Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nostalgia for Camp

Elizabeth Zelvin

The sun is beating down on my midsummer garden: glowing red and yellow day lilies making the most of it, Wedgwood blue hydrangeas wilting in the heat, an abundance of blossoms on the rose of sharon unfurling for their ephemeral taste of glory. My husband, clad in his favorite work clothes, rags that would disgrace Cinderella Before, prepares to venture into the subterranean crawl space under our house to fix a gasket that we’ve been talking about for weeks. Later in the afternoon, we’ll go to the beach. And I’m thinking about camp.

Fiction writers are expected to mine our childhoods for material, whether it’s for the vividness of the memories of taste and smell and touch, the sense of wonder—which the current generation of TV-watching, mouse-wielding, iPhone-toting tots may or may not experience--or the actual events, benign or traumatic. As a writer, I sometimes regret that I didn’t have a more dramatic childhood. (As a therapist who’s witnessed the train wreck of many a dysfunctional family, I’m grateful for the lack of drama.) Many of my memories come from summers in camp.

At six, I was sent with an older sister to a “progressive” farm camp in Vermont. It was supposed to function as a primitive democracy. Many of the other kids were red diaper babies, not that I understood what that meant. I remember the clanging of a cow bell for Town Meeting and the fact that the grownups always got to make the real decisions. I remember the smell of a barn full of hay and the boy who taught me to make a flying tackle.

At eight, I went to day camp in a park in Queens. I remember the smell of brown paper bag lunches and the taste of peanut butter. I have an odd, fragmentary recollection of being in a play about an ogre who ate children. I was one of the children, a non-speaking part. I remember that the Wednesday dinner claims to have a cold to postpone being eaten, and the ogre’s housekeeper says, “Sunday dinner, change places with the Wednesday dinner.” We all had to change places. I can remember not having a clue what was going on. (The play ends happily when the housekeeper admits she never served the ogre any children: “Irish stew, it was always nothing but Irish stew.”)

The next year, I went to Girl Scout camp, which I loved so much I kept going back for as long as I could—till the age of 13—and later returned to work as a counselor. Just last night in the shower, I found myself singing some of Scout camp’s incredibly corny “campfire songs.” I still hear the a capella harmonies in my head every time. I learned all my outdoor skills at Girl Scout camp: building a fire, identifying black birch and deer scat and poison ivy, lashing sticks with twine (which would still come in handy if I ever had to make a raft). I learned to swim and canoe and how to whip up such American classic dishes as s’mores and tuna wiggle. Girl Scout camp taught community and self-reliance. When the women’s movement came along a couple of decades later, I found that many of the feminists I met had been Girl Scouts.

Today, lying in a hammock watching the oak and apple and sassafras branches dip and sway in the breeze, I remember that I learned this quiet attentiveness, almost a meditation, in Girl Scout camp during rest hour. For the first half hour, we had to lie on our cots in a canvas tent with the flaps rolled up, not talking or even reading. It was meant as a time to nap, and to this day I’m very fond of naps. But often I did what I’m doing today, happy to watch the sunlight on the leaves and listen to the wind and simply be.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One-book Authors

Sandra Parshall

Does the name Ross Lockridge Jr. ring a bell? No?

In 1948, he published Raintree County, a novel that became the number one bestseller in the U.S. (If you’re a film buff, you may have seen the 1957 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.) Herman Wouk declared Lockridge’s book the genuine Great American Novel that so many have aspired to produce. It should have been the start of a brilliant career. But Lockridge never wrote another book. Deeply depressed, he committed suicide in March of 1948, as his book reached the height of its popularity. At the age of 33, Lockridge joined the ranks of one-book authors, most of whom have faded into obscurity while a handful have achieved lasting acclaim for their single, and singular, works of fiction.

John Kennedy Toole also committed suicide, not after his book was published but because he was crushed by his failure to get A Confederacy of Dunces into print. Following his death in 1960, his mother embarked on a mission to fulfill her son’s dream. After seven years of frustrated efforts, she persuaded novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and he in turn found a home for the book at Louisiana State University Press. It was published in 1980 to wide acclaim, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Dunces has never since been out of print.

Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee also produced novels of such merit and appeal that they have remained in print and continued to sell steadily since publication. Both their novels won the Pulitzer Prize. Mitchell apparently enjoyed the success of Gone with the Wind (1936), but she suffered – and I believe “suffered” is the right word – an invasive degree of fame that even Janet Evanovich and Stephen King couldn’t imagine. Fans gathered outside her home and peeked in the windows. They swarmed her when she emerged. She lived another 13 years, dying in 1949 after she was struck by a taxi, but she never wrote another book. Perhaps she was paralyzed by the twin fears of re-igniting the obsession of readers and producing a book the world would declare an unworthy successor to GWTW.

Harper Lee’s only book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is widely considered the most outstanding American novel ever written, and high school and university teachers all over the country use it as a teaching text. Ms. Lee is still alive, and she travels to accept awards and other honors, but she prefers to remain out of the limelight. She did, however, give a newspaper interview last year when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush, and in that interview she
confirmed her desire for a simple, quiet life filled with reading, not writing.

Toole, Mitchell, and Lee and their books wouldn’t fade from memory in any case, but the internet is keeping alive the reputations and work of more obscure one-book writers. Ross Lockridge and his book are celebrated
on a website. Mark Moskovitz, a director of political commercials, made a documentary about his search for Dow Mossman after he discovered the writer’s only published novel, The Stones of Summer. Because of the film, Barnes & Noble has republished the book. Moskovitz created a website called The Lost Books Club to bring attention to other books he feels shouldn’t be forgotten.

These days, many publishers push writers to produce a minimum of one book per year. Is it possible now for anyone to write a masterpiece, given the pressures of the marketplace? We can all name writers we think should have quit after one good book, but that would be a nasty way to treat people who are just trying to stay published and make a living. Instead, can you think of any living writer who could have created a lasting legacy with a single glorious book?

If you had to fill a time capsule with great contemporary novels and could choose only one from your favorite writer, which would it be?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Getaways

Sharon Wildwind

The place I live tops out at about a million people, and from the looks of the building cranes that dot every other block downtown, we’re not through growing yet.

The city has just finished a three-year road construction project about two minutes from my house. Now that traffic is running smoothly—all right, sort of smoothly—in this part of town, they’ve started a second major project on the opposite side of town and plan route traffic from there through the part that’s just been completed. So we can anticipate three more years of noise and congestion.

On the other hand, summer weather here this year has been ideal. After a rather rainy start, small showers and bright, hot days have arranged themselves into a nearly perfect pattern. Trees are lush, green canopies. Flower beds and container plantings have run riot and we’re not even into the sultry days of August yet. The baseball diamonds are full, the outdoor pools are open, and every afternoon about suppertime, there’s the smell of bar-b-q in the air.

Makes me long for small town life, and this summer, I’m taking refuge from the traffic, noise, and building cranes in small towns all across North America. Of course, they have to be small towns with a little something wrong. Corruption at city hall? A secret in the small shops on Main Street? A body in the pond just over by the recreation centre? You bet.>Here’s a little summer quiz for you. Given below are authors, detectives, small towns, and states and provinces. Can you match one entry in each list? When you think you’re done, go to the comments section for the answers. Then go to the library or bookstore and spend the rest of the summer in a lot of lovely small towns. Ya’ll sit yourself down. I’ll be back with with iced tea and cookies in just a minutes.

Anne White
Carolyn Haynes
Deb Baker
Elana Santangelo
Louise Penny
Margaret Maron
Mary Monica Ferris
Rhett MacPherson
Susan's Wittig Albert
Suzanne McMinn

Armand Gamache
Betsy Devonshire
China Bayles
Dane McGuire
Deborah Knott
Gertie Johnson
Loren Graham
Pat Montella
Sarah Booth Delaney
Victoria O’Shea

Small Towns:
Bell Run
Colleton County
Emerald Point
New Kassel
Pecan Springs
Three Pines

New York
North Carolina
West Virginia

Monday, July 28, 2008

Murder at a Family Reunion

by Julia Buckley

This weekend we attended a family reunion in Michigan. The weather was perfect, the food was far too delicious (I ruined my diet), and the people were friendly. I got to thinking, though, that a family reunion is a potentially great setting for a mystery.

First of all, there are some people at reunions that one hasn't seen for years. Some of my cousins looked drastically different. I recalled that in at least two Agatha Christie novels, a person was believed to be one identity just because everyone EXPECTED that they were who they said they were. So I guess, if someone had a motive, they could show up at a family reunion as a long-lost something or other, and people might believe them, assuming they bore a passing resemblance to the long lost relative in question.

