Nancy Allen, Witness Impulse Author : Ten Tips to My Teen Self

Giveaway alert: One lucky commenter will win a ten dollar Starbucks gift card and Nancy’s latest legal thriller.

Nancy AllenI’m super excited today to be hosting my good friend and fellow Witness  author, Nancy Allen. Not only is she a sweetheart, to know her is to be awed by her! Nancy has just received a 2015 Missouri Lawyers’ Women’s Justice Award. She practiced law for 15 years as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. She has tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and is now a law instructor at Missouri State University. Her first novel,The Code of the Hills, was published by HarperCollins in 2014. A Killing at the Creek, the second book in the Ozarks mystery series released on February 17, 2015.

I’ve already had the pleasure of reading her latest: A Killing at the Creek and I absolutely loved it. A Killing at the Creek provides an authentic peek into the life of a criminal prosecutor in small-town Missouri. Elsie Arnold, though whip-smart in the courtroom, is all too fallible in the social arena, making her a supremely relatable protagonist. Nancy infuses the story with the flavor of the Ozarks so deftly that the setting seemingly becomes another character in the book. Then she tosses in lively dialogue and an unputdownable murder mystery to create a compelling read that will keep you turning pages late into the night. I think you’ll really enjoy this one and be surprised by how engaging a legal thriller can be.9780062325969

Okay- that’s enough from me. Without further ado, here’s Nancy:

 ♥

Ten Pieces of Advice I’d Give to Teen Nancy

By Nancy Allen

We’ve all said it, right? “If I knew then what I know now.” I’ve been thinking about this lately, for several reasons. The antagonist in my latest book, A Killing at the Creek, is an incorrigible teen; and my main character, Elsie Arnold, sometimes acts out like an incorrigible teen; and I have a teenage daughter (not the incorrigible type, thank goodness).

So exactly what would I tell my teenage self, if I had the power to go back and offer advice? I have a pretty good idea of ten things young Nancy would benefit from hearing.

  1. Go to class, damn it. Those college professors will teach you something you don’t know. And you’re paying cash money for it.
  2. Do not go on crash diets. Ever.
  3. Enjoy the time you have with your mother. Relish it, revel in it. It won’t last forever.
  4. Yes, a lot of people are shorter than you are—so what? Stand tall.
  5. Don’t bother with a lot of makeup, and don’t worry about name brand clothes or accessories. Youth is an ornament.
  6. Do not permit yourself to hanker after a boy who shows no interest in you.
  7. Never let your friends tell you what people say about you behind your back.
  8. Read your textbook before exam time. In fact, just keep up with the reading over the course of the semester. Maybe you’ll avoid being awakened later in life by the college anxiety nightmares.
  9. Never fake it, or try to be someone else. Plenty of people will like the real you. Be with those people.
  10. You will stumble. Own it. Use it. Grow from your mistakes.

codeofthehillsHaving just read over my list, it occurs to me that a number of those suggestions are still works in progress. Aaahhh, hell—what can I say? Some people never learn. I think I’m one of them….

 

 

Now it’s your turn. What advice would you give your teen self if you could go back in time? Remember, one lucky commenter wins a Nook or Kindle copy of A KILLING AT THE CREEK and a ten dollar Starbucks gift card. 

You can find Nancy here:

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Blind Ambition: Danger and kisses in the jungle

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! For my bit o’ the green this year, I’m carrying around my new release Blind Ambition.

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What? You didn’t notice the green? ;-)

In Blind Ambition, former pararescueman Dan Molina’s mission to rescue a kidnapped aid worker from St. Isidore’s rebels falls apart when the woman—who once broke his heart—refuses to leave the island.

Alexa Alyssandratos won’t leave until she’s certain the orphans she cared for are safe from the rebels. On the run from ransom-hungry soldiers, old passions reignite as she and Dan race to save the children before they disappear forever.

Running, hiding, swimming, rebel attacks, and kissing (and more) ensue.

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, the whole “Kiss me, I’m Irish” saying got me thinking about different types of kisses. Like the undercover kiss that turns real, the shut-her/him-up kiss, and the ill-advised-but-can’t-stop kiss.

Alexa and Dan have an electric attraction that pretty much short-circuits all rational thought when they’re together, which means many of their kisses are of the the ill-advised-but-can’t-stop variety. Like this one…

She opened to him, their tongues tangling as she forgot about the cold water, the danger on shore, everything. Nothing felt like being in Dan’s arms, connected. Nothing in her life had ever even come close. They were perfect together.

Perfect in a way that scared her. A way that made her want to forget the vows she’d made and to never let him go.

Or this one…

A little shiver ran through her as he watched her with those beautiful eyes as if trying to figure her out.

Then he kissed her.

Not just a quick meeting of the lips. This was a kiss for the ages. A kiss to sustain her for the rest of her life. A devouring kiss that awakened every cell in her body and aligned them all toward Dan.

Oh, yeah, and this one…

Before he could think it through he gripped her head and pulled her into a kiss.

Her mouth met his, equally hot and hungry as their bodies melted together. She stroked the back of his neck with one hand, the other pressing him between the shoulder blades as if to bring him closer.…

…It had always been like this with them. Nonstop desire, instant heat. Zero to sixty in two seconds flat.

