Weekend Update: January 24-25, 2015

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Vicki Doudera (Monday), Barb Ross (Tuesday), Vaughn Hardacker (Wednesday), and Kate Flora (Friday) with a special guest on Thursday.

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Lea Wait:  Saturday January 24 at 10:30 a.m. Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett and I will be talking about mysteries at the Ellsworth Library on State Street in Ellsworth, Maine. We’ll have copies of our books available for purchase and signing. Addenda from Kathy/Kaitlyn: There’s a chance the weather may force us to postpone. If so, I’ll add another update to that effect. If you’re reading this after 7AM Saturday, all’s well and we’ll see you there!

And January 28th I’ll be visiting several fourth grade classes in Kensington, New Hampshire … via Skype!

Don’t forget that if your reading group or class or library isn’t close to Maine, but would like one of us to “visit” – Skype is always a possibility!

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share. Don’t forget that comments are entered for a chance to win our wonderful basket of books and the very special moose and lobster cookie cutters.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

 

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Marketing and Competitive Reseach Before You Write? Oh, Yes.

Lea Wait, here. Many of you know that my new mystery series (Mainely Needlepoint) has just debuted with TWISTED THREADS. Traditional publishing being what it is, I’ve already finished the second book in the series(THREADS OF EVIDENCE), which is in the middle of copy edits. THREAD AND GONE, the third manuscript, is due the first of March. Writing (and publishing) are challenges .. one of the largest of which is keeping ahead of readers!Twisted Threads

Many people have asked me “why needlepoint?” As some asked last spring, when UNCERTAIN GLORY, my most recent historical (set during the first two weeks of the Civil War) was published, “How did you choose that time period?”

The answer to both questions is “competitive research and marketing.” Although the idea of sitting down and writing what is in your heart (or mind) sounds wonderful, in truth, writing without research can lead a writer down a path to manuscript rejection.

So … what kind of research would you do for a book that isn’t even written?

Publishers want to know what the competition for your books will be, and how many people will be interested in buying it. A growing number of publishers (like mine) want to see the numbers before they sign onto a new book, or series.

51qkuGEqAxL._AA160_[1]But, don’t panic. Sometimes the research is relatively simple.

My publisher for UNCERTAIN GLORY was enticed by the Civil War timing of the book — even though the book was set in Maine, far from the 1861 front. Reason? The book would be published during the 150th anniversary of the war, when people would be thinking about 1861-1864. It’s a period covered in most schools in grades 4-8 … the right age for young readers, and for teachers and librarians to add to their collections. (I’d written an earlier version of UNCERTAIN GLORY set in 1859. It didn’t sell. The Civil War connection made the difference.)

Three of the book’s major characters are boys. (Conventional wisdom says few boys will read a book with a girl as a major character; girls will read books about boys or girls.)Threads of Evidence

I’d also checked the title. UNCERTAIN GLORY is taken from Shakespeare (“the uncertain glory of an April day”) and it had only been used as a title for an early Errol Flynn movie. Although titles can’t be copyrighted … it’s not great to have a dozen books in print with the same one. I also included an annotated list of other books for young people set during this period, and why UNCERTAIN GLORY would be different.

OK. That all sounds good for an historical – especially one for young people. But what about a mystery? How would you do market research for one of those?

Funny you should ask. Because the publisher of my Mainely Needlepoint series wanted competitive analysis/market research done as part of my proposal. (Yes, they also wanted summaries of the first three books in the series and about fifty pages of the first book and the reasons why I would be the best person to write the series.)  I believe my market research tipped the scale in my favor.

I wanted to write a traditional, cozy, mystery series with a little edge. I knew cozies with “craft” backgrounds were popular, so I looked at what was already being published. I wouldn’t have wanted to suggest, say, a series with a background of beading, to a publisher that already had one. Or a series about quilt shops when there were already several being published.

How did I find out who was publishing what, and how successful they were? The answers were simple to find. We’re lucky today to have Amazon and BN.com. Search for “beading mysteries” on those sites and you’ll have a good start on research. In my case I found one other needlepoint series, an embroidery series, a machine embroidery series, and five knitting or crochet series, which I included in my analysis since I suspected they shared some of the same readers.

I then looked to see how many books were in each series; whether the series was still being published; what their publishers were; and whether they were mass market originals, hard cover originals, or trade paper originals.

After reading one or two books in each current successful series it was clear that needlepoint would be a good topic: of the three series featuring embroidery, even the one listed as a Needlecraft Mystery included other forms of stitchery.

But I wanted my series to stand out. All the craft mysteries I’d looked at were set in embroidery/needlecraft/yarn shops, and all but one of the protagonists owned such a shop. I looked at geographic locations, too:  only one series was set in New England.

