Monday, August 31, 2009

Creative Chrysalis

by Julia Buckley
I've always thought myself to be a creative fellow; I have ideas, I write them down, and I end up creating imaginary worlds. I once blogged here about inherited genes, and the fact that the love of words and writing can be passed on genetically--that in fact I think I did inherit those things from my mother.

Now I look at the creative output of my own children and I am amazed by the raw power of their wordplay. The other day I chanced upon a dialogue my son had with his cousin Dan. They are both fourteen, both starting high school. They are good friends, but they live 30 minutes apart and only see each other every couple of months. So they chat online, or they talk on Facebook.

One day they had this electronic conversation, and Ian saved it to his files because he thought it was funny.

To me, it is the chat of young people in love with language (thank goodness they still exist!). And I wonder if these two will be thriller writers in ten or twenty years.

Ian
Ello, then.

Dan
Ello, chap. Tally ho.

Ian
What what? Blimey!

Dan
But Gov'nor, you'll contract a rare case of glaucoma!

Ian
Not if I can help it. Retract the Niherney Formula, and fast!

Dan
I would if I could, but I am not able.

You'll have to consult the Wry Humor division if you ever want to see little Sophie again.

Ian
Then we must redouble our efforts at Fort Neighberger. Oh, by all means, kill little Sophie. I have no need for her now. (Maniacal laughter).

Dan
(sharp, terse inhalation) You cur!

Fort Neighberger has seceded thrice since last Septwain!

Ian
You’re the only cur here, Mondaingo. Your inepttitude is outdone only by your own misanthropy.

Dan
Hah! You can't even spell ineptitude. Therefore, Team Irresistible Flamingo wins by default.

(whispering) Fort Neighberger will be mine! (cackles).

Ian
So I accidentilly hit an additional t . It won't matter once the Wininski files go public.
Dan
You appall me. I am appalled. In case you didn't know, Mendelson, my old grandplanker was killed by an extra T!

And furthermore, the Wininski files haven't been licensed correctly since the 1920s.

Ian
Your grandplanker was a disgrace to the order. You forget your place, Antoine. You work for Scarlahnka; you think there won't be consequences. Fool.

FOOL!

Dan
I may be a fool, but at least I made the grip-off to Ellis in 0.448848484

Back in...

Back in...

Oh dear.. I seem to have forgotten my revenge lines.

Ian
Don't be an indignant cow, Glamsworth. You know Ellis can't help you now. Moriarity has the codes.

Dan
Moriarty is dead.

Who has the codes?

Ian
Moriarty...dead? It can't be!

Dan
Oh, but it CAN. IT CAN.

And there ended their bizarre exchange, filled with a love of drama, words, phrases, secret agent-sounding cliches, fun surnames, and the joy of creating. Does it make sense? Not at all. Is it funny? I thought so.

Isn't it nice to know that young people still love words and aren't only text messaging each other?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Guest Blogger Debbi Mack on Print Books



Print Books Will Never Die
by Debbi Mack

That headline makes a pretty bold statement, doesn't it? Especially when you consider that e-book sales have skyrocketed, since Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007. It's a small segment of the market now, but it's growing super-fast. So it looks like e-books are for real and here to stay. What with Kindle and services like Smashwords and Scribd, publishers are finally sitting up and taking notice (rather nervously, I would imagine).

On the one hand, e-books can be seen as an author's boon. Why fuss with a publisher when you can issue an e-book? You have the potential to make more money, and as for marketing and promotion, you can do it all online. No expensive book tours, promo mailings or even conference appearances. The days of worrying about getting books in stores will be over. We can all just sit at our computers, update our blogs and Facebook pages, and Twitter to our heart's content. And even attend virtual conferences, like PP Web Con, [http://www.ppwebcon.com/index.html] touted as "The World's First Virtual Mystery Convention." Pretty cool, right?

Well . . . okay, but doesn't it seem like something's missing from this equation? Like actually meeting people? Friending people on Facebook is fine, but is it really the same as meeting an author or reader in the flesh? And you can't buy a fellow author or agent a drink in a "coffee shop" chat room, can you?

And even if our marketing isn't all online, won't in-person marketing change dramatically? For one thing, what will happen to the book signing? When I first started thinking about this, I thought that e-books couldn't be signed. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Yes, I've heard it's possible even now to sign books on certain e-reader devices and may be possible for Kindle e-books, sometime after they start making and selling the Kindle Pen, [http://ireaderreview.com/2009/06/25/kindle-electronic-pen/] which has many uses including writing annotations (and, presumably, signing autographs) within a Kindle e-book. I even heard of a man who attended a book signing with his Kindle, downloaded an e-book on the spot and and asked the author to autograph his Kindle reader. Not the same thing, buddy. But the advent of a signable e-book changes a bookseller's marketing strategy in dramatic ways. Signings are supposed to be events that promote both author and bookseller. The big chains are developing e-readers of their own [http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/07/book-stores-ereaders/] to compete with Amazon. But e-books don't require brick-and-mortar shelf space. Will all bookstores convert to online operations? Will the independents be able to make the adjustment? Will bookstore signings become a thing of the past?

The real question is: will e-books really usurp print books eventually? They have the benefits of low cost, easy purchase and storage, portability, and you can even get them signed electronically. Gee, what's left for print books to boast about? Oh, there's definitely something. There are differences. There are reasons to think that no matter how big e-books get, there will always be a market for print books.

Now, before you go calling me an old fogy or Luddite, consider this. In an age of digital music, iPods and MP3s, guess what product is selling now? Vinyl records. Yes, vinyl records have made a comeback. According to a June 3, 2009 article, "The Vinyl Revival and the Resurrection of Sound" [http://tinyurl.com/ofcb77], "vinyl sales rose 14% between 2006 and 2007, from 858,000 to 990,000. In comparison, CD sales have nosedived over the past three years, from 553.4 million in 2006 to 360.6 million in 2008. MP3 sales grew from 32.6 million to 65.8 million during the same time period, according to SoundScan. And in 2009, vinyl sales figures continue to rise."

So, let's get this straight--CD sales dropped, online music sales rose and vinyl record sales went up, too? And continue to rise? Hmm . . . methinks there's an analogy to be made here.

One of the reasons for the vinyl revival seems to be that the experience of listening to records differs from digital music. I would argue the same for reading print books as opposed to e-books. I don't care what kind of technical wizardry they devise to reduce screen flicker, improve resolution and so on. Reading a printed page will always be slightly different from reading a screen. Even the experience of holding an e-reader differs from that of a print book.).

Another reason is what the article called "the collectible factor." You might be able to collect thousands upon thousands of MP3s and e-books, but you can't display them or hand them around for others to admire. And what will they be worth as collectibles? (There's no such thing as a rare e-book, is there?)

Finally, there's the occasionally amazing album cover art (substitute the word "book" for "album" and you'll see where I'm going with this). Sure, your e-book could have a digital "cover"--but, again, will it provide the same experience as holding a real book with a real cover in your hand? Think of the difference between seeing an original Van Gogh and a digital replica. Yeah, I'd say there's a difference.

Thus, while print books may eventually become less popular than e-books, I don't think they'll disappear. In fact, I think print books are even more likely to survive than their vinyl record counterparts. They can co-exist with e-books and will continue to be enjoyed as keepsakes, collectibles or simply as tangible things.

Oh, and by the way, what's the warranty on your print books? Exactly.



Debbi Mack's novel IDENTITY CRISIS features lawyer-sleuth Stephanie Ann "Sam" McRae in a hardboiled mystery involving a complex case of murder and identity theft. It's available in print through Lulu.com [http://www.lulu.com/content/3923913], Amazon and other online sellers and as--yes--an e-book through Amazon, [http://www.amazon.com/dp/BOO2BWQ676] the Scribd Store [http://www.scribd.com/doc/16358674/Identity-Crisis] and Smashwords. [http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/2451] Debbi's stort stories have been published in CHESAPEAKE CRIMES and The Back Alley Webzine [http://backalleywebzine.com/]. She'll have a short story published in CHESAPEAKE CRIMES 4 coming from Wildside Press in March 2010. Her Web site is http://www.debbimack.com, and she has two fiction-related blogs: Debbi Mack: My Life on the Mid-List http://midlistlife.wordpress.com/] (a few reflections on the writing life) and The Book Grrl [http://thebookgrrl.blogspot.com] (news, reviews and other stuff about all types of books--especially crime fiction--and the publishing industry).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wet Oatmeal Kisses???

