Friday, September 30, 2011

Too Many Books

by Sheila Connolly

Oh, no, you say—not again! You've heard it all before, right? Well, the problem hasn't gone away, and the last couple of weeks have introduced yet more complications.

Let's start with the Bouchercon conference, now a rapidly receding memory—except for the stacks of books. If you've never attending a writers conference, you may not know that when you walk in you are handed a badge and a bag full of books. Yes, a whole bag. These are contributed by publishers seeking to promote lesser known authors, but the bag often includes recent books by mainstream authors. Even Big Name authors: my bag this year included books by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. It also included books by several people I had never heard of, but that's the whole point of promotion, isn't it?

I couldn't part with any of them. Usually at such conferences there is a place to leave or swap books, and this year was no exception. The problem was, I ended up taking more than I left. The sad thing is, at most of these swap tables there is usually one book that a great number of people abandon from their freebie bags. Can you imagine how bad the poor author must feel seeing stacks of his gift books sitting there, rejected? I couldn't bring myself to dump it, even though it was heavy. Of course, now that I've hauled it home, I have to read it.

And if the gift bag didn't provide enough books, there are people who will thrust books upon you, in hallways, at parties. How can you say no? The (usually unknown) author is standing in front of you, his (or her) precious work outstretched—what are you going to say? I hate the cover? I've never heard of you, now go away? I was raised to be polite, so I take the book. It may be a wonderful book, but I haven't read it yet. I haven't read the one I got that way last year, from two Scandinavian authors who were all but flinging their first book at everyone who walked by them. But I still have it.

For the first time, this year I mailed a box of books back after the conference. It cost about as much as the excess weight fee on my suitcase would have, and I didn't have to lug another twenty pounds of books through airports. A bargain all around.

But that's only part of the rampant book problem. I'm reading broadly for my forthcoming Irish series, and the first book in the series in due to my editor in a few months. I've been doing research on Ireland, mainly genealogy, for a decade now, and I've collected quite a few books, including classic references on Irish history, the Famine, etc. Many of those will give me a few hundred years of history, but not what's going on there now. For that I need recent histories, and books by current authors. Given that Ireland has been going through rapid and extreme upheavals over the past decade, I have to look critically at the source and the date of any book I pick up now, if I want to catch a glimpse of the Celtic Tiger and the devastation it left in its wake.

A perfect example:  the description of the Celtic Tiger,
and the description of its demise
Plus I'm throwing a young and not overeducated young American woman into the mix, and she has her own perspective from growing up in the heavily Irish communities south of Boston. I'm looking forward to the clash of cultures. But I want to get it right, which means more reading. I don't know if I'm glad or sorry that Whitey Bulger has finally been caught: he provided some great mythology about Southie, and there was even a theory that he was hiding somewhere in West Cork, which is where my series is set. So there's another problem: if I'd written this a year ago, I would look foolish. Who knows—by the time this book hits the shelves, Ireland could have come roaring back to fiscal health, or equally likely, it and several other European Union countries could have declared bankruptcy and trashed the global economy. How do I handle that?

And if that weren't enough, a well-meaning friend sent me a link to a site which offers free ebooks on Irish history and family records. The list is sixteen pages long, in teeny print. There is no way I have time to read even a smattering of them. The TBR pile of print books about Ireland is already three feet high and teetering.

So how do I cope with this avalanche? I have already acknowledged to myself that it is almost physically painful to give away or refuse any book. I mean, it's a book! I can't do it! And yet, I'm surrounded with stacks of books, for research or written by friends or much praised by critics, that I want to read. And there simply isn't enough time to do it all.

Alas, not my library, but I can dream (it's the Trinity College Library
in Dublin)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Partners in Crime

Cici McNair, P.I. (Guest Blogger)

I am a private detective and I love my work. I leap with energy towards a new case like a Doberman goes for sirloin. It’s been seventeen years since my first day in Vinny Parco’s office—April Fools Day, 1994. My firm, Green Star Investigations, handles cases all over the world; these cases range from missing persons to money laundering, from stolen art recovery to rape and murder.

I wrote about how and why I became a private detective in Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts. Growing up in Mississippi, traveling the world, drinking champagne with gunrunners, going undercover for the FBI and OCID (Organized Crime Intelligence Division of the NYPD) and the Joint Terrorist Task Force, dealing with the Born to Kill gang in Chinatown, and the Middle Eastern counterfeiters west of Broadway---great fun. Cases in Italy, Paris, Costa Rica, all over.

What kinds of killers team up to commit their crimes? Lovers, all kinds of lovers. Family members. A professor of forensic psychiatry called the Moors murders, which horrified everyone in England in the mid 1960s, “concatenation of circumstances” that brought together “ a young woman taught to hand out and receive violence from an early age and a man who was a sexually sadistic psychopath.” The killers of the Petit family in Connecticut became friends at a halfway house.

The two-killer crime I am most knowledgeable about is the disappearance of Irene Silverman. It was the stuff of tabloids. Sante and Kenny Kimes were the mother and son from Las Vegas accused of murdering Mrs. Silverman, the 82 year old widow who lived in a 5 story limestone mansion on East 65th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. It was July the 5th, 1998. She disappeared that day and the mother and son were arrested that afternoon. A week later I was asked to work on the defense team on behalf of the Kimeses. To be their private detective.

I was suddenly immersed in credit card scams, insurance fraud and money laundering. There were corporations—real and dummy—with documents signed by people, alive and unwilling or dead. It was arson, incest and missing corpses. My first murder was not anyone hit over the head with a beer bottle. It was international and it was amazing. The Silverman case was a landmark conviction in the state of New York: there was no body, no witness, no confession, no weapon and no DNA.

Sante Kimes was the daughter of a prostitute and, as a little girl, roamed the streets of L.A. looking for food. She married three times , had a son by her second marriage and later, at nearly forty-one years of age, gave birth to Kenny. He was special. He was the heir to his father’s fortune of millions. Not allowed to go to school, he was educated by tutors, kept close to his mother. Kenneth Kimes, Sr., had houses in Hawaii, the Bahamas, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and the family of three traveled in style. When Sante was sent to prison for keeping slaves, (another story) Kenny said it was the happiest time of his life. He was adored by his elderly father and went to a regular school, had friends. When Ken Kimes, Sr , died, in 1994, Kenny dropped out of college and became very very close to his mother. Some say unnaturally close.

In 1998, they embarked on a transcontinental crime spree culminating in their arrest for the murder of Irene Silverman. A few years after the NY conviction, I was asked to be the consultant to the defense team in Los Angeles in yet another murder trial. If things had gone the way the DA hoped, Sante and Kenny would have been the first mother and son executed in US history.

The mother and son are, in fact, a couple. Con artists, grifters, attractive, highly intelligent and charming. I know them well, observed them from close range for years. Sante still writes me from prison. Sante Kimes is a very bright, very dangerous psychopath.

Sante Kimes was sentenced to 120 years and Kenny to 126. They both planned the murder, but he actually committed it. I wrote about Sante in Never Flirt with a Femme Fatale. One part is the story of me and Sante Kimes, woman to woman, and her life story in her own words. Working as her private detective for years, I got to know her as well as anyone ever will. The other story in the book is of another femme fatale, a beautiful Vogue cover girl. Both murders took place in midsummer on the Upper East Side on Sunday mornings, twenty years apart. Both involved powerful, fascinating women who trusted me, who talked about seduction, manipulation, betrayal and murder.

