Whodunnit, American Style

 

Orcas Island, the setting for my latest novel, An Unseen Current, is the largest of the San Juan Islands.  Now, with names like those I know you’re picturing some other south of the equator island, where the palm fronds sway and whales frolic off-shore.  You’d be right about the whales, but thanks to a 1790’s Spanish explorer who was anxious to impress his boss, the Viceroy of Mexico (Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo) the San Juan Islands are bit further North – in Washington State. So while, Orcas whales do indeed frolic, if you visit Orcas you’re more likely to be doused with rain and smacked by an evergreen bow than conked on the head by a coconut.  However, the San Juans do share some of the same cultural characteristics as the tropical islands we all picture.  Life there runs on island time, people do all know each other, and islanders learn to make do with the resources they have on hand.  Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, Orcas is full of artists, foodies, retirees, tourists, and those who just don’t really care for the hustle and bustle of the mainland. And if you’re a mystery writer, it’s the perfect place for a murder.

UnseenCurrent_Vook-600x899I’ve been visiting Orcas for most of my life.  My dad’s best friend lives there and summer visits were pretty normal (if you didn’t mind the glass outhouse), and it wasn’t until college that I recognized the murderous potential of Orcas. I was teaching a water safety class for girls at Camp Moran and I realized that it was the perfect setting for an American version of the classic “English Country House” mystery.  The English Country House mystery’s cropped up with invention detective fiction and featured an amateur sleuth dropped into a murder mystery when one of the guests at their house party is killed.  The amateur sleuth is practically forced to interfere since village police are clearly unsuited to handle the case, London police are practically unreachable, and by George, no one gets away with killing one of my guests!  On Orcas, although there are police, the nearest major crimes detective is a ferry ride away in Anacortes, the suspect pool is limited to the population of the island, and while my ex-CIA agent character, seventy-something Tobias Yearly, doesn’t think he owns the island, he does think he’s the most qualified to find who murdered his best friend.  Tobias, and his granddaughter Tish, must make their way through suspects from all over the island as they contend with a suspicious police detective, an angry baker, and killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

As I wrote An Unseen Current I tried to capture all the quirkiness and beauty of Orcas, but also to show that even small towns and islands can hide a killer.  Now, hopefully, next time I visit, none of the locals take exception to that or I may find myself stuck in the glass outhouse with someone throwing stones.

The Long Tweet Goodnight

Jennae-tempheadshot160x200

J.M. Phillippe

In celebration of Mother’s Day my friend and fellow writer, J.M. Phillippe watched and tweeted the 1996 action flick The Long Kiss Goodnight.  You can read all our tweets at Storify. J.M and I watched the movie, tweeting as we went and then discussed the film before rating it on Feminism, Action, and Romance.

Synopsis:

The Long Kiss Goodnight is centered around Samantha Cain (Geena Davis) the schoolteacher mom who washed up on the Jersey shore with amenesia eight years before the start of the movie. Now firmly ensconced in suburban life with her darling daughter and sweet fiance, Samantha still wonders about her past and has hired a less than professional hard drinking private detective (also ex-cop and ex-con) Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson) to discover who she was. When she’s attacked in her home by a one-eyed psychopath (who wants his eye back, bitch!), Samantha discovers that maybe she wasn’t always the Suzie Homemaker she appears to be.  As she and Hennessy track down her past they discover that Samantha Cain is really Charly Baltimore, a hard core spy with a foul mouth, smoking habit, and penchant for violence.  While she’s been away, raising her daughter, a lot has changed on the espionage front. People who were her friends are now trying to kill her and Timothy, the man who may be the father of her child, is just plain evil. She and Hennessy are in over their heads and Samantha/Charly must reconnect with her past and make peace with her present role as a mom in order to thwart the bad guys and save their own lives.

