Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Research – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Guest Post by S.J. Francis

Research. What is a writer without research? Without research for accuracy, a writer’s words are just words. And today, research is easier done than ever. There is no longer a need to go to a library. Research can be done from the comfort of one’s home, or even in the car. Research is a wonderful thing. But as with everything else, there is always a downside.

I don’t know about you, but for me, research can be a double edged sword. Research is a valuable asset, as long as you use it in the right amount. On the other hand, the bad thing about research is that too much of it can cause a significant delay to the writer’s goal, which is to just write. There is such a thing as doing too much research. Some writers I know spend a great deal of time doing research before they will even put their story down, and then when it is time to write the story, they’re worn out from doing research.

All this leads us to the ugly fact that too much research can bog down a story. I’ve seen some writers overwhelmed with so much research they’ve done that they’re not sure what to use, or what not to use. I’ve learned that when it comes to research, both doing and then using, as with anything else, balance is the key. For me, I write my story first. I get the gist of it written down and worry about adding specifics later. How much details should a writer place in their story? How much detail in a story is enough? That is really up to you the writer. How much research do I put into my stories? I add just enough to touch basis. Enough to let the reader know where they are. Enough to set the time and place. Fiction isn’t fact, but for me it’s the next best thing. I’m a stickler for research. One can say, I’m even obsessed with it. As a reader, nothing turns me off more than when I read something, and quickly realize the writer didn’t do any research because it shows. When I read, I like to learn something new. I feel the same way about writing. For me it is important that when a reader reads something I wrote, they can look at it and find that I did my research.

Fortunately, when it came to writing my debut novel, Shattered Lies, I didn’t have to do much research online or in books. I lived where I set the story. Research was live in one way or another all around me. Kate Thayer and her family grew up in Mississippi, and that is where my story is set.

*    *    *    *    *

S. J. Francis is a freelance writer with over three hundred publication credits, a University Lecturer with doctorates in English, Mass Communications and Law, and most recently, a novelist. Francis writes for many publications, as well as regularly contributing to the local newspaper. Francis’ background also encompasses working as a television producer. A frequent traveler, Francis has resided in thirteen states and three countries. A confirmed bibliophile, when not writing Francis can be found reading a good book, or spending time in the outdoors. Francis currently lives in Mississippi, where a major part of Shattered Lies takes place—but grew up in New York City, where the latter portion occurs—and has a great respect and fondness for both places, and considers the world a notebook full of endless ideas. Francis’ first novel, Shattered Lies is a women’s fiction/mainstream/family saga novel. The family dynamic is a never ending source of ideas and Shattered Lies is no exception. As in all the stories Francis writes, in the end, it’s all about family. Future projects include a sequel to Shattered Lies and a novel about the dynamic relationships in Hollywood. Shattered Lies will be released by Black Opal Books in 2015.

Purchase Shattered Lies:
Amazon Kindle
Amazon Paperback
Barnes and Nobel Nook
Smashwords (epub, mobi, Kindle)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Deep Waters, Running Deep

In Blood, Ash and Bone, the third novel in my Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver series, I created a fictitious law enforcement agency, a task force collaboration between the Atlanta Police Department and the FBI. By the time the book was released, my pretend organization was real (it was called AMMO for Atlanta Metro Major Offenders Task Force).

In Deeper Than the Grave, the fourth book in the series, I decided to paralyze Atlanta in a freak snowstorm that stranded the entire city. I decided this one month before Snowjam 2014 hit. I was literally writing the scene when I saw its true-life version playing out on my television.

And so now I’ve just finished writing the fifth book, Reckoning and Ruin. This one takes place in Savannah, Georgia, during the springtime. Because my protagonist Tai Randolph is a woman who likes to be on the water, I sent her off on a fishing excursion to press a reluctant boat captain for information. I made her take Trey, her reluctant partner in crime solving, along.

Guess what she and Trey run across? Here’s a clue.
You know what this is.

That’s right, cue the soundtrack and get a bigger boat, I’ve cast a great white shark in my next book. Her name is Mary Lee, and true to how I’d written her, she showed up in the coastal waters off Savannah on April 9, almost exactly when she made her cameo in Reckoning and Ruin.

