I am currently working on a new novel and can no longer post to this blog on a regular basis. I will post again when I have more time to devote to the effort. Thank you for your interest. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.
Communication experts say that 78% of first impressions is attributed to body language (including clothes, handshake, eye contact, etc.) and only 8% due to what you actually say. No wonder then that most interviewers make up their mind within 10 seconds of meeting a candidate.
In the first mystery in my concierge mystery series, the main character, Kate Ryan, goes on a job interview after losing her engineering job to outsourcing. Although she was the project engineer at the condo where she's applying to work as concierge, she feels too old and without the proper experience for the job. On top of that, the interviewer is the former high school boyfriend of her now adult daughter. When he makes the connection, she believes the job is toast. He even knows she's been an engineer and is worried she will bail at the first sign of an economic recovery and the promise of a higher paying job. Fortunately for Kate, she is able to convince him otherwise and ends up with the job.
Like Kate, I've had my share of uncomfortable job interviews. The most memorable was when I applied for a position as management trainer at a large corporation. There were six interviewers but that wasn't the worst part. The other two candidates under consideration were also present. Each of us had to give a 15-minute presentation in front of the decision makers as well as our competition. Luckily, I got the job but it was a highly stressful 15 minutes. Even with certain questions now off limits during interviews, I've endured inquiries into my day care arrangements, how my husband felt about my working outside the home, whether I could work with an all-male office environment, and similar personal questions.
Kate Ryan is the interviewer in the second novel in the mystery series. This time she poses the questions and the experience is just as uncomfortable. From the candidate who stops to take a cell phone call to one bold individual who takes off his shoes and asks for a sip of her coffee.
What about you? Have you had an embarrassing or uncomfortable moment in a job interview? Or, have you been the interviewer with a candidate from hell? Write your comment below. The most unusual or embarrassing incident will win a free copy of my new novel, "Concierge Confessions."
Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Oregon will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. Ask a native Portlander where they were born and chances are they will say "Emanuel." That's because from the 1930s to the 1960s, one of every three babies born in the city wailed their way into the world at Emanuel Hospital. I was one of those babies. World War II was just coming to an end when I was born on August 10, 1945. My mother called me her VJ baby and named me Verna Jean. Although I have no recollection of my arrival at Emanuel, I vividly recall the day when I returned twenty-six years later. I had no labor pains and walked into the hospital accompanied by my mother. My husband was unable to get off work, but it seemed only fitting that my mother and I would make the return trip together. We were greeted by a nurse who, after verifying our identities, led us to a small room to wait for the delivery. A few minutes later, she returned with the most beautiful baby I'd ever seen. Our daughter, Maryanne, had been born three days earlier on October 10, 1971 and officially became ours when her adoption was finalized. On this Mother's Day and always, I will remember Emanuel as the hospital where two wonderful dreams were fulfilled.
I don’t think there’s an author who hasn’t heard some variation of the “where do you get your ideas?” question. When I give talks about the writing process I’m invariably asked about how I’m able to come up with characters and situations that make for a good story. What they’re really asking is how do I hook or grab the reader’s interest. My answer is always the same. Something has to grab me first. That might be a newspaper headline, a song, an overheard conversation, or any number of events that get me thinking “what if?” I keep asking “what if” until I have raised a series of questions that will eventually form the story’s plot.
In murder mysteries, the basic plot is fairly simple: Someone is murdered and the hero or heroine (whether amateur or professional) must figure out who dunnit. What makes a mystery unique are the characters and situations involved and how the plot relates to the theme. Although many people think plot and theme are one and the same, they are actually quite different. Plot is what the characters do, but the theme is the lesson or moral underlying the plot. The theme of a book is a message that describes an opinion about life, human nature or elements of society.
I never start out thinking about theme. What I do think about are some questions that, when combined with the “what ifs” underlying the plot, lead naturally to theme. So, before I ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard I ask myself three questions: (which are applicable to any type of writing):
1. What do I care about? Am I willing to spend a year or more thinking, researching, and writing about the subject? I believe great writing comes from passion, a desire to get those words down on paper that is so strong that nothing, even your own fears, will stop you from doing it.
