Making Mistakes

I’m at a point in my work in progress (Mae Martin Mysteries book eight) where my protagonist feels compelled to both help and confront the antagonist—a person who has wronged her and done even greater wrongs to people she cares about. Then the antagonist, through actions that karmically earned a disaster, is in crisis. Perhaps there’s an ideal path Mae could take, but can she see it? As the author, do I want her to?

In this book, Mae is taking a college course on Eastern Philosophy. She’s doing her best as a beginner to explore the wisdom of the Buddha. The antagonist’s brother and his roommate are dedicated yogis, not just in asana practice but in attempting to live the philosophy. Mae’s summer house guest is an Apache teenager who is training to become a medicine man. In the scene I’m working on, these well meaning, spiritually aware young people are in a situation where the right action is hard to find. Hard to agree on. Is there room for compassion and outrage at the same time in the same heart? At thirty, Mae is the oldest of the group. She’s likely to mess up. I was not very wise at thirty, myself. Wiser than I was in my teens or twenties, but I’d be making a mistake to portray her with the wisdom of an elder.

I’d also be making a mistake if my characters’ errors are unsympathetic. I have to write this so the reader can feel the struggle. It’s not easy to love your enemies.

New Mae Martin Book Coming in March 2021

If you’ve just discovered my work, you may be wondering if this is all you’ll get. It’s been a year since Shadow Family came out. I’m hooked on several series, and I want the characters to stay in my life. I realized I should update my progress when a reader asked if there will be an eighth Mae Martin Mystery. Yes, there will. And even sooner, there’ll be a sort of a “book 7.5” in the series.

Gifts and Thefts, a short suite of six Mae Martin stories, picks up where Shadow Family left off, following Mae Martin and Jamie Ellerbee through the changes and challenges of the following year. The mini-mysteries include:

  • Rodeo Regrets: Will Baca receives a cat from an anonymous giver, and his girlfriend suspects it’s from another woman. Mae’s psychic journey into Will’s past on the rodeo circuit takes a puzzling twist while she’s solving the mystery behind the gift.
  • Responsible Party: Mae’s internship in fitness management gets stressful when her supervisor starts accusing other employees of theft and tells Mae to find the responsible party. Her efforts bring results neither of them expected.
  • Guardian Angel: When Jamie stops at a roadhouse in west Texas, a woman who won a pool tournament is in trouble and needs a guardian angel. Is he up to the job? Was he somehow called to it?
  • Hidden Fish: Mae’s stepdaughters create an elaborate trivia treasure hunt as a Christmas gift for their Uncle Vaughan, leaving a trail of clues and origami fish hidden around downtown Truth or Consequences. But the fish vanish before Vaughan can solve the puzzle, and the children ask Mae to find out what happened. At Jamie’s New Year’s Eve concert, she’s caught between the suspects.
  • Tipped Off: Who would leave a hotel housekeeper that big a tip, and why? Montana Chino has a birthday surprise for Mae, but first she needs Mae to do a psychic investigation into the tip. Was there a mistake, or did the guest have mischief in mind?
  • Elephant: On the weekend Mae and Jamie attend two weddings, she can tell he’s keeping something from her. He has to resolve a problem before he can talk to her, though. A problem that began almost a year before, when he healed Will Baca’s cat.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all

Whole Series Sale

In the mood to curl up with a good book? How about seven? The entire Mae Martin Series is on sale through December 16th. The Calling is free, Shaman’s Blues is $2.99, and the rest of the books in the series are $3.99 each. If you haven’t caught up with all seven, this is a great time to do it.

How Plotting a Novel is like Planning a Yoga Class

For me, teaching yoga and writing fiction are about the deeper aspects of being human, not simply about executing poses or providing entertainment. The asana practice or the entertainment is the container for the inner process.

There are two main ways I approach my work in both cases: structure and improvisation. For example, I have general sense a story is about a certain theme and a certain problem affecting a set of characters in a specific setting. There’s interaction among these elements, and sometimes it can surprise me. A yoga class also tends to have a theme, such as a class focused primarily on hip stability and mobility or a class building up to a new asana. How I teach it is affected by the student or group of students.

A story has a beginning, in which the protagonist is in her normal world, in a situation where her strengths and her shortcomings feel comfortable and familiar. But then something changes, making it necessary not only to take action, but to do things she’s not comfortable doing, things that stretch her creativity and courage in confronting a problem that has high stakes for her and for people she cares about yet. The pace increases and the demands become greater as the story progresses.