Cici McNair has her own agency, Green Star Investigations. In addition to her work as a PI and her two books, she founded Fedora Press to meet the needs of “so many writers--good writers--who can’t get published because they can’t get an agent and they don’t want to go the self-publishing route." For more about Cici and what she does, see, and

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The lie that launched a writing career

by David Bell

Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Cemetery Girl, David Bell’s critically acclaimed debut novel of psychological suspense. The book tells the story of a family whose daughter disappears when she is 12 and returns when she is 16 – but refuses to tell her parents or police where she has been or who she has been with. The parents’ quest for the truth threatens to tear the family apart.

The opening scene of my novel, Cemetery Girl, involves a flashback. The protagonist and narrator, Tom Stuart, remembers something that happened when his daughter, Caitlin, was six years old. She crossed the street without permission and was nearly hit by a car. When confronted with this, Caitlin does something unexpected. She lies. She tells her father that she didn’t cross the street and she wasn’t nearly hit by a car.

My book is fiction. I don’t have a daughter who disappeared. I’m not in a marriage that is falling apart because of my child’s disappearance. I don’t have a ne’r-do-well half-brother who the police look at with suspicion. So the book is a work of fiction, and little of it is true.

Except for that opening scene.

That really did happen to me.

When I was very little, maybe four years old, I was playing up the street with a group of neighborhood kids. When some of them wanted to cross the street, I went along with them, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to. When I came home, my mom asked me if I had crossed the street without permission.

I lied. I flat-out, bald-faced lied to her.

“No,” I said.

Now my mom is no dummy. She’s almost eighty now, and she doesn’t miss a thing. She certainly didn’t miss anything when we were kids. But for some reason—maybe she was tired, maybe she had other things on her mind—she didn’t challenge my lie. And I know she knew the truth. I didn’t know it at the time, but years later when I looked back, I knew she knew. She was too smart, too vigilant. Why else would she ask me that question unless she knew? She knew. And she let it go.

That slice of my own life went into the book, and it ended up serving as an introduction to the themes and ideas depicted in the rest of the novel: Do we really know the people closest to us? Do we all carry secret desires and thoughts deep within, things we won’t share with our closest loved ones? What do parents do when their children start to break away and move beyond parental control? Can we protect our children from everything we want to protect them from?

I’ve never asked my mom about that moment from my childhood, that first moment I lied to her. Despite her sharpness, I’m not sure she would remember. After all, I suspect it was a bigger event for me than it was for her. For me, it was a watershed moment—I realized I could intentionally lie to someone in order to get away with something. I didn’t go on to be a pathological or habitual liar—unless you count fiction writing—but I understood something that day that I hadn’t before. Lying was a choice I could make.

But I’d like to think my mom had her own reasons for letting my lie go. Maybe she realized that kids will lie and exert their own independence, and there are limits to what parents can do. I’m the youngest of three children, so my mom had already been to the child-rearing rodeo two other times. She knew what kids could do and how they grew up. Maybe she recognized that letting me think about the lie on my own would provide graver consequences than if she chewed me out. My parents were very good at letting me make my own decisions and suffer my own consequences. It’s safe to say I probably feel more guilty about lying to my mom, even all these years later, because she let me stew in my own guilt.

For whatever reason, she left me alone that day. And years later, that moment stayed with me enough to serve as the start of Cemetery Girl. Maybe she wanted to launch me into my career as a writer. For whatever reason she did it, it worked.
David Bell, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Visit his website at Leave a comment here today for a chance to win a copy of Cemetery Girl!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Early Morning Madness

Sharon Wildwind

Remembering the phone call still makes me cringe.

It was four A.M. on a Monday morning in the dead of winter with snow falling and a wind-chill of close to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). A friend of mine, on her way to teach a workshop, had run her car off the road. She and her boyfriend were in a service station half an hour from her destination. If she didn’t get to the workshop on time, she would be fired. Could I pick them up and deliver them to the workshop site?

It was doable. I had experience driving in bad weather. Half an hour to dress and sweep the snow from my car. An hour to the service station, another half-hour taking them to their destination, an hour-and-a-half drive back, grab an egg sandwich and cup of tea from a fast food joint, and I could roll into work not more than 20 or 30 minutes late.

I was snuggled in a warm bed with two cats at my feet. I asked her if they were actually inside the station or at an outside pay phone. They were inside. Where was her car now? Still in the ditch. It would be towed later in the morning after the snow stopped. I said that I was sorry she was in this predicament, that I was glad she was safe and warm, that I hoped she wouldn’t be fired, but I wasn’t coming to pick her up. After I hung up, I turned over and went back to sleep until my alarm rang.

What bothers me to this day is that even if she had said that they were outside at a pay phone, I wouldn’t have gone. I would have called the R.C.M.P. and told them there were two people who needed help, even though I knew that in those weather conditions the Constables were already over-their-heads busy.

As a child, my mother’s taught me that if I ever found myself in trouble in a strange city, I should find the nearest Catholic Church because the priest would help me. So, I would likely have asked the operator if there was a church in the town where my friend was—any denomination would do—and woken up the minister. If worst came to worst, I would have found out where the closest rural hospital was and phoned them because there was bound to be a nurse awake in the emergency room. Two nurses’ heads would be better than one for problem-solving. I would have done those things, not out of friendship because I would have done the same thing for total strangers, but out of an appreciation for how deadly being outside in -30 weather is.

I was ticked off that she’d called me in the first place. What kind of a friend did that make me? A sensible one, I hope.

My friend didn’t make it to her workshop on time. She wasn’t fired. The workshop was rescheduled. But a few weeks later, she stopped being my friend and I never heard from her again. Maybe this has something to do with why I still cringe at the memory of that phone call.

Writers need friends, especially friends who
— happen to be up at 2 AM to exchange e-mail or chat to bemoan that both of us feel that we have written to the ends of our creative talents and aren’t sure how much longer we can continue to fool the world into thinking we are writers.
— realize that it’s important to take turns celebrating. They not only come to your book launch, but have the grace to wait until a week after the launch to mention that they just landed a contract that far exceeds the one you got.
— set up small expectations for us to meet and make sure that we meet them. They say to us things like, “Spend half an hour writing out possible motives for all of your suspects, and then call me back when you’ve finished.”
— make sure we know where they blog, but don’t send e-mail announcing every blog that they write.
— feed us occasionally, especially if they know we are on a deadline and likely surviving on peanut crackers and over-brewed coffee.
— suggest that a short play break might be more helpful to us than around-the-clock work to meet that deadline.
— know when to prod and when to hug.
— rate a place on our 4 A.M. call list, even if the answer to that call might be “not right now.”

If you don’t have a 4 A.M. call list, make one. You might need it some snowy morning.
Quote for the week:
When friends stop being frank and useful to each other, the whole world loses some of its radiance.
~ Anatole Broyard, 1920 – 1990, American writer, literary critic and editor for The New York Times

Monday, September 26, 2011

Want to Form Better Writing Habits? Give it Two Weeks.

by Julia Buckley
Disciplined writers know that their good habits pay off. Undisciplined or haphazard writers know that they would be better off with the habits of the disciplined. Perhaps it is tempting to shrug and say, "I'm just not that sort of person."