I tell you, the lines between fact and fiction are quite blurry at times.

No need to stay out of the water, though. Chances are slim that you and Mary Lee will get a chance to meet face to fin. People still worry, however. Thanks to The-Movie-The-Will-Not-Be-Named, sharks of any variety -- but especially great white sharks – get a bad rap. But they’re not the bloodthirsty killing machines they’re made out to be.

I should know, I’ve swam with them, dozens of them at the time, and I still have every limb on my body. But don’t take my word for it; check out the statistics – worldwide, annual shark attack fatalities average in the single digits or low teens. Meanwhile humans kill 11,417 sharks per hour. Per hour. Now who’s looking bloodthirsty?

Other interesting facts about these fascinating animals:

* Great white sharks can detect one drop of blood in 25 gallons of water, and they can sense blood up to 3 miles away.

* Sharks have a tongue made of cartilage called a basihyal; they use it to sample prey, to see if it is a good idea to eat it or not.

* In contrast to most fish, which tend to be cold-blooded, the great white shark is warm-blooded, so it can regulate its own body temperature, thus allowing it to adapt to different water temperatures (in Mary Lee’s case, from Tybee Beach to the Jersey Shore).

* You’re more likely to die from lightning strike, a falling coconut, a vending machine toppling onto you, or even tumbling out of bed. Seriously.

Mary Lee is a most eloquent spokesfish for her species – she’s been profiled everywhere from National Geographic to Fox News and has her own Twitter account: @MaryLeeShark. She’s 16 feet long and 3,456 pounds, and enjoys roaming the Eastern Seaboard. If you want to find out if Mary Lee is in your neighborhood, you can track her on OCEARCH’s Shark Tracker page, along with hundreds of other sharks that have been tagged and released.

One of the themes I like to explore in my series is the tension between wild and tame, civilization and nature, and having Mary Lee make a cameo alongside Tai and Trey is an excellent way to think about what scares us, what should scare us, and why it often doesn’t. People claim that sharks are infesting our waters, when the reality is, we’re infesting theirs. And it’s time we stopped being the villain and started respecting and protecting one of the ocean’s most magnificent predators.

Here’s to Mary Lee and all her kinfolk. Long may they range.

(This post originally appeared in the Let's Talk feature of Booklover's Bench)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cover Reveal for RECKONING AND RUIN! Coming in April 2016!

Tai Randolph has several anniversaries under her belt: a year in Atlanta, a year running her gun shop, and a year together with Trey, her sexy if somewhat challenging ex-SWAT lover. She's also helped put a year's worth of criminals behind bars, including her cousin Jasper, the leader of a white militia splinter group too violent for even the Klan.

Before she can pop the champagne, however, Jasper's back, and he's got a fancy new lawyer and a diabolical scheme sure to ruin both her and Trey. Soon she’s deep in familiar troubles – a missing ex-boyfriend, a creepily literate stalker, a passel of stolen money – and back in Savannah, the hometown she’d hoped to have left forever in her rear-view mirror.

Old memories, older ghosts, and a killer on the prowl – the Georgia Lowcounty is a dangerous place once the sun goes down. And Tai's going to need every wit she has to see the morning light.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kennesaw Unconquered -- Where The Past Isn't Even Past

It’s always an odd feeling, when fiction and real life meet. It’s a crossroads moment – to the left, the world I created, with characters as I know as intimately as my own head. To the right, the world flowing under its own steam, with people of flesh and bone, events I cannot foresee or control. And then behind me history, as veiled as Scheherazade, and possessing as many tales.

I write a series featuring a woman who owns a Confederate-themed gun shop. Tai deals with Civil War re-enactors of both blue and gray, so she deals with the history of that period in American history, both the people who lived it then, and the people who re-live it now.

It was that history that brought me to the top of Kennesaw Mountain last weekend, during the swelter of a summer heat wave. My last visit had been six months previous, during one of the South’s more brutal cold snaps. It’s hard to remember such cold in this season of sweat and humidity, but once upon a time there was winter, and we had it here in Georgia. Would that I could have bottled some and saved it for now. I could make a fortune selling it on the parched sidewalks.

