Wrong Place, Write Crime

I’m visting Frank Zafiro at his podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime, chatting about the Zodiac Mysteries and crime writing. Tune in to listen.

The Real Ask Zodia

Julia Bonatti, my crime-solving astrological sleuth in the Zodiac Mysteries, writes an advice column, AskZodia, for her hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.  Julia’s column stretches reality quite a bit because how many big city newspapers would have space for a ‘Dear Abby’ type of feature? 

Julia enjoys the work, but sometimes really struggles with some of the letters to Zodia.  Some are sad, some are heartbreaking and some are just plain worrying.  And Julia worries a lot about what she’s sending out into the universe in her column.  Here’s one example: 

Dear Zodia ~
My birthday is September 13, 1974 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I’ve been married for 26 years.  I’m very unhappy and confused.  I care about my husband, he’s a good person, but to be honest, I’m bored.  Bored with him and with married life.  I’ve been thinking about telling him I want a divorce, but I’m really afraid what this will do to him.  Please tell me what to do.
                ~ Growing Older

Dear Growing Older ~
Your sign off name says a lot.  You’re afraid life is passing you by and soon it will be too late for adventure.  What you’re not telling me, and I know because Neptune is opposing your Sun sign, and over the last year or so, opposed your Venus, is that you are attracted to someone else.  Here’s the thing about Neptune transits: they can lend a great aura of mystery or fantasy.  Much if not most of this is not real.  Think very carefully about your choices because in time, you may regret leaving your marriage. 
Wishing you well ~
                ~ Zodia

And here’s another:

Dear Zodia ~
I’m at my wit’s end.  My mother’s new boyfriend is a complete creep.  He makes me very uncomfortable whenever he’s in our house.  I don’t want to be alone with him, and so far I haven’t been, but I’m afraid to be in the same room with him when my mother’s not there.  I’ve tried to talk to her about this, but she thinks I’m imagining things and trying to make her life difficult.  I don’t know what to do.  What should I do?  My birthday is May 6, 2004 in Berkeley at 3:20 p.m.
                ~ Creeped Out

Dear Creeped Out ~
Trust your instincts, no matter what anyone says.  Unfortunately, there are bad people in the world, predators, and some of them date women with young children for that very reason.  By all means, speak out about your concerns.  Your transits show a Pluto aspect to your Moon, this may indicate the difficulties between you and your mother right now, but no matter what astrology can tell you, always trust your instincts.
                ~ Zodia

But the really strange thing — I never wondered if there was a real AskZodia.  I no longer live in San Francisco but manage to visit a few times a year, so I don’t often get to read the Chronicle.  But one day at a street fair, I glanced at a newspaper and spotted the Chronicle’s astro column.  I was stunned!  Why hadn’t I discovered this before?  There is a REAL AskZodia!  His name is Christopher Renstrom, not Julia Bonatti, and he’s a famous astrologer, a real one, unlike Julia! 

I’d be willing to bet Christopher would have no problem responding to AskZodia questions.  After all he has a terrific new book out — The Cosmic Calendar: Using Astrology to Get in Sync with Your Best LifeSo I’m sure he’d offer some great advice and solve all of these AskZodia problems. 

If you’d like some real life astrology, check out Christopher’s website, follow him on Facebook and Twitter @rulingplanets.  You won’t regret it! 

And if you’d like to enjoy a good astrological murder mystery, don’t miss Julia’s first adventure in The Madness of Mercury

Iceland Noir 2018

Iceland Noir began in 2013, founded by Icelandic writers Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson. The team today includes Óskar Guðmundsson, Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Kristjan Atli Ragnarsson and probably many more that I didn’t have a chance to meet.  If you haven’t heard of these authors, you’re missing out, so be sure to check out their books.

I first heard about this crime writing festival in 2015 and I was fascinated.  I knew if there was any way possible, I wanted to attend. 

This year, the conference had the biggest press-team ever with journalists from the Sunday Times, The Telegraph, ITV, LBC, RÚV, DV, Fréttablaðið, GayIceland, Mannlíf and Vikan, plus bloggers and freelancers from Crime by the book, the House of Crime and Mystery, the Killing Times and travellingbookjunkie.