By Lonnie Cruse

I recently came across the poem below in a book I was reading . . . and immediately started to cry. Then I dried my tears and typed the poem into a Word document and printed it out for all the young mothers I know, with instructions to keep it handy for a day that will surely come in the future.

If you have small children, this will be you one day. Motherhood is not for sissies. It's tough. It's demanding. The hours are long, the stress level is high, the pay is non-existant except for the perks described below. But it's the best job I ever had. Still have.

Because you never stop worrying about them no matter how old they are, or how married, or how far away them move. (Yes, I do try to be a great mother-in-law.) And then they have kids and your worries double. Triple, maybe? But it's still the best job I ever had. So grab some tissues, read the poem, and see if it resonates with you like it did with me. And Don't forget to kiss your kids today. Wet oatmeal or no.

WET OATMEAL KISSES

The baby is teething. The children are fighting.
Your husband just called and said, “Eat dinner without me.”
One of these days you’ll explode and shout to the kids,
“Why don’t you grow up and act your age?”

And they will.

Or, “You guys get outside and find yourselves something to do.
And don’t slam the door!”

And they don’t.

You’ll straighten their bedrooms all neat and tidy, toys displayed on the shelf hangers in the closet, animals caged. You’ll yell, “Now I want it to stay this way!”

And it will.

You will prepare a perfect dinner with a salad that hasn’t had
all the olives picked out and a cake with no finger traces in the icing
and you’ll say, “Now THIS is a meal for company.”

And you will eat it alone.

You’ll yell, “I want complete privacy on the phone. No screaming. Do you hear me?”

And no one will answer.

No more plastic tablecloths stained with spaghetti. No more dandelion bouquets. No more iron-on patches. No more wet, knotted shoelaces, muddy boots, or rubber bands for ponytails. Imagine. A lipstick with a point.
No babysitter for New Year’s Eve, washing clothes only once a week,
no PTA meetings or silly school plays where your child is a tree.
No carpools, blaring stereos or forgotten lunch money.
No more Christmas presents made of library paste and toothpicks.
No more wet oatmeal kisses. No more tooth fairy.
No more giggles in the dark, scraped knees to kiss or sticky fingers to clean.

Only a voice asking: “Why don’t you grow up?”

And the silence echoes: “I did.”

-Anonymous

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Social Satire: The Fine Art of Skewering with Words

Elizabeth Zelvin

At various mystery events over the course of the year, I’ve been invited to participate in panels on what has been variously called social issues, social commentary, and social satire in mysteries or crime fiction. My experience so far is that as far as author panel questions are concerned, no significant distinction is made among these terms. I, however, consider social satire an approach to fiction that is very different from telling a story with social themes or issues.

Every writer I’ve met who tackles a serious subject in his or her mysteries is determined to tell a good story about likeable characters into which the social theme can be inserted without preachiness or dogma. Many use humor to gain the reader’s empathy with the cause and characters. In satire, the humor may range from witty to savage, and the characters, including the protagonist, have what my father would have called “feet of clay.” Empathy is not the goal.

I’ve always liked the spectrum of moral attitudes in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Characters—and real-life people as well—can be categorized as lawful good (Abraham Lincoln), chaotic good (Robin Hood), chaotic neutral (Dirty Harry? Dortmunder? Bernie Rhodenbarr? Baby Shark?), chaotic evil (Hannibal Lecter), and lawful evil (Hitler). The characters in satire are chaotic neutral at best, even the protagonist.

Satirists make a point by skewering the offending group or ideology. A classic example of satire (in essay form, not fiction) is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he proposed tackling “the Irish problem,” solving overpopulation, poverty, and hunger all at once, by having the Irish eat their children. Satiric movies include those of Robert Altman, who never offers an endearing character, and the Coen Brothers, most of whose characters are chaotic neutrals, although they’re willing to soften the satire with an occasional lovable rascal like the George Clooney character in “Brother, Where Art Thou?” or an amiable character like the pregnant cop in “Fargo.”

True satirists in crime fiction are rarer than social commentators. Carl Hiaasen comes to mind. So does Robert Barnard, especially in his academic novels. Many writers inject a satiric element into their writing through their secondary characters or their villains, who may be vicious, pretentious, obnoxious, or sanctimonious. Reginald Hill, for example, may be satiric about feminism, but Pascoe’s humanity keeps his wife Ellie from going quite over the top. And Dalziel’s charm and intelligence save him from flattening out into a mere sketch of a fat sexist slob.

The late Donald Westlake’s satire had a gentleness that made some of his chaotic neutral characters, like Dortmunder, very endearing. But he could be ruthless too. I once met him at an Edgars-night party and took him to task about making what had struck me as rather cruel fun of fat people in Baby, Would I Lie?, set in the American heartland in Branson, MO. He smiled very sweetly at me and said, “Why should they be exempt?”

One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was from SJ Rozan, who in a blurb for my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, said my characters were “both over the top and completely believable.” The over-the-top part is the satiric element. The completely-believable part is my determination never to subordinate character to satire and my personal preference (not only as a writer, but as a reader and movie-goer too) for endearing characters.

My favorite satiric moment in my own work is in an unpublished mystery set in a New Age community that’s known locally as Woo-Woo Farm. It may not be so funny out of context, but I relish it. The bullying, obnoxious character who will become the victim barges into a “wellness center” and bellows threats at one of the practitioners, interrupting sessions of massage, healing touch, and shamanic journeys. The chiropractor he’s attacking says, “Please lower your voice. This is a Temple of Healing.” And the angry customer roars, “I don’t care if it’s the goddamn end of the rainbow!”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Power of the Situation

Sandra Parshall

Are you a different person when you talk to your mom than you are when you talk to your colleagues? Do you show a different personality and express your views more honestly to your closest friends than to your casual acquaintances?

Most of us would answer yes to both questions. We’re well aware that we don’t present the same face to everyone.

Adjusting our actions and speech to the circumstances and the people we’re with comes naturally to normal humans. Even some decidedly abnormal folks do it too, thus the “He always seemed so nice!” comments from neighbors and co-workers after a serial killer is arrested. Ted Bundy, remember, could be absolutely charming, not just to the women he charmed to death but also to the people who considered him a friend.

Social psychologists say that our adaptive behavior demonstrates “the power of the situation.” K.J. Gergen, a prominent research psychologist, noted that in letters to friends he showed several totally different personalities. “In one,” he wrote, “I was morose, pouring out a philosophy of existential sorrow; in another I was a lusty realist; in a third I was a lighthearted jokester.” He was giving each person what he or she wanted from him.

Experiments have shown that the human urge to adapt is so strong that we do it unconsciously in conversation, responding to the speech rhythms of others. When face to face, we may also adjust our expressions and body movements to those of our conversational partners without realizing we’re doing it. Psychologists Kate G. Niederhoffer and James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas enlisted dozens of students to chat live online to determine whether coordination of word use and sentence rhythm would occur naturally between people who had never seen each other and knew nothing about each other. It did. Even the paired online chatters who rapidly developed a dislike of each other still demonstrated what the psychologists call “linguistic style matching.”

The results, Niederhoffer and Pennebaker wrote in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, suggest that “the way one person constructs a sentence and uses words primes the other person to do the same.” Regardless of the subject being discussed, the participants in the experiments used the same type of language and spoke in sentences of about the same length. “When two people are talking, their communicative behaviors are patterned and coordinated, like a dance.” But unlike a dance, it’s not as simple as who is leading and who is following. Both are constantly making adjustments based on the signals they’re getting from each other.

“If one person interacts in brief bursts,” Niederhoffer and Pennebaker wrote, “the other tends to follow. The pair has constructed an interaction style that maintains itself.”

To test the theory of linguistic style matching in a completely objective way, the psychologists studied many hours of the Nixon White House tapes of Nixon’s discussions of Watergate with his aides Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, and John Dean. They discovered the same “coordinated use of language” taking place, even though one man was clearly the boss and directing the discussions.

