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Read the first chapter of THE PUFFIN OF DEATH at


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Unexpected Journals

We all have THAT drawer, the drawer we dump things until we can find the proper place for them. But since we seldom find the proper place for those things, the drawer eventually fills up and we have to take a week or two off work to clean it out.
Like everyone else, I have a drawer like that. Several actually. But the drawer I finally got around to cleaning out yesterday was my pen drawer. Yes, I have a drawer devoted to pens only, and it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t close it any more. So yesterday afternoon I settled myself in front of the TV and began sorting through them.

That’s when I found something I didn’t expect.

For years I’ve been telling people I don’t journals, but my “pen and pencil” drawer turned out to be a journal of sorts, a pen-by-pen record of some of the places I’ve traveled to and the people I’ve met. Among them were the pens from various banks and credit unions, probably picked up when I was making withdrawals. (Deposits? In this economy, you have to be kidding.) But I also found numerous purple pens from Diamondback Drugs, where I pick up meds for whichever of my fur babies happens to be ailing. Other pens included one from the Moosehead Saloon, in Palmer, Alaska (more about that, later); one from Perry Lodge, in Kanab, Arizona (also more about that, later), and one from Bevara, which I’d picked up in Reykjavik, Iceland (more about… ditto).

I found dozens of pens from various hotel chains across the U.S., such as the Radisson, Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott, Holiday Inn, Doubletree, La Quinta, Best Western, and Ramada. Since none of those pens gave any hint of which particular city or state they originated in, I can only guess that they came from Washington, Oregon, California, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Maryland, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, and several cities and towns in Arizona. I do get around.

Those pens took me on a trip down Memory Lane.

The beat-up pen from the Moosehead Saloon reminded me of my trip to the University of Anchorage, around ten years ago, where the generous university president and his wife let me stay with them while I lectured at the school on the polygamy cults described in “Desert Wives.” While in Alaska, I visited the Moosehead Saloon (it has a stuffed moose head hanging on the wall, thus the name), where the friendly bartender gave me a keychain made by a “skin-sewer,” and I carried it until the hair finally wore off. (No, I’m not a vegetarian, although I feel guilty about not being one). I remember looking out the window of my room one morning and seeing a moose – a live one -- wander by. I found that exciting, since moose seldom pass my window here in Scottsdale.

Another stand-out was my memory of Kanab, Arizona, and the lovely, frozen-in-time motel where John Wayne himself once stayed. I’d picked up the pen while doing research for “Desert Wind,” tracking the footsteps of the various places Wayne stayed while filming “The Conqueror.” I remember the life-sized cut-out of Wayne in the hotel lobby. My husband took a picture of me with my arm around the Duke. That was about eight years back.

The most recent memory those old pens evoked was of Iceland, where I’d been doing research on “The Puffin of Death.”  The woman who rented me an apartment handed me the pen so I could fill out the residency form. She was from France, she explained, and had married an Icelander. Now she and her husband ran a hostel for travelers, as well as a couple of apartments in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capitol city. How best to describe those two weeks in the country formerly known as Ultima Thule? Enchanting. Awe-inspiring. Unforgettable. I hiked by glaciers, volcanoes, Icelandic horses, fjords, lava-strewn pastures… Words are simply inadequate to describe the beauties of Iceland.
But while sorting out the hoard in my pen drawer what I didn’t discover – and this surprised me – was that during my travels I’d only picked up one pen handed out by another writer, and that was the “Gumbo Justice” pen, given to me by Holli Castillo, who I think I met years ago at Left Coast Crime. Or maybe it was Bouchercon. And don’t ask me in what city, because I haven’t the foggiest. I attend so many conferences…

Still, from clearing out my hoard, here’s what I’ve learned about myself.

First: I’m a pen thief. Sadly, I’m a pen thief of cheap pens only, so your Mont Blanc and Cross pens are safe from me.

Second: I belong to a LOT of writers organizations, among them Mystery Writers of America, the Writers Guild, Sisters in Crime, the Society of Southwestern Authors, Scottsdale Society of Women Writers… the list goes on.

Third: I’m obviously pretty healthy, since I’ve lifted only two pens from doctors’ offices.

