Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Uncanny Valley

Sharon Wildwind

This past weekend I finally watched Happy Feet. With apologies to all of the people who worked very hard on the movie, it didn’t grab me.

Since I get crabby and curmudgeonly in the dark time of the year, I asked my husband for his perspective. “Is it just me or is there something wrong with this movie?”

He said, “It’s an excellent example of the uncanny valley.”

I blinked. “The uncanny what?”

In 1906 a German psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch, wrote an essay called On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Thirteen years later Sigmund Freud picked up on the concept and wrote another essay called The Uncanny. Freud’s essay was translated into English; Jentsch’s essay wasn’t translated until 1995, so for seventy-five years the English-speaking world was more familiar with Freud’s work than with Jentsch’s.

Canny is Scottish word meaning to be warm and snug. To be uncanny is to be just the opposite: cold, disturbing, and revolting.

The uncanny valley theory goes something like this: as a group human beings have a general belief that standard-looking human equals safe and non-standard-looking human equals creepy or uncanny. There is a huge cultural overlay of what “standard-looking” and “non-standard-looking” mean, so what looks creepy in North America may not look creepy in Africa or New Guinea and vice-versa. There are also age and other sub-categories of difference; a five-year old and a fifty-five-year old looking at the same person may react differently.

Initially this theory was applied just to human beings but as computers, robots, artificial intelligence, and computer-generated imaging developed, the same theory was applied to non-humans that behaved like humans.

Think about the Star Wars robot R2-D2, which looks like a mobile trash can and sounds like a whistling tea kettle alternating with a very angry bird. R2-D2 is at the 0% human characteristics start of the scale. Viewers might find it endearing or annoying, but it is generally not perceived as creepy.

At the other end of the scale Lieutenant Commander Data in The Next Generation is hugely creepy. Data should have been hatred, but wasn’t. There were probably two reasons for this. First, he was past the uncanny valley point on the scale and, except for weird colored skin and wearing contact lens, he looked very, very human.

I often wondered if the contact lens play a part. I’ve read actors’ interviews where they talked about how uncomfortable most theatrical contact lenses are. I couldn’t watch a scene with Data without thinking that I was watching a human being who was probably experiencing something between discomfort and real pain; I wanted the scene to end so he could remove those lenses.

The second saving grace was that the writers wrote and Brent Spiner played Data as a character of conflicts and self-depreciation. It was bemused, confused, and curious; in other words, admitting especially to itself that it was not human and therefore not a threat.

In between those two points, at approximately the point on the chart where an artificial creation looks 75% to 85% human, the most common reaction changes from positive to negative: the uncanny valley. The reaction become positive again only when the representation approaches looking 100% human.

The uncanny valley is why Frankenstein horrified audiences. And why I think that David Lynch made the right choice in the movie, The Elephant Man (1980), to show—except for one brief clip—Joseph Merrick as either clothed or as an outline behind a screen. In the first case, the uncanny valley effect added to the character; in the second, seeing Merrick’s deformities for a longer period would have detracted from the audience’s ability to be sympathetic to the character.

I suspect that Mumbles, too, fell into the valley point on the chart.

My main problem with Mumbles was his clear blue eyes and the never changing baby penguin appearance. As a writer I get it: use physical characteristics to emphasize that the character is an outsider.

As a business person who markets, I get it even more. A chubby, blue-eyed, downy-soft stuffed animal should sell like hot cakes. It did. Still objects produce a shallower uncanny valley than moving objects do. I suspect I might find Mumbles as a stuffed animal less objectionable than I found him as an animated character.

Most of all, I found the romance scenes between Gloria, who had developed into an adult penguin and Mumbles, who hadn’t, as major creepiness. It was like those tabloid stories of teachers sleeping with their students, and I wish the people who created the characters had made different choices.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quiet Music Amidst the Holiday Blare

by Julia Buckley

Strange as it seems, some radio stations were playing Christmas music the day after Halloween, and of course the stores were hawking that Christmas merchandise weeks ago.

Worse than that, every Muzak system I've heard so far is focused on either the "Screaming Christmas," in which people shout words like "silent" and "still," or the "Groaning Christmas," in which the word "joy" is made to sound like a misery. I find all of this music irritating, even stress-inducing.

But I have my little musical escapes--truly lovely holiday music that feeds the soul, sung by people who aren't trying to sound like every other pop singer. I'll share them with you in hopes that you'll find pleasure in their performances--and maybe you'll be inspired to share your own holiday performances.

"Linus and Lucy" is only one of the great holiday tunes on the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas Soundtrack, a jazzy and nostalgic visit to holidays past, and a quiet companion for holiday activities.

Susie Bogguss is a true musical talent; her voice is lovely, and more than once she combined efforts with the great Chet Atkins, who accompanies her here.

This version of "Mary Did You Know?" by Kathy Mattea has always been my favorite; she invests it with a soulfulness that I find appropriate to the season.

What an interesting pairing: Allison Krauss and Yo Yo Ma perform The Wexford Carol--it's simply haunting, and so simple, which is my preference in Christmas music.

George Winston's piano is a nice contemplative highlight of the season, and there's something almost hypnotic about "Carol of the Bells."

Some nice serene music--which somehow never seems to be chosen for holiday shoppers.

Do you have holiday favorites? Please share! I'm always looking to expand my playlist.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

There's One Born Every . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Was it Barnum or Bailey or both who said: There's a sucker born every minute? Hour? Whatever. Well, that's not what this post is about. Because it seems like there is a new author born every minute, judging by the number of books that come out each year by new (at least to me) authors.

And what a lovely thing that is. New books, new author's thoughts to read. New mysteries to solve or romances to sigh over or vampires to be scared of. Or whatever. But it is much easier to write a manuscript today. No dipping the quill into the ink pot and hoping it doesn't spill. And HOW did they correct mistakes back then? Or move/delete whole paragraphs? Whew!

I confess, as a writer, the computer is the loveliest invention known to woman. Well, besides the microwave, if you want to be technical about it. But being able to make changes so easily, to save our work, to keep it safe on multiple thumb drives (yes, I'm THAT paranoid) to be able to submit it to a publisher, to receive and return contracts online, to do edits via email, to see a nearly finished product thataway, and finally to have royalties drop into one's bank account automatically, ahhh, that's grand. Where was I? New authors.

New authors are on a learning curve, so we need to give them a little leeway (or enough rope? Just a thought.) Some hit a home run the first try, but often the second book is better than the first, and so on. And they need new readers, readers who are willing to branch out from the best seller list and try someone who would probably be number one million, if the list went that far. They need encouragement. They need to be read.

Writing and getting published is a VERY tough business. I've had three publishers and also done some of the dreaded self-publishing so I know whereof I type. Many writers, good writers, get discouraged and give up. Others hang in there, maybe even some who shouldn't. But it's all a matter of taste. I learned that quickly when I joined a book club. I hated the books they loved and it was mutual. But the food was good and the gals were fun. Sigh.

Is there a point buried in here somewhere? Yes. Give new writers a chance. If you can't afford to buy, borrow from the library. If you enjoy the book, pass the word. If you hate it, well, maybe someone else will love it. And if you are considering writing a book, go for it. Don't let the difficulty discourage you. Someone is bound to want to read it, even if it's just your mom. Or me.

As always, thanks for stopping by. Read any good books lately? By new authors? Feel free to let us know.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Food Rules!

by Sheila Connolly

Heirloom tomatoes
Michael Pollan sent me an email this week. In case you aren't familiar with him, he writes "books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect" (that's what his website says). Several of the books have been bestsellers, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire (which opened my eyes to what Johnny Appleseed was really up to). I've read some of these because I write fiction about raising, distributing and consuming apples. That's why I signed up for his intermittent newsletter.