Another potential plot point can come from emotion: certain conflicts can simmer in families for years. Our reunion was remarkably tension-free, but there have been times that certain members of the family have not been speaking to certain other members. I suppose a creative mystery writer could bend one of these issues into a life-threatening sort of anger, an anger that comes out full force at the reunion, potentially right next to the buffet table.

However, in our case, we had 20 acres of woods at our disposal, and I guess if you're going to dispatch someone, you should do it out there, where a person wouldn't be found for a while. :)

I hope it doesn't sound as though I was contemplating killing my family members, who are all terrific people. As a writer, though, I'm always considering setting and plot. And here's a final idea for consideration: what would be the best way to dispatch a character at an event like this? Can you harm someone with a badminton racket? Put hornets in the tire swing? (they actually had a nest in there, and stung an unsuspecting three-year-old, who labeled them "bad bugs" while he pressed the ice bag to his head). Poison the potato salad? Ambush someone on the path? Call it a "hunting accident?"

Share your creative ideas--maybe one of us will go on to write the novel.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Kerrie Droban: Running with the Devil

By Kerrie Droban (Guest blogger)

KERRIE M. DROBAN heads a private law firm, specializing in criminal defense and capital litigation. She is an award-winning poet as well as author of the novels In the Company of Darkness and The Watchman’s Circle, which won the Daphne duMaurier Award for suspense writing. Her true crime book, Running with the Devil: The True Story of ATF’s Infiltration of the Arizona Hell’s Angels, is available in hardcover and will be out in paperback this fall. Critics have compared Kerrie’s writing to Patricia Cornwell and Tami Hoag and have described her novels as "riveting, compelling and shocking" tales filled with "heart-stopping action" and at times "terrifying characters" who “will live in our thoughts for a long time to come." She has participated in over 30 felony jury trials and authored over 50 legal briefs, one of which, State v. Ring was heard by the U. S. Supreme Court and resulted in the remand of over 180 death penalty cases nationwide.

At times we all wish the truth was fiction. It might be more palatable. After all, imagination is a kind of frontier without borders or restrictions; with true evil, at least we hope there is definition, limit and some moral barometer. And if there isn’t . . . we search for explanation, excuse, and even justification. And if we don’t find any . . . then we look for motivation, for clues in a person’s childhood, for that toxic cocktail that transformed them into a monster, for brutal figures who influenced them, used them, abused them and ultimately erased what made them human. And if we don’t find those factors . . . then we’re left with the untenable hypothesis that there really are natural born killers.

Why else would a Phoenix woman who had been “happily” married for eight years to a devoted and wealthy arts dealer decide one day to throw his body into a freezer, defrost him, dice him up and put his remains into a large garbage bag? Or, a father conclude that it was okay to keep his daughter hostage in a makeshift cellar for twenty-four years so that she could gratify his sexual urges and bear his children? Or, a woman slice up her boyfriend to drink his blood in a perverse vampire love ritual?

Every day as I stand in the courtroom and defend against this kind of pathology I search for a way to mitigate my clients’ horrific choices. The challenge is to find a kernel of good, to convey to the judge and the jury that something about them is worth salvaging because our knee-jerk reaction is to warehouse them in cells or exterminate them like rats. My real life experiences have fueled my desire to write true crime because I don’t want refuge or respite from the real stories or the real macabre. I want to understand. Writing is a kind of catharsis for me, a way to process savage behavior with a goal toward inspiring change in the social institutions—schools, families, prisons—who house and guide these sad individuals.

My goal, in many ways, is to do what the operatives did in my book, Running with the Devil -- to journey through the darkness in order to understand the criminal mind, its violence, rage and purpose. The undercover operatives lived for eighteen months as outlaw motorcyclists in order to infiltrate another vicious gang, the Hell’s Angels. They lived a triple life as outlaw bikers, ATF agents and family men. And the stress nearly destroyed them.

Their goal was to cripple the Hell's Angels, chill the club’s criminal exploits and enlighten the public about the gang’s activities. In the end few of the criminal charges against the bikers held and the ATF operatives were rewarded with fear of reprisal from the Hell’s Angels without government protection or, sadly at times, even government interest. But the operatives’ efforts were not entirely in vain. The Hell’s Angels’ public persona was tarnished and the club’s reign as lord of the flies has diminished. But what may have died as a news story lives on in Running with the Devil. With both of their secret lives exposed—the operatives’ sacrifice and bravery and the gang’s savagery and pathology—the public cannot forget what happened or why it happened.

That’s the real goal for me in writing true crime, to preserve a moment in time and to hopefully learn from the experience so that we can effect change through information and knowledge.

Visit Kerrie’s web site at

Friday, July 25, 2008

Real Life Crime

By Lonnie Cruse

During the recent Superman Celebration a reader stopped by my signing table to chat. Since my books are set in the real Metropolis, IL, readers often want to know if they feature true crime and real people rather than fictional. The characters are fictional, but I confess, I often get my ideas from news reports. I do change things around. No use inviting lawsuits, is there? But trust me, people, authors can NOT create anything as wild as what happens in real life. Nobody would believe us if we did.

As the reader and I chatted, he asked me about real crime in Metropolis, IL, and I had to stop and think. This is a small town where pretty much everyone knows everyone else. Sneeze at one end of town and in seconds someone will bless you from the other end. Have an affair? Not unless you want it known to all and sundry within minutes. But sure we have crime here. Not like a big city, but we have our share. The Planet newspaper lists arrests, trials, etc, and as a writer, I read the paper for information and inspiration. Sometimes the arrest notes are humorous, (as in how could anyone be that dumb?) and sometimes they make me want to cry, if the crime is against a child, a woman unable to defend herself against a stronger man, or a defenseless animal.

While we don't have all the perks of a larger city, like malls, theaters, freeways for faster speeds, we also don't have as high a crime rate. Like I said, everyone knows everyone else, so the possibility of being "ratted out" is extremely high here. And we live very near the Bible belt. Say what you will about organized religion, the truth of the matter is, those who are taught to obey the Golden Rule generally tend to live it. Not everyone, of course. I'm not that much of an ostrich. But a satifying number of people do live it. So there's something to be said for living in an area where everyone knows everyone else's business and folks treat others the way they'd like to be treated.

But before you write us off as boring, just let me share with you the story of one local crime. A female resident was reported to the police department for target practicing with her pistol, in her back yard, dressed in, um, well, actually she wasn't dressed in anything at all. By the time former Planet newspaper editor and photographer, Clyde Wills, arrived on the scene, the woman had wrapped a tablecloth around herself. Clyde snapped what has to be my all-time favorite newspaper photo: the woman holding the tablecloth closed around her body with one hand, the other raised in the air, signaling submission. A few feet away, two extremely serious police officers aimed their firearms at her while they assessed the situation (as in, hey, does she have that pistol hidden underneath that tablecloth? If so, is it still loaded? How willing is she to fire it again? At us?)

Truly, Clyde Wills deserved a Pulitzer for that picture. The officers deserved a medal for restraint, given the situation. And the woman? I never found out whether she was charged or arrested or what the outcome of the case was, but she obviously deserved something. Jail time? Chocolate? New clothes? Beats me. But just don't assume that because we're small, we're boring. Not when it comes to true crime.

And be careful out there. This woman could have moved into your neighborhood.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Robbery on the Information Highway

Elizabeth Zelvin

I got a new and different kind of rave review the other day. My Google Alerts feature is set to email me a weekly summary of mentions of my name and the title of my mystery. Usually it manages to find my latest blog post on Poe’s Deadly Daughters; it spotted most of my virtual interviews and guest blogs in March and April and some though not all of the bookstore websites announcing my tour appearances in May and June. It’s been less adept than I’d hoped at picking up reviews online. But this particular catch was something different.

The hypertext title was Bargain on Death Will Get You Sober. The site appeared to belong to someone named Tamara, whether a real person or a virtual trickster I have no way of knowing. By clicking on the link, I found the complete text of the book’s jacket copy. I don’t mind my publisher’s description of the book being disseminated in cyberspace. What’s not to like (as we say in New York) about “Debut author Elizabeth Zelvin has used her expertise as a treatment professional to pen a riveting mystery filled with memorable, realistic characters”? But that was not the rave.

“I got my Death Will Get You Sober off Ebay and man it ROCKS!” Tamara gushed. “My Death Will Get You Sober is of the best quality around. I highly recommend it to anyone.” In case the reader didn’t get it, she added, “I scored my copy of Death Will Get You Sober off of an Ebay auction and got a super good deal.” She repeated that line several times, perhaps to encourage search engines to hone in on the page during searches for “Ebay” and “auction.” I clicked on the hyperlink book title, naively hoping it might lead somewhere relatively benign where the user could buy the book. Nope. Not only did the link take me to a multipurpose auction site, but it inserted a nasty Trojan in my computer, which luckily McAfee immediately detected and removed.