I start a yoga class with awareness of posture and breath, meeting the students as they are, letting them find where the knots, restrictions, and imbalances are. I observe them and consider what they might need in their asana practice to release some of the habits that tighten their necks, backs, or shoulders. I also take requests, because the students may have concerns and needs I can’t otherwise assess. The first portion of the class focuses the mind, warms up the muscles, and lubricates the joints prior to any significant physical demands. The middle portion of the class is the hardest, with poses that challenge strength, balance, and flexibility.

I respond to my students’ questions and to what I see in their practice with further explorations and modifications. I may need to change direction in midstream, depending on how they respond to my instruction and on how they’re feeling that day.

Similarly, I improvise in writing my books as I discover how my characters respond to what I’ve given them so far. They have as much say in the plot as I do. But if any key elements in the course of a mystery or of a balanced yoga class are missing, my readers or my students will end up feeling unfinished in some way. So, even as I invent, I rely on structure.

Beyond the midpoint is the peak of the experience. The crisis in the plot. Or the asana we’ve been building toward. Everything that comes before leads up to this. Nothing is extraneous. The challenge is equal to the student/protagonist’s ability, though at times it may feel to them as if it’s beyond their reach. That’s where growth takes place. And both are solving a puzzle, whether it’s a mystery or how to organize ardra chandrasana or how to quiet the mind and be fully present.

Then there’s the denouement of the plot or the cool-down and relaxation portion of the class, as everything that came before is integrated and resolved.

*****

A number of my characters practice yoga, though so far my protagonist, Mae Martin, doesn’t. Her friend and mentor, Dr. Bernadette Pena, introduced in The Calling, is an advanced yoga student. Mae’s young neighbors in Truth or Consequences in Shaman’s Blues are devoted to yoga as part of their recovery from addiction. Jamie Ellerbee is one of the most complex characters in the series. Yoga plays an important role in his healing journey, especially as he first begins his studies in Soul Loss.

Works in Progress

I set myself a goal to complete five short stories and get them revised and sent out for critique by November. I’ve somewhat polished three, finished a very rough first draft of the fourth, and have the outline for the fifth.

Writing these stories is forcing me to examine emotional depths within the tight plots of short fiction. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make my characters’ lives difficult. To test them and to explore how they can come out stronger. In some ways, doing this in short works is harder than developing a character arc over the expanse of a long, complex novel. I’m enjoying the work, though. It’s been a chance to reunite with characters I haven’t seen for a while and integrate their personal journeys with those of my protagonists.

Will Baca and Letitia Westover-Brown from Ghost Sickness are featured in the first story. They’re trying to make a go of honest work and an honest relationship, but then someone sends Will a strange gift, and they need Jamie as a healer and Mae as a psychic to solve to mystery.

The next story takes place at the college fitness center where Mae works. No visits with “old” characters here. She finds herself with a new enemy, one who could undermine her future career.

The third story brings back Kyle and Vaughan from Shadow Family and Rex from Death Omen as well as Mae’s stepdaughters. I loved working on it, a project that made me rediscover pre-pandemic Truth or Consequences, as the twins attempt to plant a trivia mystery for Vaughan to solve. Another mystery emerges as a consequence, and the girls want Mae to find out the truth.

The fourth story centers around Montana Chino, a character from Ghost Sickness. She and her sisters, Melody and Misty, have planned a thirtieth birthday surprise for Mae, and then Montana, a hotel housekeeper, gets a much bigger surprise in a tip envelope at work. A tip that could change her life in more ways than one when Mae’s psychic inquiry brings up answers Montana wasn’t looking for.

I haven’t decided if the fifth story is more of romance or a mystery, as Mae and Jamie attend two weddings almost back to back, one in T or C and one in Santa Fe. (Trivia question: What happened in New Mexico in 2013 that would cause this to happen?)

Yes, it’s still 2012 and 2013 in these stories. (The Calling is set in 2009-2010.) I’m moving along. But so far, I can’t skip any part of my characters’ lives. They want me know what they’ve lived through, so I’ll understand them better for the next book.

Schedule and a Sale

Once upon a time, I used to post every Thursday. Then it became every other Thursday or whenever I was inspired. I’m not sure it matters to readers of this blog if I keep to a schedule, but I decided it matters to me. For years, I had a schedule with the group blog, Ladies of Mystery. This summer, I decided it was time to leave. If you followed me on Ladies of Mystery, you got used to seeing my posts about writing on the fourth Thursday of every month, and I benefited from the discipline of reflecting on my craft. I’ll be keeping that schedule here, while posting on the second Thursday of every month on the other topics you’ve come to expect from me. Mindfulness, running, yoga, nature, occasional book reviews, and life in New Mexico.  In a way, there’s no boundary between reflecting on these things and on the work of writing. It’s all connected. A process of awareness and deep attention.

Anyway, the “real” post is next week. This is just my public commitment to the schedule. And an announcement that the boxed set of the Mae Martin Mysteries Books 1-3 is on sale for $2.99.

