Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Solitary writers? I don't know any

Sandra Parshall

Mystery writers, as much as any other authors, like to play up the image of the solitary wordsmith pecking away (preferably in an unheated attic), writing about imaginary people but shunning contact with the real kind.

Attend a mystery conference and you’ll see how absurd that notion is. Mystery writers are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, and many are likely to give you a big hug even if your previous acquaintance has been limited to online exchanges. (I’ve gotten used to people I’ve never met throwing their arms around me, but I'll admit it was startling at first.) In between conferences, those online chats keep everybody in touch, but there’s nothing like a mystery con to make a writer feel like part of a huge community of authors.

I’m only going to two conferences this year, and the first, Malice Domestic, is now past, leaving behind a lingering nostalgia for the energy and enthusiasm of a big crowd of writers and fans. Okay, I’ll admit Malice Domestic was more exciting last year, when I was an Agatha nominee (and winner). But this year was great in its own way because four friends from the Guppies Chapter of Sisters in Crime were nominated.

Liz Zelvin, my blog sister, was nominated for Best Short Story, as was Nan Higginson. Beth Groundwater was nominated for Best First Novel for A Real Basket Case. Hank Phillippi Ryan won the prize for her first novel, Prime Time. Here they are: Liz, Beth, Hank, and Nan.

They’re all terrific writers, and you’ll be hearing a lot more from and about them in the future.

The personal highlight of Malice this year came when a woman in the audience at my panel (“After the Agatha: You’ve won! What’s next?”) revealed that she is one of Poisoned Pen Press’s manuscript screeners and was delighted to have played a part in getting my first book, The Heat of the Moon, published. I wanted to find her and thank her afterward, but she had vanished. I hope she knows her words gave me a warm glow that's going to last a while.

So far everything I’ve done at Malice has been tied to The Heat of the Moon. In 2006, the book had just been published and my only goal was to make people aware of it. In 2007, I was on the Best First Novel nominees panel and feeling a little anxious that THOTM would overshadow the newly-released Disturbing the Dead. This year, I was on a panel of past Agatha winners, having fun but regretting that I didn't have another brand-new book in hand to talk about.

What’s in store for me next spring? Even I’m not sure yet. But I know I’ll be at Malice, getting and giving hugs, exhausting my cheek muscles with nonstop smiling, and enjoying the great company.

More of my Malice Domestic photos are posted at:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Wobbles

Sharon Wildwind

(Sharon is unable to post this week due to a death in the family, so her blog sisters have chosen one of her most popular posts from last year for a rerun. Enjoy!)

Walt Wingfield, the Toronto stock broker turned farmer, hero of a series of plays by Dan Needles, has problems with everything rural. The neighbors. The weather. The horses. The poultry, especially the poultry. When he phones the vet about a set of mysterious symptoms his ducks are exhibiting, the vet replies knowingly, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a case of the wobbles, Mr. Wingfield.”

Writers get the wobbles, too. There I am, clicking along, dialog flowing, sense of place established, texture developing, stakes rising nicely, and then, bamm . . . . In one cold, terrifying instant I’m standing on the edge of a frightening precipice, called “The Book.” Whatever possessed me think I could write a book? A book is over 300 pages; 90,000 words; 550,000 individual key strokes, and that’s just for the first draft.

Never mind I’ve already written six books and published three of them. Never mind that I have more ideas waiting in the wings than I’ll use in this lifetime. Never mind that the characters are my friends. Never mind that I have a deadline. My writing muse has the wobbles and that’s that.

The wobbles aren’t the same thing as writer’s block. There’s nothing wrong with my creativity. I know the next thing that has to happen is for Meg Porter to snub the exhausted mother with two toddlers, then regret it and try to make amends and be uncomfortable with the mother’s gratitude. I know that with my rear end planted firmly in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard long enough, I can write exactly that. The problem is, I no longer want to be a writer.

I don’t want to spend hours every day creating make-believe worlds and stressing my characters to the breaking point. I don’t want to fret over contracts, or become dyspeptic about reviews, or mull over marketing plans, or make the dozens of decisions a writer has to make every week. Plain-and-simple, I’m fed up with being a writer.

It’s important to treat the wobbles quickly. That’s why Walt has the vet on his speed dial. When my muse has the wobbles, she wants comfort food. Macaroni-and-cheese. Baked chicken. Cornbread. Taco chips. She wants music, instrumental only, full of swelling arpeggios and grand climaxes. Wolfgang Korngold is good. So is Spanish flamenco music, or Elliot Goldenthal’s sound track from the movie, Michael Collins. Colors and textures help, too, whether it’s building a quilt or beading a purse. Or just walking, heading out with no destination in mind and walking and walking until I’ve walked the wobbles away.

If you have a chance to see any of the Wingfield Farms plays, by all means do so. Ron Beattie, who plays Walt and all of the other characters, is superb. A writer can learn a lot about timing by watching him. You can also buy audio or video recordings ( I recommend the video versions because this is such a visual performance. Oh, and I wouldn’t bond too closely with the ducks, if I were you.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Contemplating an Ancient Mystery

by Julia Buckley

While looking on the W.W.Web for something else, I ran across something really interesting. It's called the Sator Square; it's an ancient Latin palindrome. Its meaning, though, is subject to interpretation. The phrase reads "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas" in every direction, frontward and backward, up and down.

According to a 2003 article by Rose Mary Sheldon in Cryptologia, "The sator square is one of the oldest, unsolved word puzzles in the world. Examples of the square and numerous variations on it, have been found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Examples date from first-century Rome to the nineteenth century. Many questions have plagued scholars: Who composed it? What do the words mean? How has it been used in magic, religion, medicine and superstition ever since? Does the solution lie with mathematicians, philologists or theologians? All these questions remain unsolved, but the number of attempts by scholars to answer them grows yearly."

I found that there are endless websites dedicated to solving the mystery of this square and its meaning. One source, here, suggests that there are several possible interpretations:

"The usual translation is as follows:

'Sower', 'planter'
Likely an invented proper name; its similarity with arrepo, from ad repo, 'I creep towards', is coincidental
'he holds'
'(with) work', '(with care)', '(with) effort'
Two possible translations of the phrase are 'The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort' and 'The sower Arepo leads with his hand (work) the plough (wheels).' C. W. Ceram read the square boustrophedon (in alternating directions), with tenet repeated. This produces Sator opera tenet; tenet opera sator, translated: 'The Great Sower holds in his hand all works; all works the Great Sower holds in his hand.' (Ceram 1958, p. 30)

The word arepo is enigmatic, appearing nowhere else in Latin literature. Most of those who have studied the Sator Square agree that it is a proper name, either an adaptation of a non-Latin word or a name invented specifically for this sentence. Jerome Carcopino thought that it came from a Celtic, specifically Gaulish, word for plough. David Daube argued that it represented a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of the Greek Αλφα ω, or "Alpha-Omega" (cf. Revelation 1:8) by early Christians. J. Gwyn Griffiths contended that it came, via Alexandria, from the attested Egyptian name Ḥr-Ḥp, which he took to mean "the face of Apis"."

I find the whole thing fascinating; as one of the articles pointed out, though, this is a mystery that can never be solved--only analyzed. And those, to me, are the most compelling mysteries of all.

(Photo image:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Keeping the Thrill Alive

Wendy Corsi Staub (guest blogger)

When I was in third grade, my friends and I skipped rope and discussed—as little girls do—how our grown-up lives would turn out. Of course we all wanted husbands and children. This was the early seventies, and the women’s movement may have been in full swing elsewhere, but our little town took awhile to catch on and up.

Naturally, I, too, wanted a husband and children—but I also wanted to become an author. That bolt of blind ambition struck after my teacher, Mrs. Pizzolanti, proudly displayed my first essay—about Abraham Lincoln—for all the class to see. I raced home to tell my parents that I was going to write books someday. They—God bless them—promised that it could happen. Anything could happen, if I just worked hard enough. They always encouraged and believed in me; thus, I believed in myself.

My dream came true, thanks to my parents and third grade teacher (who, now retired in Florida, tracked me down a few years back and is now my email pen-pal), plus a lot of hard work and a single-minded goal orientation that propelled me from an elementary school classroom to the New York Times bestseller list.