When does this mutual adaptation not happen? When one of the participants in a conversation is distracted or simply isn’t interested. People with serious mental illness won’t pick up conversational cues from others. Dyslexia or other learning disabilities may also interfere with the instinct to coordinate speech with that of others.

Reading about all this has made me hyper-aware of dialogue exchanges in novels. Fictional conversation isn’t the same as the real thing, of course – it has to be sharper and leaner – but it must seem genuine to be convincing. I wonder if we sometimes label dialogue as unconvincing because it doesn’t reflect the coordinated rhythm of real-life talk.

In the same way that writers must make invented conversation believable, we have to convey the complexity of a real human being in a story focused on a short period in a character’s life. How well we do it – how many of the character’s “faces” we can show convincingly, without making him or her come across like a split personality -- makes the difference between a flat character and one who lives and breathes in the reader’s imagination.

Do you find yourself consciously adapting your behavior and mood to the people you’re with? Do you do it to avoid friction, or simply because it feels natural and considerate – or because you can’t help it? Are you ever aware of falling into a conversational rhythm with others? Do your characters reflect these common human tendencies?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Merit Badges 3

Sharon Wildwind

Today we have the third in our series of merit badges for writers and readers because we all need an Atta-a-Girl once in a while.

Series Maven
This is the second in our badges for readers as well as writers. Award yourself this badge if you will (or have) gone to any lengths to read a series in order. This includes—but is not limited to—bugging librarians, requesting inter-library loans, sending out general SOS calls for books on the Internet, driving to another city to buy a copy of the book, or paying an exorbitant amount for the one book needed to complete your series.

Right now I’ve been waiting 15 months for book #1 in a particular series. It’s a large print book and the library has had it on long-term loan to nursing homes. It's finally back in circulation and I’m #4 on the wait list! Okay, cause I know someone will ask, it's Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters series.

Book Tour Survivor
Award yourself, and your traveling companions (any of whom you’re still speaking to) this badge if you have done at least 2 of the following:

a) Laughed until you cried listening to other authors describe the machinations of their book tour, only to find out later that everything they said was true and then some.

b) Spent three hours making conversation with two bookstore employees and the store cat because you scheduled your signing opposite a major local sporting event, the Rolling Stones return tour, and/or the worse weather the town has had in 50 years. “We never have hail in October, honest!”

c) You add an extra stop on your tour at the last minute, but without checking a map. Then you find out that the Springfield you thought you were signing in—the one only 30 minutes from your last stop—isn’t the right Springfield at all. The one you’re committed to is half-way across the state, but not to worry. You can still make it if you drive all night.

d) You have eaten the most incredible meals, in the most bizarre circumstances and laughed yourself silly while doing so because you know what a great story this will make at the next convention.

Extreme Researcher
Award yourself this badge when you have done at least one activity from each category listed below in order to research a book:

Research in extreme places
You’ve done any of the following activities for a book: snake or other wild animal handling, skydiving; scuba diving; mountain climbing; rappelling; skateboarding, break dancing, or in-line skating over the age of 55; or cave exploration. Going with a guide through Carlsbad Caverns doesn’t count for the last one. We’re talking the light-on-your-helmet, wedging yourself through tiny holes kind of cave exploration.

Danger pay research
Gone on a ride-along with a police officer or taken a civilian police course; learned to fire a gun or fight with a knife, taken up a martial art, or attended a para-military basic training course. Give yourself full credit, and award yourself the badge, if you served in the military. Research doesn't get more extreme than that.

Researching the law
Done something slightly illegal. If you’ve done something blatantly illegal, I don’t want to hear about it. I’m putting my hands over my ears. I’m not listening. La-la-la-la-la-la-la.
-----
Quote for the week:
As often as not our whole self...engages itself in the most trivial of things, the shape of a particular hill, a road in the town in which we lived as children, the movement of wind in grass. The things we shall take with us when we die will nearly all be small things.
~Storm Jameson, That Was Yesterday, 1932

Monday, August 24, 2009

Things I'll Miss About Summer

by Julia Buckley


The new school year begins today, which is mainly a good thing. I become too sedentary in summer, especially since my main projects include sitting and writing, sitting and reading, and sitting and thinking. The prolonged sitting is not healthy, and my job guarantees that I will be up and down staircases all day long, not to mention burning calories with my popular and animated lectures. Okay, that last one was a fantasy--except that I do become animated when I talk about literature.

In any case, I will be bidding farewell to summer as I knew it. I decided to devote some time to the things I will miss the most about the summer of 2009.

1. Watching the fascinating behaviors of my cats. I thought I was sedentary over the summer! These three creatures seem to spend about an hour in the morning playing intensely--lots of running and ambushing of one another, with fiendish attempts to knock down my breakables along the way. After that, it's siesta time. They have their favorite spots (generally in the sun), and they settle there for long, long naps. Occasionally they stretch and emerge to crunch some food and do a basic house-check. Then it's time for a new nap location and more serious sleeping. This is Rose, the only other girl in the house.
These two are Pibby Tails and Mr. Mulliner.

2. Reading in bed. In summer, when I know I don't have to get up ultra early in the morning, I can devote myself to night-time mysteries and stay up late pursuing answers. I try this in fall, too, but no matter how interesting the book, I tend to fall asleep after less than a chapter. What's the first sign that I'm falling asleep over a book? Waking up with my face smashed into the pages. :)

3. Walking the dog. The poor Beagle doesn't get too many walks during the school year; he's just sent into the back yard and told to do what needs to be done. In summer we have far more time to investigate the neighborhood and, in his case, to sniff every leaf, every interesting blade of grass, every rock or bit of bark he encounters with his long and curious nose. It's fun, though, marching along and watching his tail wag as he gets his daily adventure.


4. Keeping the house clean. In the long and lovely summer, I have leisure to do the basic chores--keeping up with the dishes and the vacuuming and the clutter control. Once we're all back at work and school, this goes out the window, and our house takes on the look of a junk shop with living quarters above it.

5. Lazing with the boys. There's a lot more time to chat with the children during summer, especially if we're all just lazing around on a day with no obligations. These are the days you can ask fun hypothetical questions like "Where would you live if you could live anywhere?" and really spend time on the answers. During the busy year, I mostly ask them things like "What do you have for homework?" and "Did you do your homework?" and "Are you on Facebook instead of doing your homework?" Definitely not as fun.


Here the boys enjoy their two favorite things: the computer, and their fat cat.

6. Lunch with friends. I actually got to meet up with some colleagues this summer at various luncheon dates; this sort of thing is never possible during the year, when the calendar fills up with endless work and school obligations, not to mention all the important social occasions (family birthdays and weddings!) which eat up the weekends and make me feel a bit incarcerated within my engagements.

7. Long evenings. How nice it is, in summer, to realize at eight-o-clock that the night is still young, and that if we want to take a walk or jump in the car for an ice-cream run, it is entirely feasible. In fact, once out and about, we often see that the streets are filled with people who had the same idea. Once the evenings become short and dark, the day feels much shorter and, sometimes, sadder.

Here's a shot I took on a recent summer night.

8. Enjoying the front porch. I spent part of my summer cleaning the porch and hanging up these party lights. I dragged my family out there on many occasions and we pretended we were in some tropical and beautiful place. My husband made rum-free coladas for the boys and rum-ful ones for me, and we told stories or played cards or Apples to Apples, the game my son got for his birthday.


9. Mowing the lawn. You might think this sounds weird; in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, the Stage Manager comments that "One man in ten thinks it's a privilege to mow his own lawn." There are various ways of interpreting that line, but I suppose it comes down to whether you view mowing the lawn as work or as play. I guess I fall somewhere in between. I like maintaining my yard in summer because I get the rewards of all the scents and sounds that mowing the lawn brings, not to mention the pleasant visual of newly-shorn grass.

10. Netflix watch-instantly movies. I really don't get much tv time during the year, but this summer I found pockets of time that I had all to myself. Thanks to the view-instantly feature on Netflix, I occasionally got to take my laptop in one corner and watch a romantic comedy that my boys would never agree to watch in the big tv. It was my little treat to myself, just like every good book is a treat, and it was fun. It took me back to the days of my childhood when my mother, my sister and I would watch the afternoon movie after school--our little reward for a day of hard work and something leisurely to do while dinner simmered on the stove.

