Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Code of the West

Sharon Wildwind

There is a manure warning out in Clearwater County.

Those of you who may have visited only Calgary or our sister city to the north, Edmonton, may not be aware that the majority of Alberta is still farm and ranch country. About 140 miles north west of Calgary is a huge rural area of the province called Clearwater County.

It’s gorgeous with huge swatches of open farmland, backed to the west by the Canadian Rockies. For a real feel for the place, take a look at these photos. (Click on Photo Contest 2009 on the home page.)

It’s so pretty that city folks are buying acreages and moving out there, seduced by the promise of clean air, scenic vistas, and the sound of chirping birds. Sounds idyllic, except that there is a problem: those city folks are now surrounded by the realities of working farms and ranches.

At harvest time combines run in the fields until two in the morning. Most of the county roads are unpaved. In winter, they are unplowed. When it doesn’t rain, both the roads and the fields produce great clouds of dust that blow in the wind. The place is full of cows and cows are full of manure.

Following the lead of some American western communities, Clearwater has published a “code of the west,” a guide meant to help people decide if rural life is really for them. It’s not meant to scare people away, but rather to give them a realistic idea of ways in which living in the country is different from living in the city.

If you’re still interested in rural living, have I got a deal for you.

Southwest of Calgary near the town of Longview (opposite direction from Clearwater County), but still rural and still subject to the “code of the west,” the OH Ranch is for sale. Or I should say ranches because there are four of them. For a photo spread of the—well—the spread, go here. Asking price for the four ranches: $49 million dollars.

It’s one of Alberta’s oldest working ranches, founded in 1883, and the place drips history. Their registered brand—OH—the initials of Orville Hawkins Smith, one of the original co-founders was the twenty-fifth brand registered in Alberta. In the early nineteenth century the ranch was briefly owned by Senator Patrick Burns.

Senator Burns was an honest-to-goodness cattle baron, and a member of the Canadian Senate. He owned 700,000 acres of cattle ranches from Cochrane, Alberta to the U.S. border, founded the largest meat packing company in Canada, and supplied meat to both the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway workers and Canadian troops overseas during World War I. He also made sure that the local orphanage always had meat on the table.

From his Bow Valley Ranch House he not only ran his business interests but also oversaw the founding of the Calgary Stampede, and the equipping of a mounted rifle regiment to send to France in the Great War. He gave away millions of dollars to aid in disaster relief and supported churches, schools, and charitable organizations. When he died in 1937, his estate tax paid the Provincial debt and balanced the budget.

What all of this is leading up to is that I would dearly love to write a mystery with Senator Burns as a main character. Set, I think, at one of the parties he gave. If you were anybody in Calgary, you got invited to one of those parties. Wouldn’t it be fun if one of the guests ended up dead? Let’s see, it could be either winter (blizzard) or spring (rivers flooding) and the house is cut off, so the guests have to solve the murder. You know, the typical English manor murder, only set on the Canadian Prairies. Maybe I’ll even find a way to work the “code of the west” into the story. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!
This week instead of a quote, I have a photo for your.

On the grounds of what was Bow Valley Ranch is a statue dedicated to farm and ranch women. It honors the contribution that women made, and are still making, to the rural life in Alberta. The woman is feeding chickens, while her children gather eggs. For many Alberta women, her butter-and-egg money was all the money that really belonged to her. Around the base of the statue are engraved the names of real Alberta farm women.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Notorious and Wonderful Ingrid Bergman

by Julia Buckley
The beautiful Ingrid Bergman was born on August 29th in 1915; she died on the same date in 1982, on her 67th birthday. Bergman is not the only notable figure to die on the date of her birth--William Shakespeare is another famous example. But it fascinates me, that ironic repetition of a certain day of the year as it relates to one individual.

One of my favorite mystery movies is Gaslight, for which Bergman won an Oscar. The 1944 George Cukor film starred Bergman as the haunted Paula Alquist, unknowingly persecuted by her husband, the sinister Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer). I fell in love with Joseph Cotton for being the cop who didn't think Paula was crazy.

When I was a youngster, I remember my mother's admiration for Bergman, and her condemnation of the America that turned its back on her when she left her husband for Roberto Rossellini, the Italian director with whom Bergman fell in love while they were both married to other people. Bergman's affair (so tame by today's standards) caused such a scandal that she was renounced on the floor of the Senate, and Ed Sullivan refused to let her appear on his show.

Bergman eventually married Rossellini, but their union lasted only seven years. Still, from that marriage came a son and twin daughters, one of whom, Isabella Rossellini, is an actress of some renown.

Bergman was reluctant to return to the America which had cast her out, and when she won an Oscar in 1957, she was not present at the ceremony. The statue was accepted by her friend, Cary Grant. When she finally did reappear at the Oscars the next year, she was given a standing ovation; her exile had ended. One site opines that the coverage of Bergman's affair was the beginning of tabloid journalism.

Bergman earned her second Oscar for Anastasia, and a third in 1975 for her unforgettable role in the film version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express; but of course she may be best remembered for her role in the classic Casablanca, in which she starred with Humphrey Bogart.

You can learn more about Bergman and the highlights of her career at the official Ingrid Bergman website.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

This summer my family and I took a quick and unexpected vacation. My daughter had a day or two left of a rental house near the shore in Rhode Island and invited her father and me to join her for a night midweek, so we did. Since we’re rarely this spontaneous, it was both a surprise and a treat. We spent a pleasant afternoon strolling along all but empty beaches, watching people fishing, admiring the nearby lighthouse and shopping for typical beach-town souvenirs. But one of the things that excited me most was finding dead things.

Okay, I’m weird. But I've always been a naturalist at heart, and I love seeing things I've never seen before. The inside of a dead bird's head may not be the first thing that occurs to most people, but when I found a seagull skull, I fascinated. I even took a picture.

And I didn't stop there. At a different beach (to be accurate, the parking lot near the beach), I discovered a desiccated sting ray and was thrilled (and took more pictures). I had only just discovered that there were sting rays in that part of the world, and, presto, there was a large and perfectly preserved specimen that I could study to my heart's content. I thought it was beautifulBelegant, exotic, alien. (I thought it would make a charming addition to the decor surrounding my desk, but my daughter would not let me bring it home.)

Actually I’ve been doing this for years. I have a picture of a huge jellyfish I found washed up on a beach in New Jersey years ago (it was at least a foot across). When my husband and I visited Australia several years ago, I had a marvelous time documenting dead animals: a cockatoo in a tree, a wombat, even an entire cow skeleton. Lest you think I'm totally bonkers, I also took pictures of as many living creatures as I could, but they often move fast and/or keep their distance, so pictures of them can be disappointing. The dead ones hold still.

When I was eight, a friend and I created our own animal graveyard. Some people have healthy hobbies like sports; we instead collected road kill and conducted funerals. No, we did not kill anything, nor were our pets included. We relied on serendipity to provide us with our departed. Once we were very happy to discover four mice that had apparently fallen victim to the same car in a driveway. A quadruple funeral!

In my own defense, I should add that I've talked to several other people who did the same thing when they were young. Maybe there’s something compelling to children about big serious issues like death, especially when they’re often sheltered from the reality. When I was holding those mock funerals, I had never been to one. I didn't see a dead person until I was well into my twenties (and it was an acquaintance, not someone I knew well); I didn't attend a funeral until my grandmother's, and she lived to be 94.

Now I write mysteries, in most of which my protagonist is trying to identify a killer and to bring that person to justice. That is the core of the traditional or cozy mystery: justice is done. Those who kill others maliciously must be identified and stopped. No one should suffer an untimely death, and maybe writing about it in some way rights a wrong.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Espresso Books?