But brain research suggests that anyone can have very disciplined writing habits, and that the re-wiring of one's brain can take place in as little as fourteen days. Carlos Penaluza writes in this blog that "writers expend a great deal of energy on the writing process: planning, writing and rewriting, verifying facts, getting feedback, revising, and editing. Often, finding the motivation to begin is nearly impossible, proofreading is boring, re-writing seems onerous, and feedback is harsh. And while many writers extol the virtues of formulating good habits, few consider the brain chemistry involved." He goes on to cite the benefits of forming habits, and the reality that the repetition of habitual behaviors actually "alters the firing pattern of projection neurons." In other words, we can form better writing habits and, in the process, re-wire our brains.

But how do we form the new habits? For writers, this may be the hard part. It involves, according to Dr. Lee Rice of the Wellness Institute, "believing in yourself, getting rid of mistrust, writing down what you want, and announcing your changes to the world."

I read enough Facebook to know that the average author (even the bestselling kind) is apt to post things like "I hate everything I wrote today" or "I'm terrified that my latest work is terrible."
In order for all of us writers to re-wire, we have to start by consciously believing in ourselves, journaling about our goals, and speaking confidently about them.

The very fact that some writers might look upon that advice with a certain cynicism might also suggest that they could benefit from re-wiring; and of course this advice doesn't apply only to writers, but to anyone who wants to form a habit that could be life-changing.

So to any of you who, like me, see something that you would like to change, why not read Penaluza's post and give yourself fourteen days? You could be sending your neurons, and your life, in a positive direction.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

More Medieval Mayhem

I just don't get tired of it. Another book is on its way to the bookstores. Another murder. Another puzzle for my brave protagonist to solve. And this time, instead of his familiar London setting, he takes off for Canterbury. And the action takes place in the cathedral, hence the frontis piece below. This is a skewed retelling of the Canterbury Tales, only this time with murder.

My love affair with the Canterbury Tales started quite early in life. Raised in a household where the love of history was not only welcomed but encouraged, I found myself surrounded by the medieval. We had historical novels on the shelves and I devoured those written by the stars of that era: Nora Lofts, Thomas B. Costain, Anya Seton. But we also had a plethora of textbooks and nonfiction histories just for the asking. Little did I know I was learning something!

One of my favorite fiction books was the children's version of the Canterbury Tales--with the bawdier stories left out, of course. My mother also had some recordings on records of an actor reciting the prologue and some of the tales in Chaucer's language of Middle English. I knew this was supposed to be English, but the strangely lyrical cadence of this other English was very alluring, and consequently, I was probably the only kindergartner who could recite part of the Chaucer's Middle English!

I was immediately drawn into this story of many diverse people traveling together, wiling away the hours telling each other tales, bickering, laughing--just being people even I recognized. I especially liked the tale of Chanticleer and the Loathely Lady and all the other stories told on the journey. I was truly devastated to get to the end and discover that Chaucer died before he could finish! Who would win the contest of telling the best story? Would they all get home to London all right?

After a few years I read it in its entirety, with modern English side by side to the Middle English. I was able to marvel at the beautiful rendition on the illuminated manuscript, whose unknown artist rendered each of the pilgrims, including Chaucer himself. This is the Ellsemere manuscript and it can be found at the Huntington Library in San Moreno, California, one of those museums I haunted as a kid.

It was in my blood, I guess, so I've been chomping at the bit to include Chaucer in Crispin's tale ever since. And while I was at it, I might as well send Crispin to Canterbury where he can encounter some of those pilgrims mentioned. Crispin and Geoffrey were old friends, both serving in Lancaster's household and Crispin is well aware of Chaucer's ambitions as well as his talent for poetry.
“Put me in one of your poems and you’re a dead man," he growls to his old friend, knowing that Geoffrey's use of symbolism can well mean he will be used in ways that might embarrass him. Does Crispin end up being the model for the old knight at the end of his days, who tells the tale of courtly love and honor? I guess you can see for yourself.

The novel will be released October 11 and I can't wait!

Friday, September 23, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

Several years ago, my agent and I were kicking around ideas for a new series. She had already seen a draft of one book I had completed but she wasn't satisfied with it, so we were trying to find a way to tweak it to make it more appealing to a publisher. I wanted to keep the setting, so I needed something appropriate to western Massachusetts. Then I said, "apples," and the rest is history.

Every house in New England in the early years had an orchard; cider, soft or hard, was a staple of life then. The house that is the heart of the Orchard series was no exception, and I have documentary evidence, in the form of a series of diaries, that refers to the whole family picking apples together (the grandparents shook the trees; the granddaughters collected the fallen apples, and the father took them into town to sell them). That orchard is long gone now, but for the book I put it back and expanded it, and now it's flourishing in its second fictional year.

I'll be the first to admit that I knew very little about orchard management, which is why my protagonist didn't either—we could learn together. I began by talking to the managers of the UMass experimental orchard in Belchertown, which is in the town adjacent to where the books are set; I also talked to real orchard managers locally, and familiarized myself with heirloom apple varieties. I even went so far as to take a state-offered course on starting a small farm, which was both informative and enjoyable.

And I planted apple trees on my minuscule property. The first was a Northern Spy, purchased in Hadley, Massachusetts. I wanted to focus on heirloom varieties because you don't see them in markets. If you're lucky you can find a few at roadside stands for a few weeks in the fall—if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, and the season is short. The Northern Spy is not the best choice for a starter apple, because they are notoriously slow to produce fruit, but I figured I was in this for the long haul.

The second tree was a Cortland—not a very old variety, but it dependably produces versatile and flavorful apples. The second year I added an Esopus Spitzenberg (said to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite variety) and a Hudson's Golden Gem (my daughter's choice). This year they were joined by a Newtown Pippin and a Roxbury Russet, both of which have a very long history in Massachusetts.

This year I have apples. As I learned, trees bear fruit only on second-year growth, so the two newbies will have to wait until next year. But the other four have apples! Maybe only two or three per tree (except for the Cortland, which is doing exactly as promised), but they are apples. My first crop! I feel so proud!

I believed I could not and should not write about managing an orchard without some hands-on experience. I'm still scared to prune, although I know I need to, in order to maintain the most productive shape for any tree. I am not spraying the trees (with the exception of an early spray of Safer Soap, which is in fact a soap and acceptable to organic growers, to eliminate winter moth larvae, which can strip a small tree bare of leaves in a couple of days, as happened with the Cortland once). And I am worrying about them like a mother. Are they getting enough food? Water? Is something gnawing on the leaves? Is the timing right so they will cross-pollinate (which is essential, but apparently I've got that right)? Is there anything I can do about rust?

One of the most difficult things has been the waiting. Apples ripen on their own schedule, and some of these trees (like the cranky Northern Spy) ripen as late as November. But when you have only three apples on a tree, you can't pluck them off to test for ripeness. Then came Hurricane Irene. I'll admit I wanted to stand in front of my baby trees to protect them from hurricane-force winds, but that wasn't exactly practical, so I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped.