Well, enough of my summer thoughts; it's time for me to focus on fall. What were the best things about your summers?

(photos: all taken by me this summer! 2009)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Peggy Webb on Switching Genres

by Peggy Webb (guest blogger)

When writers gather, we always end up talking about writing. The liveliest discussion I’ve had on the topic occurred at Malice Domestic (2009) when I shared a banquet table with Sandy Parshall. Both of us are published novelists. The difference is that Sandy’s background is mystery, and I came to mystery from a background of romance (more than sixty romance novels).

I think I surprised the unflappable Sandy when I said, “Writing mystery is easier for me than writing romance.” She wanted to know more, and so this guest blog was born.


For me, the foundation of any good story, no matter what the genre, is believable, well-developed characters. I fell in love with all my heroes and heroines in romance, and I fell in love with the zany Valentine gang in my Southern Cousins Mystery Series. It was easy to switch from romance to mystery with the same lovable characters who could be your next door neighbors.

The same was true of pacing, voice, conflict, story arc, and resolution. All those elements I had used with such ease in romance followed me like obedient children into mystery.


So what’s the major difference between writing mystery and romance, and why is mystery easier for me? Romance novels are character driven and mysteries are plot driven.

In a strict category romance (this does not include romantic suspense, romantic thrillers, block-buster women’s fiction, etc.) the focus must be kept tightly on the developing relationship between the two major protagonists. Secondary characters and secondary plot lines must be kept to a minimum. It’s up to the author to write a page-turning story built on the slender premise of two people meeting, falling in love, getting ripped apart because of internal and external conflicts, and eventually finding their way back together again. Creating a story that won’t veer away from the central theme while holding readers’ attention as the romance plays out is a very tricky business.

On the other hand, a good mystery requires a dense, complex plot. After I had plotted my first mystery – Elvis and the Dearly Departed – I was astonished to discover that instead of working from a three-page synopsis as I had in romance, I would be working from an eighteen-page, carefully plotted story line. Before I wrote the first word, I knew the victim(s), the major suspects, the identity of the killer, motives and back-story of everybody involved, and how the murder tied into the lives of the Valentine gang (my series characters). All I
had to do was hang the meat of my story on my lovely skeleton, who didn’t have a single bone missing. What fun! At all times during the mystery writing process, I knew what was going to happen next. In romance, I didn’t always know. Because I wrote from such brief synopses, I trusted my characters to inspire and surprise me along the way.

And they did!


Does the Valentine gang, plus Elvis, do the same thing? You bet! I’m having so much fun writing about them I can’t possibly call it work.

Writing in any genre requires talent, commitment and discipline. My experience in two genres is simply one writer’s journey.

How about you? What are your writing experiences? Your reading habits? Are you strictly a mystery buff or do you like to read other genres such as romance, romantic suspense, paranormal? I’d love to know!

The second book in Peggy's Southern Cousins mystery series, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, will be published in September. Visit her web site at www.peggywebb.com.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Saving Ideas . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Once again I'm shocked right down to my socks by a television news story. This one is about a preemie baby yanked out of his crib and carried outside by the family dog. A sixty-five pound dog, by the way, which had been the family pet since puppy hood and had never caused so much as a moment's concern until then. Mom and dad somehow got wind of the dire circumstances while working to make the house safer for the kids and dashed into the baby's room to find him gone. They chased the dog down and found him outside at the edge of the woods near their property . . . without the baby. Then they had to hunt for the baby. And keep in mind, mom had just had this child a few days before and was in no condition to be dashing around in the woods. Dash, she did, locating the baby before dad did.

The child suffered some very serious injuries. Last I heard he was in intensive care, and I don't know if he survived or not. And I'm not making judgments here about whether or not people should have small children and large dogs at the same time. Been there, done that. This was a very unusual case. But it reminds me once again that we writers can NOT write stuff this strange. No one would believe it, even in science fiction. I certainly would have scoffed at a novel containing this baby-napping scenario. Wouldn't you?

Watching or reading about the news can be upsetting. I recently heard one news story that I won't share here because it involved the death of a small child in very unusual circumstances and there's no need all of us having nightmares at the same time. BUT the national news lets us know what's going on in our country and around the world in ways that wasn't always possible many years ago. And while much of it is disturbing, there is a lot that is interesting and some downright funny, like the guy I read about who was arrested for DUI (remember that's DRIVING under the influence) while riding a horse. Who knew?

I have a big fat file full of stories like that, cut from the newspaper or printed off the Internet. So many that I even had to separate them into categories, like accidents, illness (that file includes a graphic picture of a hand swollen from snake bite which I figured I might need to know about someday but still, ick) firearms, etc. When I'm totally dry of writing ideas, I can access that file and see if something sparks inspiration.

And I DO use those ideas. My second book, MURDER BEYOND METROPOLIS, was based largely on the news story I'd read about an accident that happened at a nursing home, killing several patients. My first thought on reading it was "murder!" But a thorough investigation proved it truly was an accident. Never mind, I could still make it into a murder and use it in my story, and I did.

If you are a writer, particularly if you are just getting started, keep a file of news stories that catch your eye. You might want that information later and likely won't be able to find it. And when you come across the truly disturbing stories, try not to let them keep you awake nights. Anybody have a sleeping pill?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Killer Nashville, or How I Got to Play Nashville

Elizabeth Zelvin

I drove 900 miles to Nashville last weekend, not to try my luck on Music Row, but to attend Killer Nashville, a mystery conference sponsored by the national organizations and local chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and conference founder Clay Stafford’s American Blackguard Film and Television. I’m a singer/songwriter myself and a fan of the best of country music. So I’d always wanted to visit Nashville. But I wasn’t sure I’d find time to see the city and hear some of its world-class musicians do their thing. What actually happened was beyond my wildest dreams and a surprise to everyone involved.

I did my homework on the Internet well in advance. Among the artists scheduled to appear live (mentioning only those whose music I know well) were Lari White, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show. The venues included the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluebird CafĂ©, where Sunday night is Writers Night. As I drove 900 miles singing along to my country tapes dating back to 1988, when a Kathy Mattea song “converted” me to this sometimes undervalued music, I wondered if I should have brought my guitar and re-memorized at least one of my own songs, which I haven’t sung in ages. (Music’s on the back burner while I ride the tiger of my mystery career.)

I was assigned to panels (on social commentary in mysteries and building buzz) on the Friday and the Sunday. The awards dinner was on Saturday night, the same night the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. I was torn between showing up for the dinner, not only because I’d been nominated for a Silver Falchion award (as I expected, the beloved veteran author Chester Campbell won it, to everyone’s delight), but also to feel as connected as possible with my fellow attendees and make the most of Killer Nashville. I was willing to settle for Ricky Skaggs on Friday night, but I thought it would be more fun if I had a buddy to go with me. I asked at least half a dozen people. Those coming from a distance had local friends or were traveling with family and had other commitments. And the Nashville author I asked admitted she can’t stand country. So I bought myself a ticket and went by myself. First delightful surprise: by the time I got to the box office to pick up my ticket, Vince Gill had joined the roster. So I got to hear a superstar with the voice of an angel without having to miss the awards dinner.

The dinner was at a local steakhouse. When I arrived, the tables at which I spotted friends were all full. So I took a risk and sat with strangers, and am I glad I did. The lineup included a shrink (me), a horse veterinarian (Linda Black, who won the Claymore Dagger for her unpublished manuscript later in the evening, front center), a lawyer (Linda’s husband Joe), a filmmaker (Phillip Lacy, who works with Clay Stafford, left), a poet (Stephen Wherley, back center), and a Special Agent of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (Dan Royse, who spoke at the conference, right). What a fantastic group of people! By the time dessert came, we were all in love with each other.

And then came the awards: the Magnolia to Beth Terrell, who had talked me into coming to Nashville, the Silver Falchion to Chester, and the Claymore Dagger to Linda. Since it was Nashville, nobody thought it was peculiar when I whooped and hollered for them. Then came the presentation to the Guest of Honor, J.A. Jance. I thought nothing could be cooler than Linda’s dagger, until I saw the gorgeous black acoustic guitar with silver inscription. J.A. Jance was surprised and delighted, especially since she’s famous for singing during her presentations. She doesn’t play guitar (though she’s friends with folk music legend Janis Ian and said she’d ask her for lessons). So instead, author and performer Stacy Allen played the guitar and sang a beautiful Nancy Griffiths song.

