Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guest Blogger Colleen Collins

Missing Persons 101 by Colleen Collins

And the winner of the disguised book safe is......Jane. Congratulations! Jane, please get in touch with Colleen at cocowrites2 at (Change the at to @.) Thank you so much Colleen for being our guest this weekend and thank you to everyone who stopped by and commented.

[*Copyright Colleen Collins 2008. All rights reserved. You may not duplicate or distribute this article without written permission from the author.]

Are you writing a story where your fictional PI, law enforcement officer, or amateur sleuth needs to track a missing person? Or maybe you’re simply curious about how to start looking for that long-lost friend? As a PI who is often is hired by attorneys, corporations, and others to perform “locates” (a term that means to find someone), I can tell you some basic, tried-and-true steps for finding people. Because I’m also a writer, I’ve added some questions at the end of this article to ask yourself about a character (such as a PI) who specializes in finding missing persons.

And because I wanted to add some fun, I’m giving away a free gift at the end of the blog. On Sunday, June 1, I’ll throw all the names who posted a comment/question into a virtual hat--one person will be picked to win a disguised book safe (a book with a secret storage compartment).

For the rest of this article, I’ll mostly refer to how a PI does locates because that’s my profession, although as mentioned above, these steps can be used by any fictional character or real person. Also, rather than trying to be politically correct by using the combo-pronoun he/she, I’ll simply switch between he and she.

So let’s get started with an overview of PIs as finders of lost souls…

How Much of a PI’s Work Involves Finding People?

Quite a bit, actually. A large percentage of a PI's work involves finding persons whose location is unknown to the PI. For example, a PI might do a locate for the following:

· To serve a lawsuit on someone whose current address is unknown.

· To locate a debtor who absents himself from his residence with some frequency to frustrate the creditor.

· To find a key witness.

Most people who don’t want to be found do it sloppily, leaving a trail of clues in their wake. Others, however, are more careful and deliberate in hiding their tracks. For example, a father who has abducted his daughter and has taken off to another state might be more deliberate in his efforts, might travel farther, and has probably covered his tracks more thoroughly than a "credit skip.” (Originally, a “skip” referred to collection agencies’ attempts to locate a debtor who’d “skipped out” on his obligation. Today, the terms “skip” and “locate” have essentially blended into the same meaning).

What Steps Might a PI Take to Start Finding Someone?

Here’s the fun part. Finding a missing person (or one whose location is unknown) might involve one or more of the following tasks:

Checking the local telephone directory for each city in the area. Look for telephone listings under the missing person’s name or even a spouse’s name. It’s surprising how many times a simple check in the telephone book does the trick. We know a PI who was contacted by an attorney who wanted to locate a missing person. The PI looked up the person’s name in the local telephone book, forwarded that number to the attorney, and charged $75 to do so! As the PI said, “If the attorney was too dumb to look it up, then he paid me to do it.”

Calling directory assistance. After all, they’d have the most current up-to-date information publicly available.

Searching databases that contain public records and credit header information. Some of these are proprietary and require one to be a PI, law enforcement officer, government official, etc. But there are also many, many online public records than anyone can check (for example county assessor’s sites have lists of owners of real property, along with information about the assessed value of that property; privately owned cemeteries and mortuaries will have burial permits, funeral service registers, funeral and memorial arrangements, obituaries, intermediate orders, and perpetual care arrangements; Social Security Death Index provides lookup on whether a person is deceased (; and one can even look up a seller/member on EBay at

Interviewing people who may have known the subject (for example, past and current neighbors as well as with relatives, past and current landlords, co-workers, and known associates).

Researching court records (In our class,, we discuss this in more depth. For this article, however, I’ll point you to a few links about accessing court records:

· A recent online article about public access to court records:

· Another recent online article with tips on accessing courts and court records:

Searching the Internet (using engines such as Google, AltaVista, FAST! and MSN Search for blogs, images, news, etc). You’d be surprised what you can find by simply typing in a telephone number into the Google search window, for example.

Checking Internet communities (such as MySpace, (, Facebook (, etc). We located a missing person who was on the run, but she still found time to log into her MySpace account and blog away.

Putting an ad in the local paper (and in the papers in surrounding areas) where the missing person may reside. Some newspapers also provide the option to do an online search of their archives.

Building a simple website to advertise who you’re looking for. It’s easy to build a simple, often free, website these days. Plus, many services will host/advertise it at no charge.

Signing up with subscription-based services for alumni organizations the person may have belonged to (such as or Alumni.Net). Sometimes high schools have their own alumni organization, so check the person’s former high school’s website and contact the alumni listed there (who are sometimes listed by years of graduation).

Checking the Coles Directory (a handy tool found at the reference desk of many public libraries). Coles Directory publishes household directories for every major population area in the United States and Canada. This book cross-references addresses and names, and provides places of employment for many of those listed.

Conducting surveillance at locations where the subject has been known to "hang out" (everything from bars to Twelve Step Meetings to softball games).

Searching garbage (called “trash hits,” “trash covers,” and our personal favorite “refuse archeology”) for uncovering details about the missing person’s life. Trash, after all, is ripe (no pun intended) with details about people’s lives. It’s amazing how people put their most secret information, from receipts, phone numbers, personal letters, credit card statements, phone bills, etc. into the trash. We don’t recommend this as a real-life approach to finding someone because let’s be honest, not only are there different laws protecting people’s trash in different cities and you could get arrested for trespassing or worse. Also, it could be potentially dangerous for you to start lurking around someone’s home waiting to skulk away with their refuse. However, think how great this would be to use in a story. A fictional PI/sleuth might find return addresses in the subject's trash, such as that belonging to a family member, where the missing person might have taken refuge. Or imagine a humorous scene where an obsessively neat PI (think Monk) is forced to dig through somebody’s trash for evidence.

It was through such refuse archeology that we found a five-year-old who had been abducted by her father. We searched the despondent, unemployed father's garbage (he had failed to return his daughter to the custodial parent at the scheduled time) after we had gone to his apartment and learned that he had suddenly moved earlier in the day. We found shipping boxes, with Christmas labels, which appeared to have contained Christmas presents that he had discarded. Ultimately, it was one of those addresses in a mid-west state where authorities located the child with her father.

Note: As a practical matter, all of the above techniques are often used in combination. In our investigative business, we’ll typically start with Internet/database searches, then work our way up to more specialized techniques (placing ads, interviewing neighbors, etc.). If you’re writing a story with a fictional PI/sleuth, your character can employ bravado, intuition, and creativity while combining these different techniques!

What Character Traits Apply to a PI/Sleuth Who Specializes in Missing Persons?

If you’re writing a story with a PI who specializes in finding missing persons, here’re some things to think about:

· Does your fictional PI have a strong, innate curiosity?

· How tenacious is your fictional PI? This kind of research can be time-consuming, detailed, frustrating, with lots of dead-ends before finding a clue.

· Is your fictional PI a people person? Because most likely he’ll be talking to a number of people and trying to, in the course of the conversations, pull the nuggets of information he needs.

· What kind of tools does your PI use? Does she have access to a computer, different proprietary databases, an adequate vehicle to conduct surveillance? Is she comfortable/knowledgeable doing research in public libraries, courthouses, and the like?

· Does your PI like putting together jigsaw puzzles? Because that’s what locating missing persons is like—assembling varied pieces of information from disparate sources to get, finally, a clear picture.

Thank you to Darlene Ryan and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for inviting me to be their guest blogger. Feel free to post questions/comments, and I’ll be happy to respond. At the end of Sunday, a name will be picked to win the disguised book safe!

Friday, May 30, 2008

My porch or yours???

By Lonnie Cruse

When I'm away from home and need a stress-free place to go, at least in my mind, I visit a porch solidly built in the twenties or thirties or maybe even the forties. A porch where people once sat and rocked and watched the occasional car passing by, stirring up the dust covering the road that runs just beyond the iron gate. A porch where bees buzz drowesly from bloom to bloom on the climbing rosebush carefully tied to a nearby post. A porch where birds flit back and forth from the ground to a nest crammed into the eaves, carefully building it even higher or stuffing fat worms into tiny beaks.

