Guest Blogging As A Character in Window of Guilt, My Second Mystery Novel

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*Excerpted and paraphrased from Lois Winston’s 2014 Jennie Spallone Guest Blog:

Hi. I’m Mitzy Maven and I’m slumped on the back seat floor of Laurie’s SUV as I secretly type this email into my IPAD. As a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I’ve seen my share of bad guys. But I was truly freaked out, as my mom would say, when my high school friend cajoled me into tailing Ryan, her hubby. Marital infidelity? Shady business dealings?

Most likely, we’re talking communication problem. Laurie’s not the easiest person to communicate with. Granted, she’s a kind, compassionate person who adores her husband, son, and puppy. But that tongue of hers can bite! She looks for hidden meanings in the most inane conversation. And if your actions don’t meet her specifications, she’ll try to change you.

Here’s an example: Laurie’s husband, Ryan, is a health insurance adjuster. This Type A personality guy recently quit his job. Laurie was plenty steamed. Who, in these tough economic times, just walks out on his job, with a family to support?

Laurie attempted to wrestle the facts from her husband, but Ryan wasn’t talking.The harder she pressed, the more he withdrew. I urged Laurie to minimize her anger and frustration by meditating. Heck, she already does yoga, so I figured this was no great stretch – no pun intended!

But Laurie refused to acknowledge her anger issues. Arguments between hubby and wife ensued, to the point that their young son complained of “bad energy” in the house. Even the dog started peeing on the furniture!

Oops! Ryan’s approaching the car now. Before I log off, I gotta say that two hot heads don’t a reasonable decision make! I truly hope Ryan is not leading a double life of criminal activity or adultery. I pray his only problem is learning how to openly communicate with his wife without withdrawing into his cave.

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Author Jennie Spallone Reflects on Opening Pages of Her Award-Winning First Mystery Novel

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*Reprinted from Guest Blog, January 2017

In the bible, it says God created the heaven and earth. What a humongous contracting job it must have been to fill this unformed void, even for the all-powerful Builder of the Universe!  Should the light of day and the stars of night come first, or should the waters be divided into land and sea? Decisions, decisions, decisions!

As a writer, I am plagued with those same types of questions every time I begin writing a new novel. While my doubts don’t compromise the world’s existence, the decisions I make do determine the fate of my characters in their own universe. Should the first sentence of my book open with the setting, action, or a character’s dilemma? How do I hook the reader into continuing to read the pages that follow?  For Deadly Choices, a police procedural, I chose “action”:

“Warning lights unlit, siren silent, Ambulance Number 60 careened down fog-drenched streets in the pre-dawn autumn darkness on its return to the firehouse.” I’d recently completed a 24-hour ride-a-long with two female paramedics as they responded to emergency dispatches throughout Chicago’s dicey West Side.  I attempted to paint a picture of what it felt like to return from a call.  However, my word choice of “careened” was an image I created to fit the character of my imaginary ambulance driver, who was high on cocaine. If I had wanted to accurately describe my ride-a-long, I would have used the word “streamed,” which has a smooth, controlled connotation, while “careened” has a swerve, out-of-control, feel to it.

“Some unseen radar directed the driver as she deftly maneuvered the ghost-like rig down West Madison Street through a maze of shattered liquor bottles and discarded syringes.”  Whoa! I just realized – and this is 10 years after the book has been in print – that the ambulance driver was “deftly maneuvering,” which would negate my connotation of “careening,” the word choice I used only one sentence ago! Evidently, nobody noticed!

In this second sentence, which also happens to be the entirety of the second paragraph, I added setting and provided a “feel” of the neighborhood, with its description of “shattered liquor bottles and discarded syringes.”

My “unseen radar” and “ghost-like rig” word choices elaborated on the description of “fog-drenched streets in the pre-dawn autumn darkness” that was used in the first paragraph.

“…Replenishing supplies in the back of the rig, paramedic trainee Beth Reilly stole a glance at the driver.  She grimaced as her paramedic officer pulled a sandwich bag from her jacket….”  Again, I inserted an eye-dropper full of information I learned by watching the paramedics on my drive-along, re: what does a paramedic do en route back to the firehouse?

We now have been introduced to paramedic trainee Beth Reilly, the main character, but the word choices of “stole” and “grimaced” clue the reader that she is frightened and distressed by her paramedic officer’s actions. And what could be in that hidden sandwich bag that would produce a grimace??