2. What do I know or would like to know more about? I used to think that I had to be an expert in a subject before I could write about it. Not true. You just have to be curious enough to spend some time learning about it. Most people are willing to share what they know with you if you politely ask. Over the years I’ve consulted with a wide variety of experts on myriad subjects—from fingerprint analysis and gunshot residue to riding out a storm while sailing solo. I draw upon my own experiences a lot in my writing, but since I’ve never really murdered anyone or known anyone who has (and hopefully never will!), I have to rely on law enforcement specialists for their technical advice and guidance.
3. What do I like to read? When I first started writing, I attended a lot of creative writing classes. I’ll never forget the woman who raised her eyebrows when I told her I was writing a mystery. I thought she was just one of those people who think genre writing is somehow inferior to “true literature.” But no, she couldn’t see the rationale behind writing what you like to read. She huffily informed me that romance novels represented 48% of the market. The implication was clear – I was missing out on a lucrative segment of the reading public. I can’t write what I don’t like to read. That leaves out romances, science fiction (except for time travel novels), urban fantasy, or anything advertised as chick lit. But everything else is wide open for future writing endeavors. Stay tuned.
“Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe.”
This quote is from a talk by Susan Cain who is a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant—and a self-described introvert. She posits that introverts have much to offer the world but that our society typically places more value on the socially outgoing personality. Cain argues that we design our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions for extroverts, and that bias creates a waste of talent, energy, and happiness. Yet some of the greatest contributions to society have come from introverts—from Chopin’s nocturnes to the invention of the personal computer to Gandhi’s transformative leadership. Her new book, Quiet, is based on intensive research in psychology, neurobiology and prolific interviews. She explains why introverts are capable of great love and great achievement, not in spite of their temperaments—but because of them.
In my opinion, introverts (like me) are often made to feel that there is something intrinsically wrong with preferring quiet contemplation over social interaction. When I was still in the corporate rat race, I remember sitting in a meeting with a room full of extroverts, all talking over one another as they tried to get their points across. I sat quietly listening to the various viewpoints and weighing the merits of each before forming my own opinion. Oddly enough, I like to think before I speak. But that trait was not valued in the company. Quick, loud and insistent ruled the day. After a few minutes, my boss turned to me and said, “Are you here with us, Val?” The implication was that because I hadn’t dived into the verbal barrage like my peers, I was somehow removed from the scene. It’s true that I have a tendency to tune out high-energy people when their actions become too overwhelming. But in that particular meeting, I was very much in the moment, formulating a coherent statement that would benefit the discussion rather than weighing in with an opinion not fully formed.
As a writer, I’m freed from the pressure of expectations that run counter to my more contemplative personality. I am allowed, even encouraged, to remove myself from the chattering masses and release my inner muse. Coupled with reading and research, it’s a bliss that I treasure. But interacting with people , even taking the spotlight to give speeches, readings, and workshops, as well as participating in other marketing efforts are part of the job, too. Although one-third of the people we know are introverts, Cain points out that they can, and often do, engage in activities that require skills outside their comfort zone. As she says, “Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi—all these people described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken, and even shy. And they all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to.” They did it because they had a cause that was greater than them. I don’t put myself in their company, but I can relate to what they must have felt. The jobs I’ve had over the years (especially teacher, management trainer, and concierge) have required me to push beyond the boundaries of my inward personality to a more outward, socially-focused temperament. The stretch has been good without discounting or diminishing who I am naturally. As Susan Cain has said, “The world needs you ( introverts )and it needs the things you carry.”
If you would like to hear Susan Cain’s 19-minute video on this subject, go to: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
If I'm still thinking about the characters in a book or movie long after the final chapter ends or the credits have rolled, then I'd say the author or actors did their job. I saw the movie We Bought a Zoo a few weeks ago and something the main character (Matt Damon) said is still rattling around in my head. He told his kids to "Just give me 20 seconds of courage and I'll guarantee you something great will happen." I find that line compelling, especially when I feel uncertain about my ability to accomplish something. But we usually associate courage with facing some kind of danger. The characters I write about in my mysteries are always thrust into dangerous situations that require courage or, at the very least, a clever way to overcome an obstacle or the murderous villain in their path. We may encounter obstacles in real life but rarely are they as dramatic as those found in fiction. However, they can require just as much courage to overcome. The dictionary defines courage as "the attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it." I read a book recently titled Heft, which was about a 400 pound man who was afraid to leave the confines of his home. A virtual recluse who'd withdrawn from all human contact, he ordered his necessities over the Internet and had them delivered to his doorstep. No one ever visited him. The story of how he summoned the 20 seconds of courage to change his life still resonates with me today.