The woman seated there waves the cardboard fan, given her at the last funeral she attended, back and forth in front of her tired face, to ward off the summer's heat and flies. The man mops his brow with a red kerchief and comments on this year's crop. His overalls need washing after long hours in the nearby fields.

I'm seated in the swing, unseen but listening in. Unseen because the man and woman are long gone and the porch sits abandoned, still attached to the old house, also abandoned, having outlived the family and its usefullness. And I'm only here in my imagination.

One of these days I'll get out of my car and go sit on one of those porches for real, tresspassing if need be. I love looking at old houses, imagining the people who once lived there.

Nearly every house has some sort of porch, or stoop, if you will. Be it a small square of concrete, just large enough to stand on while unlocking the door. If the owner is lucky, there is an overhang or awning above to keep off the rain while you fumble for your keys. Then there are porches with awnings or covers that are large enough to sit under and enjoy the view, or feed the dog and stay dry during a rain shower, or to water the plants from. And who can deny the beauties of a screened-in porch, fending off the attacks of the various summer insects who live only to irritate?

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a porch person. In nearly forty-five years of marriage, the very best gift hubby has ever given me is a sun porch. When I'm at home, I practically live there. But let me back up. When we moved to our current home eleven years ago, he had two concrete porches poured, one for the front door, one for the back, each supported underneath by brick, with three steps leading up, but no cover to protect us from the elements. There are no trees nearby, so sitting on the porches meant sitting in the hot sun, or the brisk wind, or the rain, assuming I was that hardy. I love watching it rain, having grown up in the desert, but I'm not quite that hardy.

We were planning our fortieth anniversary celebration a few years ago and decided to use what we'd saved for a trip to buy lumber for a porch instead. And windows. And dry wall. And paint. And . . . you get the picture. Hubby built most of it all by himself in nearly a year. (Yes, I helped when I could, but I'm not much of a carpenter.) Now that lovely porch sports fourteen windows and a door and a futon to sit on and watch the rain or take a nap and a dining table to feed family and friends and watch the birds and squirrels eating with us. Or the occasional deer who meanders by. And there is his tomato plot just beyond the porch to keep an eye on. And mine. I'm ahead of him so far this season, but tomatoes are fickle, so who knows which of us will harvest first?

There is a point in here somewhere. Ah, yes, there it is. Back in the day--as a friend of mine says--before air conditioning and television took over our homes and our lives, people sat on porches and fanned and watched the world pass by. I wonder how much we all miss out on now, sitting inside where it's admittedly cooler, watching a fictional world pass by.

May I invite you to join me by going outside on your porch, whatever size it is, or perhaps out in the yard, and look at life out there? Listen to the birds or the insects or the rain? De-stress? I'll be drinking a cup of cinnamon tea. Probably be wearing my favorite robe. If you'd like to join me in a toast, I'm in the mid-west, so point your cup that'a way. We should probably have some cake too, don't you think?

I wish you a lovely summer of birds and trees and breezes and rain and memories with your family. And time on a porch. Mine or yours?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

PD James: Time Traveler from the Golden Age of Detection

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently read PD James’s 2005 mystery, The Lighthouse. It’s a stately read that is best savored at a leisurely pace rather than gobbled up in a night. In fact, I had saved it for airplane reading to and from a signing in Minneapolis, where it not only entertained me but provided a promotional bookmark (mine, not James’s) to give to the potential reader in the next seat.

Even in the first 50 pages, it struck me that James, at 80 a revered and much honored author, is allowed to construct a mystery that would never pass muster with agents or editors from a newbie, even if a beginning writer could achieve her magnificent prose style. Today we’re exhorted to put the murder up front—in the first chapter if not on the first page—and keep the action non-stop. Some respected authors who teach writing insist that the right amount of backstory in a manuscript is none whatsoever. It’s considered amateurish to “tell, not show” what our characters are like. The omniscient author point of view is out of fashion, and if we introduce too many POV characters, we’re castigated for “head hopping.”

It’s inevitable that the literary world says James’s Adam Dalgleish series “transcends the genre.” Yet The Lighthouse is constructed quite like a Golden Age mystery of the Thirties, when Agatha Christie reigned and Dorothy L. Sayers ruled the Detective Club with an iron hand. In the opening scene, Dalgleish is presented with the case by his superiors. Each of his subordinates gets a scene detailing the daily life that gets interrupted when the murder call comes. This tells us that we’re reading a police procedural, in which all the investigators will have their turn on center stage. The scene then shifts to the isolated island where the murder has occurred, rolling back time to the day before and giving us in turn the close third-person point of view of the victim and each of the nine or ten characters who will become suspects. Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh did the same, whether in narrative form like James or by listing a “cast of characters” at the beginning of the novel. The scene in which the body is discovered begins on page 55, too late, or on the brink, if it appeared in an unpublished writer’s manuscript.

The Lighthouse abounds in magnificent and detailed descriptions of the isolated island off the Cornish coast which acts as a “locked room”—another favorite Golden Age device—for the murder. Today’s mystery writing gurus suggest avoiding unbroken passages of description. “Don’t start with a weather report,” one of them, I forget which, advises. James’s landscapes and interiors run for paragraphs, sometimes for pages. Characterization too, for the most part, proceeds by “telling, not showing.” Interior monologues present characters with texture and complexity. But except for the victim and his daughter, characters’ behavior seldom demonstrates the truth of the analysis.

Along with the subtleties, James throws in stereotyped characterizations that are far less convincing from the perspective of today’s worldview than they were in the Golden Age. “It was a scholar’s face,” she says of one suspect from the detective’s point of view. What is a scholar’s face? Like Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” it’s a stock epithet rather than a description based on observed reality. Actually, I think I know what James meant: a resemblance to the portraits of such historical figures as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Such assumptions used to abound in British fiction, not just in the Thirties but through the Fifties. Example: the classic The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which the detective comes to believe that King Richard III was framed because in his portrait, he looks like, yep, a scholar and someone who’s known suffering rather than like a villain.

I enjoyed reading The Lighthouse, even though I guessed more of the plot than I would have before I started writing mysteries of my own. It held my interest, and the literate prose was a pleasure to read. I prefer series, with their extended character arcs, so I was interested to hear more about the recurring characters’ lives, even though I still don’t find the relationship between Dalgleish and Emma quite convincing. In general, James at 80 is finally writing, if not erotic scenes, scenes of and passages about sexuality, which she never used to do. Overall, it’s a fine novel—but reading it is a very different experience from reading the mysteries of 21st century authors.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Enduring Charm of James Bond

Sandra Parshall

The debonair manner, the confidence in the face of danger. The tailor-made clothes and meticulous grooming. The cool gadgets and the hot women.

Is there any corner of the world where James Bond is unknown? Agent 007 is the perfect spy, without baggage or scruples, a refreshing over-the-top contrast to Le Carre’s angst-ridden heroes and the morally muddled types springing up in today’s espionage fiction. Bond has never been about making us think. Bond is entertainment, and he’s still going strong 56 years after he first appeared in Casino Royale.

It’s only fitting that we pause today to raise a glass to Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, on the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth. To mark the occasion, everyone who leaves a comment about Bond today will be entered in a drawing to win a complete 14-book set of Penguin’s new paperback editions of the Bond novels and short stories. Penguin began releasing the new editions, with appropriately sexy cover art, in 2002, the 50th anniversary of Casino Royale’s publication.

In Britain, Fleming and his creation are being celebrated in a year-long exhibit at London’s Imperial War Museum and a set of commemorative stamps. A web site -- –- is devoted to the author’s life and career. Not bad for a guy who called his first book “an oafish opus” and declared, “I’m not in the Shakespeare stakes. I have no ambition.”

