Thursday, May 25, 2017

Kansas, Harvey Houses, and Books

Residents taught me the history of the small Kansas town of Horton during a recent visit to the town library, where I helped present a check from Sisters in Crime and give a book talk about my Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series. The town’s recent population is around 2,000, but in the 1920’s, it held 5,000 souls, all because it sat at a junction of the Chicago, Kansas, and Nebraska Railroad.
Soldiers on horseback, cattle drives, wagon trains on tall-grass prairie trails, river barges, and pony express riders evoke images of nineteenth-century Kansas. However, that era had a short-lived existence. The Pony Express, for instance, lasted only eighteen months. Like black and white TV and eight-track players in the Twentieth Century, new technology took over faster than our forebears of one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred years ago could have imagined.  Railroads brought goods and people along with the new technologies into the Sunflower State and caused a demand for new services.

Entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw the need and developed a vast network of eating establishment and hotels at train depots across the state and beyond. In 1875, he opened a café in Wallace, KS on the Kansas Pacific Railway.  A year later, he contracted with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to build restaurants at its depots. He opened a restaurant in the Topeka train depot in 1876. It did so well that Mr. Harvey opened a Harvey House Restaurant/Hotel combination at the Florence, Kansas train depot.

With Harvey’s strict oversight, Harvey Houses provided good food, large helpings (pies were cut in fourths rather than sixths), fast service, and reasonable prices. More depot restaurants were built, and by 1883, there were seventeen along the train route.  A Harvey House with ornate architecture built in Chanute, Kansas, the Santa Fe’s southern Kansas headquarters, opened in 1896 and now serves the town as its public library.
Nine million dollars are being spent to renovate the grand El Vaquero Harvey House in Dodge City, originally opened in 1900.  By 1901 there were forty-seven Harvey House Restaurants, fifteen hotels, and thirty dining cars.
One of the reasons for Fred Harvey’s success was his decision to replace rough, western male waiters with young females, later including Hispanics and American Indians, who became crews of well-trained waitresses.
They were known as the Harvey Girls and are said to have brought a civilizing effect to the west. They were provided uniforms, room and board, and a better wage than many men of the day. In return, they gave fast, friendly service that drew customers.

At the Harvey Company’s peak, there were eighty-four Harvey Houses at depots along the railway from Chicago to California plus service on the trains and tourist destination hotels and eateries in Indian country, the most famous being at the Grand Canyon. The company was sold by a grandson in 1964, but the legend lives on in the grand old depot buildings that now serve as museums, restaurants, libraries, and town show places. The Harvey House at Union Station in Kansas City is gone, but hasn’t been forgotten. Photos are abundant. Also, Harvey’s Café in the station is named in honor of the former bustling Harvey House.

I live on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro where my cozy mystery series is set. My husband and I take trips across Kansas in our fifth-wheel RV, with our cats in tow, and we’ve visited many of the towns that had Harvey House train depots. One can travel from the northeast to the southwest of the state and see some of the renovated buildings or the spots where they stood. The town, Harveyville, Kansas, sits along Route 335 between Topeka and Emporia. Landscape changes from the woodland east through the Flint Hills and tall-grass prairie to the rugged west makes the drive even more worthwhile.
Fred Harvey’s family settled in Leavenworth, Kansas. His home is now a museum.

The Arcade Hotel in Newton now hosts a law firm in the old Harvey House Restaurant area.

The original Harvey House Hotel in Wichita was most recently used as a Cox Cable office.

A hotel sits where the beautiful Harvey House in Hutchinson once stood, but the original is gone.