By Lonnie Cruse

I keep hearing that someday in the not-too-distant future, book stores will have an espresso-like machine that will spit out a copy of whatever book you want to buy. No more warehouses storing tons of books that cost lots of trees to produce. No more shelf after shelf of books to browse through. No waiting for a book ordered to come in. Instant books. Sounds good to me.

But I wonder, how WILL we browse through books? Look at covers? Read the first chapter? Read the back or inside flap?

Will the store have a copy of each book for us to look at? Or will we have to choose from a computer screen without being able to physically examine the book? (Okay, we often do that now by buying online, but I don't know if I can survive in a world with NO books available in a book store. I'm a touchy/feely kind of person.)

Of course, with this new technology, there will still be trees used for books, and books once used that have to be dealt with (forever stored/shelved as a keeper, donated, swapped, given away, trashed, whatever. Such hard choices.)

No idea if these books will cost more, though I suspect they will, at least in the beginning. No idea if this new technology will catch on, but I suspect it will, as well. No idea if we will see it here in rural America, likely we'll be some of the last. But it's an idea whose time has probably come. I'm waiting to see what will happen. Yes, I'll definitely try it.

What about you? Interested in this type of technology? Not interested? Waiting patiently? Running in the other direction? And have you heard any rumors about it that go beyond what I've blogged about? Let us know!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

But have you read the book?

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was out in Seattle a couple of years ago, I spent some time with a girl who’s my first cousin once removed. Now she’s a young woman who’s planning to be a veterinarian and has enough focus to have achieved the grades to get her into school. But back then she was a soccer girl with no intellectual pretensions whatsoever. The movie Troy had recently come out. It made a total hash of the Iliad, with the Trojan War reduced from ten years to three days and a bi Colin Farrell as Achilles running around in what my memory is telling me looked like a tennis skirt. My young cousin and her dad (my own first cousin, hence the “removed”) hadn’t seen it, but my husband and I had. The actual topic under discussion was how what distinguishes a good historical (or fantasy) epic with brilliant special effects from a bad one is the script. Yeah, the part that writers do, which never got any respect in Hollywood and has now become optional on TV. But my young cousin delivered the punch line of the conversation when she asked innocently, “Have you read the book?”

I found myself thinking of this incident while watching and enjoying the TV series True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, as every mystery lover knows. As a result of having her characters translated to TV, Charlaine Harris’s books, I’ve heard, outsold James Patterson’s last year—and he’s the guy who wrote (or co-wrote or had written under his name) one out of every seventeen books sold in America. So a lot of Americans are reading the books. But what’s interesting is that the story line of the series is not the same as the story that’s still continuing in the books.

I’ve heard Charlaine Harris herself comment on this difference. At some point during Season One, she said, “They’ve already established a backstory that’s different from mine, and that’s fine. I’m just going ahead and writing my story.” When asked how she felt about all the upfront sex that producer Alan Ball put into the first five episodes of Season One, she said, “I was taken aback at first, but now I’m used to it.” In fact, there’s always been a mildly erotic thread running through her novels. She doesn’t belabor it, but she doesn’t slam the bedroom door in the reader’s face either.

The overall story line of Season Two of True Blood was invented for the series, with a key character, Marianne, who didn’t exist in the books (unless my senior memory is a lot worse than I hope it is). I wasn’t crazy about that particular plot, which I thought got overelaborate and a bit silly. But in Season Three (writing this after seeing Episode Ten), they are using a lot of elements of the novels: Sookie’s cousin Hadley and her little boy, her brother Jason’s relationship with Crystal out in Hotshot, the introduction of Claudine and the revelation of “what Sookie is.” This last is done more subtly in the books, and TV has given her extra powers she didn’t get from Charlaine.

I’m not complaining. I understand that what’s on the screen has to be more dramatic than what’s on the page, since the drama can be supplied by the reader’s brain. I’m still reading the books, and I love the series. But by using the material from the books, the show has created a subset of viewers (and a huge one, considering what bestsellers the books have become) who know what’s supposed to happen next. The suspense, for me, has become about whether they’ll go ahead and do it or resolve it differently. Will what’s supposed to happen to Jason actually happen? (Trying to avoid spoilers here.) I’m guessing it will, and it sure will be an interesting twist. Will what’s supposed to happen to Hadley happen? I’m hoping it won’t. And most important, will the secret Bill’s still keeping from Sookie (if there is a secret and not just Eric being competitive) be the one that, in the books (at least so far), drives a stake through the heart of that relationship? They’re already offering “Who will survive?” teasers for the season finale coming up. I wouldn’t mind betting on two of the deaths, and in one case I’m glad, in the other I’m sorry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dear Ms. Christie, I regret to say...

Sandra Parshall

As Agatha Christie’s 120th birthday (September
15) approaches, her genteel puzzle mysteries remain popular and British television regularly turns out new versions of the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories. Years after her death in the late 1970s, Christie is probably the most well-known mystery writer the world has ever produced. In a recent discussion on DorothyL, though, someone raised the question of whether she would be able to get her books published if she were writing them in today’s market.

True, if Christie were writing now she might be writing a different kind of story. But maybe not – well into the 1970s, after all the world-changing turmoil of the Vietnam era, she was still turning out the same kind of books she wrote decades earlier. By then she was a legend and everything she wrote was enjoyed as a “classic” mystery. If she were unknown, though, and submitting her work for the first time to major publishers, how would they receive it?

I don’t know much about British publishing, but I can imagine what New York editors might say about a Miss Marple mystery – in their rejection letters. (This is assuming, of course, that Christie could find an agent in today’s publishing climate.)

Editor #1:

“There’s a lot to like about this, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in love with it. I’m not sure Jane Marple is a strong enough character to carry a series. She would be more intriguing if she were fleshed out a bit. For one thing, I think she needs an occupation (as it is, she doesn’t have any visible means of support), perhaps as a bookseller or manager of a yarn store.”

Editor #2:

“Sad to say, I just didn’t fall in love with this. However, I think it has promise, and I would be willing to take another look if the author would play up the knitting hook and make Jane part of a knitting circle that gets involved in murder investigations. And, of course, a knitting pattern should be included.”

Editor #3:

“I enjoyed reading this, but in the end I just didn’t fall in love with it. It has an old-fashioned vibe that I don’t think would appeal to our target audience. I’d be willing to reconsider if the author made some changes. For example, Agatha might make Jane younger – no more than 35 – and divorced from a sexy, bad-boy type who keeps trying to reignite the flame. A daughter would add interest – a precocious pre-teen who’s growing up too fast, perhaps. That would offer an opportunity for a plot about kids getting into trouble on the internet.”

Editor #4:

“The puzzle is clever, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in love with Jane. Senior protagonists have limited appeal, and to gain an audience they must be exceptional. Jane is very bland. I was hoping she would be more surprising and funny – sort of a Grandma Mazur type. Giving her a young sidekick to play off would help – maybe a teenage granddaughter who’s into Goth, wears black lipstick, has multiple piercings and is fascinated by crime.”

Editor #5:

“I tried to fall in love with this, but alas, I could not. The story doesn’t have the suspense and action that would keep readers turning pages. I never felt that Jane Marple was in danger, and the ending is much too quiet.”

Editor #6:

“The mystery is interesting, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with the writing style. It lacks the snap and sparkle I’m looking for.”