Now, having published more than seventy books since my first hit the shelves back in 1993, I sometimes wonder when—and whether--the thrill of it all will go away.

Fifteen years after the exhilarating phone call from the editor who bought my first book, that has yet to happen. Okay, I’m no longer cloaked in that pinch-me glow through every waking hour, but I remain perpetually aware, somewhere in the back of my To-Do cluttered mind, just how lucky I am to be living my glorious childhood dream trifecta: author, wife, and mom.

Back in the “Once Upon a Time” stage, I spent hours gazing adoringly at my books, my husband, my babies. Now the pivotal phone call, the wedding day, the childbirths, are all ancient history. Life is a constant juggling act, but it’s good. Great, even. Your classic fairytale happy ending—which is, on a day-by-day basis, incredibly ordinary. All of it: the writing, the relationship-tending, the mothering.

Most days, I’m not compelled to detour into bookstores just to spot a row of my titles—just as the newlywed novelty of hearing myself referred to as “Mrs. Staub” has long since worn off (these days, I get a far bigger thrill when the cashier at the A&P asks me for ID when I buy a six-pack of Corona—even now that I realize he’s required to ask everyone and their grandmother. Literally.). And I’ll admit that after a string of deadline days alone at my keyboard, I look forward to chatting with the other moms at Little League practices almost as much as I do watching my precious boys at bat.

I’ve been known to complain about occupational hazards like galley pages unexpectedly popping up in my mailbox, needing to be proofed by next week. Sort of like I complain about the three men in my life leaving their clothes wherever they drop, picking around the green things on their plates, or—grr—forgetting to lower the toilet seat.

I guess it means I’ve settled comfortably into my world-- career, marriage, motherhood.

But life is too precarious to take any of those blessings for granted.

Thank God for the steady stream of moments and milestones that keep the thrill alive. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, pub dates, of course—but unexpected sparks, too. My nine-year-old writing a heartfelt (and unassigned) poem about me, or my twelve-year-old letting me hug him in public (hey, with adolescence looming I’ll take what I can get!). My husband, without a dropped hint from me, tivo-ing a romantic comedy for us to watch with takeout sushi on a Saturday night. An email from a stranger pouring out how one of my books struck a chord, changed a life, re-ignited the forgotten joy of reading.

Moments. Milestones. They truly keep the thrill alive.

Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of more than seventy novels under her own name and the pseudonym Wendy Markham. She lives with her family in suburban New York City. Her current thrills include the release of two new titles in April, psychological suspense novel Dying Breath and young adult paranormal Lily Dale: Believing, and delivering the commencement address at her alma mater, SUNY College at Fredonia, in May. Two more novels, under the Wendy Markham name, will come out in July. Visit Wendy’s website at to learn more and enter her monthly contest with a $50 grand prize. She's also added a social network to her busy life. Wendy says, "Now you can interact with me and my friends, family and readers on the web at!"

Friday, April 25, 2008

Help, I'm addicted . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

My name is Lonnie and I'm addicted to competition shows on television. I'm sitting here watching STEP IT UP AND DANCE after I've promised myself I wouldn't start watching another one of these shows. I've tried to cut back, but . . . . um, anyone know if there's a twelve step program for this???

I've watched DESIGN STAR for two seasons, can't wait for the next to begin. Ditto for PROJECT RUNWAY. TOP CHEF filled the void for me when PROJECT RUNWAY ended for this year. And to be perfectly honest, these shows drive me nuts. The contestants I like usually get eliminated. The contestants I hate usually end up winning. Every single time. Sigh. Who chooses these judges anyhow?

But then I am learning lots of interesting things . . . like how to decorate a room the size of a large cardboard box, or how to cook a REALLY tiny piece of meat and serve it with an itsy bitsy salad on top, or how to trim an evening dress with real human hair. Ick. And if this new-to-me show is any indication, dancing ain't what it used to be either. The gal who just got tossed did a demonstration that was quite beautiful. A guy who survived was disgusting. Hmmm. Of course, viewers can always go online after watching these shows and get designing tips, cooking tips, sewing tips, or dancing lessons . . . after someone gets the axe. Where was I?

I got to thinking that writing a manuscript and getting it published is sometimes like these competition shows. Readers are our target, or our goal, if you will. But to get to our readers we have to get by some very tough judges: agents, editors, and/or publishers, all the while managing somehow not to be eliminated from the tough competition. Authors often read for each other and give hopefully helpful critiques. Then we wonder why the great manuscript our fellow author wrote was continually passed over when submitted for consideration. If we loved it, why didn't the powers-that-be in publishing love it? Or we've read and enjoyed an author's work in print only to discover she/he has recently been dropped by a publisher and the series is no longer in print. We wonder how that happens to someone so talented? How can we keep it from happening to us? And why do some authors we don't enjoy reading manage to snag huge advances year after year? Grrrr. So we bite our nails in private and worry. And write.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is talent, if you think about it. Which means that something we find worthwhile can end up in a slush pile or trash pile. The only answer I know for this is to encourage those we admire in their quest to be published or to remain published. Support them whenever we can. Recommend their books to others. Word of mouth sells more books than just about all the other promotion put together. If you don't want to stop reading a favorite series, do something about it. Let the library and bookstores know how much you like that author's work. And your friends. And the world.

And don't forget to vote online for your favorite home designer, top chef, fashion designer, or dancer. 'Cause I know you're probably hooked, like me.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Learning Today’s Publishing While U Wait

Elizabeth Zelvin

I first said I wanted to be a writer in 1951. I got my first rave rejection, for a children’s story, in 1970. (“So the next sentence should be an offer of contract. Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon…the economy….” Some things never change. And some things a writer never forgets.) I had an agent but failed to sell three mystery manuscripts in 1975 or so. I began my current journey toward publication in 2002, and my mystery came out just ten days ago.

What’s changed in publishing since 1951, or even 1991? What hasn’t changed? Small companies that cherished their authors and readers have become conglomerates focused on the bottom line as calculated by computers. Some have stopped publishing mysteries as a result. I know personally at least two award-nominated authors whose series have died because houses whose names were synonymous with mysteries—Walker for hardcovers, Pocket Books for paperbacks—stopped putting out that kind of book.

Thanks to the Internet, I know dozens, perhaps hundreds of mystery writers trying to break into print. I was one of them for five years between completing the first draft and getting an offer for Death Will Get You Sober. The process is rigorous and discouraging. The odds against are enormous. The pool of writers is vast and the pool of publishers small, even including small presses. My mantras throughout those five years were, “Talent, persistence, and luck,” and, “Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.” May you never experience such a long five minutes!

Waiting was agony, and so were the many, many rejections. It was hard not to take them personally, even though thanks to the Internet I was in touch with others getting the same scribbled notes on their query letters, the same coffee-stained manuscripts returned; even though, in the long run, I came to agree with and learn from some of the criticisms offered.

Looking back, however, I can see that not a single day of that interminable wait was truly wasted. I used it to learn the craft of today’s mystery writing, which differs from the standards of twenty-five years ago in structure and pace and point of view and how people interact and what’s a viable motive for murder among other elements. And I served a priceless apprenticeship—in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, e-lists like DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise, and social networks like CrimeSpace—in the business of 21st century publishing.

As a result, I'm arriving on the field well equipped to beat the odds. Will I succeed? As Dick Francis has written, anything can happen in a horse race. The same is true of the gamble of mystery publishing. But at least I’m not starting out with blinders on. I find that when well-meaning friends offer suggestions or ask questions, I can bring a lot of knowledge to my answers. Just a few:

Q. Why don’t you go on Oprah?
A. That would be great—do you know anyone who has a contact with her? You can’t send her your book—it doesn’t work that way. She has to find it for herself.

Q. I’ll wait for the paperback to come out.
A. Unfortunately, if we don’t sell enough of the hardcover, the publisher won’t bring out a paperback. The book will go out of print, and in most cases, no other publisher will take the series.

Q. What about John Grisham and J.K. Rowling?
A. The odds are about the same as winning the lottery.

Q. The publisher doesn’t arrange your book tour?
A. No, not for a debut fiction author unless you’re a celebrity or have written a blockbuster. But that doesn’t mean the publisher’s publicity department does nothing. My publicist at St. Martin’s has worked actively with me to sell the book to booksellers, make sure reviewers get it, and make the most of any kind of hook so I’ll stand out from the crowd.

