Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Sharon Wildwind

Whether you’re writing from Debra Dixon’s goal, motivation and conflict idea, Donald Maass’ raising the stakes, or other conflict-development theories, if you want a story to have depth and interest, give your protagonists and villains obsessions. Some characters may appear to have a passion rather than an obsession, but that’s just a nicer-sounding word for the same thing.

Being obsessed with marrying England’s Prince Harry would likely be thought a bad thing, especially by Prince Harry; being passionate about ending homelessness, a good thing. Watch those passions, however. When a good idea gets in the way of a normal, balanced life, it turned into an obsession. Remember that as writers, we want to stress, stress, stress our characters so passions that get out of hand can be a good thing.

Passion or obsession, the character can’t get away from the one grand and glorious thing they believe they must do with their lives. Lord Peter Whimsey became obsessed with proving Harriet Vane innocent of murder. Harriet, for her part, was obsessed with maintaining her independence. Those two competing obsessions carried through several books until both of them, passions spent, fell into each others arms.

There are a lot of theories about why obsessions/passions develop. For character development, I favor the traumatic event in the past situation.
1. Something happened to the character that planted the seeds of obsession or passion. Strangely enough, with Peter and Harriet, the sticking point was likely money. Peter had lots of it, but even all of that wealth could not protect Harriet from going to the gallows. He had to give more than money to save her. For Harriet, having to earn her own living after her father died set up that streak of independence.
2. It was an event with emotional significance and it occurred at a time when the character was either truly helpless or thought that they were helpless.
3. Something prevented them from getting counseling, medication, understanding, perspective, or hope after the incident.
4. Something happened to reinforce the victim’s story. The victim’s story says they did this to me. I did nothing/could do nothing to prevent this from happening.

Victim characters are often not very interesting. They tend to whine and that gets tedious. When Peter and Harriet meet, both have moved through the victim’s story to the survivor’s story, though Harriet has a bit more of a victim about her. Her line is that she allowed Philip Boyes to set the parameters of their relationship, that she was a fool to do so, and that her being brought to trial just might be what she deserves for being so stupid.

The survivor’s story says, this thing happened. While I couldn’t prevent it, I did these things to survive. Peter knows what he did to survive the Great War, and more important, what he is doing to survive being a younger son in one of the richest families in England. That bally-ho, fatuous man-about-town image is his survivor’s story, constructed so that people will let him alone.

Both of their survivors’ stories have crystalized around them. What makes their relationship work is that each can see in the other something that other people miss. They challenge one another to come out of their glass prison and be real, true, and vulnerable. Doing this takes time. It’s not a straight shot from survivor to thriver.

Remember that stress, stress, stress? Good fiction is one step forward, and two steps back. Whatever the character risks has to turn on them. This way, when they take a risk again, there has to be a whole lot more motivation, courage, hope, or love pushing them to take that second chance. And yet more for the third time, and so on until the reader feels that there is no possible way that the character will take that final chance, the one that brings them out of being a survivor and into being a thriver.

The thriver’s story says, “I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone, but I’m a better person because I’ve come through the experience and participated in my own healing.”

That’s a great outcome for heroes and heroines, but alas, life never works out so well for the villain. Fortunately for the writer, a good villain remain stuck in the victim’s story. Life has been done to him. He has no way to participate in his own rescue and that warps his view of the world. Think of heroic characters as moving forward and villains as repeating a circle over and over, only the circle gets deeper and harder to move out of each time.

Want character development in one question? That question is What is their obsession?

If you’re interested in knowing more about victims’, survivors’ and thrivers’ stories, see Dr. Rob Voyle’s Book, Restoring Hope.

Quote for the week
Your biggest problems and your worst obsessions contain the seeds of your own growth and development.
~Sara Halprin, writer and process work therapist

Monday, May 30, 2011

Young Love, Righteous Revenge, and The Power of the Personal Essay

by Julia Buckley

My husband and I were married twenty-three years ago this weekend, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. We are rather surprised to find ourselves at this milestone, since we like to think of ourselves as still youthful. But time doesn't lie, and neither do our growing children, so here we are.

In honor of the day, I'll tell the rather odd story of how Jeff and I met.

In 1986 I was a junior in college and dating a guy named Bob. My boyfriend and I had been having some rough times, mainly because I think we were realizing we weren't "meant to be," if you believe in that sort of thing. So it was only partly surprising when Bob, who attended ISU, called me in Indiana and said that the formal dance he'd agreed to attend with me--the one for which I'd already purchased expensive tickets and persuaded my mom to alter an old prom dress--was something he could not now attend. He had to work, he told me.

In a cold voice I told Bob that would be just fine. And then I plotted my revenge. I would find a guy--any guy--to go to that dance with me, and I would have fun. I was thinking, at that point, of just going to a random store and approaching all males with my dance proposition, but then I had a brainstorm. My brother, eight years my elder, worked in Chicago in a big glamorous office building (or so I thought at age 20). He had often told me tales of his humorous co-workers. Surely one of them could be persuaded to go out with a cute college girl?

So I called my big brother and told him of my idea. He sounded skeptical. "Uh--I don't really know," he said. "I guess I could ask Jeff Buckley."

"Sure! He sounds great," I said.

"He's very funny," my brother assured me. This, I assumed, was a euphemism for ugly, but I didn't care. I told Bill to go ahead and extend the invitation.

I called that evening to find out the result. "Is he going?" I asked.

"Uh--he might. He has a list of demands."

Pause. "A list of demands? Like . . . a terrorist?"

"You have to know Jeff's sense of humor," he said. And then he read me the demands, which Jeff had scrawled on a piece of paper in his terrible handwriting while he was supposed to be working. To be honest with you, I can't remember them all, but one of them was "You must refer to me as 'Bronco' for the entire evening" and another was "write a five-paragraph essay entitled 'Why I must be accompanied by Jeff.'"

I actually thought this was pretty funny, and I was an English major, so I tossed off the essay in no time and had it ready when Bill and Jeff arrived on the dance day (there was no e-mail then, and I didn't have time to mail it).

Jeff told me later that it was a longshot that he showed up at all; he regretted telling Bill he'd go out with his little sister (he'd been told I was funny, which he assumed was a euphemism for ugly), and was going to call in sick. However, he had so much respect for my brother (and still does) that he didn't want to disappoint him. So he made the one hour drive to my parents' house in the suburbs, then another hour-long drive, with Bill, to Valparaiso University, where we met in our cumbersome formal clothes. I have attached a photo which chronicles forever the awkwardness of our meeting (and the exchange of the essay). (It also shows that on my dorm room wall I had, inexplicably, a poster for CATS and a picture of the "Hey Vern" guy. Go figure.)

Anyway, Jeff and I hit it off quite well, and when he decided to kiss me later that same night, he prefaced it by saying, "Let's get this awkward moment out of the way." That made everything seem pretty inevitable, which I guess it was.

I never did call him Bronco, though. Maybe after forty years.

(Note: This is a slightly-altered version of an essay I wrote a few years ago on my twentieth anniversary).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Writing Historically

When I was asked to be a permanent participant on this blog the answer was a resounding “yes!” The five ladies who trade off writing blog posts have established an amazing resource with heaps of good writing advice and information on the ever-changing publishing world. Being a part of that was a no-brainer. But I did point out that on my own website, blog, and on my character blog, I usually spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the Middle Ages. But since most of us on this blog are middle-aged, that was okay by them!

I write a series of medieval mysteries that have a darker bent than your Brother Cadfael type. I call them “Medieval Noir,” hardboiled detective fiction set in the Middle Ages with an ex-knight turned detective as my protagonist. Writing historically is not a challenge, it's part of the fun. Not only are you creating these interesting characters and their situations, but you get to put them into a very real world that you find endlessly fascinating!