Hurricane Irene's Harvest
And I found that apples decide when they're going to fall. For three out of the four trees, only a few dropped in the wind; the others just weren't ready. The Cortland lost the most, but it had the most to give, and there are plenty left. I snatched up the windfalls and made a large (and tasty) apple crisp.

One final note: the real house in my story retained a couple of old apple trees when I began writing the series. It's now reduced to only one, as the other fell in a spring storm a couple of years ago. I just happened to be there a few days later, in time to take cuttings, which I then grafted to the Northern Spy and the Cortland in a last-ditch effort to save some part of the old tree. Only one took, but it took well, and this year produced three apples--two of which some evil squirrel pulled off, took a quick bite (I could see the toothmarks) and left on the ground. I rescued them and ate them (all right, I cut away the bitten parts). I have no idea what variety they are, but they're part of my family history, and I hope they'll live on, both in my books and in my yard.

If you get the chance, try an heirloom apple. They haven't flown halfway around the world. In fact, they probably haven't gone more than a couple of miles when you find them at a farm stand. They may be small, or look mottled (that's normal for some varieties), but some of them taste wonderful, and if they aren't good for eating, they may make great pies. It would be a shame to lose this part of our heritage.

Hudson's Golden Gem--yes, they really are golden

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Brooklyn Book Festival

Elizabeth Zelvin

I spent last Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, an ambitious annual event that describes itself as follows:

The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York City presenting an array of literary stars and emerging authors who represent the exciting world of literature today. One of America’s premier book festivals, this hip, smart, diverse gathering attracts thousands of book lovers of all ages.

This year’s luminaries included Larry McMurtry, Terry McMillan, Jennifer Egan, John Sayles, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, Jean Valentine, Jules Feiffer, and Pete Hamill. But I didn’t hear any of them speak. The New York chapters of both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime had tables. Between the two, I was on my feet for several hours, schmoozing with both the passing book lovers and my fellow writers. I handed out at least a hundred bookmarks for Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my new book, which won’t be out till next spring. I even sold a decent number of my already published books.

Typically, given New York’s increasingly fickle weather (global warming doesn’t mean it’s always hot—it increases extremes), the day started out gray and blustery and gradually became one of those clear, sparkling fall afternoons for which New York is famous.

At the Sisters in Crime booth, the hot ticket item was Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, an anthology of crime stories by chapter members, each set in a part of New York City (within the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) that probably doesn’t appear in any tourist guide. My story’s setting, the church basements of AA throughout the city, certainly doesn’t. Though a lifelong New Yorker, I had never heard of the Morbid Anatomy Library. One formerly well-kept secret, the High Line, is rapidly becoming a tourist attraction. Since its stunning renovation as a block-wide “mile-and-a-half-long elevated park, running through the West Side neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell's Kitchen,” it’s rapidly becoming a favorite of both locals and visitors. Every guest I’ve had from out of town or another country in the past year has been eager to see it. Anyhow, the settings have quite a range, and the anthology, which actually debuted at the Festival, sold briskly at a special event price.

Rock bottom bargains were the order of the day at the MWA table too, where my fellow authors included Rosemary Harris, Charles Salzberg, and Sheila York. There’s no doubt in my mind that thanks to Amazon, the amount people will pay for a book, especially a hardcover, has been permanently lowered. But as veteran self-promoting authors (and that means all of us) know, selling books is not necessarily the most important item on the agenda at a book event. We’re building readership every time we hand out a bookmark or encourage someone who says, “I’ll get it at the library” or “I’ll get it for my Kindle.” I had a chance to catch up with author Grace F. Edwards, who I wish still came regularly to MWA and SinC meetings. Rosemary had a productive chat on behalf of MWA with the author of the book publishing guide on Sheila got to meet a fan who squealed with delight to find that she could finally read the sequel to the first book in Sheila’s series, which she adored. That’s a peak experience for any author, on top of the pleasure of an afternoon in the sun, schmoozing with fellow writers and people who love books.

Larry McMurtry, Susan Isaacs, and me
I just learned this morning that my picture appears in illustrious company in an article about the Festival on

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bouchercon Afterthoughts

Sandra Parshall

Mystery conference panels, unavoidably, recycle the same topics year after year – like mystery plots, there are only so many – but now and then something genuinely absorbing pops up. At Bouchercon in St. Louis, the all-star panel about evil (“Evil Going On: Does evil truly exist or is it just human failing?”) was one of those high points for me.

The able moderator, Reed Farrel Coleman, and panelists John Connolly, Thomas H. Cook, Peter James, Laura Lippman, and Daniel Woodrell might all be expected to declare a firm belief in the existence of pure evil. That’s what they write about, isn’t it? But they were surprisingly, and refreshingly, conflicted in their opinions.

Connolly, an Irish Catholic, seemed to lean toward forgiveness for sins rather than condemnation for hopelessly evil behavior. Tom Cook pointed out that we are better than animals in many respects and certainly no worse. People tend to romanticize animals and claim they kill only for food or territory, but the truth is that some will kill their own kind for the sport and fun of it. Male dogs will gang-rape a female until she literally drops dead. (This sort of mating behavior is well-documented in a number of species.) If humans do things like this, they can expect punishment, meted out through an elaborate criminal justice system created by people for the purpose of suppressing our worst instincts and keeping us safe from one another. Humans do, at least, recognize destructive behavior when we see it. The writers on the panel were inclined to attribute that behavior to circumstances rather than bad genes.

Personally, I believe some people are born without the moral sensibility we define as a soul – and early experience destroys it in others – so I guess I accept the existence of pure evil in humans, although I am totally non-religious. I enjoyed listening to these wonderful writers talk about their own beliefs, though, and I appreciated the struggle some of them seemed to have with the question. Reading their books will be a richer experience for me because I sat in the audience during this panel.

Bouchercon is always an exercise in humility for me – little fish, massive pond and all that – but I’m used to it by now. I know that the Famous Authors I meet in passing won’t remember me next time (even if next time is 30 minutes later). I’m just another gushing fan, and that’s okay. I expect the polite smile, the drift of the FA’s gaze down to my name tag (“Who is this person?”). I keep it brief, because I realize they’ve never heard of me or my books, don’t know I’m also a writer. I go through this every time I see one of my favorite authors, but I still want to tell her how much I enjoyed her latest book. I interviewed her once, years ago, but I doubt she remembers. Publisher Weekly compared my writing favorably with hers, but I doubt she knows. This year the encounter took place on an escalator. The polite smile, the drifting gaze. I don’t care. I love her passion-filled books, love the direction in which she’s taking two of my favorite characters, and I told her so. Next time, she still won’t know who I am, but I’ll still tell her I love her books. I experience a tiny, tiny fraction of the positive interaction with readers that she has, but it always makes me feel good, and I figure she must enjoy hearing praise too.

Bouchercon 2011 was, as always, enormous and noisy and chaotic, a true feast for crime fiction fans. I salute Jon and Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobolik. It's a staggering amount of work, and I don't know how they do it. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pyramid Power

Sharon Wildwind

I am a little spacey today. It comes from living inside a pyramid for the past few days.

Not the kind of pyramid that will sharpen razor blades and concentrate the power of the universe, but one of those I have to do A before I do B, but I have to do C before I do B, and so on pyramidal arrangements.