Kennesaw Mountain is a part of Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield National Park. During the summer, it’s a crowded place, full of picnickers and shady glens, leafy spots of shadow where somebody could get up to something nefarious. That day in January, I had the summit pretty much to myself, which made it an odd place to ponder its usefulness as a fictional murder site. My solitude felt too real, too precarious. They say in space no one can hear you scream. I suspect the same is true at the top of an empty mountain.

The ranger told me that during the winter, with the trees bare, I could see the ruts of the old road, that my view would be very much exactly like that the Confederates saw 150 years ago, as they waited for General Sherman to launch his next assault against their fortifications. The boys in gray suffered a rainy winter and an equally wet spring. Diaries from the time mention the mud and the bugs and the mud and the misery and the mud.

At the top, I saw a different Atlanta in the distance than Sherman did, however. That great Southern city had been in the distance then too, the gem in the Confederate crown, but in the twenty-first century, Atlanta was a shimmery mirage of steel and smoked glass, crisscrossed by Peachtree Road and Peachtree Lane and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Over seventy different streets with Peachtree in the title.

Sherman would eventually capture Atlanta, but not by capturing Kennesaw Mountain.  He never would get to the top of this particular summit. And it felt unconquered, it really did. Like the ghosts were watching me all the way down the mountain, making sure my trespass was a short one.

(Originally published in Let's Talk at Book Lover's Bench)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Walk Through Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery

I love strolling in old cemeteries. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone – I am, after all, a mystery writer, and I write a character who used to be a tour guide in Savannah graveyards – but my appreciation is occasionally met with a shudder from others.

Those are places of the dead, they say.

Well, yes . . . and no. Places of the dead certainly, but for the living without a doubt. Graveyards are the collective scrapbook of a community – a family, a church, a town – and Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery is an especially gorgeous and intricate one.

First a plantation, Bonaventure began welcoming the dead into its marshy arms in the early 1800s. Situated at the bend of the Wilmington River, Bonaventure blends the manmade and the natural in a shifting intermingle, as tidal as the waters that run along its Eastern borders. The landscape is mostly silent – bird calls, rustling leaves, a high soft breeze winding through the Spanish moss and live oak branches – but occasionally the whine of an outboard motor will piece the quiet. Or a tour bus will rumble through. Or even – because this is still a working cemetery – a line of cars with their headlights on, laying a loved one to rest, adding another soul and another story to the Bonaventure fold.

Bonaventure is most famous perhaps for the iconic Bird Girl statue, which after it graced the cover of John Beredt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became too valuable to rest unattended and which was spirited away to a downtown museum. But there are other famous grave sites, and art, still available for the viewing.

There’s the resting place of Gracie Watson, marked with tenderly carved sculpture of the little girl who died at age seven. Her grave is protected by a wrought iron fence, saving the stone from the further erosion of human hands. Rain and the salt air have had their way, and so I imagine the features are not as sharply defined as they once were. I think it’s beautiful this way, worked upon by the slow hand of time, which is as tender and delicate as an artist’s touch.

There’s also the gravesite of Conrad Aiken, a one of the finest American poets and a lover of Savannah. His grave is a bench—the legend goes, he wanted to provide a place for visitors to stop, rest and have a martini with him – engraved with two telling phrases: “GIVE MY LOVE TO THE WORLD” and “COSMOS MARINER DESTINATION UNKNOWN.”

Bonaventure is – and perhaps this is why I love all cemeteries so – a place of stories. Some are long and raveling. Some read “The End” all too soon. Some are mysteries, marked only by a stone that says “Mother” or “Baby Boy.” But all invite us to participate in the telling. All ask us, the living, to continue the tale.

*If you’d like to see more of my photos from Bonaventure Cemetery, you can visit my Pinterest board:

* This post originally appeared on Booklover's Bench.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On Blooming Where You are Planted: An Interview with Mary Hood

In “On Being a Southern Writer,” Mary Hood describes herself as “an American writer, blooming where planted.”  It is the South’s good fortune that Hood has put down roots in fertile ground throughout Georgia, capturing the essence of each landscape, the local cadences and rhythms, giving voice to a dynamic South that is growing and evolving.

