The Snake Face Man

I’ve added the cover of Snake Face to the home page of Amber Foxx Mysteries. You may wonder what the title of the book means. You’ll find out by chapter two. Here is the brave little snake face man, fighting them off as best he can. He is a piece of Mexican folk art I bought in Mesilla, NM a few years ago.snakeface1snakeface2

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Sisters in Crime Blog Hop

Sisters in Crime invited members to answer a few questions as part of a blog hop. SinC provides a wonderful opportunity for a mystery writer to polish her (or his) craft in a supportive professional group. After you read my answers, you can check out my fellow SinC members in the links at the end of the post, and also some other blogs I recommend.

Which authors have inspired you?

James D. Doss is at the top of my list. His Southwest setting, his mix of mystery, humor and mysticism, and his off-beat colorful characters set a standard I want to live up to.

Which male authors write great women characters?

Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle and wise Mma Ramotswe in the Number One Ladies’ Detective Series makes a woman’s way of thinking and connecting an asset as a detective. McCall Smith writes about women’s friendships and women’s attitude towards men in what feels to me like an authentically female viewpoint. Another male author who does an amazing job with his female protagonist is Martyn V. Halm, in his Amsterdam Assassin Series. Katla Sieltjes, professional assassin, defies female role expectations in every way. She is a compelling and complex character. Doss wrote female children brilliantly in the best book in his Charlie Moon series, The Night Visitor.

Which female authors write great male characters?

In the mystery genre all the female writers I like write men well, but they almost all have female protagonists. J.L. Simpson has a male-female pair solving crimes in her comic mysteries. I found Solomon, the experienced PI who is paired with disaster-prone newbie Daisy Dunlop, to be a solid equal to the female lead. His friendship with Daisy’s husband is written well and is an important part of the story. Solomon is an alpha male with a heart.

What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?

It’s hard to identify one best part. I enjoy the seat-of-the pants improv of the first draft, but the big revisions sometimes feel just as creative and inspired. And I love the craft of getting the words to work just right. The blurb is the most challenging. It’s hard for me to come up with that tight paragraph that works as hook without being a spoiler and yet still gives a sense of what the book is about. It can take me a year to get the blurb right, and two years to write the whole book. The ratio of time to words is a little skewed.

Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?

Music is important to my writing–I guess that’s obvious since one of my major characters is a musician—but I don’t listen while I write. Music absorbs my whole being. It can’t be background. As for my playlist: my personal number one song is Michael Hearne’s New Mexico Rain. Favorite musicians include Bill Miller and Robert Mirabal. Miller’s lyrics are poetic short stories with vivid characters, and he has a tenor voice that goes straight to my heart. His music has a spiritual undercurrent—not overwhelming, but it’s there, in a love song, a story-telling song or a Native flute solo. Mirabal also has a spiritual energy in his music. He a flutist, drummer, singer and dancer—an incredible, radiant performer. He’s from Taos Pueblo, and I’ve seen him a few times live in Santa Fe. The man can play didgeridoo standing up, balancing the instrument and his body in a way that has to take amazing strength, breath and flexibility. I listen to classical music the most—whatever comes on the classical station. I let it surprise me. I do a lot of imagery related to writing while I listen, but I can’t shift into the part of my brain that puts fingers to a keyboard and organizes sentences until I have silence. While I run I sometimes compose the songs for my musician characters. Though you’ll never hear them, there are melodies to go with every song in  Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face (book three, coming out in November).

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I’m almost finished with Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie, a historical novel about Peter Schoeffer, the lesser known contributor to the famous Gutenberg Bible. The research is impressive. I had no idea how much politics and religion could interfere with a tradesman’s honest work back then. The controversy over making books with metal letter instead of written by hand, and making books more readily available, ran deep. Who was to be allowed to control books? We are all Shoeffer’s heirs, as readers and writers. I’m also close to finishing John McPhee’s Control of Nature, nonfiction about people living in places where nature is in a state of constant change, and the extraordinary lengths they go to try to control the ultimately uncontrollable forces. (By the time I get this posted to my blog there will be new books on the nightstand.)

Links:

Visit SinC at http://www.sistersincrime.org/

Visit J.L. Simpson’s blog at http://jlsimpson.com/ I can’t say enough good things about Lost Cause, the first fast-paced and funny Daisy Dunlop book. I look forward to the next.

Another SinC member whose blog I enjoy is Nancy Adams. Her Saints and Trees blog   explores poetry, nature, spirituality, and books. Nancy and I meet at the intersection where mystery meets mystical. http://saintsandtrees.wordpress.com/

Martyn V. Halm’s blog: https://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/author/amsterdamassassin/ (Not a Sister in Crime, though some men are members.)

The next is unrelated to mysteries, but it’s my favorite blog.