Q. Isn’t MySpace just for kids?
A. Not at all. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of building up to 1160 friends on MySpace. They include fellow writers, mystery lovers, and people in recovery from alcoholism, other addictions, and codependency—the very people who might get a kick out of Death Will Get You Sober. There’s a culture and a community on MySpace, and it’s fascinating. You can learn so much about people—their interests, their dreams, their heroes—as well as what they read and whether they drink. What a great way to find readers!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It helps to be a little crazy...

Sandra Parshall

Have you ever seen a farmer standing next to the broccoli in a supermarket, extolling the virtues of his product to shoppers and begging them to purchase a stalk or two?

It’s an odd concept, but is it any weirder than seeing a writer in a bookstore, trying to sell her books one copy at a time?

I can’t think of any other profession that requires so much direct salesmanship from the person who creates an item for public consumption. Sure, actors and directors go on TV and give print interviews to promote new movies, but they don’t stand outside theaters and try to persuade passersby to purchase tickets. Promoting the movie is primarily the job of the production company that packages it and gets it into theaters. When a book is published, though, the burden of selling it shifts to the writer, usually at the writer’s expense. If the book tanks, it’s the author’s fault.

Writing books is a strange pursuit. You might complete half a dozen or more novels before you actually sell one. When you do finally make that breakthrough, the odds are you’ll receive a small advance against royalties, no more than a few thousand dollars in compensation for the year or more that went into the writing. You won’t receive another payment until your book has earned back the advance and begun to make a profit – if it ever does.

Most publishers expect writers to do bookstore signings and maintain a web site, at a minimum. Writing a blog and creating an “internet presence” on sites like MySpace is also rapidly becoming a requirement. Genre writers are urged to travel to conferences – which can cost $1,000 or more each when you add in transportation, lodging, and meals – to meet fans and spread the word about their books. Ironically, only authors who are paid large advances receive financial help with promotion from their publishers, and even then only the cost of a book tour will be covered. The unknown writer with a small advance usually must take on the full expense of promotion. That small advance rapidly vanishes, and the writer may soon find herself paying for the privilege of being published. Promotion also eats into the time that an author would otherwise devote to writing, and that makes it harder to finish the next book on schedule.

Every time a survey of writers’ incomes is conducted, only a fraction of novelists report that they earn enough from their books to live on. Small wonder, then, so many work at salaried jobs to pay the bills or do various kinds of journalism or business writing to generate income. It’s not at all unusual for a novelist to work a day job, write at night and on weekends, somehow fit in book signings and conferences, write a blog, and maintain a web site with frequent additions of fresh material. Oh, and family life fits in there somewhere too.

So why would anybody want to write a novel? The most common answer authors give is, “I write because I can’t not write.” It’s a compulsion and an obsession. It’s a joyous act of self-expression. It’s a journey of imagination that takes you away from the mundane world for a few hours at a time. It’s a chance to assert control over events, to make a story come out exactly the way you want it to.

If writing is such a personal thing, why do we go through the ego-wrecking process of trying to get our work published, then trying to sell it to the public? Why can’t the writing be its own reward? I wish it could be, and I wish I fully understood why it isn’t. All I know is that a writer needs readers to make the last link in the creative circle. A story that is never read by anyone other than its author is incomplete. It’s a bird singing in an empty forest.

And so we go on writing, hoping that some stranger in a publishing company will like our work enough to invest in it, praying that it will find readers, knowing the financial rewards are likely to be meager. We write because we must, and for those hours when we’re alone with our evolving stories and characters, that is reason enough.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Asparagus Shrines

Sharon Wildwind

I’m stuck.

My Viet Nam veterans series is winding down. Book #4 is finished and I’m well into writing book #5, which will be the last one with those characters. It’s time to add something new to the pipeline—new characters, a new setting—something that will come out as a newborn book in about two years.

Some people might call this long-range planning. I call it long-range aggravation.

I have a working title: Dead Man’s Curve. I have a working premise: a flight nurse, who is hooked on adrenalin, doesn’t know when it’s time to quit. I have names for the protagonists: Ann Cormier and Landry Prejean.

Yes, I’m tapping into my south Louisiana roots for this one. I even have background music picked out to listen to while I’m writing. Last week, after a careful explanation from my husband about how to use my computer to find far-flung radio stations, I discovered several Cajun stations, which play music I haven’t listened to since my childhood.

So far, so good. What I don’t have yet is a plot.

Ann does something to get in trouble—not for the first time, she’s been in trouble before—and Landry is the only one who realizes how much danger she’s really in, and he tries to help her, and people are murdered, and both characters are stressed to the breaking point, and eventually Ann and Landry have a falling out, and there are helicopters involved somehow, and both of them are in danger at the end, but justice prevails.

When I set my gaze for the middle distance, that not-quite-focused-place where my office walls disappears and the story appears, what I see so far is white cotton wool. And I heard a static sound, like trying to pick up SETI signals from a distance galaxy. The problem with white cotton wool is that it does no good to pound on it while yelling, “Let me in! Let me in!” All that happens is that your hands, and your words, become muffled in the wool.

So I’m on a creativity quest. I’m out looking for ways that other people have taken everyday elements, mixed them, twisted them, and created something almost heart-stopping in its cleverness and beauty.

Let me introduce you to Lindly Haunani’s Asparagus Shrines.

When I came across this photo last week, while sitting in my office, in Canada, listening to a Cajun radio station from Lafayette, Louisiana, I knew I’d hit it. I want this new book to be my asparagus shrine, even though there probably won’t be a single asparagus or shrine in the entire story. I want my writing to be this cool! I want the elements to come together with the same sense of beauty, proportion, and playfulness. I want to be able to craft a mystery with the same degree of artistry that Lindly used to put her elements together.

If she could build these two shrines, I know I can build this book. All I needed was a little inspiration, and you find inspiration in the most unexpected places.

Lindly Haunani is a polymer clay artist. More about her and her clay creations can be found at
Steve Payne is a professional photographer, who among other things, took the photographs for Judy Belcher’s book, Polymer Clay: Creative Traditions, where a photo of Asparagus Shrines appears. His web site is
Thanks to both Lindly and Steve for permission to use the photograph.
Writing quote for the week:

I will be a cruel goddess. I will stress out my characters to the breaking point. A non-stressed character is a useless character.~Jo Beverly, romance writer

Monday, April 21, 2008

Twain, Mystery, and Fate

by Julia Buckley
On this day in 1910, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, died and fulfilled a prediction that he had made about his own demise: that because he was born with the first appearance of Halley's Comet in 1835, he would die when it next appeared in 1910. So, to his own satisfaction, he arrived and departed with the comet. As Twain put it, both he and the celestial event were "unaccountable freaks."

This interesting prediction may have been fed by Twain's love of the mysterious, which was well known to his intimates. He was offended, though, by some of the fictional detectives of his time and their pompous natures. He once wrote: "What a curious thing a ‘detective’ story is. And was there ever one that the author needn’t be ashamed of, except ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’"*

Twain once wrote a satire of the Sherlock Holmes stories called "A Double-Barrelled Detective Story." The story begins this way:

"It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of unnumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God."

This paragraph makes me laugh because it so highlights Twain's gift for parody and exaggeration. A side note is that the "solitary oesophagus" is a bird of Twain's own creation, and he was surprised that few readers ever asked him about the fictional creature.

In any case, many of Twain's works reference mystery or contain a mysterious element. One of my favorites is Huckleberry Finn's "murder," which he fakes for himself in order to escape detection from his father, The Widow Douglas, and pretty much anyone else who might come looking for him. Huck makes it look as though he's been horribly murdered with an axe, remembering to pull out some of his hairs and place them in the pig's blood that is carefully smeared on the weapon. Those are details painstakingly noted by a man who enjoyed a good crime story.

Twain's death was a sad loss to the world of literature. He penned his thoughts on the notion of passing while lying on his deathbed: "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all--the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved."

*Notebook 30, TS, p. 32, quoted by F. R. Rogers, Simon Wheeler, Detective (New York: New York Public Library, 1963--qtd in Howard G. Baetzhold's Of Detectives and Their Derring-Do: The Genesis of Mark Twain's 'The Stolen White Elephant.')

