Tag Archive for: #zodiac #The Madness of Mercury

With each Zodiac Mystery, I try to find a unique section of the city in which to place a story, or search for historic or unusual buildings.  No problem there, because San Francisco is a city that truly values and preserves its architecture and history.  In the first Zodiac Mystery, The Madness of Mercury, I ‘borrowed’ a mansion on Telegraph Hill.  All Signs Point to Murder highlighted Pacific Heights and the dangerous currents of the Golden Gate straits.  Tail of the Dragon takes place downtown in the Financial District, Enter a Wizard, Stage Left, at a theater in North Beach, and now, Serpent’s Doom, focuses on Chinatown, one of my favorite neighborhoods. 

I was reminded recently of two really unique structures that I hadn’t thought about for years — the windmills of Golden Gate Park.  When I first lived in San Francisco, I spotted them in the distance, as I stood at the curve of Point Lobos leading down to the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Windmills!  Two of them!  I had never seen anything like it and I couldn’t imagine why there were windmills at the western edge of Golden Gate Park, right across the road from the ocean.  I asked every native San Franciscan I met about them, but never got a satisfactory answer, sometimes a vague reference to wind power to pump water.  Water for what, I wondered?  I investigated further and drove into the Park to get a closer look, or at least as close as I could get because they were off limits at the time, unsafe to get any closer.  They had stood unused for almost a hundred years, the structures and the sails were in terrible disrepair, rotting from insect and water damage. 

But it was those windmills that made Golden Gate Park possible.  Once upon a time, the western end of the peninsula that is San Francisco was absolutely uninhabitable, nothing but miles of sand dunes over bedrock, layered in fog.  The now densely populated and extremely expensive area was considered unlivable.  It was a 25 year old civil engineer, William Hammond Hall, who designed the Park.  The area was so problematic that even the renowned landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, turned the job down. 


The windmills were needed to pump 1.5 million gallons of groundwater per day to irrigate the park.  The Dutch (North) Windmill was built in 1902.  It stands 75 feet tall, somewhat restored, it’s surrounded by thousands of tulips in the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden.  The Murphy (South) Windmill was built in 1907.  Six short years later, a motorized system was installed and eventually, the windmills were no longer needed. 

Finally, in 2011, the Murphy Windmill was beautifully restored, but operates only occasionally, and with caution.  Inside are floors of gleaming wood and stairways leading upward, a cozy lounge with chairs, rugs and a desk, even a shelf with wooden shoes.  Hopefully, no one will throw a sabot into the works of that windmill!  And the view from the top is incredible. 


Years ago, I remember reading a Marcia Muller novel in which her detective hides out for the night in the abandoned and rotting Murphy Windmill!  Now that these are restored, I guess the windmills won’t have the same haunted cachet for a setting in the Zodiac Mysteries.


What do you think?  Could there be a crime there?  Was a worker crushed in the machinery of the windmill?  Did he jump?  Or was he pushed from an upper deck?  Maybe I’ll think about that and see if I can use the windmills in my next story. 


(This post first appeared in Novels Alive on June 13, 2022.)


How could I resist? I love visiting Melissa‘s site and this time Julia’s cat Wizard has his day. 

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.

My  interview in The Bill Thrill for Tail of the Dragon appeared in August 2018.

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.

Thanks to the wonderful Jane Beebe, this dinner and mystery author panel was a fabulous event!  I was in great company with Ellison Cooper, Paddy Hirsch, Paul D. Marks and Patricia Smiley, and last but certainly not least, our moderator Carlene O’Neil.  My only concern was navigating the fire I spotted from the freeway, but all was well.  We all made it, the library was safe and the fire was extinguished quickly.  We had a very enthusiastic crowd at our dinner and I fell in love with the masks on display.    You can see all my photos right here on Facebook!

Remember when Pluto was a planet, the ninth from the Sun? I do.

PlutoThat’s why it’s so lamentable that Pluto has been downgraded to a (I really hate to use this word) dwarf planet, even a “plutoid.” I’m shaking my head – a plutoid? Really? Those foolish earthlings at the International Astronomical Union!

SF_Bay_area_USGSSee, Julia Bonatti, my protagonist in the Zodiac Mystery series is a San Francisco astrologer, and she worries about Pluto – a lot. She knows just how important the planet is and she’s rather concerned about this downgrade. Knowing that Pluto rules Scorpio and is the natural ruler of the 8th house, she fears vengeance.

Clyde_W._TombaughPluto was officially discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farmer and amateur astronomer. Astrologically, it is associated with nuclear power, the Cold War, and totalitarian states, as well as the birth of psychoanalysis when Freud and Jung began their exploration of the unconscious mind. Carl Jung was an astrologer, by the way. And believe me, a Pluto transit will definitely bring your own shadow to the fore.

New Image Pluto rules detective work and any effort that involves digging under the surface to bring truth to light. It’s a natural for the mystery and thriller world, for astrologers and detectives, and even amateur sleuths like Julia. Given Julia’s current adventure in The Madness of Mercury, and her upcoming ones, she pretty much lives under Pluto’s sway, even if she isn’t a Scorpio. She’s constantly facing mystery and death but astrological clues save the day for her.

Aqr_bodeThe planet (yes, I’m going to call Pluto a planet) is one-sixth the mass of our Moon with an extremely eccentric orbit. It takes 248 years to make a full circuit of the zodiac and spends between 15 and 26 years in each sign!

Now if you know anything at all about astrology, you’ll know that when a Pluto transit hits a sensitive point in your chart, it’s best to hide under the bed and wait oh . . . about a year . . . maybe longer . . . for it to go away. You might cry a lot.  Astrologers have great respect (if not fear) of Pluto. Like Shiva, the destroyer and creator, it tears down what is no longer needed in your life. You probably won’t agree, but resistance is futile. It transforms and makes way for new growth and renewal and it’s often painful! I repeat, you might cry a lot.

Aquarius_zodiac_sign,_Jantar_Mantar,_Jaipur,_India I’m not alone in missing Pluto. A principal investigator with NASA’s mission to Pluto, stated that “the definition stinks . . .” Online petitions have urged the IAU to consider reinstatement and everyday citizens have also rejected the change, claiming they have always known Pluto as a planet and will continue to do so.

The CaliPlutoCharonfornia State Assembly facetiously called the IAU decision a “scientific heresy.” The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a resolution in honor of Tombaugh, its discoverer, who was a longtime resident of that state and declared that Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies. March 13 has been named Pluto Planet Day there. The Illinois Senate passed a similar resolution in 2009 on the basis that Tombaugh was born in Illinois.

I hope you’ll join me in honoring Pluto. It’s not always a friendly planet, but it’s essential to show your respect for the forces of death, decay and transformation.