Sophisticated mystery lovers, an umbrella that includes writers, booksellers, librarians, mystery conference goers, and mystery e-list devotees (and perhaps almost everyone who reads Poe’s Deadly Daughters), know what’s wrong with buying a book like mine on Ebay, or indeed in any used book venue, including the “new and used” feature on Amazon. But it occurs to me that ordinary readers, of whom I hope a great many read my book, have no idea what a difference it makes to the writer. So here’s the problem:

1. Writers are paid in royalties, which are a percentage of the sale of each book. Even the advance, the upfront money, is an advance against royalties. When you buy a new book in a bookstore, the bookseller gets some of the money, the publisher gets some, and the writer gets some. When a book is resold, whether it’s being auctioned on Ebay, recycled “new or used” through a dealer who works with Amazon, or on the street after falling off the back of a truck, all the money goes to whoever sent or handed you the book.

2. Publishers base their publishing decisions on sales. When a book is sold through a bookstore or to a library, the publisher knows about that sale. The publisher does not know that a copy appeared on eBay or was sold through a used book dealer. From the publisher’s point of view—and the writer’s—that copy of the book doesn’t count. The publisher adds up all the sales of a writer’s book and decides whether that writer’s sales are meeting expectations. If they’re not? Certainly no paperback edition. No new contract. No more books.

Have I oversimplified? Of course. I haven’t even mentioned the dreaded returns, when bookstores send back unsold copies and the publisher’s computer enters a minus sign on the writer’s sales figures. But the basic principle is simple. If you buy a book new, the author gets paid for his or her work. The sales count. If it’s a resale, they don’t. If the author makes sales, the publisher is happy. If the publisher isn’t happy, the author may not only fail to make a living, but not get the opportunity to go on writing books.

The public is reasonably well informed these days about how pirating music CDs and movie DVDs is stealing from the artists and undermining the recording and film industries that provide music and movies for our entertainment. The same applies to books. One morning maybe a year ago I was appalled to find on the AOL home page a hot tip for saving money: Guess what! You never have to pay full price for a book again! You can save as much at 66 percent by buying all your books from resellers! They didn’t say that if everybody does that, some day there may be no more books.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Interview with Carolyn Wall

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Carolyn Wall was happily anticipating publication of her first novel, Sweeping Up Glass, by Poisoned Pen Press when she received astonishing news: Bantam/Random House had bought the rights from PPP. The book has since been sold in a number of foreign countries for publication next year. Under the agreement, PPP retains the right to publish a
1,000-copy special edition next month.

Sweeping Up Glass isn’t crime fiction in any conventional sense, although crimes occur in the story, and Bantam will publish it as literary fiction. It’s told in the striking voice of Olivia Harker Cross, who struggles to keep a small grocery store going in rural Kentucky during the Depression, while she raises her grandson, looks after her mentally ill mother, and tries to protect the silver-faced wolves that are being killed by hunters on her land. Olivia’s poor, segregated community hides devastating secrets, and when the silence is broken the truth threatens to destroy Olivia unless she finds the strength to fight for herself and for the very people who have betrayed her.

Carolyn is a freelance writer and lives in Oklahoma. I recently talked with her about the unexpected turn in her career and how it has affected her life.

What an exciting time this must be for you! How did you find out about Bantam’s offer? What was your first reaction? How have your family and friends reacted?

I didn’t know anything about all this until the deals were well underway, some of them completed -- and thank goodness! Robert [Rosenwald, publisher of Poisoned Pen Press] called me and asked if I was sitting down. So I sat. In the days following that phone call, my feelings were divided into three categories: Well, sure (I’d put in my three million words and always believed I’d write a bestseller), Still grinding away (scrambling for freelance work, putting together writing classes, couldn’t stop struggling uphill) and What’s my name? (often accompanied by What town is this?)

My family and friends have cheered and cried and thrown parties and dinners and celebrated. My family has smiled so much, I suspect their faces hurt.

When do you expect the Bantam edition to be published? Will it be hardcover or paperback?

Bantam’s edition will first be hardcover and then paperback. I don’t know for sure, but I’d look for Glass in hardcover early next summer. The deal also involves a second novel, hardcover and then paperback.

You’ve already been through the editing process with PPP. Is the book being re-edited at Bantam? Since you submitted the book to PPP, a mystery publisher, I assume you think of it as a mystery, but Bantam will publish it as literary fiction. Will the two versions be substantially different?

Bantam will look to see if they want revisions. My editor, Kate Miciak, told one of the overseas publishers that she’d “read it with her heart, now she would read it with her head.” Truly, I don’t expect much in the way of change, but you never know, and I’m willing to try things. I’m not surprised that the book will be considered literary fiction. I’ve always thought of it as “suspense,” murder included.

What was the inspiration for the story? Were you already familiar with the setting and the time period, or did you have to do quite a bit of research?

In the book, Olivia’s life is much like mine was, at least until she is nine or ten – although at that time I hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not from Kentucky. But those and a few other fictionalizations gave me a cushion for a very painful story. From then on, we pick up more fiction, lots of symbolism. And yes, I researched the time period and the place.

Where does the title come from?

The title is the story’s theme: You think all the bad things have happened, and you’ve swept up the glass. But the hard stuff keeps coming – what do you want to do? Keep on sweeping, or take a stand?

Was this the first novel you’d written? If not, would you tell us about your previous efforts to break into print?

While this is my first novel to be sold, I wrote three “learning books”. It takes a while to figure it out. Meanwhile, I sold hundreds of articles and short stories. But when I sat down to write my first scene from Glass, I knew it was gold. I just knew.

What is your day job?

I've been a freelance writer for a long time. For fourteen years I was senior staff writer for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum -- I still write for them -- and fiction editor for Byline magazine for writers. I teach writing to kids and adults, run a prison-writer mentoring service and an editorial service. So I write or edit or teach most of every day. When I've had enough, however, I pack lunch in my purse and go to the movies.

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

I guess my strengths lie in "falling into" my characters. I'm working on the pacing and insertion of clues -- how many revelations, when and where.

What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books do you rush to read as soon as they’re published?

I read everything by James Lee Burke, most of Dean Coontz, all of Diane Mott Davidson. I always loved Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but my favorite is Lalita Tademy's Cane River.

What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book now? Can you give us a hint of what it’s about?

I'm currently finishing The Coffin Maker, the second book that was part of this "sold package". It's about a woman who builds coffins in her barn in south Texas. The fancy, inlaid, hammered ones are sold across the south as armoires, bridal chests, gun cabinets, coffee tables. But the plain jane models have another purpose. This story is about wrongs that were -- and still are -- perpetrated in Mexico, and how, sometimes, things have to be made right.

Will you be doing any signings and conferences where readers can meet you after the Poisoned Pen Press edition of Sweeping Up Glass comes out?

I'm signing books at The Poisoned Pen [bookstore, in Scottsdale, AZ] the third weekend in August -- check their website --and here in Oklahoma City at Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place, on Saturday, August 9 at 3 p.m.

In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Oh boy, that's winding me up and turning me on! Well -- write. Write about yourself, your family, your boss, your local supermarket opening. A new ad for your toothpaste tube. Develop an awareness of your presence in every single moment, and your own opinion. And read. Listen to every teacher within reach -- you can sort it all out later and decide what's right for you. Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't. Pretend you're Alice, and go bravely down the rabbit hole.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Remaining Human

Sharon Wildwind

Some years ago my husband and I went to Great Britain. Being museum buffs in a big way, we ended up in a lot of museums. In one of them, there was a new exhibit of the Lindow Man. The Lindow Man, in case you’ve forgotten, was first unearthed in May, 1984 by two peat cutters working in the County of Cheshire.

As it happened, just before our trip I’d read Anne Ross’s and Don Robins’s, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, which discussed the Lindow find in detail, and postulated that the remains belonged to a man ritually sacrificed three times, in accordance with possible Celtic and Druid rituals.

What I found most upsetting in the book was the mention that the human remains were soon to go on exhibit in a museum. It never occurred to me that I would see those remains, but one morning I walked around a corner and there he was.

My stomach did a double-turn and I am not, by nature, a queasy person. I’ve worked in an emergency room and did a surgical rotation in nursing school, so I’ve seen most of the components that make up the inside of human bodies. What I found disturbing was that what I was looking at had, 2,000 years ago, been a human being. Even after two millennia, that person-who-had-been deserved more respect than being put on display.