Novelist and editor Pat Conroy will be introducing Hood before her Savannah Book Festival presentation on Saturday, February 14th, from 10:20—11:20 at the Jepson Center’s Neises Auditorium. She graciously shared some of her thoughts on the creative process, Savannah, and why she doesn’t write about the Heart o’ Dixie.

Tina Whittle: This is your first time as a Savannah Book Festival author—what are you looking forward to most about the event?

Mary Hood: Savannah is a great book town, a wonderful, layered historic town, and it has live oaks and the ocean as well as river and marsh. So it is a good birding town. Plus, shrimp and grits. All those things will be gold star moments, but the best of it is the readers and writers I will see and hear.

Oh, and I will get my first glimpse of my new book, meet my publishers and the people who have been helping this whole project along through the press. And there’s Pat Conroy hisownself, who is bound to keep things interesting.

TW: I saw that he’ll be introducing your session on Saturday in his role as editor-at-large for Story River Books at the University of South Carolina Press, which is the fiction imprint publishing two of your new works. The first of those, Seam Busters, will be released just in time for the Festival. Can you tell us a little about it?

MH: Seam Busters is a novel about women in a small town in the South sewing the new camo for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (especially the digital camo with such interesting properties to protect our troops against night vision devices). They are working in what was an old-time mill. The war has brought modern methods and projects to town and into these lives. Most of the workers are women. They are part of the war effort, and they take their work seriously. Irene, the main focus character, has said she would never “sew” again, but things have gotten tough, jobs have dried up as small factories have absented themselves from American soil in favor of overseas workers. She takes a job in the same plant she worked in years ago, and the young woman who took her chair when Irene left is now Irene’s strict supervisor. Seam Busters reveals the world of factory life and town life. Position is important in the hierarchy and rankings of workers in factory life and mill life. But place is more important, because it is home, no matter how fragile that is, or how far from where they started.  They live by the bells and earn by the piece, so they keep busy. When trouble comes, they keep on sewing, until the kind of trouble comes that stops the whole world.

TW: I also noticed that you have a short fiction collection coming out in the fall from this same imprint.

MH: “A Clear View of the Southern Sky” is the title story in the collection, and it deals with a female prisoner in a state facility. She will never go “home.” She has assassinated someone and then waited quietly to be taken into custody, resting in the shadow of the satellite dish atop the roof where she made her kill.  Now she has very little left of that wide view. She can see—they all can see—the far corner where the ones who die behind bars will be buried. Her story is told in a series of English as Second Language workshops.

Another story, “Virga,” reveals the journey a young part-Navajo girl makes toward womanhood with no mother to guide her. Another story shows the courtship of a Jean, woman trucker, by a truck stop cook named Gene. Their similar names are not the only reason they get hazed by their communities. She has never been tied down and he has never been free to range. They marry at the Allman gravesite in Riverside Cemetery in Macon, and honeymoon south bobtailing into the Keys in her truck named “Little Martha.” He’ll be back at the range, cooking for truckers, in a week or so, but Jean must keep on going, weaving back and forth across the states, her messages to him and from him pinging off the cell towers. “Coming in,” she’ll say, meaning home.  All the stories in A Clear View of the Southern Sky have women as the main character, but the power of life is not in going solo; it is in the complications and quickenings of the human heart.

TW: In one of your interviews, you explain that while there are many popular concepts of the South, your concern as a writer is with the "telling details" and "quirks" of the actual setting of the South. Can you explain what the myth of the South is, and how your writing doesn’t participate in such a thing?

MH: I do not even remember saying this, but I am sure I did. Let me answer it a new way. The title “A Clear View of the Southern Sky” is a line from a DirecTV ad: “All you need to connect to the world is a clear view of the southern sky” and the satellite will do the rest. Well, isn’t that wonderful? Yes. I thought, that’s a title (thinking story) and then I thought, OH, that’s THE title!