And after six rejections, most agents would give up. Miss Marple would never see print. I don’t even want to think about the reception the fussy little Belgian Hercule Poirot would get if he were presented for the very first time to today’s mystery editors.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Color Combinations

Sharon Wildwind

I have some disturbing news for you.

Yellow and blue don’t make green. Neither do blue and red make violet, or red and yellow make orange.

But I’ve made green with yellow and blue, you wail. Yes, you probably have, starting with finger paints back in kindergarten. Let’s just say you got lucky.

Here’s a perfectly good blue and a perfectly good yellow, but do you see a green? Maybe a touch of gray-green, but definitely tending more toward the gray side than the green side. That because I started with a blue-violet and a yellow-orange. Do you see the word green in either of those colors? To paraphrase an old blues song, “If you ain’t got it, how you going to keep giving it away?”

Here’s that same yellow-orange, this time paired with a plucky blue-green that’s giving his best shot at making green, but Y-O just can’t cooperate. She doesn’t have it in her. The result is a half green, a little better than what we had before, but still not there.

This is more like it. This time I matched a yellow-green with a blue-green. Since both partners have green to contribute, the middle color just pops.

The point is that no matter how good we are, there is always something that just isn’t in us, in the same way that the color green isn’t in yellow-orange. I would make—I have made—the world’s worst elected officer. It took me several stints in assorted organizations, all of which were qualified disasters, to realize that. Give me a concentrated focus, like putting together 300 goodie bags the day before a convention, and I’m your gal. Elect me to an office and impeachment hovers on the horizon.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we take on commitments that we know we are going to be lousy at keeping.

This doesn't mean that I'm not in favor of experimentation. Maybe you've never written a short story, so you'd like to try one. That's great. Just like the green in the third photo, you may discover that your talent as a short-story writer just pops.

But if you've already been there, done that, and know that you lack the short-story gene, don't put yourself through misery by volunteering to contribute a short story to an anthology. If you're lousy at Twittering, don't Twitter. If the thought of giving a talk to a group of high school students gives you the collie-wobblies, don't volunteer to talk to your sister's tenth-grade class. Even if she is your sister. She will forgive you.

Here's one more green example:This is part of a sample sheet made by doing multiple pairings of five different yellows and six different blues. Each one is different and each one has a place on the chart. That's the way that we need to be, too. Let's hear it for individual contributions.

Quote for the week:

What you love is as unique to you as your fingerprints. You need to know that because nothing will make you really happy but doing what you love.
~Barbara Sher, author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was

Monday, August 23, 2010

Can You Solve the Mysteries?

by Julia Buckley

Let's say you're at the scene of a crime. Amongst the evidence are a cluster of blurry photographs; no one can make them out enough to determine whether or not they are clues to the murderer's identity.

Just for fun, I created my own blurry photographs to see if you, the detective, can make a real object out of the haze.

All of these pictures were taken inside my house, including number one, the easiest of them all. What is it?

Number two was taken by my oldest son. Any ideas?

Number three is one of my favorites, and pretty to me despite the fact that it's extremely washed out by the flash.

Number four was taken in my office. Am I giving too many clues?

Number five somehow puts me in mind of a Hitchcock movie.

Number six is a truly brilliant shot taken by my son Ian--I had no idea what it was until he told me, and then it seemed obvious.

Number seven is another Ian shot. I should hire him as my permanent photographer.

Okay, how did you do? I will post the answers later today, but I assume our readers will guess most of them by then.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Canada Calling: Barbara Attard

Barbara Attard is an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Her mystery Haunted won the 2010 young adult category of the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis award, and it is also nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction Award to be announced in November 2010.

To start, congratulations on your win and nomination. Tell me about Haunted.

Thank you so much. Haunted is the murder mystery (with a touch of paranormal). It’s set in a fictional village on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, in 1919.

The main character is a fourteen year old girl, named Dee, who lives with her Grandmother. Both women share "The Sight" an ability to see spirits in the afterlife. One morning bones are brought down from the mountain, identified as those of a girl who went missing four years ago, a girl who was once a friend of Dee's. Other girls, Dee subsequently learns, have also disappeared over the years. Dee is drawn into the search for a killer, set against the back drop of the mountain, and the lingering grief of World War I and the Influenza epidemic.

What's going on in the world of young adult books these days?

I think YA is still growing strong. I love writing YA because there is such freedom to explore many subjects. I have written a murder mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, mainstream contemporary, and chick lit.

Do you write for a particular age group of young adults? For girls more than boys, vice versa, or that's not a factor? What are some of the guidelines for writing young adult books? I know there is the old saw about really terrible things shouldn't happen in YA books, but I've seen some reviews of books where I thought horrible things, like serial killers, were part of the story.

I go into writing a book without any idea who it is for, be it girl, boy, YA or middle-grade. Generally, if the topic is a bit mature, or language a bit mature, I'll know it is YA.

I usually go into a book saying, I have a story to tell. And I let it unfold as it will. And my book "Haunted" had a serial killer in it, but I never worry about the topic being unsuitable to YA. These kids have access to so much unsavoury information via media, that nothing is going to shock them. Having said that, I have my own standards of what I will or won't write, but generally I try to write the truth.

I think historicals would be a wonderful way for younger people to learn more about Canadian history. How much research do you do for a historical?

Historical research takes a long, long time to do, and then when you start the book, you have to be sure to present the historical aspect as seamlessly as possible. You don't want a part looking like "okay, here's some historical stuff for you, and now back to the story.” It truly takes a lot of work. I research maybe 6 months before I start a book, usually while putting the finishing touches on a previous book.

Do you ever go into schools to do readings or classes about writing? What gets a child turned on to reading? What turns them off?

Yes, I go to school, libraries, conferences, festivals, book camps, and do readings and workshops.

Good entertaining stories with characters they can recognize turn them on. By that, I mean characters who are like themselves, good and bad. Nothing turns a child off like a preachy story.

You’re a quilter and have an on-line quilting store as well as being a writer. How does your quilting work with your writing? Are you focusing on both or moving from one to the other?
Quilting is a very similar type of creativity, ie. you have to have an idea, you take bits and pieces of fabric to to make a whole (bits and pieces of words to make a story), but it tends to give me a resting time between books, even though my brain continues to work on stories while I'm quilting.

Any other passions or interests besides writing and quilting?

I love to read and, as my hips and knees complain, I've had to give up tennis and badminton, only to discover I love golf! Who knew I'd like chasing a little white ball through fields.

For more about Barbara and her books, visit her web site.  And if you’re into quilts, you can see some of her other ceativity at this site.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Naming stars (real ones in the sky, not Hollywood . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Did you know that for a fairly reasonable fee, you can name a star out there in space? You can name it after yourself, someone you love, or maybe even a Hollywood star that you admire. Whatever. You do this on the Internet and after they have your money in hand, the company sends you a certificate showing that you named the star and a map of where it is. You most likely won't be able to stand in a darkened parking lot and point to it. You won't be able to see it. BUT it's there and you named it! I know all this because I participated in a star naming several years ago. If you are interested in this, do a search and you'll find the site.

We all know that we won't be here forever. Most of us want to leave something of ourselves behind. Children, grandchildren to continue our family line. Something we've accomplished that we will be remembered for. A book published, an award won, a job well done. Something to show we were here. Leaving a footprint.

Yet when all is said and done, there are millions of people who do contribute to this world, who make it a better place to live, and their names are never public knowledge. No star is named for them. Their family may not even be aware.

Isn't that what it's really all about? Leaving this planet better than we found it when we arrived? And doing as little damage as we can to it or the people who live on it? Just something to think about.