I came away from the museum feeling dirty, a voyeur of something it would have been better not to see. Would it have been more dignified to simulate the Lindow Man’s remains? To have a Hollywood model-maker duplicate, using latex and other wonder materials, his appearance and put that simulacrum on display instead?

This past week I was exposed to an over-the-top rerun of a TV forensic show, and two books, both police procedurals, both featuring graphic descriptions of bodies that had been, in the delicate language of British TV shows, “interfered with.” I realize I had my answer to those questions that bothered me a couple of decades ago. A simulation of human degradation, whether done with moulded latex and paint, or computer-generated imaged or graphic, detailed paragraphs is still human degradation.

As writers, I think we have a responsibility not to go for the cheap thrill. Yes, writers can titillate and arouse their readers with graphic descriptions of torture. Yes, it is harder to raise the stakes, arouse sympathy, and convey the horror of a crime when full-frontal graphic details are withheld, but I truly believe as writers that we have to attempt to do this. In a world where actors vie for playing the corpse, so that their bodies can appear to be dissected for the television screen, or where it's hard to tell if we're watching a fictional drama or a newscast about torture, it is time to take another look at values such as common, human decency. A fascination with human remains is not a good way for all of us to remain human.
Quote for the week:

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

Monday, July 21, 2008

My Shameful Geography

I wonder if one of the reasons I sometimes find it difficult to create a realistic setting is my shameful lack of knowledge when it comes to world geography. In my defense, I was taught no geography in grade school or high school. None.

The first course I had the opportunity to take was in college--taught by a lovely Hungarian man named Ferencz Kallay. Ferencz knew that my father was Hungarian, and he would chide me daily for not being able to speak what he considered my native tongue. He would also shake his head at me when I displayed my ignorance, which I did with appalling regularity.

"Yoolia," he would sigh, shaking his head. And then he would go on to tell us some fascinating geography-related tale, such as the one in which he insisted that when JFK made his famous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech, the people of Berlin were secretly laughing, because in the context of their daily language he was saying "I am a donut."

Ferencz would tell us these stories and solemnly look at us through his round spectacles and wonder why we, his American students, didn't know more by the time we got to college. I wonder that, too. Sure, there are people with amazing knowledge of geography, but shouldn't we all have a pretty good feeling for the important places on maps?

I use myself as an example--and as a guinea pig. I found a random geography test online and took it, and I present myself shamefacedly now with my results: I got a 33%. I was hoping for better, but I'll bet Ferencz Kallay, who is now in heaven, is shaking his head at me and saying, "How could you expect more? You never study."

What I ask now is that you redeem the reputation of American schools. I can't do it--go on without me. Take the quiz and share your results, and meanwhile I'll download some maps.
click here for the quiz (created by Pam Robinson, posted on Growabrain).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Canada Calling: Anita Daher

Anita Daher is a Canadian author who writes exactly the kinds of stories she likes to read. At least, that is what she strives for.

You write for children in the 7 to 12 age group. How is constructing a thrilling adventure/mystery different for that age group than it is for adult readers?

I write for 7 to 12 year olds, and I also write for teens. The difference in writing these books, as compared to books for adult readers, is primarily in the age of the protagonist, and subject matter—themes. Just like adults, teen and juvenile readers want believable, sympathetic characters.  However, they also want an absorbing, engaging plot. They would turn up their noses at a “literary” novel, in much the same way some turn up their noses to crime fiction written for adults.

I was recently in Vancouver speaking at Simon Fraser University’s Symposium on the Book on the subject of YA crime novels next to literary novels in Canada. There is some common ground, but the difference, and it is a significant one, is in story. A YA novel can contain all the important themes, ideas, and character development that a literary novel can have, however it must also have a satisfying plot. In recent years, the importance of plot has been brushed to the side of plate in terms of adult literary novels. This is not so with YA and juvenile novels, and never will be. As Philip Pullman said in his 1996 Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, “Children have more important things on their mind than your dazzling skill with wordplay.  They want to know what happens next!”

Two Foot Punch, which came out last year, is described as being published by Orca for reluctant teen readers. There are two myths out there: one, that the Harry Potter has reengaged teen readers in reading for pleasure, and two, that it didn't. What's your take on teens and reading for pleasure?

We can’t lump all teens into the same bus, some enjoy quiet activities, such as reading, others prefer a skateboard park, some prefer both. There is no doubt that the Harry Potter series created an excitement among teen readers (and adult, and juvenile) that accelerated when readers had a chance to come together in person, or on-line, and share that excitement with each other. Others wanted to join the fun, even if they hadn’t been strong readers previously. Whether all or some of those former non-readers continued to make trips to libraries and bookstores following their heady Harry Potter experience, I don’t know. I do know that all teens love story, whether it be through gaming, big-or small screen, books, or something else entirely. All writers can do is make stories available. If we write it…they will come?  Well, they might, and that’s all we can ask. We also strive to write better stories always, and all ways. That is what it’s all about, truly.

What can other family members do to encourage teens to read?

Family members, educators, anyone in a position to set a good example for young people should do that very thing. Read! If kids see someone they respect reading, and enjoying themselves doing so, perhaps even sharing this or that worthy passage, they are more likely to develop the same sort of habits. Also...when opportunity arises comments like “Man, the book is WAY better than the movie because....” might be intriguing for them.

Your book covers and web site have photographs of bush planes, and your navigation bar on the website says, “Back to the hanger.” Would you care to talk about planes and what they bring to any northern story?Aviation is in my blood, and at the time my web site was built seemed a natural fit, especially given the themes of my first books. Once upon a time before I turned seriously to writing I worked for Canada’s air traffic services division. I married an air traffic controller. My father worked for Transport Canada’s air navigation service, and was in the air force before that, and was a private pilot. My grandfather was a navigator in the air force. And so it goes. I grew up living close to one airport or another, and the buzz of an aircraft engine powering up energizes me in some of the same ways a morning bowl of corn flakes does.
And of course bush planes opened up Canada’s north in the last century. Today aviation is still vital to communities that are fly-in only during times of the year that water passages or ice-roads aren’t viable, and there is no rail service. Besides people, they bring in food, groceries, and mail.  They also are used to conduct searches, and rescues, and fight forest fires. With so much of importance “up in the air” so to speak, they are a natural part of story.
You're the first writer-in-residence for the bookstore, Aqua Books in Winnipeg, Manitoba. How did a bookstore come to have a writer-in-residence, and what things are you doing as you write in residence?

This as a fun story, rooted in generosity.  Sometime around the middle of March 2007 I was giving a reading at the old location for Aqua Books in the Heart of Winnipeg’s Exchange District. I loved, loved, loved the stacks of books, and the antique fixtures. I told Kelly Hughes, the owner, that if he could find me a corner somewhere he should let me be his writer-in-residence. I told him that at home I was without office, and often feeling in the way, or torn in 567 pieces when trying to write. In a place like Aqua Books I would feel inspired, and with a dedicated space could be very productive. I believe I said please.  Or maybe it was “Please, please, pretty please, please, PLEASE!”
I was pretty much just joking (but with a smidge of truth and desperation), but Kelly said, “Hmm,” and that he had been looking to move his store to a new building with lots of space, and that just maybe a writer-in-residence was a good idea.
A year later, and here we are—in a fabulously renovated stand alone building still in the heart of downtown; a former Chinese food restaurant. The store is quite a bit bigger, with a bistro called EAT! at the back (Kelly’s wife Candace is an amazing chef), two dedicated literary event spaces upstairs, and three offices for writers—one of them set aside for the writer-in-residence, and two that are rented out. Kelly honoured me by asking me to be the store’s first writer-in-residence. In return for having a fabulous office to write in I…do nothing but write, and feel celebrated. As far as I can determine, this is an act of generosity, and that is it. However, during my time here I have had emerging writers approach me and ask if I will read their manuscripts and evaluate them. I have agreed to do this, with half the fee going to me, and half toward prizes and readings sponsored by the store. Aqua Books sponsors the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry/Prix Lansdowne de poésie, awarded each year at the Manitoba Book Awards.

You and I share a passion for dim-sum. What’s your favorite dish?
Anything with garlic and black-bean sauce-yum!
To learn more about Anita, visit her website at

Friday, July 18, 2008

Quick game of Spider Sol, anyone?

By Lonnie Cruse

The words quick game and Spider Solitare do not go together. The game of Spider Solitare has become the bane of everyone who writes, most certainly better writers than me. More talented, more organized. Yet it gets them as well. It's insidious, sitting there on the computer desk top, luring the owner to play just one more game. You nearly won the last game, right? Just that stinking King that landed at the bottom of the pile, blocking you from cleaning out the entire pile? If you click "new game" surely the cards will fall better this time, and you can win. Surely. Rarely happens. OR if I do happen to win, the score is low, not anywhere near my record of 1195 in one game (medium difficulty, because the easy is too, well, easy, and I simply can't beat the difficult.)

