Killing Jan 15-16 FB copy
Isabel Long Mystery Series, Writing

Story Behind the Story: Isabel Long Mystery Series

One day I got it in my head that I wanted to write a mystery. I had already written books for adult and young readers, literary fiction and magical realism, respectively. One is even bilingual.

But it made sense to try this genre as I love a great mystery, especially one that fools me until the end.

So, I sat down, and the pieces came together fast. Extremely fast. That’s how it works for me. Not to sound like a nut job, but ideas come from somewhere. The same goes for the characters and what they do.

Anyway, it made sense that my protagonist, Isabel Long, would tell the story, so I wrote it in first-person, and because I want my readers to feel they are in the middle of the action, also in present tense.

Isabel’s back story: she has just come off a bad year when this series starts with Chasing the Case. Her husband died and she lost her job as a newspaper’s top editor. She is what the French call une femme d’un certain age. Isabel’s bit of a smart ass but she has a caring heart. Yes, I admit there is quite a lot of me in her.

After a year of proper grieving, Isabel is ready for a new life. And that’s when we first meet her. She decides to solve a 28-year-old mystery of a woman who went missing in her town of a thousand people. It was Isabel’s first big story as a rookie reporter. She plans to use the tools she relied on as a journalist to solve this case. And Isabel has a ‘Watson’ — her 92-year-old mystery-loving mother who’s come to live with her. My own mother, who is 97, inspired this character. Isabel also takes a part-time job at the local watering hole, the Rooster, where not only does she find clues for her cases, but a love interest in its owner, Jack.

Then I found I couldn’t let go of Isabel Long. I gave her more cases to solve in Redneck’s Revenge, Checking the Traps and Killing the Story. On Jan. 27, Working the Beat will be released by my publisher darkstroke books.

I hadn’t expected to write a series, but here I am.

And to get you interested in Working the Beat, here’s an excerpt from an early chapter. Here Isabel and her mother happen to be at the Titus Country Fair when they are approached by Shirley Dawes.

Shirley stays sitting when she sees us approach. I make our introductions, and then we take the seats opposite her at the picnic table. I make sure I’m in Shirley’s direct line of vision in case she reads lips.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” I ask.

Shirley works her mouth a bit.

“It’s about my grandson, Lucas. Lucas Page is his full name. He was killed here four years ago and whoever did it didn’t get caught.”

“Here in Titus?”

She gives her head a shake.

“I mean here at the fair. It was after the demolition derby, the first one they had. They found Lucas’s body the next morning behind where everybody watches, in the woods up there. They said he must’ve been drunk and fell down in the rocks. His head was hit real bad I was told.”

“What was he doing on the hill afterward? Was he alone?”

“That’s what I want you to find out.”

This story’s coming back to me now. I was the editor of the Daily Star then. We reported on an unattended death at the fair in a story that made the front page, and then like Shirley said, it was ruled an accident because of a brain injury, although she protested that in a story we ran, too.

“Now, I remember you, Shirley. You came to see me in the newsroom. You said you were frustrated the police didn’t seem to be looking that hard into your grandson’s case and you wanted us to do that.”

I think back and hope I treated this woman nicely.

“Yeah, I did. You said newspapers don’t do that kind of work.”

“No, not the one I worked for.”

“But I heard about what you’ve been doin’ now as a private investigator. Your last case was a doozy. Read about it in the paper.” She crooks a thumb toward Annette and her son, still talking with his admirers. “Course, there was Chet Waters. Maybe you can do what the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

“You mean find out what happened that night with your grandson.”

“Yeah. I heard you get paid for doin’ this. I wanna hear how much. I ain’t got a lot. But this is important to me. I loved my grandson. I’m the one who brought him up after his mother gave him to me. He was hangin’ around with a rough crowd in those days. Tryin’ to fit in. Here. Let me show you his picture.”

Shirley reaches for the purse on the seat beside her. The purse is vintage style, off white with a smart clasp on the top, no zippers, something my mother would use. I am guessing Shirley holds onto things. She removes a photo from her wallet and hands it to me.