That said, what kind of footprint are you leaving behind? What would you like to be remembered for? What are you doing to accomplish it?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Authors Night at the East Hampton Library

Elizabeth Zelvin

After twenty years spending summers in a modest corner of the fabled Hamptons, I finally got to feel like one of the literati when I was invited to participate in a charity benefit for the East Hampton Library. It was quite an adventure. The venue was a giant tent behind the library. Attendees paid $100 a head to stroll past tables at which 155 authors displayed and signed their books, drink wine, nibble exquisite hors d’oeuvres, and rub shoulders with the beautiful people who frequent such events.

The books on offer ran the gamut from bestsellers to self-published and from self-help to poetry. They were donated by the publishers or, in some cases, the authors, and all proceeds from sales will go to the library. I knew and was happy to greet several mystery authors: Stephanie Pintoff, David Carkeet, Chris Knopf, Andrew Gross, and Lorenzo Carcaterra, as well as E.J. Wagner, winner of a nonfiction Edgar for her book about forensics in the cases of Sherlock Holmes.

As someone whose last name begins with a Z, I usually draw a disappointing slot in author lineups. This time, however, the tail of the S-shaped line of tables was located in prime territory, front row center if “front” is designated as the side of the tent directly opposite the bar. As usual, I came last. Directly to my right was a very different kind of author: Jill Zarin, star of the reality TV show The Real Housewives of New York City and author of a book called Secrets of A Jewish Mother. She’s twenty years younger than me, she’s beautiful, she was dressed to the nines, and she was mobbed. Everybody wanted to take her picture, preferably with them standing next to her. Her book sold out well before the close of the event, while my leftovers will be gracing library book sales for some time to come. Jill told me that her bookstore signings regularly draw 500 people. Sigh.

I’ve been a Jewish mother longer than Jill. Her daughter is a teen, while my son just turned forty. I’m a shrink as well as a mystery writer, and I’ve got plenty of secrets. So what has she got that I ain’t got (besides the figure)? If you’re a writer yourself, you’ve guessed it: a platform. People love to buy the books of someone they’ve already heard of. Sometimes it’s even because of the author’s previous books. But just as often, nowadays, it’s someone who is known for something else, and TV sure is something else that makes one known to an awful lot of people.

Having met Jill and her husband, both of them lovely people, I’m happy for her success. Nor would I consent to put my life on reality TV if that were the price of a bestseller. Honest. I really wouldn’t. That would be the end of my secrets, wouldn’t it? (Coincidentally, I just finished reading the late, great Donald Westlake’s hilarious Get Real, in which Dortmunder and his band of professional thieves are persuaded to pretend to be themselves—although they already are themselves—pulling a job on reality TV.) But isn’t it a sign of the times that so often the best path to big success for a book is being authored by anything but a writer?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Sandra Parshall

The recent news that Janet Evanovich had asked for a $50 million advance on her next four books really brought out the claws on a lot of writers. When I hear writers rooting for a publisher rather than an author, I know I’m hearing envy.

It’s human nature to envy those who
have more than we do, and nothing is going to change that. A lot of writers will never be satisfied, even when their books get rave reviews and sell well, because they can always point to someone else who has more. A bigger print run, better sales, more advertising effort by a publisher, more personal attention from an editor. The highest advance of your career? It looks like precious little compared to $50 million.

Maybe that competitiveness is what spurs some authors on, making them work hard to write better books that will sell more copies and bring them higher incomes. But it can also make them bitter and snarky.

Sometimes the things people say veer away from normal, understandable envy and plunge off the cliff into absurdity. For example, after news of Evanovich’s $50 million demand broke, I heard variations on this sentiment over and over: “If publishers didn’t have to pay big advances to greedy superstars, they would publish more midlist writers.”

You think so? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention to developments in the publishing world during the last, oh, two decades. Big publishers are looking for big writers who will bring in big profits. That’s just the way it is. We can bitch about it all we like, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that Janet Evanovich’s move from St. Martin’s (which apparently didn’t meet her terms) to Bantam Dell means that St. Martin’s will suddenly start signing “smaller” writers left and right and pay them the advance money they wouldn’t give Evanovich.

Big publishers still sign unknown writers, but they usually give them small advances and a limited time to break out and start justifying their places on the production schedule. Few careers are nurtured the way they once were. A writer whose books don’t make money won’t be around long. And that isn’t Janet Evanovich’s fault, or James Patterson’s, or John Grisham’s.

Another puzzling statement I hear a lot from aspiring or less successful writers is, “All the bestselling books are trash. I refuse to read them.”

Really? I don’t think Scott Turow’s Innocent is garbage. I don’t think Kathryn Stockett’s magnificent novel The Help (on hardcover bestseller lists for more than 70 weeks now) could be called trash by anyone with a brain. Tana Franch's Faithful Place is a superb novel. And even if they don’t enjoy the writing of Evanovich, Patterson, et al, other writers might learn something from those authors about pacing, entertaining an audience, and marketing. The writers who consistently make the top of the betseller lists are consummate professionals, and they’re certainly doing something right.

It bothers me, too, that writers who know better don’t acknowledge that “$50 million advance” doesn’t mean the publisher is going to empty its coffers and hand over that much in a lump sum, never to see it again. I have no earthly idea what Janet Evanovich’s contract terms are, but advances of any size are usually paid out in stages, not all at once, for the very reason that publishers have to manage cash flow.

An advance is just that: an advance against expected earnings. No publisher will lose money by giving a writer of Janet Evanovich’s stature a large advance. They’ll make it back, and plenty more. Yes, publishers sometimes pay exorbitant advances for “sure bestsellers” that flop, and I suspect those situations are even more painful for the authors than the publishers because their credibility as writers has been critically damaged. Writers who have never been offered big advances tend to greet news of these flops with self-satisfied glee. But why? How does someone else’s failure and humiliation validate them?

I hear a lot of concern about the future of a shaky industry that spends money unwisely, but I don’t know any writer who would turn down a big advance for the good of the industry if it were offered.

One more point, one that others have made but which bears repeating: Janet Evanovich is a woman writer, and few of that species are in a position to ask for such a staggering amount of money from a publisher. Whether she got the exact figure she wanted or not, her hard work and her legion of readers put her in a position to be taken seriously – even though she’s a woman – when she asked for it. And I think that's worth noting with admiration.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Impulse Speed, Mr. Scott

Sharon Wildwind

I love this time of year. I love the way the light has subtly changed, and the first whiff of autumn on the breeze. I love the wait for the first yellow leaf. I love the neck-and-neck race between tomatoes ripening on the vine and the first frost. Most of all I love back-to-school sales, happening now at your local retailer. I plan to head down to the local office supply store later today to see if they have any 3-ring binders with fancy covers.

It’s in August, not January, when I’m inspired to tidy things up. This morning I started in on the “Schlepp Folder.” In case you’re not familiar with schlepping, it’s a Yiddish word. It’s original meaning was to move slowly or cautiously, but among my friends it means to store things that interest you until you can get around to reading them.

On my desktop, I have a perpetual Schlepp Folder, into which I toss articles I find on the Internet but don’t have time to read. Today the Folder tally wasn’t bad: 17 files, 2 of which had reached beyond their best-before date and were tossed, and 15 files that I decided to read and keep.

One of the nice things about the Schlepp Folder is that sometimes items from vastly different times connect in a meaningful way. This morning, Steven Axelrod’s and Julie Anne Long’s Why Publishing is Making You Crazy and John Freeman’s Not So Fast made a lovely conjunction.