My husband and I bought a new computer gizmo. Before we can install it, we have to do an operating-system upgrade. The dealer was out of the software we needed, so we waited three weeks to get a copy. It arrived last Thursday. I’d planned to spend Friday morning doing those tedious, but necessary, steps for a safe software installation, and figured we’d be up and running with our new gizmo in time for supper Friday night.

Then my husband said, “You know, of course, that after we upgrade the operating system, your oldest office suite won’t work any more because the new software doesn’t support it.”

The office suite contains not only a word processing program, but also a spreadsheet, data base, and drawing program. That means that anything I wrote, drew, or put in a database or spreadsheet before 2006 was going to disappear out of my universe.


After a pot of very strong tea, I convinced myself that there couldn’t be THAT many files which hadn’t been updated and converted to newer programs in the past six years. A couple of hundred at the most. I could still have our new gizmo up and running by Saturday.

The actual file count for files I would have to look at turned out to be 1,417, including all of the research and multiple drafts for four-and-a-half books and a huge part of my fiber and paper art folder.

I backed up those 1,417 files to a DVD. At least if everything went terrible wrong, I could start over. Then I started dismantling the pyramid one file at a time.

By this afternoon, I was down to one remaining thing. Those four-and-a-half books. For two-and-a-half of them I made the very hard choice to let them go. They’ve been published and the likelihood that I will ever, ever need to need or want to revisit the background research or the multiple working drafts is so miniscule that it wasn’t worth the amount of time I’d have to spend converting them one file at a time.

I can’t let the other two books disappear from my life. I just can’t. They aren’t finished. In truth, outside of a desultory attempt to rewrite a few chapters when we were snowed in during a blizzard, I haven’t touched those books since the summer of 2005. But I’m still so in love with the story and the two main characters.

I occasionally have rather torrid dreams about the hero. It's okay, my husband knew when he married me that he had a rival. I think he likes the guy, too, but I doubt we share the same dreams. At least I hope we don't . . . never mind. Let me assure you that I dream about my husband, too, so it’s not like he’s getting short-changed.

Are those two characters ever in a mess. Not them personally, but the literary world where they live.

I have research notes and multiple drafts being spread out across three (non-compatible) word processing programs, two (also non-compatible) writing programs, and a bunch of different (and not even close to compatible) formats for maps, photographs, timelines, family trees, etc. Thank goodness for copy, paste, and reformat. If I can just stop myself from stopping to re-read huge chunks when I’m supposed to be copying and pasting, I might—finally—have everything in one place. Maybe that will give the books the fresh start they deserve. Hope springs eternal.

And our new computer gizmo? Um, it’s in a bag around here somewhere. I’ll get to it, okay. After I do the important stuff.

Quote for the week
If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
~Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, editor, and professor

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Problem of Opinion

by Julia Buckley
Seth Meyers said something quite memorable in his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, during which he discussed Congress and the fact that one Congressional Representative's behavior was lauded as "adult." Meyers said:

"Nothing is so depressing about politics than the fact that 'adult' is now a compliment. 'Adult' is only a compliment to a child: 'I'm so proud of you; you acted like an adult tonight. I'm glad I brought you to my boss's house for dinner. You even cut your own meat like a big boy.'

Also, Congress, there are a lot of things you want us to be impressed by that we are not impressed by: we are not impressed that you sat next to each other at The State of the Union. You know what the rest of America calls an evening spent politely sitting next to a person with wildly different political views? Thanksgiving."

We're not impressed when you complain that bills are too long to read. 'The Health Care Bill is almost 2000 pages!' Good! A bill that ensures healthcare to every person in America should be longer than THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Also while we're at it, I don't think you read bills anyway. I think you guys vote on bills in the same way the rest of us agree to updated terms and conditions on i-Tunes."

There were several elements of Meyer's satire that I found effective, especially his message to a Congress whose job approval rating, even back in December of 2010, was found to be "the worst in Gallup Poll history."

But I also agreed with Meyers' assessment of the family Thanksgiving. Are there any families out there who share similar political views and basic ideologies with other members of their clan? When I was young, I never understood the maxim that one should never discuss religion or politics at the table. Now that I've tried to do both, I realize exactly how it originated. I suppose it's hypocritical of me to criticize the polarization of Congress when I encounter the same sort of polarization within my family.

I foolishly entered a political debate with my own dear uncle, on Facebook of all things, and the entries on both sides grew longer and longer. Finally a dear friend and fellow mystery writer stepped in and posted, "I give you credit for trying, Julia. But you'll never change his mind."

It was true; my uncle and I agreed that we were deadlocked. He wasn't going to change my views, and I wasn't going to change his. But it's clear that we are both convinced the other person is just about 100% wrong. So I have learned: no voicing controversial opinions with family; no controversial statements on Facebook; certainly none in my classroom, which would be an abuse of the podium.

So the question is--should we share our opinions at all? Are opinions meant to kept private, or should we be contributing more to the public dialogue? If it's B, how can we create a civil public discourse that allows respect for both sides?

It seems now more than ever everyone has an opinion, and it tends to be a strong one. Do you share yours or keep mum? Do you feel there is value to sharing it, or value to keeping it to yourself?

I certainly value your opinion here, no matter what it is.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Canada Calling: Adopt a Province

Set a mystery in Scandinavia? Wonderful. Ireland? Terrific. Ditto Spain, Italy, Thailand, or South America. Set a mystery in Canada? Whoa, better think twice. Readers won’t buy books set in Canada. Believe it or not, this is still the advice that some agents and publishers give to Canadian writers. No one has ever been able to explain why. Is it because Canadians are too bland and boring? Or are they too weird to be believed?

Kidding aside, access is one of the major problems for books set north of the 49th parallel. Many Canadian writers publish with small Canadian presses, so distribution becomes a problem, effectively shutting Canadian books out of bookstores and off of library shelves.

Try this Canadian mystery scavenger hunt.

Print out this blog and take it with you the next time you go to the library. Pick a province and see how many of the authors who set their mysteries in that province are in your library. My guess is, unfortunately, not many. Go one step further. Ask for books by one of these authors on inter-library loan.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will get you started reading some great Canadian crime. The list is limited to novels. Canadian writers are prolific short-story writers, too, but the short stories would be even more difficult to find than the books.

British Columbia
Lou Allain
Vickey Delaney
William Deverell
Stanley Evans
Gayleen Froese
Michael Grayston
Donald Hauka
Roy Innes
Ken Merkley
Sharon Rowse
David Russell
Shirley Skidmore
L. R. Wright

Catherine Astolfo
Giles Blunt
Jake Doherty
Howard Engle
C. B. Forrest
John McFetridge
John Moss
Ross Pennie
Sylvia Multash Warsh
Eric Wright

Trevor Ferguson , a.k.a John Farrow
N.A.T. (Nancy) Grant
R. J. Harlick
Louise Penny

Gale Bowen
Nelson Brunanski
Jeni Mayer

Susan Calder
Stephen Legault
Garry Ryan

Thomas Rendell Curran
Barbara Murray

Ottawa (so this isn’t a province, it’s the capital of Canada)
Barbara Fradkin
Mary Jane Maffini

Prince Edward Island
Hilary MacLeod (at least one)

Nova Scotia
Anne Emery

Yukon Territory
Jessica Simon

Northwest Territory
Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Nunavut Territory, Manitoba, and New Brunswick didn’t turn up as mystery locations, though I’m certain there must be some stories set there. I would be delighted if someone reading this blog could send us in the right direction to find them. You can always fall back on Eric Wilson’s mystery series for young adults. He brags that he’s set a mystery in every Canadian province and territory.

