Category: Writing life (Page 1 of 17)

On to 2023

Here we are in the season of resolutions –either making them or breaking them. I tend not to make resolutions — they are too much about my faults and not at all about my strengths. Still, January is a good time to take stock of the year just past and plan for the year to come. So . . .

 

 

  • I want to write more — what author doesn’t?
  • Exercise more — I complain about my knees, but they might work better if I made them move more. 
  • Look after my health. . . 

The above are more wishes than resolutions. I’ve made them before. 

No,  this year I want to focus on appreciation. I want to tune in to the good in my fellow beings.

A few years ago I began a collection of good news stories for December. It was great fun and some of you contributed your own stories to help cheer us all. I didn’t do that this year, but I did remark on several occasions that I had received exceptional service from store clerks, food servers, health workers, and others. With the nightly news full of stories about labour shortages and supply chain problems, these cheery, helpful, charming people brightened my life. They were the Spirit of Christmas, however brief the encounter.

The travails of the world are horrifying and endless.  We all try to help, but, no matter how much aid is collected, people are still hungry.

The war in Ukraine grinds on despite the resolve and courage of the Ukrainian people and the support of Western nations.

Homelessness in our cities continues to increase.

The pandemic seems to have unleashed a torrent of rage, fear and isolationism. The need on all sides is crushing.

So, when a clerk goes above and beyond, her small action raises my spirits exponentially. When a stranger lets me pat his dog, I relish the connection. When a reader says, “I liked your story,” I’m over the moon.

The classic Christmas movies, like “Wonderful Life,” and “Miracle on 34th Street” have one thing in common — they touch the heart. Not all Christmas offerings on the screen do that — they go through the motions but don’t stir the soul. Kind of like my New Year’s wishes — desire without commitment. For 2023 I’m on the look out for moments of real connection.

For some time I kept a gratitude journal, inspired by Ann Voskamp — detailing every day the many blessings that warmed my soul.  Finding items for that journal was actually pretty easy. This year, I’m making a new list. For 2023 I’m keeping my eyes open for human encounters that enrich my life. I’ll enjoy the moment as it happens and again as I write it down.

As we recover from the isolation of COVID-19, it is important to recognize the goodness of others. We’ve been afraid long enough.

Happy New Year, dear readers. May the days of 2023 be filled with positive encounters, good stories, and a happy heart.

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Christmas Short Story

Christmas seemed a long way off in November, now it is rushing forward at breakneck speed. So, I’ve been working on my annual short story. After numerous re-writes, I thought I had the text ready to publish. My friend had told me about using the reading tool on microsoft so I thought I’d do one last check using that. I found one typo and one repeat word but listening to my words read by a computer voice was . . . an experience.

For some reason, the computer voice did not recognize the name of my heroine — even though a google search showed it does exist. The word the computer used was totally mangled. For those who may have received the story, the heroine’s name is Riona, pronounced ree-owe-na. 🙂

I live in Canada and have always referred to my mother’s mother as grandma. Pronounced grand-ma. The computer must have been programmed in the southern States because it pronounced my grandparent as grand-maw. I had a hard time picturing the woman I’d written about sipping tea from a china cup with “maw” at the end of her name.

Usually, I do a final proof by reading the work aloud, myself, but that can put a strain on the voice and I’ve got a cough, so the computer option seemed like a good idea. It certainly speeded up the process, and reminded me that readers will come from different regions and different backgrounds. 

I’ve had a trying day arguing with various templates on the computer, but my story is now written, edited, and published in my newsletter. If you want to read it, please join my newsletter   here.  

If you are frantically working on Christmas projects, take time to savour the moment. You’ve still got seventeen days. Put some carols on your sound system, bite into a piece of shortbread, and remember the reason for Christmas.

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Avoid the Second Night Blahs

At one time of my life I was involved with amateur theatre. I loved it. Rehearsals were a blast. Meeting the cast, who became your family for the run of the show. Costumes, make-up, staging– it kept me coming back year after year. Opening nights were the best. The air buzzed with excitement. Players vibrated with nerves and anticipation. The energy backstage could have powered the stage lights. When the curtain went up, we reached out to that audience with both hands, determined to shake them out of their seats and send them home amazed by the talent right there in their home town.