When I first began writing historical fiction many years ago, I worried that I would get so wrapped up in the research I’d never get to the book itself. We call that “research rapture.” Well, those days are long gone. But I still enjoy the thrill of researching and discovering that great fist-punch-in-the-air moment when you find out something that will work perfectly for your story. I like to write my stories and characters as if they could have existed, as if they perhaps should have existed.

My hero is Crispin Guest and as I mentioned before, he is an ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. And yes, there were ex-knights, degraded knights, as they called them, but none, as far as I know, ever became a detective (a job that was decidedly of my own fiction for this time period). Most of the degraded knights I came across were degraded right before they met a very ignoble and nasty end. So I had to come up with a plausible way for Crispin to have been degraded and survive so that he could re-invent himself as a medieval PI.

Research into the early court of King Richard II when my books are set gave me the answer. You see, Richard became king when he was ten years old. Can you imagine your own ten-year-old becoming king? This naturally came with its own set of problems. I don’t think “spoiled” really covers it. His reign started with great promise, but later, he was accused of favoring too many hangers on and generally making a hash of it.

Meanwhile, Richard’s uncle, the daunting duke of Lancaster, was the richest man in England and an indomitable warrior and experienced statesman. Parliament feared, and rightly so, that the duke would try to jump the line of succession and take the throne for himself and he made promise after promise that he would not do so. That didn’t stop the conspiracy theorists from hatching plots (of course, who’s to say that there weren’t any?)

So here’s where my fiction kicks into the historical facts. I made Crispin the duke’s protégé, had him raised in the duke’s household since he was seven years old, seeing the duke as a father figure. And so naturally Crispin throws in his lot with these conspirators, thinking that it is for the good of England. The conspirators are caught and all are condemned. Crispin is up for execution, too, but instead, the duke begs for his life. His life is granted but all else is taken from him: land, wealth, status. All that defines him. He’s thrust into the heart of London with nothing but the clothes on his back. Instant angst, instant chip on shoulder. Much can be done with his inability to blend into the lower classes when he clearly is not, and that, in his heart, he is and always will be a knight.

I love it when a plot comes together.

But now comes fleshing out the rest of the world. What are the people wearing? What are they eating and drinking? What are they eating and drinking on? Where do they sleep? What are the customs they encounter? What is the difference between the classes? What does London look like in 1385?

University libraries, archives on the internet, emails to people across the pond. These are the places I find all the bigger facts I need. For some of the smaller ones, I prefer a little hands-on approach. I have a book of medieval recipes from King Richard’s court and I’ve cooked my share of (small) feasts. I’ve brewed my own medieval ale, from preparing the grain and allowing it to sprout, to roasting it, to grinding it, to actually brewing it. I’ve made and worn the clothing. And I’ve collected the weaponry and know how to use it. Having a hands-on approach can give you a true appreciation for the experiences of medieval people.

One of the nifty facts I haven’t been able to use yet in my stories was something I uncovered about London. About how a lot of medieval men met their accidental deaths. It seems there was an inordinate number of men dying from falling out of windows. Naturally, I thought this bore more investigation. What I discovered was that, with a fair amount of alcohol involved, these men would get up in the middle of the night to accede to a call of nature. But instead of climbing down long staircases or rickety ladders, they would open the windows (which had no glass, just shutters), stand in the open window, and…well, misjudge. Talk about being caught dead with your pants down! It’s one of those facts I can’t wait to use.

Each fact that’s uncovered unfolds more plot points, more places for the characters to go. I utilize real figures from the Middle Ages. Without telling any spoilers, let me just say that some are very unusual characters indeed, a real case of truth being stranger than fiction. That’s the real joy of writing historically. Rather than limiting, I find it an endless cornucopia of fodder for my stories.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What is it worth to you?

by Sheila Connolly

I’m a genealogist in my so-called spare time, and recently I realized that while I hadn’t been paying attention, the Registries of Deeds in Massachusetts counties have been busy scanning their deeds (which means that in Plymouth they really do go back to 1620) and uploading them so they can be accessed online.  If you’ve ever done research using the originals, you know how challenging interpreting both the handwriting and the terminology can be, and print-outs used to be very expensive, so you’d spend a lot of time laboriously copying the relevant information and hoping you got it right.

Now you can go to each county and call up the electronic version through an online database.  For the earlier years you need to know the book and page number for the deed(s) you are looking for, but you probably already have that.  So they’re still working on the system—it’s not perfect yet, but for researchers like me it’s a huge step forward.

But (of course there’s a but), all counties do not approach this process in the same way.  I was lucky to strike gold in Hampshire County (where my Orchard Mysteries are set), which will let you read and print out images of the originals for free.  Since I’ve got a lot of ancestors out that way, this was wonderful for me.

But I live in Plymouth County, and I’m curious about the ancestors who lived here, as well as about the history of my house, so I next checked out my county’s system.  Uh-oh, they want money.  I guess they’re assuming that most users are involved in real estate, one way or another, so for them paying $30 a month to access deeds is simply a business expense that gets passed on during a land transaction.  Then I decided to check out Norfolk County, where I had still other relatives (they’re everywhere in this state, believe me).  Gulp:  they want an upfront subscription fee of $100 per year, plus a $1 per page printing fee, also prepaid.  All those lovely images of 18th and 19th century deeds, many of which I’ve never seen personally—how much are they worth to me?  That’s what I have to decide.

And, to get to the point (yes, I do have one), I realized that this is similar to the ebook business these days.  While the numbers of ebooks published, and the range and quantity of ereaders, have both grown exponentially over the past couple of years, the pricing model is still all over the place.  Speaking from my admittedly limited experience, at the high end we have Major Publisher ebooks, which cost the same as the paperback version, or maybe a dollar less.  Not a bargain, unless you (the reader) place an implicit value on instant gratification. 

Then you have a lot of people who are uploading books themselves.  These include well-established authors who happen to have a backlist that is long out of print.  Why not sell them on Amazon and make a little more from them?  In addition, there are established authors who have unpublished manuscripts that are not in the genre that is their bread and butter; now they can upload them themselves and promote them, with or without using a pen name, and make some money there (and we writers hate to waste a book!).  And finally you have the legions of writers who are tired of slogging through the agent-publisher morass and just want to get their book out there so they can tell all their friends and relatives. 

How do you put a price on these books?  That’s a business decision, or a marketing one—and many writers are ill-equipped to deal with pesky realities like that.  If you sell it for 99 cents, are you devaluing your work before it even goes live?  Is it arrogant to price it at the same level as a physical book?  Are you using the book as a teaser, hoping to hook readers and planning to raise the price on later offerings?  Where is the happy medium that allows you to look worthy but not greedy?

Barry Eisler announced to the world a couple of months ago that he was going to eliminate the middlemen and publish himself, although this week he’s cut a deal directly with Amazon’s new mystery imprint (is it an imprint if it’s not, well, printed?).  See how fast things are changing? But Eisler already has a solid group of followers.  At the same time there are plenty of eager authors who are loosing poorly edited and formatted works on the reading world, and doing themselves no favors.  If you paid $7 for a bad book, would you feel cheated?  Would you buy anything else written by that author, or has s/he blown their one and only chance?  Would you feel differently about a bad work if you had paid only 99 cents?

What is a book really worth?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Folk Music and Murder Ballads

Elizabeth Zelvin

My blog sister Sharon Wildwind recently posted a blog about folk music, and a lot of people chimed in, including the rest of us Deadly Daughters, suggesting that there’s still a lot of interest in traditional music and nostalgia for the heyday of its popularization in America in the 1960s. Of particular interest to mystery lovers is the subgenre of murder ballads, which began centuries ago in England and Scotland, was brought to America and preserved in the Appalachians, added to by modern songwriters, and still sung with great relish by today’s aficionados of traditional music.

