What’s at Stake?

How many personal threats can the protagonist of an amateur sleuth series face? Perhaps you’ve marveled at how often the lead characters in long-running series encounter murders, but then suspended disbelief and kept reading. I’ve done it myself. Then I get distracted by scenes in which friends of the lead character point out the very thing I’ve just put aside. Gosh, you sure you do get involved in a lot of murders. It’s one way for an author to handle the problem, though. Acknowledge it and keep telling the story.

It’s been a while since I blogged about my writing process. At present, I’m in the final revision stage for Chloride Canyon, the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery. I’ve received valuable feedback from several beta readers and critique partners. Now I’m blending their various insights into the plot, cleaning up problems they noticed, and raising the stakes—the one thing three out of four suggested I do.

That’s the hardest part. A professional detective wants to solve a crime, and cares because it’s a job. However, I have that amateur problem. My mysteries aren’t about murder, but they sometimes involve crimes. Others center around wrongs that are harmful, but not criminal. Mae’s reasons to get involved can be deeply personal or tied to people she cares about. In several of the books, she’s hired as a psychic to solve a mystery. In the majority of cases, the stake for Mae is empathic rather than a direct threat. What makes the plot work is a serious risk to the emotional, financial and/or physical well-being of others.

The two antagonists in Chloride Canyon create stress in Mae’s life at college, but they don’t endanger her. Her constant challenges in the series include choices about using her psychic ability and how to handle her sometimes excessive urge to help people. In this book, by helping friends, she ends up also having to help her enemies. Will this be enough to make readers care? Only if there’s enough of a threat. And it can’t always be a threat to Mae if I want the arc of the series to be believable. How can I raise the stakes for her, then? By raising the stakes for characters she cares about.

Okay. I’ve figured it out. Back to work on revisions.

 

Slow but Deep

Many writers are participating in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—aiming to compete 50,000 words of a first draft in November. I cheer them on, but I won’t be doing it myself. I don’t work well at that speed. I tried writing fast recently, as I was working on chapter three of book nine in the Mae Martin Series, and I realized the next day that I’d ignored the characters deeper inclinations in order to make Something Exciting happen. I had to go back, delete most of it, and change what remained. If I go fast, I also make incomprehensible typos and even end up typing in the middle of a previous line somehow. In the long run,  writing slowly while listening to the characters hearts and letting what drives them drive the plot is the best way for me to make Something Exciting happen.

Some writers can do this while producing over 1,600 words a day, or through an outline. Not me. The closest I’ve come was when I outlined the initial premise for each of the short stories in Gifts and Thefts, following the path through my main characters’ lives in 2012 and half of 2013. And even then, a new theme emerged I hadn’t planned on. In response, I improvised the middle story, Guardian Angel, with no plan at all. I guess it’s not a Mae Martin Mystery, since it’s about her boyfriend, not her, and while mysterious, it’s not a mystery to be solved the way the other five stories are. But it fits those stories together like the keystone of an arch.

I mentioned book nine at the beginning of this post, and you may be wondering what happened to book eight. I’ve gotten feedback on it from two critique partners and am waiting to hear from two beta readers later this month. (What’s the difference? Critique partners swap manuscripts and provide feedback to each other; beta readers do the critique without reciprocity. I love beta reading for writers whose series I follow, getting to be the first to read the next book.)

The eighth Mae Martin Mystery will get a final in-depth revision based on those four critiques, and then I’ll send it to my editor. Since Gifts and Thefts came out in spring 2021, I’d love to have book eight, Chloride Canyon, come out in spring 2022. And that’s why I’m starting on book nine already. Maybe I’ll finish it in a year. Chloride Canyon has been in in progress for four years, with breaks to write Shadow Family and Gifts and Thefts. That was slow, even for me.

 

 

New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied the Woman at Otowi Crossing by J. Michael Orenduff

The question is not only why someone killed a man crossing the Old Town plaza toward Hubie’s shop, but who the man was. And why he wanted to see Hubie.

Like all Pot Thief mysteries, this one takes the reader on entertaining detours which turn out to be part of the plot. Unconventional though it is, the book is well-paced. (There are a few genuine digressions, but they aren’t dull. I can’t object to Hubie reciting a list of New Mexico mystery writers in order to prove his extraordinary memory.) The trips to Silver City and to Tucumcari are educational as well as revealing. The Albuquerque settings and many of the characters are familiar, of course, to series fans. I especially enjoy Hubie’s conversations with his friend Susannah. She disagrees with him more than others close to him do, which makes for lively reading, especially when they’re trying to solve a crime. Many amusing scenes satirize academia. There are also moving, touching moments such as Freddy’s return to freedom. No spoilers. It’s an extraordinary moment. And the solution to the mystery is also emotionally profound.

I was glad to see Hubie commit a little breaking and entering toward the end. I was afraid he’d given up on that sort of thing. He thieves no pots in this book, an activity which I miss, but he does steal something of great personal value to himself. And to solving the mystery. And after all her years of reading mysteries and roping calves, Susannah contributes heroically as well.

 

 

New Mexico Mystery Review: Shaman Winter by Rudolfo Anaya

This third book in Anaya’s Sonny Baca series is the most mystical, filled with visions and shamanic dream journeys. Sonny’s detective work takes place in both the ordinary realm and the spirit realm, as he travels through layers of time and identities to confront his ongoing antagonist, the sorcerer Raven.

Raven, in this story, has allied with a white supremacist militia, a plot element that’s surprisingly current, though the book is old enough that doing detective work on the internet was new when it was first published.

