Monday, January 26, 2015

Cozy Mystery Formula: Just Add Murder!

Anyone who's read mysteries (or romances, or thrillers, or even horror novels) for any length of time quickly finds out that there is a "formula" (or pattern, if you prefer) to all books in the genre.

In other words, the same scenario, same type of protagonist, same type of complications, all appear in every cozy with the names and places changed. After a while, I find that a lot of series all begin to sound the same ("I thought the protagonist's name was Jessie...? Oh, wait, that's the other series I read, the one where the girl moved back to her hometown after being dumped by her fiance and started her own pet massage business! This is the one where the girl dumps her philandering husband and moves away from her hometown to start an organic pet treats business!")

In the mystery genre, and I'm talking cozy mysteries, since that's what I write, there are a few "ingredients" that appear to be standard across the spectrum. When I decided to write my Black Horse Campground series, it was tempting to completely defy convention and ignore all the formulas until it occurred to me: these formulas exist because readers LIKE them. When they pick up a cozy, they expect the story to go a certain way--the protagonist has to find acceptance in her new life or business, she must have a painful past (romantic or otherwise) to overcome, she must find a new romantic interest (usually a love triangle results,) and, of course, she must face opposition from the local law enforcement when she takes on the task of solving the mystery.

That still doesn't mean that an author can take a template and use the "find and replace" tool to write a story.

Here's how I "tweaked" the formula to make the Black Horse Campground series a little different from all the other cozies.

1. Location--Corrie Black, my protagonist, has a painful past (more on that in a minute) but she didn't leave her hometown to escape it, or even come back to her hometown. She's always been in Bonney County, working her family business.

2. That painful past--not only does Corrie nurse a broken heart from a breakup many years earlier, she still remains friends and interacts on a daily basis with her ex, who happens to be....

3. The oppositional (did I just invent a new word???) local law enforcement--Sheriff Rick Sutton who has been one of Corrie's best friends since childhood, her first (and only?) love, and one side of...

4. The love triangle--in which both of the protagonist's love interests have legitimate reasons for not jumping into a relationship--Rick is a divorced Catholic and J.D. is a recent widower--but both are situations that could change. And I don't intend to drag it out until everyone (including myself!) is ready to give up on it!

Of course, many elements remain the same. The protagonist usually has a close friend to discuss the case with, there's always some character to provide light comic relief, another character who adds complications. It's up to the writer to add some spice, zest, and sweetness to their own recipe for a cozy and make it truly their own!

Just add murder....

Monday, January 19, 2015

Meet Ronald B. O'Gorman, Author of "Fatal Rhythm"!

Today on The Back Deck Blog, I'm hosting author and fellow Catholic Writers Guild member, R. B. O'Gorman.  I thoroughly enjoyed his medical thriller, "Fatal Rhythm", not only because it was a fast-paced, engrossing read, but the story is set in Houston, TX, in an area I'm very familiar with, as it is the neighborhood where my brother-in-law used to live! It was so exciting to read a story and think, "Yep, St. Ann's Church, I know where that is!" and be able to picture the exact location of the story!  So let's get to know this talented author and see what he's got coming up next!

    I grew up in Texas where I developed a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I obtained a PhD in Biochemistry from Rice University and studied cardiovascular surgery under Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. My debut novel, “FATAL RHYTHM” is a medical suspense/mystery based on my training experience with Michael E. DeBakey, called the “greatest surgeon ever.” Currently, I live in Mobile, Alabama, where I write, teach, and practice medicine. My wife and I stay busy with our six children and first three grandchildren.
    I’ve written non-fiction since college. During my surgery residency, I started the novel as a journal reflection on the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. From there, it grew into the novel. Along the way, I read every self-help book on writing, plotting, character development, editing, query letters, finding an agent, and self-publishing. I also was fortunate to take graduate courses in Creative Writing.
    FATAL RHYTHM” is the story of a Latino surgery resident who dreams of becoming a heart doctor. First, he must determine the cause of a series of deaths in the ICU. In the process, he re-examines the ethnic and religious heritage that he had rejected. It is a medical thriller, but also a story of redemption and Marian intercession.
    My writing process is a little unusual in that I write anywhere/anytime. I take moments during my day and jot down words on paper. Then, in the evening I transcribe into Microsoft Word. Later, I print out what I’ve written and make my corrections on paper. It’s been a long journey from my first reflections on Our Lady’s feast day to the finished debut novel. In the process there were multiple agents, editors, and publishers. The four most important lessons I learned: 1. I have time to accomplish all that God wants. 2. Never give up. 3. A wide network of friends/writers was required for me to accomplish my goal. 4. Outside affirmation is nice, but in the end I need to have faith in my work.
    My next book is titled “CHANCE TO CUT.” It is another medical thriller set in the Texas Medical Center. A heart surgeon must determine how an assassin is going to kill the president-elect and save his life. After that, I want to publish a trilogy, “FOUND,” about a Guatemalan orphan who thinks his biological father is the president of the United States. I hope to publish many more books, and even more important, I hope to work with fellow CWG authors to promote the revival of Catholic Fiction.

