you feel bad or badly?
Some more of my reference books
I think most of the confusion comes with describing how one feels. Try substituting a synonym or antonym, an –ly word for badly or an adjective for bad.
If you mean condition (the adjective), an easy way to know is to substitute good for bad/badly. Here are some examples of the condition:
He woke up feeling bad (good). He ate the leftover shrimp and woke up feeling badly/goodly. (Unlikely, unless food poisoning damaged his hands during the night.) 
But she felt bad/badly (good/goodly) about what she’d done.
He felt bad the morning after the party. (He'd probably overindulged.)

My favorite reference book
Badly, the adv, modifies a verb, adj, or other adverb. Badly is seldom used with feel or felt. Badly tells how. If you’re referring to how as in the tactile sense, try substituting clumsily or awkwardly.
He felt badly (because his coordination was impaired).
Because of the frostbite damage to his fingers, he felt badly; he was unable to tell skin from cloth. He played the piano badly these days. (It tells how he played) He felt clumsily or played awkwardly. 

Felt badly is not common usage, at least not that I know of. It's almost always going to be felt bad. But maybe I'm missing something--feel free to say so.

With was, the correct word is much more obvious. His behavior was bad/badly (offensive or offensively?). Her grades were bad/badly. (Unacceptable/unacceptably?)
 He behaved bad/badly (offensive/offensively).  This tells how he behaved.

You may think of other examples that are much clearer or uses I haven't thought of. Or some fun uses. Please! Let me know. 

Next week I'll tackle lie, lay, lain. Won't that be fun?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Author Jackie Vick's Dark Secret

My guest today is Sisters in Crime member Jackie Vick, author of the novella The Grooms Cake, a romantic comedy, and two children's books. She has some humorous mysteries in the works too. Come say hello!
I’m about to admit one of my darker secrets. Ready?
Sometimes, I cram the laundry into the machine without going through the pockets.
Don’t worry. I pay for it, though the punishment doesn’t come until I take the clothes out of the dryer. I’m one of those people who always carry tissues on me, just in case. It’s a habit I picked up from my mother, though I don’t tuck them into my shirt cuff. Often.
I know that I’ve sinned against the cleaning gods when I see the first strip of tissue clinging to my sweat pants. Then another shows up on my husband’s sock. Finally, I’m plucking stray pieces from the inside of shirts and the seams of my underwear, battling static cling and wondering how one little tissue wound up in so many places.
The same thing happens when I jump into my story without plotting out the mystery. After typing THE END and allowing my masterpiece to rest, I’ll pick it up a week later and expect to breeze through the final reading. But then the first piece of tissue shows up.
Let’s say I get to the chapter where the sleuth puts the pieces together. One character, Tiffany, has the opportunity to commit the crime, and she has a motive. She wants money. She pretends to be a plain, dorky girl, but she likes nice things. Very nice things. That’s the motive I have in my head, but then I notice that I never showed that she has expensive tastes. We could assume that every girl likes gems, but unless I go back and have Tiffany accurately appraise another character’s engagement ring or have her wear a Cartier watch that she allegedly “inherited from her grandmother”, the reader won’t know.  
Or I might have a short piece that takes place over one day, so I don’t see a need for a timeline. Then I notice that my sleuth is eating dinner, but when I cut to the point of view of a suspect in the next scene, she’s snacking on lunch. I have to go back through the whole thing and make sure the events take place in order--I have to pluck out the stray pieces of tissue.
Outlining my mystery allows me to see what’s happening and when. It’s a way to make sure that the clues are spaced throughout the story and not lumped together at the beginning or in the end. If each question raised in the story is a tissue, the outline is my way of going through the pockets to make sure that I don’t wind up with a mess at the end--in the case of my story, unanswered questions.
It’s hard to believe that one forgotten detail like lunch or dinner can cause such problems, but as with that simple, aloe-enhanced square of fibers, the potential for mischief is incredible. 
Bio: Jacqueline Vick is the author of the children’s book Logical Larry and a short story collection, A Mysterious Cast of Characters, soon to be released on Kindle. Her short fiction and articles--including an essay on how to train your dog using a pet psychic--have appeared in various magazines and ezines.
You can visit Jackie at her website,

Friday, March 18, 2011

How do you get “in the mood”?

Music? A little visual stimulation? Maybe read something special? I do all of those and one big one. I’m a daydreamer. If I can find a quiet place, maybe with a warm breeze and the right scent, I drift off to a whole new world. I can work out a scene in my head much like watching a movie. But background helps, as long as it isn’t words. The right music does put me in the mood. Jeff Bridges makes me happy. When he sings “I Don’t Know,” it makes me smile. Good for a happy scene, maybe where people are meeting. Then there’s Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” for the flight from danger. It changes the rhythm of the scene and the pace of my writing with it. Sometimes, for something sensual, there’s “Sanctus” by Anรบna or Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, or Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” 

Sometimes music is good for cooking too. Pavarotti for pasta, Dolly for chicken and dumplings, and Appalachian Spring for Thanksgiving. If you haven’t tried some of these, you should. Music has charms, you know, and I’m convinced it enhances the flavor of the dish.

