Tag Archive for: Murder 101

The Voices in My Head

I recently attended Crime Bake, a convention in Massachusetts for mystery writers and fans. I was fortunate enough to see Dennis Lehane, one of my favorite authors, speak about writing. Recently, after publishing several stand-alone novels, which unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve heard of: Shutter Island, Mystic River, The Given Day. But it’s his series featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro that I’ve been eagerly awaiting another installment of, and this past year, my wish was granted when he published Moonlight Mile, the sixth book in the series. One of the attendees at Crime Bake asked him why he a) stopped writing the series and b) why he returned to it. He answered that after he published the fifth book in the series, around ten years ago, Patrick stopped talking to him. And he decided to write a new book in the series a year or so ago because Patrick had started talking to him again.

I understood exactly what he was talking about, because Alison Bergeron talks to me constantly. If she’s not complaining about her pot belly, she’s itching for a new mystery to solve. So it has been easy working up a new story because Alison has a lot of stories to tell me and they are easy for me to transcribe. But lately I’ve noticed that I have a trio of new characters talking to me and what they have to say is very interesting. One is partially deaf, the other makes jam for a living, and another is an obstetrician. Yet another, whose role is yet to be determined, is a very handsome detective with his own secrets. All very disparate, all very much alive to me. And all involved in a murder.

With all of this going on, my head is a very crowded place right now. No wonder I keep forgetting to buy toilet paper at the grocery store.

I never anticipated that this would happen. I just assumed that Alison would keep talking to me and Crawford would whisper sweet nothings in my ear every now and again that he would, in turn, then whisper to Alison. Max would continue to screech about her issues, and Fred would grunt. Other people would cycle in and out of the stories I was told and they would provide new life for the next book. The nuns would make me feel guilty for thinking impure thoughts. So it’s very exciting to think that there are a bunch of other characters floating around in there, just waiting for me to tell their stories.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Writers write and there is so much potential in the world and the people around us to come up with new ideas and new characters. It reminds me of when people talk about having extrasensory perception: you just have to be open to the energy around you. It’s the same with writers. We just have to be open to what’s around us—and listen to the voices in our heads—in order to make a new story come to life.

I’m interested, most of all, from our Stiletto faithful if your characters talk to you or if there is some other way that your stories begin. What makes you want to sit down and write?

Maggie Barbieri

What the Heck is Scaffolding?

This week, we’re talking about writing process here at the Stiletto Gang and I am fortunate that I get to go on Wednesday, because it gives me a point of comparison to work with, given that Evelyn and Marilyn have written before me. I’ve come to the conclusion that the writers alongside whom I write here are much more organized and have a clearer vision of where they’re going and why in their stories than I do.

As with almost everything in my life, I’m convinced I’m doing it the wrong way.

When I started writing about Alison Bergeron six years ago, I started at the beginning, with the body in the trunk. From there, I jumped around, writing scenes as they popped into my head, going backwards and forward in time, finally reading the whole thing and filling in the blanks. I even had a couple of flashbacks to Alison’s college days, which thankfully, my eagle-eyed agent kindly asked me to remove. For those of you who read the “chicken salad sandwich” scene (and for those of you who haven’t, hopefully that will pique your interest), know that I wrote that shortly after I wrote the first chapter. I let my characters “talk” to me and tell me what they wanted to do and when. I still do this, by the way. I’m so intimately acquainted with Alison that when I write something that she wouldn’t say, she tells me, which keeps me honest. And no, I’m not crazy, even if I do have six or seven pretend people living in my brain talking to me about who they’d like to see murdered and why.

However, when I read my first draft of the manuscript now, I cringe. (See? That’s what a good editor will do for you.) Doing the book this way made more work for me, but it was my writing process and everything turned out fine in the long run. But there were a lot of inconsistencies that I’m glad my editor saw through to what she considered a good story with good characters. Still, I wondered if there was a better way to do this or if indeed, I was doing it correctly. I turned to my old friend (I call him that even though we don’t know each other) and writing teacher Stephen King for guidance.