Discussion:

J.M.: I never got back to your question earlier about the last time we saw this. I feel like we bought this during one of those Blockbuster used video sales in college, but I feel like it’s been a few years since I watched it. Few as is more than 5. Maybe almost as many as 10? I’m going to stop thinking about that because I already feel super old now.
Bethany: That would explain why it’s not in my DVD collection – it probably went out in the great video cassette purge of 2003.
J.M.: I think the first time I saw it I was blown away by the action, which was pretty good for the time, but mostly because it was a woman doing it all. But I also remember wishing that the dude she ended up with was more bad-ass. Like, maybe she’d redeem Timothy or something.
Bethany: I actually remember seeing this in the theater with my brother and thinking for sure that she would end up with Timothy or Samuel L. at the very least.  Timothy was TOO good looking AND the father of her kid.  I thought for sure he would find out he was the father and then turn, but probably still die.  I didn’t like that she went back to the boring fiance.  Not that there was anything wrong with him… just that he was boring.  Watching it this time, I don’t feel let down that she didn’t end up with Timothy or Samuel L., but it does feel a little convenient to end up back with the guy she started with.  Although, ditching him after he took care of the kid would have been lame.
J.M.: I also don’t remember thinking that the kid was as whiny back then. But this was Geena Davis from Beetlejuice — same hair and practically the same wardrobe, at least in the beginning, and it was shocking to see her transform. Even in Thelma & Louise, she was the “softer” one. I don’t think I ever really thought of her as tough until A League of Their Own. Judging the action by modern standards, I bought her fight scenes way more than some contemporary actresses. What really sucks is that she sort of drops of the film scene after this, outside of a few kids movies.
Bethany: I think Geena Davis was married to the director, Renny Harlin, and after they got divorced it feels like she stopped making that style of movie (he also directed Die Hard 2).
J.M.: We really don’t have a lot of women in the movie, and the others have like two little scenes. This is the Charly show, with only her daughter getting any real screen time as a female character. I think some of the henchmen got more screen time than the other women. I can’t say any of the other characters stood out to me enough to comment on. The dudes were sort of typical villains of the era — evil and tough and that edge of psychotic. Charly ends up having something sexual with all of them, even having to go into the crotch of the dead assassin trainer dude to get his gun. Plus there was that gratuitous shower scene, which is probably as close as it was gonna get to gratuitous boob scene (a staple of every action movie in a certain era). Still, I think they were softer on the objectification than even more modern movies. Like Mr. & Mrs. Smith has a whole scene where Angelina Jolie is dressed as a dominatrix in order to go kill a dude. Sex was one of her weapons, and while they hinted at that past with Charly, they mostly showed her being tough.
Bethany: They were way softer on the objectification.  And if nothing else, they spent 3 minutes of screen time lambasting Hennessy/Samuel L. for leering at a female jogger.  But I remember watching this in the theater and being uncomfortable with Charly’s sexual aggression. It was unusual then and I feel like it’s still unusual on film today.

Ratings:

Bechdel test:

J.M.: She does talk to her daughter, but I feel like this is supposed to be a conversation between two adult women. Other than Charly sort of talking to her other self, this never happens – that I can recall.
Bethany: No! I’m totally counting that.  Her kid plays a pivotal role in saving the day on two occasions and they use the conversations with her daughter to illuminate Charly’s character.  I say, it passed.

Feminist Rating:

J.M.: High, four burned bras (out of five). They did actually seem to think about what a female spy’s life would be like and the action didn’t feel like it was written for a dude, but they put a woman in it. This was a story genuinely centered around a woman, and a mother’s, experience.
Bethany: I’m giving it five out of five for slipping in a few feminist points aside from the main plot and action.

Action Rating:

J.M.: Five High Kicks (out of Five). Her fights/stunts were at least on par with the dudes of the era, with a few stand-out moments, like the fight in the kitchen, shooting the ice, the wheel, and even being a sharp shooter and saving Hennessey.

Bethany: Also five out of five for me. Great stunts, great explosions (raining cars!), it was everything you want from an action movie, and I feel the movie itself was well constructed.

Romance Rating:

J.M.: One heart (out of 5). The fiance in the beginning just sort of exists to dove-tail the story and give it a happy ending, and Charly and Hennessey have more of a bromance going on, with an extra layer of sexual tension. This is not a romantic action movie.
Bethany: Ditto. The Bromance is awesome, but not even the loosest interpretation of “romance” can count that for more than one heart.