By most accounts, Fleming drew on his own experiences and habits when he wrote about Bond. As a foreign correspondent, a banker and stockbroker, and a senior naval intelligence officer, he moved in sophisticated circles and had the reputation of a ladies’ man. He once borrowed his mother’s chauffeur-driven Daimler for a date with a dancer named Storm and returned it with black boa feathers strewn over the back seat. Mum was
not amused.

By the time Fleming began publishing the Bond books, he had married, and for the last 12 years of his life he followed a rigid writing schedule. He produced the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a travel memoir titled Thrilling Cities in addition to 12 Bond novels and two collections of short stories about the character. He died of pleurisy in 1964 at age 56.

Forty million copies of the Bond books were sold during Fleming’s lifetime, and the first Bond film – Dr. No, starring Sean Connery – was released two years before his death, but he didn’t live long enough to see Bond mania hit its true zenith, propelled by the most successful movie franchise in history. Today a whole generation knows Bond primarily as a movie character who never ages even as the plotlines and the weapons evolve to mirror the changing times. Another new Bond movie comes out in the fall. Published reports have Leonardo DiCaprio planning a biopic in which he’ll play Fleming.

Bond’s adventures have also been turned into graphic novels, and this year – today, in fact – Doubleday brings out a new full-length Bond novel, Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks. But to find the real Bond, the original, you have to turn to Fleming’s novels and short stories.

If you’d like a chance to win the complete set of Penguin’s handsome new paperback editions, leave a comment about what James Bond means to you. What do you think explains the enduring popularity of the character? Did you become a fan through the books or the films? Do you think the movies are true to the character as Fleming wrote him? Which actor do you think has best brought Bond to life on the screen? Everyone who comments will be entered in a drawing for the books, and I'll notify the lucky winner in a couple of days.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fast and Dirty

Sharon Wildwind

When I was almost forty, I asked a young man half my age if he would take me through an experience I’d wanted to have for a long time, but one I needed a partner to enjoy. He agreed, but said I’d need to go shopping first. One Saturday morning, he took me to the most interesting store. I was the only woman there, but as my guide, my friend explained all the merchandise to me and helped me pick out what he called “a starter set.”

That afternoon, as my GM, he helped me use my new dice to roll up a character, and I played my very first RPG. GM, of course, is Game Master, and RPG is role-playing game. If I remember correctly, that first game was a cyber-punk setting, something á la William Gibson’s Neuromancer universe.

Over the next five years, I gamed in a lot of universes: cyber-punk, Cuthulian 1920s, science fiction, and my eventual favorite, what’s now called steam-punk. One of the reasons I came to love the RPG Space 1889 was that the characters were fast and dirty. I don’t mean that they lacked personal standards of either morality or cleanliness, but they were quick to roll up. To play, all I needed to determine was a primary career, a secondary career, and a handful of attributes. A few rolls of the dice, and I was done and ready to play.

Since life is a spiral, and we keep coming back to the same experiences, I’ve recently gone through a similar experience in regards to my fiction characters. Over the years, I’ve collected a fat notebook of “things to know about your characters.” I managed to distill the notebook down to one-page, typed, single-spaced of essential things to know.

The problem was that each book I write tends to have more characters. The one I’m currently working on has 25 speaking parts, of whom 11 are characters continuing from previous books in the series, and 14 are completely new. It dawned on me that if I did a complete character sketch for each character, I’d probably be ready to begin writing sometime in 2011. Then I remembered Space 1889, and how it was possible to start playing a game knowing only some bare facts, and develop the character as the game was played.

Using that logic, I scaled down to 10 key character points. If I know these 10 things about my character, I can start writing and allow the rest of the character development to come along as I write the book.

1. What is the character’s name? Does the name mean anything special in their family?

2. How old is the character? What year did she turn 6, 15, 18? The reason I picked those three specific ages is that they are often turning points. At 6, most children enter school. It makes a huge difference to who the character is if she turned 6 in Austria, at the beginning of World War II, or turned 6 in Kansas in 1985. Fifteen is the point where a lot of cultural norms are laid down. It’s the music we hear at 15, the clothes we wear, or our favorite junk food that, almost always, marks the "good old days." At 18, career and education choices are often made. Again, it would make a difference to how a black teen-age character was shaped depending of if he turned 18 in downtown Detroit in 1968, or in suburban Boston in 2004.

3. What is the person’s gender and racial background?

4. What’s the person level of education? What is her work? I define work as the thing that most fills her day. It doesn’t have to be paid work, though it likely is.

5. What is her sexual orientation? Is she in a relationship and how is that going?

6. Dominant impression? This comes from Debra Dixon’s Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. Two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but it may indicate a role similar to a profession. For example, the character might run a corporation, but she’s also a woman who likes control. She likes to be in charge. So when I say her dominant impression is a “stern boss,” I’m referring to that need for control, not the fact that she occupies the CEO’s office.

7. What is the character’s tag line? This is a second idea from Debra Dixon. For E.T., the tag line was “phone home.” For Indiana Jones, it’s “Why does it always have to be snakes?” It’s one sentence that describes the character’s main motivation. Though we try to avoid cliches in writing, this is one place that cliches are useful. A tag line of “party hearty,” would immediately give you a different impression of a woman than if she had the tag line “nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

8. Flawed life view comes from Liz Lounsbury. How has the character got it wrong about life/and or relationships?

9. Donald Maass introduced me to the line she will not cross. What is the one thing the character would never do? At least, until this book, then she is going to do it and have to live with the consequences.

10. What jobs does this character have? Jobs are different from work above. It’s at least three good reasons that this character is in this book. Carolyn Wheat identified jobs as an essential thing to know about each character.

Every answer to the 10 first questions should have stress built into them. This is your first opportunity as a writer not to be nice to your characters. Rev em’ up, give em’ juice, and let the game begin.
Writing quote for the week:

My secret is to stress my heroine to the limit, until all turns out well in the end. Oh, she might have a bit of fun along the way, and she might think things are going well. But she's simply deluded.~Jan Christensen, mystery and romance writer

Monday, May 26, 2008

What I Learned from My Drug Overdose

by Julia Buckley

Whenever I used to hear of some famous person dying of an "accidental" drug overdose, I would tend to sneer. Didn't they have to consciously take the drugs, therefore rendering it not accidental? I sat on the pedestal of righteousness--a person who had never taken recreational drugs and rarely needed pharmaceutical ones.

Recently, though, some things have changed my perception of just what drug overdose means, and how it can happen.

First of all, anyone who takes more than the recommended dosage of pain reliever is overdosing on drugs. I sat on a consumer opinion panel last year for a company that was developing a new pain reliever; they wanted to talk to women about pain. The women on my panel tended to have intense pain, like migraine headaches or severe menstrual cramps. These were smart people: sensible homemakers, businesswomen, teachers. And yet almost every woman on the panel admitted that she did not base her dosage on what was recommended, but on what it took to relieve her suffering. One woman said that it was not unusual for her to take seven or eight Advil at a time, because anything less simply didn't put a dent in her pain.

That was surprising to me at the time. But after yesterday, when I overdosed on drugs, I can see things far more clearly.

I have been fighting a sinus infection for about a month. I've tried an expensive assortment of over-the-counter remedies because my doctor doesn't think I need an antibiotic. Nothing seemed to work, and I was getting most tired of not being able to breathe. One thing that gave me temporary relief was sinus nasal spray. I started with a four hour medicine and then purchased a stronger one which had "12 Hour" in its title. The dosage was clear even in the name of the product. So I would use it every twelve hours, and it allowed me to breathe.

Yesterday, though, I mowed the lawn and weeded the garden, and perhaps all the plants or pollen or whatever made my condition worse, because my head swelled up. I took my handy nasal spray and waited for a few hours, only to find that it hadn't helped: total congestion. So I went into my bathroom and took the 4-hour nasal spray, which didn't seem to do much. So a few hours later I took the 12-hour spray again. Three doses, maybe nine hours. And the most important thing here is that I didn't even think about it. If I had any conscious thought at all, it was "I would like to breathe more freely."

