Saturday, January 28, 2012

Making Lemonade

"When life throws you lemons, make lemonade."

This year, inspired by my friend Deborah Crombie, I decided to start a gratitude journal. I've never been good at keeping a regular journal, in fact I find them regularly at the bottom of drawers. Journal 1986. Jan 1. Cold and bright. That's it.
Not the greatest journal keeper. But I have found it's a good feeling to take out the journal at the end of the day and come up with three things I'm grateful for. Not always easy some days, like the ones I've jsut spent with my husband at the Stanford medical center while he undergoes test after test and still no real conclusions about what's wrong with him.

But I have found that keeping the journal has made me more open to small blessings around me. Usually at this time of year we're in Arizona, enjoying the desert, and the other set of grandchildren. So I was disappointed that I was stuck here in California, until I worked on seeing the small blessings from being here. One of them is that the acacia bush has come into bloom. I usually miss it and it reminds me of Australia, where they are called Wattle and Australia in springtime is dotted bright yellow with wattle bushes.

And when I went out to take a picture of it, look who was standing beside it. I usually see the deer as a horrible nuisance but you have to admit he's cute. And aother blessing is that the weather has been spring-like so far, and I'm not going to miss my granddaughter's 10th birthday and my hiking friends are all here, and we went to a great exhibition at the museum and are going to a murder mystery play next week. So I've nothing to be miffed about.

Yours in gratitude, Rhys

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Celebrating Robbie Burns, Scotland and the Celts

I have to confess that I don't have a drop of Scottish blood in me, but I'm married to someone whose great great grandfather was the 14th Kingairloch of Gairloch and whose great grandmother was Beatrice Lachan Mcclachan of McClachan. So I almost qualify to write this piece, don't I?

Tonight is Robbie Burns night when all good Scots around the world gather to eat Haggis, drink whiskey and recite Burns' poetry. Actually I think you have to be born Scots to enjoy the first bit. I'm told Haggis is really tasty but I can't get over the words 'sheep's entrails in a sheeps stomach". I know it's silly. If I can eat one part of an animal, I can eat any part. But it doesn't sound exactly appetizing, does it.

But the other bits--the whisky and the poetry and toasts to a homeland some of them left two hundred years ago--I can agree with those. As a fellow Celt and Welshperson I'm always amazed how much influence our small Celtic countries have had on the rest of the world. Carnegie and John Knox and Wesley and Tom Jones and Sir Walter Scott and Bryn Terfel! And the bridges that Scottish engineers have built (it was a Scot who designed the Golden Gate, wasn't it?) and the mines that Welsh miners have dug in far corners of the globe.

Wales, with its population of less than a million people, a country one hundred miles by fifty, has left its mark everywhere. If you are called Jones or Roberts or Davis or Powell or Williams or Evans your ancestors came from Wales. Unless you are African American, that is. Then I'm afraid you were named for the ship's captain that transported your ancestor in one of the slave ships and signed for his cargo in the New World--and those ships sailed out of Bristol and the captains were Welshmen.

That's a less than honorable fact to be remembered for. But we Scots and Welsh have so many things to celebrate and so here's to Robbie Burns and Scots Way hay, whatever that means!

If you'd like to know more about Burns Night from a great Scottish writer then jump on over to Jungle Red Writers ( and read Val McDermid's post there today.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lost in a Good Book

I'm freezing cold and I think I'm beginning to run a fever. My armpits ache. Am I about to come down with some dread disease? Actually no. I'm re-reading one of my favorite books, Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book.  For those who haven't read it, it takes place at Christmas in the present and in the middle ages--at the start of the Black Death, to be more accurate. I decided to re-read it because it gives a good feel for a medieval Christmas and I wanted to get into the holiday spirit. I'd forgotten about the Black Death part!

The problem with me is that I immerse myself in a book a like. When I don't really care for a book I skim to get the story. When I like it, I'm in it, not conscious of words on the page, experiencing what the characters feel. And currently it's freezing cold and the Black Death has just arrived. I suppose one of my assets/problems is that I have too much imagination. When I go to a good movie I am not watching it happen--I am there. Same with a good book--I've been frozen in Russia with Dr. Zhivago, I've flown over Africa with Beryl Markham and I knew the Southwest perfectly before I ever visited it because of Tony Hillerman.