I’m a huge fan of Nordic Noir of all sorts and had become very interested in Icelandic writers after discovering Arnaldur Indridason at my library and caught the series Trapped on Netflix.  I was delighted to meet Dr. Noir, aka Dr. Jacky Collins of Newcastle Noir, a passionate supporter of crime fiction.  Even the first lady of Iceland, Elísa Reid, and the founding director of Iceland Writers Retreat and the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, both crime fiction aficionados, participated in the conference.  I even had a chance to say hello to Martin Edwards often seen at Malice Domestic and many other attendees.  For a full list of authors, click here.

This year, the festival was held on November 16th and 17th at the lovely Iðnó theatre at Vonarstræti 3, Reykjavik, by a pond filled with ducks and swans.

I was thrilled to be included on a panel exploring the supernatural – ghosts, trolls, elves and things that go bump in the night – with authors William Ryan, James Oswald and Michael J. MaloneDavid Headley of DHH Literary Agency and Goldsboro Books was our moderator. 

Icelanders are unashamedly mystical.  They truly believe in elves and trolls and the hidden folk (Huldufolk).  And let’s not forget ghosts.  it’s a terribly important subject even for locals who admit they’ve never seen an elf.  I chatted with a tour bus driver who told me, very seriously, that his grandmother could speak to the elves.  In Iceland, if a large rock is in the way of a building project or a new road, it must not be moved or disturbed until an elven translator is called in to communicate.  This is serious stuff!  If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a very informative YouTube video about the hidden people.

The panels started at 9:00 a.m. on the first day and continued till 7:00 p.m.  By the way, did you know it’s still dark as night at 9:00 a.m.?  My hotel was a few blocks away and braving the dark, the wind and the cold, I sat through as many panels as I could.  On Saturday evening, everyone was invited to a showing of I Remember You, a film based on the book of the same title by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.  I hope it reaches the U.S. soon because it’s one of the best supernatural thrillers I’ve ever seen.  The actors were brilliant and the production values were excellent.  After the film, the festival continued with a ‘Drunken Authors Panel’ and a live band.  I wouldn’t have missed this conference for the world!

Needless to say, I did all the touristy things too.  The Golden Circle tour led to a field of active geysers and the Strokkur geyser at Geysir Hot Springs that erupts every five to eight minutes.  We crossed the rift valley between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate on the surface of the land, which is constantly moving and slowly making Iceland grow larger by an inch or more a year.  Then the tour moved on to the gorgeous Gullfoss waterfall.  Certainly not the biggest waterfall in Iceland , but it’s considered to be the most beautiful.

I was hoping to check out the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, especially in light of the panel I had taken part in, but time did not permit.  It’s located in the town of Holmavik in the Westfjords of Iceland and a little too far for me to travel on this trip.  The museum is curated by a sorcerer and If you’re really curious, you can read more here.  Fascinating and creepy!  There’s even more about Viking magic in this interview with the sorcerer himself at his cottage in Bjarnarfjörður.

Of course, I signed up for the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour of Reykjavik which was very informative, but I think my favorite pastime was taking pictures of the charming Christmas shops and Nordic style homes.

I visited the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran cathedral in Reykjavík.  At 74.5 metres high at the top of a hill overlooking the city, its architecture echoes the basalt columns of the island.  In the 10th century, Icelanders worshipped the old pagan gods of their ancestors.  But later, conversion to Christianity was a matter of law after a compromise between the Christian and heathen chieftains around 999 or 1,000.  Unlike the U.S., there is no separation of church and state in Iceland, although there are ongoing debates about changing this.  But there are even more changes in the wind.  The old Norse pagan religion is still alive and a new Odinst temple is being erected for the first time in 1,000 years.