* Hendrickson, Robert. American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Penguin, 1990.]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Canada Calling: Linda Hall

Linda Hall is an award-winning Canadian author of fifteen novels and a number of short stories. She has received the Word Guild Award five times, has been short listed for a Daphne Award and a Christy Award. She loves writing crime fiction.

She is a member of the Crime Writers of Canada, Romance Writers of America, and the Word Guild. She is currently writing romantic suspense for Steeple Hill/Love Inspired and the first book in her Shadows trilogy, Shadows in the MIrror has received excellent reviews. The next book in the series, Shadows at the Window will be out in October. All three of the shadows books deals with women having to overcome the shadows in their past before they can move on in the present and find love. And of course there is a mystery involved!

She and her husband have two grown children and three wonderful grandchildren.

Many of your books deal with quests: finding missing persons, uncovering old secrets, and revisiting difficult childhood memories. What is it about "searching" that appeals to you?

I write the sorts of things I love to read. I love old gothic settings and exploring the hidden mysteries of things. I guess I'm a pirate at heart- wanting to uncover hidden treasures. And since I don't get to do it in real life I can do it in the books I write.

The covers on your Robert Shepherd mysteries are in keeping with the stereotypical Royal Canadian Mounted Police image of a tough, squared-jaw hero that Arnold Friberg and Hal Foster painted for so many years. As a writer who also has a "Mountie" series tucked away in a drawer, I'd love to know if those cover choices were yours, and if so, what do people find so compelling about that image?

LOL! Now you know that an author doesn't get to choose her own covers! I used to cringe whenever I saw a new Mountie cover. On all three occasions I didn't see the cover until the book was actually printed. I would have drawn in something completely different. I guess I'm not fond of pictures of people on covers much anyway.

You're obviously a believer in what River Rat said to Mole in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, "There's nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats." Tell us about Gypsey Rover II and being a Senior Navigator.

I grew up in New Jersey and that's where my love of the water was born. I could sit in front of the ocean and stare at it for hours. It's very calming. I've also always been fascinated with boats—any kind of boats. I would see them out on the water and wonder what the people inside of them were doing. I love pirate ships and old square riggers. I'm quite intrigued by people going on long camping kayaking trips. And normally, not a sports fan—I actually yawn at hockey games—I LOVE watching the America's Cup, and am usually on the edge of my seat as I watch those humongous and sleek vessels roll out their massive sails as they round the markers. I'm absolutely appalled that our TV networks don't cover Sailing in their coverage of the Olympics.

With that fascination, it should come as no surprise that I would want to set most—or all—of my books on or near the water.

The boats I grew up with were power and water ski boats. I ended up marrying a Canadian who loved the water as much as I do, and when we moved to the east coast fifteen years ago one of the first purchases we made was a 22 foot sailboat. After four years we sold that and bought our present 28 foot Tanzer sailboat, Gypsy Rover II. When we moved here we wanted to learn as much as we could about boating and safety so we took the Boating course offered by CPS Well, that drew us into the organization and we ended up taking every course they offer. And the courses get increasingly difficult. In our area there are only three women who have taken all the required courses to become a Senior Navigator. So, do I sound like I'm blowing my horn? Maybe a little bit I am. The final course, Celestial Navigation took my husband and I a winter to complete and it sort of consumed our lives. I was practicing sightings with the sextant in my sleep toward the end. I'm glad it's over and I'm glad I'm finished! I don't think I've ever taking a university course that difficult.

Our sailboat is basically our summer cottage. But it's better than a summer cottage because we don't have to mow the lawn and if we don't like our neighbors simply move.

Recently - and this is the first time I've mentioned this in public - I got a small tattoo of a dolphin on my foot. :)

That naturally leads us to water in all forms. Water, fog, ice, fishermen, and whale watchers, show up in your titles, on your covers, and in your characters. Why is water so mysterious, and what do water images lend to both mysteries and romances?

I think it's because the ocean is so vast, so powerful. When you sit at its edge you realize how small and vulnerable you really are. There is something about water that draws most people, I think. I give journaling workshops and in one of the sessions I have the participants close their eyes and in their minds go to that place that nurtures them. After four or five minutes I have them share about that 'place'. Most thought about sitting near creeks or waterfalls or lakes or the ocean. Usually, it's water in one form or another. But, I have no idea why!

Your characters are Christian and many of your books deal with churches and ministers. What are some of the pros and cons in writing Christian-themed books? Does having Christian themes make books harder or easier to sell in overall book markets?

I am a Christian, grew up in the Christian culture and community and therefore I 'write what I know.' Every writer brings with her the things that have shaped her, and I guess I do the same. I don't 'set out' to write a Christian book or a Christian-themed book. I just write books of my heart and they end up being the kind that get published. As for what sells and what doesn't sell and if one is easier to see or the other - I really have no clue. I'm serious here. The market is so fickle. What's 'in' one week, may be 'out' the next. My advice is to write what you want to write - write what is in your heart.

To learn more about Linda and her books, visit her web site

Friday, April 18, 2008

What was THAT???

By Lonnie Cruse

I posted my weekly blog post for today much earlier and am now yanking it in favor of a new post. Think of this as a: "We interrupt this program" sort of a break. I'll re-post that one next week.

I woke up around 4:30 AM this morning to find our bed shaking like crazy and nothing of a romantic nature was going on. "What are you doing?" I demanded of my sleepy hubby, figuring he was fixing the covers to suit him yet again or trying to get his restless legs to settle down. He swore he wasn't moving. Then I realized my dishes on the curio shelf were rattling. Never a good sound. EARTHQUAKE! They last only a few seconds, but it feels like a lifetime.

Back in February I came home from a mystery conference in Alabama to find everything covered in thick ice and huge trees everywhere felled by the extra weight. Much of our area looked like a war zone, and much of it still does. Many trees still sport the scars of broken limbs and many large trees still lay across yards as it's been too rainy/windy to drag out the chain saws. Cleaning that mess up will be ongoing for quite some time.

Recent rains have brought the Ohio River far above flood stage, to the point that part of our historic Massac Park is closed off with water over the road and over the most popular picnic and play area. I miss being able to walk there and am watching for the water to recede. Sand bags are in use everywhere to keep the water away from homes and businesses. Wednesday as I drove across the I-24 Bridge that connects Metropolis, IL to Paducah, KY, I noticed the bean field beneath the Paducah side of the bridge was covered for acres and acres with high flood waters. That isn't unusual in the spring, but the water was white capping in the strong wind, like a huge lake. Don't remember seeing that before.

Some of our high water came from severe storms that included tornado warnings. Sigh. We can't seem to catch a break, weather wise. I'm listening to news reports and many people thought the earthquake was a tornado, given that we expect strong storms later today and things were rattling around inside and outside their houses. An old building in Louisville, quite a distance from us, lost huge amounts of bricks off the front, and somewhere in Indiana a bridge is partially closed due to pieces falling onto the road.

Living in the Midwest is not for sissies, folks. Ice storms, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are common. And scary. Something we never get used to. So why do we stay? Our families are here. We can't all afford to relocate. Where would we go? California, and risk falling into the ocean? Not much choice. And frankly, we never think the damage will hit US. The funnel cloud will hop over us, or the water won't get that high in our yard. Optimistic to a fault. And that's the New Madrid Fault, by the way. Y'all have a nice day.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Telling A Story in 28 Lines

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was amazed when I first heard of flash fiction: super-short stories that do the job in 1500 words, 1000, or even 500. How can that possibly be done? I marveled. And when I began to read some flash mysteries, I was impressed at how some writers manage to condense a story arc, breathe life into their characters, even surprise us with an unexpected twist within that very short framework.

But why should I be surprised? Before embarking on the quest for publication of my first mystery novel—and the writing of several more 70,000-word manuscripts along the way—I was a poet for thirty years. Poets routinely tell stories in far less than 500 words. My most recent one, appearing this month in the Jewish-themed journal Poetica, takes 167 words—168 including the title—just 28 lines.

