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Sherrie and Mark 2013To friends and family on the occasion of Christmas 2015,

It’s been another exciting year – we have so much to be thankful for! Although we’ve resorted to a form letter once again, we hope to give you a little taste of what we’ve been up to in 2015.

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We both enjoy the awesome speakers and music at Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ gatherings. In May we participated in a continuing education event in OH, stopping at Sherrie’s nephew, Michael’s and Abby’s house in IN on the way back. In Oct, we drove to Dallas for the LCMC’s 15th annual gathering, staying with Mark’s cousin, Monte and wife Karen in OK on the way.

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We made two trips to Ely, MN; one in June for a few relaxing days with Mark’s Uncle Frank and Aunt Pat at their “cabin” on Bear Island Lake, and one in July with granddaughter Imix to see  cousins, aunts and uncles who were there to celebrate Pat and Frank’s 50th Anniversary.

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The next big event in our busy summer was Sherrie’s Mom and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party, hosted by Corey and Kaye at Hansen Family Farms. Visiting nieces, nephews and cousins from all over the world (North Carolina to Seattle, and Boston to southern Brazil) made it a very special occasion, with great friends, good music, and a lot of delicious food all adding to the fun.

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After going a couple of years without a “real” vacation, we spent 17 days in Europe in July and August. We combined a visit to Romania to see Mark’s son, Erik, and his new wife with a stopover in the United Kingdom. Driving down narrow, hedge-lined byways on the “wrong” side of the road, enjoying plenty of caramel shortbread, eating at a pie pub with Sherrie’s cousin Sarah and family, visiting the quaint village where Doc Martin is filmed, climbing thousands of steps up to castles and down to the sea, and watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean while sheep grazed on the beach in Croyde, Devon, were all amazing adventures.

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The highlight of our 12 day trip to Romania was celebrating Erik’s wedding to Cristiana, or as Mark says, “chaperoning the honeymoon.” In Bucharest, we rented a car and circled the country with Erik and Cristiana as our personal Romanian-speaking tour guides. We spent an afternoon in Bacova, the ancestral hometown of Mark’s great grandmother as well as experiencing many beautiful castles, medieval towns, and the picturesque, traditional villages that dot the mountain valleys and countryside. Erik and Cristiana are well suited for each other and we enjoyed getting to know our newest member of the family and discovering a truly delightful corner of the world that we never would have thought to travel to if it weren’t for them.

Romania E&C

In addition to playing the piano at church, and working more hours at the Blue Belle than she has in years, Sherrie kept busy with the release of Shy Violet, her latest Wildflowers of Scotland novel, writing and casting numerous murder mysteries, and completing a 50,000 word writing challenge in November to finish the rough draft of Sweet William, her next book.

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Mark continues to find joy in his call at Zion Lutheran in Hudson, and enjoys watching our church family and Sunday School grow. In the midst of our busy, back and forth schedule, it’s an honor and a privilege to share our lives with and minister to the people at Zion.

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We are both thankful for the improvement in Mark’s mother’s health, and that Sherrie’s mom and dad have come through a trying year, medically speaking, and still continue to be active. It’s been fun to hear from each of you, too! Although we may not see you often, we continue to keep you close in our hearts and prayers. Until next year (or sooner if you travel our way!), we wish you a Merry Christmas and many blessings in the New Year.

Love, Mark and Sherrie

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I’ve been watching back to back episodes of the TV show Chopped on the Food Network this week because I’m working on a murder mystery called “A Taste of Murder:  The Galloping Gourmet Gets the Trots”. The simple, three act murder mysteries I write for the Blue Belle Inn B&B’s acting troupe are fun, mostly silly, crowd pleasers. They always end where they’re supposed to, because someone invariably confesses at the end of Round 3. As simple a format as they are, I’ve learned several things while researching and working on them.

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On the show, Chopped, the contestants have 20 – 30 minutes to prepare an appetizer, main course, or dessert from the often odd and usually unrelated mystery ingredients in their baskets. When the countdown ends, they immediately put their hands in the air, step back from their work stations, and hope that what’s on their plate is good enough to avoid being axed on the chopping block. No matter that your delicious milk chocolate sauce – the one you infused with melted gummy bears because that’s what was in the basket – is still on the stove, momentarily forgotten, never to be drizzled over your hastily made Chantilly crepes. When the time is up, there’s no chance to fuss, make corrections, re-plate, or change your mind about this or that. You’re done. Finished. The end has come.