It's not only the sense of place in books, it's relationships too. Sometimes I find myself snapping my head off at husband John only to realize that the man I'm angry with is actually in the book I'm writing or reading. I suppose this is a great boon to have--I don't actually have to pay for airfare or really have to visit Antarctica. But it can be emotionally draining.  For this reason I tend to stay away from books about children dying or natural disasters wiping out whole communities because I identify too much.

This may be one of the reasons my books work well and readers tell me they identify with my heroines. It's because I identify with my heroines. I don't use them like puppets and put them into scenes in the book. I follow them, being sngry when they are angry, scared when they are scared, stumbling into mistakes with them, and falling in love with them.  It's a scary way to work because I don't exactly know where we are going, but it works for me.

So how about you? Do you get lost in a god book?

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Ethics of Murder

When I posted a blog about the murder on the grounds of Sandringham House, country estate of Queen Elizabeth, I commented that I wished the murder could have taken place during the reign of Edward VII so that I could have tied it in to the notorious Duke of Clarence.

Well, I got a comment that felt like a slap on the wrist. The commenter pointed out that there were grieving family members for this person and that I was being flippant about it. She was absolutely right, of course. One of the problems about being a mystery writer is that we become desensitized to murder. The corpse is a problem for us, a puzzle, a whodunit. We write a story around the body, and not about the body, and too often we forget that murder is a heinous act that tears apart so many lives.

When I think of my own more recent books I find that many of my murder victims were unpleasant people for whom we would not weep--who deserved to die, if you want to put it that way. Maybe this is my way of easing my conscience about the act of killing. When the victim has been an ordinary, likeable person I find that I do try to show how the death affects my sleuth. In the book A Royal Pain a lower class young man who works in a Communist bookshop is killed and Georgie visits his parents for more information about him, only to realize for the first time in her life what his death has done to his family.  And In Evan's Gate, which got me an Edgar nomination, the whole book is a study on what a missing child does to tear apart a family.

It was easier in the Evan books to study the ethics of killing and see things from the point of view of the victim and the villain. He was a down-to-earth local policeman and his cases often involved people he knew. M more recent Royal Spyness books are designed to be comedies. Not that I ever make light of the actual murder, but the social commentary around it is expected to elicit a chuckle or two. And so I kill off some truly obnoxious people. One does not weep when a disgusting womanizing army general from Bulgaria is killed.  In the Molly Murphy books the victim is often someone she doesn't personally know, or know well, as the murders stem from her detective business cases and from New York City life.

The problem is that we write from the point of view of the sleuth--at least I do, in the first person. And a detective can't get too emotionally involved in his or her murder cases. But I'll try to remember in future that it's not all about the puzzle, or the fast-paced plot, or the suspense of whodunit. It's about one person's death, and that it always leaves a hole in someone else's life and heart.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Death of an Icon

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Reginald Hill--British writer of crime novels featuring Daziel and Pascoe, a fat blustering chief inspector and his young subordinate. The stories are multi layered and written in exquisite prose that sometimes takes my breath away.  He has been one of my literary idols for years.

About ten years ago he wrote a book called On Beulah Height, a story about a year of drought, when the water levels drop in a reservoir to reveal a drowned village and evidence of an old crime that ties in with a current vanished child and a traumatic situation in his own family. This book ranks in the top ten of all the mystery books I have read, maybe THE best mystery novel. I hope you will go out and read it in tribute to Mr. Hill. I just hope I can write one book like that in my literary life.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Downton Abbey revisited.

Big article today in the New York Times about America's obsession with Downton Abbey and the excitement building up to the new series.   This is all great news for me and for other writers who set their novels in that milieu and that period. My heroine, Lady Georgiana, is related to the royal family, 34th in line to the throne and through the course of my stories she hangs out with royal kin at Buckingham Palace  She sees her cousin, the Prince of Wales, become hopelessly enamored of a dubious American woman called Mrs. Simpson. And because her mother was of lowly birth, she is also a keen observer of the gulf between the haves and have nots.

I suppose I can understand this current fascination with upper class Britain and the time between the wars--in many ways our current situation mirrors it. We have a clear gulf between rich and poor, we have a deep recession with many people losing their homes and a general feeing of uncertainty.. And the life of British aristocrats is so deliciously decadent and so far removed from most of us that we love to take a peek at it.