The second night, meh. . .  The actors were exhausted from the effort they’d put into opening night. We had to work at putting energy into the performance. Second night audiences always seemed uninvolved. Even though the show might be technically more polished than opening night, it usually felt flat to the cast. We just hoped the audience wouldn’t notice how hard we were trying.

The book I just finished, felt a bit like second night at the theatre to me. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t right. If this had been the author’s second book, I’d have put its shortcomings down to time pressure — an editor or agent demanding a new book in a few months whereas the first one took a year or maybe years.  But this was the third book. What happened? How can we avoid this let down in our own writing?

I’ve just finished reading a book I anticipated with joy. Unfortunately, the actual book disappointed. I’d read two of the author’s previous books with pleasure. The latest had the same WWII, England setting. The main characters were a group of women, just like in the earlier books, yet this one relied on too many co-incidences, too many unmotivated changes of heart, and too easy resolutions to the conflict. 

          Have a Big Idea   

 Sometimes, with the pressure to produce a new work in less than your comfortable timeline, an author may jump at the first idea that presents itself. If it’s a small idea it may work for a short story, but won’t be enough to carry a whole novel. Even if you are a pantser, try to jot down a few turning points to be sure your idea will carry a whole book.

         Do You Have a Passion for this Book?                   

 That first book, was likely a story that had been brewing in your imagination for some time. You just had to write it. You were in love with the characters. The setting was a place you knew well, whether real or fictional. You couldn’t wait to spend time in that place with those people.If you are now writing on command from reader or publisher expectations, you may be creating a less interesting place with one dimensional characters. Even if you are under pressure, make sure the story you tell is one you love.

          The Editor on Your Shoulder

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could “un-know” much of what we’ve learned as we wrote those first words? In blissful ignorance, we plunged right in and let the characters tell the story any way they wished. We didn’t worry about head-hopping, or point-of-view, or beats, or three-act structure. Now, all of those writing crafts are important. Learning them and using them in your own process will improve the quality of your book in second and third drafts. But all that stuff can clutter up your brain in the rough draft. Replace that nagging editor with a bluebird of happiness — one who chirps “great line”, “too funny,” “I’m crying.” That’s the voice you want to listen to when getting the story onto the page. When you’re ready to edit and revise, set the bluebird free and let the nagging editor do her job. Just don’t let her try to edit the blank page.

Remember the Rules of the Craft

After years of writing and a bunch of manuscripts, it’s possible to go on automatic pilot. That may have been what disappointed me in the book I just read. First rule, we need conflict and it has to matter.

In this book, the conflicts were real and important, yet they were easily resolved with a single conversation, or even a character just having a change of heart for no particular reason.

Character development. In this example, the characters had a sameness to them although they came from very different backgrounds. There wasn’t enough difference in their speech or in their inner dialogue to make them stand out. And they were all “nice.” We all want nice people in our real lives, but in fiction they are bland and boring. 

Go Deep on POV.  It seemed to me that this author had given us an outline of her story rather than the finished product. She set up intriguing situations but only scratched the surface of the characters and the  conflicts. Even the setting was given a mere glance. Rationing, food shortages, enemy bombers, black marketers . . . these are all riveting elements for a novel, yet I was never really afraid, or hungry. Mostly I was disappointed. An author that I know can write a gripping tale, had short-changed me on this one. I don’t know why. I just know I’ll think twice before putting down money for another of her books.

And that is the real lesson for authors in this experience. It is a truism that you are only as good as your last book. Don’t kill your career by putting out something that is less than your best.

 

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Write of Hope

Planting seeds=faith and hope

I missed posting last week’s blog because COVID hit our house at Thanksgiving. Taking on all the household chores and tending a person in isolation takes a lot of time. On top of that, I caught a cold. It was just a cold. I tested on day one, day three and day five. All came out negative for Covid, but a rotten cold can wreck havoc with a schedule too.

By mid-week, I was well enough to go to book club. We read The Rosie Project and everyone had a good laugh. In my book club, good conversation and lots of laughter signal a successful meeting. We’re not big on literary critique.