What I didn't contemplate--not once--was that I was pumping a chemical called oxymetazoline into my body, and that more than the required amount, according to the drug's website, "could be very harmful."

I went into my living room and sat down with my family. A few hours later I realized I felt very hot. The room was cool; it was only about fifty degrees outside. I shifted in my chair. I could not find a comfortable position, and my heart was racing as though I had taken a huge dose of caffeine. When I realized that I didn't feel right, I began to suspect (finally) my medicine. I went to the bathroom, retrieved the spray, and read the tiny, tiny print.

I had the sensation that people must feel when they've been bitten by a snake: I could not undo this. It had passed from my membranes into my blood, and now I would have to suffer the consequences. I walked back, a bit disoriented. I had been distracted for hours, losing things, finding them, and then immediately losing them again. My heart was racing, so I tried to do some deep breathing while my husband called a 24-hour pharmacy. There an apathetic yet scornful pharmacist told him that he should keep me from taking any more decongestants.

So I endured my overdose--the racing heart, the suddenly sluggish feeling, the discomfort, the foggy mind--until two in the morning, suffering the dictates of a body ruled by chemicals. And I realized just how foolish I'd been.

Today I am penitent and drug-free. I am craving the spray, though, because I still can't breathe. And here is the lesson I've learned: my problem is mild when all is said and done. But what about people who have really intense pain or very deep depression? Do they, like me, focus not on what they're taking, but on the suffering itself? Do their thoughts pare down to the one vital idea of anything to relieve the pain?

I don't excuse the irresponsible use of drugs, mine or anyone else's. People should read labels and be very careful about what they're putting into their bodies. But I know from experience that overdoses, while not strictly accidental, can certainly be unintentional, if you'll allow the distinction.

I read in the paper last week that more Americans than ever before are on prescription drugs. How many of us can imagine life without our prescriptions? If we can't do without, well, that's dependency, right? And one step beyond drug dependency lies drug abuse, if people make wrong decisions.

Now I know that drug abuse can't be viewed as a problem "out there." It's a problem lurking in our own homes, as near as the tempting products in our medicine cabinets.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Guest Blogger HelenKay Dimon

And the winner is...(I feel like Ryan Seacrest) Dina! Dina please send your address to me--darlene at Change the "at" to @ of course. Thank you to everyone for your comments and to HelenKay for visiting this weekend. Keep stopping by. We have more giveaways planned.

HelenKay Dimon is the author of Viva Las Bad Boys, Your Mouth Drives Me Crazy, Right Here, Right Now and the upcoming Hard As Nails. Her writing has been called, “witty, romantic, sexy and just plain fun”. And it is. Visit HelenKay at

Thank you all for having me here today. It's a special thrill because I stop by frequently both out of a love for the name of the blog and out of a love of reading mysteries, suspense and everything similar. In fact, I had a recent brush with ignorance thanks to the mystery genre. I wish I could say this brush with ignorance was a rare occurrence. Yeah, not so much. Occurs almost daily. This time it happened about 3,000 miles from home. At least it happened in a fun city...

See, I was in New York City for a wedding. In looking for a way to deduct the entire trip without ticking off the IRS, I combined the event with a visit with my editor at Kensington Publishing. This was a time for general sucking up, mixed with a concentrated effort not to do anything stupid. The next day I welcomed the opportunity to sit down and discuss my career (and my desire not to inadvertently destroy it) with my agent. Specifically, we talked about a proposal I'm writing for a romantic mystery series. Some of my books include suspense elements, but they have all been more romance than mystery. I've been looking at trying something new. Honestly, I want to break into a genre that is known for being a bit hard to crack - romantic suspense.

During this conversation, my agent asked a question that stumped me. It wasn't that I was unsure of my answer. If only. No, it really was a matter of not even understanding the question. I hate that. I was even more disgruntled at how, after selling eight novellas and seven single titles, I still am a hopeless novice in this business. I'll whine about that into my laptop and spare you. Back to the discussion with my agent...
His question: What kind of mystery is it?

My answer: Uh, what?

Impressive show on the knowledge of my profession, isn't it? What's worse is that the very first thing that popped into my head - the part I did not say out loud by some miracle - was something of the what the heck is he talking about variety. The uh, what? part was my fall back and slightly more intelligent position. After a few seconds of mindless nothing, a string of mental babble about cozy mysteries, cat mysteries and...well, that was about it...hit me. I somehow managed not to say any of it. Instead, I stayed quiet and nodded. I find the blank face nodding tends to get people explaining. And that's what happened here. My agent talked about women-in-peril stories and serial killer mysteries and a whole bunch of story types I had never even considered Or, to be more precise, had not really thought of as separate types.

So, I'm back to studying again. My respect for the mystery genre demands that I not try to leap in without knowing what I'm doing or what's out there.

Back to my proposal...

Want to see how HelenKay manages to mix suspense into her romance writing? Ask a question, share what type of mystery you're writing--or just say "Hello" in comments. We'll toss all the names in a hat and one person will win a copy of Right Here, Right Now, HelenKay's latest release. Check back here Sunday night to find out the winner.
**And don't forget, you still have time left to bid on the Poe's Deadly Daughter's mystery lover's tote bag in Brenda Novak's Diabetes auction.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Interview with author Patti Abbott . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Today's post is an interview with short story and blogger author Patti Abbott. I like her blog and invited her to chat with me here. I love reading and writing short stories too, but it's sometimes a tough job.

LC: Please tell us a bit about your short stories. Where can we read them? Is there a general genre or theme, or are you writing all over the map?

PA: I’ve had about 45 short stories published in print and on zines, and maybe another dozen or so flash fiction stories. The first half were exclusively in literary print journals. But I became interested in trying to write stories like the ones I preferred to read: crime stories. And more and more, the literary journals rejected those stories. I found a home at just the right moment with the crime zines.

Almost all of my stories are about flawed individuals who find themselves in a situation where their flaw handicaps them or trips them up. That sounds more highfalutin’ than it is. Even the more literary stories fall into this category: a dying man can’t care for his mentally-challenged son; an estranged brother and sister finally tell each other the truth about their childhood; a man discovers someone else has used his name with more success than he has. You can see these all veer close to crime stories—kill the son; the brother and sister had a background of abuse neither has admitted; a name is stolen.

You can find my short stories in places such as Thuglit, Demolition, Hardluck Stories, The Thrilling Detective, Spinetingler, Pulp Pusher, Plots with Guns, Shred of Evidence, MystericalE, Mouth Full of Bullets, Murdaland, Word Riot, Apollo’s Lyre and several of the zine flash fiction sites. I have a forthcoming story in Crimespree Magazine and stories in Ed Gorman’s Prisoner of Memory and Thuglit’s Sex, Thugs and Rock and Roll.

LC: Wow, some very impressive zines have published you! Congrats! Why short stories instead of novels?

PA: I came to short stories from writing poetry and I didn’t even begin doing that until my mid-forties. More and more poetry journals were writing back to me that my stories were overly narrative. I decided to use one of the poems as an outline for a story and found out they were right. It just fell into place. In writing short stories, I was able to preserve the thing I loved most about writing: agonizing over every word. Novels don’t allow that luxury unless you want to spend ten years writing each one. I also like spending a few weeks with a character(s) and then moving on to a new person with a new problem. Last year I tried to find an agent for a novel in short stories. He said come back when you have a real novel. I have one now but am still at the beginning of the process of finding an agent. And I must say, I return to the short stories with great relief.

LC: Good luck with the agent search. How long does it take you to write a story?

PA: I would say the average story takes me about 3 weeks to write if I am able to spend 3-4 hours a day on it. I don’t know if that’s fast or slow. Probably slow. Every day I begin with the first sentence and rewrite to the last before I move forward so I’m sure the beginnings of my stories are overworked and the ends are a bit rough. But by the time I get to the end I am usually thinking of a new person and his/her problem. No attention span!

LC: How do you market your stories? I understand the market is tight these days.