Conclusion:

J.M.: Overall still one of my favorite action flicks. I’ll have to put it in more regular rotation.
Bethany: I agree – thanks for the mother’s day gift! I’m glad to own it.  Find out more about J.M. Phillippe and her forthcoming novel Perfect Likeness at www.jennaephillippe.com

Mystery Novel Seeks New Home

Originally published at The Stiletto Gang on 04.22.15

As the release date for my newest mystery (An UnseenCurrent) approaches (April 28th– ahhhhhhh!!!) I find myself once again pondering the cruel irony of nature that crafts writers to be introspective sorts and then pits them against a task to which they are monumentally unsuited.  That is to say: marketing. The woman hours spent lovingly crafting characters, settings, and events leaves the writer more than a little in love with their own book. To then have it heartlessly thrust into the public where some reviewer will crassly thumb through it and declare it to be passable is like being gently stabbed with needles by someone who doesn’t really care about your problems.  We all want to be bestselling authors.  I mean, who doesn’t want to be RichardCastle? (I really am ruggedly handsome!)  But in all honesty, I think most writers would rather have their books treasured and loved than consumed like soda and disposed of.

I remember the first time I saw one of my aunt’s books at Half-Price Books. My aunt,Linda Nichols, writes beautiful Christian fiction with snappy plots and characters you want to hug. I had not yet, published any books and I personally thought that seeing her books on the shelf of a used bookstore was cool.  But Linda did not think it was cool – there was wincing and the sad look of “ohh, I wish I didn’t know that.”  Someone sold her book down the river – the heathens, the Philistines! The bastards with not enough shelf space!  After I had been published I realized her pain.  How could someone not love my book?! Why would anyone give my book away?  My books are awesome.  All right, yes, I recognize the shelf space issue is a real thing – even libraries don’t have ALL the books.  But as each baby book flies out into the world, forgive me if I hope that it will find at least one home where it will be treasured.

And on that note – who wants a free digital copy of An Unseen Current?  It’s looking for an awesome home (and someone who will leave a review).  Leave a comment here or on Facebook to be entered to win.  I’ll draw names on Friday morning.

 

Interview with a Girlfriend

One of the best things about being a part of a collective blog like the Girlfriends Book Club is that I have access to the collective wisdom of all the Girlfriends. As a relative newcomer to the group I’ve been catching up on old blogs, following the gals on twitter, and bumping a few of the Girlfriend books to the top of my reading list. For today’s blog I had a virtual sit down with Girlfriend Jess Riley and asked all the questions that I think readers should ask me.

969652_10151597355619487_76164306_n (2)

Jess Riley

Question 1 – Let’s cover the basics. Who are you and what do you write?
Uh-oh, I feel an existential crisis coming on! Let’s see…who is Navin Johnson. I mean Jess Riley. These days, I am up to my eyeballs in grant deadlines for my public school clients. When I’m not writing grant proposals or sending veggies through my new Spiralizer (awesome little gadget), I am writing novels…really, I am! I guess you could say I write chick lit that has a major crush on Jonathan Tropper and Shannon Olson? One of the biggest compliments I got recently was an unsolicited review for Mandatory Release from fellow Girlfriend Ellyn Oaksmith: “This is a quirky Indie movie of a book that would win all the prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. ” That made me blush, but it’s essentially what I’m going for with my writing and I love Ellyn for the compliment. Here’s the official bit about my books: Jess’s debut novel, DRIVING SIDEWAYS, was released by Random House in 2008. Selected as a Target Breakout Book, it’s now in its fourth printing. Other novels include ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE and MANDATORY RELEASE. Find her online at www.jessriley.com.

Question 2 – What is the weirdest research you’ve ever done?
One of my secrets used to be lurking on message boards that would be frequented by people like my characters. The main character in Mandatory Release is a young man with a spinal cord injury; as I don’t know any such folks in real life, I dropped in on a few online communities and learned some specific & interesting pet peeves shared by people in wheelchairs. (Such as drunk girls wanting to sit on your lap, people trying to “steer you,” even hair clippings sticking to your hands if you had a hair-cut scheduled for a rainy day.) I actually found two young women with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) this way when I was researching Driving Sideways; they both graciously read early drafts of the novel, as I was keen to make sure the story honored and reflected the experience of a young woman with kidney disease.