My current work in progress is set in part along I-35 in Kansas and Oklahoma where the railroads grew towns in the 1800's. The first three books of my Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series are: CATastrophic Connections, FURtive Investigation, and Nine LiFelines. The Audiobook of CATastrophic Connections is available here or at your favorite audiobook site.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Guest author Bill A. Brier: A Dumb Idea

Bill A. Brier
Bill A. Brier grew up in California and served in the Air Force as a combat cameraman. After hiring on at Disney Studios as a film loader, he soon advanced and moved on to other studios. During his more than 25 years in the movie business as a cameraman, film editor, and general manager, Bill worked on everything from the hilarious, The Love Bug, to the creepy, The Exorcist, to the far out, Star Trek and Battle Star Galactica. Eight years ago, Bill switched from reading scripts to writing mysteries and driving race cars. His first novel, The Devil Orders Takeout, was a finalist in the 2015 Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. His second mystery, The Killer Who Hated Soup, launches this summer. The Brier Patch is Bill’s wildly entertaining blog about his shameless early days in Hollywood.

A Dumb Idea

The natural curiosity of children often prods them into mischief. They get into things. They explore. They take risks.

As adults, that curiosity is too often squelched by that tiny voice inside that says you won’t be good enough, you might fail, others won’t approve.

Eight years ago, I came up with an exciting idea for a novel. But then that tiny voice came knocking—That’s a dumb idea. The funny thing is, later, I learned it was a dumb idea.

While this best-selling idea was percolating in my mind, I told a writer friend that I was thinking of coming up with a mystery that included a talking dog and wondered what he thought about it.

I waited with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for cold toilet seats.

He nodded thoughtfully, stroked his beard, then said, “Bill, if that’s what you want to write, write it!”

Man, pretty exciting.

I went home, ordered a writing book and put a little workstation together. Desk, computer, printer, and a dumpster-size wastebasket for crummy drafts.

I was on my way. Young Jim Bolt, a magnificent golfer whose dog not only finds Jim’s lost balls—any mutt can do that—but the pooch also talks. Says exactly how far to the hole, what club to use, and once on the green, the dog …

Yes! The Devil Orders Takeout was born.

But wait!

Giving birth was one thing. Surviving the terrible twos, fearsome fours, and sucky sixes was quite another. I’d worked six months on a story that sucked. The talking dog needed muzzling. More than muzzling. He needed to be taken out.

Desperate, I searched online for help, found a writer’s group, and was invited to sit in on a meeting. Boy, was I charged. These were real writers. Everyone had prepared a critique of something one of them had written.

Those people knew their stuff. They saw problems I didn’t know were problems. Passive sentences, clichés, head hopping, too many to be words.

Huh? Better order more writing books. I’d need them.

When the meeting was over, the facilitator asked me to send her a sample of my writing. I danced out the door. Not just anybody gets into her group.

I went home energized—and intimidated. Didn’t dare send her my crappy talking-dog story. I don’t remember what I wrote, but it wasn’t up to snuff. Too much head hopping? Too many to be words?

“Do you have anything else?” the woman asked. A benevolent teacher trying to coax me into giving the correct answer. “Anything at all?”

My throat tightened as I tried to think. “Um … there’s Scamming the Scammer.”

I sent her some funny emails I had written, and she wrote back, “Bill, you are a writer. Welcome to our group.”


Determined to make The Devil Orders Takeout as good as possible, I wrote draft after draft, year after year, yet never quite reaching the finish line.

“The funeral scene is much improved,” one person wrote, after I was four years at it. “The boy taking the father’s hand brought tears to my eyes, but what was the police chief’s reaction?”

Another year, more critiques: “Misha’s bosses call him, derisively, The Midget. Why, and how tall is he?”

When someone corrected the word further for farther, I could go no further. As the wise man (or woman) said, “Novels are never finished, only abandoned.”

And that’s how I, as a writer, was born. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Until eventually, I had three completed books.

Go to for more Brier Patch blogs.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How Gritty Are My Mysteries?

My panel topic at Bouchercon 2015 was “How Much Grit Do I Want in My Mystery?” Violent content, bloody images, sexuality, and tough language come to mind when I hear the word “grit.” Gritty movies are rated R. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of gritty is “harsh and unpleasant.” 

Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Henning Mankell, and Ruth Rendell are just a few of our renowned authors who write the “dark stuff”—noir. And they’re really good at it.