I believe courage is about attitude. It's about developing a frame of mind that allows you to believe in yourself. With belief comes action. With action comes the possibility of success. And yes, the possibility of failure. I've known both. What gives me comfort is what Theodore Roosevelt once said: "The credit belongs to the man (and woman) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming . . . and if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." So when I'm afraid, when I suffer from doubt or worry, when I think I can't go on any longer, when the goal I seek is still far from my reach, I remember this: Twenty Seconds. Give me twenty seconds of courage and great things will happen.
In Concierge Confessions, Kate Ryan loses her engineering job and has to start over. It's not easy for her, especially with the economy in a tailspin and her belief that her age is against her. As in real life, Kate is not alone. I've seen various statistics about the number of times a person will change jobs or careers in their lifetime (from five to eleven or more times), but the experts agree that the days when people held one job for all, or most, of their working life, are long gone.
If I don't count part-time work in high school and college, I've started over in a new career field a total of six times. But those were voluntary changes. In each case, I started over at a time when it was less likely for employees to remain at a specific company or in a specific career out of loyalty. I, like many others, made changes because of the opportunity to develop myself and my career. Today, however, a large number of people are in the job market not by choice, but as a result of downsizing, outsourcing, forced retirement, or the closing of businesses.
Job searching and networking, along with staying on top of the job market, has become an integral part of everyday work life, rather than something done once or twice in a career. Whether starting over is voluntary or forced, it can be a daunting task. Kate eventually finds a new job as concierge at a luxury condominium--in fact, the same complex that she helped build as project engineer. It's a drastic change for her but as time goes on, she finds she likes her new role and thrives.
What about you? How many times have you changed jobs? How would you rate the experience?
A Flash Story – is a challenge for long-winded novelists. The entire story can be no longer than 500 words from start to finish. Beloved Daughter comes in just under the wire at 492 words.
Serena Delaney was afraid to go into the cemetery, even though there wasn’t anything particularly spooky about it. It was just old. We called it the pioneer cemetery because no one had been buried in it since the 1800s. It was filled with weeds and the tombstones were falling down, cracked or had just plain disappeared. The black, wrought iron fence that bordered the half-acre was rusted, bent and covered in bird dung. Not that I’d made a study of the place. But I wasn’t chicken about it like Serena. In fact, I’ll even admit that I found the cemetery interesting, especially the flowery inscriptions on some of the tombstones. “Gone, but forever in our hearts.” Corny stuff like that.
Anyway, like I said, Serena Delaney wouldn’t have anything to do with the place. She had her reasons, I suppose, and I let it go. But the rest of the kids made fun of her. Called her sissy. Sissy Delaney. The teasing got sorta nasty, but she still wouldn’t take the shortcut through the graveyard to the high school like everybody else. Wouldn’t hang out there to smoke or drink beer after Friday night football, either. No, Serena Delaney flat out refused to set even one foot inside that old burial ground. That’s why no one believed me when I said I’d seen her in the cemetery. That foggy October night in 1978. The night she disappeared.
Despite an extensive search, she was never found. A runaway was the official verdict. By 1998, the same year I was elected sheriff, everybody had forgotten about Serena Delaney—until Cotton Creek flooded. One of the graves was completely washed out, spilling its bony contents across the muddy ground like pick-up sticks. The odd part was that the bones we recovered didn’t look all that ancient. It bothered me so much that I had Doc Bodine send the remains out for forensic testing. The results were startling. As I suspected, the bones had been in the ground only twenty years or so. The deceased was a young woman, about sixteen or seventeen years old. Cause of death was a gunshot wound to the heart.
I contacted Serena Delaney’s parents even though I had no proof yet that the skeletal remains were their daughter’s; I just thought they should know. Right off, Delaney confessed. “I shot her, Sheriff,” he said. “But, you have to believe me, it was an accident. I was cleaning my gun, you see.” He shook his head. “I could’ve sworn it wasn’t loaded.” Scared, he’d buried his daughter in the old pioneer cemetery. “Put her in the first grave I came to,” he said.
After Delaney’s trial, I went to the cemetery just to poke around. Found Serena’s grave and turned over the old tombstone that the flood had uprooted. The inscription was faint but still legible. “Beloved daughter, Serena,” it read. “Born 1861. Died 1878 by her father’s own hand.”