I promise there are plenty more where those came from. ;-)

Do you have a favorite type of kiss from books or movies? I have an e-book copy of Blind Ambition to give away to one lucky commenter. Wishing you the luck o’the Irish and plenty of kisses in your life!

Fallen: Cover Reveal

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I couldn’t be more excited to share the cover of my new book, FALLEN, with you guys! I have to say I think the art department over at HarperCollins did me a solid. This just might be my favorite of all my Witness Impulse book covers. I’m pretty excited about the book too! I had a blast writing it, and I learned all kinds of cool stuff- like how to make a wax statue. FALLEN is available for pre-order now. Here’s the blurb for inquiring minds (yes, this is a sneak peek too).

A body just fell from the sky onto Hollywood Boulevard.

When a beautiful prostitute is dumped onto the Walk of Fame, FBI profiler Atticus Spenser and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Caitlin Cassidy are called in to solve one of their most baffling cases yet.

The media’s dubbed him the Fallen Angel Killer – a crazed murderer who’s leaving the bodies of high-priced call girls in Los Angeles tourist traps.

Then the killer raises the stakes, demanding that a mysterious celebrity publically admit to his sinful secrets —or he’ll dispose of his latest kidnapped escort. With every “john” the team exposes in their search for Celebrity X, another Hollywood secret is revealed and another charmed life is left in ruins.

Now time is running out, and Cassidy and Spenser will do anything to find the twisted serial killer…before another innocent woman winds up as the next grotesque tourist attraction.

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PS JUDGMENT, book one in the Cassidy and Spenser series, has been named a best book of 2014 by Suspense Magazine. I’m incredibly honored to have been included in that list. 

Gathering Incriminating Evidence in the Land of the Midnight Sun

MidnightSun-frontcover-final-r1-72This month I have two books out, Midnight Sun (a re-release after being published in the Twelve Shades of Midnight anthology, which is no longer available) released on March 1st, and Incriminating Evidence (Evidence Series #4), which will release on March 24th. By sheer coincidence, both books are set in Alaska. It may sound strange to say it’s a coincidence, but it is. I’ve had versions of Incriminating Evidence in my head and on on my computer since 2010 – and it was always set in Alaska. It was the perfect setting for Alec and Isabel’s story. The inspiration behind Midnight Sun was completely different.

A little over a year ago, the fabulous Robin Perini approached me and asked if I wanted to participate in a paranormal romance anthology with her and ten other authors. Because the story would be paranormal, it couldn’t be connected to my existing books, and I began considering what my contribution to the anthology would be. My first inspiration was a story set in Hawaii, about an archaeologist who comes face-to-face with Night Marchers. The story excited me and I was ready to move forward with it, as we as a group were discussing via email potential titles and themes for the anthology. We settled on the name Twelve Shades of Midnight relatively quickly, and all agreed that something important in each of our stories had to happen at midnight. My Night Marchers story was perfect. I lived in Hawaii for three years — I know the setting well, and my husband worked as an archaeologist there, so the research would be a snap, and the story would be fun to write.

View of Denali National Park

Then one morning, I woke up with the kernel of the plot for Midnight Sun in my mind. Maybe I was inspired by the word “midnight” — I really don’t know — but in the space of five minutes I went from planning to write a novella set in Hawaii to one set in Alaska. Once the idea grabbed me, I couldn’t let it go. I’d only ever visited and conducted archaeological survey in Sitka, Alaska, but fortunately, my husband had worked in Barrow, and he knew other archaeologists who’d worked for a length of time in the Arctic Circle who were willing to answer even the most ridiculous questions (yes, I do need to know what the airport terminal in Kotzebue looks like, and if the vegetation is primarily muskeg…). And so Midnight Sun the story of Sienna and Rhys and an ancient Iñupiat mask, was born. The Hawaii story will be the second in the series, featuring Sienna’s sister, Larkspur (look for it in late 2015).

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As I mentioned above, I’ve had the story for Incriminating Evidence in the works since 2010. It was supposed to be the 3rd book in the Evidence Series (and I finished a draft of it in 2012, long before I wrote Withholding Evidence), but one problem I had with the execution of the story was the setting. It was clear to me that I needed to visit central Alaska if I wanted to get it right, so last summer, before tackling a major rewrite, my family and I visited Alaska and explored the area where the story is set.

One of the things I wanted to see while I was there was the forest at night–I knew in the summer it wouldn’t really get dark, but I wanted to see the phenomenon first hand. This photo was taken at midnight in mid-July in Fairbanks – without a flash.

Fairbanks forest at midnight

We were in Alaska for eight days and drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks in a loop, exploring Denali National Park on the drive north (we saw lots of animals including bears, caribou, moose, and a wolf!), and went east for the drive south, where we passed through the setting for Incriminating Evidence.

Denali National Park

En route, we saw salmon spawning, went whitewater rafting–necessary because a glacial silt-laden river plays an important role in the story–panned for gold, and hiked on a glacier.

