Monday, April 7, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut cracked the mystery of creative people (particularly writers) when he said: "We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
   Life in general is sort of like that, but creative people there's an added element. They're building something that exists only in their hearts. And it requires one-part blind-faith, one-part steely resolve, and three-parts wondering if you should quit. 
     Recently writer Bill Kritlow and I discussed this creative life. The interview (which starts at the five-minute mark) is now online. In just 25 minutes we cover an amazing amount of ground:
  • Which of my newspaper stories was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize?
  • Why did I start the Raleigh Harmon series?
  • How can we balance the creative process with our families? With Christianity? 
  • Who helps us--and who hurts--on the creative journey.
  • And why I despise the term "Christian fiction."
 Bill's folksy manner disguises his keen mind. A published playwright, he manages to pull from me the private challenges faced while writing "Stone and Spark." I think this guy actually works for the NSA.
      But he also leads a writing group dedicated to nurturing creativity and faith. Our podcast opens with a radio serial written by Bill (don't you miss radio stories?). The second episode of the serial is on the website
     Hope you enjoy listening. Any audio "blips" are my fault. Rabbits are chewing my phone line. 

PS. Those of you in southern California, check out The Tehachapi Christian Arts Fellowship. They're doing good work, with joy. 
     And the door's open.


Saturday, March 29, 2014


One day.

You have one day to steal The Clouds Roll Away.

      Tomorrow, this popular mystery ratchets back up to ten bucks. So grab it for $2.99 while you can. 
     Along with this screaming deal, I've been posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing this third (of many) Raleigh Harmon mysteries. But this week, Life refused to cooperate with my plans (and why should it?). 
     So today--your last day to steal this book--I'm posting the remaining reasons, from Number Six to Number One. Ready?

  • Richmond, Virginia. I love this southern town so much that I dedicated The Clouds Roll Away to it. Go see America's unique historic gem.
  • Homesickness. In the previous book, The Rivers Run Day, Raleigh's transferred to Seattle, nicking her heart with longing. Now, returning to Richmond she gazes out at her hometown and realizes: "For all its troubled history and racial strife, this place was home. And few things ever feel as good as coming back to where you belong, and realizing the place waited for you."
  • Christmas. World's best holiday. Period. Gifts, food, joy, song--who hates Christmas, except stingy curmudgeons? And the holiday can even change them, as Dickens proved. While I enjoyed writing all Christmas scenes in The Clouds Roll Away, one gutted me: the scene where Raleigh watches the Charlie Brown television special surrounded by crack addicts. It wrecked me for days. "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
  • Romance. Yep, Raleigh's in love. Only she doesn't know it, and this predicament might be one reason why The Clouds Roll Away was named among Booklist's Top Ten Romances of that year. Reluctant romance, it makes great reading.

And all of those reasons bring me to Reason One for writing this mystery:

                                                               Love.

     Readers know Raleigh Harmon is strong. 
     Capable, smart, funny.
     And desperately in need of love.
     Of course, the whole world desperately needs love, and while writing this book, the words of Christina Rossetti were on my mind. In particular, her Christmas poem, "Love Came Down."I'm certain that poem informed many scenes of this book.
     So, while I've closed each of these Top Ten posts with a quote from The Clouds Roll Away, is there really any conceivable comparison between me and Rosetti?
    That's a rhetorical question.
    Here's the full poem. And frankly, I don't care if it's March right now. 
    Merry Christmas, everyone.
   



Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,

Love for plea and gift and sign.