Stuff Jeff Reads explores Shakespeare, Yeats, and Blake, Joyce’s Ulysses, and more. Literally, it’s the stuff Jeff reads. And he reads broadly. I love this blog. It’s not  about the latest release, but poems that have been moving hearts for decades or centuries, brought back to you with Jeff’s insights and choices of accompanying art. Jeff makes me a better reader, which makes me a better writer. http://stuffjeffreads.wordpress.com

Talk to Strangers

In Truth or Consequences and in Santa Fe, I find it normal to strike up conversations with strangers, and to say hello on the street to people in passing, whether or not we’re acquainted. No one seems to think it odd. I’ve never had a rebuff, nor have I been offended when someone randomly started talking to me.

A few years ago I was sitting in the now-closed and much-missed Little Sprout juice bar in Truth or Consequences when a man in a white terrycloth bathrobe came in and asked me if a certain bumper sticker he found wonderful might be mine. (It said Coexist, with the symbols of various religions forming the letters.) It wasn’t mine, but we talked a while anyway. He was on his way to water aerobics and had seen the bumper sticker, seen me in the window wearing my sun hat against the glare, and decided the Woman in the Hat looked like someone who wanted to spiritually Coexist. We became friends, and until he moved away last year he was my best sunset-walking and philosophical-talking friend in T or C. Another conversation with a stranger in the Sprout led to my meeting my dancing buddy the same year, and we still go dancing together four years later.

Unlike some more frequent fliers, I don’t mind people on planes talking to me. Good book recommendations and good stories have come from these encounters, or just good lines. I remember being on a plane about to leave Albuquerque for a job interview in Northeastern North Carolina, and was talking to my seatmate about my eventual destination. The long-haired young man in front of me turned around when he heard the name of the town and said, “Turn your clock back twenty years.” He was right. I ended up needing that job and moving east for a few years, and the town is now fictionalized as Cauwetska in The Calling.

Another stranger on a plane entertained me when I was unhappy after the breakup of a relationship. I didn’t tell her, but maybe she sensed it and wanted to be cheerful, or else she wanted to say what she had to say to someone she would never see again. Imagine a Texas accent for this. “I’m a dog breeder. And you know, I’m a Christian, and I’m supposed to think certain things are wrong, but I know homosexuality can’t be a sin, it has to be genetic, because I’ve got a lesbian Chihuahua.”

Back in July in Santa Fe, waiting in the shade at the Railyard Plaza while the Bill Hearne Trio set up, I ended up talking to my shade-mates about the Santa Fe Opera while we waited for country music. I have no idea how we got into this conversation but it felt normal. They told me one of the apprentices was going to have to play a lead that night, and sing in Chinese. An ongoing character in my series, Jamie Ellerbee, was once an apprentice with the Santa Fe opera. If I ever write the details of the crisis he had during that period of his life, a pressure like that could be part of it.

In previous academic years I’ve usually seen students in the classroom ten minutes early, heads down, engaged with screens instead of each other. This year for some wonderful and mysterious reason, they’re different. I come in and find them having real live face-to-face conversations, even the freshmen who don’t really know each other yet. I’m glad they aren’t missing out on the pleasure of talking to strangers.

Renewal Through Disruption

Disruption is good for the soul. In yoga, inversions and backbends can be scary or confusing at that transition point when they flip our perspective, and that’s part of their value. I seek disruption in everything from handstands to migrating across the country seasonally. The process of packing and leaving and resettling and coming back and doing it again never gets easy, but it in itself it does me good. Not just the travel, but the upheaval. The process always reminds how little stuff I really need.

The disruptions we don’t choose are different from the ones we seek. I wonder if I’m unconsciously trying into stay in shape for the unexpected, like keeping air in an emotional spare tire. Fiction centers on disturbances that knock characters’ lives off balance. Love, death, illness, loss, success, relocation, a new neighbor—every story begins with a disturbance. It may end up being the central theme of the story, or it may be the first raindrop in a flood of challenges. Characters’ attempts to handle these shake-ups determine the plot. Some are damaged by the events that up-end their lives. Others are strengthened as well as wounded. As a reader I tend to identify with characters whose resilience is imperfect, people who can handle some difficulties better than others.

One of my favorite mystery series is Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. Anna can handle the hardships of nature and of law enforcement work in the national parks sometimes better than she can cope with her inner life. She’s tough, and then her flaws and weaknesses make her whole and sympathetic. I root for her to get through all of the obstacles, internal and external. I discovered Barr, as I have many of my favorite mystery writers, through an audiobook I checked out for one my Southeast to Southwest journeys. (I prefer the excitement on the interstate to be fictional, and the trip itself uneventful.)

A few months ago at a party a friend who had just discovered Tolkien said his favorite line by this author was the same one that I had noticed years ago. I’m not sure if it’s in The Hobbit or in The Fellowship of the Ring but the idea stuck with me long after I’d forgotten which book it came from. The narrator’s voice states that the travelers had a nice stay and that there was not much else to say about it, because things that are very pleasant to live through are dull to tell about, but events that are difficult to live through make fascinating stories.

Though I seek a certain level of disruption with my long road trips and annual migrations, I like them best when the most dramatic stories I come back with are the ones I wrote.