The South I am writing about and living in is the one in which folks do not sit on front porches in Brumby rockers telling the family stories over and over. I live in the South where a person is perched on the wee balcony of a high rise, talking talking talking—in fact, look up, see them all, homing like martins to their gourds at sunset, chirping and chattering through the twilight… but into cell phones! Or texting. That isn’t only in the South, but I see it and it is a big new thing, just the apartments, the migratory nature of college and career folk. I see people who don’t know or suspect the old ways. It is like setting up housekeeping on a roof, polishing silver in a flood, floating along headed out to sea. I know there has been a revolution, and e-books mean no home libraries. I see folks looking up, trying to locate south, true south, so they can find the best signal for the satellite! How are we doing, on the one new thing Jesus mentioned we ought to try? “Love one another.” My stories are not about successes, really.

Do you know there are people with collections of wristwatches that need motion to stay wound? Self-winding. Prosperous types have an array, and a problem, for unless you wear them all, up the wrist toward the elbow one after the other, every day, they are going to cease. All the exquisite gears and whirring and jewels and atomic precision will droop and go silent. So. . . they sell machines on which to strap the extra watches and night and day the things lightly slightly rock the watches in their rest so they will not cease. While the world’s Amazon orders race along from warehouses on the interstates, movers and shakers recline in first class in airliners in the sky, and even as the crews and captains on ships at sea, and most humans snuggle down to sleep, there are aeries and penthouses, McMansions and yachts, where the idle watches are on alert.

There are so many interesting new things in this world! Who could not want to at least consider them as details worth weaving in? And that doesn’t even get around to the religions of cornbread and Brunswick stew. Or pigs as house pets. I like to think my writing participates in everything, or could, and certainly should. I get uneasy when Myths start blowing around; I go somewhere out of the storm. Reality isn’t as crowded as you might wish, at such times.

TW: According to Story River Books, they “will collectively present new perspectives on the dynamic, complex, and oft-contested past and present of a recognizable South Carolina for readers both within and beyond the Palmetto State.” How do your upcoming publications fit into that mission?

MH: I write about a lot of different lives and places. I rode to New York on the train, my first New York trip as a published writer. I looked out the windows at the back side of the little towns and I saw new angles, stark light, eerie shadows, Mills lit and thrumming, state after state as I rode north, the little mill towns quiet except for shipping and shift workers. The mills are gone now, and the towns are beginning to find ways to survive that. I wanted to write about the now, past that time when things were still humming on. “What is the matter?” they ask in Shakespeare’s plays. Same question but words mean something different in modern English, in modern America. I am not political. I am personal. I hope my stories live up to Story River’s agenda. All of us, being published there, will bring a part of it to the world. And I am glad to be a part of it.

TW: Your fiction includes one completed novel (with another in progress) and several collections of short stories (award-winning and well-reviewed stories). What is it about writing short fiction that you find appealing? What’s it like to be returning to the longer form of a novel?

MH: I am always writing novels and short fiction, just on different tracks in my mind. A long project lets me always have something going forward, or stalled out; short fiction is more of a driven thing, and I usually focus on it when it gets underway. Sometimes it takes years for the stories to develop, like very slow Polaroids. Pictures first, then captions.
TW: Could you describe that writing process for us.

MH: I gather, mostly without a forward motion, just gather. I think and compose and think some more. Most of my figuring comes after a lightning bolt, something overheard, some unexplained something that sticks in my mind, or a figure leaning against a wall, or a dog slouching toward Bethlehem. I have pages of quotes that seem remarkable, but may not be.

I was reading an old magazine when I read about a new translation (Mandelbaum’s) of Virgil, and the Latin text was listed, Notus calor—which had been my working title…or file folder tag…about Venus and Vulcan, old lovers meeting again. There the new translation was, simple, stunning. When I read it, I knew I had found the title to my novel, Familiar Heat. It was years and years before I left off gathering and rearranging and forgetting and remembering; I lived more than a decade on the scraps I was gathering before I “knew” the first line. I had many alleged first lines before that! But one day, I had it, and that got me started on the forwarding.