“After five years as a nurse in Vietnam, followed by twelve years as a paramedic the Chicago Fire Department, Angie Ropella seemed to delight in all forms of human trauma.” From the beginning of our fourth paragraph, we’ve introduced the paramedic officer is a hard ass, trauma-junkie.

“Knuckled in-between 24-hour stints of stabbings, multi-vehicle collisions, and assaults was an assembly line of little old ladies forgetting their insulin, yuppies jogging into cardiac arrest, and winos urinating in doorways.”  Wow! I didn’t realize how many hyphens I use in my writing! Did I mention I am ADHD and easily get distracted? To complete the fourth paragraph I needed to provide the reader with visual images of the varied traumas paramedics deal with on a daily basis. Rather than listing those traumas as a journalist would do, i.e. stabbings, collisions, Diabetic reaction, I supplemented each visual image with a rhythm, i.e. “old ladies forgetting their insulin,” “yuppies jogging into cardiac arrest,” and “winos urinating in doorways.”

“After one look at the mangled body, Beth vomited all over the back seat. Angie just grinned.

“You gonna be a medic, Reilly, you can’t keep having these little accidents. Clean it up. Then keep the kid company back here. I’ll drive.”  We’ve skipped to the bottom of Page 2, where I am theoretically supposed to stop.  Earlier in the day, the two paramedics had encountered the “limp body of a kid in a motorcycle helmet sprawled across the adjoin median strip, …his body broken.” The paramedic trainee experiences a violent physical reaction. But Angie, a seasoned Viet Nam nurse and paramedic, has hardened her heart to death, as evidenced by her dispassionate advice to Beth.

“…she expertly weaved the red and white rig through a maze of congested traffic. She zigzagged around buses that suddenly jutted out in front of her onto Halsted and Clark.  Cabdrivers leaned on their horns while joggers sprinted off to work and the unencumbered meandered home from all-night bars.”  We’re almost at the end of the chapter, only 2 ½ pages  long.  The above images were taken from my ride-along experience, as well as my imagination.

Once again, these word-choices enabled me to paint pictures in my readers’ minds, as well as hear and experience the frenzied activity going on, i.e. “maze of congested traffic,” “buses…jutted out,” “cabdrivers leaned on their horns.”

I hope these brief insights encourage you to visit your favorite independent bookstore and purchase a thesaurus, the writer’s best friend. Lots more synonyms in print than on-line! Enjoy!

Crazy Times at Barnes & Noble Book Signing!!

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In recent years, I’ve had lots of good experiences and sales when book signing at a Barnes & Noble — I say “recent years” because back in 2006 when Deadly Choices, my award-winning police procederal came out, the only two people who showed up at the Evanston B & N were the mom and granddad of CJ, my young son’s best friend!

Becky, the manager at the Greensboro B & N, is always fabulous to me. When Fatal Reaction came out in 2015, we had 27 mystery readers in the audience! Greensboro is quite a literary community, and they’re happy to explore a new author! This June, 12 devotees filled the chairs to hear me read from Psychobabble, my most recent psychological suspense novel. It’s all good.

But when I flew into Chicago to publicize Psychobabble, arriving fifteen minutes before my scheduled book signing, the floor manager said he knew nothing about my Event — this after I’d called three days in advance to confirm!

The manager with whom I’d confirmed, he confided, quit earlier in the day. Nothing was set up. No downstairs entrance sign announcing my Event. Upstairs, no chairs, tables, podium, or mic. The overhead music was blaring!

My heart pounded like a furnace turned full throttle as I spotted a handful of my friends and family members climbing the long staircase to the second floor.  ADHD people thrive on chaos; we can problem-solve almost any situation. But this time I felt lambasted. What to do??

Then I overheard a senior manager speaking to the younger man who’d blurted the bad news. “Breathe in, breathe out. Slow down. You’ve got this.”

Hearing the mantra I tell myself every single day, my heart softened with compassion. The young man looked up as I approached, his forehead creased. “You’ve got this,” I said.

Eight minutes, three rows of chairs, and one podium later, I formally welcomed the 30 fans who had graced this evening to be there for me. I was so touched, it took me a moment to find my voice — I thought it hightailed out of here with the manager who’d quit earlier in the day!

Five minutes into my unrehearsed presentation, I signalled my son to click off the video. Then I just began to speak from my heart. I sold 9 books that night. Everything worked out as it should. That nice young manager invited me back again, this time to an event well publicized in the store.

Yet another good Barnes & Noble experience….