I was green with envy. I had to get my hands on that guitar! I’m unlikely to reach guest of honor status as a mystery writer in this life. So I sidled up to Clay Stafford and whispered, “Can I sing a paranormal murder ballad?” To my great pleasure, he said yes, and so did J.A. Jance. So I got to sing “Long Black Veil,” one of the greatest wailers ever. It was written in 1959, and everybody has sung it, including Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chieftains. I think the fact that I sing surprised all the mystery folks, and the big surprise for me was that I hit the high notes without effort—probably thanks to those 900 miles singing along in the car.

So what next? I’m all signed up for the author talent show at Bouchercon. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can you trust your memory?

Sandra Parshall

Forget everything you ever believed about memory.

Neuroscientists have decided they got it wrong the first time around – instead of being hardwired into the brain, unchangeable, a memory is dynamic and can be distorted or drastically altered by current experiences. There may be no such thing as a totally accurate memory.

Of course, ordinary people have always known that we have gaps in our memories, that we sometimes “misremember” things, but we don't seem to doubt the accuracy of the memory itself; we just assume our conscious minds are having trouble accessing it. Police and prosecutors have always known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable – question 20 witnesses to a crime and you’ll probably get 20 different accounts of what happened and what the perpetrator looked like. Yet the human faith in the rock-solid truth of memory is so strong that juries send people to prison solely because eyewitnesses have identified them, and we argue to the point of blows over “what really happened” during a pivotal event.

Until a few years ago, neuroscientists believed that once a memory was physically implanted in the brain, there it stayed in its original form unless destroyed by disease or injury.

The flaw in the old theory of unchanging memory became obvious in the early 1990s when a startling number of people began recalling “repressed memories” of childhood sexual abuse. After a while the situation resembled the Salem witch hunt, which is now considered a sort of group hallucination. Families were torn apart. Innocent people were branded as pedophiles. Some of those memories of abuse may have been real. Some may have been knowingly fabricated. But many were apparently planted in vulnerable minds, however unintentionally, by therapists. A few people heard and read so much about repressed memories that they started believing they’d been abused as kids too. If the false memory of horrifying events could be created by suggestion, what other manipulations of memory were possible?

My own fascination with that question resulted in my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon. Until the final title popped up while I was writing Chapter 11, the book’s working title was Memory. It’s interesting to note that one editor who rejected the book said she simply didn’t believe that anyone’s memory could be manipulated.

That editor’s opinion aside, hundreds of experiments and studies in the past decade have led to the same conclusion: memories are highly malleable, they have a lot in common with imagination, and we are constantly revising them. The more often we recall an event, the more likely we are to embroider it with imagined details, and because it’s so clear in our memories, we’re certain it happened exactly that way. (Hillary Clinton’s account of leaving a plane under nonexistent sniper fire, a story she obviously believed, is a perfect example.)

A memory is a chemical reaction in the brain, involving more than a hundred proteins. Electrical impulses (aka sensory information – sights, tastes, smells, etc.) set the process in motion, and the thing we call a memory ends up in the amygdala, which is the size of an almond, and the tiny, banana-shaped hippocampus. Everything we have ever experienced, thought, desired, feared – everything that makes us who we are – resides in these astonishingly small storage spaces inside our skulls. But we frequently haul out our memories, handle them, share them, expose them to our current experiences, and every time we access them we may change them slightly. Our emotional state today can alter our memories of what happened years ago.

All this may create problems for a prosecutor who needs reliable eyewitnesses, but it may offer a way back to peace of mind for combat veterans, rape victims, and others tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder. Every recall of a frightening memory sets off a chemical reaction in the brain that can reinforce or magnify the original terror. But what would happen if the mind were prevented from making all the chemical connections that produce fear?

A few psychiatrists and psychologists who treat patients with PTSD are taking a new approach based on a better understanding of how the brain processes memories. They give a patient propranolol, a common, safe medication for high blood pressure that also happens to block some of the chemical reactions in the brain that reinforce frightening memories. While the patient is on propranolol, he deliberately calls up the traumatic memory, but because propranolol prevents his brain chemistry from going haywire, he is able to remember the entire experience more calmly. After a series of such “treatments” most patients are no longer at the mercy of their past traumas. Will the benefit last? At this point, no one knows, but if it does, it may lead to new ways of treating anxiety disorders, phobias, even addictions.

Our memories tell us who we are and where we came from. An amnesiac – or a victim of Alzheimer’s – has no identity. Because our memories are essential to our sense of who we are, it’s more than a little scary to admit that they aren’t totally reliable. It’s always disconcerting to find that someone who shared an experience with us remembers it in a radically different way, with details we don’t recognize. With so much scientific evidence of the memory’s malleability accumulating, though, we may have to admit that each of us sees the past through a distorted filter. If researchers could give us a foolproof way to remember where we put our car keys, all the rest might be easier to swallow.

How would you rate your memory? Have you ever argued with your spouse or a friend or a sibling about your differing accounts of an event or a place? Have you ever been shocked to find proof that something you remember vividly didn’t actually happen?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming Soon to a Living Room Near You

Sharon Wildwind

Just in case you’ve missed the hype, Poison Pen Press is holding a virtual mystery convention, in your living room, on Saturday, October 24, 2009. You can check out details at their convention website.

I registered on line and identified myself as an author. They asked if I wanted to participate in some of the activities? Of course, I did. List up to three of my books, with ISBN numbers. That was easy. Did I have a web site? Yep. Did I have a blog? Yep. Was I on Facebook? Yep. Did I Twitter? Yep. Did I have a camera and a microphone and did I want to participate in a virtual video panel? Whoa, wait a minute . . .

Both a camera and a microphone came installed on my computer. Until now, they’ve been toys for when I am really, really bored. The camera comes with Effects: Set 1 and Set 2. Set 2 distorts the photo like a fun-house mirror. I can make a two-headed version of myself, or make my head disappear completely. It’s good for about thirty seconds of mindless distraction. Set 1 is more useful. It produces neat effects, like transforming photos so they appear to have been drawn with colored pencils or taking a thermal image photo.

The microphone is useful for recording such phrases as, “Make it so,” or “Take us up, helmsman. All ahead, steady.” depending on whether I’m playing Star Trek or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea at the time.

But do a real, live convention appearance from my living room? My first and second thoughts were the traditional, “I’ve got nothing to wear!” and “My hair is a mess.” Then came the technical question. Okay, I have the camera and microphone, but how do I use them as real broadcast tools instead of toys. The answer, it seems, is I need software.

Simple enough answer. I’ve mastered enough new software to believe that if I got it, I could figure out how to use it.

Having done a microscopic stint as a DJ on a small-town community-based radio feed—30 minutes of recorded music interspersed with announcements like, “Mavis B. wants her friends to know she’s out of the hospital and feeling better, but won’t be up to visitors for a few days”—I know every one of my audio bad habits. I say “Um” far too much. I get tongue-tied. I like to think about what I’m going to say. Fifteen seconds of dead air is a killer. On the other hand, if I take the time to conjure up my southern accent and drop my voice an octave, I sound killer sexy.

Is killer sexy what I truly want to put out on the Internet, where everything is public, and whatever is posted lasts forever?

My video career was even shorter than my DJ career. I’ve been videotaped a few times at work, doing workshops or panels, and I know, visually, I stink. Hi, my name is Sharon and I’m a fidgeter. I run my fingers through my hair. I slump. I lean either forward or backward when I’m truly interested in what another person is saying. I put my fingers in front of my mouth. I play with my earrings, often managing at the same time to rub my forearm over the lapel mike, creating a shussing sound that completely obliterates what another person is saying.

The deciding factor in me checking no, I DID NOT want to participate in a virtual video panel was that I didn’t want the world to see my living room. I had visions of potential thieves cataloging the goodies visible behind me. Not that we’re talking Royal Dalton china and priceless Japanese woodcuts. More like discount store plastic boxes and an extremely untidy book collection. It still felt like an invasion of privacy, and I didn’t want to go there.