What about Free Cell you ask? Ha! I laugh at the difficulty. Regular Solitare? Again, I laugh. I can beat both with one eye closed. But Sider Sol? Sigh.

Which just shows you that I have waaaay too much time on my hands. Time I should be writing. Reading. Answering e-mails. ANYTHING besides playing that stupid game. And getting the living daylights beat out of me by a computer game. Who programed this thing, anyhow?

One thing computer games accomplish is giving us time to think. And plot. And our brains have time to focus on other things, which often allows a real idea to sneak out into the open, where we need it. Then, IF we can force ourselves to click out of the game (without saving it, if we're really brave) we can go back to writing and finish the plot. Or re-write. Or answer email and make some sense of it. But it's a big IF.

I wonder if there is a twelve step program for Spider Sol players? Excuse me, I think I need to check the Yellow Pages. Again.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Keepers and Chuckers

Elizabeth Zelvin

The human race consists of two kinds of people: those who keep everything and those who chuck anything for which they have no immediate use. As in every other generalizable division except saintliness and evil, neither keeping nor chucking is better or worse than its opposite. They’re just different. Attempts to make a keeper into a chucker or vice versa are going to be imperfect at best, a dismal failure at worst, especially in the long run.

On the Sisters in Crime e-list recently, someone wrote in to ask what to do about “stuff,” citing such examples as conference catalogs and brief mentions in the local newspaper. The replies divided themselves neatly into keepers and chuckers. The keepers cited such rational reasons for keeping every scrap of paper as the possibility of making money decades down the road by selling archives and having evidence for a possible audit by the IRS. But that’s not really why they keep stuff. They simply can’t bear to throw anything away. I know this because I’m a keeper myself.

One consequence of being a keeper is a cluttered home. I’ve got one of those. Two, in fact: an apartment in New York and an 800 square foot (yes, only two zeroes, that’s not a typo) house on the East End of Long Island into which not so much as an additional wall calendar will fit. I flunk feng shui, but I don’t care. I love the stuff with which my home is cluttered. To me, it says, “Interesting people live here.” I fill my space with mysteries and African masks and pottery and photographs. I have straw necklaces from Timbuctoo that I bought in 1965 and the autobiography I wrote for fifth grade in a ten-cent notebook covered with construction paper and filled with drawings and snapshots.

Can a person be a keeper/chucker hybrid? I’d say yes, because my husband is one of those. He keeps library books and stuffed animals and toy soldiers and the little blue tickets the dry cleaner puts on his shirts and hundreds of dollars’ worth of pennies and nickels and dimes. But he throws away ATM receipts. And he talked me into selling my canoe. I’d bought it dirt cheap at a yard sale, and everybody else I know thought I’d been clever to get such a bargain. My husband considered it a malevolent plot to put him to work lifting a heavy and unwieldy object onto and off the top of our car. So I had shoulder replacement surgery and my right shoulder aches if I reach for something on a high shelf, not to mention when I paddle a canoe. So what? I might need a canoe some day. By selling it, we may have thrown away our chance of escaping a tsunami or post-nuclear holocaust. We certainly aren’t going to get away by car along two-lane Route 27 from Montauk, even though the signs say “Coastal Evacuation Route.”

The other thing my husband persuaded me to throw away was my files of tax returns and documentation from the 1970s. “You’ll never need that stuff,” he said, on a roll in pure chucker mode. “Everybody says the IRS only looks back seven years at most.” So now, with New York City rent control under constant threat, I no longer have proof that I’ve occupied my apartment since 1970. If my billionaire landlord ever tries to pry me out, the earliest piece of paper I can show is a canceled check from 1986. I wish I’d never thrown those back files out. Will I ever let my husband live it down? Are you kidding? Hell, no. I’m a keeper.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Saddest Crimes

Sandra Parshall

The saddest crimes of all are not the carefully planned murders or the violent acts committed in fits of rage – the stuff that mysteries can be built around. The saddest crimes are not acts of malice but acts of thoughtlessness, self-absorption, and ignorance. The victims are usually the most vulnerable among us, the children.

Children shoot each other with guns made too accessible by the adults in the household. They fall out of high windows that have loose screens or no screens at all. They choke to death on toys they should not have been given. They are run over in driveways because adults haven't made sure the way is clear. Children die in many ways because adults are not paying attention or have carelessly placed them in dangerous situations.

At this time of year, children die of hyperthermia (heat stroke) when they’re left too long in parked cars. It happens every year, all over the U.S. In 2007, at least 35 children ( a typical annual number) died because they were left in hot cars – and in two different cases, two siblings died together. Adults leave the kids “for just a minute” and don’t return until it’s too late. Or they simply walk off and forget the children are in the car.

In the Washington, DC, area, where I live, a 21-month-old boy died last week when his father, who was supposed to drop him off at daycare on the way to work, forgot he had the child in the back seat. The father went into his office and didn’t think about the baby again until 5 p.m., when a co-worker mentioned seeing “something” in the car. The day had been hot and steamy, a typical summer day here, and the little boy had been dead for hours by the time the paramedics were called. Police said they would charge the father with manslaughter, but the man collapsed, then entered a private mental clinic, and doctors said he was too distraught to deal with being arrested. The police agreed to wait.

Some web sites devoted to child safety offer tips for reminding yourself that you have a child in the car. Put your briefcase in the back seat too, one site recommends. The theory seems to be that you might forget your child, but you’ll never forget the briefcase containing your business papers and your Blackberry, and when you fetch it you’ll see the child too. That won’t work, of course, for the adult who intentionally leaves a youngster in a car and goes shopping or spends an hour in a fitness center.

When criminal charges are brought against parents or other caretakers who let children die in hot cars, family, friends, and neighbors rush to defend the adults, saying they’ve suffered enough, they shouldn’t be punished for an “accident” that could happen to anybody. In many places, prosecutors are likely to dismiss such child deaths as accidental and decline to press charges.

It must be a horrible thing to live with – knowing you left a helpless child in a vehicle where the temperature rose within minutes to a lethal level. But is living with the memory enough of a punishment when an innocent life has been lost? If you caused a traffic accident and killed someone because you were distracted while talking on your cell phone, you would be prosecuted, and few people would say your guilt was punishment enough. Why is forgetting a child and allowing it to die of heat stroke a more understandable and forgivable act of absentmindedness?

How do you feel about this? Should adults responsible for children’s deaths be prosecuted, or should they be sent home with a warning not to let it happen again? If you saw a child alone in a parked car on a hot day, would you call 911, or would you tell yourself the parent will probably be right back, and walk on?

If you’re inclined not to get involved, and you don’t think criminal charges should be brought in such cases, I urge you to try this: Park your car outdoors on a hot day, turn off the engine (and air conditioning), crack the window two or three inches if you believe that’s a magic solution. Then just sit there. See how long you last. Controlled studies have shown that even when the outdoor temperature is a mild 80 degrees, the temperature in a car parked outside will rise to more than 100 within 20 minutes. If the outdoor temperature is in the 90s, a vehicle rapidly becomes an oven, and leaving a window cracked has little effect. Think about the burst of hot air that hits you when you open a car that's been parked for a while, and think about a baby or a toddler left alone in such heat.

While I’m on my soapbox, I might as well throw in one more request. Please don’t leave pets in your vehicle during the summer. Your dog is no more able to survive the experience than your children are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Getting to know you

Sharon Wildwind

How do readers latch on to characters?

When a reader begins a book, she has no idea which characters are important, and which are there to smooth we way into the story, but will never be seen again. She will file every character with the same diligence until she can figure out how important they are to the story. Here are some things that authors can do to help the reader find her way.

Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of doing something doing something with a high physical and/or emotional content.

Give each character a unique name, so that the total character list contains a mixture of sounds, number of syllables, and ethnic origins.

Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.

If there is more than one character sharing the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique character sketch so that Father Jones won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.

Give each character unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, and their relationship to each of these.

Unless dealing with a turning point, where a previously unknown connection between two characters is revealed—for example, when detective learns that a suspect’s maiden name is the same as the first murder victim last name—make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, that they are not related but frequently confused.

If the author introduces minor characters in the first three chapters, the reader will be disappointed if that character doesn’t play a major part in the story. The exception is background characters who make the first three chapters flow: the doorman who opens the car door for the heroine or the dry cleaner who has ruined her best dress, etc. can be used to set events in motion, but they should be mentioned only in passing. The more details the reader learns—that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent, etc.—the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story. A summary like, “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress.” will cover what’s needed to move along.