I decided to set my series in Maine (a plus because many readers know me as a Maine author,) to have my series connected to a custom needlepoint business run by a young woman with a past and by her grandmother … allowing for plots involving people of different ages. And since my earlier series was set in the antiques world, I decided that my Mainely Needlepoint series would build on that, and my needlepointers would also identify and restore antique needlepoint. (More story ideas …)

But how many readers were interested in needlepoint? A little googling told me. Needlepoint is a popular craft, especially among middle-aged and older women … and men. Women over forty are also the largest readers of traditional mysteries. But — I still needed numbers. Publishers want numbers.

The American Needlepoint Guild has 164 chapters, 9500 members, an on-line presence and a bimonthly magazine. The National Needle Arts Association is the professional organization connecting the 873 retail shops and 256 wholesalers of crafts/yarn. Two magazines and several national conventions each year reach needlepointers. Needlepoint is also popular in the UK and in Canada.

Result of that research? A three-book contract, and suggestions of several specific ways to reach readers who might be interested in a needlepoint series. My agent told me he liked the marketing plan so much, if it hadn’t sold to one publisher, he was prepared to market it to other editors. (Note: he didn’t mention the plots of the first three books in the series, or my writing style.)

It took me about two weeks to research and write the proposal for the series. And not only did it help my editor make a decision, it also helped me develop the background for the series, and its characters.

Right now I’m busy promoting TWISTED THREADS, and writing the third in the series. THREADS OF EVIDENCE, the second in the series, will be published in August of this year.

I’m not focusing on writing another series: two is plenty for now! But I do have several other ideas. And, before those ideas get too far along, I’ll be doing some market research. It just makes business sense.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Slum and Blight”

wiltonsignKaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, pondering the fact that residents of the same village that was listed as fourth among the ten prettiest in central Maine in a Kennebec Journal feature in 2012, recently voted to accept the designation “slum and blight” because it was the only way to qualify for Community Development Block Grant funding—much needed federal funds to improve the infrastructure of the downtown area.

Say what?

downtownwiltonBlame the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for this one, folks. They are the ones who changed the way they calculate the percentage of low and moderate income households in a given town, thereby making Wilton, Maine, which had previously been eligible for funds, ineligible unless they were willing to admit to this less-than-pleasant-sounding description. Same place. Same conditions. Under the old method, using figures from the U. S. Census, Wilton qualified. Under the new system, using something called the American Community Survey, the town fell short of eligibility by two percent. Only 49% of our population was considered to have low or moderate income when we needed to hit 51% to qualify for help. Left with a choice between conducting an income survey, something that would be both time-consuming and expensive, and voting at a special town meeting to declare a specific section of town a “slum and blight,” there wasn’t really much choice about what to do.

bassfactoryThere’s no question that there are things that need fixing—vacant buildings, aging street lights and sidewalks, a particularly uneven stretch of road I drive over every day to get to the post office—but my downtown is a slum? Was it really necessary to go that far?

Apparently, it was. The special town meeting was duly called. No, I didn’t attend. My bad. Then again, in a town with a population of 4,116 in 2010 (down eight from the population in 2000), only thirty-five people did show up. Like most of the rest of Wilton’s residents, I read about the meeting in the next day’s online Daily Bulldog.

wiltonlibraryHere’s the fact that swayed those attending to approve the new designation: using the same income standards as the current “slum and blight” description requires, the town applied for an earlier federal grant back in 1988. At that time, they received $500,000, which was used to build a new parking lot, update street lights, tear down several dilapidated buildings and do paving work. Infrastructure improvements aren’t cheap. Ask the state government for help? Forget it! Not under this administration. Private funding? We don’t have any millionaires living in Wilton anymore. Heck, we don’t even have any industry. Once upon a time, Wilton was the home of Bass Shoe (Weejuns), Forster Manufacturing (toothpicks and clothes pins), and a thriving tannery. The former shoe factory on Main Street has taken on new life and now houses a restaurant, businesses, and apartments, but elsewhere we have industrial waste and abandoned factory buildings to deal with.

forsterruinsAll things considered, there was really no question about how the vote would go. The downtown area, all the way from Wilson Lake along Main Street to the Academy Hill School and then down Depot Street to U. S. Rt. 2 is now officially a “slum and blight.”

I’m pleased that Wilton qualifies for federal assistance but I can’t help but wonder what hoops small rural towns will be made to jump through next. I have a good imagination. The possibilities boggle the mind.

