The Letter I’ll Never Forget

Here it is again, a new year. A fresh start, and yet, a hint of gloom still permeates the air. We’ve all had to navigate through and adjust to new realities. How are you managing?

Whenever I’m struggling, I lean on the philosophy of someone I fell in love with years ago:

Vincent Van Gogh.

I was in my twenties and slightly adrift when I picked up Dear Theo, a compilation of Vincent’s letters to his brother. A few years earlier, I had visited the museum in Amsterdam dedicated to him. Though he wasn’t my favorite painter at the time, his spirit spoke to me through his art and grabbed onto something deep inside.

Van Gogh’s letters are an almost-daily account of his struggles. They vividly detail his miserable existence. Yet through it all, he kept working to be better.

The one I’ll never forget

A letter he wrote in 1884 has kept me going through rough moments in my personal and my writing life. Here’s a bit of it, lightly paraphrased and edited for brevity:

One mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes… You don’t know how paralyzing it is, the idiotic stare from a blank canvas that says you can’t do anything. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas. But the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares…

Life itself likewise turns toward us an infinitely idiotic and meaningless blank side. But however meaningless life appears, the person of faith, of energy, of warmth, doesn’t get discouraged. He steps in and builds up…

Substitute an author’s blank page for the painter’s canvas, and this is my daily inspiration.

Did you know that Vincent was also a book lover? Here’s this: It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at art. One should, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.

And this: So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me and reminded me that there are good things in the world.

And on another subject, this: A woman is not old so long as she loves and is loved.

Yes, he led a tragic, troubled life. Worse than most of us can imagine. But he never stopped wanting to capture truth and beauty in his art and his life.

Perhaps we all could take a lesson from Vincent, dare to face the blank canvas that is 2023, and choose to make this year into our own work of art.

Wishing you a year full of love and good health. And good books!

 

Gay Yellen writes the award-winning

Samantha Newman Mystery Series:

The Body BusinessThe Body Next Door,

and coming soon in 2023: Body in the News!

 

Creating Colorful Characters

For novelists, creating a memorable character that jumps off the page and into a reader’s imagination is darn hard to do. Which is why I frequently envy the person working at his desk in the other room, who always seems to be having fun.

Critters by Don

When my husband retired, people who knew him speculated on how he would spend his time once he left the company he’d founded. Write a book about his ground-breaking career? Open a restaurant? Learn to sail?

Nobody expected him to become a trash collector, but that’s exactly what he did. And then he created colorful characters from what he found.

The first creations came from a long-neglected “junk” drawer. Once he had repurposed most of that supply into a few funny faces, he expanded his search for more bits and pieces outdoors, where he struck it rich.

Don’s Doo-dads

We live near a big city park with hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors daily: runners, joggers, walkers, golfers, picnickers, folks pushing strollers and herding children. They come to ride the zoo train, see the animals, meditate in the Japanese garden, steer the paddle boats, or simply sit under a 100-year oak and feed the squirrels.

After a day of family fun, there’s always stuff left behind: a random baby shoe or sock, an odd earring, a broken barrette, the cap from a juice drink, the innards of a smashed calculator or mobile phone. If he comes across an interesting piece of detritus, he’ll bring it home and turn it into a piece of whimsy.

Besides the stand-alone Critters, he’s made magnetic Doo-dads that can be worn on clothing or stuck on the fridge. These funny-faced eye-catchers tend to be conversation starters, which encourages him to make more. Neighbors have donated their own odds and ends, eager to contribute to the process.

DELETE, Ms. Elegant, and Bad Hair Day

With each face, a unique personality emerges. A character you might want to meet, or avoid. A face that reminds you of someone you know, or would rather forget. Sometimes I grab a magnet pin to wear, depending to my mood. Feeling spiffy? Bad hair day? Or, if the writing’s not going well, I may sport the one with the DELETE button for a mouth. Enough said.

From time to time, someone asks to buy a piece, but the creator is not keen on selling. For now, his Critters & Doodads reside on shelves and inside cabinets, and only come out on request.