Matanuska Glacier

I came home from the trip buzzing with ideas. There is no way to see something as magnificent as Alaska in just a week, but we tried.

The final story of Incriminating Evidence is very different from that first idea I plotted in 2010, but it is so much richer, so much better, for having visited the setting which plays a central role in the story. Also, even though there wasn’t supposed to be a connection between my paranormal romance and my 4th Evidence Series book, because they were both set in Alaska (even though hundreds of miles apart) I couldn’t resist slipping one thing in. I can’t wait to hear from readers who catch the connection…

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Midnight Sun

A woman on the edge…

Museum collections specialist Sienna Aubrey is desperate. A prehistoric Iñupiat mask in her client’s collection is haunted, and it wants her to return it to Alaska…now. Tormented to her breaking point, she steals it. But when she arrives in the remote Alaskan village, the tribal representative refuses to take the troublesome mask off her hands. Even worse, the manipulative artifact pulls the infuriating man into her dream, during which she indulges in her most secret fantasies with him.

A man in search of the truth…

Assistant US Attorney Rhys Vaughan came to the Arctic Circle to prove someone tried to murder his cousin. When Sienna shows up at his cousin’s office with the local tribe’s most sacred artifact, she becomes his prime suspect. Then the mask delivers him into Sienna’s hot, fantasy-laden dream, and his desire to investigate her takes an entirely different turn.

An artifact seeking justice…

But the mask has an agenda, and it’s not to play matchmaker. If Sienna doesn’t do what the artifact wants, she may pay the ultimate price, and only Rhys can save her.

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Incriminating Evidence

From enemies to allies…

When archaeologist Isabel Dawson stumbles upon an unconscious man deep in the Alaskan wilderness, her survival skills are put to the test. She tends his wounds and drags him to shelter, only to discover she’s saved the life of Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant—the man who may have covered up her brother’s murder to save his senatorial campaign.

With no memory of the assault that landed him five miles deep in the forest, Alec doesn’t know what to believe when he wakes in the clutches of the beautiful redhead who blames him for her brother’s death, but he quickly realizes he needs her help to uncover the truth about his lost hours.

Isabel never imagined she’d find herself allied with Alec, and he’s the last man she ever expected to find attractive. But the former Army Ranger-turned-politician proves seductively charming, and he’s determined to win much more than her vote. When their quest for answers puts Isabel in the crosshairs, Alec must risk everything—his company, his campaign, and his life—to protect her.

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Joyful Noise: Lessons Learned from the Yam Girl

On Tuesday, I reposted the eulogy I wrote for my best friend who died last year on March 4. Today I am following up with the story I wrote about how fate intervened and gave me the words I needed to honor Karen. IMG_2069

“Yams? I don’t want yams!” The woman ahead of me yelled at the cashier of my local grocery store. “I want sweet potatoes.” She slammed down a plastic bag and got in the cashier’s pale face. “And I want them now.”

I checked my watch and bit the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood. I was late and my arms hurt from holding two bakery boxes of muffins and a half-gallon of orange juice.

All of the self-checkout lanes were getting their yearly computer upgrades and I was in the “10 items and under” lane which had a short conveyor belt I couldn’t reach yet. So I kept my gaze on a nearby flyer. White paper with black letters that had two words.

Joyful Noise.

“But these are sweet potatoes,” the soft-spoken cashier said. “They are the same thing.”

“Yams are not sweet potatoes,” said the woman I’d just dubbed Yam Girl. “I am a certified organic chef and I want to see your manager.”

“He doesn’t come in until noon.”

Everyone is certified for something these days.

Yam Girl glared at me.

Had I said that out loud? 

Whatever. I didn’t have time for this. I was on my way to a meeting. A meeting for my best friend who’d died days earlier. A meeting to plan her funeral. So I sent back my best death stare.

Bring it, Yam Girl.

Yam Girl went back to abusing the cashier, with a few choice cuss words thrown in, until the bagging man/bouncer came over and asked her to leave. At his arrival, Yam Girl huffed and puffed and went away.

Thank goodness.

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Minutes later, I was loaded up and on my way out when I bumped into a woman setting up a small table on the sidewalk. She was handing out chocolate bars and a flyer. She said I was her first for the day.

I took both, secretly pleased that Yam Girl didn’t get any chocolate. (And yes, I do take candy from strangers.)

Once settled in the car with the heat high and the radio on, I heard words like missing planes, DMZ, Ukraine, Crimea, Chinese debt, and war. As each horrible thing was discussed and contemplated, my limbs cramped. And my thoughts went back to Karen, my CP, who’d finally succumbed to her brain tumor.

So much bad news. So much suffering. So much death.

I still had a eulogy to write and her burial dress to choose. No wonder my body felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat.

But I couldn’t get Yam Girl out of my mind. Her shrill voice, her snarl when she verbally attacked the cashier, her final sneers. My shoulders tightened, my hands gripped the wheel. Within minutes my molars would be crushed into dust.

I once read that a person speaks only twenty percent of the words that they hear in their own head. So if the words Yam Girl spewed were any indication of what when on inside, I couldn’t imagine the pain she carried around. 

I wanted to care. I really did. But she’d been mean and I was late.