“I took it at Christmas, the last one we had,” she says.

Lucas Page’s face smiles at me. He’s young, blue-eyed, and with the kind of features that would label him a good-looking guy. His most distinctive is the red hair that’s short on the sides and long enough on the top so it has a bit of curl. But back to that smile. He was happy to pose for his grandmother.

“He was a handsome young man,” I tell Shirley.

She swipes away a tear.

“Yeah, he was.”

I glance at my mother. She’s interested, of course. The questions are forming in my brain, but this isn’t the time to ask them. Already a parade of people I know have passed by with a wave, a hello, and a curious expression on their faces as they wonder why in the heck my mother and I are talking with this woman. They’re just being nosy New Englanders as usual.

“Shirley, we’re interested, but this isn’t the best place to talk. We need some privacy. How about my mother and I come to your home to talk this over?”

“What’d you say? My house?”

“Yes, your house. Well, you could come to ours if you prefer. We live in Conwell. But it would help us if we could see where you and your grandson lived. I should also tell you that if I’m interested in taking your case, I have to clear it with my boss. Do you know Lin Pierce?” I pause as she nods. “He gets a small cut of whatever I make. So, he has a say.” I register the concern in Shirley’s narrowed eyes. “Don’t worry. He hasn’t turned me down yet.”

“I understand,” she says. “Can’t do it tomorrow. I’m helpin’ out in the kitchen here. Monday mornin’ work for you?”

Ma and I exchange glances.

“How about ten?” I say.

Shirley nods.

“Ten, it is. Do you mind if I make a copy of your grandson’s photo with my phone?”

“Go right ahead if it helps.”

I place the photo on the table and remove my cell phone from my bag to take a shot before I hand the photo back to Shirley.

“Here you go.”

Shirley leaves us after she gives me directions to her house in West Titus. She lives on one of those dead-end dirt roads, hers is the last house, that’s also likely one of the last to be plowed in the winter and impassable at times in the spring because of the mud. But she’s probably one of those people who doesn’t mind because she wants to live out of the way of everybody. I don’t have to worry about road conditions this time of year. The road’s been graded recently she told me.

I wait until Shirley is out of earshot as she moves inside the crowd that’s wandering the fairgrounds. She stops first at the pumpkin display, where Annette and Abe are still hanging out.

“What’s your opinion, Ma?”

“I like her. She’s a little rough around the edges like a lot of the people we meet here,” she says. “But it’s about time we found a new case. It was getting a little boring.”

I smile. My 93-year-old mother is game for a new mystery to solve.

“Boring?”

She nods.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Working the Beat has a Jan. 27 release. But if you are a Kindle user, you can download No. 4 Killing the Story for free for two days only.

Here’s the link for Killing the Story: https://mybook.to/killingthestory

Here’s he link for Working the Beat: mybook.to/workingthebeat

 

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Rewriting, Writing

Hey, Look What I Found

I was rearranging stuff in the attic, when I discovered another version of my novel The Swanson Shuffle. As yet unpublished, the novel was inspired by my experience living and working in a psychiatric halfway house. I have envelopes containing manuscripts of my other works, but what made this one especially interesting is that it’s bound with plastic cover and rings. I believe it was a requirement for one of the contests I entered a long time ago, and I had a copy made for me as well. Although a bit yellowed on the bottom, it has survived two 2,400-mile moves across the country.

I wrote Walking in Place, which is the book’s original name, in 1999. I failed to lure an agent or a publisher for it. Actually, the agent I did get passed on the book and instead agreed to represent one of my hilltowns novels, which alas, he couldn’t get published. Yes, it’s been a long, strange trip.

Then in early 2014, I rewrote Walking in Place and renamed it The Swanson Shuffle. Both titles refer to the side-effect of one drug a few of the residents of Swanson House take. I have had a hard time finding a publisher for that one as well, so I’ve decided to read the original and see if there is anything in there I could use to make the novel better.