The northern lights were at the top of my list but sadly my tour had no luck that night.  The bus took about thirty of us out to a vacant field near the town of Akranes to wait in the cold.  It was a crystal clear night, with clouds low on the horizon, far away from light pollution.  We waited till midnight but only saw a slight glimmer.  Our tour guide’s hopes were high, but the sun’s protons or electrons were not cooperating.  Reykjavik Excursions generously offered a free tour for the following night, but I had other plans and couldn’t make it.  I later learned from other tourists they had a great experience on a boat tour out to sea, where the northern lights cooperated.  Sigh . . . maybe someday I’ll see them.

The best tour of all was the Blue Lagoon.  There are other less expensive thermal spas, but the Blue Lagoon is very impressive.  For the basic admission, you receive flip-flops, a comfy robe and a towel.  This also includes a silica face mask and a free drink from the bar in the pool.  A wrist bracelet with a scanner was attached to my wrist in case I wanted to purchase different face masks or drinks that were not included.  A shower in the nude is the first step, then donning my bathing suit, I ventured out to a very cold meeting room and finally to the outdoors.

It was quite cold but utterly beautiful.  A huge baby blue lagoon among black lava rocks with mist rising everywhere.  I hung my robe on a rack and ran down the ramp into the water as fast as I could.  Two hours later, I climbed out, feeling as though I was embarking on a planet with much greater gravity than our earth.  My hair was super shiny from the silica and my muscles felt wonderful.

Oh, and last but not least, I visited the Phallological Museum.  (Dr. Noir had graciously given me a free ticket.)  The “Penis Museum” was started by Sigurður Hjartarson, a retired teacher, who began a life-long search for peni and research into all sorts of animal and sea creatures.  When Mr. Hjartarson’s collection became too big for his living room, his wife put her foot down and insisted the collection had to go, so he set up his first museum in a small Icelandic town.  Later with the help of his son, the museum moved to a location in Reykjavik.

The museum claims that its collection includes the penises of elves and trolls, though, as Icelandic folklore portrays such creatures as being invisible, they cannot be seen.  There are even lampshades made from the scrotums of bulls.  The museum’s quest now is to obtain a human penis and believe it or not, one or two men have volunteered.

I was able to cover a lot of ground on foot and there was no lack of restaurants of all types – Arabic, Vietnamese, French, Italian, not to mention Icelandic.   But I have to say after what I’ve heard, I didn’t want to actually try fermented shark.  Would I visit Iceland again?  Yes, in a heartbeat.  The landscape is absolutely awesome and there is so much more to see there.

My trip may have been a once in a lifetime journey, but I do hope I can return someday and continue to explore this fascinating island at 66 degrees north latitude.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Julia Bonatti

Ten things we don’t know about Julia Bonatti?  Well, let me think.  As the author of the Zodiac Mysteries, I’m not sure there’s anything my protagonist Julia hasn’t already revealed.  I’ve tried to make her fairly open and honest about who she is and what motivates her.  But maybe I can go further . . .
Let’s see . . . Julia’s a Sagittarian and because she’s an astrologer she lets everyone know that her Sun sign indicates optimism, generosity, a free spirit, one who isn’t afraid to take on challenges or tackle danger.  But her birthday?  So far, that’s been a secret.  So here goes — Julia was born on December 3, 1981 at 11:51 a.m. PST in San Francisco.

You can see her chart here.  Notice that her Sun, Mercury and Uranus are all clustered around her 10th house cusp (her career).  Uranus always figures significantly in the charts of astrologers.  Neptune is in the 10th as well.  Her profession is linked to the mysterious, to the occult arts.  Jupiter, Pluto and Saturn are clustered in her 8th house, a mysterious arena, the house of death.  Her Ascendant is Aquarius.  She’s eccentric, doesn’t really fit into the norm of a woman her age.  And her Moon is in Pisces.  She’s sensitive and a pushover for people in trouble.

We do know that her parents were killed in a car crash on the Bay Bridge when she was just a child.  She really can’t remember them too well, just an occasional vague memory.  And she’s an only child raised by her grandmother.  What she doesn’t talk about very much is her sense of displacement, her sense of not belonging.  Her grandmother is her only link to the past.  Then of course there’s Kuan, her grandmother’s friend who lives in the first floor apartment of her grandmother’s house in Castle Alley and practices Chinese medicine.  Kuan was a dear friend of Julia’s grandfather (now deceased).  In fact, Kuan saved her grandfather’s life many years before, but that’s something I’m holding back for a future story.  To Julia, he’s a surrogate grandfather.