A car appeared in front of me. I slammed on the brake and honked the horn. Then I cussed like my teenage nephews. I’d been cut off. By Yam Girl.

Yam Girl gave me a hand signal I’d never use in a manuscript and flew toward the shopping center’s light twenty yards away. She ran the red light and I heard a chorus of horns.

Why am I not surprised?

I took three deep breaths and kept moving. My muffin boxes lay on their sides, dented and abused. My vision blurred, my fingers ached, and I couldn’t stop shaking. As I turned at the light, I saw another one of those signs attached to a street sign. Black letters on white paper.

Joyful Noise. 

How odd. 

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It took me twenty minutes to drive four miles. By the time I arrived, I was so wound up I couldn’t get out of the car.

I was still annoyed at Yam Girl. Noises drilled in my head. The cacophony of grief, sadness, anger, impatience, frustration—you name the negative emotion—had moved in and thrown a party.

I’m fairly certain there was a keg.

Except I had to get through the day. I had people counting on me.

The tears I’d held back for days decided to show up.  I was late, with squished muffins and warm OJ, and ugly red cry face. Perfect. I was meeting Karen’s husband, two of her boys, and eight other women from her neighborhood.

How do people do this?

I closed my eyes and focused on what was important, what needed to be done. After a long moment, I opened the generic chocolate bar and rearranged my thoughts. I needed to move on from the difficult emotions of the morning. I didn’t want to go through the day angry and grumpy like Yam Girl.

While I waited a minute to see if there were any side effects (you never know with stranger candy), I read the flyer that came with it. White page and black letters.

Joyful Noise.

I flipped it over. No other identifying information. Was it an ad for a church? An indie band? A new choral group?

The heaviness in my chest lightened and my eyes dried. I didn’t have it completely together, but I’d moved out of the red-faced danger zone. I gathered my things and went inside. But the mystery stayed with me as I went through the meeting, assuring everyone I’d have something to say at the funeral, staying strong when I heard there’d be over two hundred people at the church. 

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Three exhausting hours later I headed for my local cafe. I had an hour before kids got home and I ordered a latte. I needed to write something meaningful for the funeral, but that silly flyer haunted me.

Desperate for answers, I showed it to the barista and a few regulars and ended up with a short list of ideas written on a paper napkin.

The snap-crack of the boy’s bat hitting a baseball.

The laughter of a girl growing into a woman.

The skip, skip, skip of a boy throwing stones.

The whoosh-splash of his perfect dive.

The slurp of a preschooler and her ice cream cone.

The pop-fizzzzz of a contraband Coke.

I sat back to drink my latte, still unsure. These sounds were wonderful, they evoked memories and emotions, but they were too literal, too predictable. They were happy sounds. But were they Joyful?

Frustrated, I ordered another latte. I really needed to get back to work.

Suddenly, someone stood in front of me. Yam Girl.

“I was sitting in the corner when you came in,” she said in a low voice. “I want to apologize. I was having a bad morning and took it out on everyone else.”

“It’s okay,” I said feeling tired and weightless and small. “I understand.” And I did. “I hope things are better now.”

She lifted on shoulder. “A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. And I wanted to help do something, to honor her. But I didn’t know her that well and no one really needs me.”

“I’m so sorry.” And I was.

She nodded and picked up the flyer. “You got one of these too. It’s from that new church down the road. Do you know what it means?”

I showed her my list I’d written out on a napkin. “This is a first guess. But I’m not sure if it’s right.”

“It’s not.” She looked away and tucked a hair behind her ear. “The candy woman said Joyful Noise is more than just sounds that bring about smiles, sounds that bring back memories.”

“Then what is it?”

She put the flyer on the table. Gently. “Joyful Noise is the sound the heart makes when you listen to words that reside in the soul instead of the words that come from your head. You know, the negative ones that tell you you’re stupid and such.”

Oh, yeah. I knew. My Internal Critic and I had a very difficult working relationship.

She handed me her napkin. “Here’s my list. I did feel better after making it. The anger had lifted. I felt . . . free.”

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I read slowly, feeling the tension in my shoulders ease, the heaviness in my head lifted.

You are talented.

You are wanted.

You are smart.

You are not alone.

You are loved.

You are strong.

You are brave.

Yam Girl wasn’t a brat. Yam Girl wasn’t mean. Yam Girl was in pain.

But, more importantly, Yam girl was brilliant.

I re-read the list, but it was the last two that kicked up my heart rate and made my hands shake. I found it difficult to say, “Your friend who died. What was her name?”

“Karen. She was a writer.” Yam Girl waved to the flyer on the table. “I think she would have liked this.”

She would have. “Can I keep your napkin?”

“Sure.” She turned to leave.

“Wait. Please.” I reached for her hand and squeezed. All anger and annoyance had vanished, replaced by a deep gratefulness and that tingly awareness when one has come in contact with an act of fate. “I want to let you know that are helping. That you did honor Karen.”

Her eyes shone with tears. “How?”

I held up her napkin. “You just gave me an idea for her eulogy. Thank you.”

Yam Girl gave me a half-smile and disappeared.

But I still held her list of soul-words.