I hope my blog readers check out "Fatal Rhythm" and enjoy it as much as I do and much continued success to Ron in his writing endeavors!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Writer's Dream or Nightmare? On Taking the Story from the Page to the Screen

By now those of you who read cozies (especially food related ones) are aware that author Joanne Fluke's "Hannah Swensen" series is coming to the small screen sometime this spring. "Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder" is going to be made into a Hallmark television movie with Alison Sweeney playing the role of Hannah.

I'm fairly certain that Joanne's initial reaction was a crazy little happy dance. And I'm certain that it doesn't matter if it's small screen or big screen, knowing that someone wants to take your story, your characters and put them out there as living and breathing characters living the story is a thrill that perhaps many authors dream of. If you're not familiar with Alison Sweeney, here is a picture of who will be playing Hannah Swensen:

If you're at all familiar with the books, it's quite probable that you took one look at Ms. Sweeney and said, "She's supposed to by Hannah??" Even the author, Joanne Fluke, said, "With curly red hair and a few extra pounds, I think she'll make a great Hannah!"

What does an author really feel when the character they've created and lived with for so long is suddenly transformed by a movie or TV producer or director's vision into someone he or she doesn't recognize? I think this question has been asked ever since Agatha Christie saw Margaret Rutherford cast as Miss Marple ("To me, she's always looked like a bloodhound.") And I have to admit, I never could see Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot (maybe because, in my head, I heard him as Prince John in Disney's "Robin Hood"?)

You see what I mean?

Of course, the excitement of having your book brought to the screen, big or small, can eclipse the concern over whether or not your characters will look or sound the same way to see and hear them in your head. And let's be honest: how often have we, as readers, pictured a character in our minds only to discover that the author's vision was very different from ours?

I could tell you what actors I would cast as the characters in my Black Horse Campground mystery series, but I can almost guarantee you would disagree with me! Everyone envisions characters differently, and in a way, it's almost a disappointment to see a character you love looking like someone totally different than what you imagined. To me, that will always be the benefit of a book over a movie; the reader can make the characters their own as well as the author's and truly feel a part of the story.

I'm going to give Hallmark and Alison Sweeney the benefit of the doubt and probably see "Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder" (if only to engage in a lot of "wouldn't it be great if...?" dreaming!) but I still see the actress better cast as Hannah's sister, Andrea. Maybe she could dye her hair red for the role, though I don't see her putting on extra pounds... and let's see if she can bake!

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Long Overdue and Heartfelt Thank You, Mrs. Quinn!

One of the best memories I will have of 2014 goes back almost 35 years to my days as a junior high student at Blessed Sacrament School in El Paso, Texas. I was fortunate, lucky, privileged, and above all, blessed to have Mrs. Patricia Quinn as my 7th and 8th grade Literature, English, and History teacher (small school; a few teachers had to teach many subjects.) Not only was she a teacher who was passionate about the subjects she taught, she also taught me things that I, now, as a writer, value highly and use every time I sit down at the computer to write.

First off, she taught me how to tell a story. Our classes were only about 40 minutes long and there were times when the subject she was teaching (usually history) would remind her of something that she experienced when she was a girl growing up in Washington D. C. At some point, she would remove her glasses and rest her elbow on the podium and begin to tell us the story. Now it would be easy to say that, naturally, a bunch of 13-year-old kids would welcome a chance to "ditch" class with the instructor's tacit permission. But the truth was, I think every one of us listened even MORE closely to Mrs. Quinn's stories than we did to her lectures (she probably should have tested us on her stories!) And because time was limited, she had to wrap up her story before the next bell rang.

Second, she was a stickler for perfection when it came to our writing assignments. This was back in the day when diagramming sentences was an integral part of every grammar class (do they still teach it?) and, to this day, whenever I'm reading a sentence--my own or another writer's--that doesn't sound quite "right", I whip out the pencil and paper and diagram it. It amazes me how many books are published with grammatically incorrect sentences!

Third, she was a cheerleader. Giving you an "A" on a paper you wrote wasn't enough; she told you what was good about it, what she liked about it. Praise wasn't earned easily, but when she had something good to say, you knew it was the absolute truth. And deep down, I knew, it wasn't something you wasted.

So when my first book, "End of the Road", was published in July 2013, I had to publicly thank her and let everyone who read the acknowledgments know to whom I give the credit for becoming a writer. I also tracked her down (not hard, since she still lives in the same house she lived in when she taught at our school) and sent her a copy of "End of the Road". I received a lovely letter from her, which I will always treasure, telling me how gratifying it is for a teacher to know that she made a difference in a student's life.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of her sons. He told me that his mother had, to her great distress, lost the book at the hair salon. He asked if it would be too much for me to send her another. I asked if it would be too much for me to give it to her in person. So on Saturday, December 13, I finally got to say "Thank you" in person.

I didn't ask her to grade it, but I think I passed with flying colors! We spent a couple of hours reminiscing and catching up (she's been a very busy lady all these years!) and I was thrilled to be able to tell her just how much I appreciated all she did for me. She was gracious enough to thank ME for taking the time to tell her so and to accord so much credit to her.

I hope we find the time, in the coming year, to seek out those who touched our lives and be able to tell them how much we owe to them for believing in us and encouraging us.

Thank you, Mrs. Quinn!