Friday, January 31, 2014

Reason #4

You have four days.

Four days to steal my fourth mystery. 

Until February 3, Amazon is offering The Mountains Bow Down for $2.99.

That's cheaper than a gallon of gas. Cheaper than a cup of Starbucks' coffee. Cheaper than Raleigh's favorite meal of cheeseburgers and fries--with a side of mayo.

Those real-life prices bring me to Reason #4 in the Top 10 Reasons why I wrote The Mountains Bow Down:

                     REAL PEOPLE IN MY LIFE

Novelists get plenty of cathartic miles out of recycling annoying people into fictional characters--especially villainous characters. 

But I've found even greater joy by doing the exact opposite: Honoring people I love within the pages of my books. 

For instance, in Mountains I used the names of two adored friends: Bob Barner and Robert Stoller.

Readers get to meet Bob Barner in Skagway, when he races after a fugitive. In real life, I met Bob Barner in Virginia, when I was a reporter.  

Bob was 34 years old, handsome, with a gorgeous wife, and four perfect children.

And he was dying. 

He had a terminal brain tumor; hospice was called in. 

With reportorial chutzpah (or, more accurately, rudeness) I asked Bob Barner if I could write about his hospice care. Long-term. Like move in with the family until, you know, whatever happened.

I know. But that's how God built me. Deal with it. Because I also asked to bring along uber-photogrpaher Dean Hoffmeyer.

After thinking about it for several days, Bob Barner agreed to my request. With one condition: "Make God famous." I really wasn't sure what he meant, but Dean and I did indeed spend months watching Bob die. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. And among the greatest blessings. The story did indeed make God famous: The Barners were Christians who walked the walk and the resulting story was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize after Bob died. Not because of me. It was because of this family, and Dean Hoffmeyer's tender yet unwavering way with a camera. Those photos still make me cry.

On a lighter note, the second real name in Mountains belongs to Robert Stoller. A brilliant attorney in Alaska, Robert Stoller was the first person to teach me Chess. I was about six years old and he was the second smartest person I'd ever met (my dad gets first-place). 

Many years later, at my dad's memorial service, Stoller delivered a laughter-through-tears eulogy that landed on my heart like a healing balm.  Later still. Stoller sent me some autobiographical sketches of his early years in the law. One story was about an attorney he met. The sketch was titled: "The Lawyer Who Pissed in the Sink." (Not Stoller, by the way). 
In Mountains, Raleigh Harmon interviews the Alaska Medical Examiner about a suspicious death. (Aanother cool thing about writing fiction? I can hand out medical degrees--to lawyers!).  Since I knew this fictional ME was super-smart, didn't suffer fools, and was funny, I chose to name him Robert Stoller.

Here's an excerpt, when Raleigh's speaks to Dr. Robert Stoller from the cruise ship:

         “You continue to assume," [he said] "Haven’t you heard the saying?”

“I’m from the South, sir. I’ve heard quite a few sayings.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Stoller. “But perhaps you need to hear this one. Though it sounds vulgar initially, it provides an unforgettable mnemonic device. Would you care to hear it?”
“You can remember how to spell ‘assume’ because it puts an ‘ass’ in front of ‘u’ and ‘me.’”
I almost laughed. 
“Thus, assuming nothing, we cannot say how she was suffocated her. Only that I’m fairly certain she was suffocated.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #5

Here's the daily preamble: For a limited time, Amazon is offering The Mountains Bow Down for $2.99. 

That's an 81% discount! For a mystery starred by Booklist that also includes Alaska, priceless gems, misbehaving movie stars, and our ever-intrepid forensic geologist, Raleigh Harmon.

If you don't buy Mountains for $2.99, you're either cheap or crazy. 

Or drunk. Which I can forgive. 

To honor this fantastic deal, I'm posting my Top Ten reasons for writing The Mountains Bow Down. 

We're now on Reason #5

That's right. I said it: Poetry. 

Yes, I do realize my books are murder mysteries. But I love poetry. If you're not reading it, you're not living.

Alaska's Inside Passage
Readers constantly comment on these Raleigh Harmon titles, and the overwhelming majority really-really-really like the series' names. But every now and again someone feels the compulsion to tell me, "These titles don't sound like other mystery/thriller/romantic suspense novels."

My usual reply, in all graciousness: "Duh!"

I chose these titles for some good reasons (including poetry), and fortunately my publisher agreed. The Mountains Bow Down harmonizes with The Stones Cry Out, The Rivers Run Dry, The Clouds Roll Away and The Stars Shine Bright (and future books, coming soon-- promise!). 