Last year he published Food Rules, which provides 64 rules for eating well. Now he wants to update it and include more contributions from readers, so he sent out that email asking for rules that we have found "memorable and useful," possibly passed down within the family.

I'd love to participate, but then I realized that my family didn't cook, or more accurately, nobody up the line invested a lot of emotional energy into cooking. I know, nobody said you had to be in love with food in order to cook, and I did survive childhood in reasonably good health. But it wasn't until I left home that I discovered (to borrow a phrase) the joy of cooking.

It's kind of a sad history:

My mother: When I was growing up, she was a good plain cook. We ate protein/starch/veg every night. We ate chicken, but rarely fish. At least the meat wasn't overcooked and the vegetables were usually fresh rather than frozen–I'll give her points for that. I don't think she tried making a tomato sauce until after I had left for college. When I was younger, I remember her making cakes and pies, but they kind of disappeared along the way, replaced by omnipresent ice cream.

My mother's mother: She never learned to cook, or at least, never admitted it. She was raised as a foster child, and while I know she acquired a lot of domestic skills (she was a manic cleaner, and excelled at hand-sewing), somehow cooking escaped her. She could make fudge, meatloaf and gravy. Period. Each was good, but it was a kind of limited repertory. I can remember early on when my parents went away and she babysat for my sister and me, our dinners usually consisted of ice cream and cereal. Hey, we thought it was fun!

My mother's father: He died of a heart attack at 44, brought on in no small part by his life-long affection for cream and butter. In the last decade of his life he decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer; he chose the breed for his herd based on the fat content of the milk. Of the top dairy cow breeds, he just had to have Guernseys, which have the second highest butterfat content, right after Jerseys. Not a good role model. (Maybe that's where the family ice cream tradition came from.)

My mother's grandmother (since her mother was orphaned, my mother knew only one grandmother): There I draw a total blank. I can't remember any mention of her in conjunction with food. Since she was a woman of some physical substance, I have to assume she ate, but I have no idea what. No treasured family recipes have come down from that side.

My father's family: They were Irish. I never knew my father's parents, but his sister was of the school that produced a tunafish casserole every Friday, made with cream of something soup, with crushed potato chips sprinkled over. My father never talked fondly of the wonderful meals shared around the family table. There was a rumor that one of his aunts was a cook for a renowned family in New York, but I never tasted her cooking. Actually, another aunt did leave a few scribbled recipes–I'll have to drag them out and try them.

So, Michael, I'm having a hard time answering your call. And I really want to. I have taken your advice to heart. I frequent local farmers markets and chat with the farmers. I try new vegetables whenever I find them (would you believe six different kinds of eggplant?). I compost. I have an organic garden (that grows badly because it doesn't get enough sun) and four apple trees (that haven't produced a single apple yet). I'm trying, really I am.

If there is any wisdom I can pass along, it's that we should savor our food. Don't just fill your stomach–taste what you're eating! And if it doesn't have any flavor, or tastes like nothing nature intended, go out and find something better!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from the Deadly Daughters

Poe’s Deadly Daughters are collectively thankful for another year of blogging and enjoying our ongoing conversation with you, our readers. Here are our individual messages in celebration of the day.

Elizabeth Zelvin
The term “Turkey Day” has taken on new meaning since I spent the summer driving daily to the beach along a road on which I could usually count on seeing anywhere from one to seven wild turkeys. They were introduced into the wild (if you can call East Hampton wild) more than a year ago. Our first exposure to them was having to wait for a turkey mom and twenty-seven babies to cross the road. Now the survivors are plump and handsome, and seeing them always put a grin on my face. With Thanksgiving approaching, they’ve made themselves scarce, which suggests they’re smart as well as goodlooking. For me, the day is not just about the food, but a time to give thanks for much abundance: my health, in spite of a year that included root canal and gum surgery; my loved ones, including two adorable granddaughters; my mystery books and six new stories published this year; new creative opportunities, notably recording songs I’ve written over several decades for a CD that I hope will be out next year; and my friends, colleagues, and readers in and out of the wonderful mystery community.

Julia Buckley
Here's a list of ten things I'm thankful for:

1. The scent of fall in the air, and the way that scent subtly changes when the holidays approach.

2. The beautiful images that nature gives me each day, like this imprint of a leaf on the concrete in our alley. It reminds me of a Japanese painting.

3. My wonderful boys, who provide so much life and laughter in our house.

4. My hard-working husband; we often have days where one of us merely gets to say good-bye as the other heads out the door, but we still manage to appreciate each other.

5. My menagerie of pets: a dog (see "The Ignominious Hound" post), three cats, and an amazingly long-lived fish.

6. Our solid roof. Not one leak in the last twelve years (when it was put on).

7. My sense of humor. No matter how bad the day, it's always lurking beneath the surface of a surly mood.

8. Music. I love it--all kinds.

9. Books, of course. Mysteries best of all.

10. And, in the spirit of the season, I'm grateful for eggnog. It really hits the holiday spot (as do pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gingerbread cookies, chestnut stuffing . . . so many foods to be thankful for!)

And p.s.--like Liz, I'm thankful for the other Deadly Daughters and for all the readers of this blog.

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve taken lots of prettier photographs, but this is one for which I’m thankful.

I make art in chaos, amid plastic boxes full of cloth and art supplies, projects in progress stored in woven baskets, inspirational photos and sayings tacked on bulletin boards, and generally odd but pretty things like strings of Mardi-Gras beads, an African necklace, and sun catchers suspended from windows and hooks. What I lack most is open space.

A couple of years ago I dedicated half the top of one IKEA wooden shelf set to NOTHING. Leave this space open. I never realized before how having one dedicated open space could make life so much easier.

When I take down a heavy box of cloth to get at the box underneath it, I have a place to set it down. Ditto when I need a place to rummage in the ephemera box for the right doo-dad to add to a card. If I’m staging tabletop photography I have safe place to put the camera between shots. If I have an important letter that I must mail today it’s clearly visible when I get ready to leave the house.

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for space. The computer space where I write. The desk space where I journal. The project table space where I play. The space in the day to meditate and exercise. The space in the commons area outside my window that’s filled with trees, rabbits, and squirrels. And especially my little nothing space that opens up the space for all the others to be.

Blessed be, everyone.

Sheila Connolly

Plimoth Plantation
Since I live only a few miles from Plymouth, where it all began (unless you're one of those Jamestown people who think otherwise), it's hard not to be aware of Thanksgiving. The local cranberries are harvested, and the farmers markets—still going on through the fall and winter—abound with butternut squash.

It has been a good year for me as a writer—three books out (and my first short story!), some great conferences attended and even managed. I am always grateful that I have a terrific agent and a major publisher, because I know how coveted both are, and how many talented people are trying hard to acquire either, much less both. And more to the point, I still love writing, and I'm still learning. Along the way I've collected a great group of writer friends, both virtual and real (they're the ones standing in front of me at any given moment).

I'm grateful that my husband works for the U.S. government, so his job is as steady as they come these days. I'm grateful our daughter is both employed and making plans for her future (that doesn't involve living under our roof, although we love having her around!).

I guess I'm a glass-half-full person. Sure, the house is a perpetual mess, the roof leaks, the wind whistles through the foundation; the average age of our cars is 14, and their total mileage is about half a million. But we're all reasonably healthy and more or less sane, and that's good enough for me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sandra Parshall

I'm grateful that Broken Places, my first book in three years, was so well received and that readers hadn't forgotten my characters.

I'm grateful that neither of our cats had a near-death experience this year.