However, at the end of the meeting talk turned to the local election, the war in the Ukraine, protests in Iran, climate change, destruction of the oceans, drought, floods, violence on the streets, crisis in health care, to name only a few of our cheerful topics.

Then we reviewed our book list and nearly everyone agreed that they only wanted to read uplifting, hopeful stories for the time being. Tales that take us into places of darkness and disaster and despair are too hard to take, given the situation in the world today. We’ve read them before and we’ll read them again, but not right now. Right now we need to hear hope, we need to see light and we need to live in a world of possibilities.

So to all you authors who write about love and family and home and faith, thank you. Even if others tell you to write “real” books, don’t be dissuaded or discouraged. The stories you (we) write that show right triumphant over wrong, love beating hate, and happily-ever-after winning over despair are the message many need to hear. 

By Providence, I received a devotional in my morning mail the next day, based on .  Hebrews 11: 1  Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  The letter was written over 2000 years ago to a despairing, persecuted people, a reminder that the evidence of our eyes — the sight of evil, poverty, greed, hatred — are not the only reality. We need not be overwhelmed. We can live in hope.

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6 Sources of External Conflict

I went to an all-candidates meeting in my municipality last week. We have 13 candidates vying for 6 council positions, plus 3 candidates for mayor.  I always vote and I want my vote to be as informed as possible. The meeting was jam-packed and it became clear early on that housing density vs green space was a hot button issue. It made me think of a workshop I went to years ago where the presenter suggested we create the “village” and let the conflict flow from there. It seemed an odd idea to me, but by the time her presentation was finished, I saw the merit in starting with the place.

I tend to start my stories with an idea of the characters and then wrestle with the conflict. The old saw, “she’s a pyromaniac and he’s a firefighter” was my starting point.  Using the “village” idea, and my recent encounter with grass roots politics, it’s easy to see how real life events can create conflict.  So much of public life comes down to “us” vs “them.” Here are some examples.

  1. Owners vs renters. In a story this could create conflict between a landlord and a tenant. 
  2. Preservationist vs developers. This trope is so prevalent in romance fiction it is almost cliché. Still, in the hands of a skilled writer this universal concept can be made fresh. 
  3. Rural vs urban.  My community is currently rated rural/rural residential, but there is enormous pressure to urbanize.  This friction brings in the question of farming vs housing.  Generally, everyone is in favour of farmers, but most people want to save money on the grocery bill.  So, do we really support farmers? Which brings us to the next conflict . . .
  4. Environmental protection vs commercial interests. When does a neighbourhood coffee shop become the villain? Does one commercial activity inevitably lead to more and is that good or bad? In a story, the owner of a heritage home operates an Airbnb in order to save the heritage home. She opens a cafe in the original dining room.  Can’t you see the conflict growing out of that scenario? Which side of the equation is she on? Who opposes her? Why?
  5. Young vs old. YA authors often use the generation gap in a family as a source of conflict but it can also be an issue in the larger community. At the meeting I attended there were distinct hints of resentment from younger families wanting to buy houses against older folks who already owned them. Is the older homeowner being greedy or is he just living in the family home his parents built years ago?
  6. Taxes vs Services. This division was very evident in the meeting I attended. Everyone wants lower taxes and many want more services. You can’t have both. What is the trade off? Do you pay for expertise or rely on volunteers?

These are only a few ideas that tickled my brain as a result of the all candidates meeting. A good story won’t rely entirely on external conflict. The author will build in internal conflict and emotional challenges as well. Still, the external, the “village” may be a good place to start the story.

Oh yeah, if there are elections happening in your area, vote! The ballot is the greatest tool in a democracy. Make it count.

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My Summer Vacation

    In my part of the world, school starts this week. Even though I’m long past school age, at this time of year I still get the urge to purchase a clean note-book and a sharp pencil with a fresh eraser. Another back to school ritual is the “how I spent my summer vacation” essay. I think teachers used that topic in the first week to give themselves time to organize the classroom and memorize the students’ names. Anyway, here’s my essay.