I watch many TV shows where violence runs rampant. The British and Swedish do it best—Luther is breathtakingly violent; the characters in the riveting Swedish drama, Beck, don’t flinch at a little blood; the American Animal Kingdom had a mild, if menacing, start but by the end of the season the violence had reached a nearly unbearable level. Sexuality and language are a natural part of these stories— the characters leave the bedroom door wide open and aren’t likely to say, “Oh, fudge!”

I love these depictions of a grim reality, whether in print or on screen. But do I want to write tales with a “darkness of the spirit?”

No, no, a thousand times, no! Maybe spending so much time with my characters and story makes me fear all that darkness. I write cozies, edgy cozies, but cozies all the same. My violence happens off-page and is minimally described. In one story, I have the killer picking up a weapon and using it. But I left the aftermath to the reader’s vivid imagination. In another story, a character gets killed in a pretty horrific way, but all I mention is the murder weapon. Again, I let my readers fill in the blanks. No gritty details. Sometimes a well-chosen word here or there will paint a complete picture.

My characters love sex and love to talk about sex but when they “get right down to the real nitty-gritty” (see how well the song title fits the subject?) they go off-page. I may sprinkle a mild expletive—or two—into the dialogue. My readers object to profanity and I must respect their wishes. There are ways to suggest swearing and mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at this that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

But Merriam-Webster has an alternative definition of gritty: having or showing a lot of courage and determination.

My main character, Hazel Rose, doesn’t consider herself to be brave and accepts her crime-solving missions with great reluctance. But, once committed, she will run a killer to earth. Mystery writers, regardless of how noir-ish or cozy their story is, want a determined detective, one with an abundance of “true grit.” It’s true grit that unites crime writers as we restore justice to our fictional worlds.

And it’s true grit that I want in my mysteries.

Back to the Bouchercon panel: Laura DiSilverio, Frankie Bailey, Lynn Cahoon, and I had a lively discussion about grit in mysteries and pretty much covered the points I’ve made in this post. Author Lise McClendon moderated. Here’s a non-very-good photo of us: 

Writers, weigh in. How do you feel about grit in your mysteries?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Changing the Name of a Fictional Town

by Linda Thorne

Sometimes it's the little things about writing a novel that get authors all in a tizzy, spinning our wheels on something that may not be that important.

My second book in the Judy Kenagy mystery series, A Promotion to Die For, is set in Topeka, Kansas, but part of the setting includes Emporia where I lived for a year when I was a young woman.

Why even consider Emporia, Kansas? The reason: a one-in-a-million bizarre occurrence happened to me there on one blizzard-ridden night. I've taken that happening and written it exactly as I remembered then launched my plot from that single incident. To make the plot work I needed to move Emporia closer to Topeka, so I had to give it a fictional name. I chose Zemporia; that is, until my husband grumbled about it one too many times.

He didn't like the name. So someone told me about an quaint little town named Grandville only about fifty miles from our current home in Tennessee, so I changed the name of my fictionalized town from Zemporia to Grandville.

This past Monday, my husband and I decided to drive over and see this Tennessee town. What I didn't realize until we got there is I'd been misspelling the town name. It is Granville, Tennessee, not Grandville. We knew it wouldn't look like Emporia, Kansas but hearing of its existence was where I got the new town name (or thought I had the correct name). Not only does it look nothing like the town in my story, I chose to stay with the incorrect spelling. I like the ring of Grandville better and it's not nearly as common of a town name.
Granville, Tennessee is smaller than I expected. Here's the old general store it's known for (the real kind from the turn of the century). The name is T.B. Sutton Store.

Sutton Homestead has a guided tour of a very old home with its original furniture (see below). There's a Granville Museum around the corner too.