The two versions have many of the same characters. The protagonist is named Rose in the first book and Bia in second. The first is written in first-person past tense, and the second, first-person present tense.

Walking in Place begins when one of the residents, Jerry, has been arrested. The Swanson Shuffle starts with Bia coming for a weekend as part of the interview process. She meets Jerry outside while he’s working on his car.

The first version has hardly any chapter breaks. The second, as is typical of my current writing style, has lots.

In the first book, a lot of the plot revolves around Rose’s relations with the staff, including a bit of romance. The second focuses on Bia’s relationships with the residents, who, frankly, are far more interesting than the staff.

I finished reading Walking in Place when I awoke this morning at 2 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. In the end, I decided I made the right move rewriting Walking in Place. I was pleased at the progress my writing made during those fifteen years. The Swanson Shuffle is tighter, livelier and certainly better written. It’s also a better story.

But I acknowledge there might be some passages and ideas I could take from the first.

I am also weighing which title to use — and whether to change the novel to past tense or even third-person. I may experiment with a couple of chapters. Such fun.IMG_0904

By the way, that was my second discovery last week. The other was a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, circa 1928, that I scored in a free book box in downtown Greenfield. It originally belonged to a local library, and considering its controversy, I am a bit surprised.

I will go through my collection and see what I can spare in return.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: My copy of Walking in Place.

 

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Isabel Long Mystery Series, Writing

Giving It My Undivided Attention

I can write anywhere. I’ve proven that to myself numerous times. Perhaps, it comes from when I was a kid doing my homework in front of the TV and getting good enough grades to be on the honor roll. I am well past schoolwork, and these days my focus outside of my job is writing fiction, to be specific finishing the fourth in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. This one is called Killing the Story by the way.

As I write this, I have about 15,000 words to go and a self-imposed deadline of April 1 to finish this draft. (I also mentioned to my publisher, Laurence Patterson of Darkstroke Books, I am hoping to launch this book by early summer.)

It’s taken quite an effort for me to find the time to write this book, given I work 9-10 hours a day at the newsroom. As I’ve posted before, I try to get up very early, hoping to reach 500 words before I have to head out. Ah, but often real life gets in the way.

I’ve decided I need to shake things up to reach those goals .

So, Wednesday I tried something different. I had an hour before the newsroom opened at 8 after I dropped off Hank for a very early appointment. It didn’t make sense to go back home, so I headed to a coffee shop around the corner.

At 7 a.m. the only people there were the woman behind the counter and me, likely because the baked goods hadn’t arrived yet. I ordered a black tea, found a table and went to work. It was the most productive hour I’ve had in a long time.

Perhaps it’s the change of scenery or the fact I couldn’t get up to load or unload the dishwasher, take a shower, make my lunch, or whatever. I had already done that before I left the house. And I could easily ignore the few customers who came.

When it turned 8 a.m., I collected my things and walked halfway around the block to the newsroom — feeling pretty damn good about myself.

I did the same Thursday, then Friday, with the same results, so I plan to continue until I finish this novel. (On weekends, I will use my office at home or maybe find another writing spot in the village where I live.) I love writing fiction. I just want to give this novel the undivided attention it deserves.

Sounds like a plan to me.

LINK: Here’s how to find my books:  Joan Livingston on Amazon

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Western Massachusetts, Writing

Two Books at Once

Well, here’s something new for me — working on two books at the same time. One is a work in progress and the other is a novel I wrote a long time ago. There’s a good reason for it, and I don’t mind saying it’s fun to be plunked into two different worlds.

The first book is Killing the Story, the fourth in the Isabel Long Mystery Series. Isabel Long, my protagonist and the rather sassy narrator of this series, has been hired to solve the death of the editor and co-owner of a small town newspaper.

Years ago, Estelle Crane slipped on some ice walking home one night from the newsroom and died from the fall. Everyone thought it was an accident. But then her son, who took over the paper, recently found a briefcase with papers that makes him feel otherwise.