On Writing was published in 2000 and is basically my writing bible. In it, King talks about his life, leaving nothing—including his bout with substance abuse—out while spinning the tale of how this kid from Maine grew up to become one of the greatest writers of our generation. But the message I took from the book mainly was that whatever your process, if it works, it works. No reason to tinker.

So I gave my process a name. I call it “scaffolding.” As time has gone on and I’ve written more books in the series, I’ve streamlined the process. I do write in order, but I do go back almost every day that I do write and see what I can add, delete, or revise. Do we need a clue? A red herring? A better ending to a chapter? It’s kind of convoluted but it works for me. Thank you, Mr. King, for giving me permission to approach writing as a bass-ackwards process of plot discovery.

And now, Alison and I are going to have lunch. She told me that she’s hungry and wants chicken salad. (Just kidding!)

Maggie Barbieri

Reunion Weekend

I had the pleasure of spending Saturday evening into Sunday at my alma mater’s annual Reunion celebration. Although it is only my 24th year out of college, my three best college friends—with whom I roomed during my sophomore and their junior years—were attending their 25th jubilee. I was also honored to be a guest presenter there and had the pleasure of speaking to a dozen or so women from the class of ’59, one of whom is the mother of a friend here in the Village. I spoke about the Murder 101 series and these wonderful women restored my belief in my own public speaking skills.

Here’s the thing—I bomb with some groups. There have been several presentations I’ve given where I’ve laughed at my own jokes in front of a room of people who looked like they had come to attend the annual Mortuary Science convention. They do not find my jokes funny, my stories amusing, nor me laughing at my own jokes and/or stories at all humorous. I’ve given a few of these lackluster presentations in a row and was starting to lose faith in myself.

But the class of ’59 was a game crowd. This was a group of extremely interested, mystery-loving women. They ate up everything there was to be heard about Alison Bergeron and the books in the series. And they laughed where you were supposed to laugh and even some places where you weren’t. But that’s ok. Rather have laughing than the alternative.

It was a gorgeous weekend here on the East Coast and my alma mater sits on the Hudson River. The Half Moon was sailing past the college just about the time that I was presenting so many reunion goers went out to see it so as not to miss what turned out to be quite a spectacle. (See here for details and some nice pictures of the replica of Henry Hudson’s ship) Being a huge fan of the Hudson—I’ve lived near it my entire life and enjoyed its beauty—I didn’t mind that I had been ditched in favor of the historic flotilla that sailed past the college and toward my home town, where it sailed past Sunday morning. Missed that one, too.

The girls and I spent Saturday afternoon walking around campus, marveling at how little had changed but also at the improvements that had been made. We had some champagne to celebrate our annual weekend together and then a cosmopolitan right before the dinner dance we were to attend that evening. Before heading over to the dining hall, we ventured into the beautiful chapel—where many key scenes from the movie “Doubt” were filmed—and drank in the smell of bees’ wax, floor polish, and incense. It was there that I got a little overwhelmed, thinking about the four of us, the time that had passed, and the struggles we had gone through. When I told my friends what I was thinking, one of the four, my gal Trixie, turned to me and said, “You’re cut off.” (My reputation as a weepy imbiber is legendary among this crew.)

It’s amazing how after a quarter decade it can feel as if no time has passed. At the same time, it can feel like almost twice that time has passed. It’s a weird conundrum. We had a great time at the dinner dance, dancing among graduates going as far back as the class of ’39—ok, maybe they weren’t dancing, but they were there—and meeting new people with whom we shared the bond of being “Mounties” (our college nickname). The camaraderie that existed among women much older than we are impressed me and again, made me weepy. Seeing women who had cultivated the bonds of friendship over the course of thirty, forty, and even fifty years was impressive indeed. We all have different histories and backgrounds but our love of our friends, and the school that brought us together, will keep us together forever.