Happy Canadian reading.

Friday, September 16, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

Travel just ain't no fun any more. When you read this, I should be mingling with a couple of thousand of mystery and thriller writers at the annual Bouchercon convention in St. Louis. I say "should" because you never know if you will arrive at your intended destination (or you’re your luggage will be there). Things happen, as we have been reminded this week. Disasters, natural and man-made, disrupt the best-laid plans.

It's easier than it used to be to get from Point A to Point B. Once you needed human assistance to reserve a space on any conveyance—boat, train or airplane. Now you can sit in front of a computer and arrange to go anywhere. Several years ago I booked a flight to Australia, and all it took was a couple of mouse clicks. Somehow I felt that there should be more drama when committing to flying halfway around the world, but all it took was a single "Enter" to make it happen.

I know people who are terrified to fly. Admittedly it is unnatural, getting into a shiny tube and hurtling hundreds or thousands of miles through the air. The human brain did not evolve to encompass such things. I don't know if it takes faith or fatalism or willful denial to climb onto a plane and expect to walk happily off at the planned destination, but thousands of people do it every day (one source says there are 30,000 commercial passenger flights every day!). I find the whole thing unreal and managed to distance myself mentally from the reality—after all, you're at greater risk on a local street than on an airplane, right?

But terror or inconvenience does not quash the desire to go somewhere, or to be somewhere else, whether it is for business or pleasure. I suspect that in the future more and more business will get done electronically, now that you can call meetings on-screen and look your client or competitor in the eye. But travel for pleasure is something different: you want to experience being there, or of not being where you usually are.

If you are familiar with Golden Age mysteries, such as those by Agatha Christie, you will know that many authors set stories in what was once the pinnacle of luxury means of travel—cruises along the Nile, the Orient Express. These books are populated with a certain class of people, who expected everything to be made easy for them. Have you ever looked at steamer trunks from the old days? They are huge, and they weighed a ton. Obviously no gentleman, much less a lady, could be expected to haul those around. That's what porters and bellmen were for. A discreet bill slipped into a palm, and the humungous objects were spirited away, to be found in an opulent hotel room, where a maid had neatly upacked milady's garments and ironed the ones that needed it. Did that world ever really exist? Not for most of us.

In 1958 my grandmother made a grand tour of several European countries, for business: she was showing off the Lipton Tea collection of antique silver, which she had assembled for the company. I suspect it was a bit of a boondoggle, or at least a parting gift for her, as she retired that same year. She took the (original) Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth—we have the 8mm movies to prove it. And she took with her a matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage. Let me tell you, those things are heavy—a person can stand on them. No way was my five-foot-four grandmother dragging those up gangways. She was, however, an expert tipper.

Save for a very few lucky people, this is not the average travel experience. Now you can get on a plane and walk off five or ten or fifteen hours later and be in a very different place (assuming you survive being squashed like a sardine for that time period). More time for exploring the destination, you say? Perhaps, but you've missed the fun part of luxury travel—the elegant meals, the games, the hairdresser a few decks away; the flowers sent to your stateroom; the telegrams wishing you bon voyage. Something's gained, but something's lost as well.

I really hope I'm in St. Louis now. With my luggage.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are Pen Names Becoming Pointless?

L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)

The publishing industry is in upheaval with major changes, but one of the more subtle changes is the declining use of pen names.
As more authors take charge of their own publishing and online marketing, they choose to skip the pen names when they write in various genres, in an effort to capitalize on the brand success of the name they’re already selling under.

This makes sense to me and it’s why I’m publishing my futuristic thriller, The Arranger,
under the same author name as my police procedurals. Essentially, the books are all crime stories, and in this case, they even share a major character, so I never considered using a pen name. Some marketers would argue this is a mistake, but I disagree.

In fact, even if I decided to write in a completely different genre, say fantasy, I still don’t think I would use a pen name. Here’s why. Marketers at major publishing houses established the practice with the idea that books should be categorized and shelved by genre and that readers were easily confused. They worried readers would buy a book in a genre they didn’t want just because it had their favorite author’s name on it.

This seems like an insult to readers. If the cover art and book description are doing their jobs, then readers will know exactly what the genre is and what to expect from the novel—regardless of the name on the cover. Readers have also come to expect authors to pen stories in various genres. It is neither surprising, nor confusing to them.

In addition, writers are blending story types and making up their own genres. Paranormal historical mystery, anyone? Or in my case: futuristic crime thriller. I’m not sure pen names were ever useful, but if they were, readers are long past it. In the age of the internet and open access to writers, readers learn everything they need to about an author and their various books with a quick visit to their website.

What about readers browsing in bookstores? Does a pen name prevent them from buying a futuristic police procedural written by J.D. Robb instead of a romance by Nora Roberts? I don’t think so. At least not more than once. I know there are instances in which a pen name could be useful, such as if the author wants or needs privacy, but those cases are rare.

To minimize any possible confusion, I labeled my novel with a subtitle: A Futuristic Thriller, and I created a different style of cover. It will be clear to my Detective Jackson fans that this novel is different from my police procedurals.

I also have two other standalone thrillers, so most of my readers already know that I write non-Jackson books. Of course, I want my Jackson fans to try the new novel, which is partially why I sent Detective Lara Evans into the future to tell this story. (I also think she’s a lot of fun, but that’s another blog.)
Some of my police procedural readers will check out this novel and some will pass. That’s okay. I’m hoping new readers who’ve never heard of me will try it too.

As a fairly new author, I have to capitalize on my name recognition. My name is my brand. Without the support of a major publisher, it’s all I have, and I use it everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, chat groups, etc. I never use amusing nicknames like thrillergirl or crimefighter. They might be fun, but they don’t tell readers who I am. I’m not likely to ever use a pen name either, for the same reasons.
What do you think? Are pen names useful to you as a reader or writer?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. L.J. also has three standalone thrillers. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.

L.J. Sellers would like to give away one print copy and two e-books of her new release, The Arranger, to readers who leave comments today on her PDD post. If you comment, you can email her directly at ljsellers[dot]novelist[at]gmail[dot]com with your own email address. She'll let you know if you've won the drawing--and let her know if you have (or don't have) an e-reader!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To catch a liar

by Sandra Parshall

Do you think you’re pretty good at spotting when somebody’s lying?

Sorry, but I’ll bet you’re not as sharp as you think you are.

Researchers have found that most people have a dismally low success rate, even in a lab setting where they know for certain that some of those they’re studying are lying. If we’re especially vigilant, we might spot half of all lies – which means we’ll miss half. Police officers aren’t much better than the rest of us, although they improve with experience. Those super-cops who can always detect a lie, like the fictional Special Agent Gibbs on the TV show NCIS, do exist in reality, but they’re extremely rare and psychologists have yet to determine how they do it.