       First, I took a break from writing this blog. I don’t cope well with hot weather and we had lots of hot days this summer. The weeds flourished, but the garden suffered from a cold, wet spring. Even plants that grew well failed to produce much fruit as the bees were missing at the vital time. For years we’ve been hearing about the loss of honey bees and how that effected the honey producers. This year, every gardener in my neighbourhood witnessed the effects of no bees first hand.  I’m preparing for next spring by hunting for bird feathers on the beach. If it is too cold for bees at blossom time, I’ll use the feather for a little human-assisted pollination. 

The lovely Jennie Crusie hosts a blog called Argh Ink One day a week she asks the question, “What made you happy this week?” I love reading the answers. Happiness, it seems, comes in many different forms. For me, happiness is good friends. So I’ve spent a good part of vacation time re-connecting with friends finally coming out of COVID protection. I know the virus is still out there and poised to whack the world again, but we’ve all been lonely these past few years so I’m hoping the endorphins released by laughter, along with all my vaccines and boosters, will help my immune system win the battle. Plus, I’m staying off cruise ships. I know a lot of healthy people who went on a cruise and came home with COVID.

    Over the Labour Day weekend, I had triple happiness as I was able to combine my garden, friendship, and nostalgia with a trip to our annual Fall Fair.  The photo at left shows my ribbon haul. I consider it a win if I get ribbons on at least 50% of my entries and enough prize money to cover my entry fees and my admission to the grounds. I declare success on all fronts this year.

   I reconnected with my farm roots as I walked among the horses and cows and chickens and sheep. (See photo at top.) Jeans and straw hats bring happy memories. Score one for nostalgia.

   Then,  I met my friend at the fair. We’ve been doing that for over twenty years. This  long friendship makes me happy. Our fair experience together is also a happy one. I give her produce from my garden, she makes jam and wins a prize. We’re in this together!

    Speaking of friends, my pen pal from the other side of the world is a “best seller” in Canada with the first book in her Guardians of the Crown series, By the Sword. So, I’m happy for her.

   So, the first day of school is over. I’ve written my essay. Tomorrow the real year begins.

  What did you do for your summer vacation? Did it make you happy? 

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A Beginning

The calendar reads July, summer, hot days, lazy days, vacation days, winding down days. January or September is the time for new things, days when the weather is sharp and clear, the garden is put to rest and a new term has begun. Yet, today I began work on two new projects. When the mood strikes . . .

First I organized a reading list for my book club. We won’t meet until September but many of us like to have the reading list in advance so we can get a head start. We’ll read nine books over the fall and winter. We take December, July and August off. The suggestion list is long and enticing. I had a hard time paring my choices to nine. Some I’ve read before, like The Dictionary of Lost Words. Much as I enjoyed that book and think it would make for a great discussion, I didn’t vote for it because there were so many other intriguing suggestions.

Ann Patchett is on the list and she’s one of my favourites so one of my votes went there. There’s a history of Victoria that I want to read even if it doesn’t make the final cut.  There’s a family saga that will go into my TBR pile, along with a romance, a couple of mysteries and a Canadian Classic, Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. There is a book set in Japan, another written by a First Nations author and another set in Afghanistan. 

I’ve mentioned my book club before on this blog. We’ve been reading together since 2000, with the same core members. Of course, over twenty two years there have been some changes. We all started out as working women and now we’re all retired. We’ve seen each other through some major life changes, like big moves or the loss of a parent or a spouse. We’ve read nearly 200 books — everything from children’s literature to William Faulkner. Through the medium of books, we’ve gotten to know each other very well. 

The marquis at my local gas station reads “the best antique is an old friend.” Well, my book club is full of some genuine “antiques.”

The other new thing I’ve started is a contemporary story with a “seasoned” heroine. Since I usually write historical with twenty-something heroines, this is a whole new endeavour, but I’ve started it in July, so there must be something drawing me on. 

One of the advantages of growing older is that we become more secure in who we are. I’m hoping that attribute will be one of the main characteristics of my heroine. Instead of a girl/woman feeling her way into adulthood, I’ll write about a woman who knows her own mind. Who knows what she values in a partner, and knows the cost of love is often heartbreak.

I hope you are all enjoying the lazy, hazy days of summer. Unless you live in Australia, in which case I hope you enjoy the nip of frost in the air and a warm apple cider by the fire.