Here’s what I learned from Steven, Julie Anne, and John.

Steven Axelrod
No artistic decision is ever made in a vacuum. Good does not equal popular, nor does popular equal good. Fifty percent of the factors affecting a creative career are totally random and totally outside an artist or author’s control.

Human brains are hard-wired to look for patterns, even where none exist. Once a person decides that they have detected a pattern, they will act on that pattern, in spite of the fact that the pattern may not be real at all. This is where the advice, “An author must have or do X” comes from, even if there is no evidence that any amount “X” sells even one book. There is one thing that a writer must do: WRITE. Everything else is window-dressing and has a 50/50 chance of succeeding or failing.

Julie Anne Long
The Human Rules of Order — high scores and progress are a reward for hard work; good reviews lead to advancement; and ranks tell us our “worth” and how we measure up — are absolutely untrue in the publishing universe.

Amazon rankings, Ingram numbers, bestseller lists, reviews, number of blog comments, and awards lie about our progress, advancement and our worth.

Writers are imaginative storytellers. A writer sees a woman with a red hair ribbon, through a launderette window on a rainy October afternoon, and six years later, she’s on podium receiving an award for Red Hair Ribbon. This is good.

A writer also start with one low Amazon ranking or one lousy review and builds for herself an entire career-ending catastrophe. This is not so good. Writers do this because they are hard-wired to look for patterns; they can’t stand not knowing where they stand or what will happen next.

Whether an individual event is good or bad depends on the next thing that happens after it, except that whether the next thing that happens is good or bad depends on the next thing that happens after that. Can you see where this is going? The moment you are in is merely a necessary link to before and after.

Sanity in the midst of publishing craziness depends on
1. Staying in the moment.
2. Going with the flow, and enjoying the ride.

John Freeman
Persistent, unlimited growth is also known as cancer. The ultimate form of progress is not unlimited growth, but learning how to decide what is working and what is not.

Speed matters
The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it. We need to protect the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships and our ability to make value decisions.

The Physical World matters
We are part of the world. Real life participation in face-to-face communities is the real social context.

Context matters
Slow communication preserves our sanity, our families, and our relationships. The best electronic communication starts with a simple instruction: Don’t send.
Here's the poem that came to me as I read these three writers:

This moment is only a link between before and after.
Stay in the moment; go with the flow.
Decide what is working and what is not.
Speed matters: slow down
The physical world matters: meet people face-to-face.
Context matters: don’t send.
Rather than a quote for the week, I urge you to read Stephen’s, Julie Anne’s, and John’s original postings.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hell Hath No Fury . . . .

by Julia Buckley

I am not a person prone to swearing, especially since I've become a mother. I'm guessing I'm considered staid and conservative by most who know me. But get me behind the wheel of a car (without my children in the backseat) and you'll tap into a whole different me.

I'm not sure what it is about driving that makes me occasionally swear like the proverbial trucker; perhaps it's just a way I found for dealing with the stresses of the road. When my first son was born, I had to curtail my driver's swearing, since his cherubic self watched me from the back seat. The worst I indulged in was the occasional muttered "arse!" at annoying motorists, but I even had to give this up when my two-year-old started saying "Owse" at people in mimicry of me.

After thirty years of driving, I can tell you certain behaviors that really push my buttons. These are the traffic pet peeves that still tempt me to lash out with salty language. Perhaps you recognize some of these scenarios.

1. The driver who thinks turn signals are optional, then suddenly decides to brake in front of me and turn (often not from the turning lane).

2. The driver who insists upon moving at 15 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone. I try to tell myself they're looking for an address, and that's why they're moving so damnably slowly, but let's face it: we only meet these people when we're in a hurry, and then they're so annoying that it's beyond endurance.

We have a street near our house which contains no less than five pedestrian crosswalks. Each one is marked "State Law: You Must Stop for Pedestrians." I've heard many a story about people getting pulled over by the police on this very street because they did not stop and let pedestrians cross the road. So I stop. And I stop. Sometimes I have to stop at almost every crosswalk (there are about six pubs on this road, and it gets a lot of sidewalk traffic). But this brings me to number three:

3. Pedestrians who take their time. I'm perfectly willing to stop for any pedestrian who wants to cross the street. As the sign points out, it's the law. But I've encountered many pedestrians this summer who seem to think that this permission implies that they should cross as slowly as possible. Some people are so slow it's almost as though they're moving backwards. My poor husband, who is less patient than I am, will dive across me to beep the horn at people whom he feels are taking advantage of their power to stop traffic. And I fear that some people are doing just that.

One young woman crossed in front of me while texting on her phone. Halfway across she stopped to study some message on her screen. Apparently she couldn't walk and read at the same time. The cars waited on either side of the crosswalk. My husband, who was on his way to work, struggled to keep his blood pressure in check. I tooted the horn. She didn't look up. Finally, looking neither right nor left at the people she was inconveniencing, she made her slow, plodding way across the street.

While we're on the subject of pedestrians, there are also the

4. Pedestrians who assume they are dent-proof. You've seen the type: they dart right out in front of your car, apparently untroubled by that law of physics that says a person weighing 120 pounds and moving at about one mile an hour can be seriously hurt by a 5 ton vehicle moving at 30 miles per hour. Yet almost every day we encounter at least one person who's willing to take the chance.

There's a certain fruit market near our house on Chicago's very busy Harlem Avenue. This fruit market, for whatever reason, attracts little old ladies from all over the land. Many of them plow right across two lanes of traffic, their babushka heads bowed, their shopping bags clutched tightly against them. Once we saw a lady who held up her little hand as she stepped onto busy Harlem, looking like a crossing guard but without the same authority. Her nonverbal message was: stop for me, all you cars. I need to buy fruit. It would have been funny if it weren't so dangerous.

My last category is one I've posted about before:

5. People who text and drive. This is now considered just as dangerous as drinking and driving and apparently causes just as many accidents (the woman who struck my son last year was texting and driving--in the rain--without insurance or a valid license). I assume that these people don't realize how dangerous it is, how rude it is to their passengers, how inappropriate it is to let one's attention stray from the traffic in front of them--because I hate to think that they know all those things and choose to text and drive anyway.

I see many scary examples of near misses with texters. The weirdest example happened the other day, when my husband and I were stopped at a red light and the woman in the car next to us sat texting while she waited for her turn arrow. In the seat behind her, a boy of about six was holding--I kid you not--a giant knife. It looked as though there was a bag on the seat beside him. Maybe the mom had brought a cake or brownies somewhere and now she was taking her knife home. But there sat her son with this big knife in his hands, and she was texting away, oblivious.

"Tell her he has a knife!" my husband said. "What if she gets in a collision? He could get hurt."

But I didn't have the courage to roll down my window and yell to a stranger that she should be more carefully watching her son.

I understand that texting is the new national addiction; my children both have phones and they enjoy texting. But I've made it clear that they are never to use the phones to replace actual human interaction. Hopefully they'll abide by the rules, but if they don't, then we'll consider taking away the phones.

I am an admittedly cranky person, and like everyone I have pet peeves. Do you have traffic peeves?

And am I the lone swearing driver, or does anyone else indulge in profanity when subjected to the driving (or walking) habits of others?

(Image from Clker.com)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Jana Oliver

Jana Oliver is the multi award-winning author of the Time Rovers Series, set in 1888 London. Her young adult Demon Trappers Series is located in a bankrupt 2018 Atlanta plagued by Hellspawn and scheming necromancers. It appears no major city is safe from her fertile imagination.

Tell us a little about finding a mystery in every story.