I have to say that I love to write about it. During my life I've had a chance to take my own peek into that lifestyle. My husband's family used to own stately homes (Sutton Place included, but that was before my time) but I have met older relatives who talk fondly about pranks they played on the butler and dinner parties for a hundred guests. And I have met people who firmly believe that that era has not passed and still think of the world as "them and us"--with other classes only being created by God for their use to the aristocracy.

So it's all great fun and of course my books have the added attraction of a murder or two thrown into the mix. If you haven't read them yet, do give them a try. The latest is Naughty in Nice in which Georgie tangles with a murderer, a jewel thief and Coco Chanel on the Riviera!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Where do I Go From Here?

I'm about to start a new book and as usual I'm in full panic mode. If I were a sensible author I'd start with the outline, plot out every scene and then feel confident that I could deliver a sound, enjoyable story. But I can't work this way. I wish I could, but I can't. If I wrote an outline I'd immediately lose interest in the story. And frankly I work best with the element of surprise. I start off knowing very little--usually a setting. For example: how about if I send Molly Murphy to one of the "cottages" in Newport R.I or how about if Georgie goes to winter on the Riviera with the wealthy Brits.
And then I start, plunging blindly ahead until she meets someone--in Naughty in Nice it's an encounter with a handsome Frenchman on the boat and then Coco Chanel on the train, and then the whole future of the story hangs on these encounters.
In the upcoming Hush Now, Don't You Cry--the next Molly Murphy book, due out in March, it is the character of the house and the family that owns it that creates the story--much more a story created through atmosphere than many of the Molly books. I also had to make sure that Molly, now married, still has a good reason to be a sleuth.

So the first 100 pages are, as I said, full panic mode. I'm taking baby steps, not quite knowing where plot twists might lead. And then I find a body, a character I didn't expect shows up and things liven up. I begin to see where we're going and the whole thing picks up steam. By page 200 I'm charging along, enjoying myself.
This is probably a stupid way to work, but it works for me. You see, I don't really know where my heroine is going. I'm following her, just watching and waiting, and thus I'm as surprised as she is when something happens to her. I'm not the puppet master, pushing her into a situation and I think this makes it more fun for the reader too.
In every book I've been surprised at what my heroine does, what she uncovers, whom she meets. Plots always go in directions I haven't expected, and remarkably, after 27 mystery novels, they all seem to come to a satisfying conclusion and there has never yet been a story where I've gotten myelf horribly stuck or written myself into a corner.

So now I start Molly book 12. And what do I know? Molly is pregnant and someone in New York is kidnapping babies. Sounds good, huh? I think there must be a good story there, waiting to be uncovered.  More about my methods in a couple of days.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A royal Murder?

I expect you heard on the news today that a body had been discovered on the grounds of the Sandringham Estate, where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip are spending the holidays. It was a young woman and it has been established that she had been murdered.  Now the police are trying to link her to various cold cases, the most likely being a young Latvian woman who had vanished from nearby Kings Lyn a few months ago and had expressed fear for her life.

For someone like me who writes about royals and murder the wheels in my brain started spinning instantly to see if I could weave this into a future story. Too bad it wasn't back in the age of King Edward VII, whose oldest son, The Duke of Clarence was a ne'er do well, dissolute young buck who might well have dispatched of an inconvenient young woman  (see my take on his story in my book Royal Flush). He died under mysterious circumstances at Sandringham. However today's royals are all frightfully straight and honorable and are probably seriously miffed that someone chose their estate on which to dump a body and thus spoil their New Year's escape to the country.

Speaking of which, the queen went out riding on New Year's Day. Isn't she wonderful? Riding in her eighties? And the duke has recovered well from his heart surgery and he's over 90. They have both inherited Queen Victoria's tough genes.

In the meantime I'll be watching with interest to see if the police can identify the body and if there is any royal tie-in to the murder. If there isn't, well--I'll have to rely on my imagination to create a good scenario for a future plot. But right now I'm supposed to be starting a new Molly book. Can something interesting please happen in New York?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A good start to the New Year

I heard today that Glamor Magazine has named Her Royal Spyness as one of 11 must-read books--along with The Hunger Games, Passage etc.
I'm gobsmacked as the English would say.
Check it out at