I was introduced to folk music in the late 1940s, when Oscar Brand, the “shoeless troubadour,” had a radio show on WNYC and Appalachian ballad singer Jean Ritchie was his frequent guest. (I saw them perform, both in their eighties and still singing up a storm, as recently as 2003.) In the early 1950s, I went to a “progressive” summer camp, where I heard the legendary Pete Seeger, already a hero in those circles as the successor to Woody Guthrie, long before the Weavers burst onto the scene. In high school, I was already one of those kids who partied by sitting on the floor with our guitars rather than going to dances or drinking in cars.

I was a college freshman the year Joan Baez’s first album came out. She sang the true crime song, “Mary Hamilton,” in that one—well, maybe an apocryphal true crime song, in which one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting gets pregnant by the king (one of the Stuarts, reign unspecified), gets rid of the newborn by sending it out to sea in a little boat, and gets hanged for it. The second album included “The Silkie,” a ballad from the Orkneys of which I already knew and sang a more traditional version: the legend of the seal turned human (to which I added a serial killer twist in a short story many years later), and “Banks of the Ohio,” one of many in which a man kills his pregnant girlfriend so he won’t have to marry her. (Others are “Pretty Polly” and “Down in a Willow Garden.”) On the third album was “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a true-crime song about a bank robber who may or may not have had Robin Hood-like ideals. (The song says yes: “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve met many kinds of men/Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The recent movie Public Enemies shows a different side of Floyd.) On the same album was “Matty Groves,” about a man who sleeps with a lord’s wife and gets killed when the husband catches them in bed together. The Irish group Planxty had a version I like even better, in which the doomed lover is “Little Musgrave.”

Somebody is always dying in folk music and its contemporary counterparts as modern songwriters continue the tradition. One of my favorites is “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by everybody from Johnny Cash to the Chieftains. That one’s a paranormal murder mystery with a twist: the first person protagonist tells the story from beyond the grave, having been hanged for a crime he didn’t commit with an alibi he couldn’t use: he was “in the bed of my best friend’s wife.” In the 2000 film, The Songcatcher, a collector of Appalachian ballads in 1907 finds the local folks playing out the themes of true love betrayed and two-timing husbands murdered as well as singing the ballads brought over from England and Scotland two hundred years before. In my folksinging days, my mother always used to say, “Can’t you sing something cheerful?” She didn’t live to see me a published mystery writer (she’d have been 105 when the first book came out), but if she had, no doubt she would have asked, “Why does somebody have to be murdered?”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Good Reader

Sandra Parshall

Somebody on DorothyL asked a few days ago, “What makes a good reader?” As in, we know what readers expect from writers (perfection!), but what do we expect – or at least wish for – from readers?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my contacts with readers. I love hearing from them. I’ve received many e-mails and in-person comments that were so wonderful and gratifying that they kept me going for weeks afterward. I’ve suffered only indirect blows from those who think the very existence of my books is an affront to everything they hold dear. My portrait of The Good Reader is drawn from the experiences of other writers as well as my own.

The Good Reader pays attention to what she’s reading and does not complain to the writer about nonexistent errors or omissions.

The Good Reader lets an author know that she has read and enjoyed the writer’s book(s).

The Good Reader doesn’t rush to ruin an author’s day/week/year with a long e-mail or online “review” detailing every reason large and small why she hated the writer’s new book.

The Good Reader realizes that few authors make much money, that most of us do this because we love to write, that a single book represents a year or more of intense creative work, and it’s disheartening, to say the least, when a reader makes it her personal mission to go around the internet urging everybody, everywhere, to shun it. The Good Reader realizes that his or her taste may not be shared by all readers.

While The Good Reader is certainly entitled to express an opinion, she doesn’t use online reviews to instruct a professional author on how to improve his or her writing in future books. That’s an editor’s job.

(Note: Many professional writers make it a point to avoid looking at reader reviews on sites like Amazon.)

The Good Reader realizes that the characters in a book are not stand-ins for the author who created them. If a character does something awful or expresses an unfortunate opinion, that doesn’t mean the writer behaves or thinks that way.

The Good Reader may voice a wish for the future direction of a series character’s life – as in, “I’d love to see her marry Tom” – but doesn’t become aggressive about it (as in, “If they don’t get married soon, I’m going to stop reading your books”).

The Good Reader realizes that an author with a traditional print publisher probably has no control over the release of an e-book version of her novel. The Good Reader doesn’t ask about the e-book repeatedly, then when it’s available, decide not to buy it after all.

The Good Reader doesn’t ask an author published by a small press why her books aren’t all prominently displayed at the local Barnes & Noble.

The Good Reader doesn’t tell an author that she looks nothing like her picture on the book jacket.

I’m sure any writer who’s reading this could add to the list. Feel free.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reality Fiction

Sharon Wildwind

I have a confession to make: I rarely read outside of genre fiction.

This choice has more to do with reading time available than for any prejudice against literature or, even worse, Literature. That’s why, several times, I passed up a book on my local library’s “staff’s picks” shelf until I finally said, “What the heck” and checked it out.

The book is Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). It is a maybe, maybe not work of fiction about The Brown siblings, Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie. What made reading this book weird was not only that it was impossible to tell where real life left off and fiction began, but that I have, however tenuous, a connection to the Browns.

There is a slight statistical possibility that they performed during one of the rare times I was privileged to see the Louisiana Hayride in person. Without a doubt I heard them on the radio, when the Hayride was broadcast over KWKH Radio, Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re talking icons of my childhood here.

Bass thanks the Brown family for a five-year association, so I assume that this book was written with their help and blessing. Since the other major characters—Gentleman Jim Reeves, Mary Reeves, and Elvis Presley—have long since departed this world, I assume as well that their estates had no problems with the book. In fact, I found the book an enjoyable read, a fascinating glimpse not only into country music life, but into the hard-scrabble life of a logging family in 1950s Arkansas. My two questions were what was true, and what wasn’t? And did it make any difference if I couldn't tell? In these days when photos can be “shopped” and reality shows are scripted, has that distinction between truth and fiction disappeared? I don’t know.

It also brought to mind one of the favorite writer questions. Is is okay if I use the names of real people, places, brands, and events in my fiction? If you’re on any sort of writers’ list, you know that this question reappears with such regularity that you can set your calendar by it.

The only absolute negative answer has to do with song lyrics. While you can use the titles of songs, you can not—absolutely can not—use any song lyrics, of any length, without written permission from the person or company who owns the copyright. And good luck tracking down that person or company. You can, however, bend yourself around the rule with occasional obscure references, such as “In the background, the Beatles complained about how hard the day had been.”

As far as any other real-world reference, the general consensus is usually if the reference is positive, go ahead and use it. If it’s negative, don’t. So if you want to mention that your protagonist enjoys a certain brand of soda pop, fine. If poison is going to be administered in that same soda pop, forget it.

If the reference is in passing, “I got home just in time to see George Stephanopoulos start a rundown of the latest political scandal in Washington.” you’re okay, but if George S. is to be your amateur detective, you’re not okay. There is also the school of thought that the more real-world references, the more you date—and likely out-date—your book.

The problem is that general consensus, even among writers, isn’t the law. And publishers are becoming very, very wary. Some are requiring that an author have written permission for every real reference used.

The murders take place in Madison, Wisconsin? You’ll need a letter from the Madison City Council saying that is okay with them. The protagonist watches Good Morning, America? That better be backed up by an approval letter from the ABC legal department. Your street-wise detective stops off for a burger and fries from a recognized establishment? You’ll have to have the golden stamp of approval before that happens.