I'm grateful that my recovery from knee replacement surgery was unusually quick and easy, making me wonder why I put it off and suffered for so long.

After living through two blizzards in the DC area last winter, I'm grateful that the La Nina effect will protect us from such catastrophic weather this coming winter. (Would you like to hear about our new roof and gutters and the neighbors' massive pine tree that fell into our yard during one of the blizzards? No? I understand.)

As someone who has to get on an airplane occasionally, I'm grateful that the TSA is trying to protect us!

Lonnie Cruse
I'm thankful to those who fought for this country so that I can enjoy the freedoms they risked their lives for. I'm thankful for my familly and friends, for their love and support. I'm thankful that my sometimes rambling thoughts have been published, both the fiction and the non-fiction, allowing me to share those thoughts and in some cases actually get paid for it. Most of all, I'm thankful for an awesome God, to lean on, to trust in, and for hope of the future. Over all, I'm just plain thankful. Pass the dressing, please!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Tyranny of Titles

Sandra Parshall

Titles are important to me, as a reader and a writer. An intriguing title makes me look at a book even if I know nothing else about it.

Readers aren’t likely to come across my books while browsing in Barnes & Noble or Borders – most small press mysteries aren’t stocked by the big chains – but they might see them in independent stores and libraries. I want my titles to trigger the “Hmm. What’s this about?” reaction.

I came up with titles I love for my first three books: The Heat of the Moon (metaphor), Disturbing the Dead (literal; skeletal remains are uncovered in the first chapter), and Broken Places (metaphor again). I’m not so crazy about the title of the book I have to turn in by the end of the year for publication next September 1. Unless I come up with something I love very soon, the book will be called Under the Dog Star.

I don’t actually hate it, and it fits the story. Veterinarian Rachel Goddard is trying to save a pack of feral dogs who were abandoned in the countryside by their owners, while Captain Tom Bridger, a sheriff’s deputy, is trying to break up a dog-fighting operation. When a prominent citizen with a wildly dysfunctional family is killed by a dog... Let’s just say that things get complicated, as they should in any mystery. Lily Barker, a local woman who claims to have “the sight” (Tom scoffs at such notions, but Rachel isn't so quick to judge), warns that evil took root in the county “under the dog star” and now flourishes in hidden places.

I’ve never liked titles that begin with prepositions: In the..., Below a..., Under the... But here I am, putting one on my new book. Unless I experience a stroke of genius in the next four weeks.

This is the first of my titles that I haven’t truly loved. What do you think? Am I worrying for no reason?

Here are the opening paragraphs, to give you a taste of the story and tone.

    In the silver moonlight, the dogs appeared as a dark mass moving down the hill and across the pasture. They headed straight toward three dozen sheep huddled on a carpet of autumn leaves under an oak tree.
    Tom Bridger aimed his shotgun at the sky and fired.
    The blast stopped the dogs for a second. The startled sheep jerked apart, turned and ran.
    A single dog broke from the pack and streaked after the sheep. The rest of the dogs followed, yelping and baying.
    Tom fired into the air again, and again. The dogs didn’t stop until his fourth shot. They milled about in the pasture as if trying to make up their minds whether to stay or go.
    Another shotgun blast decided the issue for them. They wheeled around and took off in the direction they’d come from.

    Lying in the dark, with Tom’s space in the bed growing cold beside her, Rachel tensed at the sound of gunshots in the distance. She clutched the blanket, bunching it in both fists. She knew Tom wouldn’t shoot to kill, but she also knew he was losing patience after going out night after night to protect his sheep from the feral dog pack.  (c) 2010 Sandra Parshall

(Murder coming right up!)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Closing the Circle

Sharon Wildwind

Back last spring I mentioned participating in a Play-writing Circle and attempting to write my first play. We finished up the workshop in the beginning of May and had six months to do whatever work we wanted on our plays.

This past weekend we came together again, this time with a director and professional actors for a rehearsal on Saturday and a 15-minute reading by the actors on Sunday afternoon.

It was so much fun, and the energy generated consumed the whole weekend. This was only my second time to see actors read scripts. Last time I was just an observer; this time I obviously had a bigger stake, not only for my 15-minute segment but because I was also engaged by what my classmates had written.

For the most part the plays dealt with moderate issues: marital infidelity, sex addiction, emotional blackmail, teen-age homosexuality, and a mother-daughter confrontation. I think it says something about our lives as writers that we consider those topics “moderate.” The final piece was a beautifully-crafted monologue full of repression and fury.

While the monolog was unrelenting in its directness and emotional content, each play had at least one emotionally charged, uncomfortable moment. The thing about writing books is that as the author I get to confront those moments in private. Even when I read my writing aloud to myself I can mumble over those sensitive areas. Actor’s can’t do that.

It was interesting to watch the actors confront those moments. On the first read through there was a lot of throat clearing and sometimes stumbling over dialog. The readings were most often just putting one word after another, but there was this tremendous undercurrent of dancing around the content, flirting with it.

The look on their faces was a cross between “I can’t believe I’m going to say this on stage” and “Oh, boy, I get to say this on stage.”

Immediately after finishing there was always some body play: collapsing like a puppet whose strings had been cut, letting out a big breath, or mugging a face.

It was amazing how quickly they settled in. On the second read the embarrassment was gone and emotion pumped up the words. By the third read, all of the human response needed from the character was there.

I was darn impressed. I also realized that I don’t have to pull emotional punches in script writing any more than I do in book writing. Yes, good actors can say some very difficult things and neither the actors nor the play will fall apart.

The other little side-play was a discussion between the director and two of the actors about the meaning of a scene. The writer was sitting at the table during this discussion. If it had been me, I’m sure I would have jumped in right away to clarify what I meant when I wrote the scene. She didn’t. She allowed the actors to go through the whole discussion without input from her, and commented at the end only after they had asked her for her opinion. Ah, I thought, sometimes the best thing a writer can do is hold back and not try to be helpful.

When the circle started last spring, I had modest goals: get a couple of characters on stage and give them a few lines of dialog. My reach-for-the-star goal was to finish one act. But you know, now, I think I’ll go for the whole enchilada and finish two more acts so that I’ll have an entire play. After that — well, stay tuned for further developments.

Quote for the week:

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.
~ Oscar Wilde; Irish poet, novelist, dramatist and critic, 1854-1900

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Thinking Time

by Julia Buckley
It's that time of year. Yes, when the world falls in love, but also when I am grading research papers. This is a solemn and noble duty, and, as Inspector Clouseau once said, "A part of life's rich pageant." :)

Based on what I've read so far, I can assure anyone reading this that young people can still think like scholars and write intelligently--that wasn't exclusive to our generation, although I have chatted with some adults who believe it was.

I say, if an eighteen-year-old can push away the cell phone and the text messaging, the computer, the television, and sit down to write a paper which assures me that Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and Camus' Meursault share an existential isolation, and can proceed with a lucid argument supported by examples, then the world of scholarship is in good shape.

So I am grateful for my scholars, even if I am not grateful for the pile of papers that seems never to grow smaller. Maybe I am the one in existential isolation . . .

Do you remember the papers you wrote as a student? Those first forays into scholarship that made you realize you could think about really deep things? One of my favorites, which I wrote as a senior in high school, compared Thomas Hardy's Eustacia Vye (from RETURN OF THE NATIVE) with Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary (From MADAME BOVARY). It was all my own (although my mother helped me type it on our manual typewriter), and I was proud of my scholarship, for which I had to visit the college library. I also got an A+.