PA: When I wrote literary stories, I was able to multiple submit, but even with that, it took months to get a response. With the online markets, the response is much faster and I almost never multiple submit. It’s a small world and that’s not playing fair. I’ve had pretty good luck with online zine acceptances. And several times an editor (Tony Black, Kevin Burton Smith, Neil Smith, the guys at Murdaland ) have told me exactly where I lost them and I was able to rewrite to their tastes or needs. I think with zines it is so much about writing the story that particular zine likes to publish. I have great respect for these editors who often spend their own money keeping the sites going. My only wish here would be for a zine that catered to less hard-boiled stories. I love writing both but have a lot more trouble getting the softer stories published. I’d love to start my own zine but I lack the technical skills, I fear. Plus I would find it nearly impossible to reject stories from anyone I knew.

LC: I'd have the same problem with rejecting friend's stories! I've read your blog and it's great. What's your secret to attracting so many readers/commenters.

PA: Thanks so much. Oh, my secret is pretty simple. I read a lot of blogs and comment on their entries. It’s pretty much about mutuality. If I go to someone’s blog and comment now and then and they never respond and never visit my blog, after a while I stop going there unless it’s an informational blog where comments are not expected. Along with that when someone comes onto my blog and comments, I almost always respond to their comment. It’s like leaving a message on an answering machine to me. It’s just impolite not to respond. I know some blogs are too popular to do this and some just don’t operate like this, but at this point, it’s not hard for me.

I also try to vary what I blog about: Detroit, writerly concerns, reading, movies, politics. I think different people respond to different subjects. I try not to talk about myself too much. I rarely stick with reading blogs that read like a diary or a bitchfest. I don’t really think about it too much. Just talk about what’s on my mind.

LC: I think most readers prefer not to read daily posts about the author's private life. You do a terrific job with yours. What does blogging do for you and your writing? Helps? Takes too much time? Keeps you sane? Drives you nuts?

PA: I know blogging takes too much time away from other things but I spend more time reading other blogs than writing mine. That’s even more inexcusable. It does keep me sane though and suits my personality. I have a lot of stress in my life right now and this is better than a shrink for me.

My kids always told me I could ask more questions in ten minutes than anyone in the world and that’s what I do on my blog. I ask questions and I usually get wonderful answers. This week I asked what made people put a book down without finishing it and I got some answers that made me see some flaws in my own writing immediately. It also told me I wasn’t the only one not finishing a lot of books lately.

LC: Ahh, a secret all authors want to know: Why do readers sometimes stop reading. What is your writing schedule like, assuming you have one?

PA: In the summer, I write every day for about 3-4 hours. I have the same schedule the four days a week I don’t work the other nine months. On the days when I go to the office, I work on my current story on my lunch hour and usually for an hour at night. I love those hours most of the time. I know some people say they like “having written” more than the writing itself. But I love those hours writing, especially the ones rewriting.

LC: Who are your writing inspirations? Who do you like to read and why?

PA: Ten years ago my writing inspirations were very different and I would have named Alice Munro, Bobbie Anne Mason, Raymond Carver, Anne Tyler, Richard Bausch, Russell Banks, Anne Beattie, Charlie Baxter, Antonya Nelson. I was still in the throes of my writing classes then. I still love those writers but now I would name Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Charles Willeford, Ken Bruen, Daniel Woodrell, Ross McDonald, Stewart O’Nan, Lawrence Block, William Kennedy, Pete Dexter, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, and my daughter, Megan. I can’t say enough about Woodrell’s Winter Bone. I sample a lot of the current writing but hate to name names for fear of leaving someone out. I read a lot of crime and a lot of contemporary literary fiction. I recently enjoyed Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, which tells the story of the five pictures nominated for best picture in 1967, Also just read Olive Kitteredge by Strout. Amazing.

LC: Very impressive list! Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you?

PA: Yes. I am running a blog project called Friday’s Forgotten Books right now (which Lonnie is kindly participating in) where writers and readers pick a book they believe is neglected or forgotten and tell a little about it on their blog. Every Friday I post the links on my blog. I am always looking for people to do this. So please contact me if you’d like to join in.

I go into used bookstores and see shelf after shelf of books that were well-reviewed and read in the middle of the last century and are all but forgotten now. I am hoping to put these books in the public eye a minute longer before they are all landfill. It breaks my heart to see the writers no one under fifty now remembers. Of course, it was always so, but now everything seems even more transitory.

Patti's latest blog post is a review of a book by me. Thanks so much for joining us today, Patti and for letting me post on your blog. I hope you get a great response to the forgotten books project.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Using Our Words

Elizabeth Zelvin

A feature of contemporary parenting as practiced by generations younger than mine that always tickles me is the way parents deal with temper tantrums by telling a screaming toddler, “Use your words.” It’s a pithy definition of what writers do.

This piece occurred to me as I sat around the breakfast table at a country inn in Oakmont, PA with two writer friends, Rosemary Harris and Barbara D’Amato, with whom I appeared at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop Festival of Mystery. It’s always great fun to schmooze with other writers, and we got to talking about what different kinds of writers do and how it’s not as easy as it looks to the people who perennially tell writers, “I’ve got a great idea, why don’t you write it and we’ll split the profits.”

I’ve done a significant amount of writing in four distinct genres, or five if you count short stories separately for novels: fiction, poetry, songwriting, and academic or professional writing—six if you count blogging, which I consider a form of journalism, though for some bloggers it’s rather a form of journaling, not at all the same thing.

As someone said at breakfast, it’s marvelous that there are so many words in the English language that each writer comes up with something unique on any given theme. Aspiring fiction writers don’t always realize this. Newcomers sometimes worry that if they send their manuscripts out to agents and editors, these professionals may steal their uncopyrighted material. I’m told this sometimes happens with movie pitches in Hollywood, but it makes veteran novelists laugh.

One, there are proverbially only seven original plots.

Two, the ideas are the easy part: imagination, craft, organization, and perseverance in putting the words on paper (or on screen) are what distinguishes the writer from the wannabe. (Note that this pejorative term becomes less ugly when defined by the writer’s ability to follow through and complete a work, not by publication status.)

Three, I've met at least one writer who expressed concern that his manuscript, also about a recovering substance abuser in lower Manhattan, might coincidentally be too similar to Death Will Get You Sober. I assured him it didn't worry me. I believe someone else has about the same chance of coming up with my characters, my dialogue, and my voice as those monkeys who are supposed to type Shakespeare’s plays if they keyboard long enough.

Poetry, a craft I’ve been practicing for more than thirty years, allows the individual writer to create a unique work by using fewer rather than more words. The challenge is to tell a story (or paint a word picture, depending on what kind of poem one writes) in 100 to 200 words if it’s a typical free verse one-page lyric poem, in seventeen syllables (three lines divided five-seven-five) if it’s a haiku.

Song lyrics are often equated with poems, but in my experience, the crafts of songwriting and writing poetry are distinct. Without demonstrating it here, I can assert with confidence that I can pair songs and poems I’ve written on a single theme—alcoholism, love lost or found, and death, for example—in which I address the theme in two entirely different voices and ways of using words. The power of good songwriting is not only that, like poetry, it’s condensed, but that it expresses what the writer wants to say not in the most original words but in the simplest and most basic words of one and two syllables, while managing to give this simplicity a fresh twist and depth of emotion that can move listeners in much the same way as a poem moves hearers or readers.

In contrast to all of these storytelling genres, professional writing requires the writer to use specialized language—a jargon or, more kindly, idiom—with a precision that will make it perfectly comprehensible to any colleague in the same profession—and do so without telling any stories at all that aren’t true.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Interview with Lisa Unger

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

My guest today published four novels in the Lydia Strong series under the name Lisa Miscione before she switched to her married name, Lisa Unger, for publication of the bestselling suspense novels Beautiful Lies and A Sliver of Truth. Her new book, Black Out, will be released May 27 and is already garnering rave reviews and has been named a Booksense Notable Book for June. Lisa was born in Connecticut, but her family moved a lot – as far as Holland and England – during her childhood before settling in New Jersey. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a publicist for a major publisher. She lives in Florida with her husband and young child.