Is it any wonder that writers go a little crazy?

Quote for the week:
There was a certain sound, a ringing, that a fully tempered saw made when it had achieved that absolute perfect edge. . . . The sound they listened for—the perfect blade—held an eerie resonance, the faint sirenlike echo of a high harmonic that was a little different from the tempered harmony the Browns were already learning to achieve with their voices.
~Rick Bass, Nashville Chrome

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Mystery of Aphasia

by Julia Buckley

The neurological term "aphasia" has been in the news a great deal lately, ironically because it affected not one but two normally healthy newscasters named Sarah Carlson and Serene Branson. Aphasia occurs when the part of the brain responsible for language is permanently or temporarily damaged, and the speaker's words can become garbled or nonsensical (click the title to see GOOD MORNING AMERICA'S discussion of the newscasters' experiences with aphasia).

I am more familiar with the term than I would wish to be, because in the last several months this disorder has affected my mother, and I've watched this intelligent, outgoing and extremely verbal woman retreat inside herself because she has lost the ability to communicate her thoughts to the outside world.

Initially it was sporadic: a silly word or statement would slip out at the end of an anecdote, and we would laugh.

Then the "nonsense" language grew more common, and my mother would sometimes slip from English into German, her native tongue, without realizing she was doing so. My father took her to a speech therapist and a neurologist, the latter of whom suggested that this could be the result of mini strokes--events that may have happened at any time in her life--that have hardened the brain tissue and therefore made it difficult for her original thoughts to process through her language center.

My mother does remember having an episode of aphasia in her youth, when I and my siblings were little. She was having coffee with a friend and suddenly nothing that came out of her mouth made any sense. The friend panicked and begged her to stop; neither of them knew what was happening. After a minute or so, she was back to normal. She never went to the doctor. No one thought of it, then, as something that would require a medical examination.

So even then my mother's brain might have experienced something that is causing her extreme trouble now. Because of her aphasia, which has increased to the point that she cannot sustain a conversation, she has become very dependent upon my father to help her communicate. This is frustrating for him, because often she'll expect him to read her thoughts; her eyes will beg him to understand what it is that she wants to say, and to become her voice.

It has affected her social life to the extent that she withdraws from group situations. She no longer likes parties or visits with friends. Her aphasia embarrasses her, others her, in a way that she cannot bear. With her husband and her children she still tries, but she becomes angry at herself when the words that come out are not the words she intended.

Recently, she has given up her favorite thing of all: singing in the church choir. Although the aphasia doesn't seem to affect her as much when she sings (also a mystery), she is embarrassed when she can't talk with her choir mates or respond to the choir leader.

This last loss has made her more sad even than the loss of words.

This aphasia is painful for us all. My mother has always been a great deal like me--a reader, a writer, a thinker. She loved to have philosophical conversations, and our family dinners, back when I lived at home, would sometimes last for hours as we lingered, chatting and exchanging thoughts.

Aphasia has robbed her of almost everything she holds dear. She can still appreciate the cards we send her, but her once-perfect handwriting has also been affected by the disease, and she has been deprived of yet another vanity.

What troubles me most about aphasia, aside from the pain it has caused my mother, is its mysterious origin. Who knows why, in a quick chat with a neighbor back when she was in her thirties, my mother was suddenly deprived of speech? Who knows why, or how, this might have affected her current condition?

Why are some brains prone to this condition and others not?

Life has its random surprises, and aphasia seems to be among them.

(Image from the Stroke Foundation website).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Canada Calling: The Arthur Ellis Shortlist

Once again we are that heady time of year between the short-list announcement for the Canadian Arthur Ellis Awards, and the banquet where the winners will be named. The banquet happens on Thursday evening, June 2, in Victoria, British Columbia.

For a more in-depth look at the nominated books, go the Crime Writers of Canada’s special Cool Canadian Crime issue dedicated to the A.E. shortlist.

If you’re building your 2011 summer reading list, I suggest you print off this list and take it with you to your library/book store of choice. It’s the best of the best from Canadian crime writers. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to get a copy of the unhanged Arthur yet, but we all have our fingers crossed for the nominees being published soon.

Best Crime Novel
A Criminal to Remember, Michael Van Rooy, Turnstone Press
Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny, Little, Brown UK
In Plain Sight, Mike Knowles, ECW Press
Slow Recoil, C.B. Forrest, RendezVous Crime
The Extinction Club, Jeffrey Moore, Penguin Group

Best First Crime Novel
The Damage Done, Hilary Davidson, Tom Doherty Associates
The Debba, Avner Mandelman, Random House of Canada
The Penalty Killing, Michael McKinley, McClelland & Stewart
The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock, Doubleday Canada
Still Missing, Chevy Stevens, St. Martin's Press

Best French Crime Book
Cinq secondes, Jacques Savoie, Libre Expression
Dans le quartier des agités, Jacques Côté, Éditions Alire
La société des pères meurtriers, Michel Châteauneuf, Vent d’Ouest
Quand la mort s'invite à la première, Bernard Gilbert, Québec Amerique
Vanités, Johanne Seymour, Libre Expression

Best Crime Nonfiction
Northern Light, Roy MacGregor, Random House
On the Farm, Stevie Cameron, Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Our Man in Tehran, Robert Wright, HarperCollins Canada

Best Juvenile/YA Crime Book
Borderline, Allan Stratton, HarperCollins
Pluto's Ghost, Sheree Fitch, Doubleday Canada
The Vinyl Princess, Yvonne Prinz, HarperCollins
The Worst Thing She Ever Did, Alice Kuipers, HarperCollins
Victim Rights, Norah McClintock, Red Deer Press

Best Crime Short Story
In It Up To My Neck, Jas R. Petrin, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
So Much in Common, Mary Jane Maffini, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
The Big Touch, Jordan McPeek, Thuglit.com
The Piper's Door, James Powell, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
The Bust, William Deverell, Whodunnit: Sun Media’s Canadian Crime Fiction Showcase

Best First Unpublished Novel (Unhanged Arthur)
Better Off Dead, John Jeneroux
Uncoiled, Kevin Thornton
When the Bow Breaks, Jayne Barnard

Friday, May 20, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

(Last Friday Blogger ate this post, along with a lot of others.  But it's no less timely this week.)

Thank you, Tony Perrottet.

Who's he, you ask?  I didn't know either, until I read his essay "Building the Brand" in the May 1 New York Times Book Review.  He's a writer with several books to his credit, the most recent of which, The Sinner's Grand Tour, came out this week. If you want more details, see http://www.tonyperrottet.com/

If you're wondering why I'm thanking him, it's because he wrote about promotion.  Now, for those of you who simply enjoy reading and aren't enmired in trying to get a book sold to a publisher and into the hands of as many readers as possible so you can do it all over again, let me tell you that promotion is the bane of our existence.  You think all you have to do is write a good book and people will flock to buy it?  Wrong. 

You write the best book you can, the publisher assembles it in whatever format, then shoves it out into the cold cruel world and tells you, "okay, now go sell it."  They may send out Advance Reader Copies or pay for bookstore placement, but it's up to you the author to drum up attention for the book.  What nobody tells you, when you are nursing that germ of a story and sending it out to agents and editors, is that promotion will eat up half your waking life, if you're lucky enough to sell it.  Personal appearances, at large and small events; bookmarks and postcards; newsletters; blogs; crazy stunts; and, yes, social networks--we are supposed to use them all, all the time.

