In Ghost on the Case, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an emissary from Heaven’s Department of Good Intentions, returns to earth to help a young woman who receives a terrifying phone call demanding ransom for her sister. What can Susan Gilbert do? What will she do? What is going to happen to her sister?
Lexie Elliott joins Amy to talk about her debut thriller, THE FRENCH GIRL. They talk about friend group dynamics, self-doubt, and a slinky French ghost.
Clare Mackintosh, author of LET ME LIE, joins Amy to talk about detective-work, post-it notes, and mental health.
This article was written by Carolyn Hart and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
I use the following techniques to create suspense: action, empathy, threat, tension, puzzle, danger, deadline, challenge, and surprise. Gretchen works in the family café in a small town on Highway 66 in northeastern Oklahoma in the summer of 1943. Action: The dust from the convoy rose in plumes. Gretchen stood on tiptoe, waving, waving. A soldier leaned over the tailgate of the olive drab troop carrier. The blazing July sun touched his crew cut with gold. He grinned as he tossed her a bubble gum. “Chew it for me, kid.” Empathy: Gretchen turns away, thinking of her brother Jimmy, a Marine in the South Pacific, her mother who works at the B-24 plant in Tulsa, and the troop convoy as she walks toward her grandmother’s café. She still felt a kind of thrill when she saw the name painted in bright blue: Victory Café… There was a strangeness in the café’s new name. It had been Pfizer’s Café for almost twenty years, but now it didn’t do to be proud of being German… Empathy and threat: Now the reader has a personal stake in Gretchen, understands there is pain and uncertainty in her life. Her grandmother avoids speaking in the café because of her strong German accent. In the café, Gretchen sets to work, cleaning, serving food. Customers include Deputy Sheriff Carter. We learn Carter likes to do crossword puzzles and thinks about money. In another booth two military officers from nearby Camp Crowder discuss the Spooklight, a famous and mysterious light that mysteriously appears after dark among the rolling hills. The Army uses night searches for the Spooklight to train troops. Gretchen’s grandmother brings out a fresh apple pie. Threat: One of the customers jokingly accuses her of buying sugar on the black market. “Lotte, the deputy may have to put you in jail if you make any more pies like that.” Grandmother is upset, explains the pies are made with honey. One of the officers speaks to her in German. The deputy turns hostile. Tension: He glowered at Grandmother. “No Heinie talk needed around here . . .” Gretchen takes trash to an incinerator. As it burns, she climbs a tree. She sees Deputy Carter enter the cemetery. He looks around surreptitiously. Puzzle: Back by the pillars, the deputy made one more careful study of the church and the graveyard. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and knelt by the west pillar . . . She leaned so far forward her branch creaked. Danger: The kneeling man’s head jerked up… The eyes that skittered over the headstones and probed the lengthening shadows were dark and dangerous. The deputy hides the paper in the pillar. After he leaves, Gretchen finds the paper, reads and replaces it. The message leads her late that night to an abandoned zinc mine. She watches the deputy and a soldier unload an Army truck and hide gasoline tins in the mine. Deadline: She overhears plans to sell the gasoline Thursday night. The next day she asks her grandmother what it means when people talk about gasoline on the black market. Lotte explains how important gas is, why it’s rationed, and that even a little bit can make a big difference in the war. Gretchen thinks about her brother fighting in the Pacific. She asks Lotte who catches people in the black market. Challenge: “. . . I don’t know,” she said uncertainly. “I guess in the cities it would be the police. And here it would be the deputy. Or maybe the Army.” Gretchen thinks about the deputy and about the Army searching for the Spooklight. At the café that afternoon, she asks the young officer if they are still searching for the Spooklight. He says yes and she tells him she’s heard the light has been seen at the old Sister Sue zinc mine. Gretchen enlists the help of a friend, Millard, whose brother Mike is in the 45th fighting in Italy. They put pie tins in the trees near the mine to reflect flashlight and draw the soldiers. Challenge: . . . she moved out into the clearing. “What’s wrong?” He was panting. “It’s the Army, but they’re going down the wrong road. . . . They won’t come near enough to see us.” Surprise: Suddenly a light burst in the sky . . . Then came another flash and another . . . Millard lobs lighted clumps of magnesium with his sling shot and draws the Army to the mine where the tins are found, along with a crumpled crossword puzzle in the deputy’s handwriting which Gretchen took from a café booth. The puzzle leads to his arrest and the arrest of a sergeant in the motor pool. No one ever knew about Millard and Gretchen’s efforts, but Gretchen didn’t mind. The final sentence links the reader to Gretchen: What really mattered was the gas. Maybe now there would be enough for Jimmy and Mike. Readers offered action, empathy, threat, tension, puzzle, danger, deadline, challenge, and surprise will keep turning the pages. Cover detail from Ghost on the Case by Carolyn Hart
My hope is the action scene lures readers to follow Bailey Ruth. I won’t reveal the peaks and valleys in Ghost on the Case to avoid spoiling readers’ enjoyment. Instead, I will illustrate suspense by using the framework of Spooked, a short story that introduces 12-year-old Gretchen Gilman, the protagonist of Letter from Home, my WWII novel from Berkley.
