Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Two Sundays ago I was glued in traffic, a situation, unfortunately, no longer restricting itself to weekday mornings. It was like being in the middle of a piece of cloth being woven, with the warp being parked and moving cars and the weft being pedestrians who hurled themselves across the street at random to reach the ice cream shop, bakery, or plethora of small restaurants that particular part of town offered.
Distracted as I was avoiding bits of pedestrian and double-dips of mango swirl lying across my hood, I couldn’t give the CBC radio program, Spark, http://www.cbc.ca/spark/ my full attention.
Spark is a program where technology and culture meet. One of their guests that Sunday was a tech-savvy person who seemed to be saying very sensible things about blogging. When I got home, I tracked the program down and found out who he was.
Merlin Mann, http://www.43folders.com/, wants us to get back to work. He sees technology as a big advantage and big time waster. He has ideas about how to tame the techno-monster and return to what humans should be doing, which is being creative, passionate, and brilliant.
His blog formula is simple.
Blog = obsession x voice
Love something passionately. Talk about it in an intelligent way.
I was struck to realize that I’m wasn't sure if I had a passion, outside of family members and friends, whom I love deeply and who are not the least-bit suitable subjects for my blog.
I spend hours every day writing or running my writing business. I’m obsessive about returning library books on time. I make it a point to show up at my day job, clean, presentable, and competent to do the work. I watch a large number of British mystery shows on DVD. Well, okay there is one character in Blue Murder that gives me palpitations, but that touches on lust, not passion, so we’re not going there. I have fiber and paper hobbies that threaten to take over my office and wend their way down the hall.
But passion? Real gut-wrenching, loving highs and hating lows, I’ll die if I can’t do this passion?
The real surprise to me was that I couldn’t identify a single passion because, as the kids say, “it’s all good.”
Passion runs through my whole life. I have as much passion for my characters as I do for my family and friends. The reason I spend hours every day on writing or business is that because I’m passionate about being a writer. Nothing else would suit me as well at t his time in my life. My obsession isn’t about returning library books on time—though there are those pesky fines—but because I want to see what else I can check out. My day job is stressful, but it’s also very satisfying. What I can make out of cloth and paper is another way of connecting to other people and the world.
As for that character on Blue Murder, well, he smokes, doesn’t he, and nothing dampens my lust faster than the smell of old, stale smoke. So maybe life isn’t perfect, but if the personal hygiene habits of an imaginary character is all I can find to complain about, life is very good indeed.
I'd love to stay and chat more, but I've got places to go and people to see. Like most mornings, it's time to hit the ground running. That's what I call passion.
Writing quote for the week:
Above all: whose attention will you reward with the best thing you can possibly make today? Good. Now go, and reward the shit out of them.
~Merlin Mann, techie expert
Monday, September 29, 2008
Today is the birthday of the prolific Mike Post, who wrote theme songs for many of our favorite TV mystery shows. Post, who was born in Berkeley in 1944, got his big break with one of my all-time favorites: The Rockford Files. Remember that wonderful beginning?
Jim Rockford, you're still my boyfriend. :)
The Post theme that probably became the most famous, though, was this wonderful Hill Street Blues composition.
Some other mystery themes composed by Post were: Murder One, NYPD Blue, LA Law, Hunter, Law and Order, The Commish, Magnum PI, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, CHiPs, Hardcastle & McCormick, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Remington Steele, Renegade, Silk Stalkings, Stingray, and Wise Guy.
There's a little something for you Tom Selleck fans. My, but these songs do bring back memories.
And here's something that happened a long time before Pierce Brosnan became James Bond and Doris Roberts became Raymond's mother (but read Jeff's comment below--Post didn't score this one, Henry Mancini did).
What a terrific contribution Mike Post has made to the mystery community. I can't think of my favorite 70s and 80s mysteries without humming their theme songs. Maybe you'll be humming one of these for the rest of the day.
What's your Post favorite?
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Darlene Ryan was kind enough to invite me to be a guest blogger at PDD, most likely because of my Poe connections (or maybe because we're both Boston Red Sox fans). Living in Baltimore -- where Poe lived and is buried -- I've become familiar with the genius who has inspired so many other mystery and horror writers. And his name frequently pops up on The Baltimore Sun's book blog, Read Street, which I help write.