So where does Tony fit?  In his essay he points out that this is not new.  In fact, the concept of manic promotion goes back to at least the 5th-century BC (yes, you read that right), when the Greek author Herodotus paid for his own book tour (nothing has changed) around the Aegean Sea, and was smart enough to include a stop at the Olympic Games. 

In the 12th century, the cleric Gerald of Wales put together his own book party in Oxford, where he provided his invited guests with room and board, and food and ale, for THREE DAYS, and all they had to do in exchange was listen to him recite from his books.  For three days.  Fair exchange?  (BTW, I've read his book on Ireland:  he hated the place, and all the native inhabitants, and he didn't hide the fact.)

The list goes on, and you might be surprised by some of the examples.  Guy de Maupassant hired a hot-air balloon and inscribed it with the title of his latest short story and sent it flying over Paris.  Colette created a cosmetics line (which flopped); Virginia Wolff did a fashion spread with a magazine editor.  The mystery writer Georges Simenon contracted to write a novel in three days while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge in Paris--with input from the audience (it didn't happen because his sponsor went bankrupt).  Walt Whitman wrote unsigned reviews of his own works (sound familiar?).

Perrottet's prime exemplar is Ernest Hemingway.  Perhaps you think of him as a terse and manly writer.  Would it disappoint you to learn that he shilled for beer ads (Ballantine Ale), Pan Am, and Parker pens?

Those of us who live in the current electronic world can moan "but what about the Internet?" That's a mixed blessing, or do I mean curse?  Using the Internet means that you can reach a lot of people very quickly.  The downside is, it never stops.  You can tweet yourself blue in the face, andTwitter is still there, hungry, waiting.

What works when you're trying to sell a book?  No one really knows.  How much is enough?  Same answer.  But we all keep trying, because we like to write books and we want people to read them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interview with Margaret Frazer

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Margaret Frazer is the author of the best-selling, award-winning, long-running Dame Frevisse medieval mystery series and the spin-off series featuring Joliffe, player and spy.

Liz: Let’s start at the beginning, when two mystery authors collaborated to write the first Dame Frevisse mystery. Or is it Sister Frevisse? Is your former co-author’s name a secret?

No, my co-author is no secret. We’re even friends! Of course right after we went our separate ways, people would ask one or the other of us, “Is she still alive?”, supposing mystery writers would know how to kill each other, I guess. But we parted amicably. After six books together, Mary simply got tired of the Middle Ages and left the series to me. Her own first mysteries were published under the name of Mary Monica Pulver. Now, as Monica Ferris, she’s writing a cozy series of modern needlework mysteries.

As for Frevisse, I’ve always called her Dame Frevisse, but the publisher got stuck on Sister Frevisse at the first and took a long time to get past it. Hence the confusion.

Liz: Your website bio mentions that you met at the Society for Creative Anachronism. SCA is the organization whose members role play medieval characters. It resembles historical reenactment groups, except the geography and wars are imaginary. Did you have a particular character? How seriously did you take SCA? Are you still a member? And to what extent did your SCA experiences help you create Dame Frevisse’s and later, Joliffe’s 15th century?

Margaret: I did have a particular character: Ailis FitzUre, daughter of a merchant family in York, England, who became knowledgeable about the wool trade during her first, arranged, and very happy marriage to an older man. When widowed, she married a knight interested in becoming involved in the wool trade: he had the wool; Ailis had the connections. As you can see, I was even then of a practical, rather than a romantic, bent in my approach to medieval life. I came into medieval England by way of the big events of the time, but soon became fascinated by the minutiae of everyday living that made up most people’s lives.

I took the SCA quite seriously, separating the fantasy elements of it from what aspects gave me insight into medieval experiences. I no longer belong, have not belonged for a long time, because after I began spending all day of most days “in the Middle Ages” with my writing, going medievaling on the weekends just didn’t have the appeal it once did. But by then I had got a great deal from the SCA. Wearing the clothing was invaluable. So much changes when you wear long skirts and keep your head wimpled and veiled for decency’s sake. When I returned to modern clothing after one long weekend event, I actually felt indecent with my head all “naked”. Even wearing the soft-soled shoes tells you a lot – the way you walk and your relationship to the ground is different. And using the manners of the time taught me so much. When I came to write the first draft of The Novice’s Tale I kept having characters curtsy and bow, and not only curtsy and bow but do it in gradations according to whom they were encountering. Because I kept doing this and couldn’t stop it, I became quite impatient with myself – until I realized that in the SCA I had taken to practicing exactly that kind of respect to those around me in a hierarchical society and it had become engrained in me just as it would have been for medieval people.

Those are only some of subtle things I learned in the SCA that have been useful in the books. I’ve yet to use my experience of fighting in a melee in armor on a July day, but one of these days . . .

Liz: The late historian Barbara Tuchman called the 14th century “calamitous.” How would you characterize the 15th century, and what prompted you to choose it?

Would it be facetious to characterize the 15th century as “not as bad as it might have been”? I didn’t so much choose it as come to it by chance. I was in my mid-teens when my mother took me to see a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. (It remains one of my favorite plays – the language is beyond wonderful and the characters complex, and when I had a chance to write a Shakespearean mystery for an anthology, I based my short story “Death of Kings” on it.) It was my first encounter with medieval England, and I wanted to know more. While reading up on Richard II’s time, I happened on a mystery novel that I thought was about him but turned out to be Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time about Richard III.

I promptly abandoned the 1300s for the 1400s, but found that to thoroughly understand what happened to Richard III, I needed to understand what led up to his time and how and why people thought as they did in medieval England; and before I knew it, I had fairly well abandoned Richard III in favor of being fascinated by his parents. The reign of Henry VI became my focus of research, so when chance came to set a novel in medieval times, I had my time and place, and I deliberately chose the 1430s to start Dame Frevisse’s series because things were fairly peaceful in England at that point. The Wars of the Roses were decades away, the Hundred Years War was across the Channel in France, and there were no great outbreaks of plague. I could explore daily medieval lives and relationships in a time of ordinary living (up to the point where someone gets murdered, of course) instead of belaboring the plots with political machinations and plague and other familiar elements of historical mysteries and novels.

Of course as Dame Frevisse’s series went on and the years passed for her, I began to get into more troubled times and have had fun weaving those into the plots now. After all, how could I have resisted involving her in the mysterious (and historical) death of the heir to the throne in The Bastard’s Tale, or bypassed the upheaval of Jack Cade’s Rebellion in The Sempster’s Tale, or the multiple political murders of 1450 in The Traitor’s Tale? And of course now with Joliffe becoming a spy, there’s more of that sort of thing going on, but I still try to write in depth about ordinary life as a frame to the rest, because it’s the contrast to the ordinary that makes murder so much more a wrenching apart of people’s lives.

In a recent interview (on being given Malice Domestic’s Lifetime Achievement Award), Sue Grafton said, “I hate giving anyone else a vote about my work.” Yet a collaboration that clicks can be magic. What was the collaborative process like for you? How did it differ from writing alone? Was the transition a moment of crisis for you? Did you consider giving up the series?