Q. Would you tell us about your upcoming book, Black Out?

A. Black Out is about a woman name Annie Fowler, whose perfect life in a wealthy Florida beach community is little more than a façade.

She’s literally and figuratively left a horrible past behind -- having fled her true identity and forgotten most of the trauma of her childhood and adolescence. But a series of terrifying events start triggering unwanted memories. And she realizes that she has to face the past she’d rather forget to claim her future -- and save her daughter.

Black Out was my most intense writing experience, and Annie is my darkest, most complicated heroine. I see the resolution of a lot of themes that started in my Lydia Strong books and continued through to Ridley Jones -- the lost girl, fractured identity, how we must claim ourselves rather than wait to be rescued. I felt a terrible urgency to resolve these themes in Black Out.

Q. Why did you decide to use the name Unger after writing four Lydia Strong novels as Lisa Miscione?

A. There are a lot of reasons. First, Beautiful Lies represented such a departure, such an evolution in my writing that it didn’t seem like a Lisa Miscione book at all. I was moving on from the Lydia Strong series and from St. Martin’s Minotaur to be published at Shaye Areheart Books/ Crown. Unger is my married name. So it seemed like a normal and even necessary step. So, I just sent an email to the five people who’d read my Lydia Strong books and let them know to look for Lisa Unger in the future. The transition was fairly smooth, thanks to mostly supportive mystery independent stores who did a lot of handselling and the chains that have supported the Lisa Unger books in a big way.

Q. I see Beautiful Lies and A Sliver of Truth as a single story told in two parts, and it’s hard to imagine that you didn’t originally intend to write a second book about Ridley. At what point did you realize there would be a second book?

A. I didn’t know there was a second book until after Beautiful Lies was done and I’d decided that there wouldn’t be a series. I didn’t want to write another Ridley.
I knew the ending wasn’t easy. I knew that a lot of things went unanswered. And I knew that in BL Jake had lied to Ridley, and fooled her completely. But that’s life, right? There’s so much that never gets resolved, people go unpunished, some answers are never found. But I thought, Ridley’s okay. She’s on her own. After a while, though, all those unresolved points kept nagging, and I kept hearing Ridley’s voice. So I wrote Sliver of Truth. Now, of course, there are a lot of unresolved issues at the end of that book, too.
So …

Q. Have you decided yet whether you’ll write a third Ridley book? Do you think it would be possible to make a third story as deeply personal for Ridley as the first two are?

A. I do still think about Ridley a lot. I think about Max and Ace, even Jake, still. I also wonder about Grace from time to time. So, never say never. I feel connected to Ridley, so I know if I choose to write about her again, it will be a deeply personal story, about the next level of her journey. I wouldn’t write it by design, under some outside influence to write more about her. All my novels well up from within, each of them had to be written for reasons largely unknown to me at the time. This is especially true with the Lisa Unger books. I feel like I really found my voice with Beautiful Lies. I started writing Angel Fire when I was 19 years old. Lydia was a product of a very young woman’s imagination, of very young issues working in my subconscious. As much as Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth are Ridley’s coming of age story, they’re mine, as well. So yes, I’m confident that any evolution of Ridley’s story, should it demand to be written, would be deeply personal for her, and for me.

Q. To me, the most striking quality of your writing is its sheer emotional intensity. Do you have to work at heightening the emotion during the revision process, or does it all come tumbling out of you as you write the first draft?

A. I am a very emotional person, so if anything, I think … god, is this too over-wrought? I don’t know if one can fake -- or heighten, as you say -- emotional intensity. If it is possible, I don’t know how.

Q. How much planning or outlining, if any, do you do before you begin writing? What is the first day of working on a new book like for you? Do you choose a day to begin, or wait until you reach a point where you feel compelled to sit down and get started?

A. When I sit down to write, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I might hear a voice in my head, a phrase, see a news story, a song lyric, an image and I’m off. I don’t know how things are going to end, who is going to turn up on the page. For example, in Black Out, Dax -- one of my favorite characters from the Lydia Strong books -- turned up. How did he get into this new universe? No idea.

My golden writing hours are from 5 AM to noon. That’s generally when I work. Of course, I have a toddler now, so she takes precedence over almost everything, including my writing. So I have to be a bit more flexible. I write again the way I did when I had a full time job -- I make the time, squeeze it in between the other demands on me. Luckily, it’s really harder for me not to write than to find the time, so somehow it all seems to work out.

As for choosing the day or not, it’s kind of some combination between discipline and inspiration. You can’t always make the magic come, but you have to be open and available to it. If you are disciplined about making time to work, then the magic finds you. But, usually, the idea for a new book comes like a lightning bolt. There’s no seeking it and no avoiding it.

Q. Do you revise as you go, or concentrate on getting the whole story down before you rewrite?

A. I tend to do a bit of rewriting and revision as I go along. Going back and reworking this paragraph or that scene helps settle me into the manuscript for the day and often leads to a propulsion forward. I don’t spend too much time on revision during the first draft, though; forward momentum is very important.

Q. How much time do you devote to research, and how do you go about it? For example, when you wrote Twice, how did you learn about the lives of the homeless who live in tunnels beneath Manhattan?

A. I spend quite a bit of time on research. Mainly because I know next to nothing and have to learn about everything! I love the Internet for its immediacy and wealth of information. But there’s nothing like anecdotal research, talking to people, hearing their stories. I have a couple of people who I really rely on for the nuts and bolts of crime and police work. And for Black Out, I conducted a number of interviews -- a clinical psychiatrist, the head honchos at a privatized military company. I also read a lot of non-fiction, and this is in a way a kind of research just because I’m a knowledge and experience junkie, just taking it all in, never knowing what I’ll use later.

With Twice, I’d been fascinated for a long time about the people living in the tunnels beneath Manhattan. A book by Jennifer Toth called The Mole People had really captured my imagination when I was in college. And then I was in a seven-year relationship with a New York City police officer (a whole other kind of research, not for the faint-hearted). And he confirmed that there was an indeed a whole community of homeless living beneath the streets of New York, though no one wanted to admit that. So a lot of what I learned came long before I wrote the book. There have also been a number of great documentary films made on this topic, which served as research and inspiration. I also did a lot of investigating about the system of tunnels beneath the city, unmapped and uncharted, miles and miles of old tracks and abandoned stations. That just always impressed me as enormously cool. For a dark imagination like mine, it’s heaven on earth.

Q. Why do you prefer thrillers to straight mystery? What does the experience of writing a thriller offer you as a writer?

A. Strangely enough, I’m not sure I understand the difference. I get that it’s a pacing and intensity thing.

But, in my heart, I feel as though these are labels created by publishing companies and booksellers to categorize books for sale. I just write what I write, and some people think I’m a thriller writer, others think I’m a mystery writer. I read a review of Beautiful Lies that called it chick-lit. I’ll leave it to others to decide what I am. I’m a writer who tends toward crime and the dark side of things … that’s where my imagination takes me. What other people call me is up to them, I suppose.

Q. Thrillers used to be the domain of male writers. Do you think women have achieved equal status with readers -- or have you encountered male readers who still won’t touch a thriller written by a woman?

A. Hmm … good question. I do have quite a few male readers and am amazed to get mail from them, telling me how much they enjoyed the books. I guess I don’t really expect to have male readers in the first place. So when they take the time to write, I’m really shocked. I had one bookseller in California tell me that the Lydia Strong books were hard-boiled and that male readers in his store who don’t read women, read me. I did take that as a compliment -- sort of.

I do think there’s a bit of a boys club in the genre -- and not just among readers. Maybe it is simply because so many writers and readers of the thriller/mystery genre were forged by noir, which was very much so dominated by men. I definitely feel that a certain type of reader -- uncomfortable with strong female characters, emotional content, sex as told from the feminine perspective - might still shy away from books written by women. But they’re missing out. We have a lot to offer the genre, a new perspective, a fresh voice. Some of the best people writing are writing crime fiction, and quite of few of those writers are women.