What sort of papers did you write? Which were your favorites? Did you save them? Share your tales of early scholarship!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cousin Emily

by Sheila Connolly
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I aspired to be an academic—specifically, a medieval art historian. I even have two degrees in art history, and one forgotten publication, “The Cloister Sculpture of Saint-Aubin in Angers” (Gesta, 1979). (Good grief: Google can still find it!)
I’ve been asked to participate in a panel on Emily Dickinson at the Boston Public Library next month. The invitation came from the Poet Laureate of Boston, Sam Cornish—not because of my widespread literary renown nor for my studious insights into the poet, but because he and my daughter both work at the same bookstore. He’s a delightful man, and he’s responsible for promoting poetry through events in the city of Boston. 

I remember the strictures about writing a scholarly article—the formatting for footnotes, the carefully-phrased statements (“several authors have suggested that it is possible that something may have contributed…”). But it’s been quite a while since I dabbled my toes in academia, and I’m a bit intimidated: the list includes poets, professors—and me, a mystery writer.

But there's another reason why I, a non-academic, am on this panel: I’ve written a contemporary mystery in which Emily Dickinson plays a significant role: A Killer Crop, the fourth book in my Orchard Mystery series. The series is set in western Massachusetts, close to Amherst, and it is all but impossible to spend any time in that area without tripping over Emily. Yes, I’ve toured her house more than once, and I’ve even visited her grave (to ask her permission? Or forgiveness?).

But I’m not writing about her poetry, I’m writing about connections. We all have probably heard the stories about Dickinson’s reclusiveness, her avoidance of contact with people. Those stories may be exaggerated, and they focus on the later part of her life. In her earlier years Emily did in fact travel and visit people. And there were many, many Dickinsons who lived near Amherst, and most were related somehow. That’s what my story taps into: Dickinson genealogy.

While I don’t pretend to have specific information on who Emily may have visited, I feel safe in guessing that there were local family connections that may have played a part in her life. The protagonist in my series finds herself in an unfamiliar community where she knows no one, and then she finds her first body. Since she’s the stranger, the outsider, local law enforcement places her at the top of the suspect list—and it’s a short list. She has to fight to clear her name, and she does find friends and supporters along the way. And she begins the process of “belonging”—becoming part of the local community.

In our current society, families are scattered across the country; communication takes place mainly through electronic media. We tend to forget that in the 19th century, movement was far more restricted and most relationships were limited to the distance of a horse-and-carriage ride. The very definitions of “family” and “friends” were different then. Emily Dickinson’s concept of relationships would have been very different, and certainly she would have placed more value on the written word than we do now.
What she could not have known was how treasured her words would be, well over a century later.

P.S.  I'm Emily's sixth cousin five times removed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Interview with Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my own involvement with the fifth annual anthology from Wolfmont Press to benefit a deserving charity: Murder to Mil-Spec, a collection of new crime stories on military themes. Today, Wolfmont publisher Tony Burton talks with us about his press, its mission, and Murder to Mil-Spec.

Q. How did you come to establish a small press?

A: Well, I was running a short crime fiction ezine, Crime and Suspense (now defunct), and as a result of discussions with authors who were sending stories to me there, I became interested in having a print publishing business, not simply online. The first result of that was Seven By Seven, an anthology of seven authors’ flash fiction pieces on each of the seven deadly sins, for a total of 49 stories. It was a fun and challenging project that is still in print.

Q. Was publishing charitable anthologies part of your plan from the start? What prompted you to do this?

A. Honestly, it wasn’t in the business plan, but as I developed the business I saw it as a way I could use the business to help those who are (in that hackneyed expression) less fortunate than I. The first four charitable anthologies were for Toys for Tots, and that came, at least partially, from my own history of having parents who were hard-working but poor, and who could not always give the kind of Christmas they would have wanted. I have a lot of respect for the USMC and the work they do for this endeavor.

Q. How have the charitable anthologies affected Wolfmont’s reputation and success as a business enterprise?

A. You know, I haven’t thought much about that, but I hope they have had a positive impact! I actually had one author once (whom I will not name) to tell me that I was wasting time and effort with a charitable anthology that didn’t make any money for Wolfmont. I don’t agree. I don’t care if you call it “what goes around, comes around” or karma or something else, but I believe doing good ultimately does good for the person who does it.

Q. How have the stories been received? What kind of impact have they had on the contributors’ careers?

A. I think the anthologies and the individual stories have been very well received. Of course, in every anthology you will have some stories that are generally more popular than others—that goes without saying. And I have made it a point to mix levels of experience in all the anthologies, insofar as I could do that without hurting the integrity of the anthology, and I think it has turned out well. In 2008 we had the ONLY small-press book on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s yearly list of bestsellers, in either hardcover or softcover. We have also had stories from the anthologies to be nominated for awards, and to win, so that is very pleasing. It has become generally a fairly competitive thing, to get into one of these anthologies, and that’s both good and bad. It makes it very hard to choose the stories because so many are so good, and we simply can’t put them all in.

Q. The first four anthologies had a surefire formula: holiday crime stories—making the book a perfect Christmas or Chanukah gift for readers—and a charity that gives toys to needy children, a mission that everyone can support without reservation. What made you decide to change the theme and recipient this time?

A. First of all, let me say that I still value Toys for Tots. But they get an awful lot of press, and are a very big charity. So, I decided that this year, I would try to find something that is just as important, but perhaps more obscure. That’s when I found Homes for Our Troops. They have a very, very high rating on the Charity Navigator web site, and in my mind are one of the better military-oriented charities.

Q. How did you arrive at the decision to make Homes for Our Troops the recipient of this year’s proceeds?

A. I was in the military for over twelve years, and if you add in National Guard time, over fourteen years. I was Navy for the largest part of that time, so I never was in a field combat situation, but I still saw a lot of terrible injuries, even in peacetime… including death. One thing that has really struck home to me was the high number of military persons coming back from our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq with missing limbs, paralyzing spinal cord injuries, head trauma, and other devastating injuries that keep them from functioning normally in everyday environments. My mother is disabled and gets around in a wheelchair, and I know how hard it can be for even the simplest of tasks to get done when you are confined to one.

Q. What exactly does Homes for Our Troops do?

A. Homes for Our Troops is a 501.c(3) charitable organization that builds new homes for returning veterans with debilitating injuries such as loss of limb, paraplegia or quadriplegia, and so forth. They do this without any cost to the military member. At one time they were retrofitting the old homes, but they found that it was harder and more expensive than simply building a new home for the veteran. You can get a great idea of what they do by simply visiting their website, www.homesforourtroops.org .

Q. How did soliciting and selecting stories involving military personnel and veterans compare with your experience gathering stories with a holiday theme?

A. I think it was harder for a couple of reasons. One, and I’ll get it out of the way at first, is that there is a lot of ambivalence about the present conflicts in which the USA is involved. People seem to want to avoid talking about the loss of life and catastrophic injuries—witness out own government’s efforts to downplay the arrival of soldiers’ remains from the battlefields. The other thing, and this surprised me, is that it seems not many writers have first-hand experience with the military, so they had a hard time putting themselves into a “military frame of mind.” (How this applies to those who write about serial killers, I don’t want to contemplate!) But, even though there were not as many submissions for this anthology, there was still a good field to select from, and it pained me to have to reject some stories. One criticism from a reviewer (and it was a mild one) was that this anthology didn’t really have any humorous or lighthearted stories in it as the previous ones had. I didn’t filter out any funny stories: there simply were none submitted. Maybe people are so focused on the death and destruction aspect of the military that they forget that humor is one of the biggest ways all human beings deal with being in a stressful, dangerous situation. Whatever the reason, no really funny stories were submitted.

Q. Did you have any concern that a military charity, even one focusing on the severely disabled, might be seen as political? Have there been any surprises in people’s response to the anthology?