The collaboration was a fascinating experience. It didn’t set out to be the two of us writing together. Mary was already the published author of several short stories and a modern murder mystery when she got the chance to write a medieval mystery novel. Her persona in the SCA was a Benedictine abbess of the 1400s, and Mary had researched monastic life but realized when she came to start plotting that she didn’t known nearly enough about any other aspects of England at the time. I had been researching (and trying to write about) the century for decades and eagerly offered to provide information and ideas. We even did a little plotting together – Mary wanted to set the book (it wasn’t a series then, just a book) in Oxfordshire; I knew about St. Frideswide being popular there and I found Frevisse’s name as a variant of Frideswide; we decided to play against the grain and set the small nunnery in the countryside and have the nun protagonist want to be a nun, without some dire backstory, loaded with angst, having brought her to it. And so forth. But when Mary came to start writing, she got writer’s block, could not get past the first few pages. Half-joking, I offered to write the book instead. She was so desperate, she gave her notes and everything over to me. I completed the outline and set to work, but after a few chapters shared with her what I’d done. That broke the block, and after that we eventually developed a routine where we would discuss a planned book, I would do the outline and start the first draft. After a few chapters, I would give those to Mary to start rewriting while I continued forward. Then, when I was done with the first draft and she was finishing writing the second (close on my heels, as it were), I took her version and wrote a third. Fortunately we lived about five miles apart, so we couldn’t hear what rude and complaining things we said about each other’s work at that point. But then, for the fourth and final draft, we would get together at her computer. Her husband used to wander past the door of her workroom, checking to see if we’d blown up at each other yet. It never came to yelling, but there were some tense moments during the first two books. An author’s creation is a very personal thing – and this other person was messing with my/her vision of things.

Then we made a major conceptual breakthrough: when we had a scene where Mary’s version was widely different from mine, if we stayed calm and made a blended version of that scene, it came out both better and shorter than what either one of us had written alone. We thought that was great, and everything went far more smoothly for us thereafter.

For me the collaboration was both a growth and a learning experience that I am the better for. That said, I have been very happy continuing to write alone. At the beginning of our collaboration, Mary was the one of us who was published; I had no such credibility and so she could “pull rank” on me, as it were. As I came to take an increasingly stronger hand in the stories, Mary’s interest in the series waned, to the point she did not want to be in the Middle Ages anymore. So she returned to modern times, while I never had any urge at all to leave the 1400s and have stayed there happily ever since.

Liz: How much research did you do in the beginning, and how does it compare with the amount you do now? Where do you find such details as the daily life and routines of Joliffe’s company of players? What resources do you use besides books?

Margaret: I started researching the 1400s in my mid-teens, slightly at first but with growing intensity (or – less charitably – obsession). By the time The Novice’s Tale was published, I had been at it for about 30 years, had a file drawer for every decade from the 1420s to the 1480s with 3x5 cards with chronological information of events and people, half a dozen large notebooks of biographical information, file cabinets of notes and photocopied articles, shelves of research books. I would like to say that, with all of that, I no longer need to do research – but that would be a lie. I continually come up against “No, wait, I don’t know that” and have to go looking for it. It is gratifying to have so much to hand, but there’s always something I don’t know. And when I needed to understand something about Jewish life in the late Middle Ages for The Sempster’s Tale, the notes I took made a pile of paper almost as thick as the finished manuscript. And so it goes. Happily, I love to research.

For Joliffe and his company of players, I’ve drawn, first, on my own experiences as an actor. I’ve mostly done period plays and usually on outdoor stages, with the audience very close. The skills needed by actors -- like those of other craftsmen whose crafts go back for centuries – remain fairly steadily the same, but there is very little actual detail to be had about medieval actors – players, as I call them, since “actor” is a later word. We know they were there in medieval times, that they were professionals, and that they traveled around in companies, often with patrons. That much shows up in the records, but not much else about them. We have a surprising number of the quite sophisticated plays they performed but few details of performance. So I extrapolate a great deal about both the performances and their daily life, drawing every ounce of information possible from sources like the Records of Early English Drama.

It was grand to find that so much of what I had been imagining and creating for Joliffe in A Play of Heresy was substantiated by what I saw when I went in 2010 to Toronto to see the twenty-three plays of the Chester cycle performed on wagons moving from place to place. Not an exact medieval experience but one from which a great many possibilities could be drawn.

Liz: One criticism that is sometimes leveled at writers of historical fiction is that they give historical characters a modern sensibility. You have avoided that with Dame Frevisse. One detail that impresses me is that where most modern women would rebel against the restrictions of the convent, Dame Frevisse likes the contemplative life and gets a little cranky when she has to travel in the outside world. To what extent are you conscious of this issue? How does the medieval sensibility differ from the modern?

Margaret: I was highly conscious of the issue from the very first. One benefit of all the research I had done before ever “meeting” Frevisse was that I could go some way toward seeing the world from the perspective of the time. I’d read not only studies about medieval England but actual medieval literature, their books on manners, their accounts and chronicles and philosophical works, even – heaven help me – their government documents as reprinted in the Rolls Series. (You know you’ve been at it too long when you start reading bureaucratic language with ease.) I wanted to be able to think medieval. How otherwise could I understand the motivations and emotions that underlay their overt actions?

From all of that I was able to see what deep value was placed on the spiritual life, how people approached it and lived in it. Religion permeated medieval life, and I thought that if a nun was to be the protagonist, how much more interesting it would be to experience her as someone completely engaged in her nunnery life by choice and heart-desire, rather than weighing her down with a heavy-duty backstory. For Frevisse the tension comes not from having come to the nunnery unwilling, with dire secrets in her past, but from being taken unwilling out of a life she has freely chosen. Of course not all nuns were happy to be nuns, but that adds texturing to the stories, and by telling all the books from two points of view – Frevisse’s and the title character’s – I get to explore not only Frevisse’s approach to her world but that of a wide array of people across the spectrum of medieval society.

Human emotions are apparently the same across time, but what may cause a particular emotion, and the value placed on that emotion, do differ with time and place. So my characters move and feel in the context of their time, rather than in ours.

Of course, since I’ve become so immersed in medieval thoughts and feelings, I do occasionally behave rather oddly in the 21st century. Just ask my family. Or – better yet – don’t ask them; I’d rather they didn’t say.

Liz: How much of what you know about your period ends up in the first draft? How much remains in the finished product?

Margaret: I’ve learned (the hard way, I have to add, by having it cut out by my editor) what period information doesn’t need to be in a book, so any more the first draft usually has as much period knowledge as the story seems to require. That of course can vary from story to story. Then in the rewriting I cut away what still seems extraneous – but also will add anything needed, remembering that what seems clear to me may not be to a reader. But always I work to blend the information into the flow of the story so there’s never a break while I explain things. Interestingly, I’ve found that if I can’t slip in any extra bit of explanation with no more than a parenthetical phrase, then I don’t understand the thing clearly enough myself and I’d best read up on it. When I understand a thing clearly, I can make it clear to the reader without interrupting the story.

That said, I hold with the truism I’ve seen elsewhere – that 95% of what I’ve researched never makes it into a book. But it’s necessary that I know that 95% because it informs me about what I shouldn’t have in the book. With the example I mentioned before – of all the research I did for The Sempster’s Tale, very little of it surfaced in the actual story, but it’s there in how the characters think and behave, their relationships and fears, much of which I would not have understood well enough to make clear if I hadn’t done all that research.

How much revision do you do?

Margaret: I usually have three drafts of a book. The first, rough draft I try to write straight through from beginning to end, not going back to fix or change anything. Even if – along about Chapter 18, I’ve changed my mind about something or someone in Chapter 3 – I don’t go back. I post a note by my keyboard and keep going. If I have a question about a word or a type of cloth or what food there is at a feast or anything else not immediately germane to the plot, I don’t stop to look it up; I put ^ beside it and keep going, getting all the action down and the characters developed before worrying about the rest. The second draft is when I do all that looking up and filling in and correcting of the plot, so all the pieces fit together, beginning to end. In the third draft I polish, polish, polish. Then I accept it’s never going to live up to my absolute vision and I let it go.

Liz: Who reads your manuscripts besides your agent and your editor?

Margaret: Since I’ve been writing on my own, I’ve never had anyone read my manuscript other than my agent and editor. In the first draft, things are too messy. By the third draft, I don’t want to be distracted by other people’s ideas of “how it should be”.

