Wednesday, November 25, 2020

My guest today, Judy Copek with Why I Write Standalones

 It brings me great pleasure to present Judy Copek today. Since it's the day before Thanksgiving, I'll give thanks for all the friends I have who are mystery writers. There couldn't be a better bunch of colleagues in the world. I'll let Judy introduce herself and get to the topic. HAPPY TURKEY DAY, ALL, even if you're missing the usual celebration. 

I was born in Montana, raised in Colorado, educated in Texas, and lived in suburban Chicago for years and now even more years in suburban Boston where I became a Red Sox fan, a Patriots fan, and a writer.

An information systems nerd for twenty-plus years, I'm a survivor of Dilbert-like re-engineering projects and other high-tech horrors. In my writing, I like to show technology’s humor and quirkiness along with its scary aspects.

Murder in the Northwoods is my fifth published novel. The research trip to the area was one of the best vacations ever, with scenery, casinos, intriguing discoveries, and tasty North Woods food. I never make up anything that I can borrow from real life like the garage apartment, the character of Reverend Josie, and the cottage by the lake. I moved the geography of Newton, Kansas to the fictional town of DuBois. Writers do strange things to create believable fiction. Y2K (remember the Millennium Bug?) pulls many of the story elements together, as I had worked on a project like the one on the book. My project, of course, had no murders and much less sex. Well, none.  Characters misbehaving are fun to write and fun to read.

 Why I write standalones.

I began with a series. My first novel, Witness, Be Wary, was bad. I didn’t understand motivation. Enough said, but I found some characters I liked. This novel was written so long ago that agents answered queries promptly with personalized letters.


That year my husband was invited to a conference in Singapore, and this, too, was so long ago that a business class ticket came with a free companion ticket. I explored the city and took photographs. We went on to spend a few days in Hong Kong. On the long flight home, I read the Singapore Airlines magazine, including a tiny blurb that the 5th International Computer Security Conference would meet in Singapore on a certain date.  

Durian Seller in Hong Kong


Computer security! That was the occupation of the sleuth in my failed first novel. My brain went crazy. I could write a book set at the conference in Singapore and then move it to my husband’s home town in Germany. Characters appeared, along with three from the first book. Fragments of plot flew at me like kamikazes. Finally, we travelled to Germany. I sat in the busy town square and discovered more characters. My nephew took me on a pub crawl. I did research at the library. This was so much fun. And the book didn’t sell.


 My problem was that my main character was, well, no better than she should be. And married. When I began writing I researched all the possible problems a sleuth might have. Drugs, family, drinking, promiscuity, ex-con, you name it. And no writer had yet glommed onto the “A” word. There was a reason for this but I was too dense to grasp it. One could not publish a series with a bad girl sleuth. No one would touch it. Still dense, I wrote three more books in the series, one set in the Baltic, the last at the Burning Man Festival and one set in the North Woods. Same sleuth. Same issues. I self-pubbed The Shadow Warriors. This was back in the day when you hung your head if you committed such an outré act.


Then, THE LIGHT DAWNED. I took each novel, changed the characters, the setting, the sleuths backstory, and so on. One book went to a small press, one was “licensed” by the Burning Man Festival, one sat in my computer. I gussied up the “Northwoods” novel with new backstory, and everything except the conflicted sleuth. She was still there. And finally, I had a publisher!

That’s why I write standalones.


Murder in the Northwoods will debut on December 1st. Level Best is the publisher

A savvy cyber-sleuth teams up with a hunky homicide cop to route corporate miscreants and to solve a murder. Murder in the North Woods is an amateur sleuth mystery. When she arrives in the town of DuBois, Wisconsin, to determine who is sabotaging an unpopular business project, Laura Goode discovers her only contact is now a corpse. Gar Morris, information officer at Great Northern Shoe Company, was a local lothario whose killer could be anyone from an enraged husband to a bitter factory worker whose job is heading overseas. Along with murder, office politics thwart Laura’s mission to find out who is sabotaging the project. Adding more complications to her life, boyfriend Jack, a cop, and husband Taylor, with more money than sensitivity, appear unannounced. Who needs these distractions when you’re swanning from boardroom to bar room, trolling for bass, hunting hackers, and rescuing your kidnapped cat? A nude biker’s club and the whitewater raft trip from hell provide a thrilling climax. You’ll have to read the novel to discover how everything works out.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Guest Judy Alter asks: Should I write a sequel?

I'm delighted to have the illustrious, award-winning author, Judy Alter, as my guest today. I loved Saving Irene and know I'll vote on her dilemma. This book reads, in part, like a love story to Chicago, a place where I once lived and miss just as much as she obviously does. 

Here's part of her impressive bio:

I am a past president of Western Writers of America and have been inducted into their Literary Hall of Fame. I have had awards from the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, the Texas Institute of Letters, and Western Writers of America, Inc., including their Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement, and I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in June 2015. I belong to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies subgroup of Sisters in Crime, and the Texas Institute of Letters and I am a member of Women Writing the West. The Fort Worth Public Library elected me to their Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

And now, her discussion on the sequel!