The Sun wasn't around when Poe was born, but it had been in business for more than a decade before his death in 1849. The paper has survived a Civil War and a couple of World Wars, a Depression and many recessions. But in some ways, the Sun and other U.S. newspapers face their greatest challenge today. Financial pressures, triggered by a decline in young readers and the growth of online competitors, have forced newspapers to shrink -- and that, in turn, has meant big changes in the way books are written about.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Hartford Courant, full-time book editors have left and were not replaced. The Los Angeles Times eliminated its book review section and folded coverage into the lifestyle section. Other papers, including the Sun, have trimmed book coverage; we cut back from two pages to one each Sunday.
Some newspapers have started book blogs to supplement print coverage. But in a true nature-abhors-a-vacuum trend, dozens (if not hundreds) of independent blogs have sprung up. They're personal and funny and enlightening, like a conversation with a neighbor -- a counterbalance to traditional newspaper book reviews that have tended toward stuffiness. More and more seem to appear each day, fueled by publishers and authors eager to find new outlets to generate buzz.
Becca Rowan, creator of the Bookstack blog, told me in an email, "if the trend keeps up at this rate, I can see blogging supplanting the role of newspaper reviews, with the exception perhaps of the 'gold standard' reviewers like the Times and the Guardian. ,,, And though I grew up as a huge newspaper junkie, I rarely read the print versions of papers or book review pages." (She does profess to like Read Street, for which I'm grateful.)
So what happens now? I don't expect the financial pressures on U.S. newspapers to ease anytime soon, so book sections and pages likely will continue to decline. More newspapers may try blogs, which offer great advantages such as video, reader interaction and experimentation – like the U.S. map we created at Read Street of favorite bookstores. But even that will be difficult as staffs shrink, and lifestyle reporters focus on movies and pop music. And that will open the door for more and more bloggers -- and more and more independent voices.
Joshua Henkin, the author of Matrimony, may be one of the authors most attuned to -- and supportive of -- book bloggers. But he's dismayed by the decline in newspaper review sections. In an email exchange, he wrote: "The rise of book blogs is a good thing, it seems to me, but the concomitant decline of book sections in newspapers certainly isn't. It gets harder and harder for new writers to be discovered when the page space for book reviews keeps shrinking. ... So for a certain kind of book of literary fiction, book reviews are indispensable, and to the extent that book review sections are, in fact, being dispensed with, it's a loss for literary culture."
Friday, September 26, 2008
A few months back I accepted an invitation to join a local book club that meets once a month in various members' homes. I knew a couple of the members, the rest are new to me, so I'm still learning names. I didn't have enough time to read the book for the first month so I simply showed up, met the members, listened to the discussion, and ate dessert. Well worth the trip.
The next month we read I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK by Norah Ephron. The group thought a lighter read was needed and I confess, I laughed my way through the book. Well, except for the chapter about Ephron losing her best friend to cancer. That one made me cry. Since the group is around Ephron's age, the book resonated with each member.
The following month we read THREE CUPS OF TEA by Greg Mortenson. It's the story of Mortenson, a mountain climber who was rescued by the inhabitants of a remote village. He promised to pay them back by building a school for the children who daily sat on the ground and did their lessons . . . without a regular teacher. As he said in the book, can you imagine young children in America sitting quitely and doing lessons for a long period of time with no adult in attendance? Mortenson has devoted a great deal of his life to building schools in Pakistan and other areas. Seeing to it that children in other countries have a chance to learn. Interesting book, but I must confess, not one of my favorites.
For October we're reading THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Kim Edwards. I'm only about 80 pages in. I'm enjoying it, but it is a deep book. Gotta admit I can't wait to see what happens next.
The scheduled November read is THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Dianne Setterfield. That's a book I've been wanting to read, but with such a heavy, near-to-toppling-over TBR (to be read) pile of books in my bedroom, who knows when I've have gotten around to it.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I tend to be fairly narrow in my choices of what to read. So many books/so little time syndrome I suppose. So I stick pretty much with what I like, and if, heaven forbid, I happen onto a book I don't like, I bail after a few chapters, skipping to the end because I DO have to know Who Dun It. Joining this book club is exposing me to a lot of books I probably never would have chosen for myself. Some I'll like. Some I won't. But I'll finish them so I can carry on an intelligent discussion with the group. And participate in the dessert and coffee after.
Book clubs are great because you can share your opinion and get feedback from the other readers. And you get cake. Or pie. If you don't already belong to or know of a local book club, why not consider forming your own group? It will open up new reads for you. Expand your reading horizons. Not to mention your hips.