New York Times bestselling author Lisa Gardner joins Natasha to talk about her newest book, RIGHT BEHIND YOU. Listen in as they talk research, twists, favorite reads, and creating suspense.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I find that I do my best work at the beginning of the day, but I’m rarely in a writing mood when I sit down. I’m usually somewhat sleep-deprived, and I always have a long list of other responsibilities calling my name. But if I can get myself into my chair with a cup of coffee, and start reading the last few days’ work, I find myself making a few changes here and there. Then I’m adding a few new sentences at the end, and before I know it, several hours have passed, I’ve written a few new pages, and I’m in a pretty good mood. When I fall out of that flow, I get up and go for a walk, make another cup of coffee, and sit back down in my chair, just for another minute or two, and that’s another few hours gone, and some more sentences stacked up to reread tomorrow. Which is a long way of saying that the best way for me to get into a writing mood is to sit down and start writing. And if I do it every day, it all gets easier. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The painter Chuck Close said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” He didn’t say it to me, but I consider this good advice for anyone doing creative work. Don’t wait for inspiration. Learn to cultivate it. Write your own writer’s manual. Find the tools and mindset that help you move forward when things get difficult. Because things almost always get difficult. That’s not necessarily a sign that the work is bad, it’s just a part of the process. Learning to understand and manage your own process is, for me, the secret to creative life. I’m still working on it, by the way. But I’ve found that when I show up and do the work on a daily basis, inspiration will eventually perch on my shoulder and begin to whisper in my ear. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? I love the beautiful distractions of the world – television and movies, video games, the internet in general. But I try really hard to avoid them, because they don’t help me become a better writer. They subtract hours from my day. And a writer’s main currency is time. Time to daydream, time to walk and think, time to sit and do the work. Reading good books is one distraction that will help you become a better writer. And writing – that’s the thing – writing is what will really make you a better writer. Write bad stories until you begin to write so-so stories, which might, if you keep at it, turn to writing good stories. So put down your phone and keep at it. This is not a new idea, nor one exclusive to writing fiction. The way to get good at playing the piano is to play the piano. And play, play, play. I tell myself this every day. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? Cormac McCarthy’ Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) had an enormous influence on me. I love his prose, his use of place as character, and his vivid descriptions of character in action, but the most powerful effect of reading those books was that they freed me up to write about what really interested me. At the most fundamental level, these are cowboy novels. The fact that they also rank among the best of American literature somehow made genre distinctions irrelevant. Elmore Leonard had a profound influence on me as well. There are a few of his books I really love – Freaky Deaky, Stick, Glitz, Bandits. But I love his dialogue, his humor, his small-time hustlers, and the economy of his prose. He does a lot with a little, over and over. The Writer’s Chapbook is a collection of bits and pieces of writers’ interviews culled from The Paris Review – a long list of great writers. The book is organized by topic, so no matter what problem I’m having, I can find far better writers who’ve had the same problem. It makes me feel better. In addition to dipping in and out, I’ve also read it cover to cover about ten times in the last ten years. I found it used in a clunky old cloth-covered hardback that makes me smile just to hold it in my hand. Ask me this question next week and I’d probably give you a different list. Learn more about the book below:
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. Last fall, we celebrated New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the Inspector Montalbano mystery series Andrea Camilleri’s 90th birthday with the publication of A Beam of Light. This year we’ve hit another incredible milestone—A Voice in the Night is the twentieth novel in his Montalbano series. Having the opportunity to work on a beloved cult classic like the Montalbano series is truly a privilege. The novels sensuously capture the sense of Sicily, from the sun-soaked buildings and seaside views, the simmering food on Montalbano’s plate, to the do-as-you-please attitudes of its inhabitants. The books are translated from Italian, and Stephen Sartarelli’s skill as a translator is on ample display in the ease and rhythm of the quick-witted and wryly humorous dialogue. In reading the first draft, I found it fascinating to consider the nuances of translating from the Italian, as Camilleri often employs several Sicilian dialects within a single novel. I do wonder what cultural idiosyncrasies are lost in translation, but am always pleased that the humor and warmth translate fully. A Voice in the