I’m a firm believer that at the core of every good story is a mystery. It may not be the classic “Who killed Mrs. X in the library?” but there should be a question that has to be answered. Shakespeare? Will Romeo and Juliet find happiness? Elizabeth George? Will Inspector Thomas Lynley overcome his personal issues and solve the case? J.K. Rowling? Will Harry outwit the evil Lord Voldemort?

Mysteries build layers of conflict into the plot and allow unexpected things to happen. You sprinkle that mystery with a little magic and that’s when a book really starts to take off.

Since I'm only given a certain amount of "canvas" in each book, I like to write stories that are a bit more complex than one might expect. I also love a balance of angst and action. Many teen authors are more heavily into the angst/emotional aspects of their story and I'm good with that. Personally, I like the occasional explosion or battle scene to spice things up. The trick is finding the perfect balance.

I also try to write unusual stories, ones that take established tropes and set them on their ears. In the Time Rovers, most of my readers assumed that my heroine would make the standard "I'm staying in Victorian England with the man I love" decision. It didn't work out like that. Life is rarely so tidy.

I'm also straying off the beaten path with the Trappers series because I examine the religious and political aspects of the rivalry between Heaven and Hell (I cap them because I see them a lot like rival corporations). One of the young adult characters is a deeply religious Catholic lad and after a horrendous experience, he undergoes a vast crisis of faith during which he learns that religion can be dynamic, not static.

I read a lot of books set in Victorian England, but your London in Time Rovers was so rich and unusual. What's the hardest thing about world building?

For me it’s the shutting off the “that can’t possibly happen” part of my brain. I’m a pretty logical soul so it behooves me to set that aside. If I’m inventing a new world, I have free reign and I don’t let history constrain me too much. If I’m working in an existing or past time period (in the case of the Victorian Era for Time Rovers) I feel compelled to be exactly true to that world. It took me a long time to embrace alternate history, to set my mind free to do what I wanted within a historical setting and not feel guilty about that. Once I did, it was liberating. Especially since I’d once sworn I would never write alternate history.

What's the most fun?

Just letting my mind play with the absurdities. What if demons really did invade libraries and destroy books? What if one of the ways to catch the Biblio-Fiends was to put them to sleep by reading aloud from Moby Dick? Once I let me mind off its leash, it’s pure joy dreaming up new things. That’s the great part about being an author. There are no boundaries.

For your next effort you’re moving to a young urban fantasy series, which will crossover to adults?

I am so looking forward to this new project. The Demon Trappers Series is set in 2018 Atlanta where the economy only became worse to the point where the city is bankrupt) and demons are having their merry way with the citizens. The heroine is seventeen-year-old Riley Blackthorne, only daughter of Master Trapper Paul Blackthorne and she's learning how to trap Hellspawn with him. Problem is, the Atlanta Trappers Guild is all male and not everyone is thrilled to see a girl in their midst. Add in the usual teen angst and guy issues and Riley's life is complicated, at the very least. The demons she faces range from the small Grade One Biblio-Fiends (who swear and destroy books) to the Grade Five Geo-Fiends who generate earthquakes and spot tornados.

I also explore "The Grand Game" between Heaven and Hell, which are much like the maneuvers between the CIA and the KGB during the Cold War. (I admit to being hugely inspired by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens). It was my desire to more fully explore good and evil beyond the usual "good is always good/evil is always evil" level. And just to make things more interesting, the books have different titles depending on whether they’re published in the U.S. or the U.K.

Why Atlanta in the near future? Why a dystopian Atlanta?

I chose Atlanta for a number of reasons. Time Rovers required numerous trips to London for research (at my own expense) so my husband suggested I consider Atlanta because he’s a pragmatic sort.

Initially I wasn’t so sure about that, but once I visited Oakland Cemetery and fell in love with their incredible Victorian mausoleums, the story started to play in my head. Living nearby allows me some inside knowledge that others might not have (like the holes over the old steam vents in Five Points that became home to my Grade Three demons). For the locals, they’re really happy to see Hot*Lanta in a series, even one that does involve Hellspawn.

Part of the reason I went into the future (2018) is to give myself some breathing room. A dystopian setting forces the characters to deal with a dysfunctional environment where they can’t count on anyone but themselves. That uncertainly causes folks to be unpredictable in the face of adversity. Unpredictability always leads to a more intriguing plot.

That being said, “my” Atlanta isn’t a Mad Max sort of place, just a city where things aren’t going right. Metal is extremely valuable so street lights are stolen about as fast as they’re replaced. Gasoline is at $10/gallon causing horses and buggies to make a comeback. The educational system is kaput so Riley, my seventeen-year-old heroine, and her friends attend classes in abandoned buildings (like an old Kroger or Starbucks). Everything you take for granted in modern Atlanta is on the skids, which makes for a rich and challenging environment for my characters.

Have you ever run across the quote from Stephen King about him and Louis L'Amour looking at the same lake? King said L'Amour would see a dispute over water rights and he'd see something slithering out of the water. What would you see if you looked at a lake? Were do your stories start? What's the first thing that comes to you?

That’s a great quote. It is so Stephen King. The slithery something would run a close second for me, but the first thing I think of when I see a pristine lake is a chainmail-clad arm rising out of the crystalline waters holding a shimmering sword. Like the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legends. That says a lot about how I approach a story – I’m always looking for the magical, the strange, the mystery at the heart of the tale.

My books usually come to me in very odd ways. Sometimes they’re triggered by a newspaper article or something someone says. Other times music sends me down a particular rabbit hole. I usually see the first scene and the very last while the middle is a lot of chirping crickets. My job is to fill in that middle with cool scenes, which sounds a lot easier than it is. If I do my job right, the result is a satisfying adventure for my readers.

For more information about Jana and her books, visit her web site.

The Time Rover series is published by Dragon Moon Press.

In the US: St. Martin’s press will publish The Demon Trapper’s Daughter, February 1, 2011

In the UK: Macmillan Children’s Books will publish their edition as The Demon Trappers: Forsaken on January 7, 2011

Friday, August 13, 2010


By Lonnie Cruse

Hubby is watching tennis on television and I just spotted a rather ancient Queen Elizabeth and an even more aged Prince Phillip in the crowd. In a private box, of course. Well away from the masses. Mercy, I remember when she was first crowned as Queen of England, and then riding along in that fancy carriage to the palace. Quite a few decades ago.

Queen Elizabeth never set many trends nor did she come anywhere near the popularity of her late daughter-in-law, Princess Di. Still, she draws attention and crowds.

In this country we have a mania for celebrities. People stand in line for hours to meet a celebrity. Celebrity look-alikes are everywhere, and Elvis will never be truly gone as long as someone is willing to wear long hair, a white outfit, and wiggle his hips. We wait for hours on end just to watch some star's new movie. Folks actually camped out in tents on the parking lots of theaters to see the latest in the Twilight series. I like vampire movies, but I'm not THAT hardy.

What worries me is that many celebrities don't seem to take seriously the responsibility that goes with this fame. The examples some set are certainly not good for our young people to see. Having to wear alcohol bracelets to monitor behavior? Taking time off to visit personally with avowed enemies of our country and our freedoms? Domestic violence charges. Rape charges. Jail time for shoplifting, drunk driving, etc? Are these really people we should be admiring, idolizing, drooling over? Paying good money to see their latest work, which supports their bad habits?