A. In spite of the potential political aspects of the anthology, I have yet to see any negative connotations directly pointed at the anthology, or at Wolfmont, because of the theme of the anthology. And that doesn’t surprise me. I believe people, even those who don’t agree with what is going on over in Afghanistan and Iraq, understand that military personnel are not over there for fun, and are simply serving their country—as they must, since they took the oath and signed up with the services.

Q. Putting together a charitable anthology like Murder to Mil-Spec involves a great deal of work for you with no financial reward. What makes it worthwhile for you? What do you like best about the process?

A. I get to work with some awesome people, first of all. I get to meet both experienced and novice authors who are talented and eager to do something good. I enjoy the warm glow that comes from doing something really positive.

Q. What would you like to tell readers about Murder to Mil-Spec to encourage them to buy it for themselves and as gifts for other readers?

A. First of all, your primary reason to buy Murder to Mil-Spec should NOT be the charity. It should be the fine collection of military-themed short crime fiction that will entertain you or the person to whom you give the book. These are not puff pieces, but meaty, satisfying stories that run the gamut from jewelry theft to murder to kidnapping, and that slide up the timeline from World War II all the way to our present involvement in Afghanistan. The added benefit is that you will help wounded warriors to be able to function when they return home, to be able to rebuild a life that they left as physically complete and whole, but now are challenged to live from day to day. And this challenge is because they did what they swore to do when they joined the military: they went in harm’s way in service to our country.

Q. What will you do for an encore? Do you have plans for next year’s charitable anthology?

A. I’ll be blunt here: last year’s anthology did not do as well as we had hoped it would. Perhaps it was the depressed economy; at least that’s what I think caused the problem, because the stories were all of high caliber. My continuation of this annual project is greatly dependent upon this year’s anthology doing well. If it is a success, then yes, I’ll probably do another one next year. I do have a theme and title in mind, but I won’t let that feline out of the sack until I know more about whether or not I’ll actually publish another anthology. If I don’t, it won’t be because the cause is not worthwhile—far from it—but rather because, after all the numbers are tallied, I could have simply donated the money to Homes for Our Troops and not had the trouble of getting out an anthology. That sounds pretty blunt and harsh, I guess, but it’s the truth. Just as you said, it’s a lot of work, and if it ends up being little more than a wash, then I’d rather just donate a lump sum and devote my time to a different project.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Book World after the Revolution

Sandra Parshall

We’re in the middle of a publishing revolution, and people are behaving the same way they do when any great upheaval takes place. Some are jumping onboard enthusiastically. Some shake their heads and predict it will blow over and everything will return to “normal” – meaning, in this case, that traditionally published books will reign supreme. Others stand on the sidelines, having decided to wait and see how it all shakes out.

Those who deny what’s happening remind me of people who swore 30 years ago that they would never own a computer. Typewriters would never disappear. Yeah, right. Just like printed books and the stores that sell them will never disappear.

A few recent bits of news in the publishing/bookselling world:

In September, bookstore sales were down 7.7%, making it the worst month of 2010, while e-book sales rose by 158%. In the first nine months of 2010, e-book sales rose 190% over the same period last year.

The small independent chain Joseph-Beth Booksellers filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it will close four of its eight stores by the end of the year.

Barnes and Noble plans to close six to 10 stores annually for the next three years. Meanwhile, Borders continues its slow slide toward near-certain death.

I have to wonder where the optimists get their certainty that traditionally printed books and brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive. Those of us who buy and read books are a distinct minority of the population. If a million people watch one episode of a TV show on a major network, the show is an instant flop and gets yanked off the air. If a million people buy copies of a book, it’s a gigantic runaway bestseller. Relatively few authors sell well enough to support themselves with their writing. The vast majority sell fewer than 5,000 copies of each book. Books are not an important part of most people’s lives. They get their entertainment elsewhere. And people who do buy books are increasingly resistant to high cover prices.

Some in the publishing industry predict that e-books will make up 25% of all book sales within two or three years. (The current figure is around 10%.) What will the e-book share of the market be in 10 years? Fifteen years? Will print books be the expensive exception by then – collectors’ items?

The revolution is here. It’s happening. It’s not going away or slowing down. Why are so many people, even those who own Kindles and no longer buy print books, acting as if nothing much has changed or will change?

I have a million questions about the future. I’d like to hear more people talking about these issues, even if we can’t predict the answers with any certainty.

Will big publishers transform themselves into e-publishers just to stay alive?

With fewer print books being produced and sold, what will happen to bookstores? The indies have been dying left and right for years. Most people have already written off Borders. Can Barnes and Noble change enough to stay in business?

When will writers’ organizations, some of which currently have strict definitions of what “published” means, realize they have to adjust their criteria?

When will conferences start giving equal space on the program to e-published writers?

What will the “book room” at the typical conference look like in 10 or 15 years? Will it consist of lines of kiosks where conference-goers can purchase POD copies of books or instantly download digital books to their readers? Will signing times for authors be eliminated when they no longer have print books to sign? 

How do YOU see the future for the small minority of the human population that loves books? What will the book world look like after the revolution?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Right on Time

Sharon Wildwind

I have just finished the worst book I have ever written. There are huge gaps in the plot; the characters are flat; the descriptions lackluster; and the whole thing incredibly tiresome. As my husband says, “Right on time.”

We go through this at the end of every book. It started with the final section of difficult text that refused to be shaped. This time it was why a character had done a key thing related to the murder. I wrote a reason. The four-year-old in my head asked, “Why?” I explained the reason. “Why?” I explained the reason for the reason. “Why?”

This went on for about a page and a half. I knew it was crap, but writing crap was better than not writing. I fiddled with everything before and after the explanation, hoping that if I chipped away from both ends, I’d meet myself in the middle. In a glorious moment of revelation the obstruction melted away. I had a clear path back to the beginning of the book and forward to the end.

The book was finished. All that was left were minor details of proof-reading the entire book on the computer, doing a grammar and spelling check, getting a copy printed, proof-reading the printed copy, doing another grammar and spelling check, and making sure it was formatted absolutely correctly.

Mentally moving a book from Work in Progress to Done Except for Tidying is accompanied by a huge adrenalin, endorphin, and catecholamine rush. I could conquer the world! I’d already conquered the world and was standing on a mountain peak, waving the biggest flag you’ve ever seen. This was the greatest book every written in human existence!

That chemical high lasted through getting the copy printed. The print shop did a lousy job. It was really ugly. I consoled myself that this was only the proof-reading copy, which I would never look at again after I made corrections.

What was worse is that as soon as I skimmed through it, I found the first error in sentence #2. The word “to” had inexplicably disappeared. I’ve learned over the years how these strange disappearances happen.

Cutting, copying, pasting, and revising took out unexpected chunks, sometimes single words, sometimes entire sentences, rarely entire paragraphs. There was this wonderful correlation between disappeared words and importance, like having the word “not” disappear when the detective said, “I assure you that we have not found evidence linking your brother to the theft.”

After a while the human brain stops being able to see those omissions and other errors on the computer screen. This is not surprising. The brain has simply been flooded with too many words.

My writing program allows me to count words in a lot of ways, so I did some quick tallies:

13,000 words in the timelines or who did what when? Admittedly, this is an inflated number because this is book number five in the series. I have timelines for the previous four books buried in the document. So it actually works out to only about 2600 new words for this book. Only!

30,000 words on character development

560,000 words for background notes, notes on each scene and sequel as it was written, and five drafts of the book.

Total: slightly over 600,000 words. At the magical 250 words per page, that works out to having written, read, and revised 2,400 pages. No wonder I can’t see an occasional missed “to” or “not.”