With such a small family, her friends, Gale and Cheryl, are terribly important to her.  Julia had hoped that when she and Michael married, that haunting sense of not belonging would be healed.  Together they would start a family, but sadly that was taken away from her with Michael’s death.  But what does Julia not talk about in the Zodiac Mysteries?  Her fears.  None of us can talk very lightly about our deepest fears.  Maybe we’re superstitious, as if talking about the things we fear will bring them about.  Julia fears her grandmother will die.  After all, everyone else has left her.  She knows logically that her grandmother will die someday, but it’s more than she can get her head around.

She fears she’ll be alone for the rest of her life.
She fears she’ll never fall in love again.
She fears she’ll make a terrible mistake with a client’s chart and make a wrong prediction.  That would destroy her reputation and her practice.
She fears her skills as an astrologer won’t help her prevent another disaster, like the death of her fiancé.
And she fears if she keeps sticking her nose in crime, she’ll die young.  Then she thinks, maybe that’s better than being alone and the last one left on earth.
She fears she’ll find out her parents weren’t the wonderful people her grandmother claims they were.  And most of all, she is still terrified of driving across the Bay Bridge.
Is that 10?  Oh, not quite.  One more thing — she absolutely loves bitter-sweet dark chocolate!

I hope you’ll get to know Julia even better in the books of the Zodiac Mysteries and tag along with her on her crime-solving adventures.  Don’t worry, she’s not going to talk about her fears, she’ll be following the clues and tracking down a murderer!  And hopefully entertaining you.

This post first appeared at Cheryl Loves to Read on July 20, 2018.

Reading Frenzy

My interview is up at the Reading Frenzy where I’m chatting about Tail of the Dragon, Julia Bonatti, my San Francisco astrologer, and the Zodiac Mysteries and how they came about.

My Interview at Mythical Books

What are the ingredients of a good mystery? And what is their perfect proportion?
There are many ingredients to a good mystery, but in my opinion the one super important element is plot.  Plot is structure and that’s the thing that everything else hangs on – character, settings, descriptions, emotions – everything.  It’s like building a house.  First comes the plan and then the framing.  Once that’s secure, everything will find its place.
My very first editor required an outline, long before the book itself was submitted.  At the time, I groaned at the thought of all that detailed work, but actually it was a great lesson.  Having a solid structure, which is what an outline forces you to create, allows you to catch any sagging parts, any missing clues, any problems with timelines, any subplots that need to be woven into the story.  Once that structure is in place, it’s a road map.  Not to mention that it saves an amazing amount of re-structuring or re-writing time.  Pacing will take care of itself too if you’ve done a good job with the outline.  I like books that offer danger and threats and CONFLICT.  Essential!  And just as important, rest stops where a reader can take a deep breath and say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.”
Readers need to identify with characters and root for them.  If a reader doesn’t like a character, can’t connect with her or him, then that reader won’t really care what struggles a protagonist contends with in pursuit of a murderer.

Mysteries, whether traditional or hard boiled or noir, have a certain format, certain requirements that the reader expects.  First of all, the puzzle, the whodunnit aspect and of course red herrings.  A good mystery must be fair to the reader, giving him or her just enough that it’s possible to solve the puzzle.  It can be as simple as a small clue dropped early in the story, or an inconsistent fact that doesn’t jump off the page immediately.  It’s only later when the reader says, “Ah, ha!  I didn’t see that coming.  I should have caught that!”  That’s a phrase that warms the cockles of a mystery writer’s heart.