The town is right off the Cumberland River and there's a restaurant in a colorful aged building with a nice view of the river and a wooden swing set outside. I'm standing nearby the restaurant with the water behind me.
The picture below provides a better view of the swing set and the water:

Granville, Tennessee looks nothing like my little town now spelled Grandville in my WIP, but this is how I came up with the newer name. The fun of fiction is playing with reality until you find what works best for the story. So in A Promotion to Die For, I describe Emporia, Kansas, move it's location close in to Topeka, and give it the misspelled name of a real town in Tennessee.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How to keep writing when you Just Can't Even.

For the past few months I have had a hard time writing. Production has staggered to a near halt. Rabbit holes like Twitter and consume my time. When not on Twitter I seek relief in Facebook games (Did you know those games are FINITE!!! I did NOT until I actually reached the end of Pepper Panic Saga last night). 

So, what have been the only things to stand between me and total paralysis?

1- Get out of the house: I have taken to going to a local coffee shop to work on my edits. It's not too far from the house and I can drink tea. It's a bit noisy but editing isn't as demanding as composing prose from scratch (at least for me) and I can work there. There is internet available but I don't trust public internet so I don't log on. That way there is no distraction.

2- Find someone who will hold you accountable: I have a monthly critique group that I am taking my first chapter to and getting feedback. It doesn't necessarily keep me going, but it makes me read my words out loud and consider my manuscript. It's also nice to talk to other writers.

3- Take a writing class: Even if you don't NEED one it will make you write. I am currently taking an online writing class and honestly, it's the first original composing I've done since January. They may only be exercises but at least, again, I am thinking about my WIP and using my characters in the exercises to deepen my understanding of them. 

4- Take a break: Just give in to your vices and escapes. Just make sure you don't do it for too long. But try and recharge your batteries. Get outside. Go on a mini vacation. Check out the local farmer's market.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Question: Do you think it's relevant now for an author, new or otherwise, to obtain a literary agent?

In preparation for this Novel Spaces blog post, I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked them to suggest a topic/question they wanted me to cover. The first reply I got was from Diane Sewell Dorse, asking: Do you think it's relevant now for an author, new or otherwise, to obtain a literary agent?

I chose Diane's question because I had never really thought about whether it was still relevant, needed, or beneficial nowadays. But considering the indie movement in literature, self-publishing being more popular then ever, seeming to squash traditional publishing, one has to wonder. So, I decided to take on the topic. After all, it's all about books, our readers, and if we decide to not self-pub, it's about that publishing contract.

While it's true that a lot of authors; 1) have no choice other than to self-pub because they cannot find an agent or publisher, 2) prefer to go the self-published route to keep track of their own sales and income, and not pay percentages to agents and publishers, 3) are established authors who have built up enough of a readership where they believe they don't need an agent or publisher, 4) there are still authors who do prefer to have an agent, and the backing of a mainstream publisher for purposes of production and distribution, to give them more time to write, and hopefully provide more income, upfront or otherwise, through advances/sales. And when it comes time for a new deal, their agent can act on their behalf to get them the best deal. I just found out as well that some agents manage a writer's sub-pubbed efforts. Interesting. 

I reached out to my agent, Leticia Gomez, CEO and Founder of Savvy Literary Services. 
Leticia was kind enough to offer the following information:

* Major traditional publishers will not consider a project unless it's submitted by a literary agent. So if an author wants to become a career writer who is published by traditional publishers, having a well-trained and hardworking agent is a must have.

* An agent can help you polish up your manuscript or book proposal before starting the submission process.

* Having an agent will give an author more credibility among his or her peer writers, editors, and film and television executives

* An agent can be instrumental in negotiating better terms and catching any red flag items on publishing contracts than going at it alone.

* An agent can help you brainstorm new book ideas and give sound career advice.

* An agent will be your watchdog, making sure advance and royalty statements come in on time and the terms of your publishing contract are carried out and adhered to. In other words an agent will handle all the unpleasant business matters so the author can focus on his or her creativity. 