I hope all my readers are doing as well as possible in difficult times, staying safe and healthy. You’re welcome to use the comments to say hello, even if you have no actual comments on my post.

 

Moments

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”

Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.

Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.

One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.

I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration

On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.

After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.

*****

The entire Mae Martin Series is currently discounted. Book one, The Calling is free and will be through June 13. Shaman’s Blues is 99 cents through the end of April. The other books are $2.99, and when the promotions end, the first two books will be only $2.99 for the rest of the summer.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder at the Petroglyphs by Patricia Smith Wood

Once again, Patricia Smith Wood has crafted an intricate puzzle of a mystery. In short, tight chapters, she reveals the discovery of a death, and the process of solving how a body came to be where it was—but this is no simple question of who done it. The twists and surprises keep coming. Wood’s books always give my brain a good workout trying to follow the clues. The relationships among her cast of professional and amateur sleuths makes the involvement of amateurs more plausible than in the average amateur sleuth mystery. Another reason to get involved is this: Harrie McKinsey has prophetic dreams, and in one of them she sees the dead body at Petroglyphs National Monument.

There are so many facets to the mystery, so many contributing investigators—FBI, CIA, and Albuquerque Police Department, as well as Harrie and her friends and colleagues at her editing service—Wood did well not to have major subplots. It’s unusual in what is technically a cozy mystery, but it was the right choice. Most cozies have romantic subplots, but the central characters here are in established relationships. Most cozies are comic. Though many of the characters in this book display a natural and engaging sense of humor, it isn’t a comic mystery. It’s cozy in the sense of limiting onstage violence and having amateur participation, with much mystery-solving taking place over dinner or coffee.

I enjoyed the various Albuquerque settings, from restaurants to major parks like the Petroglyphs to local secrets like the Hidden Park, and even an airfield used by drone enthusiasts.

Many scenes take place at Southwest Editing Services, Harrie’s business. I was surprised at the importance of paper copies as well as electronic copies of manuscripts in a professional editing service. I’d thought paper was a thing of the past, but apparently not. I learned something.

I would have liked a stronger thread connecting the opening and the ending. The title, the cover, the first chapter, and park ranger Nick Ellis’s deep connection to the spirits of the ancient ones made me expect more continuity on this theme. In fact, I initially expected a different kind of story altogether. Harrie doesn’t come across as having a mystical connection to the land and its history, so the sudden transfer of what has been Nick’s spiritual experience to her felt as if an editor said to bring that theme back. Harrie is already psychic about her life and family, and having her new dream come from the spirits struck me as out of character. A couple of backstory chapters and a few chunks of expository dialogue also felt like afterthoughts or requests for additions, rather than integral parts of the otherwise tightly woven plot.

The wrap-up of the mystery plot was one-hundred-percent unexpected, even though I figured out the borders of the puzzle. The explanation scene is realistic and well-structured. (I’m always grateful when a book doesn’t have one of these clichéd confessions from a killer holding protagonist at gunpoint.) Wood has real skill with crowd scenes. She can juggle six or eight people in a scene and never let the reader forget any of them.

Complexity is what she does best. If you like a mystery that puts your mind to work, you’ll enjoy this one.

New Release: Shadow Family

The Seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

An old flame, an old friend, and the ghost of an old enemy.

 As the holidays approach, Mae Martin thinks the only challenge in her life is the choice between two men. Should she reunite with Hubert, her steady, reliable ex-husband? Or move forward with Jamie, her unpredictable not-quite-ex boyfriend? But then, two trespassers break into Hubert’s house on Christmas Eve to commit the oddest crime in the history of Tylerton, North Carolina.

Hubert needs to go home to Tylerton and asks Mae to go with him, though it’s the last place she wants to be. Reluctantly, she agrees, but before they can leave, a stranger shows up at her house in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico looking for her stepdaughters, bringing the first news of their birth mother in seven years—news of her death.

The girls are finally ready to learn about her, but she was a mystery, not only to the husband and children she walked away from, but also to the friends in her new life. Now her past throws its shadow on them all. Through psychic journeys, unplanned road trips, and risky decisions, Mae searches for the truth about the woman whose children she raised, determined to protect them from the dark side of their family.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

*****

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Caught in the Vortex

I’m a guest today on fellow New Mexico mystery writer Donnell Ann Bell’s blog. Talking about my discovery of T or C, and Mae Martin’s connection with the town as well.

“I could live here,” said a voice in my head. It was two in the morning. I’d walked into my room at The Charles Motel and Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico after driving across the country in two days to make the most of my spring break, and so far I’d seen nothing of the town.  Follow this link to read more.