What do Julia and Connie have in common?
Well, we both find astrology fascinating, but Julia’s a professional, I’m not.  We both love San Francisco and think it’s a great place to set a mystery – as have many, many other writers.  We’re both very outgoing and compassionate people, at least I like to think I am.  Julia, I know, definitely has those qualities.  We’re both insightful and analytical and spend a lot of time wondering what makes people tick.  We’re both terribly suspicious but I guess that’s a plus when solving a mystery.  Those are the similarities.  But the differences?  She’s a free spirit.  No day job, no kids, no chores or cooking.  She’s younger than I.  She’s 36 at the start of the series.  I didn’t want an ingenue.  Julia’s old enough to know who she is, has gained some wisdom, but young enough that she’s not afraid of walking into dangerous situations.  And she puts herself in danger in every book.  She’s much more physically courageous than I and I envy her that.
I’ve been asked what Julia eats and if she has any recipes to offer.  The answer is ‘no.’  She doesn’t cook.  Her grandmother’s a wonderful cook and sends her delicious care packages, like boeuf Bourguignon or homemade lasagna.  Julia’s idea of a meal is a can of soup or a sliced tomato in a taco shell.  Nothing fancier than that.

How do you keep the freshness of the stories of Zodiac Mysteries series?
I do hope I’m keeping things fresh.  Each book can be read as a standalone, even though Julia evolves a bit more after every adventure.  And with every book, I try to send Julia to a new place and a new set of circumstances based upon the crime.  In The Madness of Mercury, Julia unwittingly becomes the target of an evil cult because of her outspoken opinions in her astrological advice column (Ask Zodia) in the Chronicle.  In All Signs Point to Murder, she’s the unwilling witness to a murder within a tight family dynamic.  And in this book, Tail of the Dragon, she’s pulled into investigating death threats at a law firm for her client.

There are so many books…What do you do when you find out that your very personal and new idea was already used by another author? Or what do think you’ll do?
It’s been said there’s nothing new under the sun and the motives for murder are fairly obvious – hatred, jealousy, fear, greed, survival.  If you boil down every plot you can find it comes down to something as basic as that.  So even if another writer came up with the same plot, another book could tell that story in a totally different way.  With this series, I thought I had come up with a completely unique character in Julia.  So I was taken aback when I learned of Sunny Frazier’s Christie Bristol astrology series.  Fools Rush In is her first book.  I thought, oh no, someone’s already doing this.  Then (online) I met Karen Christino, a New York astrologer, who also has a wonderful book, The Precious Pachyderm, an historical mystery featuring the famous Evangeline Adams.  So, I guess there’s plenty of room for all of us in this genre.  And then by a complete coincidence, I “met” Sunny via Kings River Life magazine where she’s a regular contributor.  I was so excited to connect and share ideas with another astrologer!  Astrology is a lonely occupation, as is writing, and happily we decided to hold an online conversation – “Two Astrologers Chatting.”  This links to KRL for our whole conversation.  I think it would be great if we could all meet in person some day and share notes!

What are the genres that you will never write and, of course, why?
I can’t see myself writing romance.  Although I’ve used romantic elements in the Soup Lovers’ Mysteries (written as Connie Archer) and may use them in the Zodiac Mysteries, but all in all, romance really isn’t my thing.  There’s a certain trope:  “I’m so into you I can’t wait for this case/crime/story to be over and we can get married and live happily ever after.”  I’m more of a Girl on the Train aficionado.  Now, I’m not criticizing the craft of those writers, I admire that very much.  They have the ability to tease and delay and drag a romantic thread through one book or several books without boring the reader.  It’s a real skill.  Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series (which is a mystery series) is a wonderful example.  Her characters are attracted to each other from the beginning but the first real kiss doesn’t happen until probably (I’m not exactly sure here) the tenth book.  Oh, and literary fiction.  Also not my thing.  I need bodies – preferably dead ones.
This interview first appeared at Mythical Books on July 18, 2018.

Interview with Fran Lewis

Release day for Tail of the Dragon was August 8, 2018 and I was thrilled to be interviewed by Fran Lewis at Blog Talk Radio.  It was early in the morning for me, but armed with a cup of coffee, I managed to muddle through.  We chatted about the Zodiac Mysteries, mysteries and thrillers of all sorts, writing and of course astrology.  You can listen here.