Elizabeth Bowen says that plot is the whittling of alternatives, the knowing of destination. And I would say that is how I write, not knowing, gathering alternatives, surmising destinations, and then I get to that moment when I have enough to begin, and so I do. By then I also have a vision/image or dialog, of the end. There is still getting there, you know, the whole pilgrimage, really, long after the first view of Fuji above the horizon…

TW: Do you have an ideal writing environment?

MH: So far, Planet Earth. With a window so I can hear, see, use my senses.

TW: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of writing? Do any of these activities find their way into your books?

MH: I like birds. I like gardens, especially intimate spaces such as walled courts, shady borders, ferns, little things, and seeing how others solve things in a natural looking way. I like history. Objects that refer to history, used in gardens.  All these things make it into my work somehow, the same as they make it into my own garden.

TW: In your piece “On Being a Southern Writer,” you mention that you would have bloomed where planted, and that you happened to have been planted with a Southern exposure. What qualities does that bring to your writing, and to you as a writer?

MH: I got born into the South and the southern landscape in an era when family and subsistence farms were still part of the way things were. Not a back to the land movement, not survivalists getting off the grid. There were stories, everywhere. I listened. I wondered. I watched for new chapters. This any writer does. I was in Georgia. My brain and body were in Georgia, but my reading led me astray… I found I wanted to know more about anyone who would tell the story. I still do. 

TW: You also said that because the people you write about are Southern, you write Southern. With so many definitions of “Southern” focusing on geography/setting, why do you instead focus on the people instead of the landscape?

MH: I think by now I have a less prickly reaction to this question. I write about ecotone. Naturalists can explain the concept better than I, but the thing is, in nature, ecotone is the band between two different kinds of habitat. It is the richest place to find life. It is the place where new things happen, surprises, needing new language and the waving of hands to explain, or the indrawn breath, the hush of shock and awe. I do not—I think—write about the “Heart o’ Dixie” so much as about the edges. I like to imagine that the heart is the heart, no matter where it is. Differences are about issues. Belonging is mostly made up of longing. Be is the least of it. The South has a lot of edges, rich ecotones, intercultural fraying and stiffening and loosening and absorption and crowding and isolation and the challenge of rising above. Of moving over, of opening wide, or at least a little, maybe the chain is still in the channel on the door, but there is a glimpse, an awareness, a response to a knock. Science reports that species form from isolation. But it is also true that new things happen, when that isolation ends; there are new challenges.

Look around. Listen. That’s not the sweep of a hoop skirt in the moonlight. That is not the tiny grinding of the weevil into the boll. It isn’t even the thud of an Agrarian turning over in his grave. It is life.

*          *          *
A native of Brunswick, Mary Hood has lived in a handful of Georgia communities, including White, Douglasville, Sylvester and Woodstock. A graduate of Georgia State University, Hood initially worked as a library assistant before becoming a full-time writer.

The recipient of many awards, including the Robert Penn Warren Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Hood is the author of novels and short story collections, including Familiar Heat, How Far She Went, and Venus is Blue, plus the upcoming Seam Busters and A Clear View of the Southern Sky.

Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press. You can read more about her and her work at

Monday, January 26, 2015

History, Magic, and the Power of Story: An Interview with Laura Valeri

Laura Valeri’s debut collection, The Kind Of Things Saints Do (2002), won both the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction; John Dufresne described it as “a daring and stunning debut.”

The promise revealed in those stories has only deepened in the years since I first became acquainted with both Laura and her work. I have known her as both an academic colleague and a fellow fiction writer, and I’ve enjoyed discussing the art and craft of life with her. She is wise and funny and smart, a natural storyteller, a gifted teacher, and a devoted connoisseur of good food, good conversation, and good words.

Her most recent title is Safe in Your Head (2013), a Stephen F. Austin Press prizewinner, a novel in stories featuring recipes and luck remedies for women during war time. I was grateful that she took the time to share how these dreamy, powerful tales came to be, how they commingle magic and history and the fine food of Laura’s native Italy in a collection of narratives both ethereal and earthy.

You can find that interview here: