New page for Lora!

Hi, everyone! You might not know who I am. I write mystery novels (listed here somewhere)–nine so far, and another one in gestation stage. And I do other things. I’m a medical editor, I procrastinate, and I think about my garden.
Now I’ve got this spiffy new page, with some old stuff on it. I’ll do something new, I promise. In the meantime, check out my once and future web page with three other writers at NMOMysteries.com (link on links page). And look at the people who published my last two books, Perseverance Press/Daniel and Daniel.

I’m not making any promises about frequent updates (see above: procrastination). But I will do things here as the spirit moves me. Maybe you want to say something too. I think that’s allowed.

Mrs. Beeton, The Domestic Art of Observation, and Sherlock Holmes

Mrs. Isabella Beeton was an intrepid young woman who saw her numerous younger siblings to adulthood on the untimely death of her mother, married and produced her own family, and found time to write and publish a thousand pages on every domestic issue known to woman before suffering an untimely death of her own. She existed in the real world not long before Sherlock Holmes came into being in the fictional world. Although I had read Conan Doyle before I was eleven, I was in my thirties when Mrs. Beeton really made her impact on me.

Like a host of PBS watchers, I had loved Upstairs Downstairs when it first aired. We were hooked on this turn-of-the-century soap opera, following the family and its servants through domestic and international catastrophes. Because of Upstairs Downstairs, I bought the facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management when I saw it in the bookstore, and enjoyed the casual way she approached measurement in her recipes (“One small teacup full of rice, the weight of two eggs in butter and sugar”), and the strictures on how servants are hired, trained, and supervised. The housekeeper’s job was obviously a difficult one, involving a lot of executive ability and a strong back (and stomach). Mrs. Beeton made several points on the importance of observation and deduction in keeping a house clean and a staff in control.

I was still chewing that over when PBS showed Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. In the earliest episodes, he had the mannerisms of the pre-Reichenbach Falls Holmes down perfectly. I especially enjoyed the episode where Irene Adler outsmarts him. I was inspired to create a woman, Charlotte Dodson, whose powers of detection equaled his, whose intellect stood beside his, and who would inspire him with a passion he couldn’t dismiss at the end of the story. And who should this woman be? Not an opera dancer or adventurer, because that’s a man’s conception of a fascinating woman. She would be a housekeeper, and Mrs. Beeton would hover over the story like a guardian angel by providing quotations to head each chapter. That book, The Affair of the Incognito Tenant, has gotten a lot of positive press since its spring 2004 release.

I think Sherlock Holmes would have approved of Isabella Beeton, with her active approach to managing a household. And I think Mrs. Beeton would have approved of Charlotte. Mrs. Beeton would not, however, have approved of Holmes. In her firmly-ruled household, no gentleman would ever discharge firearms in the parlor.

Another Fine Mess for Bridget

Long ago, children, before there was such a thing as AOL, I wrote my first mystery. I was inspired by local events in the quaint hamlet of Palo Alto, where a real estate frenzy raged and folks were tearing down nice old houses to build ugly monstrosities. (This was long ago, but some things never change.) I named that book Revolting Development, and introduced as sleuth someone who wasn’t seen much in mystery fiction in those ancient days: Bridget Montrose, overwhelmed mother of small children, pushing a stroller through the clean streets while she tried to figure out who had killed the real estate developer.

I always wanted to write another book from Bridget’s point of view, but then Liz Sullivan popped up in my mind and I wrote about her for a while instead. I used many of the same characters from Revolting Development, to avoid extra work. But in the back of my mind, I knew I would write more about Bridget some day.

Someday has finally come. Another Fine Mess finds Bridget coping with the unexpected success of her first novel, and totally blocked when it comes to writing the next one. An invitation to a prestigious writers’ retreat seems like the perfect thing. But tensions run high among the illustrious names invited to attend, and things are not what they seem. Though she doesn’t have to push the stroller, Bridget finds herself trying to figure things out so she can get back to working on her book.

In an especially nice touch of synergy, Perseverance Press, which published my first mystery, wanted to bring out Another Fine Mess. It was a pleasure to work with them again, and a real pleasure for me to find myself in Bridget’s head, as well as her kitchen, which has always been one of my favorite places, papier-mache dinosaurs and all.

Top Ten Reasons to be a Mystery Writer

  1. You have a reason other than parental burnout for locking yourself in your room where the kids can’t get at you.
  2. It’s okay to eavesdrop on the conversations of others.
  3. You can save by getting red pens by the gross.
  4. Your name is on the spine of a book, and you didn’t have to take out a Sharpie pen and put it there.
  5. Childhood trauma can end up as a profitable book.
  6. In fact, no experience goes unused. All are grist for the mill.
  7. Vacations are tax deductible research.
  8. It’s okay to live in a fantasy world.
  9. You get to hang out with writers, who are the coolest, nicest people in the world (most of them, anyway).
  10. There is a free lunch, and after it people actually listen to you talk, which never happens in any other sphere of your life.

Little Cakes and Murder

It started with the petits-fours. I saw them in the catalog of a certain Maven of Style (note initials). Cute little cakes in different shapes, beautifully decorated with fine-lined frosting curlicues. I wanted them. I was turning 50, and thought it would assuage my pain to have fifty little cakes for my birthday (not to eat alone; I planned to share them).

So I ordered the petits-fours kit from the catalog; the cost was about the same as my upcoming birthday. The kit was nicely packaged in a metal tin, with tools and instructions full of lovely pictures of the darling little sweets.

Luckily I got to work a day before the actual birthday party. Luckily a knowledgeable friend helped me. Even so, we spent eleven hours on our task, and not one of our petits-fours looked as nice as those photographs. The kitchen was a wreck, covered with fondant (an evil substance I advise you to have nothing to do with ever) and drips of royal icing. The party was the next day, so I had to spend another hour cleaning, and then make the tea sandwiches. The petits-fours didn’t look too bad displayed on doily-covered cake stands, but was it worth it?

That’s when I thought, somebody ought to kill that woman, that Maven of Style, before she brings the female half of the population to their knees. And that someone was me.

I began writing Murder Follows Money, the last in my series featuring Liz Sullivan, a sleuth who scrapes by financially with temp work and frugal habits. I gave Liz the temp job from hell: Act as media escort for motherly, comfy-looking Hannah Couch, whose cookbook and decorating empire make her a powerful figure, and whose behind-the-scenes personality leaves a good deal to be desired. Naturally I made up everything about Hannah, because the real-life Maven of Style, whom she in no way resembles, has excellent attorneys (I have none). Liz has to gopher around, fetching groceries for food demonstrations, being on tap for errand-running, and pandering to the raging egos of Hannah and members of her entourage. (I have always wanted an entourage, and this was my fictional opportunity to have one.)

Of course, the plan was that Hannah would be the murder victim. I could have had the killer stuff petits fours cutters down her unconscious gullet, achieving my revenge. I could have had her suffocated when her face got dipped in fondant, which hardened into an impenetrable mask. I thought of various ways, but to no avail. The fictional Hannah had a strong will and overwhelming personality (remind you of anyone?) and she refused to be a victim of anything. I had to settle for killing off someone else in the book. Because of this struggle, Murder Follows Money may not be for those with weak stomachs; it teems with vegetable mutilation, gratuitous luxury, and forced shopping.

I’ve learned my lesson. Now I recycle those catalogs the moment they arrive. And in my new mystery (Another Fine Mess, now available from Perseverance), I gave Liz a break and let her friend Bridget be the one confronted with too much tasty food at a tony writers’ retreat that takes a lethal turn.

How the dog got in my mysteries

The first Liz Sullivan mystery, Murder in a Nice Neighborhood, featured a vagabond amateur sleuth who lived in her VW bus for reasons of economy and expeditiousness—it was cheap and easy to get away quick if you needed to. It never occurred to me that Liz Sullivan should have a dog. She had enough to do just trying to keep herself fed, let alone a pet.

When the book was published, the cover artists drew their conception of a nice neighborhood, which included an elegant-looking fox terrier on a leash. People began coming up to me at book signings. “There’s a dog on the cover of this book, but no dog inside. Why isn’t there a dog in the story?”

Good question. Though my husband’s allergy precludes cats (and some dogs), we’ve always managed to find dogs he can live with over the course of our 30 years together. Selkie, our black Lab mix, is an important member of our family.

The more I thought about it, the more a single woman like Liz seemed to need a large, occasionally intimidating dog, as well as the pleasures of doggy companionship. So in the second book, Murder in the Marketplace, Liz gets a dog in the best way possible—he comes to her (or is sent by the deity in charge of human/animal pairings). A galumphing black and white mongrel, Barker is based on my dog’s brother, who is far more happy-go-lucky and adventuresome than my own occasionally irascible animal.

Once Barker entered Liz’s world, he began to function as far more than just her accessory. Like other continuing characters, he has his personality, his strong points and weak points. And Barker’s not the best sidekick, as some preternatural pets are. He causes trouble and gets into it as well. Her love for him and concern for his well-being inhibit Liz occasionally, as in Murder Crops Up. The responsibility of caring for a pet, especially a young and energetic dog, is not lightly undertaken, and it affects Liz’s freedom of movement.

But he adds an immeasurable richness as well. Liz is a loner, a woman who sees herself as outside the world of normal human relationships. And yet, because she has a dog, she finds herself more connected to the people around her. He embodies her playful, trusting side. His undemanding love helps heal the wounds she carries.

And he keeps the squirrels out of her vegetable beds. Could you ask for more?

Anatomy of a Mystery

…or how to do a who-done-it

Mysteries require a sharpening of the elements found in any good traditional novel. There must be conflict on many levels—personal, situational and systemic. Something important must be at stake for the viewpoint character, something the reader wants that character to have. Unlike other forms of fiction, mysteries require a neat ending—a resolution. In fact, that ’90s phrase “conflict resolution” is sort of a motto for writing mysteries.

The beginning sets up the conflict—which needn’t be violent, but must involve the viewpoint character. Develop the plot by giving your character too many balls to juggle. The screenwriting axiom is, get your character up a tree, then throw rocks at her. Plan a resolution, one which will solve the problems and bring a sense of closure to the initial conflict.

Knowing your characters makes the action in a mystery flow smoothly out of the character’s response to the conflict. Give the character weaknesses that can be strengths, and strengths that turn into weaknesses—examples: Mother’s love for child makes her vulnerable when child is in danger. Mother’s vice of cigarette smoking provides her with lighter for use in emergency. Let your characters use their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t clutter your story with unnecessary details.

Keep the resolution in tone with the rest of the story—if it’s a story of detection, then a violent resolution is out of place. If the story has humorous parts, then a grim and nasty ending is too much. Tie up the loose ends—always a major problem! Follow through on secondary characters the reader may have gotten fond of. A fellow author has compared the domestic mystery to a snow globe. A quiet scene, perfect and pristine. When shaken, it’s whirled with doubt, pelted with trouble. At the end, all is calm again. The fun of being a writer is, we get to shake the globe.