 

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Our Little Libraries

I took a mini holiday last week and visited Coombs, a tiny village about a three hour drive from my home. While wandering the boutiques I saw this jumble of books through an open doorway. There were at least three more doors, all with teetering piles of used books. If anyone thought paper books were dead, think again. 

Since my own public library has removed most of its books and replaced them with computers and dvd’s my browsing ability has been hampered. So I have become a regular at used book stores and  “little libraries.” Those little neighbourhood “bring one/take one” stands have filled a need, not just for me, but for many. On lower Vancouver Island we have over 600 of them, which have received over 67,000 books. That’s just counting the “professional” supplier. No one knows how many volumes are off the shelf before they are counted. I heard that a copy of How to Knit and Felt with your Cat’s Fur was swooped up seven minutes after it landed in a little library.

The little libraries reflect the communities they inhabit. Fourteen of our 600+ include a seed drawer. Victoria is a city of gardens after all. Jigsaw puzzles and art supplies are also exchanged. 

used books galore in Coombs

In other words, the little libraries are meeting the needs of the community in a way the public library never did or could.

There are five of these delights within a one mile radius from my house so when I want something to read, it’s an easy walk. I’ve brought home all sorts of books — romance, history, travel, lifestyle, adventure, mystery — if I don’t like them, I can put them back and take something else. The freedom encourages me to take chances.

One of my latest picks turned out to be a gem.  I almost didn’t take it home. The title is Republic of Dirt and it looked as though someone had dropped it in the dirt. Still, the mule on the cover intrigued me.

The story has four narrators, each in the first person. Again I had doubts,  but the narrators turned out to be so engaging and so individual I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Not only that, the book had me laughing out loud. 

As a writer I can never leave off the editor’s hat when I’m reading, so much as I enjoyed this story, I also took a lesson from the author on creating unique voices for different characters. As a bonus, the story is set on Vancouver Island.

I so enjoyed this treasure from a little library, that I checked out the author and found she is a critically acclaimed writer, winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour for the book I’m reading. Her other works have been on best seller lists, and book of the year lists. A young adult series is being turned into a TV show. Since the book I read is the second in a series, I’ll recommend the first one to my book club for next year’s reading list.

So, three cheers for our little libraries who have kept books out of the landfill and put them into the hands of readers instead.

If you are lucky enough to have a little library in your neighbourhood, go check it out — you may find hidden treasure.

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6 Takeaways from Mark Lefebvre

On the weekend my writers group, VIRA, sponsored a workshop with Mark Lefebvre. 

I admit, the main impetus for me to attend this workshop was to re-connect with my writing tribe. I’ve missed the in-person contact for the past two years. Thanks to our terrific leaders and Mark’s obliging nature, the workshop was made available on Zoom for those who chose not to attend in person. One thing about COVID, it forced us Luddites to learn a lot of technology!

Once Mark started to talk, I quickly realized I was in for information overwhelm. To say Mark is an industry insider is an understatement. He knows the publishing world as a writer, a book-seller, a professional speaker. He has been at the forefront of digital publishing and book selling. He has served as the President of the Canadian Booksellers Association, been on the Board of Directors for BookNet Canada, helped to create Sheridan College’s degree program in creative writing. He has worked for Kobo, where he created the Kobo Writing Life self-publishing platform. He currently consults with Draft2Digital for eBook and print distribution. With such a wide-ranging resumé and a surname that is difficult to spell, he mostly defaults to the title “The Book Nerd.”

We had four hours of non-stop teaching. It will take me a while to digest the wealth of information, but here are some of the immediate standouts for me.