I will share a secret: I solve the mystery along with Isabel. No outlines for me. That’s what happened with my other books. And although two-thirds of the way through, I am still figuring it out.

Could it be the town’s crooked police chief that has a history with Estelle’s family? How about his son, who’s on the force, or the nosy newcomer who was after Estelle to dig up some dirt via anonymous letters? Maybe it’s somebody else that Isabel — and me — have overlooked.

With my job as editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper, this book is taking me longer to write. To catch up on the gaps in writing, I print out a hard copy and get out the red pen.

But I have set myself a deadline of April 1, so full speed ahead.

Now, to the second book, Northern Comfort, which I wrote in 2007. My agent then came really close to getting it published. Sigh.

Northern Comfort, which I would call a literary novel, is about the dark side of a rural “New England town, holding onto its traditions of making maple, playing old-time music, and keeping family secrets.” That’s from the query letter I wrote.

It’s a heavy book that begins when a child dies in a sledding accident. His death brings together three people: his mother, the man whose sled killed him, and the father who had abandoned him.

When I picked up Northern Comfort recently, I found myself moved by the story. Yes, it is my work, but it had been a long time since I had read it, and I had forgotten my characters and the weight of the words I used. Although it is set in Western Massachusettes, it is nothing like the Isabel Long books. I have a printed copy and am going over it with a red pen. Actually I found just small things here and there to change.

My aim is to pitch Northern Comfort to publishing houses that focus on literary fiction and don’t require an agent. I have a top choice, that requires a query letter describing the book and the first 50 pages, which I’ve been editing. I showed it to two friends and I am almost ready to mail it out — the company only does snail mail.

So, here goes. Wish me luck.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: The exterior wall at Satchel’s Pizza in Gainesville, Florida, which we recently visited.

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Author Interview, Business of writing, Isabel Long Mystery Series, Writing

Getting the Word Out

First, if you’re a writer, you have to get the words down. Then, you gotta get the word out. Well, that’s the case when you are an indie author competing with other indie authors, and then there are those who have a lot of muscle behind them via a big shot publisher.

Ah, as I’ve said many times before — there’s writing and then there’s the business of writing.

I much prefer the first.

But then an author gets unexpected help. That’s what happened recently when Carrie Healy of New England Public Radio contacted me to be a part of a summer series that featured author on Friday mornings. She requested a copy of my latest book, which in this case is Checking the Traps, third in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. Then after reading the novel, she arranged for a recorded interview, which conveniently took place in an empty office at the Greenfield Recorder. (My day job is editor-in-chief.) She had a list of good questions. I hoped I came up with good answers. I read aloud a bit from the book’s start. (Carrie took the photo of me above.)

I found out Aug. 1 when Carrie sent me a link. She nicely took out the stumbles and the ums. I thought it came out well. I suppose others did too since I had a jump in sales, especially for the first in the series: Chasing the Case. And people were kind to mention they heard me on the radio.

Here have a listen. Here’s the link: http://www.tinyurl.com/yyjsr7fo

Four days later, I gave a reading at a bar in Northampton. It was the monthly event for Straw Dog Writers Guild at the Basement. First a duo played and 10 people in the audience each got five minutes to read from a work in progress, poetry and prose. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety, how 3cef0c4a-159e-4416-a3ba-49dcfb34e7ebpeople use our language to come up with stories and different ways to tell them.

Then, I had my chance to speak as the featured writer. I did less reading from Checking the Traps and more talking about my adventure with writing, how I started as a poet long ago, had a 25 years writers block, and finally found my creative outlet. Yeah, I talked about writing and the business of writing. And, smile, people bought books.

A few days later I noticed on Amazon a bump in sales for the next two books in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. (Redneck’s Revenge is number two.)  I am guessing those who bought the first liked it enough to read the rest. Well, readers, thank you very much.

Here is the link if you want to check out my books on Amazon:

http://mybook.to/chasingthecase

 http://mybook.to/rednecksrevenge

https://mybook.to/checkingthetraps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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