Yet every time a new Critter or Doo-dad emerges from a box of junk, it’s guaranteed to bring smiles. And these days, we all can use more of those. Including novelists.

Is there a silly something that brings you joy?

Gay Yellen is the award-winning author of the Samantha Newman Mystery Series, including The Body Business, The Body Next Door, and the upcoming Body in the News.

 

Mystery! Suspense! Thriller!

When I pitched my first book to a publisher, I described it as a mystery. “Tell me about it,” said the acquisitions editor. After hearing the the storyline, she asked to see the full manuscript and gave me her card.

 Glancing at the card, I noticed that the publisher she represented specialized in romance novels. I repeated that the book I had written was a mystery.

“Sounds like romance is a substantial part of it,” she countered. “Send the manuscript and let us decide.”

Long story short, her company published The Body Business as a Romantic Suspense novel. Thus began my initiation into the wacky world of genre madness and the marketing issues that plagued the book for the duration of the publishing contract.

Fast forward to the day the contract ended. At last, I had more control over how, when, and where the book was advertised.

Thankfully, the new edition took off and led to the launch of the Samantha Newman Mystery Series. As published authors know, trying to slide your novel into the perfect preset niche that book retailers and other marketers require can be daunting. My books tend to cross genres, so picking a single category was like aiming a fistful of darts at one teeny tiny target and hoping the right dart would hit the bullseye.

Mystery? Thriller? Suspense? Which one suits the stories best?

Here’s a simple way to differentiate them according to best-selling, multi-award winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan: “I always think a mystery is ‘who-done-it?’ A thriller is ‘stop it before it happens again.’ And suspense is ‘what’s going on here?’

These simple guidelines help me define the books in my series, even though each one fits into a different category.

Reviewers describe The Body Business as a “roller-coaster ride” and a “page-turner.” In other words, it reads like a thriller. As for The Body Next Door, some reviewers have called it a cozy. Like a cozy, there’s humor and a quirky character or two, but the absence of cats, crafts, or a charming village could risk the wrath of traditional cozy fans. It’s also been described as “full of suspense,” which is how I wrote it, straight-up.

Romance runs through the series as a subplot, due to my fiercely independent-minded main character, who continues to deflect the happy-ever-after ending romance readers crave. The romance continues into the next book, but the main plot is a true who-done-it.

To label a book as a mystery, suspense novel, or thriller is purely a marketing game. What an author really cares about is that people enjoy reading it. When our readers share a book they really like with their friends, they can describe it however they want.

Readers, do you rely on a bookseller’s categories to choose a book?

Writers, have you struggled with labels, too? Tell us about it.

Gay Yellen is the award-winning author of the Samantha Newman Mystery Series, including The Body Business, The Body Next Door, and the upcoming Body in the News.

 

WHICH IS MY FAVORITE?

I’m often asked which of my books is my favorite, and I can never answer directly. It’s like picking one of your children over the others. I love every book for its unique qualities, its characters, its relationship to my own life. BAD BLOOD SISTERS is my first book set in my hometown, on an island on the Gulf Coast. The main character, Quinn McFarland, struggles with issues of identity, friendship, and betrayal. The whole story is told through Quinn’s point of view, so we get to know and care about her deeply. Also, I wrote the book during Covid lockdown. Quinn’s story occupied my whole life, day and night, for almost a year, and I still think of her often. Quinn might be my Scarlett O’Hara.

NAUGHTY NANA, a children’s picture book, is narrated by my real-live Old English sheepdog, Nana, whose puppyhood was fraught with mishaps in the extreme. My first foray into the world of writing, NAUGHTY NANA introduced me to an illustrator, an audience, public appearances, and all the joys of connecting with readers. Having Nana by my side throughout this adventure has been a spectacular privilege. Nana could be my Curious George—in the book and in real life.