At the same time that I checked no, I envied those writers who were checking “yes.” I know that there are tons of people out there ready to step up the video plate, and that in this, like so many other things, I can’t afford to be left behind for much longer.

You know, the simple solution would be a folding screen. It would only have to be about three feet high. Plain wood framing, and squares of Tenplast. I could even vary the color by using wrapping paper over the Tenplast. Take every thing off the desk behind me (20 minutes work), put the screen up, and I’d have both a neutral background and hide my living room. There’s that lighting thing: how to look good on camera instead of like Dracula’s lunch. A little experimentation should take care of that.

I need a new dress and a good haircut anyway.

I could get the software and practice by making short videos. Which I could post on my web site once I got the bugs out. Bonus.

So maybe this October a video panel isn’t in the works, but maybe by Christmas time? I could do a Christmas message, like the Queen does.

Yeah, right. We’ll see.
________
Quote for the week:

The only way to learn to flip things is to flip them.
~Julia Child, chef, author, and woman who made a mess of flipping a potato pancake on national television, to the relief of many not-so-confident cooks

Monday, August 17, 2009

Age, Humility, and Constellations

by Julia Buckley

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.” I admire his philosophy and in fact I agree with it. At forty-four I am not exactly youthful, but I am comfortable enough to be considered middle-aged, and there are days that I still feel young as a kitten.

That all changed this week when I went on my round of annual medical exams–my yearly pilgrimage before going back to work in the fall. Best to get it all over with while I still have some days off, right? And they say that people who go regularly to their doctors are more likely to remain healthy.

So why is it that my doctors have me feeling old, on the verge of death, like a fiddle who will never be played again?

The first to assault me was my dentist, a cheerful young woman whose eyes twinkled behind her mask. I told her I had a problem tooth–a tooth so sensitive that if I smiled, and the wind happened to blow in my direction, I would wince in pain. “We’ll look at it,” she said. Then she proceeded to dictate all of my problems to her assistant: weakened enamel, receding gums, crowding. “Is this the tooth you mean?” she asked, plunging what felt like a needle into what seemed a raw nerve.

“AHHHHHH!.”

“Mmmm. Yes. You’ve got a great deal of recession there. Would you like me to fill that area in now?”

I hate dental work, and I really wanted out of my chair; the buzzing of the polisher and the cold air on my teeth had almost done me in. “No, I’ll come back,” I said.

“We’ll do one of the lower teeth, too. You also have a large recession there.”

“Okay,” I said bleakly. I made an appointment for the end of August and left.

A couple of days later I made the trip most women dread: the gynecologist and the yearly pap smear. It’s not just the indignity of the ill fitting paper robe or the coldness of the stirrups that makes this journey so daunting; it’s the reality of what a woman is being tested for. The doctor is doing maintenance in the way of any mechanic, looking you over and assessing your proximity to death.

My doctor did my exam and then launched into her list. “You’re taking multivitamins?”

“Yes. When I remember.”

She frowned at her clipboard. “And the calcium supplements?”

“They made me feel bloated.”

“I’ll prescribe a different kind. I see you have some moles on your arm. Did you want them removed?”

“Uh–sure.”

“Do you have others?”

“Well, I’ve always had some on my back . . . .”

A cursory exam had her writing a referral to the dermatologist. “We’ll have them removed. Some of them look iffy. You never know with moles.”

“Ah,” I said, feeling less and less like a fit fiddle.

“Now let’s talk about your cholesterol.”

Ugh. I have always had high cholesterol–apparently the hereditary kind. In the last year I have waged many battles against it. I began to eat fiber everything; I lunched on spinach leaves and snacked on metamucil. I crunched Fiber One squares in the theatre while my family ate buttered popcorn. I took long walks and gave myself hearty, positive talks. I went back to the doctor convinced I had lowered it at least twenty points.

Try two.

My doctor put me on cholesterol medicine, and after two days I had a fever of 104. I took this to be a side effect of the medicine and stopped taking it.

Now she gave me her doctor look. “You’re far higher than I’d like. You’re almost at risk 7. You shouldn’t be above 6.”

“Ah.”

“Let’s do some blood work today.”

“Uh–I ate breakfast. I didn’t know we were taking blood.”

“What did you eat?”

Ashamed, I looked down at my paper robe with its wide front opening. What was more humiliating: the exam, or this admission? “Uh–I had some pastry.”

She sighed. “Make an appointment to come in next week; no food after seven the night before. We need to look at those numbers.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“After we look at those we’ll decide what to do. I’ll write you the referral for the dermatologist before you go.”

Significantly deflated, I walked down the hall to the receptionist. My receding gums, my iffy moles, my cholesterol filled blood, and my guilty pastry-filled stomach came along. While doctors are necessary to health, they are detrimental to the ego.

I realized it was time for another pep talk to myself; I borrowed a quote from another great writer, Anais Nin, who suggested that“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

And so I (and any of you reading who have had similar experiences) must remind ourselves that we are layered, and that any physical issues which might come and go are merely surface issues over deeply complex constellations.

Like those inner stars, we can age and remain bright.

(Image at costumecraze.com)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Canada Calling: Barbara Murray

Barbara Murray is a Canadian author who lives and works in Vancouver, and is the the mother of three grown children.

PDD:
What age group are you writing for with your Bea and Mildred Series?

Barbara:
When I began writing the first novel (Gifts and Bones), I didn't have a particular age group in mind. Other than knowing that it wasn't a children's book, I assumed that I was writing it for adults. It did occur to me, however, that young adults might enjoy the characters and the story. As it turned out, that was the case. After Gifts and Bones was published, it became apparent that the novel was a "cross-over" book — it appealed to both adults and young adults (14 or so, and up).

PDD:
How do you gear a mystery for people in that age group?

Barbara:
Now that I know the range of my readership, I'm even more cognizant of my young adult audience while working on Isabella’s Passion, the second novel. I stay within the same parametres that naturally guided the first novel — no sex scenes, swearing limited to the odd “dammit”, no gratuitous violence. This is natural and easy for a few reasons: I am personally not drawn to books with steamy sex and graphic violence, the books are taking place in the early 1900s, and many of the characters in the novels are young. The protagonist Bea MacDonald is 18 years old in the first novel, 19 in the second, and so on. Her cousin Jean is only ten in the first novel. Their friends are all teenagers. Mildred is the only adult who helps with the mystery-solving.And, as one discovers two-thirds into Gifts and Bones, Mildred’s age is a bit of a mystery in itself.

PDD:
What elements did you bring together to make your book a fun read?

Barbara:
The elements in the books are entirely dependant on what the characters bring to the novel. One of the most enjoyable features is the paranormal element. The members of the MacDonald family are all a little fey. Jean is psychic; Bea is a paranormal skeptic who has pre-cognitive dreams; Evelyn (Bea’s aunt, Jean’s mother) reluctantly shares a bit of Jean’s and a bit of Bea’s gift. Then, there is their relative Mildred. Mildred is, shall we say, just a little odd. Also, in every novel there is at least one ghost. Sometimes the reader will have to figure out who is actually a ghost, and who is not.

Another fun element that presented itself in the first novel, and has worked its way into the second, is the use of Morse code and other forms of communication. Jean (our 10 year-old) is an expert in Morse, much the way kids these days are experts in texting and computers. Even her cousin Bea is not nearly as proficient. In Gifts and Bones, various characters (ghosts, perchance?) communicate by leaving clues in Morse code. Bea and Jean, with Mildred’s inept assistance, need to decipher the Morse code, and it is the deciphering of the code that, in the end, helps to solve the mystery. included a Morse code alphabet at the beginning of Gifts and Bones so that readers can de-code the clues, if they so choose. In Isabella’s Passion, Braille takes over from Morse in the clue-dropping department. (Again, Jean is the expert in Braille, with Bea not far behind. For reasons that can’t yet be revealed, they had the opportunity to learn Braille as young children.)

PDD:
Your site is absolutely stunning. Simple, but easy to navigate and tons of stuff going on: contests, on-line sales, books, a great PR page. What went into the planning of this kind of site?

Barbara:
Thank you for the complement on the site! It’s been a tremendous amount of work. The expertise of Riel Roussopoulus and his web guys at XLsuite have been invaluable. The site would not look the same without them.