My hope is that these titles will tip-off readers, right from the start. Although the protagonist is an FBI agent, the Raleigh Harmon mysteries are not just-the-facts-ma'am. She's also a geologist with a keen eye for nature, and a struggling believer constantly pondering how earth-faith-good-evil can all coexist together.

Of the five titles so far, The Mountains Bow Down might be my favorite. It has what my scary high school English teacher called "internal rhyme." Can you hear it -- the "ou-ow-ow" progression of the words? I love it. (P.S. While I name these books, I can't explain from where the names come. They're more grace for an underserving scribe).

Ketchikan's version of Google Maps
Another poetic element in The Mountains Bow Down is the imagery, especially considering Alaska's towering peaks. It's an image vivid enough to capture the passion of various writers of scripture, each referencing how nature will "bow down" to God (hello, sweet Christian nitpickers: please check Nahum, Joel, Isaiah or the Psalms . . . .). 

I do try -- really, really -- to keep "purple prose" away from these murder-mysteries. Nothing worse than too much description (except maybe too little). But geologists study the earth all the way down to grains of sand, and they tend to notice things -- things other people miss.


That string of bruises across a victim's throat looks to Raleigh like "violet pearls." Hymnals left behind in an abandoned church have "the atmospheric damp of books stored in wet basements." And beams of sunlight are "translucent."

It's a big beautiful world, full of poetry. And Raleigh knows it. 

So do her readers. 

     "The mile-wide tongue of blue-and-white ice stretched five miles back, reaching up to a mountain peak that pointed straight to God. I heard Jack gasp, then gasp again as the front of the glacier snapped and a falling block of ice the size of an office building plunged straight down into the water . . . . In the bright sun, the water glistened like jewels. 
     And the block of ice bobbed, already hiding how much lay beneath the surface."

Monday, January 20, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #6

Right now, The Mountains Bow Down is on sale for $2.99, thanks to The ten-day sale (get it now -- the discount won't last) has prompted my Top Ten reasons for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery. 

I've already revealed reasons #7, 8, 9 and 10.
                                                                            Today, Reason #6: 
                   The Sheer Challenge

With every book, Raleigh Harmon raises the bar on me. For Mountains, 
she wanted to try solving crimes through geology, even though she's stuck on water.
"You're on," I said. 
 Not only do normal people not converse with imaginary friends, I also learned that geology positively riddles building products. Gypsum minerals in wallboard. Limestone in tile grout. Marble floors, silica in glass windows, granite countertops---the geology is everywhere.
Even on cruise ships.

So throughout The Mountains Bow Down, the redoubtable Raleigh exploits all her knowledge of land and solves several crimes committed entirely on water.

My research benefitted immensely from a wonderful textbook, Forensic Geology. Written by Ray Murray and John C.F. Tedrow, Forensic Geology is the bible of its field. I've been reading it since the Raleigh Harmon series began, and even absconded with Tedrow's last name in The Stones Cry Out, pinning it to a minor character. Which reader can find that character now . . . ?

Forensic Geology contains a particularly good section on earth-based products used to insulate safes. No spoilers, but here's an excerpt from The Mountains Bow Down where Raleigh Harmon uses her geology expertise to solve a crime committed on the high seas:

        The powder-coated safe was roughly the size of a microwave. The stainless steel door was secured to a titanium baseplate, and I ran my eyes over the knob, searching for nicks in the striated surface. But there were no obvious signs of forced entry. 
     Bending at the waist, I stared at the baseplate from below. A fine-grained dust stuck to a tiny circle, no more than one-sixteenth of an inch, at the bottom of the baseplate. My fingers twitched, tempted to tap the ashen circle . . . . Whoever cracked the safe had done an excellent job cleaning up. But any high-speed drill spiraling into a safe had to tunnel through fireproof layers, flinging a dust into the air so fine it could remain suspended for hours, even days . . . .

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #7

For a short time, Amazon's offering The Mountains Bow Down for $2.99. Get it while you can -- the price will soon skyrocket about three-hundred percent (Don't blame me. I don't set these prices).

But in honor of ten good days, I'm posting my Top Ten reasons for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery. We've covered 10, 9, 8.

Today is Reason #7:


Growing up in Alaska, I watched my hometown morph from a sleepy capitol to one of the busiest tourist ports in the world. In the spirit of Scarlett O'Hara, I raised my fist and cried, "So help me, God, I will never go on those ships!"

Of course, I also swore never to nag my kids. Or eat while driving. Or say things like, "There are two kinds of people in the world . . . ."

Heaven on earth, Summer at 10 pm
And so, there I was, sailing through Alaska's Inside Passage with two thousand strangers. Everyone oohed and ahhed at the view while I tried to figure out ways to kill them. 

