Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where's a good plot when you need one?

DON'T YOU JUST want to slap the next person who blurts out the overused phrase, "Get a life!"?

I have a life. In fact, with writing and teaching and baby-sitting grandchildren, I have more than enough lives.

Truth is, what I need right now is a plot. Not a cemetery plot, a story plot. A plot is similar to a life, but it's fiction and has a deadline — although I suppose you could argue that life does, too.

I'm glad I have a life because writing a column every couple of weeks requires it. If I don't experience something interesting, then I have nothing to write about. But when writing fiction, that's — to use another overused phrase — "another story."

Making stuff up is much like being a good liar, only you have to lie for about 300 pages. And for that, you need a plot.

After writing two books in my new mystery series, I need a plot for my third. I've already poisoned a bride, drowned a socialite, bludgeoned a philanthropist, and creatively murdered several other fictional characters. I've got the murder stuff down. What I need now is a cleverly twisting story full of red herrings, misdirection, and cliffhangers.

And it has to sound like real life.

Therein lies the problem. While I have "a life," it doesn't include mayhem, malice or murder. Living here in the valley, while it has its ups and down like any valley, is mostly peaceful and pleasant.

If I want drama, I turn on the TV and watch shows like "The Mentalist," "Castle," and "Criminal Minds." Sometimes these shows give me ideas for my own plots. But I have to be careful I don't steal the stories outright. That could lead to courtroom drama of another kind.

At book signings, I'm often asked, "Where do you get your plots?" My fellow writers usually give a witty response, like "At the plot store" or "Walmart." But the truth is, plots are difficult to come by, especially when your amateur sleuth isn't a police officer or attorney or private detective. Plots just seem to fall into their laps.

In my new series, my protagonist is a party planner. Only problem is, so many people have been dropping dead at her parties, she's going to be out of business soon. That's called the "Jessica Fletcher Syndrome."Remember how Jessica Fletcher, in "Murder She Wrote," was always tripping over dead bodies in quaint little Cabot Cove? It's a wonder there was anyone left in the town. So who's going to hire Presley Parker to host a party when inevitably one or more of the guests will be found dead in the punchbowl? In real life, her "Killer Parties" business wouldn't last the party season.

But luckily, writing fiction isn't like real life. You can make up anything you want. That's called plotting. And now I'm right back where I started this lament.

Maybe I should take a break from the world of fiction and get back to real life by throwing a party, with finger foods (not literally) and chocolates (poison-free). And, what the heck, signed copies of "How to Host a Killer Party."

I just hope no one falls facedown in the punch bowl. I'd like to keep fiction and real life separate as much as possible.

Join me Monday, Feb. 8 from 7 to 9 p.m. for a book-release party at Peasant and the Pear restaurant, 267 Hartz Ave., Danville.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Penny Warner pens a culinary mystery

This appeared in the Times, Herald, Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune.

By Jackie Burrell
Contra Costa Times

Forget those locked-room mysteries of yore.

These days, some of the hottest crime fiction revolves around caterers and chefs. The latest author to venture into culinary mystery territory is Danville's Penny Warner, whose Bay Area hero — party planner Presley Parker — runs into homicidal high jinks all over the Bay Area, starting with an Alcatraz wedding gone awry.

Gourmet mayhem may not seem like a recipe for bestsellerdom, but there's no denying the genre's popularity. Perhaps the best known practitioner is best-selling author Diane Mott Davidson, whose Colorado caterer Goldie Schultz trips over corpses as often as she slurps up high-octane espressos — which is to say, every few hours.

The stories are fun and frothy, and the recipes for Fatally Flaky Cookies, Sour Cream Cherry Coffee Cake and the like are so tasty, many have found their way into avid readers' permanent recipe files. Davidson's 15th book, "Fatally Flaky" (William Morrow, 336 pp., $25.99), will be released in paperback this spring.

Other popular authors who mix Bearnaise with poison include Jerrilyn Farmer and her Hollywood party planner hero, Madeline Bean; Katherine Hall Page and her New England caterer (and preacher's wife) Faith Fairchild; and San Francisco native and UC Berkeley grad Joanna Pence, whose books revolve around sometime chef Angie Amalfi.

The much-published Warner is an Agatha award-winning author whose books include the Connor Westphal mystery series and a Nancy Drew handbook. "How to Host a Killer Party" (Signet, 320 pp., $6.99) lands on store shelves Feb. 2 and it's a lark. No recipes, which may be just as well, considering what the corpses-to-be ate just before, er, exiting the party. But there are plenty of hosting tips, including, "Like MacGyver, a good event planner can fix any party mishap with a toothpick, duct tape, or some crepe paper. Especially those pesky blood spatters."

Meet Warner at her book launch party from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 8 at Danville's Peasant & the Pear, or at readings at the libraries in San Leandro (Jan. 30), Castro Valley (Feb. 16) and Antioch (Feb. 22), at Pleasanton's Towne Center Books (Feb. 26), and San Mateo's M is for Mystery bookstore (March 3). Details:

Sunday, January 17, 2010


My daughter Rebecca is due to have a baby at the end of the month. She’s asked us to babysit two-year-old Luke during her stay at the hospital. The last time she went to the hospital to have her first baby, she asked us to take care of her cats. I’m afraid this time will involve a little more than opening up a can of foul-smelling food and setting it on the floor of the garage.

To make sure we were up for the task, my daughter decided to give us a test run.

Now, back in the day when we had young children, we were so grateful to get out of the house alone, we didn’t insist that Grandma Mary follow a bunch of babysitting rules. She could have fed them chocolate for dinner and let them watch horror movies and we’d have been happy, as long as the kids were alive when we got back.

But my daughter isn’t quite as grateful as I was. So when they went off to a wedding last weekend, I figured all we’d have to do was feed Luke some dinner (at the table), play Buzz Lightyear for a while, and then put him to bed. No sweat; we’d raised two kids of our own.

And then she gave us “The Rules.” Seriously. Here’s an excerpt from her manifesto.

“Food Rules:
1. Please hide your cookies and chips and candy.
2. If he’s thirsty, give him hot milk, heated to 110 degrees for one minute in the microwave, in his Mickey Mouse sippy cup.
3. When he’s hungry, pick one food from each category:

“Breakfast: Category 1:
a. Whole grain frozen waffles with cinnamon—cut into fourths. Put a piece in his hand and he might feed himself.
b. Peanut butter on whole wheat toast—cut into fourths—then feed him bites.
c. Sesame seed bagel with cream cheese—cut into fourths. He might feed himself but never has for me.

“Category 2: a. Precooked refrigerated bacon – two pieces. Microwave for a minute so it’s extra crispy and he won’t choke.
b. Precooked frozen sausage – two pieces. Microwave for 1 minute, cut into little bites, and feed him with a fork.
c. Bowl of dry cereal: Cheerios or Crispex (he calls them spikeys.)”

Lunch and dinner meals are even more complicated so I won’t go into those. Let’s move on to Bedtime.

“Bedtime: Give him warm milk at 7:30 and bring him into his bedroom. While he’s drinking it, change his diaper (standing up) and put him in his Lightning McQueen PJ’s. Then tell him to pick out a story. When you finish the last story, give him his ‘wu’ (blanket), pick him up, and go say goodnight to Benny and Roxy (cats) and everything in his room. Turn on the sound machine, select “Wind,” and turn the light off. Tell him that everyone (including Spiderman) is going to sleep. Get him his bat and his ball (they should be in his crib) and rub his back. Then say “Good night, Buddy” and “I love you,” walk out and close the door. If he cries, start the timer for three minutes. then go in and repeat the process. Do this at least three times before you give up.”

By then it’ll be time for some chocolate and a horror movie.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Hi Rhys,
I’ve been looking forward to guest blogging on Jungle Red—what a great site! And what a great bunch of mystery writers. I’ll bet you all put on some great parties—lots of jungle prints with splashes of red, poison chocolates, a game of Truth or Dare... Now, on to the interrogation…I mean, interview…

Where did this interest in party planning come from?

It all started when I was three and had my first birthday party. I got to dress up like a princess, invite all my friends over, open a bunch of presents, and eat chocolate cake decorated with M&Ms. I knew from that point on that parties were my destiny. Trouble was, my birthday only came around once a year, so I had to think up other reasons to party. (Don’t you love that “party” is also now a verb, as in “to party!”)

Tell us about your new sleuth

Presley Parker (named after Elvis—her mother was a big fan), was recently downsized at her abnormal psychology teaching job at San Francisco State University. Forced to move from her Marina apartment and find work, she ended up renting a condo on Treasure Island and setting up her new business in an old barracks there. Her mother, once the party queen of San Francisco café society, encouraged her to try the event-planning business, since Pres often helped her mom at various functions. Reluctantly Pres gives it a try, promising herself she’ll donate a percentage of her profits to important causes like the Alzheimer’s Foundation—her mother has early stage Alzheimer’s. After the City’s premiere party planner mysteriously dies, Presley finds herself hired to plan Mayor Davin Green’s “surprise” wedding on notorious Alcatraz—with a “ball-and-chain” theme. But a major party foul occurs when the bride-to-be is later found dead floating in the bay, a victim of poisoned chocolates. When Presley becomes prime suspect, she gets help from her quirky Treasure Island co-workers, as well as the mysterious crime scene cleaner Brad Matthews who helps tidy up her tarnished reputation. She realizes that if she doesn’t solve this mystery, she’ll be exchanging her party dress for prison stripes.

You're not new to the mystery genre, but your former series, featuring a deaf sleuth, Connor Westfall, was serious and dealt with many social issues. This one is all fun. Which is closer to the real Penny Warner?

I love them both, but I have to admit, since I majored in partying the first two years at the University of Oregon, I’m more like Presley. Unfortunately, they didn’t offer a degree in the subject, so I got my teaching credential and taught deaf kids and sign language for a number of years. Still, I never gave up my love for hosting creative parties, and began writing books on the subject for both kids and adults. It’s not easy juggling a life of partying with teaching and writing, but thanks to my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—Presley and I also have this in common), I manage.

You're a lady of many talents--you've written children's mysteries and a non-fiction Nancy Drew bible. Obviously you have a strong connection with children. Were you ever a teacher?

I’ve been teaching Child Development and Psychology at the college level for the past 30 years. My readers often question why a child development instructor would want to write murder mysteries. I think, when you raise children, it’s obvious, but I do promise my readers that no children—or cats—are harmed in the making of my mysteries.

What is next for you and your sleuth?

I plan to have a margarita, but my sleuth has, what you’d call “a life,” so she’s busy hosting parties. In her next book, HOW TO CRASH A KILLER BASH, she plans at Murder Mystery Party at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Naturally, someone winds up deader than a decaying artifact. When she’s finished solving that case, she’ll head to the Winchester Mystery House and learn HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE.

When is the new book out in stores?

Tuesday, February 2—any time after midnight…And it’s only $6.99!

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I SPENT A LONG TIME making my list of New Year's resolutions — about as long as it takes for me to shower. That's where I do my best resolution work.

I came up with a bunch of resolutions that I plan to keep this time — more or less.
Caveat: This should not be considered a legal document.

First, I plan to save more money and shop less. That means I'll buy underpants and other necessities by the crate at the big-box stores instead of hitting the mall twice a day.
Caveat: Unless there's a sale at Victoria's Secret.

I plan to exercise more and sit less on my rear. That means I'll get my own snack from the refrigerator when I'm hungry instead of waiting for my husband to return home from work and bring it to me.
Caveat: Unless my grandson is tall enough to reach the snack shelf.

I plan to cook more and dine out less. That means the kitchen will be littered with snack wrappers and frozen food boxes instead of doggy bags and restaurant receipts.
Caveat: Unless there's a new menu at the Peasant and the Pear.

I plan to spend more time with my grandchildren before they're all grown up and less time doing things that can wait. That means I'll be playing Mario Brothers marathons and having tea parties instead of showering, brushing my teeth and changing out of my bathrobe.
Caveat: Unless I have an urgent scrapbooking page to complete.

I plan to clean the house more and let the cat hair pile up less. That means I'll be buying a new vacuum cleaner (because there may be an actual cat in the old one), instead of just moving to a new house.
Caveat: Unless the Winchester Mystery House goes up for sale.

I plan to use Facebook more and e-mail less. That means I can send all my Facebook friends the same personal note all at once instead of copying and pasting it into an e-mail over and over.
Caveat: Unless I push the wrong button and send an embarrassing mass message that features video footage of my colonoscopy.

I plan to diet more and weigh less. That means I'll have to cut out all food instead of trying to duct tape my pants together.
Caveat: Unless it's chocolate. Obviously.

I plan to read more books and watch less TV. That means I'll be looking for books with titles like "E! News Daily" and "So You Think You Can Dance" instead of wasting time watching them on TV.
Caveat: Unless there's a Three Stooges marathon on.

I plan to be a more hip and inspiring teacher like Will Schuester on "Glee" and a less boring lecturer like that guy from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." That means I'll sing and dance to cool music in class instead of blabbing on about the "theoretical frameworks and cultural rituals of childhood in the diverse contexts of ecological semiotic, and sociolinguistic terms."
Caveat: Unless they boo me off the stage.

Yep, these are my New Year's resolutions. More or less. Unless...