Her list that made the heart sing.

Her list that made Joyful Noise.

Her list that would help me write what Karen wanted me to say.

For the first time in days, I smiled the smile of a woman at peace, a woman who knew what she had to do. The words poured out and I wrote as quickly as I could, capturing every last one. And I knew, if it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have let go of my anger in time.

If it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have honored Karen’s family with a eulogy worthy of the woman and writer she’d once been.

If it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have understood the lesson of Joyful Noise.

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How do you honor the words in your heart instead of your head? What is your Joyful Noise?

All photos courtesy of Sharon Wray.

Be Brave. Be Strong. Be Dauntless.

March 4, 2014, I lost my best friend to brain cancer. She was barely 50 yeas old.

Since it’s been almost a whole year, and I still think about her every day, my Kiss and Thrill sisters have graciously allowed me to post the eulogy I wrote for her funeral.

I hope it gives you the courage you need to prevail in your own battles.
KEMJ picture_cropped (JPEG)Nine years ago, I stood in Starbucks with a latte in one hand and my laptop case in the other, eyeing two empty seats near the window.

And I hesitated.

The last two free chairs were flanked by sketchy-looking men. The one on the left, in black jeans, dirty boots and leather jacket, was working on his laptop with files and a motorcycle helmet spread out on the empty table next to him.

So, to sit there, I’d have to ask him to move his things.

The other man, to the far right, was dressed in black jeans and T-shirt. Some biker with a long braid and devil eyes, serious tattoos on serious biceps, and a killer smile whose only purpose was to show off his gun-metal lip piercings. 

My arms ached from holding my bag, and I hesitated, wondering if I should go home. Except I held a ceramic mug instead of a TO-GO cup. So I was stuck.

“Be strong.” The words came from behind as a woman swept past me. “Be brave,” she whispered in a lovely British accent. She was wrapped in a sparkly purple scarf, pink dangly earrings, and bright red hair.

She glanced back with an I-dare-you smile, balancing a pink laptop bag and a ceramic mug.

At least I wasn’t the only paper cup snob.

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She sat next to the pierced man while I stood, still hesitating.

Once she settled herself, she looked at me, raised her mug, and winked.

And curiosity won over fear. With a determined nod, I asked the motorcycle man to move his things and sat next to this fascinating woman. We put our bags between us, said a shy hello, and opened our laptops.

Over the next few weeks, we’d see each other, save seats for each other, even order drinks for each other. Always in ceramic mugs.

Many of you knew Karen as the extroverted, vivacious woman who lived passionately. But that wasn’t the woman I sat next to, week after week.

Although we quickly established an easy rapport, writers have an inherent need for quiet and privacy while they work, lest the perfect words slip away.

As we got to know each other, we watched each others’ bags when we needed a break, made outrageous observations about the regular customers, and I learned new words like loo, knickers, and snog.

We developed an unspoken working relationship. We’d write for an hour, chat for 15 minutes, then go back to work.

We even used a timer.

Yet, during this time, we never shared our words.

Then came the deeper learning. We talked about our story ideas, bonded over our similarities: Both married, with children in the same school and swim team, and both had lost our fathers.

Finally, one day after the timer went off, Karen leaned over and asked, “Are you brave?”

Since I’d just gotten another rejection that morning I responded, “Not very.” I’d hit a point in my writing journey where I was getting rejected regularly and had no idea how to move forward.

Karen lowered her voice. “Would you like to be critique partners?”

I hesitated, again, slightly stunned. Asking another writer to share words is like asking someone to watch your baby. Saying yes requires a level of trust in the partner’s motives, their skill, their passion.

But looking at Karen with her crazy red hair and infectious laugh, I said, “Okay.” Then gave a firmer, more committed, “Yes.”

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What followed were years of sharing words, advice, and dreams.

Yet, while Karen changed literary agents like most women change shoes, I hesitated.

Since my queries to agents often went unanswered, and those that responded did so with a polite “No, Thank You”, I’d stopped the querying process.

It was too hard, too painful. To which Karen would always say, “Remember, Sharon. Be strong. Be brave.”

So I continued to write and query, as Karen cheered me on.

Years passed, we completed manuscripts, and other CPs including Stephanie, Christine, Pintip, Mary, and Danielle joined us, and some moved away. But we persevered with Karen leading the charge for us all, “Be strong,” she’d say. “Be brave.”

Seven years after we met, I went to Atlanta for a writing conference and was offered representation by my dream agent, an agent Karen had urged me to query even though I was afraid.

I texted her after dinner, “Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency asked to represent me. And I said yes!”

To which she replied, “Smashing! We’ll celebrate with lunch at the Clifton Café.”

I read the text quickly, trembling with excitement, barely noticing that most of her words were mis-spelled.

Darn auto-correct. 

I came home with an assignment to revise my current manuscript. A manuscript Karen loved. A manuscript she couldn’t wait to help me finish.

Those first few weeks, leading up to December 2011, were some of the happiest we had together. Her middle-grade books were doing well, and she’d sold a third. She’d chosen a new agent for her women’s fiction books and was looking for one to represent her young adult novels.

We worked every day, both of us driven and fearless, full of hope for the future.