My poem is called “Miriam,” and it’s a midrash. Based on an ancient Hebrew word, a midrash is an interpretation or exegesis of a Bible verse or, by extension, any myth or archetype. Not being a Biblical scholar, I first heard the word in connection with feminist retellings of traditional stories. For a while there, among Jewish women poets, everybody had an Eve poem, a Sarah poem, a Lilith poem. Feminist poets reimagined Persephone, Mary Magdalene, Grendel’s mother. Nor must we limit the concept to women’s writing. We might argue that each of the tales in James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a midrash. Come to think of it, most of his subjects are women: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood. Being a feminist myself, I’d say that’s because women’s stories have been in most radical need of reinterpretation.

But back to my “Miriam” poem. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was with them when the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. It’s a great story: Moses pointed his staff at the Red Sea, the waters parted so the Jews could cross and then came together again so that Pharaoh and his troops, pursuing, drowned. And what did Miriam do? According to the Old Testament, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15:20) Or, in modern speech, Miriam led the women in singing and dancing. That’s all it says.

At this time of year, Jews all over the world celebrate Passover to commemorate the Exodus. At the ritual meal, the Seder, we read the Haggadah, which is not exactly a telling of the story, more like bits of the story and the notes of a lot of rabbis arguing over the exact interpretation of every word and phrase in the story. In my family, the children used to be bored to death before we got to eat. Nowadays, many less traditional families create their own Seder rituals, their own versions of the Haggadah. In our house, we use parts of something called the Egalitarian Haggadah, which explains that the Jews took with them Egyptian goods that they considered four hundred years’ worth of back wages. It also includes a prayer for vegetarians to substitute for the part about animal sacrifice.

One feature of the traditional Seder is Elijah’s Cup. We fill a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and open the door to our home, not only so that Elijah can come in and bless those gathered to feast but as a sign that we welcome the stranger in our midst. Many feminist households have added Miriam’s Cup. I liked that idea and hunted through the flea markets till I found the perfect Miriam’s Cup: a delicately etched wine glass flushed with pink and rimmed with gold. And that got me thinking about Miriam.

Because I’m a story teller, I thought: what’s the story? Here they are, at the edge of the desert where they’ll spend the next forty years wandering (though they don’t know that yet). They’ve just fled their homes in such a hurry they didn’t even have time to bake bread (hence matzoh). They’ve miraculously crossed a great sea without getting their feet wet. They’ve had soldiers and chariots after them. Now their enemies are dead. That’s great news. But dancing? Singing and dancing? Under what circumstances could that possibly have happened?

Here’s my story, in poem form:


the men sit perched on rocks
their faces grimed
furrowed with runnels of sweat
their sandals crusted in Red Sea salt
stunned by their change of fortune
the power in Moses’ staff
the thunder of the sea overrunning Pharoah
the scream of terrified horses
the crack of chariots breaking up
the wall of water at their heels
they stare outward into the desert
will not meet one another’s eyes

Miriam moves among the women
offering one the water skin
another a cloth to wipe her dusty feet
a quiet word here
there a hand pressed gently on a shoulder
crouched where they dropped when Moses called a halt
they have instinctively formed a circle

Miriam completes her round
pours the last few drops of water
on a corner of her shawl
passes it across her face
shaking off weariness like a scratchy cloak
she gathers them with her eyes
her slow smile blossoms
“Ladies,” she says, “we’re free!”
“Who wants to dance?”

If you want to read it at your Seder, please do!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Worth a Thousand Words

Sandra Parshall

This may sound like heresy coming from a writer, but I think a photograph can
often tell a more compelling story than words ever could.

A novel is an artificial construction that examines a situation, an event, a set of characters, from many different angles, and may leave the reader with a variety
of contradictory emotions. A photograph is a moment in real time that can capture an experience much broader than the details within the frame.

Every major event since the invention of photography has been captured in iconic photographs. The Civil War produced some of the first battlefield pictures the world had ever seen, and those photos make the war real in a way that words in history books can't.

A handful of pictures define the Vietnam War: a little girl running down a road, screaming, after napalm burned off her clothes; a man with his hands bound behind his back as a South Vietnamese Army officer held a gun to his head, his life one second away from ending; American helicopters lifting off for the last time, leaving behind tens of thousands of South Vietnamese still begging to be taken to safety as Saigon fell to the Communist army. Think of World War II and certain photos will come to mind. Think of September 11, 2001, and your memory will produce a slideshow of indelible images.

Even in the early days of photography, ordinary people preserved the milestones of their own lives in pictures. A century ago, having a photo shot was a big deal and usually involved dressing up and posing formally, somberly, no hint of a smile allowed. Look at old photos of brides in their gowns or new parents with their offspring – their serious expressions and stiff postures convey the life-changing importance of the event they’re recording. Faded pictures of young men in uniform, looking like children about to go off to war and possible death, are enough to break your heart.

Browse though photos taken over several decades, everything from studio portraits to family snapshots, and you can see
society changing before your eyes. Smiles and laughter appear, poses relax, clothing becomes more casual. Today the most common happenings in our lives are recorded, along with the weddings and the arrival of babies. Digital cameras make it easy, and they’ve made the whole world accessible to amateur photographers like me.

I’ve always loved taking pictures, but the only camera I had much patience with
was my Polaroid Spectra, which produced instant prints, however poor the quality was. Digital photography has been a revelation. When my first, low-end digital camera was brand-new in 2005, I took it to the National Zoo for my first visit with Tai Shan, the lovable giant panda cub born there after many years of disappointing efforts at breeding this endangered species.

With a somewhat better camera, I photographed everything from Tai and his parents to butterflies and spiders, from geese to ice-covered shrubs. I hope I'll never be in a situation where I could photograph a cataclysmic event. I'm happy to record the everyday things that mean something to me and or simply strike me as interesting subjects. With a picture I can say, This is what my little world looked like at that moment in my life.

I’ve taken countless pictures of my favorite subjects, our cats Emma and Gabriel.

Miss Emma, with the lovely variations of her markings and colors, is patiently helping me learn how to use my new camera, my first DSLR.

Soon I'll take the new camera to the zoo and get some new pictures of Tai Shan. He's almost three now, and he and I have both come a long way. The next pictures will be the best in a technical sense, but my first fuzzy photo of him will always be my favorite. It captured not merely an image but a magical moment, when I stood three feet away from one of the rarest and most endearing animals on earth, looked directly into his curious, intelligent eyes, and regained a hope for our planet’s future that I had thought was lost forever.

I would need far more than a thousand words to explain what Tai Shan means to me. But one picture of a smiling baby bear says it all.

(Note: You can see both contemporary and historic photographs -- from amateur to professional -- by the hundreds of thousands on My personal, very amateur, pictures are posted at

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On the Launch Pad

Sharon Wildwind

Tonight at 7:00 P.M., at the Mysterious Bookstore in New York City, something wonderful happens. Our own Elizabeth Zelvin, launches Death Will Get You Sober. If you’re in the New York area, drop by. If you’re not in the area, as unfortunately I’m not, join me in sending cyber-congrats to Liz.

A book launch is very much like a christening. All the hard work of the labor-and-delivery is over, all the hard work of raising the baby is ahead, but today it’s party time.

Recently I was invited to a christening for the daughter of a woman with whom I work. Her daughter has been born into a culture that truly believes it takes a whole village to raise a child. This fortunate little girl has over 50 godparents, some of them present in the church for the christening, some of them far away in the tiny village where the parents lived before they immigrated to Canada.

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the literary world, but those of us who write in the mystery genre, come from that kind of a village, too.

I think one of the reasons that mysteries continue to have a solid sales record, even in a time of declining reading and a tough economy, is that each one of us cares about the other getting it right.

Some of you may be familiar with Tom Clancy’s book, The Hunt for Red October. The way the red banner northern fleet pursued the submarine, Red October, is nothing compared to the way mystery writers pursue information for one another. Want to know how to blow up a car? The rules for Federal Marshals carrying guns on airplanes? How about, a prescription medication that will make Great Aunt-Matilda appear ga-ga? All you have to do is ask.

If no one has the answer, they immediately invoke the six-degrees-of separation, as in, “My husband’s, uncle’s, best friend’s, next-door neighbor works for the F.B.I. Do you want me to put you in touch with her?” And then there are the research stories. My personal favorite involves repeatedly stabbing a thawing turkey carcass to determine how difficult it is to insert a stiletto between two ribs.

