Clue Path

As I’ve mentioned a few times on here, when I decided to finally start writing up the murder mystery I’d been thinking about, I started watching all my favorite detective procedurals as research. Fun research. πŸ˜‰ But research, nonetheless.

One particular show gave me an idea for one of the murders that occurs within the book – one of the fake overdoses. I was watching an episode of Rizzoli and Isles, specifically episode nine of the third season titled β€œHometown Glory.” In the episode, a young woman is dead by what looks like an overdose, specifically from crack. Maura (the show’s medical examiner) notes that the woman’s lips are burned from the crack pipe. For some reason, this detail caught my attention.

Next thing I knew, I was watching a video on YouTube called Antemortem vs Postmortem Burns – Forensic Medicine (FMT) – I wanted to know if you could tell the difference between a burn to the skin that happened before death or after death – and, according to this video (by a medical practitioner), it is.

Enter: woman’s death.

Because she appeared to be an overdose, the details of the burn on her lips were overlooked. Moz, however, notices.

I then fell down a rabbit hole of articles all about antemortem (occurring before death) and postmortem (occurring after death) burns and the effects on skin. Writing sure is a weird job sometimes. πŸ™‚


One of the best things I’ve done is to follow Kathleen Foxx on Twitter. For many reasons – great resources, great advice, her podcast (Badass Writers) – but also her question of the day. πŸ™‚

A lot of the questions are geared toward writing – questions about our main characters or setting, other pieces of our stories. The questions often make me think about things I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve even realized similarities between my manuscripts (like how I’ve got two important characters in separate stories that are caterers and one in a third story that is a cafΓ© owner – I certainly hadn’t gone into writing intending so many characters to be centered around food).

The questions aren’t always focused on our writing, though – and those can be just as interesting. Take this question for example:

This gave me pause. Without the time requirement, I would have said my maternal great-grandmother. I knew her as a kid, in the way kids know their elders – not all that well. I knew she had knit my baby blanket (and later would learn she did so while recovering from breast cancer surgery). I knew she could out-polka all of the men in my family (she was American-born to parents who had grown up in Poland). I knew how much she liked it when we’d pick her up from her assisted living facility and take her for ice cream. I was seven when she died, and I would love the opportunity to sit down with her when she was around my age now so that we could have a conversation as adults. But she wasn’t alive yet 150 years ago.

Depending which branch of my family tree you follow, I am anywhere from a fourth to a sixth generation U.S. citizen. An IL, U.S., citizen at that – my ancestors all made a beeline for the city of Chicago (though one came by way of Canada to Iowa to Chicago). Even so, 150 years ago, most of my ancestors probably didn’t speak English. At least not well. My best chance would be my great-great-great grandmother Bridgette Dignan who was born in Ireland and eventually moved to Chicago (and married that Canadian/Iowan ancestor). She would have been twelve 150 years ago.

I realize how lucky I am to know where my family was 150 years ago and, on some branches, further back. I also feel lucky to have had someone on both sides of my family that was interested in ancestry and did the work to gather all this information into the two books I have sitting on my shelf – so that I could just roll over and check who was around 150 years ago.

So now I turn the (amended) question over to you – is there a relative of yours from the last 150 years who is no longer around that you’d like to sit and have a conversation with?

A Story A Day: Month Eight

For this month, I chose stories from Missouri Review’s selected prose. As with the previous seven months, I have no idea what these stories are about – the goal is simply to experience new writing. Feel free to read along!

  1. Way Back, Well Before My Divorce” by Adam Prince
  2. β€œManifold Northeast Life & Trust” by Cat Powell
  3. β€œHeart-Scalded” by Daphne Kalotay
  4. β€œKeeping” by Thomas Dodson
  5. β€œBewilderness” by Karen Tucker
  6. β€œIf You’re So Smart” by Tim Loc
  7. β€œTriumph” by Sahar Mustafah
  8. β€œWait for Me” by Katey Schultz
  9. β€œA Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy” by Matthew Baker
  10. β€œChrome Thief” by Terrance Manning Jr.
  11. β€œTreading Water” by Dionne Irving
  12. β€œCafΓ© Misfit” by Dave Zoby
  13. β€œThe blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder
  14. β€œExit Seekers” by Tamara Titus  
  15. β€œHelpline” by John Hale
  16. β€œRachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
  17. β€œRonaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen
  18. β€œThe Wall” by Emma TΓΆrza
  19. β€œThe City of the Dead” by Jennifer Dubois
  20. β€œUnintended” by Yuko Sakata
  21. β€œSwarf” by Tyler Keevil
  22. β€œSerpentine” by Ember Johnson
  23. β€œOrdinary Time” by Carolyn Ogburn
  24. β€œSalt Land” by Amanda Baldeneaux
  25. β€œRelatable Influence” by Bradley Bazzle
  26. β€œAwakening to Jake” by Jillian Weiss
  27. β€œDeadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!” by Jonny Diamond
  28. β€œJoy” by John J. Clayton
  29. β€œA Shapeless Thief” by Marin Sardy
  30. β€œAfternoon with a Corpse” by Gulchin A. Ergun
  31. β€œBook of the Generations” by Kelli Jo Ford