Maggie Barbieri

In Gratitude, Part I

We at the Stiletto Gang have been in existence almost a year, by my accounting. It has been a lot of fun, blogging about this and that and learning about my fellow writers and all of you posters, who always let us know when we’re on the right track, and when we’ve ridden off the rails. We’ve prayed together, laughed together, and shared some excitement, like when new books come out. And we are all very grateful here that you take time out of your busy schedules to see what we have to say and how we have to say it and when you think we’re right on. Thank you for that.

I wanted to take the opportunity to acknowledge Marian, Marilyn, Rhonda, and Susan, who have become wonderful friends and sounding boards throughout the past year.

1. Marian, or the Northern Half of Evelyn David: Our Monday go-to girl, I remember back in January of this past year, we presented at a library in Vorhees, New Jersey, and had a fabulous time. Seeing her talk to some of the at-risk writers who came to hear our talk was inspirational, and although I already had met Marian once before, I was reminded of how special this woman was. It was at this event, as I shoveled pastry and coffee into my pie hole, that she asked me if I’d like to join the Stiletto Gang. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. Marian is a marketing force to be reckoned with. Me? Not so much. I was honored for the invite and I was not about to say no.

Marian has taught us the proper usage of “OY!” (my new favorite expression, peppered into ALL conversation), poo-poo-poo (correct my spelling, Marian…this is a catch-all and ward off for all bad things, I believe), and how to prepare Passover dinner correctly. (Not that I’ve done this yet. Maybe next year?) She has shared her thoughts on writing, family, and life and I for one, am extremely grateful for her insights.

2. Marilyn: Our friend to the Far West—thank you, too, for all of your marketing genius, but most of all for keeping us abreast of the goings on of your large, extended family. I don’t know how you keep them all straight! It has been a pleasure reading about your remembrances, hearing about your book signings and visits to writing conventions, and learning about the members of your family. I appreciate your “stop and take time to smell the roses” reminders every now and again; who of us don’t need those? And I enjoy learning from your vast experience. You are truly blessed, Marilyn, and we are lucky to have you with us on this venture and in the world.

3. Rhonda: Our Southern Evelyn. Someday, we’re going to sit at one of our kitchen counters and eat that apple cake, which I have yet to make (slacker that I am). Somehow, I just know, despite having never met, that we are kindred spirits. Rhonda is our techno-goddess—you’ve got a Stiletto problem, Rhonda’s got a solution. And her solution comes with patience, and I think a smile (I can only guess). Never in a bad mood, always willing to help, always looking for ways to keep our site fresh and vibrant. Rhonda doesn’t disappoint. She’s got a full-time job, a full-time writing gig, and a busy life (she actually takes care of her yard, from what I gather…something I can’t do for the life of me) and manages to do everything with aplomb. I look forward to the day, as I know Marian does, too, when we can meet.

4. Susan: Our newest Stiletto girl but the one whom I’ve known the longest, despite having never met in person. Back when “Murder 101” was just a twinkle in my and St. Martin’s eye, my editor said we needed some blurbs. She told me that she was going to go to Susan McBride, who she proclaimed “one of the nicest people she knew” and who might be willing to read the manuscript and comment. Well, if you bought my first book in hardcover, you’ll see that not only did Susan read and comment, she gave me a rave. And I think that went a long way in getting the book noticed by a readership who loved Susan’s Debutante Dropout Mysteries (I’m a HUGE fan) and were looking for something similar. Thank you, Susan. I’ll always be grateful to you for taking the time to take a chance on a new writer and for lending your support. And I’m thrilled that we have you for the Stiletto Gang once a month. Your thoughts on life and living are in complete agreement with ours, but I always learn something new. We’re both survivors and we’re finding our way in that designation but together, I’m sure we’ll forge new paths. Best of luck with the new “Debs” series—I, for one, am loving the first one!

I have so much to be grateful for this year but only six hundred words (I’m over at almost 900). If you don’t mind, there will be more of these. In gratitude to all of you.