It’s also the simplest and best reason I know that I absolutely must have the entire manuscript printed on paper and read that hard copy word-by-word three times: once now; again with a fresh copy after I’ve made the initial corrections; and the final time when I get the Advanced Reading Copy.

Advanced Reading Copy. As Avivah would say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”

Of course, this has all been written on spec. Selling the book is the next hurdle. So after proof-reading all but the last 30 pages I discovered that the plot gaps aren’t as big as I thought. Actually, there were only two: one required two sentences to fix and the second one required two-thirds of a page to fix. I suspect there is a third one lurking in those last 30 pages, but hey, I'm on a roll. Chances are I can fix that one as well.

The characters occasionally come up with some Crackerjack lines, the descriptions hold together, and while it’s not the best book ever written in the entire history of literature, it’s good enough to leave home and seek its fortune in the world. I’m busy packing its suitcase right now.

The title, in case you're curious, is Loved Honor More and it's about healing wounds. If you’d like the merest taste, click here for a blurb and short excerpt.

Quote for the week:
I’m beginning to think that being a writer is a mental illness that deserves its own DSM classification, perhaps a sub-category under Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: “Symptoms include anxiety dreams, inability to relax, intermittent feelings of inadequacy alternating with delusions of grandeur, hypersensitivity to criticism, and an abnormal preoccupation with people who don’t even exist.
~Tess Gerritsen, thriller writer

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Do You Keep Your Brain Alive?

by Julia Buckley
I've read several things lately about the notion of exercising one's brain to keep it flexible--not only in terms of memory but in terms of the quality of thought. I play Lexulous every day as a way of keeping my mind limber (my friend Sheila does the New York Times Crossword every morning, without fail).

But there are various ways that the brain must be stretched, just as the body can be exercised in a variety of ways. This blog lists the scientifically proven methods of increasing brain power. They all make sense, of course, and some are even good news: take naps, drink red wine, and eat blueberries--thank you, I will!

But the one that makes the most sense to me in a physical and a philosophical way is Number Two: Lifelong Learning. The "use it or lose it" idea has been propounded before, but it makes sense to realize that the brain is made to think. When we're in school or learning new jobs, we are thinking hard. But if we settle into a job or a lifestyle, do we continue to challenge our brains?

I went in quest of some brain-challenging games and came up with one that really duels with the gray cells: It's called the 60 second brain game. I scored a 3 out of 5, but to my relief, my smart, fast-thinking son scored a 2, so it might be a game that takes some adapting.

I read an article once about an Alzheimer's study that was done on a group of nuns. One of the things that the researchers noticed about the nuns who developed Alzheimer's was that they had less complexity of thought (as revealed in their writings) than did the nuns who did not develop the disease in their old age. This research seems to jibe with idea number two on the list: to keep our brains, we have to THINK.

So here's another brain challenge: can you answer eight SAT logic questions? Here they are. How did you do?

If we look, there are all sorts of ways we can challenge our brains that don't necessarily involve going back to school (I just did that, so I'm seeking new challenges!)

How do you like to exercise your brain?

Image link here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Life in the Crochet Lane

By Betty Hechtman

I like to think my life turned on a granny square. I had always been fascinated by crochet, but particularly by the crochet motif. I managed to teach myself how to crochet a hat, but how to make the squared eluded me. They seemed almost magic - the way they had open spaces but didn’t collapse. I’d wanted to take a class, but all the yarn classes I’d seen offered were knitting.

And then one day in Las Vegas in FAO Schwartz something happened that changed my life. I passed a little blue suitcase with a picture of a granny square on it. When I read that it was a kit to teach you how to make granny squares, I had a big aha moment. If it could work for a ten-year-old, maybe it could work for me. It sounds silly, but I was over the top excited as I bought the kit. At last, I was going to learn how to make those squares that are the mainstays of afghans.

I waited until I was back home to open it. The great thing about kid’s kits is that they show you every step with pictures. Though my first attempt was missing a corner, my second turned out much better. When I saw that first complete square I felt like I could conquer the crochet world.

I put my square making ability together with something else I’d always wanted to do - write a mystery. I was going to call it Squared to Death. I thought even if it didn’t get published, I’d learn how to crochet in the process of writing it.

But it did get published. Only it was called Hooked on Murder.

And now my fifth book You Better Knot Die is out. My crocheting has improved, but nothing compared to my ability to accumulate yarn.

In You Better Knot Die, it’s the holidays in Tarzana, California. Molly Pink and her crochet group the Tarzana Hookers are up to their elbows in crocheting snowflakes to decorate the windows of the bookstore where Molly works and they meet.

In the midst of preparations for a holiday event featuring Santa Lucia Day, Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza, Molly’s financial advisor neighbor goes missing.

Molly is still trying to sort out her personal life, juggling friends and lovers, while preparing for the biggest event the bookstore has ever had - hosting the launch of the latest book in the uber popular series featuring a vampire who crochets.

Directions to make a snowflake and a vampire scarf are included. Also included are recipes for Santa Lucia buns and stained glass cookies.

Do you have any holiday decorations that have special meaning? What about holiday foods? Is there something special that your family serves every year?

Along with writing the national bestselling crochet mystery series, Betty has written Blue Schwarz and Nefertiti's Necklace, a YA mystery with recipes, numerous newspaper and magazine pieces, along with short stories and screenplays. She blogs on Killerhobbies.blogspot.com and Killerhcharacters.blogspot.com. Her website is BettyHechtman.com.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Scéalta Póilíneachta

by Sheila Connolly

Betcha that title's got you scratching your head!  It's Irish, and it translates to "Police Stories".

As I may have mentioned before (several times, no doubt), I take Irish language classes.  I've been doing this for over five years now, and I'd say my progress is snail-like, but every now and then I actually recognize what a sentence is saying.

The problem is, our teacher is a lovely older woman with rather fixed ideas about how to teach the language.  I enjoy her company, and that of the shifting cast of other students (half of whom were born or lived in Ireland, which I think is an unfair advantage).  But there are few published books available to us in Irish, and there's not much money for materials, so usually we make do with photocopies.  And most of the photocopies she chooses are of classic "literary" selections.

Now, when you're still at the "I see an cow" stage in reading Irish, being treated to the elegant prose of, say, Pádraig Mac Piarais is kind of wasted on you.  I will freely admit I don't recognize most verb tenses in Irish (like past imperfect or subjunctive), and a metaphor (many of which seem to include bird symbolism) goes flying right over my head.  Joke, that.

So it was something of a treat when recently our muinteoir (that's teacher) brought us something new and different, all the while wrinkling her nose in contempt.  We've been reading chapters from a contemporary police procedural!  Now, we've been given discontinuous chapters, and nowhere near all of them, so the plot is kind of patchy.  Plus our teacher is so disgusted with the whole thing that she hasn't bothered to identify either the writer or the title of the book--not that I could ever find it in a local bookstore, or even one that specializes in foreign books.

But I don't care, because it's so much fun.  I'm learning all sorts of useful vocabulary like "prostitute" and "drug dealer" and "petty criminal."  Seriously, these are terms I might actually get to use in modern Ireland, whereas it's highly unlikely that anyone on a Dublin street will quiz me on the lonely seagulls of the Blasket Islands.

And in a way, the simpler declarative statements typical of a basic procedural are easy to read.  For example, here's a typical section:

D'oscail se a shuile.  Agus seo is an Garda seo, de Londra, ag labhairt aris.

"Feach, a Larry!  Ta tu i driobloid mhor.  Iomportail drugai, daileadh drugai, dunmharu Willie Braine, gunna midhleathac i do sheilbh agus a lan eile."