Since the detective’s ability to spot lies is crucial to crime-solving, some scientists are finding ways to teach the skill to cops. Scientific American Mind magazine’s September/October issue reports on experiments conducted by one of them, social psychologist Aldert Vrij of the University of Portsmouth in England. Vrij’s work is based on the human mind’s inability to think along multiple tracks simultaneously. Lying is more demanding than simply telling the truth, so if the interrogator gives the suspect’s mind too much to process at one time, the person being questioned is likely to slip up if he’s trying to sell a phony story.

Here’s the premise: The liar has to worry about keeping his story consistent and believable, first of all – which means suppressing all thought of the truth so it doesn’t inadvertently slip out – but he also has to “look honest” by controlling his expression and body movements.  And he’s constantly monitoring the cop’s reaction to what he’s saying. All that is exhausting, and if the interrogator adds even a little more pressure, that may be enough to trip up a liar.

Vrij and his colleagues have found several useful strategies for applying that extra pressure.

First, discount sweating and general nervousness. Even an honest person will be nervous under police scrutiny.

One way to trip up a liar is to ask the suspect to tell his or her story backward, beginning at the end. Devising a false story and keeping it straight is hard enough without the burden of having to recount phony events in reverse. In lab tests, this greatly increased mistakes and the likelihood of catching a liar.

Interrogators can also rattle a suspect by insisting that he maintain eye contact. Liars have trouble concentrating on their stories if they’re looking directly into the eyes of the people they’re lying to.

Asking suspects to draw pictures of what they’re describing can also reveal the liars. Their pictures will show fewer details than those drawn by truth-tellers, and often the pictures won’t be consistent with verbal descriptions.

These easy techniques have proven highly effective in the lab and should help police in the real world do their work more efficiently. Best of all, they’re simple enough to be used by fictional cops who aren’t endowed with the special mental powers of Special Agent Gibbs.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Funny Little Words

Sharon Wildwind

On the way to exploring the value of writing for defusing traumatic experience, Dr. James Pennebaker discovered some unexpected functions of small, innocuous words. Link to his recent article in Scientific America here.

In the early 1980s, Pennebaker, a social psychologist, wondered if writing about a traumatic experience, particularly a traumatic experience that a person previously had kept secret, would improve the person’s mental and physical health.

If he’d asked those of us who write a lot would have responded with an unqualified, “Yes.” But since he didn’t ask us, and anyway, scientists like to find things out for themselves, he went on to develop a computer program to analyze language people used to write about trauma.

This and other projects amassed a huge amount of text which Pennebaker and his colleagues analyzed over some thirty years. They discovered a lot about the nuances of language. For example, mentally healthy people tend to use fewer I, me, my pronouns, while people with mental health issues use those pronouns more frequently.

There is a gender difference in the way men and women use words. I got to admit that, for me, this was another “duh” finding. Anyone who has tried to have a serious discussion with a person of the opposite gender probably already figured this out.

What I did find is surprising that word patterns can also identify emotional state, level of honesty, and leadership ability.

Consider these words: boy — chair — sister — hid

Even with no context, people form images of those words. We have mental images of what a boy looks like, what a chair looks like, what the action to hide something looks like and so on. My chair may not look like your chair, but we can communicate by saying, “chair.”

How about this list: it — with — the — never — most — very

It’s a lot harder to form images of those words, and almost impossible to communicate concepts with just those words.

Pennebaker called nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs content words. 99.9% of the words we know are content words, but those words are used to make only 45% of what we say or write. Function words—pronouns, articles, prepositions , auxiliary verbs, negations, conjunctions, quantifiers, and adverb helpers—make up less than 0.1% of any language, but are used 55% of of the time. How the function words are used is what makes language, language.

The boy hid his sister under the chair, but the intruder still found her.

The boy was angry because his sister hid his chair.

Same nouns and verbs — boy, sister, hid, chair — but two sentences with very different meanings.

It’s the function words that

-- are style determiners. If you’re given two pages, one written by Tess Gerritsen and one by S. J. Rosen, you’ll come to the conclusion of who wrote what because of the function words, not the nouns and verbs. Try this experiment: have someone get a book by each of those authors and photocopy any page at random. Let’s say page 46 of each book. They should use a black marker to mark out proper nouns, like character names or locations. Then you take those two pages and, looking only at the function words, make a guess of who wrote which one. Chances are that you’ll be right.

- are words that our brains are not wired to notice. They flow through our consciousness almost without notice.

- require social skills to be used properly because the speaker and listener have to have shared assumptions and knowledge in order to engage in a conversation loaded with function words. This conversation is almost entirely function words. These two people obviously know what they are talking about, but we can only guess.

“Was he in?”
“What do you think?”
“What did he say?”
“To ask her.”
“No way.”

So, all that advise to writers to use descriptive adjectives and nouns, and strong, action verbs might just be wrong. There might be as much value in watching what pronouns our characters use, and how often and paying a lot more attention to function words.

Instead of a quote this week, here is a neurological factoid I picked up this past week.

If you are stuck on a problem, let’s say you can’t figure out how to get your protagonist to recognize the importance of the yellow rose as a clue, do exercises that involve cross-body movement. Swing your arms from one side to the other or do a little dance step that involves one foot stepping behind the other foot.

Cross-body movements integrate both halves of the brain and often result in unlocking solutions to problems.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Meeting the Monsters

by Julia Buckley
We all like a good monster, don't we? Look at the famed monsters of Greek mythology, like the Hydra or Cerberus or the Gorgons. Characters in Greek lore feared them, but we all love to reference them because they are interesting and, thank goodness, not real.

The same is true of some famous literary monsters--Frankenstein or Dracula or King Kong or even Mr. Hyde. We learn lessons from their existence, and we are often ashamed of the way these monsters are treated by humanity.

But what about real monsters--monsters that truly live and have the power to destroy? TIME Magazine has isolated ten modern-day "monsters" from which we should definitely keep our distance. Why? In some cases, because they can kill us without much effort at all, and in others, like the traditional literary monsters, they are frightening and unusual to behold.

For example, the GIANT CROCODILE who makes number one on TIME's list. This Phillipines bad boy was 21 feet long and weighed 2,370 pounds. Local legend had it that the croc had consumed a child and at least one fisherman.

And who would want to swim into the realm of THE GIANT SQUID, which has never been captured alive and can weigh up to a TON?

Spider-haters, beware: The GOLIATH BIRD-EATING TARANTULA can be almost a foot in diameter. Ugh.

The PORTUGESE MAN-OF-WAR is a disturbing addition to the list, since it is not exactly an animal, but "is actually a "colonial organism" made of multiple polyps, the largest, a bladder filled with gas that is similar to the atmosphere, is often mistaken for a jellyfish."

TIME claims that the EMPEROR SCORPION, which can grow up to eight inches long, is actually a peaceful monster which could be kept as a pet. No thanks--check out the picture.

VAMPIRE BATS aren't all that literature has suggested they are--sometimes they are even good, and doctors are studying them as a weapon for treating strokes. But they are also, according to the magazine, sneaky and messy, and potential breeders of disease.

BIG FISH are often mistaken for sea serpents because they can grow to over 50 feet in length!

The poison of the BOX JELLYFISH is among the most toxic in the world.