 

A MURDER OF PRINCIPAL might be my most personal novel, since it is set in an urban high school in the Midwest. I served as an educator in several such schools—they were my homes away from home. I do a lot of research for all of my books, but I did the least amount of research for this one, because my own experience and expertise carried me through most of the story. Assistant Principal, Sally Pierce, who resembles me in a few ways (but is overall purely fictional), is a fascinating amateur sleuth, and R.J. Stoker, the renegade principal who brings unwanted changes to Lincoln High School, is one of my favorite all-time characters.

 

And then I must consider the three books in the Detective Parrott Mystery Series. MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT, A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER, and CRYSTAL BLUE MURDER. Each of these is also my favorite. Set in the elite countryside of Brandywine Valley, where many of America’s wealthiest and most powerful live, each story is different (and can be read as a standalone), but each brings a new slant on human nature, particularly as it’s affected by money and material things. The main character, Detective Oliver Parrott, is an outsider in the community, which gives him the unique ability to see through the roadblocks thrown at him by the one percenters, who protect their secrets and their turf at all costs. Detective Parrott, despite being young and inexperienced, is a fully-realized agent for truth and justice, and his personal life, including relationship with fiancée (and later wife) Tonya, adds depth and humanity to the stories.  Parrott is a wonderful human being, someone who whispers in my ear, commenting on social issues, even at times when I’m not writing him. Parrott is my Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or Harry Bosch.

Is there a book you’ve read (or written) where you felt galvanized by the main character?

 

Galveston Author Saralyn Richard

Visit my website here for more information, to order autographed books, and to subscribe to my monthly newsletter,

Back to School Again

Hokey Pokey Shakespeare

  by Gay Yellen

I was a shy child who spent a lot of time reading. At twelve, I fell in love with Shakespeare. I dove deep into the leather-bound tomes that lived on a bookshelf in our den. Comedies, tragedies, history plays. They fascinated me.

My favorite was Romeo and Juliet. I read Juliet’s balcony speech so many times, I had it memorized. Alone in my room, I would act it out over and over again.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Fast forward to college, when I needed one more requirement to graduate: a semester of Shakespeare. Rather than take it during the school year at my alma mater, I opted for a summer course offered by a university in my home town.

That decision almost ruined Shakespeare for me forever.

Instead of teaching us about Shakespeare’s gift with language, or the political tenor of the times, or the nature of tragedy, etc., the professor went on for hours interpreting his characters through an extreme Freudian lens. In every play, he’d point out that a dagger or sword represented the male sexual apparatus, poison stood for the biological exchange of body fluids, and so on. (Please don’t ask me about Desdemona’s handkerchief.)

Of course, Shakespeare plays can be bawdy, sensual, and full of innuendo. But that professor made everything icky. A summer (and tuition) was wasted. At least I got the credit, and I’ve learned a lot more since then, like this:

Shakespeare never meant for Juliet’s “balcony” speech to be delivered from a balcony.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, that particular architectural construct did not exist in England when the play was written. Nor did the word “balcony” exist in the English language at the time.

Well over a decade after the play was first performed, a British diarist in Italy marveled at something he’d never seen in England: “a very pleasant little tarrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the maine building, the edge whereof is decked with many prety litle turned pillers, either of marble or free stone to leane over… that people may from that place… view the parts of the City.”

If my old professor had known his history, I’m almost sure he wouldn’t have missed the chance to mention the thing that “jutteth” and “butteth.”

It’s okay to reinvent Shakespeare’s works with spoofs and spinoffs. Many writers have done it, and still do. Shakespeare borrowed from other writers, too.

The other day, I accidentally came across Shakespearean Hokey Pokey, in which punsters attempt to set their own Elizabethan-style lyrics to the tune of the popular children’s dance.

Hokey Pokey Shakespeare could also describe my bizarre Midsummer Night’s Dream experience in that weird professor’s classroom. But if you love The Bard, that’s not what it’s all about.

How do you feel about Shakespeare?

 

Gay Yellen writes the award-winning Samantha Newman Mystery SeriesThe Body Business, The Body Next Door. Coming soon, The Body in the News.