For the book, you know. 

Anyway, I've seen Alaska from every possible vantage --ground, air, water, skis--and I can say with certainty that water wins. The mountains literally sparkle, the sky spreads out like God's throwing a surprise party.

I even appreciate what cruise ships offer. Specifically, I liked ditching my car for a week; skipping dinner reservations yet still eating delicious meals; and sleeping every night in the same comfy bed but waking every morning in a new place. Genius! 

And, hey, it's not like my lonely boycott would stop these things from sailing into Juneau.

If you're planning an Alaska cruise, here's an inside tip. Consider traveling in May. Not only are cruise prices significantly lower, the crowds are less crushing and the weather can be glorious. When we landed in Juneau the first week of May, the temperature hovered around 75 degrees without a cloud in the sky.

 Sawyer Glacier, also featured in Mountains
Raleigh Harmon enjoyed her Alaska adventure so much she's begged to return for more far-north geology--and juicy crime. I'm seriously considering it. 

In the meantime, here she is on the cruise ship's upper deck, in the opening of The Mountains Bow Down:

     With the trajectory of launched missiles, the mountains soared from the ocean. Smothered with evergreens, the steeps pointed to a sky so blue it whispered of eternity. Though it was June, snow on the granite ridges refused to melt despite twenty-four hours of daily sunlight. And where a liquid silver sea lapped the rocky shore, a bald eagle surveyed the cold water for fish.
    First week of June: 5:00 a.m. in Ketchikan, Alaska.                             
    It felt like falling in love.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #8

For a very limited time, Amazon's offering The Mountains Bow Down for $2.99. After that, the price shoots back up to about ten bucks (don't blame me, I don't set these prices).

In honor of this ten-day special, I'm posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery set aboard a cruise ship to Alaska.

You can read about reasons #9 and #10

Today is Reason # 8:

                              MOVIE STARS

Some actors have my undying admiration. I can name three of them right off the top of my head: Robert Duvall, Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck, who is perfection personified in those Jesse Stone TV movies. 

But too many actors use scandal to build entire careers. Serial divorces, trips to rehab, drunk-and-disorderly behavior--it gets their name into the papers. And, like a lot of people, I'm sick of the meaningless "news" about insecure narcissists whose f-bombing mouths have nothing interesting to say. And please, don't get me started on their politics.


Among the greatest pleasures of writing novels is the ample opportunity to channel annoyances into character portraits. Which is why The Mountains Bow Down brims with Hollywood people--from actors and producers to bodyguards and hangers-on. 

Inspiration was always close at hand. As a reporter I wrote a lot of celebrity profiles, including one about an actress *cough-photo* who tried to get me fired because the story wasn't flattering. Unfortunately for her cause, the story was accurate.

When Raleigh Harmon's forced to work among preening "beautiful people," her threshold for baloney is higher than mine. But not much. 

Here's an excerpt from The Mountains Bow Down. Raleigh is trying to interview the Hollywood people about a movie producer who was discovered dead that morning:

     The thin woman who answered the door to the ship's penthouse had a pile of platinum hair. Her name was Larrah Sparks and her bikini was so small it could've belonged to the real Barbie, whom Mrs. Sparks closely resembled.
     I showed my FBI credentials, reminding the producer's wife.
     "Huh," she said. "Is this something with the movie?"
     "Did I ever tell you I did two movies that had FBI agents in them?"
     Three times. "Yes, you did."
     "None of the agents was female," she continued, once more. "If I'd played the agent we would've made money."
     I gave my official smile, an expression Quantico issued on graduation day. "Is Mr. Sparks available?"
     "You know how to spell my name, right?" She spelled it. "Rhymes with 'Harrah.'"
     "Got it." Larrah-Harrah. Scarrah. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #9

In honor of Amazon offering The Mountains Bow Down for 2.99 over the next ten days, I'm posting my Top Ten reasons for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery. 

Yesterday I revealed Reason #10

Today, Reason #9: 

Researching a novel--particularly a mystery, particularly a forensic mystery, particularly a forensic geology mystery--creates such an enigmatic trail that the path doesn't resemble anything except Alice's trip down the rabbit hole.

So I can't say how I stumbled across benitoite, only that once this beautiful blue gem crossed my screen, I couldn't not write about it.

Benitoite is state gemstone of California, yet so rare that some professional geologists have never heard of it. I keep waiting for benitoite to pop up on the game show "Jeopardy." Example: "Alex, I'll take More Precious than Diamonds for $1000." 