Liz: Do you change any of the actual history?

Margaret: I never, never, never change the actual history. Books where the author changes history to suit her/his convenience (“I have tightened eleven years of King Alfred’s reign into two for the sake of the story.”) become historical fantasy novels, in my opinion, and there ought to be a particular category of that name to accommodate them. Once, when I was complaining that there was no way I could logically have Frevisse on board ship with the duke of Suffolk when he was murdered, someone said blithely to me, “Oh, we’re writing fiction! We can do whatever we want!” Which for her included having a king of France allow his sister to travel abroad attended by a handful of men and no women. Fantasy.

That said, there are places where the chronicles give contradictory reports of what happened. In that case, I have to use my best judgment, sorting events out into some coherent order. For instance, the chronicle reports of what happened in London during Cade’s invasion in 1450 have generally the same events but not in the same order. When I dealt with those events, I had to decide which order made better sense. An historian can slide over the contradictions; a novelist has to deal with them. In The Traitor’s Tale, I had to forego dealing with one historical murder because – even though I had the whole scene laid out in my mind -- there was just no sensible way my characters could have been present. The best I could do was have them hear about it. The waste of a perfectly good murder -- so aggravating.

Liz: Have you ever been caught out in an egregious error or anachronism?

Margaret: I’ve more often had “errors” pointed out that weren’t errors, and so far (fingers crossed for luck and knocking on wood) no one has told me of any major flaws. The one that still grates on me – and I found it myself long, long after the fact – is that in The Maiden’s Tale I repeatedly referred to a physician as a doctor, which is not what he would have been called. This will be changed in the e-book!

Vocabulary is one thing I particularly enjoy with all my books. As Frevisse’s series went along, I tried increasingly to keep all vocabulary to words in use pre-1500. This is an excellent way to discipline myself into staying within medieval parameters of thought. Of course that means I occasionally come up against things like “Agh! The plot depends on an allergy but the word didn’t exist until after 1900! They had to have had allergies! What can I call it!” Or having a title character in The Clerk’s Tale who is a nervous man, but while the word “nervous” existed in the 1400s, it didn’t mean at all the same thing is does to day, so “Agh, how do I describe him!”

Liz: Short stories about your characters are available for Kindle and other e-readers. Were these published elsewhere first, or did you write them specifically as e-stories?

Margaret: All but one of the short stories so far published appeared previously in anthologies. “Strange Gods, Strange Men” appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. No, as I typed that, I realized that there’s an anomaly among the stories. With the e-version of “The Stoneworker’s Tale” there’s included a much earlier version of the story – “The Sculptor’s Tale” – written as an 800-word “minute mystery” for a German-language Swiss magazine. I never saw the German version, and the English version has never appeared until now.

Liz: How else are you adapting to the current upheaval in publishing? Has it affected your career? Do you expect it to?

Margaret: There is also soon going to be a Frevisse novella for e-sale – “Winter Heart” – written especially for the e-market. This is part of my adaptation to the changing world of publishing, and I’m encouraged to make the change by the fact that I get a larger percentage of the profit from e-sales than my normal publisher gives me. Beyond that, publishers seem to be presently confused, trying to decide which way to jump, and the more I’m able to do for myself, the better, while waiting for them to make up their minds and settle down.

Liz: Tell us about your latest release and what you’re doing to promote it. How much promotion do you do?

Margaret: My latest book is the sixth in Joliffe’s series. A Play of Piety. I haven’t done much in the way of promotion, I’m afraid. My life has been specializing in upheaval the past couple of years, and I’ve given my greatest energy over to writing rather than appearances and so forth.

Liz: To what extent is your publisher involved vs having to generate your own publicity?

Margaret: My publisher has never shown more than brief sparks of interest in promoting me – I was well into the Dame Frevisse series before I found out I even had a publicist there. They send out review copies, did have bookmarks printed up for me once, and paid my hotel bill and the cost of the dinner when I had an Edgar Award nomination. Beyond that, I’ve been on my own, and I’m afraid my greater interest is in the writing, not in being in public. To the good, one of my sons has lately taken me in hand. Not only did he design my latest bookmark and all the covers for my e-stories (as well as readying them and getting them up for sale), he’s pushing me to come out of the 1400s and engage with the present century. (“Look, Mom – the Internet – fantastic, isn’t it? Mom! Come back here! It’s not 1452 anymore! Face it!”)

Liz: What are you working on now? What does the future hold for Dame Frevisse, Joliffe, and Margaret Frazer?

Margaret: I finished A Play of Heresy, Joliffe’s next novel, a few months ago. While I was finishing it, I was sideswiped by an idea that came out of nowhere, knocked me flat, rolled over me, picked me up, gave me a shake, and said, “Write me!” It’s about neither Frevisse nor Joliffe, and is not a mystery. Instead, it’s a straightforward historical novel, presently called Never Remember Eden and set in the 1480s. I don’t know what this means for my two series. I feel I brought Frevisse’s to a satisfactory end in The Apostate’s Tale, but greatly enjoyed spending time with her while writing “Winter Heart”, so suspect there will be more short pieces with her. Joliffe, on the other hand, is just hitting his stride, I think. Plying his two careers as player and spy should serve to get him deeper into political troubles than Frevisse was ever forced to go. I have plans for him but am awaiting the whim of the publisher.

Liz: Are you ever tempted to write a contemporary novel?

Margaret: I’ve never had any urge at all to write a contemporary novel. There are still so many aspects of medieval life to explore in depth and detail (and so many misconceptions to try to counter) that I don’t see ever wanting to leave. Whatever I get up to next, it will be something to do with medieval England. But just to show that I’m not a complete recluse, I’ll be at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego, CA, in June, 2011, moderating the panel “Keeping a Series Fresh”.

Having found her way into late medieval England while quite young, Margaret has stayed there pretty much all the time since then. Too busy researching and holding down jobs just long enough to earn enough money to travel, she never managed to get a college degree, and over the years her forays into various jobs were many and usually brief until she became a full-time writer about 18 years ago. (In other words, she finally found a job she didn't want to quit!) Her novels have twice been nominated for Edgar Awards, and her short story "Neither Pity, Love, Nor Fear" won an Herodotus Award.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shadows of Past Lives

Sandra Parshall
It’s a feeling most of us have experienced: I know this place. But how is that possible, when I’ve never been here before?

Some people call it deja vu, a trick of the senses. Others accept it as an echo of a past life.

The belief in reincarnation is common all over the world. It’s the foundation of Hinduism, Jainism, and other religions that have hundreds of millions of followers. But for many people it has nothing to do with religion. They’ve come to believe in reincarnation because they sense the shadows of past lives walking beside them through the present.

The CBS morning show did a report last Sunday on a massive gathering in New York City of people eager to discover more about their past lives. The report quoted a startling statistic: one in 10 Americans believes in reincarnation.

Steven Pressfield, author of a number of novels about warfare both ancient and modern, has a recurring character in his books who has been a warrior in many lives. When I interviewed Pressfield recently about his new book, The Profession, for the June issue of the International Thriller Writers newsletter, he confirmed that he believes in reincarnation and thinks he lived in ancient Greece in a previous life. I doubt Pressfield would strike anyone as a crackpot.

Personally, I find one life more than enough to deal with and don’t want to root around in the past for proof of others. However... I have to admit that when I visited Scotland for the first time, I had that I've been here before feeling. I have Scottish blood (born a Grant), so I could have been experiencing a kind of genetic memory passed down through generations. This type of memory exists in other species. We usually call it instinct and shrug it off. But think about this: the monarch butterflies returning to the US this spring aren’t the same insects that migrated south in autumn. They’re several generations removed from the monarchs we saw in our gardens last year. Yet they know exactly where their forebears came from, and they know how to get here. Why shouldn’t humans – much more complex organisms than insects – also pass on memories through the generations? Isn’t that a logical explanation for the common deja vu experience?