Moments of Character

For the last few months, I’ve been rewatching some of my favorite detective procedurals as “research” for the mystery I am working on. (I use the air quotes around research because it’s also just because I enjoy them.) At the moment, I’m working my way through Bones, and I love the bits of character development that come in the small moments.

For those of you who have never seen the show, Cam joins the show in the second season. She takes over for the previous head of the Forensics division; previously a coroner, she works with the flesh. Now, Cam is not even my favorite character (and I mean no disrespect to the actress, who is fabulous). Angela, Hodgins, and Sweets are my top three. But there are moments where Cam is just so…human? Funny? Relatable? That I can’t help but admire the writing.

Because Cam is, essentially, the regular duck in a pond of geniuses, she’s often the one most viewers, me included, can relate to easily. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched this series, but this moment still gets me every time:

  • ANGELA: Then, I’ll recalibrate and get a digital rendering of the bones inside, which I can enhance. 
  • DAISY: You’ve found out how to show what bone damage came from the actual crushing of the car. 
  • ANGELA: Factoring in the pounds per square inch of force exerted by the car crusher. 
  • DAISY: Oh, I hope you’ve included the car’s frame and the tensile strength of the v*ctim’s skeletal structure. 
  • ANGELA: I’ll make a note. 
  • CAM: Well, I programmed my phone to get the five-day forecast.

One of her funniest moments, though is when Booth is beating up a hockey player for playing dirty and taking hits on his guys: 

  • BRENNAN: I do not know how I feel about this. 
  • SWEETS: It’s very primal. 
  • CAM: I like it. Just a little too much.

Probably my favorite moment of Cam’s, the one I relate to the most, is when a body is brought in and suddenly erupts in tiny spiders (I’m incredibly arachnophobic). Hodgins explains that the cold clay that encased the body held the spider eggs, and the heat in the lab caused them to hatch. For the entirety of this scene, Cam is clearly uncomfortable. She’s scratching, she’s taking steps back.

  • HODGINS: These bad boys are Frontinella communis; they’re non-poisonous. 
  • CAM: Yeah, still with those gross spider faces and legs, though… 
  • HODGINS: This spider’s not found in the area where the body was discovered. 
  • CAM: (scratching) Any idea how to…uh…remove the body from the sediment? 
  • HODGINS: Well, I mean, if we remove the moisture from the clay, then it should just fall away without affecting the bones, at all. I just need four dehumidifiers. (notices CAM scratching) You okay, there, Dr. Saroyan? 
  • CAM: Yeah, I’m just…itchy all over. I’m gonna go burn all of these clothes. And maybe my hair.

I always tell my students that good writers are good readers/consumers. When we find something that works for us in what we are reading (or watching or listening to), pay attention. Then figure out how they did it so that we can create such moments in our own work. These are such small moments, but they reveal so much of the character.

Book Covers

I went down a rabbit hole recently. A Canva book cover design rabbit hole. I’ve decided that I want to self-publish my second manuscript (for a few reasons I’ll chat about in another post some time), and I was goofing around with covers. I played around with some of the templates, and then I went rogue. (Well, as rogue as one can go with a free account.)

I follow this wonderful artist on Instagram, Pascal Campion, and back in December of this last year, he reposted a drawing of his that at first glance I thought – that’s Lucy and Ciro! (Lucy is the main character of the book, and Ciro is her little brother.) I know there is no way I could afford to use this image, though – assuming he’d even be open to it.

As I continued to reimagine the cover, I still had this view of a wrap around, dark blue sky filled with stars. This one specifically comes from an edited template – me just trying to get my feet wet. I liked the colors…the concept not so much. I tried a few things with this background, but I couldn’t get anything to work the way I wanted. (This will come back around.)

This was a random sharp right curve away from my original idea because I was so frustrated and just needed to try something different. I didn’t hate it – I like the simplicity of it. But I was frustrated that I couldn’t really edit the silhouettes of the figures. It would require me creating brand new ones. So I moved on.