Yes, there are MANY celebrities to admire. Actors and actresses who move out (literally or figuratively) of the Hollywood scene, who live their lives with dignity, staying out of trouble and behaving like responsible citizens of our country. And we need to support them. But the time was when a celebrity behaved poorly and set a lousy example, that celebrity soon found him/herself permanently out of work and out of favor. It isn't that way today, at least not much. It happens, but not as often as it should.

All I'm saying is, we have a lot of young kids in this country who see some celebrities behaving poorly, setting poor examples, and they see the rest of us either applauding them on, or simply not reacting. Do we really want our kids following these examples? Thinking domestic violence is okay because the accused is popular and cute? Thinking drinking and driving and having an accident is okay because a popular celeb did it and got away with it? And on and on.

We can't do a lot about the behavior of celebs beyond refusing to spend money on their movies or refusing to watch their television shows and hope the resulting loss of income somewhere down the line makes an impression. But we CAN teach our kids that becoming famous doesn't give anyone the right to abuse the rights of others or endanger them. WE can set the proper example. By our behavior. By refusing to support those who behave outrageously. Just my two cents for this week.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing A Long Short Story

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently had the opportunity to write a story to submit to an anthology that asked for manuscripts ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 words. This is something I’ve never done before. I’ve written seven complete novel-length manuscripts (counting both the published and the unpublished) averaging around 75,000 words. And I have so far completed a dozen short stories, most of them between 3,000 and 4,000 words, a length I have found surprisingly spacious. In some of these, I could have gone longer without making them ineligible for the market I had in mind. But starting out with the idea that they were intended to be short, I found that I had told the story I wanted to tell—plot, character, setting, dialogue, and action—without taking them any further.

Knowing I had permission to write as many as 15,000 words, one-fifth the length of a novel and more than three times the length of my usual short story, turned out to be quite a different experience. It felt more like writing a novel than writing a short story—but not exactly the same. As with most of my other short stories, particularly those that don’t use the characters in my series, I started with a market. The market supplied the theme, and my brain supplied an idea that fit the theme, so I knew I had a story to write. The idea supplied the protagonist and voice, the crime, and the setting, in that order. These suggested additional characters: victim, family and friends of the protagonist, suspects, and characters who served a function in advancing the plot, such as law enforcement, service people, and professionals.

My longest previous short story, with a required maximum of 7,000 words, came in at 6,400 and change. I knew more or less what had to happen, and I knew I had to limit the number of scenes. As always, I wrote to what I know are my strengths as a fiction writer: character, voice, and dialogue. I also wanted to make the setting (both physical and social) in which my story took place as colorful as I could. But beyond that, I had to move straight through my plot in as straightforward a manner as possible. Scene One is the setup, in which the reader meets the protagonist and learns about the protagonist’s relationships and the “McGuffin” that will provide focus for the crime. In Scenes Two and Three, the suspects are introduced. In Scene Four, the crime is discovered. In Scene Five, the protagonist figures out what happened and decides what to do about it. The End.

My process in writing a story that could be twice as long as the one above was a lot more expansive. I didn’t feel as if I had to limit either the number or length of scenes. I didn’t have to keep counting to figure out if I needed to start resolving the mystery. What made it differ from a novel, however, was that several times along the way I saw a path branching off—a subplot, an extended scene, an additional scene, a bit of backstory (which I wouldn’t even consider in a shorter story—or cut in revision if it crept into the first draft), further development of the protagonist’s character, or a new secondary character who would be fun to write—and deliberately chose not to go there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What writers learn from reading

Sandra Parshall

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to interview a lot of wonderful mystery and suspense writers, and one of my favorite questions for them has been, “What writers have influenced you? Who has taught you by example?” Here are some of their answers.

Laura Lippma

“Richard Price has shown me what one can do with a voice, an ear and endless empathy; I can't begin to reach his heights, but I'm inspired by his work. George Pelecanos has proven that crime novels can be very serious. Also huge and sprawling (Hard Revolution) or as tight and laconic as the author himself (Drama City). Daniel Woodrell works the English language, Ozarks style, like no writer I've ever known. Val McDermid and S.J. Rozan have shown me the sky's the limit. I could go on and on and on.”

Karin Slaughter

“I grew up on Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Mitchell. I loved the novel (to me) idea of women writing meaty stories. What I learned from them is a sort of fearlessness. I suppose I benefitted from not knowing that women are supposed to stick to romance or children’s books. I wanted to write about violence and social issues and tie them all up with some sort of social statement. I think good writers do this effortlessly, so it’s always been my goal to reach that point of craftsmanship.”

Julia Spencer-Fleming

“Margaret Maron, Archer Mayor and Sharyn McCrumb for their regional settings. Lawrence Block, Steve Hamilton, and Elmore Leonard for language and dialogue (although I'll never manage to be as spare as they are). Outside the genre, Lois McMaster Bujold, Joanna Trollope, Jodi Picoult--women who create the perfect reading experience for me.”

Cornelia Read

“Listing the fiction writers who've taught me by example would crash your server. Every book you read can teach you about writing--both what works and what doesn't.

"[These] books are examples of what works superbly well: Ken Bruen's Priest, Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Alan Furst's Dark Star. “

Erin Hart

“Some of my favorite crime writers are P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Martin Cruz Smith, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters, and Iain Pears, among others. I've also [enjoyed] books by Leslie Silbert, Michael Connelly, Denise Hamilton, Mark Billingham, Natsuo Kirino, John Connolly, David Hewson, Janet Gleeson--there are so many others I've been meaning to read, too, but haven't had a chance yet. I seem to have a weakness for historical crime novels, and stories that are grounded in very specific places or cultures.

“To me, there's an element of mystery in all great fiction writing; there may not be a murder or a swindle at the heart of the story, but not knowing what will happen next keeps you turning the pages. My taste in mainstream fiction is pretty eclectic, but I'm extremely fond of A.S. Byatt and Edna O'Brien. The list could go on and on--Roddy Doyle, John Fowles, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Alice Munro, Tim O'Brien, Michael Frayn. For sheer glorious entertainment, you still can't beat Dickens, Austen, and Tolstoy. And I'm a theater person at heart, so of course you must include Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekhov, along with contemporary writers like David Hare, Michael Frayn (again), Brian Friel, August Wilson.”

Cynthia Riggs

“One of my favorite writers is Donald Westlake, who's not exactly a mystery writer, but I find him one of the funniest writers ever. I try to copy his manic sense of humor in my writing, but of course it can't compare with his. I love Agatha Christie, Rex Stout's Nero Wolf, Ruth Rendel,l P.D. James, Michael Dibdin. I tend to keep the mystery books I buy, and have run out of bookcase room. I probably read two to three books a week, mostly mysteries, and borrow a lot from my local library. Just last night I learned a tip from reading Patricia Highsmith, how to allow a point of view character to see into another character's thoughts without the reader suspecting it's a trick.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Generous Chemicals

Sharon Wildwind

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the phenomena where a vaguely familiar word suddenly surfaces and won’t go away. My current everywhere-word is amygdala. Amygdalae are two almond-shaped structures buried deep in our brain.

What led me to amygdala were several fascinating articles on the chemistry of love versus the chemistry of like.

Being good little mammals, our brains are chemically-wired to find a mate, conceive offspring, raise them, and then find another mate. It’s better for the survival of a species to have different genetic mix for each litter.

The problem are
A) raising human offspring takes decades
B) society has built a lot of legal, religious, financial, and emotional barriers around taking a new mate every few months
C) you just might like the guy/gal you’re with and thrill in the thought of a long-term relationship.