Dhun se a shuile agus smaoinigh se.

I've left out all the accents (which affect pronunciation), but if you read it out loud you get the drift.  It says, more or less:

He opened his eyes. And there was the policeman from London, speaking again.

"Look, Larry! You are in big trouble. Importing drugs, drug distribution, murdering Willie Braine, illegal guns in your possession and many other crimes."

He closed his eyes and he thought.

There's another fun section where Larry surveys the dead bodies of his colleagues in crime lying on the floor, and several of them have large holes in them.  I won't trouble you with that.
If there's a message lurking in here somewhere, it's that the mystery/crime genre appears to transcend language.

By the way, the cover above isn't for this anonymous book we're reading, but it is a vintage Irish publication, whose title translates to "Three Whole Murders."  I think.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When does outrage become prurience?

Elizabeth Zelvin

In a couple of recent online discussions of crime fiction that doesn’t pull its punches in describing violence, including sexual violence, I discovered that individual readers have widely varying ideas of where to draw the line with respect to acceptable reading. Or maybe more accurately, they react viscerally to different material and therefore interpret the writer’s intent in including that material in differing ways.

One of the discussions started with someone posting an extremely graphic description of a scene in a novel and someone else responding, “I wish I hadn’t read that,” blaming the original poster for thrusting a disturbing visual image on anyone who read the post. Soon everyone else was pitching in with books they wished they hadn’t read. My own candidate was Silence of the Lambs, and I wasn’t the only reader who said of one or another of the Hannibal Lecter series, “Eww, gross.” Yet millions of readers happily devoured (no pun intended) the Lecter saga in all its gruesomeness.

A lot of readers also love the Dexter series, both the book and the TV series. I wish the Dexter folks hadn’t chosen to plaster the New York subways with posters showing this handsome young fellow with his engaging grin ecstatically lifting his face to bathe in a splatter of blood. I found the image disturbing, and I’m concerned about the message it sent. But serial killers are immensely popular with crime fiction writers and readers, as well as the movies and TV shows they spawn.

I’d like to think the viewers know that they’re suspending disbelief. I recently heard a forensic psychologist who has interviewed and assessed many murderers state in no uncertain terms that Dexter—ie a killer with empathy, loved ones, and a conscience—does not and cannot exist. But maybe the charm of fictional psychopaths fools and seduces people in much the way that the charm of real psychopaths and con artists does. We want to think that charm is a lovable quality. It’s not. But it’s a powerful tool for the manipulation of dupes and victims.

I had a different take on Nevada Barr’s Burn, which is set in New Orleans and includes descriptions of a sex club in which young children are abused. I didn’t find the descriptions at all prurient, and I had no trouble understanding that Barr was trying to paint a realistic picture in order to arouse the reader’s outrage along with her protagonist Anna Pigeon’s. She left out what I think would have made the scenes unbearable: the children’s pain and suffering. These young children had been trained to compliance and, at least as depicted on the page, were not aware that they were being sexually abused, in effect, tortured. Barr trusted the reader to find this realism morally repugnant and the compliance itself horrifying. I had no trouble with that. Yet some other readers were outraged that the scenes were included at all and might even stop reading Barr’s novels as a result.

I find it disturbing that there is a lot more tolerance of violence and even torture on the page among crime fiction writers and readers than there is of sexual abuse. I’ve heard readers say they won’t read anything that refers to it, no matter how it’s depicted. Some literary agents won’t handle it. I don’t find any kind of sexual abuse entertaining, funny, or sexy. It’s a social issue that I don’t want to see swept under the rug.

The theme of my mystery series is recovery from alcoholism and codependency. It’s “writing what I know” based on many years of professional experience, and there’s no way I can leave sexual abuse out. Up to 77 percent of alcoholic women have a history of sexual abuse either in childhood or as adults. As a therapist, I’ve had so many clients either from alcoholic families or with eating disorders who also have experienced sexual abuse or trauma that when a new client presents with one of these issues, I routinely ask about the other two. As a novelist, I don’t belabor it, but I have to write about it.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the voyages of Columbus from the perspective of a Jewish protagonist. That means I’m writing about anti-Semitism, rape, and genocide. I doubt that any instance of genocide has not included sexual violence. Is this material too strong for readers to stomach, although they take beatings, murders, and even torture in stride (except if the victim is an animal)? Am I including it from prurience? I don’t think so.

In researching my period, I found a real-life character, a childhood friend of Columbus, who not only went on the second voyage, but wrote a book about it when he got back. Several modern historians (including Morison, the 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner who’s considered the foremost authority) repeat this fellow’s anecdote about how he was “given” a Taino girl who fought, screamed, and scratched when he tried to have sex with her. But then he “thrashed her well,” and after that, she did what he wanted. Morison found this incident comic. I hate the guy, even though he’s been dead 500 years. Did I use the incident in my manuscript? You bet I did. I feel impelled to set the record straight: this was assault and rape. And any reader who says, “Eww, rape”—as is their right—is missing the point.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vicki Delany Talks about NEGATIVE IMAGE

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Vicki Delany is a former systems analyst for a major bank who grew up in Canada, lived in South Africa for eleven years, and now enjoys her peaceful home in rural Prince Edward County, Ontario, where she seldom wears a watch and can write whenever she likes. She is the author of the Constable Molly Smith series, the Klondike Mysteries series, and two standalone suspense novels. Visit her website at http://www.vickidelany.com.

Q. Tell us about your new book, Negative Image.

A. Negative Image is the fourth in the Constable Molly Smith series set in the fictional town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. The book asks: What would you do if you believe the person you trust most in the world betrays you? What would you do if you discovered that the person you trust most in the world believes you capable of betrayal?

When renowned photographer Rudolph Steiner is found murdered, Police Sergeant John Winters learns that his wife is the prime suspect. The former supermodel was the murder victim's lover 25 years earlier, and although his beautiful young wife and photographic assistant have accompanied him to Trafalgar, Steiner lures Eliza Winters to his hotel room just prior to his death. There are other suspects, but when investigators from the RCMP arrive to take over the case they seem to be focused on one suspect only,  Eliza Winters. John Winters is forced into the most difficult decision of his life: loyalty to his job or to his wife. Constable Molly Smith has her own troubles: a series of B&Es has the peaceful town in an uproar, her overprotective Mountie boyfriend is fighting with her colleagues, and a vengeful stalker is watching her every move.

Q. Did you know everything there was to know about your continuing characters when you began the series, or have they surprised you as the series has continued? What have you learned about them – their secrets and pasts – that you didn’t know about at first? For example, did you know from the start that John’s wife Eliza had the secret that’s revealed in Negative Image?

A. I knew most things about John and Molly, but some of the other characters have surprised me. For example, when I sat down to write the scene where John Winters, the detective Sergeant, is introduced in In the Shadow of the Glacier, I had him on a date. He is with a beautiful, sexy woman and has bought her a gift he cannot afford because he is hoping to score. By the time the scene ended they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. And I think that works a lot better. Molly Smith’s romantic relationships are in turmoil, so the books need the counterbalance of the Winters’ stable, long-term marriage. I wrote a scene for Valley of the Lost, the second book, in which Eliza is thinking about being married to a cop and that scene brought out things about her past which surprised me. The scene was mostly deleted from Valley of the Lost, but the idea was there to be the plot of Negative Image.

Q. What is it about Molly Smith and John Winters that makes you want to follow them over the course of numerous books? What qualities in these characters appeal to you and intrigue you?