                                                           -- Christina Rossetti


Friday, March 21, 2014

Unreasonable Acts

   

Sometimes a story flows onto the page so smoothly a writer feels like they're receiving dictation, straight from heaven.
     The opposite also happens.
     The Hell of a writer's own making, this version begins with a lot of pounding on the keyboard, hitting Erase, pounding some more, and then, some eight hours later, walking away from the computer vowing to never-ever-ever write another word.
     Ever.
    The following day (because all working writers have self-inflicted amnesia), the process begins all over again. Only now it's even more horrible. Like some trip to the dentist where every tooth gets a root canal.
     I've had two novels give me serious trouble, beginning on Page One all the way to The End. It was as if the stories were simultaneously daring me and trying to assassinate me.
      Although written years apart, these two books bear some similarities.
     Most crucially, they're both adored by readers.
     The Clouds Roll Away, for instance, was named by Booklist a Top Ten read of the year. But writing that book made me realize why Hemingway put that bullet into his head. Not. Joking. When I finally turned in the manuscript, the editor sent back some suggestions. Five pages of "suggestions." Single-spaced. Here, let share with you one exact sentence: "I don't like anything about this book."
     She gave me three weeks to fix it.
    And I did.
    Because the story was begging me to tell it.
    My latest release, Stone and Spark, hit me with another gruesome writing experience. I nearly quit but for two things: a nurturing editor and, like Clouds, a story that pulled me to the computer.
     My second son "died"while being born. Twice, in fact. Thirteen years later, his neck still carries the red marks left by the umbilical cord that tried to strangle him. That kid fought his way to get here, and came out howling.
     Now he's got the spunk of ten warriors. If you tell him something can't done, it'll get done--his way.  I love that about him. I admire his spirit.
     We're human. We always hope things will go easily. But they rarely do. I'm even certain thing aren't supposed to be easy. Especially the most important things.
      If right now you feel like giving up--abandoning some project, a business, a book, a person, a new workout, a new idea--don't.
       Keep going.
      And yes, I do realize how unreasonable it all is.
      That's the point.
      "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world," wrote George Bernard Shaw."The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
      Which brings me Reason #6 for writing The Clouds Roll Away:
      It was totally and completely unreasonable.

For a very limited time, Amazon's offering The Book That Almost Killed Me--otherwise known as The Clouds Roll Away--for just $2.99. 
   It won't last long.
   So steal my book. Please.




Thursday, March 20, 2014

      Here's the deal. And I do mean deal.   
     Amazon is offering The Clouds Roll Away for $2.99. That's an 81% discount. 
     But it ends March 30. So steal my book. Now. 
      I'm also posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing this third Raleigh Harmon mystery that Booklist awarded a starred review.
       Reason #7:

        Winter

    Despite preferring flip-flops to shoes, I still say winter's my favorite season, perhaps because a childhood in Alaska. 
     But the reason could run deeper. As painter Andrew Wyeth once said: "I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape--the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show."
     In The Clouds Roll Away, winter plays a starring role, and it was captured by the book's cover who illuminated the magic of the season and the mystery it brings to Raleigh Harmon.
     Here's an excerpt where our formidable forensic geologist reflects on the Virginia winter :
     
Winter rode into Richmond on the chattering breath of the Atlantic. Each year the season blew itself into existence. The ancient elms crystallized and frost crocheted the birches into lace doilies. On this particular December morning, with a bright sun overhead, I drove out New Market Road past fields that glistened like crushed diamonds. For this moment, my hometown looked cryogenically frozen, preserved for future generations to discover Richmond's wide river, verdant soils, and the plantation lifestyle forged through generations--gone tragically, humanly awry.

P.S.  The Stones Cry Out, the first Raleigh mystery, is just $3.99. And so is the NEW young-adult mystery, Stone and Spark, featuring teenage Raleigh Harmon. Don't miss it!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Forward Back


Readers, here it is! The new Raleigh Harmon mystery:

Stone and Spark. 

I'm thrilled about this book. Not only does Raleigh once again prove herself full of fire and spunk, Stone and Spark answers some questions bandied about by readers ever since the first Raleigh mystery, The Stones Cry Out, appeared more than five years ago.

Specifically: Raleigh's dad.

Readers want to know about David Harmon. What was he like? Will Raleigh ever solve his murder? (Man, I hope so!) And what was her life like when he was alive?

After I finished writing The Stars Shine Bright, those questions started percolating in my mind. I didn't push them away because as my favorite Englishman (Winston Churchill) once said: "The farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see."