Once you have been on the water, sailed its moods, breathed its secrets, and felt its power, you cannot return to the shore unchanged. The sea captured my heart as a young girl and I've been drawn to it ever since. And although life's circumstances have often taken me far from its moist touch and saline scent, the sea has always been with me.
So when I began writing my first novel, Sins of Silence, I knew intuitively that the sea would figure prominently in the story. This knowledge did not come easily. I had always heard that you should write about what you know. I thought this was good advice, but it made me nervous because I didn't think I knew anything worth writing about. For years this notion stalled my progress like a sloop caught in a windless sea. It wasn't until I had almost reached the half-century mark in life that I finally understood that the best writing like living, is that which comes from the heart.
I chose to write a mystery because that is what I like to read. That isn't all I read, but the mystery genre has always held a special fascination for me. Like most girls of my generation, I grew up reading Nancy Drew. Later on, I read every Agatha Christie novel I could get my hands on. So it seemed only right that my first published novel should be a mystery. My husband and I were living aboard our forty-foot sloop, Tuesday's Child, when I began writing the manuscript that would later become Sins of Silence, the first novel in the Kellie Montgomery sailing mystery series.
The idea for the novel began with a simple "what if" question. It was early morning and I was aboard Tuesday's Child by myself. As I drank a leisurely cup of tea before beginning my day, a gull's noisy squawk drew my attention to the massive rock wall that protected the marina from the surging currents on Elliott Bay. The question that I asked was, "what if a boat was spotted adrift and about to crash into the breakwater?" That led to a second question, "what if there were two dead bodies aboard the boat?" From there, the story set sail and before long, I had a full cast of characters and a plot line that incorporated what I knew and loved about the sea and boating.
Authors are sometimes reluctant to admit that the characters they create have any resemblance to themselves. This is understandable, as there is a certain vulnerability already built into the writing process. After all, it takes a fair amount of courage to put your thoughts down on paper for the world to read and judge. But I don't believe that it is possible to distance yourself from the characters you create if you are writing from the heart. So it is not surprising that my protagonist Kellie and I share many things in common--motherhood, a love of the sea and boating, and a career that allows us the freedom to create the kind of life for ourselves that others can only dream about. In Kellie's case, though, she is younger, prettier, funnier, and a lot more willing to take on challenges that I would find much too dangerous. And why not? It is fiction. But as Pat Mora, the American poet and writer, said, "I write because I am curious. I am curious about me." Kellie offers me the chance to find out about myself.
In Sins of Silence, I write about the often conflicting and emotion-charged issues surrounding adoption searches and reunions. As the mother of three adopted daughters, I was interested in exploring the question of rights, specifically whose rights should take precedence--the adoptee's right to know who she is and where she came from, the birth parents' right to their privacy and anonymity, or the adoptive parents' right to raise their child without interference? The questions became particularly relevant when, during the course of writing the novel, all three of my daughters located and met their birth mothers. Not coincidentally, Kellie must also deal with her adopted daughter's decision to search for her birth mother.
After we had sold our sailboat and moved ashore, I met a woman who said that we had been living her husband's dream. She went on to explain that he had always wanted to know how to sail. His dream in life was to live aboard a sailboat and sail to the San Juan Islands. So one year on his birthday she surprised him by arranging for a charter trip to the San Juans. "How did he like it?" I asked.
"He never went," she said. When I asked why, she said that her husband thought the money was better spent on bills. He promised that he'd go next year for sure.
"And did he?" I asked.
She shook her head sadly. "No, he died of a heart attack three months after his birthday."
I often think about her husband and his unfulfilled dream when I meet people who tell me that they've always wanted to write a novel. "Why don't you?" I ask. The answser is always the same, "Oh, you know, it's so hard to find the time. But some day I will. Just as soon as I (fill in the blank)." I smile and offer some encouragement even though their some day will most likely never come. For writing from the heart is like living from the heart. You must, as the saying goes, "just do it."
Following your dream is not easy. The obstacles and sacrifices are many. As a novelist, I've had my share of self-doubts and discouragement. But whenever I feel myself longing for a life without uncertainty and the fear of failure, I think of how much worse it would be to die without having tried. Just as a sailboat depends upon the wind to fill out her sails so that her hull can thrust through the sea, writing from the heart depends upon the courage to let go, to climb the wind and soar.
This is where I get to spout off about writing, mysteries, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Please feel free to comment.