“Be strong,” she’d say. To which I replied, “Be brave.”

We tore apart our manuscripts, came up with prologues, ditched characters, added new ones. After years of struggling and learning our craft, we were moving forward.

Even our other critique partners were finding success.

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Yet, there was one problem. Karen was mis-spelling words in her critiques, getting confused between her manuscripts. And when she asked me to read a query to a new agent for her YA novel, I told her I thought something was wrong.

Her queries, one of her greatest strengths, were flawless. But this one was filled with missing words, bad spelling, and she’d even given the wrong title of the book she wanted to sell.

She told me she was just tired. But I wasn’t so sure. And the pit in my stomach agreed.

Christmas came and went, winter set in and that sickening sensation in my stomach grew larger, almost choking me. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the call that she’d been sent to the hospital. Mary and I rushed over, only to hear words no one should hear outside a horror novel.

Brain tumor. Inoperable. Terminal.

We struggled to stay positive, teased her because her accent had thickened, brought her flowers.

When Mary and Jim went outside to talk to a nurse, I took Karen’s hand and said, “Remember, Karen. Be strong.”

“Remember, Sharon,” she said with a smile that denied the truth. “Be brave.”

And in that moment, she set the course for how she’d fight this disease. With strength and courage. After all, she had a husband and children she loved more than her own life.

And I’d agreed to help, to be there always.

Over the next two years, we struggled to keep her world as normal as possible. We went to lunch at the Clifton Café, shopped at All That Glitters, and still we worked. On my manuscript and her YA novel. We were both desperate to finish.

Yet, as her disease worsened, our manuscripts stalled. How does one write words when there are no words that suffice? How does one write words when the words themselves are too painful?

The cancer first stole her ability to type. And as it murdered her tomorrows, it took her vision, then her voice.

Still, she insisted we work.

When I admitted my second revision was a complete failure, she gave me a fierce glare. “Be strong,” she ordered. “Be brave.”

I just swallowed hard and said, “Yes, ma’am.” For some reason that always made her smile.

Just as our communication options died, my daughter gave me a YA book she’d read and loved. Divergent by Veronica Roth.

Divergent is a dystopian novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who must make a series of difficult and scary choices in order to survive.

Knowing how much Karen loved YA books, I started reading it to her aloud.

As I sat next to her bed, I’d read and keep one hand on her shoulder. When she moved, it meant she wanted to say something, critique the plot, complain about the characters.

In the book, the heroine Tris lives in a world divided into five factions. And she has to choose a faction in which to spend the rest of her life. In order to do this, she’s given a test. But when the test fails, proving Tris is Divergent and therefore an enemy of the state, she must make a blind choice and pretend she’s normal.

She leaves her family’s faction committed to peace and selflessness and joins a paramilitary faction known for strength, bravery, and recklessness. A faction in which she could hide and learn to protect herself.

A faction called Dauntless.

Except, after she chooses, she learns that if she fails her Dauntless initiation, she will be thrown out and become factionless. Which means homeless, hungry and alone.

As Karen and I read Tris’s story, we were both drawn deeply into her world, a world that required a level of courage that Tris wasn’t even sure she possessed. And every time Tris made another difficult choice, a choice requiring a courageous action, Karen would move her shoulder.

In her own way, she was reminding me to be brave. And I’d remind her she was my perfect role model.

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emily summer2 062

The weeks went by, Karen slept more and more each day, but still I read. We were both determined to stand by Tris, hoping she’d survive.

Then, three weeks ago while I was reading , Karen said in the clearest voice I’d heard in months, “Talk about the book”.

While she fought to get the words out, we talked about the story arc and Tris’ character.

Suddenly, she grabbed my hand. “How’s yours?”

I sucked in a breath. She knew that in December, after I’d finished the third revision on my manuscript, I’d ditched 80,000 words. 80 percent of the book. And I told her the truth, “not so great”.

She squeezed my fingers. “Be strong.”

I squeezed back, “Be brave.”

“No!” she said firmly. “Be dauntless.”

Those were the last words she said to me.

I went home that night and tore apart my outline, again, Karen’s words carved into my heart, but a question cut into my soul.

How does one stand strong in the face of such suffering?

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wrays landing flowers

If I had realized how scary the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how fragile the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how desperate the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the extent of the world’s suffering, I would have chosen a different profession, a different path, I would have chosen to hide. And I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the world’s woes have the winning advantage, that it’s much easier to stay afraid, to run away, to give up on dreams, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized that a choice between two sketchy men would lead me to one of the greatest friendships of my life, I wouldn’t have hesitated that day in Starbucks. I would have run to my seat and saved the other for the red-headed woman who changed my life.

If I had realized, If I had realized . . . I would have written about it sooner.

So how DOES one stand strong in face of such suffering?

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By remembering Karen’s perfect example.

Karen’s wish for us all, Karen’s parting gift, Karen’s last words.

Be strong. Be brave. Be dauntless.

All photographs courtesy of Sharon Wray.

Super short stories of intrigue

Before I was published, I wrote one super-short extemporaneous story every week, based on a word or phrase chosen at random. Each was written quickly, with minimal revisions, to force myself to stop self-editing and just write (probably something I should start doing again).