Barbara:
I started the site with only a fledgling vision and skeletal plan, but as things developed, I began to see more potential for beaandmildred.com, and introduced additional components, such as the Morse Code Challenge. It also became apparent that the time had come to launch the Gifts and Bones audio book (narrated by the wonderful Canadian storyteller, Allice Bernards). I tend to be very hands-on. I need to see things in action before I know whether or not they will work. Certain web-based ideas that I’ve had for years are now able to be implemented, thanks to advances in technology and the Internet. I’m fortunate that I know a limited amount of html coding, and so am able to get into the back end of the site and make changes, assess how they look, and then implement them, all without racking up huge web-development costs.

A crucial development in the life of any website is marketing and SEO (search engine optimization). For this, I rely heavily on my guy in India – Ashwin Iyer. He’s a 20 year-old marketing genius. He tells me what to do and I do it, or he does it for me. This certainly is one of the bits of magic of the Internet — that I can chat online to Ash who is thousands of miles and several time zones away. I am in awe every time. Despite my in-depth research for my first novel into early telecommunication advances — the laying of the transatlantic cable in the mid-1800s — I really understand absolutely nothing about how all this communication stuff works!

PDD:
Did you develop a master plan of what you wanted your site to do, or did it grow piecemeal?

Barbara:
It was an evolutionary process. The skeletal plan I began with is nothing like what I ended up with. The website came into being much the same way the novels do: with a huge dose of intuition and plenty of creative meandering.

PDD:
You're using a lot of Internet activities to connect readers to the books. How does that help to attract and keep younger readers?

Barbara:
That is yet to be determined. The site is barely off the ground, and hasn’t yet reached its full potential. At some point soon, young readers (and older readers) will hopefully have fun with the Morse Code Game and other aspects of the site.

PDD:
Are there any other topics or passions you'd like to talk about?

Barbara:
Yes! I’ve recently started a street performance poetry troupe (Barbara Murray and The Olive Branch). We’ll be performing on the streets of Vancouver, and in other public venues, starting in August. Some of the poems we will be performing are written by one of the characters (Olive Goodwin) in the second Bea and Mildred Mystery Series novel (Isabella’s Passion).

Another set the troupe will be performing falls under the umbrella of The Fabric of the Earth (for which a website is in the making). Under that umbrella, we’ll be performing excerpted scenes from another series of mine: Jackie Too and the Human Too Chronicles. It’s a children’s series (9/10 and up) with some really fun characters. Also under The Fabric of the Earth umbrella the troupe will perform poetry written by members of the troupe and the general public.

To learn more about Barbara, and her books, visit her terrific site.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cooking for fun and, um, eating . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I watch House Hunters on HGTV religiously and I'm always surprised when the female house-hunter looks at the kitchen and promptly says: "He cooks, I don't." Sigh. They don't know what they're missing! Finding a great recipe. Gathering the ingredients. Chopping, mixing, measuring, stirring, folding, blending, and above all, TASTING!

I'm certainly not saying that only women should cook. Hey, I made sure all of my sons knew how to cook and do laundry in case they didn't find anyone foolish enough to marry them. One didn't, but thanks to his mommy, he hasn't starved or gone without something to wear. But anyone who claims to never cook is missing a very satisfying part of life.

Back in the day, before Internet and entire television stations dedicated to cooking and eating, I learned to cook from my step-mom and my mother-in-law. And by trial and error, of course, with more error than trial. It's easy to see my favorite recipe in the first cookbook I got at one of my wedding showers. The page is smeared with chocolate and flour.

Let's face it, I'm a messy cook. I recently tried a new recipe for NJ Coffee Cake, sent to me by my friend Pattie. It makes THREE delicious cakes, and if baked in the lovely (how did we ever get along without them?) throw-away foil pans, and the cook can keep one and give away two, thereby impressing the daylights out of family and friends. I gave one to a friend and one to my son and his family. And, kept one, of course. Delicious. Messy to make. I mean the cake part was easy enough, mix a box cake, pour it equally into three pans, bake. But the topping involves mixing flour, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla, and I mixed and spread it sooo well that the floor had to be swept after. And my clothing was covered in the topping. But it was worth it. And it's a bit messy to eat, at least for me. I had a piece while writing this and scattered topping all over my keyboard and my calendar. The recipe is at:

http://www.bigredkitchen.com/2009/01/brunch-part-i-nj-coffee-cake.html

Today there are wonderful recipes everywhere. Television shows let you watch as the cook/chef creates an amazing variety of dishes. I love watching the chef challenges. Seeing what unusual dishes they come up with. And there are tons of recipe sites on the Internet. And friends who share via e-mail.

After eating Chicken and Wild Rice Soup at my friend Kelly's house, I begged her for the recipe. Talk about a comforting meal! She took down a three-ring binder from one of her cupboards and copied it for me. From that I discovered a terrific website and you can find the soup recipe there by doing a search on the site. It's the recipe from 2004. Yum! And the site is full of light recipes that don't taste light but are.

http://www.cookinglight.com/

A friend's daughter is getting married this fall. I've known her since the day she was born and wanted to do something special for her, so I asked her other friends and family to give me their favorite recipes. I'm typing them into Word documents, adding graphics, printing them out, and putting them into those protector sleeves in a three-ring binder. I got the binder idea from Kelly when she gave me the soup recipe. It's an easy way to keep loose recipes I collect that aren't on recipe cards. AND they stay clean in those nifty little protectors.

I neglected to mention book stores. Some have entire walls covered with cookbooks. Whew, how to choose? My most favorite recent find is 101 Things To Do With Canned Biscuits. In it is the directions for making pineapple upside-down biscuits. Just like the cake but done with canned biscuits and my friends love them. Another favorite is a recipe book for crock pots. Simmer all day, enjoy all evening!

And if you are into the older recipes, antique stores generally have tons of cookbooks. I'm looking for an older version of The White House cookbook. I have one book that is so old, it tells the reader how to use her new electric refrigerator to make and keep the newer foods. It was created when ice boxes went out of use and electric fridges came into use. One old recipe book I own not only lists the author's aunt's best recipes but tells of her life story. Lovely book. I recently bought an antique book on bread making that has recipes for every kind of bread known to woman.

Cooking is fun, and these days MUCH easier than when I was a bride, way back in cave woman days. Far more gadgets to make things easy. Far more easy recipes. And many are light, too. And delicious. AND fast. Many meals that used to take hours can be done in minutes. So if you haven't seen the inside of your kitchen lately, why not find a new (or old) recipe you'd like to try and give it a shot. Keep a wet sponge and a vacuum handy, if you cook like me. All over the kitchen. No matter how large the kitchen. Using flour has never been a high skill level with me. Likely never will be. Chopping onions? I could learn a lot there. Tasting? I'm an expert.

And don't forget all the mysteries that have recipes included. Tamar Myers' series comes to mind. Among MANY others.

Good eating!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Seeds of Relationships

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everyone in the book business knows that nowadays it’s essential for authors to promote their books—in the case of mystery writers, if possible, beyond the tight community of mystery lovers where the competition is greatest. Having chosen to write about alcoholism and other addictions, I sometimes envy authors whose subject matter is less threatening and who have a natural market within the general public that they can approach directly.

A couple of good examples: two authors who write delightful books, have worked hard for their success, and whom I’m proud to call friends, Jane Cleland and Rosemary Harris. Jane’s Agatha-nominated first book about antiques appraiser Josie Prescott came into the world bearing a terrific endorsement: Margaret Maron’s comment that it was “an Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans.” Everybody loves Antiques Roadshow, and readers love the series. Jane is an indefatigable marketer who has found creative ways to tie antiques appraisal into her book promotion and has probably turned plenty of antiques lovers into mystery fans.

Rosemary doesn’t call her series gardening mysteries—no tips for gardeners and plenty of social commentary mixed in with the wisecracks—but her protagonist is a Master Gardener, and plants are part of the mix. To market the first book, Rosemary persuaded a major seed company to include a plug and buying information in their catalog, which I’d guess circulates in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.