Let’s not leave out the visual. I like to have pictures of my characters, their homes, the setting, their cars—I used to cut them out and pin them to a bulletin board by my computer, but now I have them in the computer and switch to them for a refresher now and then. This is the inspiration for Claire Spencer’s shop in Cold Comfort. I have hundreds of pictures. I love looking at them.

How do you do it? What works for you? Is there anything special that helps put you in the mood? Do tell—you may help the rest of us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Past or Passed? Titled or Entitled?

Past is not, not, not a verb. It can be a noun, referring to some earlier or historical event or feature: In the past, we went visiting in a horse and buggy. Her past will be held against her in court.

Paul Newman, The Verdict

An adverb (Past as an adverb explains where): We drove past the theater.
An adjective:  It’s past history. In past cases, the lawyer performed admirably. The verb ran is past tense.

Here’s the difference. If it’s a verb, the word is passed. Ask if it shows movement. Substitute another verb and see if it still makes sense.
We passed (substitute moved by) the courthouse.
He passed (substitute threw) the ball.
Time passed (substitute lapsed) slowly.
She passed (substitute served) the potatoes.
She passed away (substitute died) in the night.

A few others—
entitled       involves a right: You are entitled to a hearing.
titled           named: The book is titled Moby Dick.

few               consisting of a small number: a few good women
less              not as great in amount or quantity: less rain this year
                     Wrong: Less people went to the fair this year
                      Right: Fewer people went this year than last.
 majority     greater number or part; something countable The majority live in apartments. The majority voted for it.
                     Wrong: The majority of the rain fell in November. The majority of the water spilled.
                     Right: Most of the rain fell in November. More of the wine spilled than stayed in the glass.

compose     to make up: the parts compose the whole. Nine planes composed the team.

Frecce tricolori, Italian military squadron team
© Leon Viti
comprise    to include, encompass; to consist of: the whole comprises the parts, The team comprised nine planes.
 You should be able to substitute include for comprise.
 Wrong: is comprised of. You cannot say The
team is included of ten players.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Childhood Clues Set the Path for a Mystery Writer

Stacy Juba is the author of the mystery novels Twenty-Five Years Ago Today and Sink or Swim (Mainly Murder Press), as well as the patriotic children’s picture book The Flag Keeper. Her young adult paranormal thriller Dark Before Dawn will be released by Mainly Murder Press in January 2012. She is a former journalist with more than a dozen writing awards to her credit.

When I speak at schools about being an author, I always remind the children to pay attention to their favorite hobbies as they provide clues about what might make them happy as an adult. For example, a boy who loves to draw will probably still enjoy sketching as an adult - if he allows himself time to pursue it. Taking a half hour to draw after a long day of work might give him great relaxation. A girl who loves sports might grow up and do some coaching, or she may simply find that her stress subsides when she sits down to watch a big game on TV. 

Sometimes, our childhood hobbies even turn into adult careers. I wrote my first story in third grade, and by fifth grade, I was winning writing contests and developing my own mystery series.  Below is a short excerpt from one of my many childhood mystery stories, written when I was 11 years old, titled The Secret of the Sea Falcon:

It was a cool day in May. A young woman of about eighteen years of age was waiting on the docks of Newport Beach for her boating teacher, Candy.

The girl’s name was Leslie Parker. She was a tall willowy redhead with a peaches and cream complexion.  Leslie stared into the sea green water. She knew she had a few days off from work owed her and was thinking of taking her first trip to New York.

Suddenly, she heard an ear piercing scream. It had come from Candy’s boat, The Sea Falcon.  Leslie raced toward it. Before entering, she pulled a gun out of her leather purse. Candy had given the pocketbook to her for Christmas some time ago. Leslie was a police rookie who worked for the Newport police force. Her father was the respected chief. Leslie cautiously pushed open the door to the boathouse where the Sea Falcon was kept. Candy was lying unconscious on the floor. Soon, a low, barely audible moan came from Leslie’s friend.  Her eyes then fluttered open.

Not bad for an 11-year-old, right? Funny, all my heroines back then had peaches and cream complexions, were 18 year old sleuths, and carried guns. Today, I'm writing about  Cassidy Novak and Kris Langley  - they don't have peaches and cream complexions, but I think Leslie Parker would have liked them anyway. If you'd like to check out much more recent excerpts, from my published  novels Sink or Swim and Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, please visit these links: and

What hobbies did you enjoy as a child? Do you still make room for them in your life?
Stacy is having a Buzz My Books Contest where she will be giving away a $10 Amazon Gift Card (2 if she reaches 500 blog followers during the promotion.) The link is at  
It is going on till March 19 and is open in the U.S. If you tweet Stacy's Unpredictable Muse post or share it on a site such as Facebook, head on over to Stacy's contest post and let her know in the comments that you shared her article from The Unpredictable Muse. She will give you an extra entry in the gift card contest for each share and you can also follow the instructions in her post for additional simple ways to gain entries.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Progressive isn’t Passive

Not all uses of the verb be indicate passive voice. There’s also progressive tense, which indicates that the action is ongoing.