My newest mystery, Saving Irene, began as an impulse. I have no idea where the idea of a Chicago TV chef came from, but one day I saw the opening scene so clearly in my mind that I sat down and wrote. Being a pantser, I just kept on writing and some twenty thousand words later, there they were: Henny (Henrietta) James, the chef’s assistant who tells the story; Irene Foxglove, the faux French chef with pretensions; and Patrick, the gay guy next door. Fictional characters with lives of their own.


Long before I wrote mysteries, I had developed a career writing about women in the American West. So, when contracts for two unrelated projects, set in Texas, came along, I left Henny, Irene, and Patrick in limbo for almost two years. But when COVID-19 and quarantine hit us, the publisher of my western works went on hiatus, leaving one manuscript and one proposal stranded on her desk and me with no viable project. I pulled out Irene’s story, read it again, and thought, “Hey, this isn’t bad. I like the voice.” I began writing, and the story seemed to flow more easily than any other mystery I’ve written (this is number fifteen). Long story short, I wrote from March to June and spent the summer on publishing details—editing, proofing, formatting, etc. Saving Irene launched on September 16.

All along I intended it as a stand-alone. I was going to get back to those unfinished western projects. But the editor, though back at work, hasn’t gotten to my part of the backlog on her desk, and I began to get nice comments about Irene’s story from readers. One wrote: “This reads like a stand-alone novel, but there's certainly room for a sequel (hint, hint) should the author be so inclined. Meanwhile, I'll be checking out [Alter’s] earlier titles.” Another, “I hope there will be more books about Henny and Patrick as her career and love life move on.” Still more: “This book is Judy Alter at her best: a fast-moving pace; fascinating new characters in what one could only hope will become a series.” And, finally, “I have read all of Judy's … mysteries and this is the best one by far! I love Henny and Patrick! I hope there is a sequel to it!”

So there’s my dilemma. In a way, it boils down to Texas vs. Chicago. I have written about Texas all my long career, and I am deeply invested in the state’s history. But I grew up in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood and writing about it was like visiting with an old friend, a nostalgia trip. Perhaps age calls us all back to the scenes of our childhood, but I loved sending Henny to the church I grew up in or on a picnic to Promontory Point where I spent so many happy weekends.

In truth, I’ll probably try to do it all. Yes, I have ideas for Irene in Danger rattling around in my head, but I put a lot of time and work into the other manuscript, which is under contract, so sooner or later I’ll have to deal with it. And the proposal I submitted combines food and history in a nonfiction but very Texan approach.

Hint: I am really proud of the cover of Saving Irene. I found free images of a chef and the background of Chicago-style buildings and gave them to a designer with the request that she age the chef, which she did. Strangely enough, one interviewer thought the chef looks like me (we’ve never met, so she’s only seen pictures) and a reader who knew my mom thought that was who was the model. Neither is true. But I can already envision the cover of Irene in Danger, a sign to me that the sequel was meant to be. I’m just having trouble with that opening scene.

I’m curious how other authors handle this. Do you deliberately write the a book as the first of a series or do you decide later it could be? Is it a flexible decision?

Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Job of a Writer

I’ve wanted to write this in the weeks leading up to this election, and now is the time, I believe. Fellow mystery writers who never venture into politics for fear of alienating readers are angry enough to venture out of that place and express themselves.


If you follow me on social media, or anywhere, you know that I’m not reticent about politics nowadays. That’s because the issue isn’t really political, not one of party or affiliation. It’s one of humanity, social justice, and basic decency. All of which are being stomped upon by the occupier of my White House. Our White House.


Most writers do, at some level, believe in giving voice to the voiceless. In advocating for equality and justice for every single person in the USA. That’s just the basis for being a human. We’re all in this together and our main job, as I’ve always seen it, is to help each other out in any way we can. What kind of person you are has no bearing on whether you deserve to be treated fairly and decently, and no differently than anyone else.


Fellow mystery writer Eve Fisher expressed this eloquently last week and I’d love to link you to her thoughts. They were prompted by the truly horrifying encouragement of a white hate terrorist group by the occupant of my White House. Even more terrifying, I realized when I read her thoughts and research, are the number of hateful people in this country who belong to groups that exist solely to exclude and do harm to others. I just never knew there were so many.


Let’s hope that we can move forward. First, that we can rid our country of the cancer of hatred that has festered for four years unchecked by the other branches of government: The Senate, because they are either afraid or beholden to the occupant of my White House; the House of Representatives because their efforts have been systemically blocked, to the detriment of those the Senate is supposed to represent.


Let’s also hope that there’s a return to the ideals and ways of thinking that make it clear that publically elected officials are public servants, first and foremost.



White House photos from Wikipedia