Q. What kind of work did you do in publishing? Were you writing throughout that time? When did you decide to go for a full-time career as a novelist?

A. I was a publicist, booking author tours, setting up interviews, appearances, parties, etc. It was a very cool job and I learned everything I ever wanted to know about the industry.

But I have always been a writer and went into publishing as a way to get closer to my dreams without actually committing to it. But, of course, my job got bigger and bigger and I wrote less and less. Finally I had an epiphany -- I realized that I had stopped writing, had never been further away from my dreams and if I didn’t start writing again, I’d have to look back and myself in five years, ten years and say, “You know what? You never even tried to do this.” I couldn’t live with that, so I started writing again, every day, staying up late, getting up early, staying in on weekends, writing at lunch. From that point it took me another year to finish Angel Fire. I started it when I was 19 and finished it when I was 29. Ten years and it’s not a very long book. It’s a little embarrassing, actually.

Q. Do you think finding an agent and selling your first novel was made easier by your experience in publishing?

A. It was easier and harder at the same time. It was easier to find an agent because an editor friend liked the book -- but not enough to buy it. She did, however, suggest a few agents who might like it enough to work on it with me. One of those agents, Elaine Markson, signed me on and helped me rework the manuscript into something publishable.

I may not have had that opportunity if I hadn’t worked in the industry. On the other hand, anyone who wants to slave away in publishing for no money for ten years as a way to get her foot in the door, be my guest. We all pay our dues, one way or another, and no one does anybody any favors in this or any money-making industry.

None of the editors I had known, and none of the publishing companies where I’d worked made offers on my manuscript. They all, in fact, turned it down. When Angel Fire went to St. Martin’s, it was to an editor I’d never met.

I think people don’t want you to change. They see you one way, in my case as a book publicist, and they don’t want to see you any other way. So I think that made it harder to sell my first book.

Q. Do you have a pet peeve about the publishing business?

A. I actually love the business. I love everything about it. I think it’s a wonderfully romantic way to make a living -- as a writer, or an editor or even a publicist. Which is not to say that it isn’t as brutal as any other industry -- dreams are made and crushed everyday; talent doesn’t necessarily mean success; numbers matter more than high achievement in craft. The highs are dizzying; the lows are abysmal.

Success is not guaranteed, no matter how auspicious your beginning -- in fact it’s harder to succeed as a published writer than it is to get published in the first place. But I have never wanted to do anything else but write, so I’m profoundly grateful to make a living in this business.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Write every day. Dig deeper every day. Be true to yourself. Think of publishing as an incidental element to the act of striving to be the best writer you can be, secondary to getting better every day for your experiences and dedication to the craft.

Q. Will you be at any mystery or thriller conferences this year where fans can meet you?

A. I’m planning to make it to Bouchercon this year, schedule permitting. Hope to see you all there!

Visit Lisa’s web sites at and

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

Those of you familiar with Canada may know that yesterday we celebrated Victoria Day, also known as “the Auld Queen’s birthday.” Or, as it’s known in our house, the official beginning of summer. We Canadians can’t wait around for June 21 (which is mid-summer anyway, you know mid-summers eve and all that) to declare summer because, by that time, Arctic winds are massing around the North Pole, waiting to sweep through the Canadian prairies. Any time we make it through the first week in August without a killing frost, we consider it a good year.

Back to Queen Victoria, and to the most famous Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes, who was in business (courtesy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) from 1878 to 1914, allowing for a short interruption where he went over Reichenbach Falls, and took a bit of time to come to his senses and return home after the ordeal.

All in all, Holmes worked with five Scotland Yard law enforcement officers: Inspector Lestrade, Tobias Gregson, Stanley Hopkins, Alec MacDonald, and Athelney (Peter) Jones. Many of us in the mystery community speak with great familiarity about Scotland Yard, “The Met,” bobbies, and other bits of Victorian policing. So, in honor of the Auld Queen, and Mr. Holmes, I thought I might give a big of a guide to policing in London in the nineteenth century.

Dating back to medieval England and firmly rooted in English common law is the practice that any citizen can make an arrest. In fact, every citizen was encouraged to be mindful of what was happening in his community and to take steps to reduce crime, and to apprehend criminals. Into the early 1800, formal law enforcement was handled by private security services, night watchmen, and hired “thief takers,” who were essentially bounty hunters.

Magistrates, also known as Justices of the Peace, often had no formal legal training. They were educated men of some substance, who volunteered their time to hear minor legal proceedings for a certain district. The novelist Henry Fielding was appointed a magistrate in the Liberty of Westminster in 1748. He lived and held his court at #4 Bow Street. His “thief takers” came to be known as the Bow Street Runners. Essentially, their law enforcement consisted of being told by Mr. Fielding, “Go get this person,” and they did. They did not act as detectives, make patrols, collect evidence, or try to prevent crime. Such an arrangement was common throughout the City of London and the surrounding counties. As you can imagine, it didn’t do a lot to make neighborhoods safer.

The Metropolitan Police Act was introduced by the Home Secretary Robert Peel and passed by Parliament in 1829. It created the third urban, non-paramilitary police forces in the world—the previous two were in Glasgow, Scotland, and in Paris, France.

We get police nicknames of “peelers” or “bobbies” from Robert Peel’s name.

Police patrols took to the London streets on September 29, 1829, and they were not popular. The first policeman was killed in the line of duty nine months later. The Coroner’s Inquest ruled his death justifiable homicide. Other officers were beaten, blinded, and attacked.

For ten years, The Metropolitan Police Force covered the City of London, and any place in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Essex or Kent, as long as these places were within twelve miles of Charing Cross. In 1839, the London Police Force was formed, essentially leaving “The Met’s” enforcement area looking like a doughnut. They were able to police all around the City of London, but not inside the city itself.

Keep in mind that the “city” of London is only about one square mile. It is the very heart of London, so the doughnut hole wasn’t very large, compared to the whole doughnut.

The original MPF headquarters was located in Whitehall, and to enter the building’s back entrance, the policemen had to cross through a bricked courtyard called Scotland Yard. The name stuck. However, because there was a great fear of organized spy rings and of the police spying on private citizens, the original metropolitan force didn’t have any detectives. The Detective Branch wouldn’t come into being until 1842. After several reorganizations over the next century and a half, it came to be what today is called New Scotland Yard.

Peel based his police force on two radical principles: first, that police officers must prevent crime and second, that the first objective could be achieved only if the public trusted, recognized, and were willing to assist police constables. To achieve both of these objectives, Peel authorized a whole set of conditions by which the police were to operate.

You might come across a list called “Peelian Police Principles,” which is represented as a list that Peel himself wrote down. Recent scholars makes a very convincing argument that Peel never wrote down such a list, though you can find references to many of the things on the list in his speeches and writings.

Here are the things that Peel promoted, which startled London and the surroundings counties, and set British policing on it’s ear:

Each constable was given a badge with a unique number. The constable was required to give his badge number to anyone who asked for it. A policeman could no longer hide behind the anonymity of his fists and a mask.

Constables wore blue uniforms, and carried only a truncheon to distance them from the army, who wore red uniforms and carried firearms. Previously the army was responsible for violent responses, including the use of firearms on civilians.

Constables were expected to enlist voluntary public cooperation in what we would call today Neighborhood Watches. Peel stressed that every English citizen still had the traditional responsibility for reducing crime and apprehending criminals. The police, however, were to be the only full-time, paid guardians of the law.

Policing was based on a series of local patrols. Constables were to know every nuance of their beats; restrain from using physical force; concentrate on persuasion, advice and warnings; and stay out of public houses during duty time.

The absence of crime and disorder was to be used as the measuring standard as to success of police efficiency.