Then I stumbled upon this image, and I liked it. I liked the colors, I liked the figure, I liked the stance, and I liked the lights (though I wish I could erase the string between them to give the lights a bit more of a firefly feel (which play a prominent part in the story). But no go. I’d have to recreate it, which wasn’t the easiest thing to attempt.

But I did attempt it. [face palm] I ended up recreating the gradient using the highly sophisticated design program called PowerPoint. Maybe you’ve heard of it. [strained smile] Use what you got, am I right? I toned down the brightness of the colors a bit, and then I went on a looooong search for a figure to come even remotely close to the original image. No go. Also, every single firefly feature is part of the pro/paid Canva (I’m not saying they don’t deserve money – just that I’m not at a point where the money is worth it – I’m just goofing around). Then I saw this figure – the young woman on a swing (there’s another important story of her on a swing as a kid). Then I started playing around with stars and yellow glows and on and on and on. I still wasn’t fully happy with the background, so I swapped it with the stars again.

Like I said, I came back to them. [another face palm] I still couldn’t get it to be what I saw in my head (going to need access to a professional design program for that, which I don’t have on my laptop at home). I went to make one more attempt, another attempt, and so I deleted the background…and then I had another idea.

I actually really like where I ended up. Not sure if this will be it (or a fixed up version of it).

Overall, this was a fun exercise. (There are even a few other designs I created that I didn’t share here.) But now I need someone to come and take Canva away from me…

More Adventures in Homeownership

Sometimes, life throws a tree at you. With the help of a wicked storm, of course. Other times, life throws a second tree at you with the help of…seemingly nothing. Last week, Friday, I woke up and, without my glasses, noticed something in my backyard – something with lots of leaves that wasn’t there yesterday. It had rained most of the night, was raining still – but a gentle rain. A good soaking rain (we got over an inch) without showy thunder or epic winds.

I figured a branch broken in the previous storm just finally wiggled itself loose, and I readied myself to drag the thing around to the front yard for the pickup crew to turn into woodchips.

But then I put on my glasses and got (what I thought) was the whole picture – and then it became that I would hopefully be able to drag it. So I got dressed and put on my boots and went to explore…

Folks, I will not be dragging the FULL TREE that has demolished a section of my fence (missing my shed by about a foot) and is taking up about a fifth of my backyard with it’s branches (I didn’t get the full view until I walked around to my neighbor’s side of the fence – pictured here; it’s their tree that fell). Most of the people in my life are already laughing over the likelihood of TWO trees even in a year – let alone the second one falling before the mess of the first is even fully cleaned up. I’m not laughing. Yet. You see – I love Mother Nature. And in return, she makes me sneezy and topples trees onto my things. This has become a rather expensive relationship.

A New Word

There are many odd things that a writer can learn when working on a story. In most cases, the learning is probably intentional – research for something specific that occurs in or relates to their plot or characters or setting.

In some instances, that odd thing is a word they’d never heard of before. Today, I learned one such word as I was editing a chapter. (When I sit down to start writing, I reread/edit the chapter or section that came before the scene or summary I am about to write – I find this helps me not only add in words or details that I hadn’t thought of during my last writing session, but it also helps get me into the right frame of mind for what I’m about to create.)

The word I learned today is ‘snigged.’ I stumbled across it as I was reading/editing, and my first thought was, “Why didn’t Word flag this?” My second was, “I wonder what it means – does it have anything to do with snigger?”

Well, reader, it does not have anything to do with ‘snigger’:

As my writing buddy, Jack, said, “That is a very specific word.”

A Story a Day: Month Seven

For this month, I chose to focus on Creative Nonfiction stories. As with the previous six months, I have no idea what these stories are about – the goal is simply to experience new writing. Feel free to read along!