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Remembering to See

IMG_1919Kate Flora here, on a topic I revisit on the blog at least once a year–the importance of refilling the well of creativity and remembering to pay attention to the world around me. Right now, I’m enjoying my annual escape to San Francisco. From a window atop Russian Hill, I can watch the morning fog swallow up the city below me, eat the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica building and then spit them out again. I have a rhythm to the days–work in the morning, walk in the afternoon, see friends in the evening. All of these events remind me to be aware, to notice, to think about what I’m seeing through new lenses. The lens of me on vacation. The lens of me as a reader, remembering what things I admire in the works of other writers–how vivid description or the careful rendering of a small detail can make a whole scene come alive. The lenses of my characters, who see the world differently from me. Burgess, whose mother make him an observer; Thea who orders her world through language.

These observations span a wide range, from the macro–fog engulfing the city, to the micro–the way a IMG_2001strange shape dropped from a tree onto the ground can become poetry. What are the textures of the tree bark? What does the trunk of a tree fern look like? How can a single while calla lily stand out in a mass of hot pink camellias?

I’m a country mouse, so there is also the world of sound. The almost silent electric cars that creep up. The masses of green parrots holding forth in the trees across the street, almost unseen when I look up until I realize those aren’t red flowers but red beaks. A cackling mass of blackbirds swirling and looping above downtown at dusk, forming and reforming and changing direction like precision pilots, so perfectly in symmetry as they swoop above the workers heading home that I expect any moment they’ll start skywriting and sending us messages from bird world.

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And of course, because the IMG_1974people we visit with are readers, my phone is filled with photos of things I want to remember, books I have to pick up and read, the names of contacts, and ideas for workshops, writing, and things to follow up on.

This visit reminds me that I can do the same thing at home. There is a world there to be observed as well. It’s just that sometimes I need to leave my desk to come back to it, renewed, refreshed, and ready to settle back into my obsession, my pleasure, my life–storytelling. Only now I hope I can remember to look out those windows, walk those yards and woods, stare out at the seabirds and stop and pay attention to the hawks and robins.

 

And finally, because one of the things I’ve talked about here in San Francisco is storytelling, I urge you to watch this short TED talk by Andrew Stanton:

 

 

 

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MYSTERY OR SUSPENSE?

Susan Vaughan here. Although I’m working on shifting my genre into the mystery arena, I’ve been published in romantic suspense for a long time. When I tell non-romance readers what I write, they look at me blankly. I usually keep the explanation simple that I write romance interwoven with a mystery, and I don’t distinguish between mystery and suspense. Understanding that difference has come up in a couple of my online email groups, so I thought this might be a good time to address it here for readers. There’s certain blending and crossover, but here’s my take on the general difference.

A mystery begins with the crime, usually a murder, and the remainder of the book involves a sleuth, either police or a PI or a citizen with personal reasons for getting involved, trying to identify and apprehend the murderer.

Barbara Ross’s mystery CLAMMED UP features an amateur sleuth whose search for the murderer is tied to her need to save her family’s clambake business.

Clammed Up

In AND GOD GRANT YOU PEACE, Kate Flora continues her police-procedural mystery series with Portland Detective Joe Burgess as the sleuth.

And God Grant

A suspense novel, whether romantic or not, involves the hero (protagonist) who may be a federal agent or a police detective or an extraordinary citizen (Think Jack Reacher.), trying to stop the villain (the antagonist) from carrying out his dastardly scheme. Sometimes there are additional crimes/murders as well, and more often than not, the sleuth is in danger at the end when confronting the killer. In a suspense novel, both the hero and the reader might know the villain’s identity. The tension and “suspense” come from the rising action, often a time factor, and from keeping the reader wondering if the villain can be stopped.

My book TWICE A TARGET has elements of both but is primarily a mystery. Holt believes the car crash that killed his brother and his brother’s wife was murder and enlists the help of the heroine, Maddy, a woman he doesn’t trust (old baggage I won’t go into), to help him learn the motive for the attack and identify the killer.

TwiceATarget cover - 300

Another of my books, PRIMAL OBSESSION, is more obviously (romantic) suspense. Sam, a Maine Guide, and Annie, an investigative reporter and one of the canoeists on his wilderness trip, discover that the serial killer Annie was writing about has followed her into the woods. To save her life and the lives of others, they must evade him and eventually try to capture him.

PrimObs8 - final digital cover - 300

Whether mystery or suspense or thriller, readers have more flavors to choose from than vanilla and chocolate.

*** The ebook of TWICE A TARGET is only 99 cents Jan. 20-24 on Amazon, http://amzn.to/11rQpDk. You can find more information about my books at www.susanvaughan.com.

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