A Puzzling Mystery, Part II

Like a mystery novel, the mystery of how I became an avid jigsaw puzzler in 2020 is more straight-forward than why. In 2019, I wouldn’t have tried a jigsaw puzzle. I’d watched my wife do them years earlier, and it just didn’t appeal to me.

What changed?

The lockdown in the Spring and Summer of 2020 had an unanticipated silver lining: a pause. That pause of staying at home gave me and others the opportunity to slow down.

I think I’d actually be interested in puzzling all along, but had been intimidated by it. I had enjoyed fast moving video game “puzzlers” like Tetris Attacks, Columns, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, and others. Those games all capture a fundamental aspect to jigsaw puzzling–finding the piece that fits.

Of course, jigsaw puzzling has much more to it than that. Subject is important. I have a friend who is a talented amateur photograph and routinely sends photos of potential puzzles. They don’t appeal to me as much as they do to him, but that’s not to say that the subjects won’t make a fine puzzle. They just wouldn’t for me.

The Gradient Moon puzzle at the top of this post is an example of a subject which I love–Luna and astronomy. The same for the Solar System panorama puzzle we did in 2020.

Discovering puzzle subjects that I loved really increased the appeal.

But, it really came down making order out of chaos–building an image from a jumble. Even more “elementary” than that, it came down the satisfaction of plugging the right puzzle piece into the right spot.

It meant sorting puzzle pieces into colors and shapes. It meant doing the edge first.

In the process, I fell hard for puzzling and my wife rekindled her own passion for puzzling.

We discovered Karen Puzzles, a YouTuber who spreads the joy of puzzling and has now gone full time pursuing her puzzling passion. Karen tackles changing puzzles, including a twenty-fourth thousand piece monster and does so with humor and fun. Karen collects and does old puzzles, and mystery puzzles, and gradient puzzles.

Most of all, I find puzzling relaxing, when I’m not too caught up in trying to puzzle as fast as my wife LeAnn or Karen, and take it at my own pace.

Joy and relaxation are at the heart of the solution to this mystery.

Not Perry Mason

I grew up watching the classic Perry Mason television, starring Raymond Burr and a host of talented character actors. For many years, it ran at lunch time on our local independent station, Channel 12. My mother was a huge fan. I was young enough that, while I appreciated the peril the accused seemed to be in, I didn’t really understand the storylines all that well.

Fast forward to last year and LeAnn and I decided to start watching it on Paramount+. We were both hooked right from the start. So much so that I picked up the complete set on DVD, since it includes two seasons and several other episodes that aren’t available for streaming, probably because of rights issues.

Perry Mason was produced by Gail Patrick Jackson, who had some terrific writers working for her. The dialogue crackles, the story lines twist and turn. Los Angeles in the Fifties and early Sixties has a character all its own, with a noir tone. But there’s another tone, one that surprised me–a bit of a cozy vibe vying with the noir. The ending of each episode, which I think may have often been cut in syndication, feature Perry, Della, Paul, sometimes even DA Hamilton Burger, or often the former defendant, now exonerated. The final exchange is usually light, even funny.

I love that.

What I wanted to share today alongside this today’s post by my friend and fellow mystery author Garry Rogers, over at the Killzone, where he shares some examples of real world exchanges between defense attorneys and people on the stand in Canadian courtrooms. Well worth a read, and pretty much the opposite of the dialogue we see Mason and Burger and others use with witnesses on the stand in Perry Mason.

A Puzzling Mystery, Part I

I’ve been impressed by jigsaw puzzles for years, and watched as my wife LeAnn did them, some that seemed like such an endeavor to me. Though it was interesting to see her puzzle, I couldn’t imagine myself doing it. It seemed too hard, and I preferred the interactivity of a game.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. By that June I became interested in actually trying a jigsaw puzzle, and LeAnn happily obliged. We started with with a one hundred piece puzzle, then went to a five hundred piece one, featuring a painting of “Flora,” a cat on bed. It was a challenging puzzle, and by the time we’d finished, I was hooked.

Many people were drawn to jigsaw puzzling in the summer of 2020, and puzzles shortages were common. Still, we managed to buy a number of them, and for a while there we finished a puzzle every week or two.

By last count we have finished thirty-four puzzles in two years. Everything from beach scenes, to marbles, sea shells, the solar system, Star Trek, and the movie Die-Hard.

For the past year or longer we’ve been listening to audio books while we puzzle, broadcasting from my iPhone to a little Bose speaker. That’s how we “read” the first four Hannah Swenson mysteries, John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, among other books. We’re now started in on an epic reading of the classic Wilkie Collins mystery, The Woman In White, as we finish our thirty-fifth puzzle.

The mystery isn’t that I gave it a try. The mystery is, how did I go from doing a couple of puzzles to nearly three dozen in two years, and why I am a passionate puzzler now, and someone who supports a YouTube puzzler via Patreon?

Return tomorrow for the answers and more.