A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have been seen at least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is the detective(s); it’s hard to have him show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.

If there is a need to hold a character in reserve past the first three chapters, at least make a general reference to them. When the heroine says, “The guys who really piss me off are the ones in the five-hundred-dollar suits, with the look-at-me attitudes” that sets the reader up to expect a man, a suit, and an attitude to show up.

Writing quotes for the week

The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel

Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before you yank them out and pull them into another mind. ~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer

Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name.
~Elizabeth George, mystery writer

Monday, July 14, 2008

Beautiful Settings

by Julia Buckley

I am still immersed in my summer rhetoric course--lots of reading, lots of writing. But I am occasionally reading a good mystery and trying to write one, too. As I read I marvel at the beautiful places one can transport to in a good novel. As Emily Dickinson said, "There is no frigate like a book/to take us lands away."

So my question for the day is, "What's your favorite mystery setting?" and to get you started, I'll share my personal photographs of some of the prettiest settings we've visited in the last couple of years.

The picture above was taken at an animal refuge and park near us; the two below were taken in Michigan during our spring vacation. It was cold, but lovely.

This field of wildflowers drew me out of our car on a tiny side road in Springfield, Illinois--the state capital. Below is a vineyard at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Chile (taken by my husband).

This lovely view was taken in Allegan, Michigan--and the autumnal tree photo was captured in my own front yard.

A old-fashioned water mill near our home was the setting where I found this brilliant tiger lily; and the delightful polar bear doesn't fear extinction in his enclosure at our local zoo.

This pattern of leaves was painted by nature on the cement of our alley; the flowers grew up next to my neighbor's garage.

These last two shots are local, too--a sunset over the expressway near my house, and a shot of Chicago's Printer's Row Book Fair.

Hopefully this was a fun visual display--but don't forget to share your favorite settings--or tell us which photo you liked best.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Guest Interview: Jane Haddam

I usually start with the phrase [name of author] is an award-winning author. Boy did I get a surprise from Jane on this one.

Jane Haddam is an award-winning author who … never won an award. No, I'm serious. I never have. Ive been nominated for just about everything, and most of it at least twice, but I’ve never actually won anything. It drives my agent and my editor a little nuts. It reminds me of Larry Block’s joke before he won his first Edgar.

Always a bridesmaid...

You have written two series, as well as short stories, magazine articles, and non-fiction writing. What does it feel like to wear so many writing hats? How do you arrange your writing schedule?

Two series—Pay McKenna and Gregor Demarkian—plus some one-shots. But yes, I do a lot of different kinds of writing.  Less so the last few years because I've had family stuff to deal with. If I didn't do that, I'd probably go crazy.  I know there are people who only write and read one thing, but it would bore the hell out of me. So I write a lot, I read a lot. And I take assignments when they're offered.

Part of that might be that I started out as an editorial assistant in New York, and then as an editor, on magazines. I did that a long time before I ever finished a book.

But these days my writing schedule is simple and uncompromising—I get up around 3:30 in the morning, make a HUGE cup of tea (serious tea, with caffeine that would make a cup of coffee cry), and work until seven or so.  Longer in the summer when I don't have to drive anybody to school.

The trick is to get into the habit of doing it every day no matter what.

Well, okay.  I stopped for three days when I broke my leg a few years ago, and for two for pneumonia once. But you know what I mean.

Your earlier Gregor books were set almost exclusively in Cavanaugh Street, in Philadelphia. In more recent books, you've moved Gregor and Bennis off the street and out into more of the world. How did that move evolve?

I was thinking about this, and I think what you're remembering isn't that Gregor and Bennis spent their time on Cavanaugh Street, but that there was a lot more about them.

Anyway, even the very first Gregor Demarkian novel took place only partially on Cavanaugh Street.  The actual murder was on the Main Line. The second (Precious Blood) takes place in upstate NY, the third (Act of Darkness) takes place on Long Island and the fourth (Quoth the Raven) takes place at a small college in northern Pennsylvania.

After that, I tried to go back and forth, one novel when Gregor could work from his home base followed by one where he had to "go away" to work.

But what the earlier novels had was a lot more time spent ON Gregor and his relationships on Cavanaugh Street.

And that, I think, has to do with what I write detective novels for, and why I read them.

When I was a lot younger, I tried to explain my problem with a lot of detective fiction like this:  hard boiled was gritty and concentrated on the character of the detective; soft boiled was less gritty and concentrated on the character of the detective; classic was gritty or not, depending on the writer, but it concentrated on the characters of the SUSPECTS.

And that, I think, is why the Gregor Demarkian series is what it is. It was never meant to be a series ABOUT Gregor Demarkian, his life and his world. I wanted some of that, of course, but what exists in the novels about Gregor and the people he knows and lives with are a frame for the real purpose of each book, which is to get a look inside the characters who make up the suspect list.

Sixty years ago, there was nothing strange about this—Agatha Christie did this, and P.D. James does it now—but Christie did it because in her day there was no reason to fill out the character of the detective at all. Poirot is a few broad strokes of caricature, and after that he's just there so that she can play games with Lord Edgeware or Roger Ackroyd.

These days, you have to fill out the character of your detective far more realistically. Readers expect it, and they're not wrong. We want our detective novels to be novels first and genre formula second if at all.

But the fact is that any one person is only going to be interesting for so long. There comes a point in most series where you just go: oh, for goodness sake, his wife has left him AGAIN.

Series end, these days, because readers and writers both come to the end of their interest in the detective.

But the interest in the Demarkian novels is, I hope, solidly on the characters who will appear only once, that book—on Marcey Mandret in Cheating At Solitaire, for instance, or Liz Toliver in Somebody Else's Music.

So the amount of time I spend with Gregor and company has gotten less over the years, mostly because the readers already know more about him than they probably want to. 

If that makes sense.

The Armenian Orthodox parish priest, Father Tibor, has always been one of my favorite characters. At times he seems to be almost a Greek chorus, adding depth and perspective, as well as dark humor,  to the story line. What does Father Tibor mean to you as the author?

Originally, Father Tibor existed because I wanted to do two things: talk about what really happened to people in the old Soviet Union, and talk about the Eastern Orthodox religions.

The first part came about because I spend a lot of time in universities—seven straight years in grad school, for instance—in the humanities, where it was the fashion to declare that the U.S. was a fascist state and real freedom existed only under Communism.

Unlike a lot of the people I was at school with, though, I actually knew people who lived under  Communism, or had and had gotten the hell out.

Now, you'd think that we'd all have noticed the obvious—my bottom line rule about international politics is that I never support a government that feels it necessary to pass laws to keep its citizens from leaving—but most people didn't, and that was the seventies.

If I'd started the series today, I'd have even more material, because one of the things I do these days is teach on and off at local colleges—if I don't do that, I go crazy sitting here by myself with the wild turkeys—and lately lots and lots and lots of our students are from Eastern Europe.  The older ones are all like Father Tibor politically. The younger ones were born after 1989, and they're interesting to watch, because they don't actually know what any of that was like.

As to the Eastern Orthodox Churches—the Armenian Church isn't technically "Orthodox," or, rather, it is when the American branches of these churches want to get together to make a statement and isn't all the rest of the time.

But people in the US usually know little or nothing about these churches, about their theology, about their practice. And I thought I could use Father Tibor to explore all that.

And in the end, I didn't.  Or maybe I should say I haven't yet.

You've written a number of stunningly lucid essays on politics, gender, and treating one another with common human decency. How do you find the courage to do that?

Oh, ha.

There's an old Ron White joke that goes: at that point, I had the right to remain silent, but I didn't have the ability.

It's sort of like that.  If you get me really steamed up, I just cannot keep my mouth shut.

Some of my earliest memories are of getting in trouble at school for deliving grand lectures on one thing or another.

And I started early.

In second grade, my teacher explained the military draft to me, and I was furious ALL DAY.  I spent the late afternoon before I was supposed to go home digging my way into a huge sand area, right past the sand to the dirt, harranging myself about how, if I was a boy, I would NEVER let them do that to me, etc, etc, etc.

And then there was the time in sixth grade, I think, or maybe eighth, when we were all required to enter this essay contest for Memorial Day, to be judged by the VFW post in our town. The winning essay would be read aloud at the end of the Memorial Day Parade.

So I wrote an essay about how all wars are wrong and they're just about money and we shouldn't send young men to fight and get killed for money, etc.

And my teacher hauled my father into school and told him I was a Communist.

In a way, that's a funny attitude to have had, because I don't feel that way now at all.  In fact, I tend to be fairly reliably pro-military.