Now for me, having an agent was beneficial when I started out. I had written my first novel, May December Souls, from 1997 - 1998, and was all set to obtain an agent and have my book published, like so many other authors who were getting deals back then, particularly African American writers, thanks to the popularity of the iconic N.Y. Times best-selling author, Terry McMillan.

In 1999, I shopped my books to agents, and received rejection letter after rejection letter. And then I met Michael Baisden at a book-signing. He suggested that I self publish, telling me about a book called The Self-Publishing Manual, by Dan Poynter, suggesting that I follow it to the letter. I did, and by 2000, I had three-thousand books delivered to my home, as I released May December Souls under my own company, 4D Publishing. The books were selling out, but bringing in the money was not so easy (that's another post). Before ordering another print run, I decided to again submit to agents, but this time, instead of sending a manuscript, I had a bound copy to send with successful sales. Within two weeks, I heard from three agents, and Richard Curtis was one of them. He promised that I would have a book deal within a month. Three days after I signed with him, there was an auction underway for my book, and I signed a deal with HarperCollins. He helped me work through the contract and went back and forth for me. And so it began. I had a six-figure deal, and May December Souls was re-released immediately. I was on to writing my next book, The Chocolate Ship.

I've had a few agents since then, even one whom I work with if I have ideas that fit into what he and I still discuss, and he reaches out to send the checks, so he's my friend, lol!

A few of years ago, Leticia Gomez brokered a deal for me within months of signing with her. She is warm spirited, talented, professional, and very well connected within the industry. She has the relationships with the powers that be, that agents need to have. Particularly, relationships with editors/publishers, who, as Leticia indicated above, if they're top major publishers, for the most part will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. You still need an agent to introduce your submission on your behalf, just like we did years ago. Your agent will be a good person to bounce your ideas off of, be honest with you, help you to refine the story if necessary, and just overall be your connection to possible literary deals, and maybe even TV, film, etc. 

I think the percentage agent's charge is worth it, as they need to work hard for you, and have your back. Leticia has been pleasant, positive, available, and open, and for that, I am forever grateful.

So, yes, I think that having a relationship with an agent or someone who can be the communicator in submitting and/or negotiating, renegotiating, etc. is still relevant. 

Thanks, Diane Sewell Dorsey, for your question! Thanks, Leticia!

You can reach Leticia Gomez by going to her website, Savvy Literary. Make sure to check out her submission requirements. She's my girl, so treat her right! Also, check out a list of agents to see which might be best for you depending upon your genre, etc. You can try The Guide to Literary Agents 2017, available electronically or print. 

Write on!

Friday, April 28, 2017

My Travel Bug

If you know me, you know I love to travel. I tell people I will never be rich because every time I have two pennies to spare I am on a plane. My most recent trip was to Vietnam with a stop in Dubai on the way back. Vietnam was the first Asian country I had ever visited and it lived up to every expectation. With my daughter by my side, I traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, and Hanoi. The larger cities, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi bustled with motorcyclists and masses of people. Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City is not for the faint of heart. Hoi An is a (tourist-trodden) ancient city that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Food was everywhere, people seemed to be constantly drinking Vietnamese coffee (fantastic) and eating in markets, restaurants, and on the streets. The art work and historical sites that we were able to visit were beautiful and resonated with cultural significance. And the people. We were a bit of a novelty, first of all being black and secondly because my daughter's hair is part black and part teal which caused a stir wherever we went. But people were friendly in their curiosity and although I had to swat hands away from her hair on several occasions, it was hard to take offense to their interest.

Once a young girl, perhaps about eight-years-old came up to me and said, "Hello, my name is ..." I responded in kind. She looked at me blankly before smiling and skipping back over to her mother. I suspect that she had used up all of her English and could not understand my accent although I repeated the exact words she had said to me.

Before I left for Vietnam I had been working on a novel in my head. On my return, I felt as if something had been loosened by my travels...or perhaps it was jet lag...or indigestion. Whatever the cause, words have been flowing to the page ever since.
View of one section of Ho Chi Minh City
4th century temple in 'My Son'
Beautiful Halong Bay