  1. Optimize your author brand by being consistent, professional and courteous. As public figures, authors must remember that we are watched and judged all the time.                        
  2. Keep your ideal reader in mind as you craft your book. He showed us something called a Venn diagram to help determine who that ideal reader is.  The diagram is useful, but thinking of your readership as one person, like your Aunt Sally, is a good way to keep the writing on tract. If you are just telling a tale to Aunt Sally, you are less likely to go wandering down dead-ends.                                                                                                                                            
  3. Universal book links are necessary on the world wide web. Who wants to limit their customers to just one platform? But who wants to clutter up their book page with a dozen links either? Draft2Digital has a tool that allows you to make one link that will work on any platform. It’s under the Books2Read page.                                                                             
  4. Writer Beware is a website where authors can check out the too-good-to-be-true offers of companies that want to “help” you self-publish your books. There are legitimate companies that do this, but there are myriad scam artists who prey on hopeful writers. Beware!                                                                                                                                            
  5. Be kind. With so many avenues to publication, authors have more opportunity than ever to get their work in front of readers. Unfortunately, getting noticed is very, very difficult. Being compassionate makes you a  better person. It helps you build relationships, and those relationships will help to advance your career,  be that with booksellers, book buyers, other authors, or strangers in the street.                                                        
  6. As much as you are kind to others, be kind to yourself. Writers are constantly faced with rejection. Don’t let an editor’s “no thanks” letter defeat you. If you have written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or a blog post, or even left a comment, you are a writer. Be proud of that. Millions of people have said, “I should write a book.” You, who have written a book, have accomplished what millions have not. Wear your title of “writer” with pride.

There was much, much more from the workshop but I’m still processing! I told you it was information overwhelm. I’m glad I went. i saw old friends. I met someone new. I learned a lot about the book industry. I got material for this blog. Pretty good return for a rainy Saturday.

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Evil in Emerald

 

EVIL IN EMERALD, is the third of Harriet Gordon’s adventures and is available now in print, Ebook and audio.

Harriet Gordon turns her talents to musical theatre, joining the cast of the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society’s latest production – Pirates of Penzance. However tensions run deep within the company and when the leading man is found murdered, Harriet and Curran are drawn into a complex web of lies and deceit.

I’ve just finished reading this latest Harriet Gordon Mystery by A.M. Stuart. When I told my friend, the author, I intended to feature it on this blog, she kindly sent along the following;

 

Hi Alice

Thank you so much for inviting me back to your blog to talk about my Harriet Gordon Mystery series.

Today I thought I would share with you what it is I love about reading and writing historical mysteries.

A good mystery novel – or TV series – is my catnip. It began as a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie and I think her writing more than anything sowed the seed of my love of a good mystery. Like romances, which promise the reader a happy ever after, genre mysteries are premised on the expectation that good will triumph over evil.

After writing a number of romantic historicals (as Alison Stuart), I found mystery elements were creeping into the stories and felt the time had come to turn my hand to writing my own mystery … maybe combining all the things I loved about writing my romantic historicals with a mystery to solve. Drawing on my life in Singapore, the Harriet Gordon Mysteries came into being…

What is it I find so fascinating about this genre?

  1. I love creating a puzzle for the readers to solve with a twist in the tail. I often don’t know ‘who done it’ until I get to the end of the first draft!
  2. There’s something about the Edwardian era – those golden days before World War One when the sun never set on the British Empire (while also acknowledging the dark side to that past).
  3. There is also a huge challenge in solving crimes without the benefit of modern science. In 1910 the height of forensic scientific advancement was the use of fingerprinting and photographs. Those were the days when the investigator’s main investigative tool was his or her own common sense and curiosity.
  4. And finally I have loved creating a series with characters I know almost as well as my own family. I am more than a little in love with Curran and Harriet is my best friend and I look forward to meeting them in each new book as they slowly reveal their own character arcs.

I really do have the best of both worlds… historicals with the potential of romance, action, adventure and of course an intriguing (I hope) mystery to solve! —Alison

Me again — As a veteran of amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan I had a great time reading all the backstage chatter in this book.  The character of a leading lady who is too old for the role is almost endemic among amateur theatre groups, and I’ve often heard mutterings among chorus members that sounded like murder.

I also luxuriated in the highly regulated Edwardian Society of the time. Even in Singapore, proper English dress codes must be observed — never mind the heat and humidity! 

If you haven’t already read the two previous novels in this series, here’s a bargain for you. The second Harriet Gordon Mystery, REVENGE IN RUBIES, is currently on sale for US$1.99… these price reductions come around very rarely so grab it while you can! 

To find out more about Alison visit her websites www.alisonstuart.com or www.amstuartbooks.com

 

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