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Sometimes, I wish knowing where to end my novel was as structured and simple as that. Hands in the air. Step back from your laptop. The end.

Zion - 2013 Sunset

This week I heard back from one of my beta readers, who told me she didn’t like the ending of my soon-to-be-released Wildflowers of Scotland novel, Shy Violet. What she said – and I think she’s absolutely right – is that I had a tight strand of a story with characters and drama masterfully braided in to a focused story line when all of a sudden, about 50 pages from the end, the story started to fray apart.

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What I’d done was to introduce William, who’s going to be the hero of the next book in the series – Sweet William, and pull back the characters from the previous book in the series, Blue Belle, so I could use their wedding as a backdrop for the last few scenes of Shy Violet. In doing so, I stole the thunder from Violet and Nathan’s story and left Shy Violet with a weak, disconnected ending instead of a strong finish.

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Although I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, I wasn’t sure how Shy Violet should end. Although I love my characters and the premise of the book, I was ready to be done with the story. I’d been working on it for over a year, and I’d already moved on emotionally. As I read back over the ending, I could see that I was scrambling to make my word count by adding scenes that never should have been part of the story.

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So, when is it time to say, The End? How do you know when your story is finished? What makes a good ending? Most of us are taught to focus on the beginning of our story – the magical first scene, first page, first line – the all-important hook. After all, if you don’t get the beginning right, it won’t matter how the book ends because no one will read it. But there’s a lot to be said for a satisfying ending, too. In the restaurant business, it’s commonly held that customers base their tip on how full their waiter keeps their coffee cups at the end of the meal. Sweet, well-timed endings are what make a customer – reader – leave satisfied and eager to come back. What makes a great ending?

A good ending ties up all your loose ends quickly and concisely. No need to endlessly linger – if you haven’t made your case for inclusion of the thread by now, it probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.

No need to micromanage every little detail. Find a good balance and wrap things up.

A satisfying ending may include a teaser or leave you wondering what happened next. Embrace the mystery and let your reader fill in a few of the blanks. Imaginative readers like feeling that they’re part of the story.

Think hard and long about introducing new characters or themes toward the end of a book. If you’re writing a series, it’s tempting to move things in the direction you’re planning to go in your next book, but it may not serve the story and can be a serious distraction.

Scotland Sunset

Don’t be too predictable. A wonderful ending may include a surprise, or a twist that no one saw coming. Now is not the time to throw in something way out of the blue, but being startled or caught off guard can be intriguing if it builds naturally from a multi-dimensional, sometimes unpredictable character.

Endings can be happy, sad, maudlin, or inconclusive. They can leave you hanging or satisfy you on a deeply personal level. Asking yourself what kind of ending fits the theme and characters in your book will steer you in the right direction.

Let your characters tell you how and when the book should end. If your characters aren’t talking to you, maybe they’re not ready to end the book. Give them a little time, let things settle and sink in, and they’ll eventually tell you where they want to go. I often need a little time to absorb things and make sense of something that’s happened, especially after a very climactic scene or event. Your characters do, too.

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Focus on the things that really matter. A good ending reflects the crux of your book, the theme or common thread that runs throughout the entire book. Ask yourself what the book is really about. The answer may surprise you, and it may be different than whatever the book was supposed to be about. That’s what your ending should be about, too. Addressing the things your readers have come to care about while reading the book creates a comforting consistency.

If you’re still stuck, go back and read the first two scenes of your book. Think of the beginning and ending as bookends to the story in between. The ending should be a mirror image of the start.

If you’re still not sure you ended the book at the right time or in the right place, let it sit for at least a few days. Read the last few scenes of the book out loud. If the end of your book evokes emotions in you, and gives you a deeper understanding of your self and the world you live in, then raise your hands in the air and step back from the table. Your book is done.

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If you’re dissatisfied or bored, or left feeling cold or confused, then be glad that as writers, no one holds a stopwatch over our heads and demands that we deliver a hot, perfectly-plated, artistic-looking, delicious-tasting product in 20 minutes or less. Be glad you’re a writer and not a chef.

Endings are complex, and they’re just as important as beginnings, because once you have a reader, you want to keep them, move them on to your next book, and the next, and the next. That’s what a good ending does. Questions asked demand answers. The world is full of symmetry, and I believe that finding it in the pages of your book will eventually give you the perfect ending.