Fourth: I spend a lot on pet care.

Fifth: I travel more than I thought I did, although my pen drawer lacked proof of my sojourns in France, England, and Scotland. This leads me to believe that Europeans guard their writing instruments more carefully than do Americans.

Sixth: Judging from the number of pens from “inexpensive” hotel chains as opposed to the high-rent hotels, I’m really, really cheap.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Researching Puffins

If you want to write about puffins in a book titled THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, you go where the most puffins go -- Iceland.

I'll admit that the thought of going to Iceland didn't thrill me at first. I've lived in Arizona long enough to dread mushing through waist-deep snow, and the very idea of sub-zero nights almost kept me off my early-morning flight on Icelandic Air. But now, safely home in the 115-degree Sonoran Desert, I'm glad I conquered my misgivings and boarded that flight anyway.

Imagine my surprise when several hours later, I was strolling down the street in Reykjavik, Iceland, in a balmy 70 degrees, shedding coats and sweaters as I walked. It was August, after all, and apparently I -- like many people -- had confused Iceland with Greenland (which really IS cold!).

Trepidations aside, as a former journalist I've always believed in hard-core research, and as a mystery writer you can't get much more hard-core than travelling to every spot where the murder take place. Well, actually, murders, plural. If you've read my earlier Gunn Zoo mysteries, you know that murders are like potato chips; you can't have just one. But this meant that I had to travel from one end of Iceland to the other.

During my two weeks in Iceland, I spent nights in Reykjavik, the country's sophisticated capitol; the beautiful fishing port of Stykkisholmur, on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; the quaint seaside village of Vik, known for its famous black sand beach; Gullfoss, where no protective fence keep you away from the double waterfall; the slopes of Eyjafjallajokull, the active volcano that disrupted European air traffic for weeks; and the spooky Thingvellir, where the great continental rift is slowly separating the European shelf from the North American. In Thingvellir you can almost hear the continents grind as they pull farther and farther from each other.

My adventures were many, and some of them made their way into THE PUFFIN OF DEATH. For instance, there was my scary-beautiful ride on one of the famed Icelandic horses, where I learned that no matter how much you've ridden in the States, you're not quite prepared for the somewhat alien gaits of that noble breed. Accordingly, I put my zookeeper sleuth up on an Icelandic horse named Einnar, who took her for a ride she'll never forget.

Probably the biggest surprise of all, though, came from the wonderful Icelandic people themselves. These descendants of fierce Vikings warriors turned out to be some of the most pleasant and well-educated folks I've yet run into during my travels. Iceland enjoys a literacy rate of 99%, which means Icelandic bookstores are invariably packed with standing-room-only crowds. And my worries about not being able to speak Icelandic -- a language almost unchanged since Viking days -- turned out to be as fact-based as my worries about waist-deep snowdrifts in August. Because not only does every Icelander speak fluent English, they speak it much more correctly than do most Americans. No "ain't"s, and certainly no "I done seen it."

Now back to those puffins. The sight -- and sound -- of a million puffins winging their away across the slopes of an ancient volcano just outside Vik is something I'll never forget. I was so awe-struck by the goofy-looking little birds that I changed the site of PUFFIN's first murder to Vik. I'd originally planned to kill the gazillionaire Simon Parr outside a bar in Reykjavik, and to bring in the puffin colony much later. But in the finished book, Parr -- a birdwatcher, besides being stinking rich -- is found shot in the head and stretched across a puffin burrow, his nose chewed on by a furious puffin mama protecting her chick.

Yes, puffins nest and lay their eggs underground. That's something else I learned in Iceland.

And this brings me to probably the most important thing I learned during my trip. Yes, do your research -- but stay flexible. If a better idea occurs to you once you're on site, go with it. Or as Mama Puffin would tell her chick if she could speak, "Let your imagination fly, Sweetie."


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Trouble with Sub-Plots
Sometimes the sub-plot causes more trouble than the main plot.

As most of my fans know, the seven Lena Jones mysteries were all based on real cases, and the eighth, DESERT RAGE – due out mid-October – is no exception. While the book’s main plot concerns IVF, (in vitro fertilization, a specific version of “test tube babies”), the subplot delves into Arizona’s troublesome death penalty.