Peels policing reforms worked. By the time Mr. Holmes investigated A Study in Scarlet in 1878, the bobby had become recognized around the world, whether as the caped, blue-uniformed beat cop, appearing out of the fog, tipping his hat, and wishing Holmes a good evening, or the red-faced, portly constable consulting his notebook in the witness stand and saying, “On March 27 of this year, at 9:52 PM, I was proceeding in a westerly direction, in the performance of my duties…”

Writing quote for the week:

The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
~Sir Robert Peel, British Home Secretary, 1834 to 1835 and 1841 to 1846

Monday, May 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and Me

by Julia Buckley

I took my sons to Blockbuster over the weekend to pick out a couple of movies. Inside we were confronted by a huge Indiana Jones display: posters, limited edition prints, popcorn holders with scenes from the movie. I wandered over and lingered in front of it.

"Boys," I said. "Look at all this cool stuff."

They glanced at it, not that impressed. "Yeah," said my older son.

"Look at this neat poster. It's for the new movie. Only five dollars. Don't you want one?"


I ran an affectionate finger over the plastic wrap. "Are you sure? Look what a great poster it is. He looks just like he did in the first movie."

The boys moved on, and I realized that I hadn't wanted the poster for them. I had wanted it for me. Once I faced this realization, I bought the poster, and when I got home I hung it in my office.

All you have to do is watch tv news to see the significance of the debut of the new Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. People are going nuts for this fourth installment; they're digging out their fedoras and bull whips, their Indie action figures, their leather jackets. They're marching around outside of theaters looking as goofy as those parents who dress up on Halloween. But I understand how they feel. It's about nostalgia.

I fell in love with this character long ago, back in the 80s when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theatre and knew, deep down, that Harrison Ford was the man for me. (I had already suspected it when I saw Star Wars). The arrival of the new movie brings back that wonderful rush of pleasure that seeing the movie brought. Added to the exciting mix is the return of Karen Allen, who played Marian Ravenwood in the first movie and then sort of disappeared from Indiana Jones history. Now she's back, 56 years old and as pretty as ever, playing Marian and bringing us fans back to that wonderful first movie, the best of the three.

As a writer, I see the perfection of the Raiders story: the kind that catches you from the very start and then never stops shocking you until the very last ironic frame. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, of cinema, and yes, of mystery.

The local news here suggested that there had been some "negative buzz" about the movie, whatever that means, but it would be awfully hard for this movie to disappoint people like me, who have been waiting for years to see this reunion, and will be cheering the moment Indie appears on screen and adjusts his hat over his eyes.

Who's with me? It opens this weekend. I'll get the popcorn (and yes, I did buy the limited edition Indiana Jones popcorn holders). I may be a sucker for Harrison Ford, but I know I'm not the only one.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Guest Interview: Elena Santangelo

Elena Santangelo is a mystery author and musician with a wicked sense of humor. In addition to writing both short stories and novels, she sings and dances in Philadelphia Revels productions, composes choral and handbell music

On your web site, you seem to be having entirely too much fun: essays about play, a stuffed pig in a paper hat, wicked song parodies, short stories about corporate bosses polished off while riding their Harley. Is nothing sacred to you?

Walter prefers "warthog" to "pig." And the parodies are tame compared to some of those hidden in my PC, covering a variety of, as Tom Paxton puts it, short-shelf-life political topics. But sacred-wise, I hate humor that's mean. Humor ought to be born of wit, or stem from the ridiculous.  Other than that, anything that can be observed can and should be made fun of.  People need to laugh more.

Both ghosts and historical mysteries are hot right now. You've combine both themes in your Pat Montella series. What's the most important thing to remember when writing a ghost as a character?

That the ghost is a human being who happens to be dead. The only motivation missing from the character is that of survival. Everything else is possible. Ghosts need to be as 3-dimensional as every other character in the book, and must be true to the thinking of his/her time period. The coolest thing about putting ghosts in my novels is in figuring out how each one is going to communicate with Pat (or with anyone else in the book). I work on the assumption that straight-forward conversation isn't possible between here and the Other Side (because, heck, that would be BORING!). Better to have the whiff of black powder, or a phantom kiss beneath the mistletoe. Or even to have an invisible cat brush up against your leg.

One of your books ties into the American Civil War, another into Reconstruction, and the latest one into the decade after the American Revolution. Each book has a different feel. What do you do to recreate these historical periods? What obligations, if any, does a fiction author have to represent real history accurately?

My first historical fiction was a short mystery about Valley Forge. I thought my research was decent and I was proud of wanting to be accurate, so I gave it to one of the historians at Valley Forge NHP to read. He tore it to shreds. I vowed never to write a historical again. But I fixed that story and it won a national fiction award.

Now I immerse myself in the time period, listening to the music, viewing paintings of the time, visiting building as old as the ones in the books to see what they feel like, hefting objects like fire irons, weapons, tools. Almost exclusively, I use primary documents (that is, documents written during the time period, like diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). I try to be accurate to the vocabulary of the time, at least, and not use modern expressions or words. As a musician, I have a personal need to get the SOUND of the prose right.

I don't think a fiction author necessarily has any obligation to be accurate, but the more accurate I can be, the more satisfied I am with the final product. Also, I believe readers enjoy the books more. You have to assume your readers will know something about history and you don't want them gagging on your anachronisms.

Kay and Karen Bishop are characters in some of your short stories. What are the advantages of having twin psychologists as your protagonists?

No advantages at all, apparently, since I've never been able to interest anyone in publishing a novel about them, even though I've tried changing their names, ethnic backgrounds and hometowns twice. I came up with the notion of Karen's character first--a college prof specializing in personality theory who occasionally assists local police by profiling criminals. It gives her an 'in' on murder investigations but she isn't a full-time law enforcement pro. Instead of giving her a usual sidekick--the cop lover, for instance--I gave her a mirror-twin sister. The relationship is fascinating to play with.

Kay is left-handed.  And one thing that, if I remember right, isn't mentioned in the stories (because it's not important), but came out in the novel, is that they were connected at birth on their non-dominent arms from elbow to pinkie.  When they were separated, Kay got a full pinkie, Karen has one knuckle. Because Kay's left handed, she's right brained--very creative, very good at seeing the big picture.  Karen's got a scientific brain (sort of like Beth Ann grown up)--very logical and good at details.  Fascinating because of this difference, but also, most 20-something identical twins (the ones I know), before they're comfortable in their own skins, they have a few more identity problems than normal folks.  The insecurities feed into all sorts of great character conflict.  Plus, there's always the mistaken identity possibilities.

In addition to being a mystery writer, you're a musician, dancer, and composer. Are you planing any mysteries with a musical bent?

Please don't call me a dancer. My friends who are genuine dancers, on reading this, will spew whatever they're drinking onto their keyboards and make me pay for the damages. I do love folk dancing, though. Favorites: square dancing, a beautiful Israeli dance called Ma Navu, and a wild French Canadian dance called La Bastringue. But that wasn't your question.

HANG MY HEAD AND CRY has a modern character who's a part-time church singer, and much of the book (including the title) has references to spirituals, which are probably my favorite folksongs. POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY has a main character who's a fiddler and music master in 18th century Williamsburg. The thing is, history is FILLED with people making music. It's only since the advent of radio and recordings that Western society started getting odd ideas about music being for musicians only. Before that everyone sang and many people played instruments. Book 4, FEAR ITSELF (hopefully coming out in 2009) begins with a Carnivale celebration in an Italian immigrant community in 1933, dancing tarantellas to tunes from a concertina (a.k.a. a squeezebox).

What's next?

As mentioned above, FEAR ITSELF in the Possessed Series will hopefully be published in 2009. In the meantime, my first non-fiction book, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS, is coming out later this year. It's a bedside companion to Agatha Christie's short stories, giving a little review of each, plus information about what was going on in her life as she wrote them, how the series characters developed, and things like chronological lists for you folks out there who like to read works in order. Other than that, I have an idea for a parody on gas prices...

To learn more about Elena and her books, visit his/ her website at