The degree to which we support one another is truly amazing. We not only read one another’s books, but make a point of asking booksellers and librarians why they aren’t stocking other authors. We form book signing tour groups and blog groups—like this one—to promote one another’s work. We care about who’s sick, who has a new grandchild, who is going through a rough patch, who is due for cyber-champaign, dark chocolate, and dancing on the tables in celebration.

So, come five o’clock tonight, my time, I’ll be dancing on the table for you, Liz. Hope you have a great time!
Writing quote for the week:

If you drop a dream, it breaks.
~Denise Dietz, mystery writer

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Enduring Characters Test

by Julia Buckley

Every mystery that we consider great contains at its center a very memorable set of characters. Sherlock Holmes has endured this long because Conan-Doyle invested him with important qualities. Holmes' ego was important: it assured him both superiority and continual success, despite the efforts of the hapless Lestrade. But he had his vulnerabilities, as well, and readers found that he was not quite so confident when he didn't have a mental challenge. This was made known, of course, through the diligent narration of the equally memorable, and most necessary, Dr. Watson.

We writers here at Deadly Daughters try to invest our characters with memorable qualities as well--not just to entice readers, but because something about those characters fascinated us and ultimately we simply had to write about them.

Now here's a little Monday test for you: match the mystery author with his or her memorable character. The first three correct lists will win a set of Poe's Deadly Daughters bookmarks.

Writers 1) Margery Allingham 2)Agatha Christie 3)Ross MacDonald 4)John D. MacDonald 5)Leslie Charteris 6)Ian Fleming 7) Patricia Wentworth 8) Jonathan Gash 9) Dashiell Hammett 10) Raymond Chandler 11) Patricia Moyes 12)Edgar Allan Poe

Characters 1) James Bond 2) Auguste Dupin 3) Albert Campion 4) Travis McGee 5) Henry and Emmy Tibbett 6) Hercule Poirot 7) Lew Archer 8) Nick and Nora Charles 9) The Saint 10) Lovejoy 11) Miss Maude Silver 12) Philip Marlowe

Pretty easy, huh? But doesn't it make you want to go read a book by each of these authors?

I'll post the answers at the end of the day, if people haven't guessed already. No fair checking for answers online.

Have a great mystery week. :)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mysteries: What's the Point?

Merry Jones (Guest Blogger)

Not long ago, a friend asked me, “Why do you write mysteries? Why don’t you write something useful that helps people? A memoir, for example. Or a ‘how-to’?”

A how-to? A memoir? I was immediately defensive. People read mysteries, I explained. They like them. They get entertained by them. Mysteries are fun. But, deep down, I questioned the value of my work.

See, it takes six months to a year for me to write a suspense novel. During that time, I live with the characters as much, if not more, than I live with the three-dimensional, breathing people in my family and community. In fact, I often lose touch with the breathers, becoming lost in the pages of a pretend world, known by no one but myself, for weeks, even months at a time. It’s lonely. It’s difficult. So, my friend’s question jolted me: Why do I do this? And, even though I brushed off the question at the time, I found myself grappling with it for days.

After all, the world has lots of problems. Somebody should write books about how to fix them. How to manage time, relationships, money. How to lower carbon dioxide emissions. How to make the world safe for future generations. How to age gracefully or lose weight or do embroidery or make soufflés. What good are mysteries when there are so many vital issues to discuss? I began to feel that my efforts, my books were a waste of my time and everyone else’s.

I thought back to when I began to write the Zoe Hayes series. I’d been writing non-fiction and humor for years. But I hadn’t written a mystery. And I remembered how it started. My husband was sick. In fact, he was gravely ill with esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer is usually deadly. The doctor told us, Don’t go online, don’t read about it; you’ll only get scared. My husband was stoic about his situation, but I was not. I remember sitting in his hospital room, frantically watching monitors measure his heartbeat and respiration, staring at tubes that took fluids into and out of him, and hearing him tell me in a morphine haze, “Go home.”

What? I was insulted. Didn’t he need me by his side?

“You’re not doing any good sitting here,” he went on. “Go home. Do something besides worry. Write a book.”

He insisted. Repeatedly. He even told me he couldn’t sleep while I was staring at him. So, finally, I went home. And, as he’d told me to, I wrote a book. It was, in a way, a memoir, in that it was about impending death and violence that struck innocent people without warning. About unexpected, unanticipated upheaval that struck suddenly, while unsuspecting victims were walking babies in the park or fixing dinner. Living their lives. The villain, I realize now, was personified as a serial killer, but might as well have been esophageal cancer.

When my husband was sick, I retreated into the world of The Nanny Murders, finding solace in a world where a psychotic sadistic serial killer was less threatening than my actual reality. I was taking control over a fictional world, since I had no control over the real one. And, it occurred to me, that was why I wrote mysteries. That might also be why people read them.

The sorry truth is that life throws its unexpected twists. We are hit, unexpectedly, with diseases or car accidents or natural disasters or job loss or death. In life, we are all waiting for a shoe to drop or a lightning bolt to strike, and we never know how or if we’ll survive.

But a mystery—a mystery provides readers with a safe paradigm for actual life. Readers know that the unexpected, unavoidable catastrophe will strike. We know that the characters’ lives will turn upside down. But, unlike in real life, we know that, by the end of the book, order will be restored. Good will trump evil. And—if it’s a series—we know that, no matter what, the main character will survive.

Mysteries provide a way for us to experience vicarious tension, danger, and violence without really being in peril. And they provide something else, as well: Between the onset of the upheaval and the final resolution, there are plenty of pages in which the characters have to survive, managing their relationships, handling their finances, raising their children, aging gracefully, minimizing their carbon dioxide emissions, even making the occasional soufflé. And so, in a sense, the mystery is a how-to book. It shows how to survive, even in the face of events that are uncontrollable, unpredictable and life-threatening.

Fortunately, my husband survived his cancer. It’s been over several years. But my fear remains, so I still write mysteries, finding escape in a world where the worst of criminals lurk and darkness prevails. But the thing is, in that world, I have complete and absolute control.

Merry Jones is the author of eleven books, including the Zoe Hayes mystery series: THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, and THE NANNY MURDERS (St. Martin's). She lives outside Philadelphia. Website:

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rip' snortin'

By Lonnie Cruse

I've been working on my WIP for a couple of months. Okay, nearly four months. Sigh. And it hasn't been going well. I mean, I love the basic story line, but the manuscript in general wasn't working. Meaning I wasn't half done and there was absolutely no where to go next.

So, recently I parked myself in the futon on the sun porch and ripped that sucker to pieces. Moved paragraphs. Moved entire chapters. Put two minor characters into far more difficulty than they wanted to deal with. I'm a bit squeamish about doing that, I like happy characters, and one of them doesn't deal well with difficulty. But sometimes a writer just has to get tough with her characters. Has to submit them to challenges and problems above their abilities, then sit back and watch them dig their way out of it.

I also killed off a character who needed killing. I'm merciless in that area.

One of the worst problems with moving paragraphs and chapters and inserting new stuff is that a whole lot of the old stuff no longer fits. I can't deal with that. Really can not. So, I cut and paste it at the end of the manuscript, then hit "save" so I know it's there IF I need it. Most likely I'll be happy to highlight and delete that stuff when I'm done, but for now, it's my security blankie. I'm not it letting go. At all.

When I'm writing, I can not wait to get the manuscript done and start editing because I know I have the story down. I can relax and just catch/fix errors or fill plot holes. Editing is so much easier. NOT!

When I'm editing, I can not wait to get back to writing a first draft because the ideas come as needed, and editing is sooo hard because I read over mistakes and I've already read this story a zillion time and I'm getting bored with it. First drafts are so much easier. NOT!

NOTHING about writing is easy. Trust me. And if you meet the same author I did at a conference last year (who shall remain nameless, no need for law suits) who says she writes a book in ONE draft and turns it in to her publisher, ready for print, don't believe her. And try not to kill her. She's most likely one of those women who had NO stitches after childbirth and the baby slept all night from day one. I've always wanted to kill any of those I've met along the way as well.