The BURMESE PYTHON can weigh up to 1000 pounds, and that's a lot of snake to squeeze around a poor hapless victim!

Finally, TIME lists the ol' Loch Ness monster as a potentially living creature that no one has ever captured except in blurry photographs.

Looking at real so-called "monsters" makes it clear why legends have risen over the ages. Sometimes nature provides us with some scary, inexplicable creatures, and it's never clear which of them is potentially deadly.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why does getting it right matter?

by Leslie Budewitz

As I venture out with a book aimed at helping fiction writers get the details about the legal world right, I find myself asking why getting it right matters. Actually, I hear other writers asking that. “It’s fiction,” they say. “Why does it matter whether I’ve called the crime first-degree murder instead of deliberate homicide, put a silencer on a revolver, or allowed the county sheriff to investigate a murder on an Indian reservation where the feds have felony jurisdiction?”

Because as writers, we build our fictional worlds one detail at a time. If we get one wrong–whether it’s foundation or frosting–our readers’ ability to live in that world for a few hours crumbles. 

You know what I’m talking about: On page ten, the protagonist describes a hospital as built of cinder block. You were born in that hospital, been a patient and a visitor, and you know there’s no cinder block to be seen. Your forehead wrinkles. When he leaves and gets in the same model car you drive, in a color it didn’t come in, you squint and tilt your head.

The author’s losing you. Your knowledge of the details breaks the fragile hold “the fictive dream,” in John Gardner’s phrase, has on you. You may stick with the book if the characters, premise, and writing satisfy you, but if any of those is problematic, you may move on. And a really serious error may nag at you long afterwards.

The problem is that while the devil may be in the details, so is the magic. A character comes alive by the details used to portray her actions, thoughts, and feelings. The trick, I think, is plausibility. Make the setting and the character action feel real. Like it could have happened that way. Use enough of the right details accurately that the reader trusts you. 

Do different stories require a different level of accuracy? There’s a good argument that the greater the suspension of disbelief required by the story, the less the details matter. If the protagonist of your cozy mystery is a caterer, your readers may care more that you proofed the recipes than whether you accurately described the fingerprinting process. Unless your trusty–and trusting–reader devours cozies on the bus on the way home from her job in the crime lab. Your mistake may mean she chooses another author for tomorrow’s commute.

But the flip side of that argument may be equally valid: the further your story lies from daily reality, the more the details matter. Consider science fiction and fantasy, where the worldly details are essential. If you accurately describe something the reader knows well–say, the effects of gravity–she’s more likely to believe your description of the mental powers one acquires stepping through the auric atmosphere of Genicia, third planet in the solar system Sapphire. When she closes the book, she knows–logically–that Sapphire and Genicia don’t exist. But if they did, this is what they would be like.

It isn’t only readers who care about the details. Agents and editors on a panel at Killer Nashville were asked what made them stop reading a submission. Errors in facts and character behavior scored high. (See the full list at .) Mistakes may matter more in the early chapters, when you’re still trying to set the hook. Once the reader–or agent or editor–is engaged in the story, she’s likely to be more forgiving–or to believe you, if she’s uncertain about a detail.

Still, you can kill yourself–and your story– trying to get everything right. What should you check and what can you let go?
- Check out facts related to major plot elements. If your villain intends to kill his wife with an overdose of insulin, make sure you know it can be done–and how.
- Focus on the dog, not the fleas. Don’t worry about whether a captain or a lieutenant would take charge of the investigation. But make sure you get the basic procedures right.
- Verify widely known facts outside your experience. If you’ve never been on a jury, talk with your neighbor who has. What surprised or upset her about the process? What were courthouse security measures? Was she bored or intrigued? Where did she park? Did the bailiff bring donuts?
- Don’t risk a mistake in things easily confirmed. If you’ve never seen a purple Subaru, chances are they weren’t made.
- We often make mistakes in the things we think we know. If it matters to the story, check it out–or leave it out.
- Historicals attract readers who love history. And some readers love to tell writers where they goofed. Does that mean you can’t write about 14th century England because you weren’t born until 1970, or that you need an MA in the period? No. You need reliable references and an eye for the details that set the scene and bring the characters to life.
- Read through your ms. with your reader’s hat on. What might the typical reader question? Ask your critique partners to note anything that creases their brows.
- Accept that you’ll make mistakes. Don’t let that fear paralyze you.

So, when it comes to facts in fiction, where do you draw the line, as a writer–or as a reader? 

Leslie Budewitz is the author of Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), to be released October 1. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, The Whitefish Review, and elsewhere. For an excerpt, articles for writers, and information on her research services, visit her at

Friday, September 9, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I woke up the other morning with a word ringing in my head. It came at the end of a half-waking dream, in which a long table was surrounded by people who stood up and proclaimed as one, "Jid!"

The problem is, it's not a word, at least not one I've ever heard. But on the off chance that my subconscious was trying to tell me something, or I was channeling a higher power, I went online hunting. So far no definitions, but a lot of acronyms:

Jabber IDentifier

Janes Intelligence Digest (military/government)

Job Instruction Document (computing)

Joint Intelligence Directorate

Joint Interoperability Division

Journal of Infectious Diseases

Journal of Intellectual Disabilities

Journal of Investigative Dermatology

Junta Interamericana de Defensa

I don't know of any reason why any of these should be floating around in my head. Personally I hope that I was thinking of the Joint Intelligence Directorate rather than the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities.

In addition, Webster's Online Dictionary kindly provided me with two non-English uses:

In Lebanese, jid means grandfather

In Nauruan, jid means to throw, sling, skid, hurl or pitch. (In case you aren't familiar with Nauru, it's an island country in Micronesia in the South Pacific—I had to look it up). I have no Lebanese or Nauruan relatives.

So why am I making up nonsense words in my dreams? I blame Scrabble.

In case you didn't notice, New England had a visitor named Irene last week, and as a result, many homes, including ours, lost power for varying lengths of time. It's depressing to realize how much our daily lives have been taken over by electronic entertainment. I can't tell you the number of times I reached for the remote control to turn on a television, if only to get updates on the crummy weather and the destruction it was wreaking, only to realize that there was nothing there. My husband was out of town, in a drier state, leaving my daughter and me to entertain each other in the dark. We chose Scrabble, by candlelight.

My daughter was a comparative literature major in college, and I'm a writer. So why were we coming up with scintillating words like "poop"? It's all in the luck of the draw. At one point I had four "n's" and three "I's" which does not make for good (i.e., high scoring) words, or any words at all, for that matter. We played two games in the dark (which presents particular challenges, since you can't see your tiles half the time), and she beat me both times, but by only a few points.

But what was interesting about playing with my daughter was not the words we did come up with, but the words we invented along the way (we stuck to the rules--honest). There were a few discussions about when a foreign word became accepted and commonly used in English, and the same for slang terms. We're both mildly competitive, and we both love language, so sometimes it actually hurt when we inserted only a couple of letters to make fabulous words like "be" or "if" when that would yield the highest score. We wanted more flair, more complexity. We were prepared to create interesting new words and defend them with convincing definitions.

Hence, jid. What do you think a jid is? Animal, vegetable or mineral? Historic or modern?

And can I use it in a Scrabble game?