ShyViolet Final Front Cover

You’ll be happy to hear that I’ve re-written the ending of Shy Violet twice now, and from all indications, I finally got it right. Hopefully, in a few weeks, you can read it and be the judge!

Happy endings, whether you like things nice and tidy and tied with a ribbon, or helter-skelter, with a few loose ends left dangling…

Lately, everyone’s been asking when my next book is coming out. Blue Belle, the second of my Wildflowers of Scotland novels, should be ready in 60 – 90 days. All it needs is a serious going over and a new ending and it should be ready to send off to my publisher. In the meantime, I took advantage of NaNoWriMo to get 40,000 words into Shy Violet, the third in the series, so there should only be a short wait between the two books.
BBI Spring 2012
Some of you know that my primary distraction from writing is a bed and breakfast called the Blue Belle Inn B&B. For the past few months, my two passions have come together in a unique way.  In August, I decided to write a series of what I like to call fractured fairy tale style murder mysteries highlighting the storybook themes of each of our guest rooms at the B&B is named after.

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I started out with our “On the Banks of Plum Creek” room and wrote (with apologies to Laura Ingalls Wilder), “Little Oops On The Prairie”. It begins when Nellie Olafson’s somewhat eccentric, mean-spirited cousin, Nutty Olafson, is found face down at the supper table. My tagline read: Something smells fishy on the banks of Plum Creek – is there a wolf in sheep’s clothing lurking in the Big Woods or a little killer loose on the Prairie? Suspects Nellie Olafson, Visiting Professor Jerald Jill of Iowa, Quick Draw McNutt, local football hero Big Brawny, and the much loved but tragically flat-footed Insoles family are all in for a Long Winter in the pokey unless the true murderer can be uncovered. I also planned a theme dinner which included Ma’s Bean Soup with Bacon, Chicken Pie with Baking Powder Biscuit Crust, New England Pot Roast with Potatoes and Carrots, and Roast Pork with Milk Gravy and Mashed Potatoes.

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We’ve been doing murder mysteries at the Blue Belle Inn for over 20 years now, at the rate of 4 to 9 times a year. Although I have several sources for purchasing the “whodunit” mystery games that become the basis for our dinner theater productions, it’s become increasingly harder to find fresh material that’s well-written.  The actors would often complain about how flimsy the plots were, or that there just wasn’t enough material to work with. Often times, I would spend hours fleshing out the plays I bought online with an opening  dialog, opening and closing statements, and so on, while the actors frequently had to unscramble plot elements that just didn’t make sense.

When I first started writing books, they were pure romance. I thought I’d never write novels that contained murder and mayhem, but in my last two books (Love Notes and Wild Rose) and the ones I’m presently working on (Blue Belle and Shy Violet), there are bad guys who are truly twisted, evil and bent on hurting people, a kidnapping, gunshots, and even a murder. As I worked on the motivation and chaotic situations caused by the suspense element in my novels, it occurred to me that I could just as well try my hand at a murder mystery. (Not to worry, there are still plenty of sweet, romantic moments in my novels, too.)

I also thought, if I wrote my own mysteries, that it would be fun to incorporate some local color. Some of our local spoofs include the World Famous Miracle Whip Clinic in Rochester, MN, where miracle cures abound, and our locally manufactured breakfast cereals with a pirate named Captain Crunch. Because murder mysteries are tongue in cheek, humorous and very irreverent, you can really toss in whomever and whatever you feel like. It’s also great fun writing parts that specifically match our actor’s best (and worst?) features. If we can’t laugh at ourselves once in awhile, what fun are we?