Writing takes a lot of time and a LOT of thought. Write a scene. Seems great, so we're on a roll. Later, write another scene. Wait. Something's wrong with it, but we have no clue what. So we take a walk, or load the laundry, or better still, take a shower, and in said shower, lightning strikes. We NOW know what is wrong with that scene AND how to fix it. NO way to write it down so we scrub fast, dry off fast, and dash for the computer or writing pad. And it works. Might require cutting/pasting whole paragraphs or chapters. Might require killing part of the manuscript off (if you can't face that, try pasting it at the end and by the time you get there, you'll be able to do the deed.) Might require putting your favorite characters into deep doo. They won't like it. You won't like it. After all, they live inside you, and they can really ruin your sleep. Do it. Be brave. Rip it up. Snort about it. Keep going. Don't give up, if you love the story. Because if you love it, it's worth writing. Sigh, and editing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-Spelling Bee Champ

Elizabeth Zelvin

Funny thing: I remembered the title of Alix Kates Schulman’s seminal feminist book about having been a prom queen as Confessions, not Memoirs, though when that title drew a blank on Amazon, I googled her and found that I was wrong. In American culture, we have a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about being good at something. We adore those with talents and accomplishments, but we expect them to disavow at least some of the pride and pleasure they may feel in their success.

I wish I could say I went through the half century between when I first claimed I wanted to be a writer and getting an offer for my first novel oblivious to what other people thought. But I fall somewhere along that vast continuum between saints filled with spiritual humility and narcissists who are certain they’re the Great I Am. Confession Number One: I care what people think. I hated being an unpublished writer perhaps less because it made me doubt myself than because I feared that others would conclude my writing wasn’t good enough.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mother, an energetic high achiever who went to law school in 1921 and got a doctorate at the age of 69. But she never taught me how to fail. My mother faced the world with confidence, no matter what, because she could always say, “I am a lawyer.” Yet she didn’t practice law successfully. Like most of the handful of women lawyers of her generation, she had to find a niche on the sidelines, in her case writing and editing legal books. But so powerful was the illusion created by her sense of her own identity that she was always “my mother the lawyer” to me.

My father, a lawyer too, was one of those crossword puzzle demons who did the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink every week. When I asked what something meant, he would say, “Look it up.” In those days, this meant not a quick romp through Google but dusting off the Webster’s Unabridged or worse, plodding down the wooden stairs to the cold basement to consult the encyclopedia. We had a full set of the Encyclopedia Americana, though in adult life I acquired a set of the 1962 Britannica and clung to it long past its usefulness. We were all natural spellers who played fierce family games of Scrabble when it first came out. I still remember the sense of triumph I felt—I must have been nine or ten—when I gave the correct spelling of “exhilarated” after my mother insisted that middle “a” was an “i” and my dad thought it was an “e.” We settled the argument by looking it up, and I felt—exhilarated.

At my junior high in Queens, we were invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee. It wasn’t televised in those days, but it was still a big deal, especially as it was sponsored by Scripps-Howard newspapers and therefore got good media coverage. It’s still the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and word lists going back to 1950, five years before I competed in it in seventh grade, are still in existence.

I had never had a significant failure in those days. I got high grades on tests and was praised by teachers, and I did well enough in sports to please my intellectual family. I easily won the seventh grade spelling bee and then the whole school’s, competing against older kids in the eighth and ninth grades. I remember studying long lists of abstruse words with more pleasure than anxiety. It was no big deal: if I’d seen it, I could spell it. I instinctively fell into the pattern of spelling with pauses between syllables to break each word down into manageable parts.

I remember my classmates—a group of bright and talented kids who went through junior high together as “the SP orchestra class"—breaking into spontaneous applause as I returned to the classroom after winning the schoolwide bee. It had been announced on the PA system. They did the same when I won the competition for the whole school district. I recently found the place in my adolescent diary where I’d written excitedly: I WON THE DISTRICT SPELLING BEE!!! Confession Number Two: I was proud of my achievement. Why shouldn’t I be?

Then came the New York citywide spelling bee. Reader, I lost it. I fell afoul of not one of the difficult words I’d studied but a simple one I’d never heard before: “intermittent.” I got that second “e” right, but I failed to double the “t,” and that was it. No trip to Washington DC to compete in the national finals against kids from all over the country. And no applause when I slunk back into the classroom that afternoon.

I never misspelled “intermittent” again. In fact, for many years I assured people that I hadn’t misspelled a word since 1955. It’s still true if you don’t count a neurological glitch I’ve developed recently: a twist between brain and fingers on the keyboard that makes me type the wrong homonym (eg “there” for “their” or “they’re,” “too” for “two” or “to”) or even a similar word (eg “residence” for “restaurant”).

And for many years, going through the vicissitudes of life, I didn’t get that applause that rewards success, that joy of winning that our culture so treasures—until now. Yep, this is about my Agatha nomination for Best Short Story for “Death Will Clean Your Closet.” This time, the outcome of the final round won’t depend what I do at Malice Domestic, where the winner is selected. The challenge is in the competition--two proven mystery stars and a friend--and the personal tastes of the voters. There's no way to predict if I'll win. But the nomination feels every bit as good as winning the district spelling bee. And this time, that may be win enough for me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bookseller and Psychic Sleuth: Interview with Lorna Barrett, aka L.L. Bartlett

by Sandra Parshall

Lorna Barrett debuts this month with Murder Is Binding, first in the Booktown cozy series from Berkley Prime Crime, featuring a New Hampshire bookseller. The writer isn’t a newcomer, though. She published her first novel in the Jeff Resnick psychic sleuth series, Murder on the Mind, in 2005 as L.L. Bartlett, and she has a second installment, Dead in Red, coming out in June. Her real name is Lorraine Bartlett, and she lives in Rochester, NY, with her husband and their four cats. Visit her web sites at,, and

Q. Give us your quick pitches for Murder Is Binding and Dead in Red.

A. Murder Is Binding: Two sisters, books, recipes, murder. Who knew the world of used and rare books could be so dangerous?

Dead in Red: Jeff has new digs, a new girlfriend--and a totally new life. That includes coping with the psychic flashes that drive him to seek out a bartender’s
killer, and worse, confronting his guilt for compromising the safety of people he cares about.

Honestly, I haven’t pulled together “real” pitches. I’m terrible at it. I’m terrible at writing a synopsis. (I apologize for the above. )

Q. How would you compare the experience of writing as Lorna Barrett to writing as L.L. Bartlett? Do you shift into a different emotional space or mindset?

A. I tend to think of “Lorna” as this abstract person when I promote--but when I’m writing, it’s just me and the keyboard (and a cat or two).

I shift point of view; the Jeff Resnick books are written in first person, and the Booktown Mysteries are written
in third person point of view. I also shift genders--or rather I have to focus on thinking like a guy for the Jeff books, and thinking like a business woman for the Booktown books. I have a deeper connection with my Jeff Renick series simply because I’ve been with the characters a lot longer. (I’ve completed five books in the series. It’ll be some time before all the books see print.)

Q. Both books will be new at about the same time. Do you plan to promote them together or do completely separate signings, etc.?

A. Both. I’ve had separate bookmarks made up for both books, and I’ve had postcards made up that showcase both books. The postcards will be sent to out-of-town fans/booksellers/libraries. I’ve sent bookmarks to readers, conferences, and reader groups.

Q. You have a fairly rigorous schedule for the Lorna Barrett books, don’t you? How much time do you have to write each book? Has it turned out to be easier or more difficult than you expected?

A. I have nine months between books. It’s been a lot harder than I envisioned. Now that I no longer have a day job, I seem to have a lot more distractions. I devote a lot of time to my elderly parents, which also cuts into my writing time.

Q. Does promotion make a serious dent in your writing time? Have you found a way to overcome that? (If you have, I can name several thousand writers who would pay
for the secret!) Do you think it will at least be easier to manage this time, since you’ve been through it before?

A. Some weeks I devote far more of my time to promotion and networking than I do to writing. I don’t like to travel, so a lot of my time is spent looking for promotional opportunities on the Internet. I send out a lot of material to individual readers, conferences, and book groups. Sometimes I think I’m personally keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Q. Did one of your own cats serve as the inspiration for Miss Marple, the bookstore feline in Murder Is Binding?