First discovered in 1907, benitoite was named by a gemologist who pinpointed its origin to the headwaters of California's San Benito River. (You can read the interesting history of its discovery, a story which offers its own intrigues--see what I mean about research?). To this day, that small portion of California is still the only place on the entire planet where gem-quality benitoite's ever been found. 

And when it's gemstone-quality, benitoite can sell for as much as $1000 per carat. But it gets better. Benitoite occurs in two even more rare forms: a five-pointed star, and a six-pointed "star of David." Yes, it looks exactly like a star of David, as if carved by hand. 

Only about 24 star samples have been found, although last year somebody (weirdly, related to Keith Carradine of "Grasshopper" fame--see what I mean about research?) found a five-pointed star, setting off an international sensation. 

If you're ever in central California, be sure to stop by one of the mines that allow visitors to hunt for benitoite. During my research, I spoke with the nice folks at Whimsy Mine. There's also Capistrano Mining Company. If you can't get to California, some of these mines will ship you local gravel which you can mine in the comfort of your home. Find some benitoite, and you might score enough to pay that bill several times over.

I won't offer any spoilers, but suffice to say, beautiful blue benitoite played a starring role in The Mountains Bow Down, thus making it my #9 reason for writing this Raleigh Harmon mystery. 

Here's an early excerpt, where the gem makes one of its first enigmatic appearances:

      He looked into the drink again, then downed the rest of it. "That's all you need to know about my wife. The woman was a real saint."
     "Did the saint leave a suicide note?"
     He froze.
     I wasn't his buddy. I wasn't interested in his charm. And somebody killed his wife. 
     After a moment, he shook his head, indicating she left no note, and I pulled the plastic bag from my pocket. With the room's intense illumination, the blue gems glowed like tiny gas flames. Hypnotic pilot-light jewels. "Did this bracelet belong to your wife?"

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Top Ten Reasons: #10

Raleigh heading for Juneau, Alaska
Readers often ask: "Which Raleigh Harmon mystery is your favorite?"

My answer? "The mystery I'm currently working on."

But one particular Raleigh Harmon book holds such a special place in my heart it might be my favorite: The Mountains Bow Down.

For the next ten days, Amazon is offering the e-book edition of Mountains for $2.99.

Don't wait -- operators are standing by.

And in honor of this special window of reader opportunity, I'll be posting my Top Ten Reasons for writing The Mountains Bow Down. You'll understand why I carry a burning torch for this book, and why anyone who doesn't nab it for $2.99 is nuts.

 I'm kidding. Sort of.


My serious Agatha Christie addiction screeched into the station with The Blue Train.

Published in 1928 -- when it retailed for $2 (ahem, see above offer) -- The Blue Train features Christie's singularly brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot, as he boards Le Train Bleu heading for the French Riviera.

Also boarding the train is Katherine Grey, an Englishwoman with a large inheritance. She makes the onboard acquaintance of Ruth Kettering, an American heiress stuck in an unhappy marriage who is planning to meet her lover. The folllowing morning, Ruth is discovered dead in her train compartment, a victim of strangulation. And the ruby which her father gave her-- the famous "Heart of Fire" jewel-- is missing.

The Blue Train captivated my imagination, from the compartmentalized setting and tight schedule to Poirot piecing together a murder and jewel heist most certainly committed by someone still onboard.

And that's when Raleigh Harmon jumped up and begged me to stick her in similarly challenging circumstances. Raleigh's request launched the cruise ship setting for The Mountains Bow Down

Here's a short excerpt from Mountains where the redoubtable Raleigh Harmon reflects on her long day aboard a cruise ship heading for Alaska, with a dead woman onboard:

   "I pulled the covers up tight and listened to the ship sliding through the Inside Passsage. The ocean brushed against the side, whooshing and splashing, and once again I thought of Judy Carpenter.
    I wondered if she was completely dead when she hung there, or if her last moments were spent listening to this cold brush of sound, the silver splash of ocean as it escorted her to an end of days."

Tomorrow: Reason #9

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Horse Writer

Catherine...and friend
Even after months of hanging around race tracks researching The Stars Shine Bright, I didn't really "get" horses. Mostly they seemed too big and too temperamental and I was too far into the book to stop writing about them.

One day, while driving my forehead into the keyboard, an email arrived. A note from Catherine Madera, aka The Horse Writer. 

She wanted to help me with my "horse problem."

Her note, explaining the wherefore and the why of horses, was filled with stories and insights and so much adoration for equines that I actually started to fall in love with horses. No joke.

Of course, that's what a good writer does: Alter your heart, change your mind. 