The only state in the U.S. that executes more convicts than Arizona is Texas, which makes Arizona the second-ranked legal killer in the U.S. Startling, yes, but you’ll notice that I described our death penalty as “troublesome,” which seems a rather insufficient word considering the fact that we legally kill people in this state. Yet “troublesome” is the correct word when writing a novel. Because, as I found out in my research, it’s really, really hard to kill someone. Legally, that is.

Back in what people like to call The Good Old Days, Arizona hanged its Death Row inmates. The method worked perfectly until 1930, when convicted killer Eva Dugan was accidentally decapitated during her hanging. The hangman had miscalculated Eva’s weight and the height of the “drop,” so when he hit the lever to lower the trap door, Eva’s body dropped -- but not her head.

In 1934, when Arizona recovered from its collective shock and started executing people again, it joined the ranks of states using the gas chamber, although some critics of the new method grumbled that cyanide pellets were too merciful for convicted murderers. Proponents of the death penalty grumbled even louder in 1992 when – after a brief flirtation with the electric chair -- Arizona decided to implement lethal injection. No decapitations, no gasping, no frying inmates, just a quick and merciful drift into eternal sleep.

That was the theory, anyway.  

Theories don’t always work out. Since 2010 the lethal drugs used in Arizona executions included midazolam, hydromorphone, thiopental, propofol (remember Michael Jackson?), and pentobarbital. Any combination of those drugs, when handled correctly, should have been strong enough to kill an elephant. But a snag developed when drug manufacturers, one by one, began refusing to sell their drugs to the state if they were going to be used for executions. So Arizona began hopscotching from drug to drug. Each time the drugs had to be switched, I had to rewrite the execution scene in DESERT RAGE. In all, there were four rewrites. For a one-page sub-plot scene.

Then, in June of this year, came the botched execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood. It took almost two hours for Wood to die, and horrified witnesses said he appeared to have suffered considerable pain.

By then, my book was at the publisher’s, so I called it back. But the long, troublesome task of rewrite after rewrite had finally taught me something. Instead of naming the new compound used by the state, I rewrote the execution scene a fifth time, dropping any mention of a specific drug.

Comparatively, DESERT RAGE’s main plot – in vitro fertilization – was relatively easy to write. After a donated egg and donated sperm got cozy with each other in a Petrie dish, the then-fertilized egg was implanted into the uterus of a soon-to-be birth mother. Nine months later, a beautiful baby girl named Alison was born.

In DESERT RAGE, the beginning of life turned out to be much easier to write about than the end of life.
P.S. to read more about DESERT RAGE, see post below.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

You never know when or where an idea for a book will strike. In the case of DESERT RAGE, the 8th Lena Jones Mystery, due out October 7, 2014, that happened as I was walking down the hall at Paradise Valley Community College.

Just a few months earlier I’d quit my job as a full-time journalist at the Tribune (Arizona) Newspapers, but had become bored with so much time on my hands. When a friend told me PVCC needed a part-time writer in its PR department, I thought that might be right up my alley, so I placed a call, and within the week, was working a (supposedly) four-hour-a-day, three-day workweek. By the end of the year, my hours had blossomed to 35 hours a week, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one afternoon I decided to go down to the school cafeteria for a cup of coffee, and while I was walking down the hall, I noticed a new flyer had gone up on the large HELP WANTED bulletin board across from the ladies’ room. The headline went something like this.


The body copy of the flyer went on to explain what the company needed “young, athletic women” for (it was neither illegal nor immoral, yet paid good money), and I found myself fascinated, thinking this would be a great idea for a book. However, since I was in the midst of writing DESERT CUT, I filed the idea away in the back of my mind for later use.

That was nine years and four more books ago.

But last year, the time finally came to write that book. So I did. When I finished it and turned it over to my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, she became every bit as fascinated as I was when I first read that flyer. Of course, I’d added a lot to that skeleton of an idea – a family slaughter confessed to by two young teens, a U.S. senatorial candidate with something to hide, a nasty arson case…

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the description that will appear on the inside of the dust jacket. 

Ferociously ambitious U.S. Senatorial candidate Juliana Thorsson has been keeping a secret.