But if you feel a powerful affinity for, say, ancient Rome, if you’re sure you’ve been there, yet to your certain knowledge you don’t have a drop of Italian blood, you can’t attribute that sense of familiarity to genetically imprinted memories. Could you be “remembering” a past life?

It’s an intriguing idea, one that a lot of sane people have fully embraced. And it raises questions about the very definition of life and the nature of the human soul and psyche.

How do you feel about it? Do you think it’s crazy, or does reincarnation make perfect sense? Have you ever suspected that you have lived before?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Sharon Wildwind

This is the first time in six days that I have touched the keyboard. My significant other and I spent the past week organizing a garage sale for a woman in her late seventies.

Last Wednesday was a disaster. Whatever we needed to do always demanded that something be done first, and that something inevitably couldn’t be done without the input of a third party, who wasn’t available. The log jam finally broke about four in the afternoon, by which time it was too late in the day and we were too stressed to do anything. A whole day down the tube.

Thursday we started at 9:00 AM bringing stuff from different parts of the house to the staging area in the living room. We were dealing with your typical 1950s three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half, full basement, large yard, and storage shed situation. T and T had lived in that house for over fifty years. T(him) died several years ago, and T(her) has decided to move to smaller quarters.

They were a fascinating couple who had a lot of interests. They raised a child, made art, wrote music, enjoyed camping and traveling, loved the out-of-doors, and gardened. Each activity required stuff: tools, materials, references, places to store everything. Both of them were older teen-agers during World War II, one with a father away in the military until 1949 and the other growing up in occupied Europe. So both of them had an appreciation for having spares and for hanging on to things “that might come in useful one day.”

Not that their house was a mess. It was an extremely clean and tidy house, full of fifties-style furniture, original art work, and a lot of storage space. Emphasis on the full of furniture and lots of storage space. We started Thursday morning at the furtherest back corner of the basement and did a walk-through of the entire basement, followed by a walk-through of the entire ground floor. Everywhere we went there were drawers and cupboards, and closets to open. Every one of them was packed. By Thursday at 6:00 PM we hadn’t brought more than a fraction to the items to the staging area.

We started again at 9:00 AM Friday. The whole day was non-stop sorting, matching, cleaning, pricing, and stacking. We oohed, ahed, squealed with delight over a particularly juicy find, occasionally teared up over a sentimental one, and eventually evolved three piles: garbage it, sell it, and what the heck is that? Every couple of hours, the significant other and I made the grand rounds of basement and house and every time we discovered another darn cupboard tucked away in some obscure corner.

At 1:30 Saturday morning I fell asleep on a black leather couch, surrounded by complete chaos. I started working again three hours later, significant other showed up at 6:00 AM—there wasn’t room for us both to sleep there—and with the help of a whole whack of gracious and generous friends that T and T had known for years, the sale started on time at 8:00 AM Saturday morning.

It was utter chaos until about four in the afternoon, when a Stanley Cup Playoff game started and the crowd thinned considerably. It appears that hockey beats garage sales.

Item we salvaged and sold the most of: fabric. T is an avid seamstress and there were multiple cupboards packed with fabric, all of it clean and pristine. We spent hours unfolding, measuring, labeling, and rolling fabric, then attaching labels with the fiber content, length, width, and price. But it was worth it. The fabric went away almost as fast as we restocked the table.

Item we discarded the most of: plastic bags. We pulled them out of hiding places not by the bag full but by the pound.

Most unexpected item we found: a piece of silver-and-turquoise jewelry that T(him) hand-cast decades ago.

Strangest objects we found? It was a toss-up.

Initially it was two tubes of silicone caulking so old that they had hardened completely. When the cardboard tube was peeled away, the silicone was still the same shape. I looked at my sig other and pondered, “Can you carve that and use it for stamping?” As it turns out, you can. I’m looking forward to experimenting with the rest of it.

The silicon came in second for strangeness to a bottle of high-proof Vodka with amber necklace beads filling the bottom third of the bottle. T’s brother considers drinking amber a spring tonic and a cure for what ails you. I’m wondering if I can salvage amber that has been immersed in alcohol for a couple of decades. If I can, I’m going to make something out of those beads.

After the garage sale ended, it took us fourteen hours on Sunday and nine hours Monday to strip bare every one of those drawers, cupboards and closets. The haul-away-your-stuff truck pulled out of the alley at 1:30 Monday afternoon, and there is a huge pile of garbage bags and recycling bags to be gradually put out for pick-up over the next few weeks. We still have to make some trips to vintage stores, record stores, the fire hall chemical collection point, and the pharmacy for disposing old, no make that vintage, medicines. Vintage become our by-word this weekend.

Through all of this what stood out the most were the friends who came to help. There were a ton of them, all the way from someone who knew neither T, but lent a sunshade anyway, to two of her long-term friends, both about her age, who worked rings around us younger folks all day Saturday. I hope I'm that fortunate in my friends when I get to be T's age.

All in all, we had a great time. Now we’re going to take the next two days off to have a great rest.

Quote for the week
If a friend is in trouble, don't annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do. Think up something appropriate and do it.
~Edgar Watson Howe, (1853 - 1937), American novelist and editor

Monday, May 16, 2011

Playing the Movie Game

by Julia Buckley

My family loves movies, so my husband made up this game. Everyone throws a few papers into a hat, on which are written the names of living actors or actresses, the possible title for a future movie, or a word that a must appear in a title.

Then someone picks a couple things out of the hat and has to think up a movie premise based on what is written on their two pieces of paper.

My son Ian picked these two: Hal Linden and Robert De Niro.

His movie idea was this. Hal Linden and Robert De Niro play older secret agents who must prove that they still have what it takes to bring down the bad guys and can keep the nation safe. Title: SOCIAL SECURITY. :) (My younger son said that they both have to wear turtlenecks and hats. Not sure why).

Graham picked "House of the--" and "Jack Black." He decided that he would create an action comedy called HOUSE OF THE DEMON SPAWN, and Jack Black is a neighborhood man who is initially frightened of the haunted house, but hears a heavy metal song that inspires him to arm himself with axes that will allow him to take down the demons (my children are violent).

My husband picked Willy Nelson and Burt Reynolds. His premise: Willy Nelson is an old-time country music star who has retired. Burt Reynolds is his biggest fan from years back; he goes on a quest to find him and determines that Willy's character has hit rock bottom, so he makes it his goal to rejuvenate Willy's career. His title: NEW TRICKS (as in, you can't teach an old dog . . .). This one sounds like a movie cliche, but that's part of the goal of this game.

Ian picked "Tobey McGuire" and "Snow Serpents." His premise: Tobey McGuire is a scientist who has heard about seismic events in The Alps. Sure enough, giant serpents are wreaking havoc on the Alps skiing communities. Tobey has no way to fight them; he attacks one with a pen he has in his pocket, and the serpent bites off his hand. His hand is eventually replaced with a flame-thrower, which he uses to battle the serpents in their icy realm. Mila Kunis plays his snow-suited love interest. The title, of course, is SNOW SERPENTS.

It's a fun creative exercise, and of course it could apply to all of our favorite mystery staples. Here are some starters:

Philip Marlowe
Peter Wimsey
A clue
The necklace
Miss Marple
The road to
The girl in the
Tom Selleck
Kathleen Turner
Michelle Williams
yellow dress
dirt-covered locket
Daniel Craig
Penelope Cruz

Add some of your own and brainstorm your way to the next big mystery!!

What do you think?