Friday Five: Francis Sparks

Today’s Friday Five focus is Francis Sparks, author of mystery/thriller and fantasy short stories and novels.

Francis Sparks lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his amazing wife Kelly. If he’s not working on his next novel or short story, you can find him teaching his children about dragons.

His debut novel, Made Safe, depicts the gritty underbelly of the American heartland. For Private Investigator Moses Winter, the job just got more complicated. His adultery case has taken a violent turn landing the subject of his investigation, Fred Dunsmore, in the hospital and Moses in jail. Moses is held for questioning along with his erratic client, Sharon Dunsmore, and Fred’s mistress, a Bosnian refugee who just happens to be related to the DCI agent investigating the case, Raif Rakić.

After Rakić secures their release, Fred goes missing, and Moses Winter finds himself compelled to find him. With the assistance of Rakic, Moses unravels Fred’s ties to Des Moines’s underworld and is forced to confront the most heinous crimes of his career.

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Francis Sparks1. What was your attitude towards reading when you were a kid?

I was awful at doing assigned readings of the classics in high school but starting in fifth grade I had my nose in a book from then on. Mostly fantasy novels.

2. If you could pick just one book to read for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

I would pick WAR AND PEACE. First of all I would finally have to finish it. Second I think it is such a massive work that I could read and re-read for many years and still find things that I’d missed.

3. What are some of your favorite words and why?

You know, there are certain words that I can’t put into a sentence because I associate them so closely with a particular work almost like they’re an actor who’s been typecast. I will say I’m sure I overuse words that I’m not aware of but I’m not sure I have favorite words. I try to write original sentences as much as I can and avoid cliche.

4. Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? How do you deal with this?

I think it can be difficult to write any scene where someone does something abhorrent or evil because I try to always come back to the axiom that this person doing this thing doesn’t see themselves as being evil. They are the hero of their own story. So how do you get inside their head and understand how they can justify to themselves what they are doing. I’m not sure I have a good way of dealing with it other than to keep trying to figure them out.

5. What’s your current writing project and what are your writing plans for the near future?

I fell into a project of a lifetime. A retired New Jersey detective contacted me last summer to help him tell the story of his lifelong pursuit of one of the most prolific cat burglars in history. We’ve been working on it since then and are now querying the proposal. I never thought I’d write nonfiction but it has been a great experience.

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Made Safe is currently available on Amazon.

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Summer 2018 goal review

Every 3 months or so, I take a look at the goals I’ve set for the year and then write about how little progress I’m making on them. Here’s the update for this summer.

1. Better time management.

This year, I’ve been tracking how I manage my time. I can’t say I’ve gotten more productive, but I can definitely see how I’m wasting my time – or maybe not wasting it, but spending it on things I shouldn’t be spending it on.

crochet figures

Homework can wait – this crocheted princess needs crocheted dating options!

Part of my problem is that without deadlines and a full schedule, I tend to drift. I think I have all the time in the world, and then bam – I haven’t done anything I intended. I’ve been keeping a to-do list, and now the next step, I think, is to impose deadlines. And find a way to make them meaningful, since I know they’re arbitrary.

2. Publish to Medium at least weekly.

I’m at 19 for the year, not counting two table of contents posts. I should be at about 25-30, to meet my goal. Still an achievable goal.

3. Publish a stand-alone novella or short story collection quarterly.

Still hasn’t happened – see goal #1 for why. I have a month until school starts up and I hopefully start working in a school again, so if I can get my time management under control, I can still crank out a couple longer works this summer.

4. Grow my reader base, whether on social media, my newsletter, or Medium, by at least double. So, 600 followers on Facebook, 1500 followers on Twitter, 200 followers on Medium, and 3000 mailing list subscribers.

Facebook: 309.

Twitter: Still hovering around 864-868. It seems like for every follower I gain, I lose the same amount.

Medium: 235! Let’s up this to 400 for the year.

Mailing list: 10 new subscribers this year, but nowhere near that 3000 mark.

5. Post to my blog at least twice a week, and promote those posts to get more traffic here.

I’ve posted once since the last update. Gonna have to up my game here.

6. Read 100 books.

58 so far this year, which is 6 ahead of schedule. I just got home this week from a month in Thailand and southeast Asia. Between the flights, overnight train rides, and that day spent just chilling in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur because my stupid bank wouldn’t let me use any ATMs and we had no money to do anything, I’ve been able to read a ton.


At this point, it’s just a matter of finding the willpower to meet my goals. There’s nothing standing in my way and keeping me from writing, except myself. Any suggestions for imposing discipline on yourself are much appreciated!

If you’ve set goals for yourself, how’re they going so far this year?

Being true to the story by killing your darlings

murdered potato

image from Pixabay

I’m working on a story that’s decided to set itself in Baltimore. I’ve never been to Baltimore, so in the interest of research I started watching The Wire. While my characters aren’t nearly as hardcore as those on the show, it’s been a great showcase of an often overlooked part of American life.

If you’ve never seen The Wire, it follows two storylines: that of a unit of the Baltimore PD trying to bring down a drug empire, and that of the leaders and minions of the empire. It’s a gritty show that doesn’t shy away from violence, and without giving any spoilers, it’s best not to become attached to any characters because no one is untouchable on this show.

I watched an interview with one of the creators, who talked about the decision to kill off a popular character in the third season. This character was a favorite, although he was also beyond reprehensible. The creator basically said that killing off the character was best for the story (which I agree with), and to keep him alive would be only to do so for the sake of the character, not the story.

I thought about that with my own stories. I’ve killed a lot of characters, some of whom readers wanted left alive because they liked the character, but as a writer I need to do what the story calls for. And sometimes that means killing off a character.

Readers, how do you feel when a character you like gets killed off?

Spring 2018 goal review

Every 3 months or so, I take a look at the goals I’ve set for the year and then write about how little progress I’m making on them. Here’s the update for this spring.

1. Better time management.

I’ve been tracking my activities every day, so I can easily tell what I accomplish (lots of crocheting and Duolingo) and what I don’t (all my writing stuff). That said, I’ve been pretty good at keeping up with school work this semester and not leaving it all to the last minute. Well, mostly.

2. Publish to Medium at least weekly.

I’ve published 15 stories on Medium in 2018, which averages out to just slightly under weekly. My publishing frequency is more sporadic than I’d like, and the stuff I’m putting up is a mix of old and new, but overall I’m doing pretty good with this one.

3. Publish a stand-alone novella or short story collection quarterly.

I haven’t done this yet. I have about a week left of classes and then this (and my dissertation proposal) is my priority for the summer. I have a bunch of stuff started and outlined; I just need to sit down and write.

4. Grow my reader base, whether on social media, my newsletter, or Medium, by at least double. So, 600 followers on Facebook, 1500 followers on Twitter, 200 followers on Medium, and 3000 mailing list subscribers.

Facebook: 308 (pretty sure FB is cleaning house, because as soon as I get a new follow it drops back down)

Twitter: I’ve been hovering around 864-868 for the past six months. Ugh.

Medium: 203! Looks like I need a stretch goal here.

Mailing list: 2 new subscribers this year (I’m too lazy to look up the number).

I’m hoping to get some gains when I release something.

5. Post to my blog at least twice a week, and promote those posts to get more traffic here.

This post is #14 for 2018, which averages a bit under once a week. I intended to do the A to Z challenge, but life and school got in the way and I fizzled out.

6. Read 100 books.

I’m at 38 for the year, which is 5 ahead of schedule. I tend to read a TON on long flights – the flights to and from India in January pushed me ahead – and I’ll be flying to Thailand in a month, so I expect to stay ahead with this one for awhile.


I’m doing decently right now, by which I mean I’m only slightly behind instead of way behind like I usually am. I need to up my writing output by a ton, but with summer break right around the corner, I don’t really have an excuse not to start meeting my goals. Although I’m sure I’ll find one.

If you’ve set goals for yourself, how’re they going so far this year?

Friday Five: Edwin Peng #AtoZChallenge

A to Z challenge 2018 EToday’s Friday Five focus is Edwin Peng, author of YA science fiction short stories, novellas, and novels.

Edwin Peng lives in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska, with his beloved Pokémon buddy, Eevee. During the day, he indulges in super-villainy by performing high-power laser research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At night, his secret identity is that of a literary superhero fighting to make the Young Adult Science Fiction genre less clichéd and more inclusive. He is the author of the Star City series, which features bad-ass heroines and space aliens who love blueberry pies. The first novel was released by Evolved Publishing on December 4, 2017.

Star City is the first book in the Star City series. When space aliens make contact with Earth, 18-year old Emma Smith is ready to serve. She answers the call of the United States State Department for the college freshmen to serve as student ambassador to the visiting Ba’ren delegation. As political struggles intensify between feuding human and Ba’ren factions, anti-alien sentiment on Earth reaches a lethal pitch. Emma is determined not to be a pawn in this complicated game of life and death and must risk everything to help maintain the fragile peace between the two species.

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Edwin Peng1. If you could pick just one book to read for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

If I’m stranded on a deserted island, it would have to be Robinson Crusoe.

2. What are some of your favorite words and why?

According to my editor, I use “very” a lot in my manuscript, so I guess that would be my favorite word.

3. What is the most important thing that people DON’T know about YA/sci-fi, that you think they need to know?

YA is a lot more than – or at least, CAN be more than – novels about abusive, glittering vampires. There are so many aspiring and current authors who are writing quality YA novels. Ignore the disparaging stereotypes about YA and its readers – try some yourself!

4. Where do your inspiration and ideas for your stories come from?

There were many sources of inspiration for Star City. My dayjob as postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides plenty of ideas about future scientific discoveries and technologies. History, economics, and linguistics provided many of the ideas found in the Star City series. For instance, the many attempts at constructing an universal language for all humans is what I had in mind when creating Ba’zek, the language of the Ba’ren.

5. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever researched for your works or biggest/most out-of-the-ordinary thing you’ve done while researching?

Researching sounds for the Ba’ren language is fascinating – and can make you look weird when you’re straining your facial muscles to make weird sounds.

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Star City is currently available on Amazon.

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Thursday Things: Dyrhólaey #AtoZChallenge

A to Z challenge 2018 DI went to Iceland over spring break, and let me tell you – four days is NOT enough time there. We spent a day in Reykjavik, a day doing the Golden Circle circuit tour, a day driving along the southern coast, and a morning horseback riding around the volcanic fields before flying out.

I was especially excited to explore the southern coast. We didn’t get a chance to go to the Sólheimasandur plane crash site – it was cold and drizzly, and we didn’t have enough time in our schedule to walk a mile or two each way to the site – but we did get to some other famous places, like several beautiful waterfalls.


We also made it to Dyrhólaey, which is a park overlooking the black sand beaches that show up in Icelandic metal videos, especially Sólstafir’s “Miðaftann.” And I’m pretty sure some clips from their video for “Fjara” were shot around here too.

My short story, “The Beach,” was partially inspired by Solstafir’s “Fjara” (which is Icelandic for beach, by the way). Even though I’d only seen videos and pictures of the area before I wrote the story, I envision it being set here. I imagine Pría, the main character, standing on this beach watching her true love’s funeral barge float out to sea, then walking along it later as she’s about to give birth to their son.

I’m not a fangirl by any stretch, but there was something amazing about standing in the spot where some of my favorite songs’ videos were made, where my story took place too. It’s a feeling that makes me want to go back to Iceland, this time for several weeks, and just wander the countryside. Who knows what kind of stories I’ll come up with?

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About “The Beach:”

When Pría’s true love is killed before they can marry,
she must decide how to stay true to his memory while moving on with her life.

Available to read for free on Medium,
and it’ll also be included in my upcoming short story collection, Unkept Women

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Thursday Things is a weekly-ish feature highlighting little known facts, ideas, and stories behind my stories. Is there something you want to know more about? Let me know!


Crochet as stress relief #AtoZChallenge

When I was in college, I taught myself how to crochet. It was a great way to keep my hands busy while watching TV, and now I frequently do it while listening to lectures for my online classes. it’s also something to do on long car rides (when I’m not driving, of course!), since I can’t read due to extreme motion sickness.

It’s also very relaxing for me. Counting stitches, as well as figuring out the symmetry and stitches to make a particular shape, helps me clear my mind.

I started out with blankets, but what I really like making now are little things: finger puppets, stuffed animals, and especially miniatures. Maybe it’s because they’re easier to do on the go? It’s one thing to work on a blanket while sitting at home on the couch; it’s another thing entirely to take into work when I’m watching the kids play basketball in the gym.

I’ve also moved on from other people’s patterns to my own. Sometimes I write them down, and sometimes what I make is a one-off. For example, I made a lizard, and then I made a dozen baby lizards with the same pattern.big lizard

I also use the same basic pattern for all my finger puppets.


Then, of course, I run into a problem – what do I do with a dozen crocheted lizards, gnomes, Minions, monsters, and whatever else I end up making?

So, I branched out and offer everything on Etsy. I currently have a dozen or so listings, but I’m always adding new stuff. I also have some stuff available through my crochet Facebook page (stuff like the Minions finger puppets, which I can’t sell on Etsy since they’re licensed), plus I’m always open to requests!Octopus fight

Every day this month, I’m participating in the 2018 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Please take a moment to check out some of the other blogs that are participating.

Media Monday: Australian thrillers #AtoZChallenge

A to Z Challenge 2018 AThe books: Broometime Seranade by Barry Metcalfe and Crossings by Ashley Capes

The music: “Straight Lines” by Silverchair

It’s a well-known fact that everything in Australia is trying to kill you, so why would books set there be any different?

In Crossings, wildlife ranger Lisa is puzzled when kangaroo entrails show up outside her house. She thinks it’s her abusive ex, until a bunch of people start dying. She’s busy trying to find the culprit, but she’s having a hard time focusing because her dad has dementia and needs her full attention. And then wildfires come through, along with a giant ghost kangaroo because it’s Australia and did I mention, everything – from the people to your own mind, from the weather and landscaping to giant ghost kangaroos – is trying to kill you! This book is a great mix of suspense and paranormal, with a relatable main character, a fast-moving plot, and wonderful imagery that pulls you right in.

The second book, Broometime Seranade, also features death because that’s what happens in Australia. Special Australian-equivalent-of-the-FBI/CIA agents Martin and Claire are sent to a coastal town to investigate a bunch of bodies that have been discovered in the area. As they investigate further, trying not to blow their cover and enjoying the beautiful beach, they soon discover that there are darker forces at work than just the average murderer – a foe more powerful than they can imagine, who’s laid a trap they’ve walked right into. Also, there are spiders in this book. Lots and lots of spiders that are okay with killing. Because of course.

The music I’ve picked is in keeping with the theme coming from Australia. ACDC is probably the best Australian band ever, but who can forget Silverchair? Everyone, probably, because did you know that the singer married Natalie Imbruglia, the band members are almost 40, and they released a new album in 2007? Me neither. This song is off that album. As you can see, they’ve changed a bit in the last 20 years. But in true Aussie fashion, this video seems to be the band members running from something probably trying to kill them.

Every day this month, I’m participating in the 2018 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Please take a moment to check out some of the other blogs that are participating.

Media Monday: Fairy tale noir

Media MondayThe books: The Twisted Files by Sonya M. Black

The music: “Tourniquet” by Rasputina

The Twisted Files are, as the title of this post suggests, fairy tale noir: retellings of classic fairy tales, set in a seedy world of murder and mayhem, that take the form of crimes that need to be solved by a gumshoe and his assistant who don’t always follow the rules.

The first book, The Snow White Files, introduces us to PI Brendan Hunter as he’s hired by a clan of dwarves to find a missing girl. He finds himself in the middle of a political power struggle between dwarves, sirens, and a wicked witch.

The second book, The Riding Hood Files, takes us further into this world as Brendan’s assistant, Stasia Weatherly, finds herself in a power struggle of her own – one funded by synthetic pixie dust and perpetuated by shifters.

Taken together, they’re a fast-paced and refreshing look at fairy tales every reader is familiar with, but with a twist in that the plot of the fairy tale, and it’s characters, are used to advance a very modern, arcing storyline. Black does a great job with her dark, criminal-mastermind updates.

The accompanying song, “Tourniquet,” is probably more recognizable in its original form by Marilyn Manson, but this twist makes it somehow darker, by adding a whimsical flair that makes the lyrics that much creepier.


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