The horrific slaughter of a prominent doctor, his wife, and their ten-year-old son inside their Scottsdale home brings Thorsson to Private Investigator Lena Jones. The slain family’s 14-year old, Alison, and her boyfriend, Kyle, have confessed to the murders. Thorsson wants to hire Lena to discover if Alison is telling the truth, but before accepting the job, Lena demands to know why a rising political star wants to involve herself with the fate of a girl she’s never met. Desperate for Lena’s help, Thorsson reveals her explosive secret – that Alison is the candidate’s biological daughter, a fact she’s kept hidden for years. But that’s not all. Thorsson then confides something even more unusual than a mere hidden pregnancy, something that could ruin her political plans forever.

Suspecting that Alison’s parents had secrets of their own that could have led to the murders, Lena finally accepts Thorsson's assignment. But interviewing those who knew the family well soon puts Lena -- now a strong defender of the two teens -- in danger of her life.

Fast paced, probing, and filled with the trademark twists of the Lena Jones series, Betty Webb is unsparing of her characters yet writes their stories with wit and compassion.  

That’s just a teaser. As I said, the book debuts October 7, and I hope you like it.

Oh, and by the way, there’s a writing lesson to be had here. Writers must always, always pay attention to everything the world – right down to bulletin boards on college campuses – because the world is where our ideas come from.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Method Acting for Writers

Something strange happened yesterday while I was writing – or, rather, attempting to write – a scene in a new Lena Jones mystery. The scene didn’t work; it just lay there, stagnant and stinky as a four-day-old cod fillet.

Here was the original set-up. P.I. Lena Jones is interviewing the next-door neighbor of a murdered family. The Scottsdale, Arizona, neighborhood is pricy and the homes accordingly elegant. The neighbor – who was out of town during the slaughter, and can prove it -- is not a suspect, but Lena thinks he might be able to give an overview of the family’s activities in the months leading up to the murders. I had originally planned to write the neighbor as one-half of a married gay couple, an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who had nothing but good things to say about the dead family. Because I believe in setting the “scenic” part of a scene, I went into great detail about the interior of the neighbor’s house: white leather furniture, a wall-sized painting by de Kooning, a sculpture by Giacometti, etc. As the interview continued, the man’s partner came into the room. He, too, was an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who contributed more warm-hearted stories about the deceased family.

The scene didn’t work. It was dull as dirt. All that niceness -- ick! Where was the conflict? Where was the tension?

As I sat there staring at the computer screen, an idea popped into my head. Why not take the same house and the same elegant furnishings, but turn this neighbor into someone you would not ordinarily associate with such tasteful, high-art surroundings?

The minute the idea popped into my head, so did a new character. For the few hours, I pounded out a scene that was surprising, unsettling, and even a bit scary. My fingers flew over the keyboard, typing in this new character’s startling dialogue and some very creepy body language. There was incredible tension in the scene because an ethical and personal conflict now existed between my P.I. and the new character. Lena was repelled by him – and also a bit frightened. Yet she needed to stay in that elegant house alone with him in order to get information about the murdered family.

The weird thing about all this is that I don’t remember writing a word of it. I was so lost inside that creepy new character’s head that I, as an individual, ceased to exist.

When Hubby (it should be noted here that he’s a psychologist) came home from work, I told him what had happened.

“You had an out-of-body experience,” Hubby explained. “It's the same type of experience that method actors use to create their characters. You forgot about yourself and what you originally wanted to do, you forgot about your own ideas and expectations for the scene. Instead, you got deep down and dirty into the mind, heart, and soul – or lack thereof – of this new character. When you disappeared, he emerged. That’s why the new scene works so well, because it wasn’t something you, as you, created. You were channeling him, and he created the scene – not you.”


This morning over coffee, we continued to talk about yesterday’s odd experience.