So I can't claim courage for something like this.  I do it automatically, really.

And I'm in trouble all the time, because I'm not reliably a liberal or a conservative, or a Republican or a Democrat. I mean, stick around long enough, and you'll find you hate my politics eventually.

The other thing, though, is that I was never "popular," either in its high school sense or in its strict sense.  I have good friends, just not a lot of them. 

And from the time I was very young, the mere fact of me seemed to make some people angry.  And I don't know why. We can start with my mother, for instance, who was pretty much furious at me from about my fifth or so birthday. 

Lately we've had a much better relationship, because she's got dementia, and she no longer remembers why she was mad at me. Since I never knew, that works.

But I have this weird effect on some people, and always have, and I got used to it. It doesn't bother me much when people get angry at the essays. I just put them in the "one of those people" column and ignore tham. 

And there are lots of other people who think the essays, etc, are wonderful, and not all of those people agree with my positions, either. Maybe it's just a personality thing. 

Whatever it is, I just get things off my chest when I can.

A couple of months ago, I spent a week blogging at St. Martin's Press, in honor of my book coming out, and I found I really liked that.

So I've been thinking of setting up a blog on my web site, to talk about reading and writing, mostly. To talk about murder mysteries and the way they're written, and why we read what we read, and that kind of thing.

But we'll see.

Jane's latest Gregor Demarkian novel

To learn more about Jane and her books, visit her website at

Friday, July 11, 2008


By Lonnie Cruse

One of the first words children usually learn is "out" or "outside." They will stand by a window or screen door and point and beg to go out. That's because they know it's good out there.

Hubby and I like to walk at Massac Park, down by the river. Recently we noticed a couple of new paths leading into the woods, covered by gravel. He checked at the park office and learned that there is a hiking trail that follows along the river. This morning we hiked the first part of it and spotted several deer, some squirrels, and lots of birds. We hope to go back and complete the four mile (one way) trail sometime soon.

I've been hearing for some time that busy people need to take time to do nothing. Or at least nothing that has to do with their usual occupation. Doesn't matter what we do, butcher, backer, candlestick maker, we all need a break sometimes. Particularly writers who spend hours on end sitting in front of a computer screen, praying for inspiration to strike (or lightning, should inspiration fail.) I was thinking about that on our walk. It is such a beautiful time of year, I'd like to suggest to all of you a nature walk or hike, to recharge, refresh, renew. Stave off burnout.

I'm a "glass is half full" rather than "half empty" person, but if we don't renew our creative juices from time to time by doing other things, taking time away, we could empty our own glass to the point of being difficult to refill. And there IS a life out there somewhere, beyond the computer screen. We need to live it as well as write about it.

You're on a deadline? Great. Good luck with it. But take time to recharge, refuel, enjoy, or you likely won't make the deadline. Or survive it.

Don't forget the bug spray and sun screen. And your camera.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tips for the Book Tour

Elizabeth Zelvin

Here’s a writer’s-eye view of the book tour that I hope will be of general interest to mystery lovers. Without readers, booksellers, librarians, publicists, agents, editors, and publishers, there would be no book tours.

1. Get a GPS. I can't imagine how I'd have navigated multiple strange cities and found multiple addresses at the right time without Sadie. (I'm not weird--I've discovered that everybody names their GPS.) If you're technology-shy, get it months in advance and get comfortable before the tour starts. The GPS that comes with a rented car is a more primitive model. Bring your own. And get the best you can afford. Sadie had an up-to-date map (2009), spoke street and road names aloud and pronounced them correctly, never lost her temper and was always right--even when I was sure she was wrong. She did have a little trouble with Wanaque, NJ, but so do the resident humans. They render it Wanna-kew or Wanna-kwee. Sadie did her best with Wanna-KKK. I did the Heimlich maneuver and she was fine.

2. Bring that box of books. Bookstores sometimes don't get the books on time. That goes for libraries too, where Friends of the Library will usually find a way to order books for sale. If you're flying, you can't throw the box in your trunk, but you can bring as many as you can fit in your checked luggage. (If your airline charges for the second bag, it's still cheaper than the fee for going over 50 pounds.) It can mean the difference between a cancellation and a successful event.

3. Balance staying at hotels with crashing with friends. Staying with friends saves money, and you get to visit with the friends. They may also feed you, drive you around, and bring friends to your book event. On the minus side, you may have to share a bathroom and hump your book-filled suitcases up flights of stairs. The same goes for bed and breakfast inns. They’re charming, but every few nights you need a nice Econolodge or Holiday Inn where you can throw the contents of your suitcase on the floor and make a mess in the bathroom. I’m not kidding. My dentist recently ordered me to use the mirror when I floss. I could not bring myself to do this in people’s homes. Also, if you have a plumbing disaster, it’s much, much better if it occurs in a public place.

4. Be delighted no matter what. I didn’t have to fake this. The whole trip was a joy, between being treated royally as a real live author and making friends everywhere I went. If nobody comes to the signing, settle down in a comfy chair and schmooze with the bookseller. (In fact, at least one person came to every event, unless it was set up as a stock signing with no audience expected.) If you’re allergic to cats, bring antihistamines. If rows of chairs are set up and only a few people come, put the chairs in a circle. If you get a crowd, leave time for questions. Admire the store or library: each one is unique and beautiful. Oh, and bring a pen that will write on your glossy bookmark and/or a few postcards of your book. Little girls may ask for your autograph. They may even be the next generation of writers.

5. Tell your stories, funny or touching. Talk about the book, but don’t give away too much. Make sure anyone in the audience who’s already read the book knows how to avoid spoilers. Don’t read unless the store requests it, and if you do, keep it brief and pick a lively passage—dialogue or action—with a good punch line. Throw in some personal details, but think about it first. Stick to what in the shrink biz we call “benign disclosure.” Anything you say in public can be spread. Remember all the hoop-la last year when Ian Rankin said from a podium that J.K. Rowling had been seen in a Glasgow café writing a detective story? He was joking, but the international mystery writing community was like a kicked anthill as everybody scurried around trying to figure out if this would be good or bad for the rest of us.

6. Don’t plan on sightseeing or visits that take you far off the track of your tour. You’ll find you want to stay focused throughout the trip. Getting from place to place, making sure you’re fed and housed, keeping the details organized, not to mention the rest of your life, via phone and email, and doing the actual events will take all the energy you’ve got. Give yourself an occasional down day. And plan for travel days that don’t involve any events. You’ll have enough stress without worrying whether you’ll arrive in time.

7. Double check everything. My freelance publicist was terrific. She booked events I couldn’t (or was afraid I couldn’t) get myself. She also contacted the venues (not only those she’d booked, but all of them) the day before each event to find out if they were ready for me. Did they remember I’d be coming? Had they received the books? How many? And did they need anything else? I strongly recommend you get someone to do this, or do it yourself if you can’t get help. On the other hand, my publicist and her staff didn’t have time to track every point to point on Google or Mapquest and figure out if the distances between events (and lodgings, which I had to arrange myself) were realistic in the times alloted. I averted a couple of potential disasters by doing this well in advance and rescheduling if necessary.

8. If you plan an extended tour, try to get back to home base every couple of weeks. I did the trip in three or four fell swoops because I had commitments in New York in between. I started out regretting this, but ended up glad of it. I love to travel, but after a couple of weeks I found myself counting the pills remaining in my little packets of vitamins and thinking, “I wanna go home! Three days to go…two days….”

9. Don’t forget to have fun! I did, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Kate Flora's Journey of a Thousand Books

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Kate Flora, a past president of Sisters in Crime, is the author of seven Thea Kozak mysteries, including the recently released Stalking Death. She is also author of the Joe Burgess mysteries, Playing God and The Angel of Knowlton Park (due out in September), a stand-alone suspense novel, Steal Away, and co-author with Lt. Joe Loughlin of a true crime book, Finding Amy. Kate is a co-editor at Level Best Books and has taught many writing classes and workshops. She divides her time between Massachusetts and Maine.

Q. Tell us about your new book, Stalking Death.

A. Stalking Death is the story of Shondra Jones, a minority student at a prestigious New England private school who says she's being stalked and no one will believe her. They don't believe her in part because she's 6' 3" and strong and black. She's also only sixteen and far from home. They don't want to believe her because her accused stalker, Alasdair MacGregor, is the grandson of one of the school's major donors, and Alasdair is known to be a racist. So, in the words of the Dean of Students, who doesn't get it that stalking is about terror and control, and not about attraction, "He'd never be attracted to her." And they can't afford to believe her because an investigation would reveal a campus culture tolerant of abuse and bad behavior.