From her farm near the Canadian border, Catherine writes an insightful blog (no topic off-limits) and novels-- heart-felt stories about "relationships, in all their messy detail, and the things that bond people together."

Her first novel, Rodeo Dreams was soon followed by Rain Shadow, which contains the only prologue ever to make me cry. Her third novel Rhinestones (check out that gorgeous cover) is garnering rave reviews and climbing the Indie publishing lists.

And yet, I still managed to lasso this busy woman--wife, mom, writer, editor, homeschooler, rider and pen-pal friend--long enough for a chat. 

So come meet Catherine Madera, the Horse Writer:

You wear so many hats--I can't even count that high--but is there any psychic overlap between your time riding horses and your time writing stories? 

I read somewhere that writing is listening and I think that’s true. Writers listen; they know how to observe. They are constantly turning things over to look for detail, connection, truth. Riding is the same way, if you are passionate about the horses themselves (as opposed to using them solely for entertainment). To be a good horseman/woman you must learn to quiet your busy self and notice the details. It’s a very intuitive art. Horses do not use language, but remain powerfully subtle in the way they communicate. As a writer, I find their language fascinating, beautiful and very truthful. Working with my horses hones my writing ear in that I practice listening. It also helps to fill my creative tank, the quiet companionship of them.

Catherine, I've heard you refer to yourself as an "accidental novelist." What's up with that?
I never wanted to be a novelist, or had it as a goal, even after I began to get published. I got my start writing for Guideposts Magazine—true, short, inspirational stories. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to interview amazing people and thought that was my place as a writer. I focused, quite happily, on magazine writing and various journalism opportunities. Then a few years ago I read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I loved that book! It made me laugh and cry and was just plain fun. I remember thinking, “If I ever wrote a novel I’d want to create something like this.” 

Not long afterward, a basic plot about a barrel racing girl and her horse came to me. As a child and teen I devoured animal stories and novels about horses so this felt natural. But I wanted it to be a bit more grown up, not The Black Stallion repeated (though I loved those as a child). A story that dealt with deeper issues and challenges without losing that element of *fun.* One day a scene came to me for Rodeo Dreams so I wrote it down. It was completely intimidating to think of writing a full length novel so I wrote in chunks like this for a long time, stringing scenes together like one might piece a quilt. Eventually, the story was finished. There is now a sequel to that story, as well as a work of horse-related women’s fiction called Rain Shadow.
You write plenty of non-fiction, but what draws you back to fiction? 
Fiction, good fiction, is subtle yet powerful. I think you can explore things in fiction that are much harder in nonfiction (without sounding preachy and annoying). I was drawn to the challenge of that. Though my books—especially Rodeo Dreams and Rhinestones—are “horse stories,” they explore deeper subjects like loss, truth, God’s “will” and forgiveness. They are stories about relationships, in all their messy detail, and the things that bond people together. That I also get to create supporting horse characters with personality and wisdom is incredibly fun.

Among the reasons I adore you -- aside from saving my bacon while researching The Stars Shine Bright -- is your wonderful honesty about your life. Readers must sense that in your fiction, too. 
Like most writers, I’m not interested in shallow things or shallow ideas. That drives a certain transparency that I won’t compromise. Life is rich and complicated; I want to share something real with a reader and inspire them somehow. I have gotten wonderful emails and feedback from readers over the years. Rain Shadow has over a 100 reviews on Amazon now and some of them have made me cry. It was a story that touched on very personal emotions and experiences so it is a privilege to know readers were touched, too.

Name Some Favorites: Books, movies, daydreams, horses--whatever you're thinking about. 
It’s hard to pick a favorite book, impossible really. A few of my top picks for fiction are Peace Like a River and Like Water for Elephants. And the Raleigh Harmon series sold me on Christian fiction—dead honest here. I have referred many, many people who would normally not pick up “Christian fiction” to the series because it is entertaining with real depth and excellent writing. [NOTE: Catherine, I promise, the $20 I owe you will be there soon.-- Sibella]

Non-fiction that I love, love love include: Unbroken, Sea Biscuit and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Also I love real life drama done well like A Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air. 
It wouldn’t be right to not mention my favorite horses that provide so much inspiration. Currently I have a young mustang taken out of the desert in south east Oregon named Mateo who is intriguing. He provided inspiration for my most recent work, Rhinestones. My horse of a lifetime though is my 11-year-old Arabian stallion Eli. He is a beautiful introvert with remarkable dignity. He notices everything and is sensitive, proud, and kind. He has spurred me to better my horse language, put my ego away and just listen. He always tells the truth. When I get overloaded with life and need to find that quiet place in my soul I take him out in the mountains for a ride. The best kind of therapy!