A. Yes, my late cat Cori. I was surprised when the artist commissioned to do the cover of Murder Is Binding included a gray cat. It looks nothing like Cori did, but the sentiment was there. Miss Marple tends to steal every scene she appears in. I have a page up on my website devoted to Cori.

Q. Have you picked up any interesting tidbits about bookselling while doing research for your Berkley series? Anything you didn’t know before?

A. I’d been selling used books in my booth at a local antiques arcade for several years before I contracted to do the series. I interviewed the community relations manager at my local Barnes and Noble and she shared a lot of wonderful (and some frightening) anecdotes about working in a bookstore. Rather than get into the nitty gritty of bookselling, I prefer to concentrate on the relationships between the characters. In a cozy, you tend to have a lot of characters, and making sure each has a unique voice is a challenge.

Q. In Murder on the Mind and Dead in Red, you write from a male POV, and the main relationship in the books is between two brothers. What drew you to explore the way brothers interact? Did anyone you’ve known inspire
either character?

A. I’ve always been a fan of “buddy” stories. (The Classic Star Trek “triad,” Starsky & Hutch, Sam and Al in Quantum Leap.) When I decided to write from a male point of view, I wanted the characters to have more at stake than just friendship, so I made them brothers with a lot of baggage. It didn’t hurt that I grew up with two brothers. I got to observe firsthand the ups and downs of that kind of a relationship.

I didn’t base either character on any one person. They both came to me as unique individuals. I wish that would happen more often.

Q. What kind of comments have you had from readers about your portrayal of male characters? Have you had any feedback from your husband or your own brothers?

A. A lot less than I would’ve thought. Being published by a small press probably had a lot to do with that. Most of my readers have been women--which is not surprising, since women buy more books than men. They’re attracted by the relationship between the brothers, and between Richard and his significant other, Brenda.

My husband is long-suffering. He helps me assemble my promotional material (he’s a former graphic designer) and he proofreads my work. He doesn’t like to offer criticism. I don’t believe either of my brothers have even read my first book, despite the fact I dedicated it to one of them. They’re just not fiction readers. I was hurt, but I got over it.

Q. Your Jeff Resnick books are set in Buffalo, the Booktown mysteries in New Hampshire – both places with cold, cold winters and tons of snow. Does the harsh winter play any part in your stories, either the books you’ve already written or those you’re planning?

A. Winter played a part in Murder on the Mind, my first published novel. One Buffalo book group pleaded for me to set the next installment in summertime. Little did they know, I’d already done it. Since I’ve never experienced winter in New Hampshire, I’ve decided to stick to warmer times of the year. The first book takes place in September; the second in April, and the third in the summer. (I’m still working on the timing of that one.)

Q. Tell us about your road to publication. Along with the disappointments, can you remember any incidents or feedback that encouraged you to keep going?

A. My Sisters In Crime chapter, the Guppies, has been a constant source of inspiration and enthusiasm. More than once I wondered if I had it in me to persist. The entertainment industry as a whole, be it acting, singing, writing, etc., is a tough business to crack. You’d better get used to rejection. Something that’s easier said than done.

Q. What aspects of writing craft have you struggled with? What do you consider your strength as a writer?

A. I struggle with writing “long.” My contracts say I will write a book of a specific length. I tend to write short. Jeremiah Healy said I have a “stark, spare style.” He’s right. I took to heart Elmore Leonard’s advice to leave out the parts people skip. That means I often end up rewriting to add in one or two more subplots after I’ve written my first draft of a book. Then I’ll have to go back to pump up the description. I had pacing, Pacing, PACING drilled into my head by an early mentor. It makes for a fast read, if nothing else.

My greatest strength is never giving up. That makes it quite difficult to face the fact that certain of my unpublished novels must remain so--at least for the foreseeable future. I’m not a patient person, and my characters keep calling to me from the closet shelf, telling me not to forget them--reminding me that I once loved them best.

Q. What writers have you learned from? If you could meet any writer you admire, who would it be?

A. Maybe it sounds corny, but I’ve learned more from my critique partners than any class or book that I’ve read, be it fiction or how-to. Discussing what works and what doesn’t work with fellow writers has been a wonderful experience. That said, you can’t remain in one group forever. And, I don’t even belong to a group anymore. These days I share my work--entire manuscripts--with other (mostly) published authors. I no longer like to critique a book/story in a piecemeal fashion.

I’m not a celebrity chaser, so there’s no big name I’m eager to meet. That said, I want to meet two of my fellow bloggers on Writers Plot--Kate Flora and Jeanne Munn Bracken. We’ve never met in person. I’m looking forward to having dinner with them sometime in the near future.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Keep writing. Keep sending out queries. Keep striving to improve your work. That’s how you get published.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Advance and be recognized

Sharon Wildwind

Let’s take a look at both ends of the book-publishing pipeline. At the entrance end, an author is paid an advance as soon as she sells a book.

“First-book advances and rates-per-word for short-stories have not changed significantly in 30-40 years. A minimum wage job in Massachusetts [in 2007] pays a touch under $15,500/year. Average advances for fiction are still below $10,000. Average first advance is more like $5,000, even from a major publisher.”
~Dr. Steve Kelner, writer and motivational speaker

Actually, in many parts of genre publishing, the advance is more like $1,000 to $2,000 per book; in some cases as low as $500.

Whatever the advance, the author is expected to earn out the advance money before she gets any royalties.

At the pipeline exit, not all books sold count toward earning back the advance and/or royalties. You’re probably familiar with the idea of holding royalty money against returns. Here’s how it works.

Bookstores order books on consignment for a specified period of time, often 30 days. Let’s simplify the numbers. Suppose a buyer for a chain bookstore orders 100 copies of a new book, to arrive for April 1. That bookstore doesn’t have to pay for the books for 30 days. So, on about April 25, the employees go through the stores and collect up the books that haven’t sold. It was a good month. Forty out of the 100 books sold.

The employees take those remaining 60 copies back to the work room and tear off the front covers. It’s called stripping a book. If you look on the back cover of a book—usually a paperback—you’ll see the letter “S” in a small triangle. That indicates a book can be stripped. The employee shoves those 60 covers in an envelope and mails them back to the distributor.

The actual books themselves, now shivering in a corner without their covers, go to the landfill, or paper recycling, or enter a black market system they are sold as used books at a greatly reduced price.

While one set of employees is stripping book covers to return them, another set of employees is ordering books for May. Since April was a good sales month for our title, they order another 100 copies.

Come April 30, the book store has none of the April consignment left and owes the distributor for the 40 books that were sold, but not a thing for the 60 books that were stripped.

May, unfortunately, is not such a good month. Toward the end of May, only 15 copies of the second 100 consigned books have sold. Eighty-five copies are stripped and the person ordering books for June doesn’t order any more of that title. The book is essentially dead as far as that chain of bookstores goes.

Two-month total:
200 books shipped on consignment.
40+15 = 55 books sold. The author is due royalties on these books.
200 - 55 = 145 books destroyed.

Even for those 55 books sold, the author may not see the money for 1 to 2 years because many publishers hold back any money due until they are sure that there won’t be any more books stripped and destroyed.

The big buzz on the mystery lists in the past week was an announcement by HarperCollins that they are forming a new division where business practices will be different. First, the authors will get no advances. Second, this division will not allow any returns. If a bookstore orders 200 books on consignment; it pays for 200 books. Third, HarperCollins and the author split the profits 50/50 and the author doesn’t have to wait for returns to be charged against royalties.

At this stage the HC announcement is akin to coming home and finding something mysterious baking. It smells pretty good, but you can’t tell from peering in the oven if your partner has made a nice dessert or your child has a science fair project in production.

All we know so far is that HarperCollins will risk 25 titles a year on this new venture, that e-books and audio books have have been mentioned as formats along side the printed versions, and that Robert Miller, the man who will head the new venture, has been quoted in Publisher’s Lunch as saying, “We may evolve after we start.”

Eventually, something will break the traditional pipeline of advances at one end and returns at the other end. In fact, when the break comes, it will probably be more than one something, more likely a gusher of alternative business models, based on technology and a plurality of markets. It’s going to be interesting to see how the HC proposal plays out.

Writing quote for the week:

It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages.
~Henry Ford, auto manufacturer