The Sting of Apep, the puzzle we’ve finished most recently. A mystery puzzle.

Finding your next great read

It was a question and a statement we got a lot at the libraries I worked at. “Can you help me? I just finished this awesome series and I’m looking for another book like those. Oh, and I’ve read everything by that author.”

I’d ask them a few questions (librarians will always ask a few questions to help zero in on what you might actually be looking for).

“What was it you liked about that series or that novel?”

“Are you looking for something that has a similar setting, characters, type of story?”

Then we would listen. In library-land this is known as “doing reader’s advisory.” In other words, helping a reader find the next great read.

You can ask yourself those questions, especially if you are searching your library’s catalog from home. You can do a keyword search. Say you really like Joanna Fluke’s Hannah Swenson Cookie Jar mysteries. Well, you could type in “baking mysteries.” I did. I found seventy titles. Many were duplicates, because a title being available in print, large-print, and other formats.

Right off the bat I’m suspicious of those search results because that’s nowhere near the number of baking mysteries a typical library would own. I look up a title, go to more details, and discover the category for that book is actually “baking-fiction,” not mystery. Below that might be another subject category, like “mystery and detective fiction,” or “mysteries.”

It can quickly get complicated. That’s where stopping by your local library to get some assistance, both with your next great read, and a lesson in how to do the searching in the catalog can really pay off. “It depends” is often all-too-true when it comes to trying to find a book by it’s subject.

However, there’s another resource you can use: NoveList. NoveList is available online at many, if not most, public library websites.

NoveList is searchable database of fiction and non-fiction books. You can look up a particular title and find out more information about it, including any reviews from various publications like Booklist or Library Journal. That’s helpful, but where NoveList can really help is with finding your next great read is in its ability to also display “read-alikes,” books similar in someway to the one you just looked up.

Right there, you will have more books similar in someway or ways to the book you just finished. Sometimes very similar in tone, storyline, characters etc.

You can also look through the subjects listed and click to find more books in that category. Often NoveList lists more categories for a particular book than your library’s catalog, simply because NoveList’s categories are compiled with different criterion and by different people.

Also, NoveList will display “Recommended reading” lists by subject on the starting page when you log in, providing some great lists to browse through. And remember, you can look for more information and read-alikes with any of those books as well.

Of course, your local librarian can show you around NoveList, and give you more tips and tricks.

It used to be that libraries stocked various genre guides, but alas, those have mostly gone away, replaced by NoveList as well as book lists your local library may have created which you can find on your library’s website.

I hope these tips are useful, and remember, librarians are here to help!

Happy 4th of July

Hope you have a fine Fourth here in the U.S. Elsewhere, I hope you have a wonderful day.

My friend, author Kay DiBianca has a great post at the Killzone Blog today on Independence Day and what it means, as well as what being an independent author entails for her. Well worth reading.

A Passion for Cozy Mystery

When I first began reading mysteries, years ago, I started with Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, and Robert B. Parker. I loved Parker’s Spencer. I also read some of the classics, starting with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, Poe’s short story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

But it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I read my first actual cozy mystery, On What Grounds, the first Cleo Coyle Coffeehouse mystery, after a friend recommended it. I loved the novel. It took place a coffeehouse in Greenwich village in New York City, and had humor, a little romance, and best of all, a fun mystery. Since then I’ve read a number of cozies, as well as more traditional mysteries like Nemesis by Dame Agatha and The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, who deserves a blog post here in her honor.

I didn’t think I’d like cozies. I saw many come across the return counter at the library, and helped patrons find them, but until that first Cleo Coyle Coffeehouse mystery, I didn’t understand the attraction.

My how things have changed since then. Cozies have become my favorite sort of mystery, including Joanna Fluke’s magnum opus, the Hannah Swenson Lake Eden baking mysteries. I cheerfully said how much I love Hannah’s sleuthing and her little world to a friend who prefers much darker, grittier stories. Which is fine, not every book and every genre is for every reader.

I’ve also become a huge fan of cozy mysteries on television as well, starting with Queens of Mystery, Father Brown and Midsomer Murders, followed by Columbo, Monk, and now, at long last, Murder, She Wrote.

What is it about cozies I like so much? In a word, everything. The humor, the fast pace, the fun mysteries, the colorful characters, the worlds they inhabit, and the kindness and caring. Sure, being nosy can seem intrusive, but it’s always in a good cause when it comes to being a cozy. I prefer my cozy sleuths more intrepid than fearful, more determined than uncertain when striving to get to the bottom of the mystery they find themselves in.

I love seeing order restored and justice done, but above all, I like being engrossed in a book. Again, not every cozy will appeal to every reader, and I’m no exception. But when the right cozy pulls me, it’s pure reading bliss.

My own library cozy, A Shush Before Dying, currently on pre-order, is aimed at readers who like a fast pace, an engaging storyline, humor, hints of romance, a cast of characters that they would enjoy spending time with, and readers who love libraries and the stories they tell.