Coming together simultaneously produces two different sets of brain chemicals. One says “Wow!” One says, “Go away; leave me alone; I’m furious at you; and I never want to see you again.” Unfortunately, the "wow" chemicals last under an hour and the “go away, etc.” chemicals last for about two weeks, particularly in women. A surprising number of people report feelings of intense anger, even rage, after an intimate experience.

Fortunately those glorious little amygdalae are wired to produce a third set of chemicals in response to what are called generous behaviors. Nuturing creates comfort and safety, and the bonding chemicals can help sustain a relationship indefinitely, but you have to do the behaviors that produce them frequently. Every day is best, even if it is only for a single minute. The more generous behaviors you do, the more sensitive your brain becomes to their positive effects.

This is a family blog, so I’m not going to get into a complete list of the behaviors that produce bonding chemicals, but if you’re interested, check out this article. Scroll down a little ways from the top of the article to find the list.

Here are some suitable-for-general-viewing items on that list:
• Smile while making eye contact
• Provide a treat without being asked
• Give unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments
• Gaze into each other's eyes
• Listen intently, and restate what you hear
• Forgive or overlook an error or thoughtless remark, past or present
• Synchronize breathing
• Hug with intent to comfort
• Quietly share the same space

Mmm, I wonder if these same techniques would work with agents and editors? It’s worth thinking about.

Quote for the week:
There's no tab. And there's no price for what we give each other. Not ever. ~Ricardo Carlos Manoso (AKA: Ranger)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Mysterious Edward Gorey

by Julia Buckley

I first fell in love with Edward Gorey art back when MYSTERY appeared on PBS. Notice in this clip that MYSTERY was hosted by Vincent Price? I watched it even before Price hosted--Gene Shalit spoke the introductory words when the show aired in 1980. Then Price became the host, from 1980-1989, and finally the great Diana Rigg, who was the final host. Afterward MYSTERY aired with no host at all, which was, I think, a shame.

In 2008 MYSTERY became MASTERPIECE MYSTERY, hosted by Alan Cumming, and the Gorey introduction (with memorable theme song by Normand Roger) was dropped.

Still, when I think of MYSTERY, I think of Gorey and those wonderful title sequences.

It wasn't only MYSTERY that made Gorey famous, but his work is as recognizable on that show as it is in the various books, posters, and cards that bear his distinctive images. Gorey is a wonderful example of dark humor, and he created faux Gothic worlds, seemingly Edwardian or Victorian worlds, in which very mysterious and creepy things happened. Many fans assumed Gorey was English, but he was, in fact, born in Chicago, Illinois, and briefly attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1977 Gorey won a Tony Award for set design--appropriately for the play DRACULA. He loved ballet, cats, books and television.

One of my favorite Gorey works is called THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES, a book that was eventually made into a poster (and a poster which, in my own stab at dark humor, I once hung in my classroom). It tells the tale of a group of schoolchildren who all gradually died, some of quite dreadful causes. Gorey told the tale as a way of remembering the alphabet, but in true Gorey style, he tells it in rhyming couplets: "A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears." My personal favorite is Neville, who dies of ennui. :)

Last year my husband bought me a Gorey calendar which, month by month, tells the story of THE DOUBTFUL GUEST, a strange creature who shows up one day and doesn't leave. "When they answered the bell on that wild winter night, there was no one expected and no one in sight; then they saw something standing on top of an urn; his peculiar appearance gave them quite a turn . . ." The guest himself looks like a cross between a penguin and a short man cartoon, done in Gorey's distinctive, moody style. The family's travails with the "guest" become funnier and funnier, despite the gloom of the setting.

The same is true of the Gorey pop-up book my children had when they were small. It was called THE DWINDLING PARTY, and as with the TINIES, it told the tale of a group that grew smaller and smaller as all sorts of scary monsters consumed them one by one. It was deliciously funny and not at all scary to my six-year-old son, who enjoyed reading it repeatedly.

Perhaps Gorey's work was described best by Gorey himself, who called it "literary nonsense."

(Image: Wikipedia).

Saturday, August 7, 2010


by Guest Authors Wendy Lyn Watson and Mary Jane Maffini

Since we launched Killer Characters--where cozy mystery characters get to blog in their own words--our characters have really come to life. Recently, we uncovered this exchange between Charlotte Adams (professional organizer and amateur sleuth) and Tallulah Jones (ice cream entrepreneur and dilettante detective). We’re stunned.

* * *

Dear Charlotte,

A little bird told me you only eat one kind of ice cream -- Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. I’m having a tough time wrapping my brain around that idea. Isn’t that like saying “I only eat one kind of vegetable -- cauliflower”? Well, tastier than cauliflower, but you get the idea.
Please explain.

Your Friend,

Tally Jones
Proprietor, Remember the A-la-mode

* * *

Dear Tally,

I believe in the value of simple things, tradition, and keeping choices to a manageable minimum to reduce stress. I always have B & J's New York Super Fudge Chunk in my freezer. I find it much better than pharmaceuticals to take the edge of dealing with murder and mayhem.

I am a bit worried by your one kind of vegetable comment. Cauliflower? I realize that you are quite adventurous in your ice cream choices, Tally, however, if you are attempting to plant the suggestion of cauliflower ice cream in my subconscious, I am going to step up and just say no to that.

With all due respect,

Charlotte Adams

* * *

Dear Charlotte,

I've come up with some wacky flavors, but even I'm not brave enough to try cauliflower ice cream!

Still, I think I see where you're coming from. I guess my ice cream passion is about control and order, too. I find the process of making ice cream very Zen. After a fight with Bree, a stressful encounter with my ex, Wayne, or an evening of committing minor crimes in the name of an unauthorized murder investigation, I can lose myself in all the tiny rituals of making ice cream. Part of that Zen is letting my brain go to its happy place and thinking up new flavors (my newest is called Texas Twister - smooth vanilla with a swirl of amber dulce de leche and a kick of ancho chile).

Any chance I could get you to taste just a little?

Your friend,


* * *

Dear Tally,

Zen, huh? I'm afraid I find my bliss putting order into closets and buying ice cream. I feel responsible for keeping the local economy going. And it never occurred to me that someone could or would make the yummy stuff if their name wasn't Ben or Jerry... Besides lists, the only thing I can really make is a stir-fry. Sometimes that turns out all right.

Interesting that your ice cream obsession is all about order and control. For me, eating ice cream out of the container is pretty much the only out-of-control activity I get up to, often after dodging a bullet or watching my beloved car go up in flames.

I must say, I like your style. As for Texas Twister, let me get back to you on that.


Charlotte Adams


Wendy Lyn Watson writes deliciously funny cozy mysteries with a dollop of romance. Her Mysteries a la Mode (I Scream, You Scream (NAL, October, 2009) and Scoop to Kill (NAL, September, 2010)) feature amateur sleuth Tallulah Jones, who solves murders in between scooping sundaes.

While she does not commit--or solve--murders in real life, Wendy can kill a pint of ice cream in nothing flat. She's also passionately devoted to 80s music, Asian horror films, and reality TV. Wendy lives in North Texas with her wonderful husband and four spoiled felines. You can find Wendy on the web at www.wendylynwatson.com.

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner and a lifelong lover of mysteries. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books from Berkley Prime Crime, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She has won two Arthur Ellis awards for best mystery short story as well as the Crime Writers of Canada Derrick Murdoch award. The Dead Don’t Get Out Much was also nominated for a Barry Award in 2006.

Her latest Charlotte Adams book is Closet Confidential (Berkley Prime Crime, July 2010). She says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte and for the opportunity to eat all that ice cream vicariously. She lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at www.maryjanemaffini.com.