And as so often happens with writing, my imagination knit itself to "real life"as a beautiful and brilliant 13-year-old girl came to live with us.

Now, I'm a Tomboy-mom with only sons. So having a teen girl around the house was quite the adventure, especially a girl who was so smart and so ready to tell me when I was full of . . . you know. (I love this girl. She's now family).

But the whole experience reminded me of how teen girls struggle to find their way, to forge an identity, to figure out where they fit in this great big world.

That's when Raleigh, age 15, appeared on the page. She began telling me about her growing up years--her dad's alive, her mom's still nuts, and Raleigh's just beginning to understand geology is the coolest thing in the entire universe.

Stone and Spark grew from that seed of wonder. And this new Raleigh mystery launches the parallel teen series that will run alongside the adult Raleigh series. We'll get to follow Raleigh through high school and into college, right up to the point where The Stones Cry Out begins. The second book in the teen series will come out this fall.

And yes, I'm working on the next adult book, the one that follows The Stars Shine Bright. Don't worry. (And yes, Jack will be returning for an encore performance--who could expect anything less from the Alpha Agent?)

I hope you enjoy Stone and Spark. Let me know your thoughts. Better yet, leave a review and let the whole world know: Raleigh's back!

Also for a limited time, Amazon is offering the third Raleigh mystery The Clouds Roll Away for $2.99. That's 81% off the regular retail price. So steal my book. Please. I don't know whether this deal will happen again because I don't set these prices--I just celebrate with readers when it happens. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Real Racism

Here's the deal--and I do mean deal. For a limited time, Amazon is offering The Clouds Roll Away for $2.99. That's 81% off the regular retail price. So steal my book. Please. I don't know whether this deal will happen again because I don't set these prices--I just celebrate with readers when it happens.  But with the forehead-smacking deal, I'm posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing this third Raleigh Harmon mystery. 

Today is Reason #8:

Slavery, Rap, Lott Cary and the source of racism

     Yeah, that about covers it. 
      The Clouds Roll Away swirls with conflicts arising from the history of a small but significant place in Virginia: Charles City. 
     Bordered by the James River just east of Richmond, Charles City is the home to America's most historic plantation homes, a seed pod for several US presidents, and the first colonial settlement outside of Jamestown.
      But there's also storied black history here:
      One of America's first free black communities.
      The nation's third-oldest free black church.
      Birthplace of Lott Cary.
     Who was Lott Cary? We ought to know his name. He was the first black missionary to Africa and the founding father of Liberia-- the west African nation founded in 1820 by freed American slaves, most of them from Virginia. 
    The idea of Liberia sounded great: free African Americans sailing back to the mother land, sponsored by white abolitionists. They planned to build schools, businesses, even colleges, repatriating what was taken from them by force.
    But good intentions often pave the road straight to Hell. And Liberia might be one such construction project.
      As I was researching Charles City for The Clouds Roll Away, I stumbled upon Bitter Canaan: Story of the Negro Republic by Charles Spurgeon Johnson. His 1930 book ought to be required reading, particularly by people who constantly scream about racial inequality, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a copy. Johnson's manuscript was rejected by every publisher he approached; nobody wanted to print the acrid truth about Liberia. ( Bitter Canaan was finally published in 1987 by an obscure house. It's now out of print).  
     Johnson, who was black, writes with both compassion and disgust as he documents the grand social experiment. Everyone had high hopes--from the freed slaves to the white abolitionist Christians. But when the abolitionists returned to Liberia to check on the progress, they were horrified.
Denver News, public domain
   The former slaves now had their own slaves--and were proud of it. Even more appalling, these freed slaves were treating the human property worse than anything experienced in the American South.
    Johnson, writing without defense or apology, recognized that what gave birth to American slavery had nothing to do with skin color. But it had everything to do with the evil residing in the human heart. 
     To this day, encyclopedias will skim right past Johnsons' authorship of Bitter Canaan, choosing instead to highlight the scholar's many other worthwhile achievements. But it makes me wonder if simply can't handle the truth about the human heart. About ourselves.
   And it's why I love writing about Raleigh Harmon. The girl's honest, to the bone.
    In The Clouds Roll Away, she comes up against everybody from black separatists and white supremacists to the descendants of former slaves and slave owners. Here's an excerpt, as she's driving through Charles City looking for a woman connected to the Ku Klux Klan.
    