These days more than ever, as a reader, viewer, and especially as a writer, I appreciate the lighter side of things. Comedy gives us the gift of laughter, and I hope my own mysteries can bring some of that, along with a mystery that keeps the reader turning pages.

Here’s to cozy mysteries and the comfort and fun that they bring.

Sharing Secrets at the Library

When you’re a young child, everything in the world seems a secret. Why does it rain? Where do puppies come from? Why do the stars twinkle? How come I’m not feeling well?

Some secrets are revealed early. Your mother will point out a cloud and say that that’s where the rain comes from, or your dad will say puppies come from mommy dogs.

Then there are the “secrets”, like dinosaurs, fire truck, dump trucks, princesses and princes, sharks and so on. Grown-ups call that knowledge. They aren’t really “secret” in that they aren’t meant to be shared, except for the things grown-ups don’t want a kid to know, yet. Grown-ups might decide that this knowledge should be kept secret from children until they are ready for it.

But there are myriad “secrets” that are really things a young child simply hasn’t discovered yet.

The first time I remember going to the library was when I was eight years old. Our family had just moved down from Seattle and we lived in a tiny rental house. The city library was just five long blocks away. I remember the first time I walked in there, on a sweltering Oregon summer afternoon, to see all the books waiting for me in the children’s section. My mother or father must have accompanied me to get my own library card, but I don’t remember. What I remember were all the books.

Back then children were giving cards that let them check out age appropriate books, what later I learned were called “juvenile” titles in library speak. Books about horses, dinosaurs, the stars, the Moon, World War Two, and on and on. Suddenly I knew that all the things that seemed secret were really just things I didn’t know yet.

That fall, after I started third grade, I walked into the school library and saw so many more books waiting for me. Of course, I didn’t read about everything. I read what interested me. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Matthew Mooney, books about the planets, books about World War Two naval battles, things I was fascinated with.

Knowledge is “a state of knowing, of understanding. Actual secrets are things kept from you for various reasons. But knowledge secrets are only secrets because you don’t know about them. Books banish those secrets and help you comprehend.

Some books, like mystery fiction or a compelling memoir, take you on a journey of discovery to learn a truth, or share an experience, and the in the process, banish another “secret,” because the writer wanted to reveal what was secret and share it.

I’ll never know everything. None of us will. Nor do we have time to read everything.

But we can discover what was hidden from us, whatever we choose, when it comes to knowledge, and make it our own.

Better still, we can share that with others.

Make Mine A Mystery

On the hunt for the crucial clue
On the hunt for the crucial clue

Welcome to the new beginning for my author site. Changes have been afoot in my writing since fall 2020, and they are finally bearing fruit. I began as a fantasy and science fiction author, and eventually published seven novels, six fantasy and one space opera, as well as novellas in the 2018 Street Spells and last September’s High Moon. I am a long time fan of fantasy and science fiction.

I’m also a long-time fan of mystery. I started out reading a mystery every so often. Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” Kinsey Mallone, Lawrence Block and on. I idly thought about writing an historical mystery series set during the age of piracy in the Caribbean. (I may still.) I used to joke with library colleagues about writing a library murder mystery, and they used to suggest it.

But it remained on the back-burner while I worked on learning how to write fantasy novels. I racked up five before finally getting the elements lined up and working together, thanks in no small measure to hiring my friend and writing mentor, Mary Rosenblum, to story edit Empowered: Agent and Empowered :Traitor and give me feedback on the outline for Empowered: Outlaw, in 2016-17. It paid off. I went on to write five novels in The Empowered series as well as the space opera and Gremlin Night.

But things changed for me in the spring of 2020, during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown I began reading many more mystery novels, as well as watching mystery shows. In September, 2020, I decided to write my first mystery novel. I wrote a draft of sorts, finishing it in February, 2021. I then worked on rewriting it. I took a break from the rewrite that summer, writing an urban fantasy novella and returning to it in the fall. More revision followed, and then another interruption while I worked on a separate project.

But, as time went on, I became more and more passionate about mystery fiction. My library cozy had been titled, Death Due, but now it became A Shush Before Dying. Mystery is very much my jam now. I’ve read so many more, and watched a great deal of mystery television, everything from The Queens of Mystery and the new Father Brown to Midsomer Murders, classic shows like Perry Mason and Columbo, and now Murder, She wrote, and so many more.

One of my dear friends from my time in library-land, Jan, who I called our “mystery maven” because of her deep knowledge of that genre, told me she felt mystery must be the hardest genre to write in. I’ve learned this past year and a half that she is right about that. At the same time, writing mystery is irresistible for me, incredibly rewarding, and so very fun. I’ll talk about that more in future posts.

I may have chosen to write mysteries, but it was no real choice, since I felt so drawn to the form after years spent reading in it.

My site is going to have a different look in the not-too-distant future, but I didn’t want to wait on that to begin a new mystery-focused blog.

I hope you’ll join me as I do.