A. As far as I know, Molly Smith is unique in police procedurals as she is young and green and very naïve. She is on probation in the first two books. I did that because first of all I want to explore issues of growing up as a young woman today (I have three daughters in that age group). For example in Negative Image her boyfriend, who is also a cop, is so over-protective she worries about what would happen if they were in a dangerous situation together. Also because I want to have lots of opportunity to have her grow as a woman and as a police officer. Winters is just a nice guy. He has a hard job and he fears that it will turn him hard.  But it doesn’t, because he is at heart a good man.

Q. Why did you choose to set a series in a small community? Now that you’ve written several books set there, do you see disadvantages and advantages to the setting that you didn’t see at first? Do you think it limits the type of story you can tell?

A. These books could only be set in a small town. Because, as I said, Molly Smith is so junior that in a city she would spend her day writing traffic tickets. But because she knows this town and its inhabitants, Winters (who is a newcomer) relies on her local knowledge thus she has reason to be involved in major crimes. The books are intended to have a strong focus on the protagonists’ families, Molly Smith’s mother, Lucky, and Winters’ wife, Eliza, and it is the small town, the close-knit community that allows them to be involved, without stretching the bounds of coincidence too much. I really can’t think of any limitations to having the books in a small town. Because Trafalgar is a tourist town (as is its real life inspiration) and home to a lot of transients, plenty of people are coming all the time, and bringing their problems with them.

Q. How do you personally like living in a rural area after leaving your career in the financial industry? Has it been a big adjustment?

A. Love love love it. I seem to have simply settled in here and needed no adjustment at all. I hate it now when I have to go into the city and drive through all that traffic.

Q. You’ve also written suspense. Why did you decide to write a traditional mystery series?

A. My novels Scare the Light Away and Burden of Memory were standalone suspense books. But when I decided to start a series I wanted to write the sort of books I love to read. And that is mostly the traditional British-type police procedural.

Q. Do you think you’ll ever write about the world of finance you left behind?

A. Never. Not interested going back there at all.

Q. Do you take ideas from real life and shape them to create stories? Are any of your characters inspired by real people? Rudolph Steiner, for example – where did that (despicable!) character come from?

A. Very few of my characters or incidents have any basis in reality. The best example, however, is the bike on the cover of In the Shadow of the Glacier, the first book in the series. I had begun the first book when my new bike was stolen. I’d only had it two weeks. I was so mad I wrote a sub-plot into the book about a bike theft ring. And I can assure you, in the book the bike thief comes to a very nasty end. I have spent some time in the last couple of years with police officers trying to get my policing right and some of the funny little things that happen or the stories they tell me are put into the books, but I’ve never used anything as a plot device.
Rudolph Steiner, that charming fellow — just a product of my imagination.

Q. Turning the focus to the publishing business, how do you feel about the current wildfire growth of e-publishing? Do you think e-publishing will help small press authors in the long run by taking the expense of bookstore-based marketing out of the equation?

A. I think that e-publishing is going to be a boon for small and mid-sized presses and authors. Not because it will replace books –as long as there are libraries and people who don’t want to change to e-books, there is a market for paper books – but because it will supplement them. More choice, for sure, but I also think that people are going to buy more books for their e-reading devices. They can be spontaneous and just click away and buy a stack of books before they realize what they are doing.

Q. Are you still writing your other series, the Klondike Mysteries?

A. I am still writing the Klondike books. There are two out now, Gold Digger and Gold Fever, and Gold Mountain will be out next fall.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have finished the fifth Molly Smith book. It’s titled Among the Departed and will be released by Poisoned Pen Press in May 2011. I’m now going to take a break from Molly and write a standalone. It will be set in my new home of Prince Edward County and will have flashbacks to the United Empire Loyalists who settled this area. Those were the refugees who fled the U.S. after the revolution and settled in Canada. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ships and Boats

Sharon Wildwind

When I was nine, I knew how to conduct a meeting. Some fifty-plus years later it appears that I no longer have this skill.

In Girl Scouts, the patrol meeting rules were clear:

Patrol meeting starts at 4:00 and ends at 4:15
Refreshments to follow. (Always an incentive for finishing on time.) The troop leader will hold up her hand when there is five minutes left in the meeting.

We’re meeting for a reason
Yes, the bike-hike will be a lot of fun, but today we are discussing the cook-out and campfire. We will discuss the bike-hike at another meeting.

The troop leader sets the agenda
Your patrol will be in charge of the campfire entertainment on Saturday. You need to plan one interactive game and pick five songs for the sing-along.

There was a right way to behave
Raise your hand before speaking. The patrol leader will recognize you when it’s time for you to speak. Pay attention when other people are talking. Be polite. Everyone’s opinion deserves to be heard.

Everybody contributes
Here is a sign-up sheet for the campfire. Sign up for the task that you will do.

Prep work is needed
We will need some extra sit-upons for our guests and sharpened sticks for toasting marshmallows. Everyone is expected to show up on Saturday with one extra sit-upon and two sharpened sticks.

Last week I happened upon a video of a talk about what’s wrong with meetings today, and how to fix them. Since the person giving the talk is in his thirties and most of the audience looked to be younger, I was all set for a glimpse into the twenty-something/thirty-something world of business and meetings. I couldn’t wait to see how the new technology — Power Point, digital hook-ups, electronic conferencing, etc. — had moved meetings out of the scout hut and into the 21st century.

Boy, was I in for a disappointment.

Here’s the scoop on modern meetings:

Meetings are a power play. If you have the power, you can call a meeting. There is no need to have a purpose for the meeting. People are too busy to make or read agendas. Just wing it.

Meeting times aren’t even a guideline;they’re more of a hint. Wander in whenever, especially if you are the person who called the meeting. However, never finish on time. Otherwise people might have time to do some real work before the next meeting begins.

Call another meeting for the same time tomorrow. The same rules apply.

Bring your personal data assistant, your cell phone, and your laptop to the meeting. Answer all phone calls, text on your PDA, and surf the web during the meeting. Don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the meeting. It probably doesn’t concern you anyway.

Bring food and drink. Extra points if the food or its wrapper (preferably both) make a lot of noise while you eat it. Extra points also if the food is sloppy and/or reeks of garlic, cumin, or other spices.

Take all the detours you want. If two people want to spend an hour discussing a topic completely unrelated to and of no interest to the rest of the group, it’s their right to do this.

It’s gauche to embarrass people by expecting them to take responsibility for a project or meet a deadline. It’s equally gauche to expect people to do any work between meetings.

Not only don’t I understand the new rules, but I can’t figure out for the life of me how we got here. When did people’s time, to say nothing of their talent, become so disrespected that we think we have a right to waste both?

The video did, indeed, offer some tips for improving meetings:
Meet for a purpose.
Have an agenda.
Start and stop on time.
Have a timekeeper.
Set and enforce rules for behavior.
Treat people with respect.
Set aside topics that aren’t relevant to the purpose and agenda. They can be discussed later.
Assign tasks and deadlines and expect them to be met.
Expect that prep work be done outside of the meeting and reported on at the next meeting.

You know, those things sounded vaguely familiar. I wonder where I heard them before?

The saddest thing that the speaker said was that people who try to promote a meeting format based on rules and respect are likely to be either disciplined or fired or both.

The speaker did say two things that gave me hope:

Follow the people who ship.
Meaning, glom on to the people who get things done. Learn from them how they do it. No matter what the organizational chart says, people who ship the goods on time are the real heart of any business.

The real value of a meeting is remove barriers. Nothing happens until a project has a deadline, a budget, and one owner. Otherwise it is a poster of a boat.
It may look pretty, and we might want to hang it on our wall, but baby, that boat ain’t going nowhere.

~The two bolded quotes above are from Merlin Mann (Techie Guy) from his talk to Twitter employees on 2010 October 6.
The non-bolded comments are mine.