So the administration can show they have been diligent, they call in Thea, and EDGE Consulting, to review their proposed "reassuring letter to parents"
asserting that no stalking is taking place. She asks some uncomfortable questions about the situation and gets fired, only to be called back a week later to handle the PR mess that results when the alleged stalker's body is found smoldering in a bonfire, and Shondra's brother is arrested for the crime.

The inspiration for the story came from a newspaper article about a boarding school student who claimed to be receiving anti-Semitic notes and the school claimed she was doing it for attention. The plot also draws heavily on three different areas of my experience. For creating the private school world, it incorporates information from the years of research I've done on the private school world, the arena in which Thea works as a consultant, and from my sons' experiences at private schools. The grim reality of stalking, and society's lack of understand about its terrifying nature came from my stint as a domestic violence advocate, and from conversations with stalking victims and the victim witness advocate in the Portland [Maine] police department.

For creating a young woman strong and empowered on the basketball court but still young and vulnerable at a school where she is far from home and very much alone, I drew on my own experience as a teenage basketball player—though I was never very good and certainly not 6' 3"—as well as my experience as a soccer coach, and my deep respect for what Title IX has done for young women athletes.

Q. This book had a bumpy road toward publication, didn't it? How did it come
to be published by Crum Creek Press?

A. When TOR/Forge decided to drop the Thea Kozak series after book six, I'd already written Stalking Death. I really like writing Thea books, and I knew Thea's fans were eager for another book, so I hated to give up on the story.
Eventually, I asked Jim Huang, who was a big fan of the series, if he'd be interested. Jim had already reprinted the first Thea, Chosen for Death, because he hated to see it go out of print, and he was doing the occasional book through his Crum Creek Press. Jim read it and liked it and wanted to do the project, but then a series of events, including moving his store to a new location, kept postponing it.

I'm just thrilled that the book is finally available. Now I can write the next one.

Q. With the publication of Stalking Death, you've invited readers to join you on The Journey of a Thousand Books. Tell us about this.

A. Well, obviously, I'm very happy that this book is finally in print. I wanted to celebrate that by doing something different. Writing is such a personal, passionate process. A writer spends a year or more telling a powerful story and then the book's journey disappears into the hands of publicists and distributors and booksellers. One of the things the internet allows writers to do is to be in touch, one-to-one, with our readers. I wanted to use that to get to know who is buying the book—who they are, where they are, why they chose it, and how they're liking it. I thought it would be really fun, and personal, to celebrate my tenth published book by charting the journey and focusing on this new writer-to-reader closeness with pictures and stories on my website. So I created "The Journey of a Thousand Books."

People are beginning to send me photos and reviews and messages, which I'm posting there. It's very exciting. What I'm really hoping for now are lots of libraries and librarians—I'm a total library junkie; my first job, at age 11, was in a library, and my brother is a librarian—will send me pictures and I can have a whole page of people standing before their libraries with my book.

Q. You've also begun a new police procedural series. Did co-authoring a true crime book with a detective inspire you to create a series featuring a

A. Actually, it's the other way around. I had decided to write a police procedural series, inspired by the stories police officers had told me while I was learning to write police for my books. I went to the Portland, Maine, Police Department to do research for my fiction because I had decided to set the series in Portland. While I was touring the police department, I was introduced to Lt. Joe Loughlin, who was the head of CID. He wanted to write…something I could advise him about, and I wanted answers to my zillion cop questions…something he could advise me about, and we became good friends. Then Amy St.Laurent disappeared, and Joe was in charge of the investigation.

Q. How did Finding Amy come about? Was it your idea or your Lt. Loughlin’s? What kind of working arrangements did the two of you have? Was writing a true story harder or easier than writing fiction – or was it simply different?

A. From a very early point in the investigation of Amy St.Laurent's disappearance, Joe started telling me about how this was different from any case he'd worked in his more than twenty years on the force. Amy's personality, her goodness and the type of genuine, decent young woman that she'd been, inspired the detectives working on her case to set aside departmental rivalry and overcome discouragement and frustration in their determination to find her body, and her killer, and get her justice.

Joe said he wanted to write about it. He wanted to tell the story of a group of cops who set aside their normal detachment and became attached to their victim. I gave him all my best writing instructor's advice, but after many months went by, and then finally a whole year had passed, and he was still saying "someday," I'd become convinced that Amy's story mattered, so I decided to help. I called him and suggested a collaboration, although I didn't know how to write a true crime story either. He said no, then maybe, and finally yes. That was the beginning of a 2½ year collaboration.

Our agreement was that I would write the narrative of the story and he would write, from the notes I'd had him taking, the intense, "inside" parts of the investigation—the arguments, the tense decisions, the breakthroughs and setbacks. To write the narrative, I had to read many boxes of documents and then spend hours with the primary detectives, their supervisors, the lawyers who tried the case, the game wardens who helped to find the body, etc. And then I would read and edit what Joe had written; he'd read and edit what I'd written. Sometimes I would have to sit with him and run through lists of questions about police training or what was the SOP for a particular situation, or what makes a good detective.

I'm naturally solitary, so collaborating was a challenge, but we were absolutely partners and it was a fantastic experience. Especially since whenever one of us got discouraged, the other maintained faith in the book.

Some people say they prefer to write nonfiction because it's easier. I found it very hard. All the time, I knew that people who had loved Amy would be reading the book, and the cops and other public safety personnel who had worked so hard would be looking over my shoulder to see if I got it right. In some ways, I felt like I'd spent twenty years preparing for the project. It felt incredibly good when Amy's book got nominated for an Edgar.

Q. Yet another project of yours is Level Best Books. What made you take the leap into the very chancy world of small press publishing? Has the experience given you new insights into the book business?

A. I fell into Level Best when a writer/editor/essayist friend, Susan Oleksiw, invited me to join her in a project we'd discussed for years: taking a snapshot of the New England writer's mind through the medium of the crime story. It was supposed to be a one-time thing with three of us acting as editors. [Ruth M. McCarty is the third partner.] Midway through, the publisher folded, and we were so invested in the project we became publishers as well as editors. Then we were so pleased with our book that we decided to do it again. We've just finished choosing the stories for our sixth anthology, and stories from the fifth were nominated for an Edgar and two Derringers.

Q. Do you feel that you're still evolving as a writer? What changes have you seen in your own work since you wrote your first book? What do you see as your strong points as a writer? Is there any aspect of craft you're still trying to master?

A. I see writing as a life-long trajectory. That's why it never gets boring or routine. There's always some new skill to learn or some new type of writing to try. I learned during the years that I couldn't sell a book…after I was dropped by my publisher…the value of taking chances. If things had gone smoothly, I never would have written Finding Amy, or gotten involved with Level Best Books. And they have been so rewarding.

I think I'm a better writer than I used to be. I think my books are more complex and rich and my characters are deeper. I learned a lot about rewriting from reworking Playing God with my agent, Joshua Bilmes. I will always be grateful that he made me work so hard. I think I'm a good writer of dialogue and character. I could probably be better at many things. But that's what the next decade is for, right?

Just a few days ago, I was reading some short stories by Tony Earley, and some of his sentences are just so rich and evocative and smart that I felt really small and awed. I think in a mystery we can't get too fancy—the writing shouldn't distract from the story—but I'm looking forward to learning from Mr. Earley.

Q. Who are some other writers you've learned from? What writers are on your must-read list, and why?

A. When I started writing mysteries, I made Sara Paretsky and Dick Francis my character's literary Godparents. They've served Thea well.

I think writers learn from other writers, both good and bad. I don't read as much mystery as I'd like, because I'm always trying to avoid having someone else's style influencing me. On my short list are A.S. Byatt's Possession, John Casey's Spartina, Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and The Great Gatsby. I'm always finding new inspiration. Right now, I'm reading Faulkner's last novel, The Reivers. Some of the sentences are so incredible I have to reread them several times. I just finished another volume of Proust and I'm slowly making my way through Joyce's Ulysses. Making up for a less than perfect education, I suppose. When I was young, I found Faulkner impenetrable. Now I'm enchanted. And every year, I reread all of Jane Austen.

Q. Writing is a very difficult business, and the odds against success are huge. With that in mind, what advice would you give aspiring writers?

A. Believe in yourself. No one will ever care about your work the way you do.
Try to listen to criticism with an open mind; then review it knowing your own intentions for your work.

Embrace rewrite. Dr. Flora says story goes in in the first two drafts, and craft in the next three.

Keep reading. Keep being amazed. Keep wondering, "How does she do that? How did she learn to turn a stylistic corner like that?"

Keep writing. You strengthen your writing muscles by using them, not by dreaming of someday using them.

Visit the author’s web site at