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In September, we performed our second original mystery, “Footloose in Never Ever Land”. The intro read: Who will be next to walk the plank in Never Ever Land? One thing is sure – it won’t be poor Woody Stuck, an old hippie who was stuck in the 60’s, because he was found belly up in the Lagoon a few hours ago. Now the clock is ticking and we hope you’ll help Peter Pun and the Lost Boyz find out who is guilty – is it Captain Crunch, the pirate with the biggest chompers ever, Rev. Hal Fyre and his crony, The Church Lady, free-spirit Windy, Fancy Free Willow Tree, Crocodile Rock, who has a scaly skin condition, or Stinker Belle, the church secretary? The theme meal included Gems of the Sea Puffs Mornay with Shrimp & Crab on Scallop Shells, “But Spinach is Good for You, Peter” Chicken with Spinach Artichoke Dip & Italian Cheeses, and The Church Lady’s Sunday Roast Beef with Mashed Potatoes.
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In October, we did “Shenanigans in Sherwood Forest with Robin Love & His Band of Unmarried Men”. The write-up says:  Relationships are complicated in UnTie the Knotingham, a small but wealthy kingdom where the divorce rate is extremely high. Thus, it came as no surprise when Richie Rich, a philandering playboy, was found dead on his wedding day. The question is, who killed him? Wife #7 – the former Maid Mary Ann, Ginger Root, wealthy nobleman Henry the Eighth, Friar Luck, Viking warrior Little Johnson, or Robin Love – a poor, mild-mannered attorney who has devoted his life to championing the underdog in divorce cases far and wide? It’s up to you to unravel the mystery before anyone else loses their head and does something crazy, like getting married. SHERWOOD FOREST CUISINE featured Cottage Pie with a Thatched Roof, and Fruits of the Forest Chicken with Mushrooms, Apples, Berries and a Splash of Brandy.

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That left “Anne of Green Gables”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Secret Garden”, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, and “Heaven to Betsy”, from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Victorian era Betsy Tacy books, for future mystery dinner themes. At the rate of one every 3 – 4 weeks, by the time we finished one mystery, my brain has already been working on the next, envisioning characters who tesseract, wear pompadour hair styles and floppy hats and climb big hills with the Crowd, or hob knob with princes and princesses and wicked witches and maybe a giant bunny rabbit or two.

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In November, for our Anne of Green Gables Fans, we premiered a mash up Lucy Montgomery’s Anne books and Gone with the Wind. “Anne Green and Dianna Dingleberry’s Most Excellent Adventure”. The lead-in read: When cold-hearted Rachel Bag O’ Wynde, the neighbor from down the lane, is found dead, every one thinks she choked on an artichoke heart. But one person knows how she really died, and it was no accident. Help Anne Green and Dianna Dingleberry find out who is guilty. Is it sour old Marilla Lemon, Matthew Chokecherry, obsessed with being best Gilbert Plum, Southern belle Scarlett Pimpernel, the pasty faced schoolteacher Ashley Grey, or Rhett, the Butler? Dudley Do-Right of the Canadian Mounted Police even made a guest appearance.The custom menu included PEI Potato Soup, Ingleside Inn’s Fried Steak with Cheesy Onion Gravy and Red Potatoes, and Anne and Dianna’s Most Resplendent Raspberry Cordial Chicken served with Cavendish Creamed Potatoes and Peas. The featured dessert was Bread Pudding with Caramel Whiskey Sauce – sans the mouse.

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In December, we tackled Sleeping Beauty with “Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?” My teaser read:  When game show host Alec Quebec is found dead, everyone on the latest episode of “To Twist the Truth!” is a suspect. Who is guilty? Is it one of the esteemed panel of judges – Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, wicked stepmother Eveele O’Gress, or Glimmer, the Good Fairy? Or is it one of the contestants – dashing Prince Charming, Hermie, the Outcast Elf wannabe dentist, or Dopey the Dwarf, who was last seen clutching a ruby red slipper and looking for Cinderella? Or is it Kermit, a spirited frog that keeps hopping around the stage? The made-to-fit menu included Bavarian Hunter Schnitzel on Homemade Spaetzle Noodles, Cinderella’s Pumpkin with Pork and Parmesan Filling, and Snow White’s Special Apple Pie.

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Our January premier was “Who? Whatsit? Which Wicked Witch is Dead?” a mash up that featured childhood favorites “A Wrinkle in Time” and the “Wizard of Oz”. My teaser read: When a Wrinkle in Time causes Camazotz and the Emerald City to collide, the witch is accidentally squished. Or was it Mrs. Which? And was it really an accident? Follow the yellow brick road with Meg Dorothea Ditz, Charles Wallace Wiz, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, the creepy computer guy nobody likes – Jay I.T. Bug, Glinda the Good, scary mafia man Scarface Crow from Central Intelligence, and nice guy Calvin Tim Mann, who wears his heart on his sleeve, to find out which one really did it. I had fun with this meun – Emerald City Soup with Green Broccoli & Garlic Herb Toasts, Over the Rainbow Fruit Wand, Starry, Starry Night Steak with Green Peppercorn Sauce, Aunt Beast’s Best Ever Vegetable Cheese Puff, Out of this World Salmon with Seafood Stuffing, and Mrs. Murry’s Bunsen Burner Beef Stew with Biscuits on Top.