My series about recovery does have a natural market outside the mystery world: members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. Those who have found their way to me love Death Will Get You Sober. But a perfect Catch-22 prevents me from marketing to them. As AA puts it, anonymity is the foundation of their traditions: nobody, member or not, can address the organization, its groups, or its members as an expert or advertise or endorse a product. Part of my mysteries’ appeal to recovering people is that I really do get it. And since I get it, I can’t make the mistake, for example, of flying to San Antonio, Texas in July 2010 and trying to hand out bookmarks to the tens or hundreds of thousands of attendees at AA’s 75th anniversary convention. That would only demonstrate that I didn’t get it.

So what can I do to promote my mysteries? The new one, Death Will Help You Leave Him, is about relationships. Everybody can relate to that, right? Who hasn’t had at least one bad relationship? How do I reach this vast untapped constituency? Well, I’ve taken a leaf (pun intended) from Rosemary’s book and thought up a new kind of catalog that would lend itself to a tie-in with Death Will Help You Leave Him: I call it Seeds of Relationships.

Here are some of the flowers you can grow from my seeds of relationships:

Happy Marriage
Double blossoms start out white and lacy, matures through pale pink to red and violet to true blue; hardy perennial.

Infatuation
Rosy color, intensely sweet scent fade over time; cannot be propagated.

Fatal Obsession
Bright red petals fall easily; invasive habit, can mess up entire bed.

Second Date
also called Codependency Bush
(What does a codependent bring on the second date? A moving van.)
Springs up overnight, rapidly bears fruit; all parts of the plant are toxic: if ingested, may cause blindness.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

We Are What We Write

by Sandra Parshall


How much do you think you might reveal about yourself in describing a simple plastic water bottle?

You would be amazed.

Social psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has devoted his career to the study of human speech habits, and his web site, The World of Words, is crammed with fascinating information about the way we reveal ourselves in our choice of words. For a fiction writer striving to create realistic characters who spout realistic dialogue, this site is a treasure trove – if you’re willing to make your way through lengthy and intricate scientific articles. For fun, you can tackle one or all of three short writing assignments, including the bottle description, and get a quick assessment of what your words say about you. Pennebaker’s site also offers some capsulized conclusions based on decades of speech and writing studies.

A few examples:

Women in general use more pronouns and references to other people, while men are more likely to use articles, prepositions, and big words.

Despite the common perception of old people as being a little cranky and anchored in the past, studies show that as most people age they talk about themselves less and use more positive than negative words. They also use more future tense verbs and fewer past tense.

Those who enjoy high status tend to be the most loquacious, but they talk more about others than themselves and use fewer emotionally-charged words. People of low status talk about themselves more.

When people tell the truth, they tend to use first person singular pronouns and don’t hesitate to use words like except, but, without, and excluding, which convey complex situations and concepts. A liar is more likely to keep it simple.

In two studies, a high testosterone level correlated with fewer references to other people.

The way people speak and write can provide a reasonably good indication of what kind of music, cars, and other consumer goods they prefer.

In the time following a cultural upheaval or a disaster, people use the word “I” less and the word “we” more often.

Perhaps the most intriguing conclusion researchers have reached is that it’s not the content words – nouns, regular verbs, most adjectives and adverbs – that give away a person’s mental and emotional state and attitudes toward others; it’s the “style” words -- pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs and articles. A person’s choice of pronouns, for example, may not only alter the factual meaning of a statement but can convey the speaker’s perception and attitude. To use a simple example, a reference to the house becomes something quite different when it changes to my house or her house. Pennebaker cites numerous studies that assessed both physical and psychological health based on the word choices people made in essays.

Pennebaker and his colleagues used decades of research to create a computer program called Linguistics Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC – nicknamed “Luke”) that can analyze speech and text quickly, saving humans many hours of laboriously counting words in various categories and assessing their use. LIWC was used last fall to analyze the speech of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and the results were posted at www.wordwatchers.wordpress.com, where you may still read them.

The three brief writing analyses offered to The World of Words visitors will give you an idea of how LIWC works in analyzing verbal thinking, visual sensitivity, functional thinking, tactile sensitivity, and contextual thinking. I was surprised at first that most of my scores were far above average. After thinking about it, though, I realized that I’m neither a genius nor the most sensitive and perceptive person on the planet. I’m just a writer, and I notice everything around me to a greater degree than the average person does because noticing things and translating them to the page is my business. According to LIWC, my description of the water bottle demonstrated extremely high sensitivity to color, texture, depth and shape, but I also appreciated the practical functions of the object (not that there's much to appreciate about a water bottle). I suspect that most fiction writers would score high on this exercise. The other two exercises are more challenging and personal, and I’ll let you discover them for yourself. You’ll find the links to them at the top of the site’s opening page.

The LIWC software is now available to the public in two versions, full and lite, at fairly low prices, and I can imagine writers running dialogue through the program to make certain it will create the desired impression of their fictional characters. If you don’t want to go that far, you can do the free exercises on Pennebaker’s site – not in your own voice but in that of your protagonist or another character whose dialogue is giving you trouble. Let me know if you try it. I’d love to hear what you learn!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Polymath for Everyone

Sharon Wildwind

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein—he’s a physiologist and she’s a drama teacher—part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity at Michigan State University, are shedding some light on children and early creativity.

Who were these people?
1) Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
2) Dian Fossey
3) Leonardo daVinci

Most people would peg Dr. Oppenheimer as a scientist, or mention his connection with atomic bomb research. But it would be equally correct to say that he was a student of Greek architecture and classic civilization, art, and literature.

Before Dian Fossey studied gorillas, she was an occupational therapist.

Leonardo is hardest to pin down. Scientist? Mathematician? Engineer? Inventor? Anatomist? Painter? Sculptor? Architect? Botanist? Musician? Writer? Let’s call him a polymath, which describes a person knowledgeable in many areas.

What the Root-Bernsteins and their group have discovered is that the degree to which children create the details of imaginary worlds can be an early clue to which of them will become polymaths as adults. Polymaths tend to become very, very good at what they do. For a short summary of the direction their research is taking, here’s a link to a Scientific America article.

All children create imaginary worlds and unseen friends, but not all do it to the degree of J. R. R. Tolkein. He began practicing the creation of Middle Earth as a very young child. He was reading by age four, writing by five, and before he had begun his formal schooling, his mother taught him botany, Latin, and foreign languages. Throughout his childhood he took notes on all the places he visited; drew maps; invented flora, fauna, and languages; and probably spent more time in Middle Earth than he did at home.

Looking back, one thing I value from my childhood is that my mother was a great believer in classes, even if she and I didn’t always agree on what the class should be. I wanted to take tap-dancing; she put me in ballet because it was more lady-like. China painting was a disaster, we won’t even go there. And no matter how much I pleaded, never, ever music because she’d had a horrible experience taking piano lessons as a child.

What these classes had in common is that I was forced to face the empty stage, the blank china plate, or the blank page. I learned at an early age to start anywhere because the first few attempts would go by the wayside as the real work began to emerge.

Those classes also fed the imaginary worlds that constantly spun out of my head. The garden creatures who lived in our back yard, under the fig tree, danced lovely ballets in the moonlight, even if a few of them remained miffed that they weren’t allowed to tap dance. Drawing class turned into maps. Other classes segued—often by very complicated and tortuous journeys— into codes, ciphers, secret messages, puppet-kings, costumes, calligraphed menus for special celebrations, high drama, and low comedy. Never a hand-painted china set, though. People in my imaginary kingdom were forced to content themselves with lop-sided ceramic bowls.

Later in life I learned I could go back and pick up those missed things from childhood. I took my first music lesson at age 30. I was never accomplished at music, but I had a devil of a good time and even wrote one small composition. If you can read music and/or canntaireachd (pronounced canthruck) you’ll know the instrument I took up was the bagpipe. Maybe there is something to be said for getting what you want to do out of your system before you turn 30.

I recommend that every writer sign up for classes, preferably ones where the students start with a blank something. A stage. A piece of paper. A length of cloth. A chunk of wood. An untuned instrument. Something where you can start with the most basic of skills and build from there. It will do wonders for your writing. And if you’d like to come to my place for show-and-tell, the garden creatures and I usually have tea about four in the afternoon. Bring your tap shoes.

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Quote for the week:
In creativity, as in running, you have to start where you are.
~Julia Cameron; poet, playwright, and film-maker, from Finding Water