Night brings us back to the Sicilian town Vigàta, where Montalbano’s moody demeanor has taken a dive as another birthday rolls around. To cheer himself up, he deals with a young driver’s road rage in his own way, and surprisingly, finds himself confronting the young man once again, this time as the suspect of a gruesome murder. Many of the series’ trademarks make a welcome appearance in A Voice in the Night—lighthearted spats and make-ups with Livia, Catarella’s mispronunciations as unintentional linguistic jokes, the seemingly omnipresent influence of the mob in both the streets and halls of government. And of course, there is the food. (A particularly memorable scene casts a two-foot octopus as murderous foe before vengeful food dish.) Camilleri’s charming creation, Inspector Montalbano, continues to delight and surprise me. Flawed but lovable, the Sicilian Inspector is great company, and it’s with a lot of enthusiasm that we get to share this series with English speaking readers. A Voice in the Night won’t disappoint longtime fans of the books, but it’s also a good jumping-off point for new readers to acquaint themselves with Montalbano’s Sicily. Luckily for me, and for you, dear reader, this isn’t Montalbano’s last case.
Laura Bradford, author of several cozy mysteries, writes about how she came to be a baker: When creating a main character in what an author hopes will be a long-running series that character’s motivations have to make sense. So when it came to uncovering the reason behind Winnie’s (the main character in my new Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries) passion for baking, I really only had to look to myself for the perfect answer… I think I was only three or four when my big sister let me help make a “cake” in her EZ Bake Oven. I remember peeking in at the little pan as it baked, so excited that I’d helped. When it was done, we topped it with frosting and sprinkles and presented it to our grandfather with much pomp and circumstance. He, in turn, tossed it into his mouth and ate that entire “cake” in one bite. If I try really hard, I can remember a pang of disappointment that he’d eaten it so fast. But what I remember most is the face-splitting smile he wore when he was done. I’d made him smile. With something I’d baked. Needless to say, I was hooked on baking from that moment forward. I didn’t care if it was cupcakes, brownies, cakes, pies, or cookies, I just wanted to relive that moment of utter satisfaction again and again. And I have. Many times over. Baking has become a part of who I am in much the same way it is a part of Winnie. The only real difference is that she’s made a career out of baking, and I’ve made a career out of writing. But because I write her, I get to be there with her as she dreams up the perfect recipe (and emergency-themed name) for a new customer. Because I write her, I get to be there as she measures and mixes. Because I write her, I’m there, right beside her, as she pulls her baked creation out of the oven. Because I write her, I get to experience the smiles her desserts bring to the faces of her customers. And best of all, because I write her, I have yet another excuse to sit at my kitchen table, scouring cookbook after cookbook for new recipes to try. Sometimes, the picture and the list of ingredients looks and sounds perfect just the way it is. Sometimes, I imagine how it might be if I added a pinch of cinnamon or a bit of caramel, or tried it without a certain taste entirely. But generally speaking, if a recipe has all the things I like, I’ll give it a whirl. Funny thing now, though? No matter what I bake these days, I find myself trying to think what Winnie would call it if it had a spot on her Emergency Dessert Squad’s menu. For instance, my kids’ favorite s’more bar has become Winnie’s Worry No s’More Bar (for her most stressed customers), my favorite Black & White cookies have become Winnie’s Black & Blue cookies (for injured customers), my dad’s favorite peach pie is now Winnie’s You’re A Peach pie (for someone who needs to know they’re treasured). The more books I write in the series, the more desserts Winnie needs on her menu. And the more desserts Winnie needs on her menu, the more excuses I have to bake. And just think… It all started with a smile. So tell us, why do you bake? Bio: As a child, Laura Bradford fell in love with writing over a stack of blank paper, a box of crayons, and a freshly sharpened number two pencil. From that moment forward, she never wanted to do or be anything else. Today, Laura is the national bestselling author of several mystery series, including the Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries, the Amish Mysteries, the Jenkins & Burns Mysteries, the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries written as Elizabeth Lynn Casey, and the upcoming Tobi Tobias Mystery Series. She is a former Agatha Award nominee, and the recipient of an RT Reviewer’s Choice Award in romance. A graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura enjoys making memories with her family, baking, and being an advocate for those living with Multiple Sclerosis. For more information, visit: www.laurabradford.com or, for day to day stuff, you can find Laura on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/laurabradfordauthor/ and occasionally on Twitter @bradfordauthor Browse her books here:
Mystery fiction is a young genre. In the English language, the first mystery novels are only about 150 years old. While those stories are historical fiction to us, they were very much contemporary to their original audience—the first Sherlock Holmes readers knew exactly what a gasogene was and probably had pocket lanterns themselves. Same goes for Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: Even though their earliest books depict a world from almost a century ago, they were writing about the world they were living in. And they reflected the prevailing mores and attitudes of their day. Whereas in the historical mysteries that we are reading now, even though the stories themselves could be set a millennium ago, the mores and attitudes the authors ponder are those of our own day. The most notable female sleuth Agatha Christie created, for her own era, is an elderly spinster. In Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, set almost 800 years before Miss Marple, the heroine, Adelia Aguilar, is a trained medical examiner. Miss Marple, presumably, has never been in any kind of compromising situation. Adelia Aguilar bears a child out of wedlock—her lover has been appointed a bishop by King Henry II and therefore can’t marry her—and carries on with barely a second thought. Miss Marple would have been shocked—Victorian morality is a potent thing. Even I am shocked—and then I have to remind myself that women’s lives weren’t always as restricted as they were during the Victorian times. Which makes it all the more interesting that historical mysteries set during the Victorian and Edwardian era, especially those featuring female protagonists, are determined not to be bound by those constraints. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell had no interest in what others thought of her. Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell, an expert lepidopterist, tells readers up front that she conducts discreet affairs when she is overseas gathering rare species of butterflies and then basically ghosts those lovers when she leaves! It’s a comment on the pressures, overt and subtle, women still face today that they rebel so hard as fictional historical characters. When I decided to write a gender-bending Sherlock Holmes story, the first choice I had to make was how my Lady Sherlock would deal with all the strictures on her life that her male counterpart never had to think about. The first book in the series very much revolves around her bid for freedom and what happens when that bid goes wrong. And now Charlotte Holmes will join a proud sisterhood of strong, cool-under-pressure women who use their wits to save the day. Learn more about Thomas’ books below!
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. It all started with a title on a manuscript submission I couldn’t get out of my brain: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. OK, I admit to a certain obsession with the British icon–but his secretary? What must it have been like to work during Britain’s darkest hours with that flamboyant, irascible, outrageously complicated figure? Biographies and memoirs abound of Churchill’s generals, his family, his aides. We know all about his pets, his bathing habits, his socks, favorite drink and books. But his secretary? As I turned the manuscript pages, I was hooked. For this debut novel wasn’t merely about life in the shadow of Winston Churchill during those scary, dangerous days of what became known as the “false war”—it was the captivating story of a brilliant, college-educated, ambitious young woman with a flair for math and codes…who found that the only job opening for a woman in wartime UK government was typing and filing: Talk about a glass ceiling! And, she wasn’t even British. She was an American. An American woman in the Blitz, working at the side of the seminal power makers of the period, forced to elbow her way into a man’s world….And crimson lipstick and cocktails…. What’s not to love? Over the course of six award-winning novels, Susan and her marvelous creation, Maggie Hope, continue to enthrall me. In these gloriously researched capers, Susan has led Maggie and her spellbound readers down the bomb-torn alleyways of London, into the heart of the UK’s spy network, parachuting into enemy headquarters, conspiring with Eleanor Roosevelt in the very corridors of the White House. She’s crafted an intimate glimpse of young Princess Lisbeth and the Royal Family at Windsor; cavorted with Fala, FDR’s Scottie; and courageously shown us the suffering of those in the concentration camps. More important, she’s stripped away the bald historical facts to inveigle us deep into the hearts of women during war: women making tough choices and sacrifices, surviving, fighting back, courageously holding together their lives and their jobs and their families under unspeakable pressures. There was a real Mr. Churchill’s secretary, a woman named Elizabeth Nel who worked for the Prime Minister from 1941 to 1945 and even wrote a memoir of it, which begins: “It doesn’t really matter who I am or where I come from. Without undue modesty, the only thing of real interest about me is that during World War II I worked for four and a half years as one of the Personal Secretaries to Sir Winston Churchill….” But Susan MacNeal has proven, time and time again in her marvelous, intriguing novels, that the women behind the scenes did matter. And that’s the real triumph of the Maggie Hope novels. Learn more about the Maggie Hope books below!