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On February 7 and 8, we’re looking forward to presenting another original murder mystery entitled “Betsy and Tacy Go Downton” – a mash up of my favorite books, the Betsy Tacy books by Minnesota author Maud Hart Lovelace, and the popular British TV series, Downton Abbey. Here’s what guests have to look forward to: When Betsy Ray’s British cousin, Matthew Crawley, fakes his death in a car accident and comes to Deep Valley, MN because he needs a break from Downton Abbey, a round of parties is planned to introduce him to the Crowd. When Lord Grantham and the Dowager Countess cross the pond to put an end to his lark, the unthinkable happens and Matthew is murdered. (Yes, this time, he’s really dead.) Did someone tamper with his dance card, hot wire his motor car, or spike his punch? Or could he simply not tolerate the caterwauling during the Cat Duet? Betsy, Tacy, Tib, Bad Boy Tony, Busty Bonnie the Minister’s Daughter (who we’ve never quite trusted), Joe Schmo, and Thomas, the Valet are all suspects. The menu includes “Onion Sandwich” Soup a la Mr. Ray, Betsy’s Heart of My Heart Chicken with Garlic Rosemary Cream Sauce and Artichoke Hearts,  Tib’s Beef Rouladen with Bacon & Onion Gravy on Homemade Spaetzle Noodles, Tacy’s Irish Meat Pie with Pork and Potatoes, and Lady Violet’s Elegant Roast Beef with Chardonnay Cream Sauce, Gorgonzola Cheese and Red Potatoes – and of course, a bite of the Crowd’s Famous Fudge for dessert.

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A tale based on the book “The Secret Garden” is next, in March or April, and will probably feature a mad Farmer MaGregor and that rascal, Peter Cottontail. After that – who knows? It’s been an absolute thrill to see the creative costumes the actors have come up with for each of my mysteries and watch the way they’ve brought my characters and words to life. My only regret is that I’m usually working in the kitchen and don’t get to see much of the performances. Our actors are some of the best and so creative! John Deyo’s portrayal of a hopping, green frog / Prince Charming and Lisa Deyo’s rendition of Sleeping Beauty were amazing and very memorable. Mel Schroeder has done everything from A to Z including a one-legged pirate. My favorite of Deb Stickney’s roles to date is The Church Lady but she also does a great German accent. My husband, Mark Decker, makes foaming at the mouth and dying look so realistic that it’s scary. Neil and Terri Hernan, Mark and Ken Borchardt, Phyllis Ruehlow, Brenda and Michael Esdohr, Julia Crail, Tiffany Adams, and so many more who have filled in for us on occasion are some of the most versatile, slightly crazy, very silly actors ever.

 I’m thrilled to say that our new, original mysteries have been getting rave reviews from our customers, including my mother, who said, “Are all those crazy things really in your head?”, to which I replied, “They kinda are.”

If you live in northern Iowa or southern Minnesota and haven’t been to one f the Blue Belle’s mystery dinners yet, it’s high time! Like I always say, at what other event does the guilty perpetrator of a dastardly deed get a round of applause? And as always, if you guess correctly or solve the mystery, you could get your dinner free.

One of these days, I’ll get around to finishing Blue Belle and Shy Violet, but in the meantime, if you’ve wondered what I’m up to – this is it! I hope you’ll also watch for another instance when my innkeeping and writing worlds are scheduled to collide… Second Wind Publishing will be hosting a Pitch the Publisher event at the Blue Belle Inn B&B sometime this summer or fall. Stay tuned for further details!

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The Minnesota Public Television show featuring the Blue Belle Inn is now available online at http://www.youtube.com/ksmq#p/u/6/arS0cSJAgLg. It’s episode 403 when you get to YouTube. I’m the last interview for the Cities on the Move program about St. Ansgar, Iowa, so be patient!

My husband took these photos yesterday.

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I finally downloaded my photos from the past two months and found a great photo of the authors and writers that attended the Writers Retreat we hosted at the Blue Belle Inn in October. Best of all, I’m not in the photo! Looking at it brings back fond memories of a wonderful weekend in which I was privileged to meet fellow Second Wind authors Christine Husom, Norm Brown, and Amy DeTrempe.

We had a great time learning more about writing, and watching a murder mystery, Next of Kin, by Haley productions.

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