Question 3 – What is the most uncomfortable piece of writing you’ve ever completed?
I hate any time I write about parents or siblings (which is ironic because All the Lonely People is all about parents and siblings). I always worry my family will think I’m writing about them.

Question 4 – What is your most memorable book promotion event?
Oh man, I have a zillion embarrassing stories about publicity-gone-wrong. One of the most shame-inducing stories is long, about my most recent book release party, but you can find it on my blog if you’re curious. I also laugh every time I think of the time I was stalking my book at Target–of course I’d check it out to see how many copies were in stock when I ran errands. I was still lurking in the book section when I overheard a young woman say to her boyfriend. “I don’t want a hardcover, I just want something funny and easy to read on vacation.” I took the last copy of Driving Sideways from the shelf and handed it to her. “Uh, I wrote this. You should take it on vacation with you.” She probably thought I was crazy, but she took it with her!

Question 5 – What is your favorite book or movie that everyone thinks you’re weird to love?

Book: One of my all-time favorites is The Stand by Stephen King. I always proselytize about this one!
Movie: This is a hard one, because my movie tastes are all over the map. But generally speaking, if it’s designed to be a big budget pander-fest with stock characters and beats straight out of Screenwriting 101, I’m out. I love anything weird, unexpected, clever, smart, funny: this is going to sound strange, but I really enjoyed both Dead Snow movies on Netflix. Campy…Norwegian…zombie Nazis? How could I resist!

Thanks to Jess Riley for her interview and even if you don’t see her in the book section at Target, you should probably still pick up her books!

Hashtag This

Originally published at The Stiletto Gang on 04.08.15

There’s a hashtag on Twitter for people who are writing – #amwriting. An innocuous hashtag for tracking other writers, but sometimes… it can be just a little bit smug. And given the nature of writers I was wondering if we could have a more honest hashtag? #amsurfingtheweb #amwatchingcatvideos #amdoinganythingbutwriting

Right now I’m doing anything but working on the outline of Carrie Mae Book 4.  Because, no, I don’t know how they ended up in a brawl to the death among the Amsterdam tulips.  Can’t I just wave my magic writer wand, do a little jazz hands, and write by the seat of my pants?  The problem with pantsing it, is that I am no Louis L’Amour.  Mr. L’Amour apparently did not believe in rewrites or edits; he believed that rewrites killed the freshness of the story.  Or he believed that we would buy whatever he wrote. #hewasright  When I attempt to pants it, my stories go sideways and I end up writing entire chapters that sound like vacation brochures. #needavacation No story was ever moved forward by a character actually stopping to smell the roses, or in my case, tulips.  Unless, of course, he got wacked on the head while bending to smell one. #deathbytulip #nameformynextnovel #dontstealit #mine

So here I am, forced into the drudgery of outlining.  Coming up with the answers before I even know what all the questions are. Or in my case, procrastinating for all I’m worth. #procrastination! I could say that I’m mulling it over or letting it marinate, but let’s face it, at no point in my life have I ever mulled something over while doing the dishes.  The only thing I think while doing the dishes is that dishes suck and we all need to stop eating so there will be less dishes.  #seriously It’s productivity through hatred of the other available task. #atleastsomethinggotdone Eventually, I’ll have to return to the outline – figure out the who, why, where and how.  Eventually, I will have to do the research and plug the plot holes.  Eventually, I will actually have to write.  #amwriting   Sigh.  Can’t I be #amvacuuming instead?

The Story Starts Here

Originally published at The Stiletto Gang on 03.25.15

One of the most common question a writer gets asked is “Where do your ideas come from?”

Once my brother made me lay on his floor so he could tape outlines of me all over his bedroom carpet as though his room had been the site of a mass murder; we found it was surprisingly difficult to get just the right pose so that all the limbs were showing and you didn’t just have weird potato shaped outlines. (Yes, I know that was an odd transition, but I’ll circle back I promise.) When was 12, I told my Dad I had a stove box to make a Halloween costume out of he got out the black and white spray paint and turned my best friend and I into Two Fools in Pair-o-Dice; our heads came out the one dots – naturally. My mom’s friend once had eye surgery and had a rather large bandage, so my mom painted on an eye over the bandage and added a great set of false lashes. Why did we do these things? Honestly, the question never occurred to us. Had you asked at the time we probably would have said, “Why not?” My family has a culture of creativity and odd projects from passing thoughts are the norm not the exception. And as is often the case with cultures, I didn’t think to question it until someone from a different culture asked, “So why don’t you put mayo on fries?”  Or in the case of my writing, “How do you come up with your ideas?”