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. The concept isn’t novel, yet it’s still so often surprising—and always, always, important. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis embodies this theme in many different ways. Firstly, there’s the title itself. “The Dollhouse” was the nickname for New York City’s iconic Barbizon Hotel for Women– called such because of all the pretty young things that lived there. But the Barbizon housed more than pretty faces: from 1927 to 1981, the Barbizon was a safe, respectable haven for young women looking to make their mark on the city as models, actresses, editors, secretaries, or wives. Many were successful, including Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Candace Bergen– all residents of the Upper East Side’s most coveted sorority. It’s a glamorous history, and what drew me to the novel in the first place. And in that regard, The Dollhouse delivered: I read it in one sitting, entranced by famous musicians in seedy jazz clubs, fashion shows in solariums, and the descriptions of delectable spice blends you can almost taste as you turn the pages. But looks can be deceiving, and The Dollhouse is so much more than glamorous. It’s a mystery; it’s an exploration of the changing rolls of women in the workplace, and what it means to be fulfilled as a woman; and it’s an ode to the many sides of New York City. And for these reasons, the Dollhouse is a novel that has stayed with me ever since I first read it over a year ago– and I know will continue to stay with me for a long time to come. The Dollhouse is a dual narrative, centering on three fictional women who are tied together not only by the Barbizon, but by a hidden tragedy that occurred there. There is shy Midwesterner Darby, who arrives at the famed hotel in 1952, determined to become a secretary and secure lifelong independence without a man. Instead (in scenes that highlight the power of female friendship), she befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid looking to become a star, in spite of prejudice against her as a Puerto Rican immigrant. Esme introduces her to another, darker side of the city— not to mention a boy who just might change Darby’s mind about remaining single. Fifty years later, the Barbizon, now gone condo, is home to journalist Rose, until she is unceremoniously dumped by her live-in boyfriend, leaving her homeless as well as heartbroken. She crosses ethical boundaries in her desperation to distract herself with a juicy story: the truth behind her elderly neighbor Darby’s rumored involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952. The tension of the mystery simmers throughout the novel and kept me flipping the pages as Darby’s and Rose’s stories intertwine to reveal the shocking truth. Rose’s fascination with Darby opens her eyes to the rich history of the building, and her research into the elderly denizens of the Barbizon– like Darby, all single women who never left the former hotel, now in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor– inevitably causes her to look inward. Is this her future? Is she destined to be lonely and forgotten? Rose’s story is one that resonates in today’s world: What roles do relationship status, career, and autonomy play in living a fulfilling life as a woman? Can women “have it all” … and can they be happy if they don’t? As Rose digs deeper, including talking to Stella, another Barbizon resident (and one of my personal favorite characters in the novel!), she is treated to a wealth of insights on life, happiness, female agency, and empowerment… from women she herself had dismissed for their age and single status, for how they appeared on the surface. And then there’s New York City. From the cloistered Barbizon (“God forbid we venture into the real world and buy something inappropriate,” a character named Charlotte wryly observes to Darby while they attend a fashion show within the hotel) to the uninhibited jazz clubs, from the city’s charms to its dangers, from the 1950s to today, The Dollhouse truly captures the beautiful, fickle, and ever-changing heart of Manhattan. It’s not an easy task, but Fiona’s passion for research— she, too, is a journalist— and writing skill bring the city as alive as any one of her nuanced characters (another moment here to appreciate Stella, for it is not only the protagonists who are incredibly drawn in the novel. I could take the time here to tell you why Stella is so fabulous, but a character that wonderful is best experienced for yourself). When I first received The Dollhouse on submission, I knew it was something special. But looks can be deceiving, and I didn’t know just how special until I fell into its pages. I hope you too have a chance to read this glamorous, suspenseful, romantic, thoughtful, and affecting novel. Learn more about the book below!