I thought I’d share a couple of the stories that have a hint of intrigue. Enjoy!

The gun

Handgun and Hollow Points

The agent in the crisp gray suit slapped a picture onto the hood of Dustin’s truck. A bloody body lay in a tangle in the dirt, partially covered by a blanket. “This was Arnaldo Jimenez. He was 15.”

Dustin tore his eyes from the photograph and pressed on his stomach. Oh, God, he was going to throw up on the man’s shiny black shoes. Saliva filled his mouth and he covered his lips with his palm. The hot, dry air swirled around him as he took a deep breath and waited for his gut to unclench.

After he graduated he was going to move somewhere cool and humid and never come back to the desert again. Assuming he didn’t get thrown in jail.

“I didn’t know,” Dustin finally whispered, feeling lame. He should have known where the gun would go, or at least suspected it. If a kid asks you to buy beer, he’s under age. If a man asks you to buy a gun for him, he’s a criminal.

But it hadn’t been a man. It had been the hot girl from his Physics lecture.

Dustin rubbed his eyes. He would not cry. “She told me she wouldn’t pass the background check because she’d been arrested for possession of meth. Supposedly it was her brother’s, but it was found in her car. She wouldn’t flip on him, so she took the rap.”

Agent Fernandez held out another photo. “Is this her?”

Dustin’s heart sank and he nodded. Silky brown hair and lean curves mocked him. Every guy in class wanted her. He’d thought he had a chance. Fool. “She said it was for protection. That there had been some break-ins in her neighborhood.”

“Victoria Arenas-Thomas.” Fernandez shook his head. “She’s got a lot more than meth possession on her record. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first schmuck she’s suckered.”

Oh, right. Dustin felt so much better now. His stomach heaved and he doubled over, but he managed not to puke. His sneakers mocked him as images of the dead boy overlay the cracked asphalt of the student parking lot.

That’s when the anger kicked in. The bitch had used him and now a boy was dead at the hands of the cartel thugs that held Sonora and the rest of Mexico hostage. He couldn’t change the outcome, but he could try to prevent it from happening again.

He took a deep breath and stood to face the agent. “What can I do to help?”

Fernandez stared at him for a beat. “How are your acting skills, kid?”

Dustin thought back to his starring role in Central High’s production of Death by Chocolate. “A lot better than my taste in women.”

The agent’s lip twitched. “All right then. Give me a minute.” He pulled out a phone and walked a few steps away.

The hot sun beat on Dustin’s neck and he wiped his brow as students streamed into the parking lot from the nearby engineering building. Until three minutes ago, he’d been as innocent and naive as they were. The moron his dad always said he was.

But, maybe, just maybe, he’d do something right for a change.


Lies

shadowy man walking up stairs

Mike rushed home from work, eating his drive-thru burger and fries in the car, napkin tucked in his collar to protect his tie and crisp white shirt. In his rush to get out of the house this morning, he’d left his briefcase in the hall. With the Harlowe presentation in it.

He swerved into his driveway and hit the brakes in surprise. Why was Karen’s car there? Had she forgotten something too? She’d already been long gone when he woke up.

Suspicion stirred at the back of his mind. Just enough that he closed the car door quietly, and entered the house through the side door into the kitchen. He swung the door shut, careful not to make a sound. For a full minute, he stood in silence, listening.

From the back of the house—the master bedroom—he heard muffled noises. His heart rate kicked up a notch and he squeezed his hands into fists. He marched down the hall. If she was… He couldn’t even think about it, but he’d have to kill her.

With a deep breath, he flung open the bedroom door.

Karen scrambled away from the man lying naked beneath her. “Mike!” She hid behind a sheet, her face white with shock and fear.

Mike slumped back against the wall, his pulse pounding in his head. Thank God. She hadn’t found the safe.

His secret was still secure.


Congratulations to Lindy Dierks, winner of the $10 Amazon gift card offered by Julie Mulhern last week! Please use the Contact link above to send us your email address and we’ll pass it on. :)

THE DEEP END

Julie Mulhern- photo by Larry Levenson

Julie Mulhern- photo by Larry Levenson

I took another sip of coffee and glanced around the pool. The morning light still looked delicate enough to break. The weeping cherry tree had lost a few leaves and they skittered across the pool deck in the soft breeze. The police conferred around the body. Then they stepped away and I saw it. Saw her. In that second, my morning went from plain dreadful to the worst ever. (Excerpt from THE DEEP END.)

Funny how you stumble across strangers who instantly become close friends. I’d judged a writing contest a couple years back, and the anonymous entry, THE DEEP END, was a total standout! Who WAS this author?! The snarky tone of the heroine (the only sane character in a zany cast of 1970’s preppy, country club wives and a mother from hell) had me howling. Enter the requisite dead body (and not just any corpse- it’s a fantastic twist- ALL in Chapter 1) and I was hooked!

Naturally I gave this entry a perfect score, left my name/contact info and an entire page of gushing remarks…mostly over my shock that this hilarious cozy mystery hadn’t been snapped up for publication. And then I did something I’d never done: asked a complete stranger if I could beta read the rest of it. (Yeah, like I have that kind of time on my hands!) But that is HOW GREAT the novel is.