The people asking don’t mean anything by the question, they are genuinely interested. The problem is that at any given time I’m vacillating between two of my personalities, Helpful Instructor Bethany and Diva Artiste Bethany. Helpful Instructor is usually nice, but Diva Artiste is kind of… well, I won’t use the B-word as we are in a family friendly forum, but you get the idea, and sometimes it’s a struggle to rein Diva Wench back in. Helpful Instructor realizes that the questioner was not raised in a culture of creativity and they are asking for help understanding the creative process. Diva Artiste imperiously demands how anyone cannot have ideas. Ideas are literally littered on the sidewalk, in the newspaper, on the radio, sleeting through the universe like a tiny meteorite looking for a receptive brain (Terry Pratchett, you are missed) and all you really have to do to have an idea is make your brain receptive. It’s easy to do – read blogs by creative people (thanks), buy creative people presents (ok, maybe not really on that one, but I like books, you know, just in case), try new things. But the number one tip that Helpful Instructor or Diva Artiste both agree on, is to ask “What if?”

Any topic can work. Earlier this week there was a news story about a man who ran from the police and got stuck in mud.  What if you had been that man – up to your knees in river mud, unable to move, sinking slowly? What would you do?

What if I… What if you… What if they… The story starts there and you can decide the ending – just answer the question.

Good Days & Bad Days

Originally posted on Girlfriends Book Club on 03.12.15

Writing, as a profession, has many drawbacks – low pay, near constant rejection, and of course, the perception that anyone with two fingers and maybe a toe for the spacebar can do whatever it is an author does. In popular imagination what a writer does seems to consist mainly of drinking, living in dilapidated, Miss Havesham-esque hovels, and pulling genius 500 page books out of their butt in 6 weeks or less. And most people think they could manage that – you know if they sat down and really tried. I’m not entirely sure what they base this on other than the fact that Havasham-esque dilapidated drinking while turning random crap into a term paper is how most people remember college.

Now physically it is possible that typing 40 words per minute for 6 hours a day (I’m leaving 2 hours per work day for eating, bathroom breaks, and cat videos) could get you a 500 page work in about 9 days. (40 words x 60 min. = 2400 words, 250 words per page = 9.6 pages per hour & 57.6 pages per day x 8.75 days = 504 pages with time left over for an extra cat video). The problem is that the words don’t already exist – they have to be invented, discovered, and strung together in the right way. Even for this blog (currently a mere 229, 230, 231 words) I’ve already deleted about as many words as I’ve written. You need words that not only mean the right thing, but sound like the thing, and conjure imagery so that the reader can see the right thing. Basically, finding the right words is not as easy as it looks. But it’s also one of the best things about writing.

Not every word I write is gold. But I have written a few things that have a beautiful symmetry, a fricative taste in the mouth, and leave a crunchy thought in the brain. Those are the good days. And those are the days that keep me pursuing writing. Because sometimes, if I work hard enough, I get to make something wonderful, artistic and meaningful.

But now here’s a picture of a cat in bread – because today is not one of those days.

bread-and-cat

Goldfish Brain

I’m monumentally bad at dates.  The Christmas after I got married my mother-in-law got a new pair of sneakers and she said, “Oh, I wish I’d had these on XX of some-month-Bethany-doesn’t remember.”  And I said, “Really? What happened on that date?”  And they all stared at me because it turned out that was the day I got married.  Which may seem a bit rude to my poor husband, but in my defense I also can’t remember what year I graduated from college.  And one time I spent an entire day being really annoyed because my friends kept calling me (I was in the middle of a project) to wish me happy birthday.  Every single call was a surprise.  So, I’m not saying that I will absolutely forget that some day (14th?  15th? No, seriously, what day is it?) in February is Valentine’s Day, I’m just saying that the odds are not in my husband’s favor.  But on the other hand that means if he remembers all that lovely chocolate will be a wonderful surprise.