Photo by Stuart Pilbrow

A progressive verb is some form of be with a present participle, the –ing version. It shows continuing action. Benny was hiding under the bed when the police arrived. This is an active sentence because the subject, Benny, was performing the action, hiding. Present tense is the same: Mary is going for help. Mary’s performing the action.
Don’t you think there’s a good case for using progressive tense? I do. It doesn’t come up often and would be annoying if it did, at least to me. But I think there’re times when it’s the only thing to do. Examples, anyone?
Passive, the one we try so hard to avoid, is when the subject is acted upon by something or someone else, or the subject receives the action. He was stabbed is passive. Someone else did the stabbing. The key is by. If the action is done by someone other than the subject, the sentence is passive. Passive is formed by adding a past participle to a form of be.
The body was found by a girl and her dog. Aside from being weak, this seems clinical and removed from any emotion. If it’s the first mention of the body, it destroys any impact the discovery might have made. Once the reader knows about the murder and has seen the body, the passive version could fit in dialogue: Hal repeated the story at the meeting. “The body was found by . . .” Hal’s interest is in the body, not who found it.

Photo by Andrey Kiselev (minus bloodstains)

Passive has its place.  There are times, though rare, when passive voice works. The meeting was postponed, giving Olga time to hide the gun and change her blood-stained clothes. The meeting was postponed is passive, and it works here. We don’t care who did the postponing; that’s not what’s important to the scene. What matters is that the postponement gave Olga time to do her thing. It could be made active: The committee postponed the meeting, giving Olga time to . . . To me this detracts from the focus on Olga. It’s just more words that don’t add anything.
 I seldom stick my neck out this far without checking. I looked up passive voice in The Chicago Manual of Style (my first choice in reference books).  CMS says whether you choose active or passive may depend on whose experience you want to show. The man was caught by the police shows the man’s POV, but The police caught the man shows the police POV. 
Okay, ’fess up. Do you ever deliberately use passive voice? Do you see a reason to? Ever?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Past Has Long Arms

Please welcome my very first guest, author Donis Casey.  She's giving away a book too.
I’m amused at how some people seem to think that whatever is going on this minute is unique in human history. Hardly! Even our modern technology is just a detail. People never change. They are us! They just didn’t have cell phones. That’s why I write a historical mystery series. As William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.”
My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm outside of Boynton, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting themselves into trouble, and need their mother to get them out. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will do anything, legal or not, for her kids. Alafair is an homage to my foremothers, tough as nails and just as loving, who did whatever needed to be done, whether they were supposed to or not.
Crying Blood is the fifth installment in my Alafair Tucker series. Alafair figures large in the story, but this time the mystery revolves around her husband, Shaw.
It’s the fall of 1915, and Shaw, his brother James, and their sons are on their annual quail-hunting trip, when his dog turns up a shallow grave and evidence of a long ago dastardly deed. Shaw finds himself faced with what seems to be the very real ghost of a murdered Indian who is looking for justice, or as the Muskogee Creeks say, “he’s Crying Blood.”
As Shaw discovers, the past has long arms.

I live in Arizona, 1200 miles away from Boynton. Both of my parents were raised in Boynton, and I spent a lot of time there in my childhood. My grandmother owned Mrs. Casey’s Cafe on the main street for over fifty years.
Boynton was quite the thriving community back in Alafair’s time. It had two banks, five churches, a newspaper, a brick plant, an oil refinery, four general stores, two hardware houses, a furniture store, a farm implement store, and a big cotton gin. The 1916 Directory of Boynton states, “Altogether Boynton is one of the most progressive cities in the state, and its future is full of brilliant promise.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Great Depression did it in, like it did so many Oklahoma farming communities. When I write about the Boynton that Alafair Tucker and her family inhabit, I might as well be writing about Atlantis – a place that only exists now in the racial memory of its descendants. And yet I am who I am because of it.
Read the first chapter of each novel on my website,, I blog about writing at, and about food in mysteries at
Donis Casey is the author of five Alafair Tucker Mysteries,The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, and Crying Blood. Donis lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband, poet Donald Koozer.
Donis will send a signed copy of the original ARC to a name drawn at random from all who comment. This offer ends on Friday, March 4. But you must leave your email address for me to contact you. Write it this way--ellis at ellisvidler dot com--to defeat the trolls.