The action at all levels is intense, once the story gets moving. The journeys into New Mexico history are exciting, integrating the past with the present. Sonny matures. He has always idealized his fiancée, Rita. In this book, he finally seems to understand her whole, vulnerable humanity as they endure a shared crisis. The curandera Lorenza, however, is still on the pedestal where Sonny tends to put women. He appreciates her, yet I never felt he perceived her entire self. Sonny’s neighbor, friend, and shamanic teacher  Don Eliseo plays a profound role. The end of the book is extraordinary in both the writing and the main character’s spiritual development, as well as the humility with which Sonny concludes this particular case.

This is a book only Anaya could have written. The beginning has some slow spots, so slow I might have stopped reading if I didn’t know the author’s work well enough to keep going, trusting he would reward me. I was right. It well worth reading the beginning to reach the finale.

Four Years and a Free Story

Today is my fourth anniversary of moving to Truth or Consequences, taking early retirement to write full time. I will celebrate by putting in some serious hours on the next book and committing to an earlier start on each night’s writing.

I’ve been productive in those four years. Three works of fiction have come out—Death Omen, Shadow Family, and Gifts and Thefts—and the essay collection Small Awakenings.

But I actually started the book I’m working on before I moved. While there are elements in it that I like, the problem is I finished the first draft of book eight in the Mae Martin Series before I began book seven. I’ve had to rewrite book eight almost entirely, and I’m still revising. It can’t be the same story it started out to be. The characters have matured and changed.

Speaking of characters maturing … Mae’s thirtieth birthday party takes place in one of the short stories in Gifts and Thefts. In the series prequel, The Outlaw Women, you can meet her at age ten, as seen through the eyes of her grandmother. Free on all e-book retailers through July 15th.

 

Folk healer and seer Rhoda-Sue Outlaw Jackson knows her time on earth is running out when she hears the voice of her late husband telling her she has only but so many heartbeats left. She’s had a troubled relationship with her daughter, and has little hope of passing on her extraordinary gifts, either to this difficult daughter or to her granddaughter. With the final hour around the corner, she brings her family together for one more try. Can she leave the world at peace with them, as well as with her legacy?

 

Where did that character come from?

I sometimes feel as if characters come out of nowhere, fully formed, in search of an author. A few positive, likeable characters have been inspired by real people, but even then, I make changes so I’m not actually putting person X in a book.

Antagonist characters are usually inspired by one specific trait or behavior I notice in an individual. I use that trait as a root from which to grow a character. For example, in the short story Hidden Fish in Gifts and Thefts, I needed someone who would antagonize Mae’s boyfriend, Jamie. As I set up the opening scene, I had an image of a woman I’d noticed a concert a couple of years ago wearing an oddly fitted wig and carrying a small dog. (The wig puzzled me, because it seemed she intended to make it obvious she was wearing one.) Jamie is a musician with a fear of dogs. A woman who would bring her dog to a concert was the perfect antagonist.

Obviously, I couldn’t actually use this real person in my story, whoever she was, but I borrowed the dog—making him far less cute and far worse-mannered—for Hepzibah. I borrowed a variation on the wig, too, and invented a story behind it as the reason for her enmity toward Jamie.

When I was recertifying as a fitness professional in 2019, I took a continuing education course taught by a woman who said “Whoo!” after every segment of the workout. It drove me nuts. I took note of that idiosyncrasy for an antagonist in Mae’s in workplace, a fitness center. I thought it was the only aspect of this presenter I used, but the day Gifts and Thefts came out, I realized I’d used more. Her unprofessional behavior. She made overt sexual jokes, and she kept asking if it was time to have wine yet. I’d forgotten this. Consciously, anyway. In the short story Responsible Party, Sandra commits different offenses. But in retrospect, I see more of the presenter in her than I knew was there while I was writing.

I now wonder what else I’ve borrowed, beyond a wig, a dog, and a “whoo,” to assemble the characters who stand in the way of my protagonists.

*****

Download a copy of the second short story in Gifts and Thefts

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.

*****

The Calling is on sale for 99 cents through April 10th.

I’ll be interviewed and will read sections from The Calling on All About Books KTAL, 101.5 FM, Las Cruces, at 12:30 p.m.  Mountain Daylight Time, April 9th. Later that day, the show will be posted on the station’s archive.

New Release Available for Preorder and Book One on Sale

Gifts and Thefts

Six Short Mae Martin Mysteries

 Could a gift cat be a mystery in disguise?

Gifts and Thefts picks up where Shadow Family left off with six connected short stories, beginning with the anonymous gift of a cat and ending with an elephant in the room. Faced with decisions about using her psychic gift, Mae Martin wants to help her friends and colleagues, but uncovering the truth has consequences—for her and for people she cares about. The answers to simple questions have complicated results, and solving one mystery opens the door to a bigger one.

The Mae Martin Series

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

Buy

****

Gifts and Thefts will be released on March 31.  The paperback can be ordered then. E-books can be preordered.

The Calling, the first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, is on sale for 99 cents through April 10 on all e-book retailers.

Buy

Free Short Story: A Preview of Gifts and Thefts

Gifts and Thefts will come out on March 31. It’s been edited and now is now being proofread. If you’re eager to start reading, you can download an uncorrected copy of the first story in the book. (There may be a few typos, maybe not. Editors and authors go “wordblind” to material they’ve read and worked with over and over.)

Click here for your free preview story. Hope you like it!

Rodeo Regrets

Will Baca receives a cat from an anonymous giver, and his girlfriend suspects it’s from another woman. Mae Martin’s psychic journey into Will’s past on the rodeo circuit takes a puzzling twist while she’s solving the mystery behind the gift.

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.