Unfortunately, this type of memory blockage also means that my memory for VERY IMPORTANT FACTS related to my characters is also somewhat lacking. Like last names, eye color, the details of their backstory.   Given enough time and rewrites it all gets a bit fuzzy.  Bulletproof Mascara, for instance went through 9.5 rewrites (I’m counting the typo catching pass as .5 of a rewrite).  That means that the villain Jirair Sarkassian went from being Texan to Armenian somewhere around draft 6.  And in An Unseen Current (Available everywhere April 28! Available for pre-order on kindle now!!) I dropped an entire villain between draft 1 and 2.  Which wouldn’t be much of a problem if I didn’t insist on writing sequels.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment to have to read your own book to find out what you wrote, but apparently readers insist on continuity and well, just generally making sense.  But having just read Bulletproof Mascara and Compact with the Devil (in preparation for the forthcoming High-Caliber Concealer), I can honestly recommend my books to people.  I’m very funny and my plots actually do make sense.  I give myself two thumbs up.  I probably can’t review myself on Goodreads, can I?

Flying Flags

Originally published on 01.27.15 at The Stiletto Gang.

I had to laugh when I read Debra Goldstein’s post yesterday about football being “only a game”.  I live in Washington State, which, in case you’re living in a hole, is home of the Seahawks, contenders the upcoming football high-holy day – the Super Bowl.  Although, even when living in a hole, I’m fairly certain that you probably felt the Beast Quake or possibly Richard Sherman dropped by to tell you how awesome he is, and then probably stuck around to make pointedly blunt statements about the corruption in the NFL.  Football may be only game, but tis the season for every football fan everywhere to lose their dang minds.

As I’m only an occasional football watcher I find most of the fan-actions a bit mystifying.  Twelfth man flags decorate every building, a local tattoo parlor is offering a 12’s tattoo special and last game against the Packers the Seattle City Council banned cheese from the premises.  Like Debra, I say, “But it’s only a game!”  Not that I say that very loudly – my husband would glare at me.

But also like Debra, I identify with the way fans pour over every detail, dissect plays, and watch every report on the subject.  A fan, no matter the subject, wants to know all about the thing they love.  So I don’t wave a twelfth man flag, but the books on my shelf tell their own tales (pun intended).  Anyone visiting my house knows where I stand on the topic of Lord of the Rings (pro) and the work of cover artist Thomas Canty (also pro) and Tintin (highly pro). I don’t have any tattoos, but I can quote The Walrus and The Carpenter – it’s tattooed on my brain.  And as for cheese… no, sorry, I have nothing there. Cheese is never banned at my house and neither are books.

Am I the only “12th Man” uber book fan out there?  What “flags” are flying on your bookshelf?

The Dealer in Your Neighborhood

I was talking to a librarian the other day and she laughed when I said I thought librarians were like drug dealers.  But they really are! They even target the little kids! Get them hooked on the picture books, next thing you know the kids are applying for library cards and mainlining Harry Potter, Divergent and TheTesting.  Give it a few years and YA just won’t give the same buzz and the kids have to move on to bigger and bigger fiction.  And that’s when the librarians start pushing the hardcore stuff – Faulkner, Atwood, Joyce. If you’re not careful your kid could end up reading the entire Lord of the Rings even though there’s a perfectly good director’s extended cut blue ray back home.

And just like pushers, librarians are extremely open-minded.  They don’t care where you’ve come from.  Rich, poor, or in between – all library cards are the same to them.  (Unless it’s an out of state card, in which case you will have to pay the buck and get a local card.)  They don’t even judge when all you want to read is Romance novels; they just point you toward the romance section and recommend new authors who also write in the kilt and dragon milieu.  It’s a slippery slope, my friends. You go into the library for the videos and the free internet access and the next thing you know you’re reading and using words like “milieu.”

So, if that kind of blatant pushing of mind-expanding education is acceptable to you, then you should probably hug the next librarian you see.  Just remember that the VIG on those late library books is due next week…