“You’ve often wondered why you can write two separate series that are so different in tone, from the first-person point of view by two protagonists who have nothing in common,” Hubby said. “But the answer’s easy. You’re using the same method -- method acting, if you will -- that you did in writing yesterday’s scene. When you’re writing Lena, for instance, you become her. Lena, because of her difficult childhood in all those abusive foster homes, trusts no one. She has compassion for crime victims, but her compassion doesn’t extend to allowing anyone to get close to her. Because of her global mistrust of the human race, Lean’s personal relationships – the few that she has – are a mess. She lives in a perpetual state of anger, is always close to the breaking point, and she has an itchy trigger finger. This is a dangerous combination, and that’s why readers either love Lena or are repelled by her. But regardless of all her mental and emotional issues, Lena has a strong, unwavering mission in life – to bring justice to the dead.

“Teddy, the zookeeper in your Gunn Zoo books, is just the opposite. Because she was given so much love as a child, she likes just about everyone. She trusts people – at least until they prove themselves untrustworthy – and she loves both her fiancĂ© and the animals she cares for at the zoo. Her personal circumstances are a little unusual: a houseboat for a home; a self-centered, multi-married, clotheshorse of a mother; and an embezzling father on the run from the FBI who is always turns up just in time to wreak havoc in her life. But for all this, Teddy remains an uncomplicated woman with only one major tic: her mission – besides protecting the animals at the zoo -- is to not become her mother.” 

 And yes, Hubby continued, when I write these highly divergent characters, I totally immerse myself in them the same way a method actor immerses himself in a role. I put myself and my own personality aside, and instead, I live, breath, move, and speak like that character. For all intents and purposes, I am that character.

Which is what happened yesterday. I was so busy being my new character that I put aside all my previous plans and simply “channeled” the new guy. I didn’t force my ideas about character on him. Instead, I slipped into an altered state of consciousness and let him tell his own story, thus surprising the holy living hell out of myself.

Stephen King once said, “If the writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise the reader?”

King was right. But there’s an irony here. And it is…

Only by losing yourself can you find your story – and your most intriguing characters.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Weepy Female Characters

Besides being the author of several mystery novels, I also review books for Mystery Scene Magazine and teach creative writing, so you could say that books comprise a large section of my life. When a character trend emerges – or disappears – I notice. Yet in my thirty years of professional writing, teaching, and critiquing, I am continually plagued by one character stereotype that just won’t go away.
The weepy female.
The novel’s genre doesn’t seem to  matter: literary, mainstream, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, Western, or (of course) romance. Regardless of the book’s genre, the cast list usually includes at least one female character who bursts into tears on a regular basis, whether from joy, sadness, fear, shock, or frustration at missing the last pair of Tommy Choo knock-offs at Macy’s Spring Shoe Sale.

Why, for God’s sake?
In an age where women have been cleared for combat, and are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan minus arms and/or legs, why this continuing insistence on weepy female characters?

When one of my students recently turned in a suspense novel where the female protagonist fainted twice and cried eight times (I counted), I took her to task for creating such a stereotypical character.
“But everybody knows women cry a lot,” my student answered.

Intrigued, I asked her when was the last time she’d cried, but after several moments, she said she couldn’t remember. She wasn’t much of a “crier,” she admitted.
“I’m not, either,” I said. “Nor are any of the other women I know. Maybe we tear up while watching a sad movie, but we don’t have time do that in real life. When a real life problem come along, we deal with the situation, we don't cry about it.”

I told her to rewrite each crying scene so that her protagonist never shed a single tear, regardless of what was going on in the scene. And to take out the fainting. While not happy about this, she finally agreed to do it. A few weeks later, she handed in the rewrite.

Guess what?

When all the facile blubbering had been removed, my student had been forced to write more deeply, to delve more completely into her character’s psyche -- to actually deal with her heroine’s emotional and intellectual complications instead of avoiding them. Gone were the dull, knee-jerk tears, gone was the cheap and easy sexist stereotyping. The result was a complex, many-layered heroine who dealt much more realistically with her internal demons while grappling with the book’s already complex, many-layered male villain.
The heroine had transitioned from a shallow, cardboard character into someone memorable. Someone real.

The world has changed and our female characters must change with it. We are no longer living in the Victorian age, where -- because of too-tight corsets -- women actually did weep and faint, although I’m sure it happened much less often than writers of the time would have us believe. We are now living in the 21st century, where real-life women shoulder their assault rifles and head off into combat.
And they’re not crying about it.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013