Now all I have to do is figure out which book I want to suggest for the monthly read when it's my turn. Something light and funny like a Donna Andrews mystery? I just finished OWL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and loved it. Or should I suggest something deep like WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson? Sigh. So many books, so little time.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Many years ago, I saw the Olivier movie version of Hamlet with someone who’d never read or seen the play in any form. I remember constantly having to shush him as he laughed with delight at discovering where “all those one-liners” came from: “To be or not to be,” “the play’s the thing,” “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” and “frailty, thy name is woman.” Before images and turns of phrase become cliché, someone with a gift for a fresh turn of phrase has to think them up. Shakespeare probably holds the record, certainly in English, for original expressions that remain vivid and well used four centuries later. I suspect that his collective works is topped as a source of “one-liners” only by the Bible.
Many useful metaphors and similes, however, have emerged not from literary genius but from everyday observation. I first read Hamlet at fifteen (and fell in love with the melancholy prince, whom I pictured as a cross between Olivier and my high school English teacher). But not until much later in life, when I acquired my first backyard bird feeder, did I realize that such expressions as “the pecking order” and “the peaceable dove” are based on actual bird behavior.
For the cost of a forty-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed, I’ve had endless hours of entertainment sitting on my deck—or even at my strategically positioned computer looking out through the sliding door—watching an endless parade of birds doing what they do. At one moment, a squabble breaks out among a band of house finches. As Roger Tory Peterson, legendary ornithologist and bird book author, says, house finches are “aggressive at the feeder.” A feisty little tufted titmouse nudges a skittish white-breasted nuthatch off the perch: the pecking order at work. When the oversized grackle with its iridescent black feathers and malevolent yellow eye arrives, all the other birds vanish. He’s the highest on the pecking order of all our visitors, with the possible exception of the red-bellied woodpecker, who’s big and self-confident enough to defend the block of orange-flavored suet. Mourning doves scratch the ground for fallen seed. The reason they’ve been used over and over as a symbol for peace is that they stand outside the pecking order altogether. They ignore the other birds, and none ever try to jostle or chase them away.
Let’s take “bird-brained” as a metaphor for unintelligent or foolish. It certainly fits the little black and white downy woodpecker, which never learns that all it has to do to get the suet is pop into the cage that keeps the squirrels out and dig in. Every time, it starts by perching at the top of the wrought-iron pole from which the suet cage hangs, swivels its head in a series of jerks like C3P0 to check all around, and slides down the pole like a firefighter. It jabs through the bars of the cage, working its way all around, before it finally hops inside and starts to feed. (Imagine yourself clinging to a six-foot block of chocolate and chowing down.) The whole process takes so long that some higher-echelon bird, the raucous blue jay or the persistent catbird, comes along before it gets a single bite. Male or female (Mr. Downy has a blotch of red at the back of his head), one generation after another, they miss a lot of meals because they’re programmed for these lengthy preliminaries.
The feeder birds move faster than my four-year-old granddaughter, which is saying a lot. My digital camera did better with the hefty rabbit—a baby bunny just a month ago—and the squirrel. Squirrels are a little smarter. The baffles on our bird feeders—cone-shaped metal collars half way up the pole—work. But every generation or two a thinking squirrel comes along. You’ll see it test the baffle over and over, then retreat to the ground and stare up at the seed beyond, wondering what else it can try.
Over the years, we've had visits from possum, raccoon, turtles, chipmunks, field mice, owls, hawks, and so many deer that the deer fence I got to keep them from eating the flowers a couple of years ago is at the top of my list of favorite presents ever. We've had AWOL puppies drop by, and a neighboring cat had her kittens in our crawl space. We've had a bird knock itself out against our sliding door, another get stuck with its head in the tube feeder. To my relief, both of these incidents ended happily, with the bird recovered and flying away. In general, it's nice to share the planet--and the yard--with these lively visitors.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
My guest today is Suzanne Arruda, author of the Jade Del Cameron mysteries set in 1920s Africa. Everyone who leaves a comment for Suzanne will be entered in a drawing for a trade paperback of her novel The Serpent’s Daughter.
Suzanne grew up Greensburg, Indiana, reading about people like Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham and dreaming of a life of adventure in exotic places. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and instead of becoming an explorer she worked as a lab technician, a museum employee with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and a biology teacher. When she took the leap into a writing career, her fascination with colonial Africa served her well. At last she was able to live some of her dreams through the adventures of Jade Del Cameron, an American with an exotic family who leads safaris in the bush and becomes embroiled in more than her fair share of murder and mayhem.