  1. β€œWriting Memoir and Writing for Therapy” by Tara DaPra
  2. β€œTell It Even More Slant” by Brenda Miller
  3. β€œTiny Truths” – from CNF, who β€œchallenged writers to tell a story in a single tweet.”
  4. β€œIntroduction: On Staying at Home” by William Atkins
  5. β€œThe Steepest Places: In the Cordillera Central” by Ben Mauk
  6. β€œTala Zone” by Pascale Petit
  7. β€œConfluences” by Kate Harris
  8. β€œA Hunger” by Fran Lock
  9. β€œThe Sum of Life’s Troubles Makes a Whole Damn Dish” by Nuraliah Norasid
  10. β€œA Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell” by Chris Dennis
  11. β€œConfusion of Tongues” by Fernanda Melchor (Translated by Sophie Hughes)
  12. β€œTiki Girl” by Amanda Lee Koe
  13. β€œThe Safe Zone” from Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles
  14. β€œWhat’s in a Name?” by Victoria Princewill
  15. β€œA Bleed of Blue” by Amy Key
  16. β€œBleak Midwinter” by Catherine Taylor
  17. β€œBreast or Tooth” by Tishani Doshi
  18. β€œOn Mistaking Whales” by Bathsheba Demuth
  19. β€œOn Running” by Larissa Pham
  20. β€œMr Brown, Ms White and Ms Black” by Kei Miller
  21. β€œPipe Dream” by Joni Renee Whitworth
  22. β€œThe Geographical Cure” by JP Gritton
  23. β€œDomestic Coffee” by Rachel Purdy
  24. β€œThe Coyote’s Dance” by Austin Gilkeson
  25. β€œOf Floods and Ruination” by Amy Lee Scott
  26. β€œF*ck β€˜90s Nostalgia” by Vanessa Veselka
  27. β€œMaster Sauce” by Grace Hwang Lynch
  28. β€œHer Tattoo is My Name & My Name is a Poem” by Amy Lam
  29. β€œPunch Line” by Molly Tolsky (CW: suicide)
  30. β€œThis Truth About Chaos” by John Freeman
  31. β€œResident” by Elizabeth Miller-Reyes

A Story a Day: Midway

Six months.

181 stories.

667,814 words.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised that I’ve managed to keep going this long without missing a single day. (Full disclosure, I came close once – had gone to bed and was drifting to sleep when I remembered I hadn’t read it yet. I grabbed my phone to read it and finished the story at 11:58 p.m.) I usually read them in the morning while I eat breakfast and drink my coffee, though there have been a few days where I’ve had to roll out of bed and hit the road or there’s something else that requires my attention.

I will say that I haven’t loved every story I’ve read – but that’s not the point. None of us will love everything we read. The goal was to read new stories, experience new authors. And the important thing is that I have learned something from each story. Some of them have even given me ideas for stories I’d like to write (if only I had the time).

The best part? The slow mornings. I mentioned in a post early in the challenge that a change for me during this pandemic is a slow morning. No more turning off the alarm clock and jumping right into work. (Another bit of full disclosure – I’m not a morning person. This doesn’t mean that I’m not productive in the mornings. More so – I’m just not ready to interact with people first thing. There is a “no one calls Ami before 9 a.m. rule in my family” for this very reason. To be fair, my sister would call at 6 a.m. on her way to work because she was bored on her drive.) Before, mornings were something to get through until I was ‘fully awake.’

Now they are something to enjoy. Breakfast. Coffee. Story. I’m going to be sad when the year is over – but I’m not sure I will re-up the challenge for next year. It’s a lot of work to track down and schedule stories. But I will keep the slowness. Perhaps read a chapter in my current book or something along those lines. Only time can tell – and I’ve got sick more months of stories to read first.

My favorite story so far is still “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu – the story I read way back on January 14.

I’m Definitely on Some Lists

I recently sent an email to the police department in Madison, WI (USA). After I hit send, my first thought was…this is going to land me on a list. [strained smile]

I sent a request to the South District Office in the hopes that they might allow for a tour of their facilities – as I had just decided I wanted this district to be the location of a mystery I have been thinking about for some time and recently started writing. My MC will be a detective who has just transferred to this district. As with all my writing (aside from the YA SFF), the locations are real places, and I want them to all feel real – so that someone who has been there feels it’s authentic.

Understandably, it turns out they don’t give public tours, but the Lieutenant who responded offered to answer questions. I did send a list to her, and, again, my first thought…I’m going to land on a list or two with these… [laughs uncomfortably] She was kind in her responses, and they even gave me an idea of how to make the story work. Can’t wait to add her name to the acknowledgements. πŸ™‚

This got me thinking, though, about that meme that goes around in various iterations – where a writer’s search history gets flagged. For my YA, I had to look up how much damage a pipe bomb causes, as well as how to make certain weapons (thankfully, since it’s SF, they aren’t weapons that work in real life). For this mystery, I’ve looked up various things about causes of death – and there will be many more searches that involve bodies and burial and blood splatters and whatnot. (Perhaps whoever might see my flagged search history will see this and realize, oh, she’s a writer!)

Thankfully, my other books/WIPs have had me looking up history and restaurants and Italian translations. πŸ˜›

Have you had to look up anything for your writing that has certainly landed you on a list or two?