         On Wednesday, December 13, I drove down Lott Carey Road -- named for the Liberian founder who grew up here -- and searched for a driveway that DeMott assured me was here. 
I finally found the dirt road. It was covered with dry walnut shells that exploded under my tires. The sound made the lowland plain seem even more timeless, as if the fallow fields might suddenly bloom with torn and ragged soldiers, staggering home from a lost cause, the air still acrid with an incinerated city.  I passed wooden grave markers that looked watered by the blood of the dead, and a dilapidated plantation house stood empty, waiting for once-beautiful women to step inside, their faces etched with bitterness.
      Out here, it could still be April, 1865.


PS Raleigh deals with many of these same themes in the first book of this series, The Stones Cry Out. That book's offered at $3.99, thanks to the cool folks at Cool Gus Publishing.




Saturday, March 15, 2014

Virginia Is for (History) Lovers



Here's the deal--and I do mean deal. For a limited time, Amazon is offering The Clouds Roll Away for $2.99. 

That's 81% off the regular retail price. 

So steal my book. Please. It might never get this inexpensive again (because I don't set these prices, I just celebrate with readers when it happens).



This forehead-smacking-good deal also means I'm posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery. 

Yesterday we covered Reason #10. Now for Reason #9:


                      Virginia's Historic Homes

Along Virginia's James River, the plantation houses date back as far as the 1600s. Elegant testaments to a bygone era, these homes are the birthplace of American history: Childhood stomping grounds of Presidents Tyler and Harrison; dinner parties for as many as eight presidents whose current events were the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Stepping into these homes--some of which are still occupied by descendants of original owners-- is literally to touch history. Oil lamps and Flemish-bond brickwork. Slave quarters and Union-forged cannonballs stuck in the dining room walls. Soldiers in blue and gray, buried in the graveyards.

For historical fiction, these places make ideal settings.  

But they also work amazingly well for contemporary crime fiction.

In The Clouds Roll Away, FBI agent Raleigh Harmon gets called to "Rapland," a historic estate once known as "Laurel" because somebody's burned a cross in the groomed lawn. It appears not everyone appreciates the "improvements" being made by the new owner, a rich black rap star who goes by the moniker RPM. Among the remodeling choices? Pink stucco, aluminum windows, and heavy-duty sound systems.

Was it fun for me to write about this clash of cultures? Oh, yeah. It's my dream material.

At the same time, it was disturbing to explore just how invested people get in houses and history and lineage, and how that investment can twist their hearts and minds. In Clouds, an old classmate of Raleigh's named Flynn Wellington runs a B-and-B on the equally-historic property neighboring Rapland. Flynn's blind devotion to Virginia history sends her to the top of Raleigh's suspects for the cross-burning:

      I drove down the oyster-shell road. A column of walnut trees reached for the blue sky like ancient black hands. It was mesmerizing land and I sympathized with Flynn's devotion to it. But as I pulled onto Wiliamsburge Raod, heading back to town, I wondered about the past's magnetic hold. Flynn clung to her history like someone afraid of perishing, someone drowning who succeeds only in taking the saving grace down with her.
      But most of all I wondered about her statement and the question it left hanging in the conservatory's moist air.
      She did not have time to terrorize an unwelcome neighbor, she said.
     But if she did . . . ?

You can read the rest of the story for a mere $2.99.

At that price, consider it a steal.



P.S. The first Raleigh Harmon mystery, The Stones Cry Out, is also a screaming steal, courtesy of Cool Gus Publishing. The revamped book includes a dozen historic photographs from the Library of Virginia. Which means you can see these historic locations for yourself. Don't miss it.