To my delight, the writer- Julie Mulhern, wrote back and (yes!) sent the rest of the hilarious cozy mystery. Now we’ve not only become close friends, but we were nominated for 2014 Golden Heart awards together and we will be published by the same publishing company in the near future.

And, dear readers, I’m honored to announce that Julie’s debut, THE DEEP END, releases TODAY!toast Naturally, on the busiest and most exciting day of her life I insisted she stop everything and answer my nosy questions. (Because that’s what friends do.) Introducing Julie Mulhern-take note of her name, folks!

Q-Your heroine’s glib ability to balance the fine line between hysterical snark and nasty sarcasm is honed to perfection. AND it’s written in 1st person. Do these type of thoughts come to you in real life or do you channel someone inside when you sit down to write?

The snark and internal sarcasm are all me. Ellison lets me give voice to things I would never say. 

Q-How on earth did you come up with this premise?

I wanted to create a straight-laced world, perfect on its surface, then flip the rock. Everyone thinks the 60’s changed everything but really it was the 70’s. The ideas that existed on the fringes of society in the 60’s went mainstream. The roles of women changed – even Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis got a job. Divorce rates skyrocketed. I am woman, hear me roar.

Q-I’m assuming you’re a child of the 70’s since you nailed the culture so well. Why did you choose that era rather than contemporary?

You guessed right. I grew up in the 70s and felt a certain nostalgia about the decade. I was too young to go to discos so I remember the sweet parts – rainbow socks with individual toes, deodorant called Tickle, how no self-respecting kid showed up on the playground if they’d missed Happy Days.

THE DEEP END coverQ-WHERE did you come up with all the foods, commercials, songs, teen accessories, etc that are in your story? Research? YouTube? There’s no way you remembered Cherry Lip Smackers for example (in your 2nd novel of the series.)

Research. Fun, fun research. I got on ebay and bought magazines from 1974. I am the proud owner of a full year of Gourmet plus many, many Vogues, Glamours, Cosmos (oh, my) and Architectural Digests. Looking at those ads and reading those articles was amazing.

And Pinterest – I LOVE Pinterest. My board for The Deep End (http://www.pinterest.com/juliemulhern/the-deep-end/) captures the clothes, the vibe and the original Mr. Coffee.

Q-How long do you expect this series to run, because I totally see a new “Cabot Cove” mystery series here! 

I’m hoping The Country Club Murders finds an audience and that Ellison has the opportunity to solve lots of murders.

Q-When is the next story due/what’s the title/can you give us a couple of sentences on the plot?

Guaranteed to Bleed (remember the madras labels?) will release in November. When Ellison finds a dying boy beneath the stands at a high school football game, her life is again upended. Now she’s dealing with a teenage daughter with an attitude, an unexpected house guest and another body on her lawn.

Q-Why stretch out the love triangle between your heroine and two yummy men?

Could you decide between Hunter and Anarchy? Ellison is recently widowed, she’s not ready to make up her mind.

Q-You also have other novels in the works—are they cozy mysteries in 1st person too?

My novel, A Haunting Desire, which was a finalist in the 2014 Golden Heart contest is a romance. It releases in August from Entangled Select. It’s not written in the first person, but there is a murder mystery which my heroine solves. The story is set in New Orleans in 1902 – think voodoo, ghosts, plenty of eerie ambiance and a yummy hero.

Q-On a personal note, what’s a food you cannot say no to?

Bread pudding with crème anglaise

Q-Favorite movie and why?

One? Yikes! Casablanca because I never get tired of watching Rick change from a cynical ass into a hero. Romancing the Stone because I love watching Joan Wilder transform into a strong woman.

Q-What’s your favorite ’70’s song?

Again, one? You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. I’d like to title a book Clouds in my Coffee. Who can hear that song and not sing along? I also love You’re in my Heart by Rod Stewart for the chorus: You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul. You’ll be my breath should I grow old. You are my lover, you’re my best friend. You’re in my soul. Isn’t that how we all want to be loved?

Which ’70s songs do you love and why? Julie is giving one lucky commenter a $10 Amazon gift card! Stop by next Tuesday to see if it’s YOU!

Back cover blurb.

Swimming into the lifeless body of her husband’s mistress tends to ruin a woman’s day, but becoming a murder suspect can ruin her whole life.

It’s 1974 and Ellison Russell’s life revolves around her daughter and her art. She’s long since stopped caring about her cheating husband, Henry, and the women with whom he entertains himself. That is, until she becomes a suspect in Madeline Harper’s death. The murder forces Ellison to confront her husband’s proclivities and his crimes—kinky sex, petty cruelties and blackmail.

As the body count approaches par on the seventh hole, Ellison knows she has to catch a killer. But with an interfering mother, an adoring father, a teenage daughter, and a cadre of well-meaning friends demanding her attention, can Ellison find the killer before he finds her.

Find out more about Julie HERE: http://www.JulieMulhern.com

BUY THE DEEP END HERE: http://amzn.to/1vCHnCS

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