Visit Suzanne’s web site at www.suzannearruda.com and her blog at www.suzannearruda.blogspot.com.
Q. The paperback of your third book, The Serpent’s Daughter, will be out shortly, and the hardcover of your fourth book, The Leopard’s Prey, will be out in January. Can you tell us briefly about each of them?
A. The Serpent’s Daughter (paperback Oct. 7, 2008) finds Jade in Morocco where she was meeting her mother, Inez, for a brief vacation and possible reconciliation. Inez is kidnapped and her guide stabbed, leading Jade into the winding souks of Marrakech and amongst the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains as she battles her deadliest foe yet.
In The Leopard’s Prey (hardcover January 2009), Jade is back in Nairobi and strapped for cash. She takes a job as a wrangler for a zoological capture company, hoping that way to also save a pair of leopards that are earmarked for extermination as Nairobi and the farms encroach on the animals’ homes. Jade’s friends find a body in their brand new coffee dryer and Jade’s would-be beau, Sam Featherstone, is the prime suspect. As Jade tries to clear his name, she finds herself confronting more than one kind of brutal killer.
Q. Your fascination with history comes through clearly in your writing. Why did you choose this particular time and place to write about?
A. I grew up reading that place and time. My two older brothers lived and breathed all things Tarzan, but the town librarian was horrified to think that their little sister would read about “naked savages” and pushed other African tales on me instead. (I still read the Tarzan.) So I read missionary tales, Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen, and Osa Johnson. I love that time period. The world was so undiscovered.
Q. Were any of your characters inspired by real people who lived in East Africa in the 1920s? Jade, for example – does she have a bit of Beryl Markham in her?
A. She does, as well as all those other ladies mentioned above. Plus there are some real ambulance drivers jammed in there, too. Mix in some Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island) and Laura Croft and you get Jade.
Q. The animals of Africa are featured prominently in your books, in often endearing ways, but for some readers the very word “safari” conjures images of big game hunters gunning down exotic species. What would you say to those readers to get them to try your books?
A. “Safari” is just the Swahili word for “journey.” I take my readers on a journey to a different place in a different time. To be true to the time, I need to portray some hunting. Lions were as like to eat a wandering farmer as his or her stock so they were frequently shot. And people on safari needed to hunt to eat, otherwise you couldn’t carry enough food with the laws governing the weight porters could carry. But while Jade may have to shoot animals in self-defense or for food, she saves many more.
Q. The sense of place in your books is so striking that it’s hard to believe you haven’t lived in those places for a good part of your life. Have you traveled very much in the places you write about? Are they so different now that they don’t provide inspiration for your historical settings – or have some things remained the same through the decades?
A. When I traveled to Morocco, I tried to see 1920 Morocco. There was a big bus depot at a very important Marrakech gate that I wanted to see. And there are satellite dishes in the Atlas mountains. I do want to get to old Zanzibar and parts of Tanzania, but my best way to “see” the old world is through old newspapers, diaries, and other books of the time.
Q. Why did you choose the mystery form rather than mainstream historical fiction?
A. I like mysteries, for one thing. A puzzle or crime to solve is a good motive for having someone run around doing feats of daring. And mysteries still carry those other themes in there as well. Jade faces social issues of the times and romance and family trials. So I like to call these mainstream historical mysteries.
Q. What made you decide to start writing, after years of working at other things? Can you recall a particular event or revelation that made you turn to writing as a career?
A. Well, the waters of the toilet bowl didn’t part – if that’s what you mean. I began with correspondence courses when my twin sons were born. Writing seemed like something a stay-at-home mom could do, or a summer career in between the teaching years. I mostly concentrated on the children’s magazine market. Then I branched into some young adult biographies. One of those biographies on Osa Johnson (From Kansas to Cannibals) resurrected all those adventuresome women I’d grown up with. After that, Jade grew in my head and took off.
Q. How long did it take you to write the first book, Mark of the Lion? Did you have a good grasp of how to construct a mystery novel, or did you learn as you went along?
A. I learned as I went along. At first, Mark of the Lion (then called Stalking Death) was meant to be more of a suspense/thriller. My editor wanted it to be a true mystery. Who’s going to say no? And she helped me a lot with suggestions. Frankly it’s a far better book as a mystery. I have a very smart editor.
Q. Tell us about your road to publication. Was it easier to find an agent and publisher than you expected, or was it harder? Did you work with your agent and editor on rewrites along the way?
A. It’s work to find either one. For every Cinderella story that makes the news, there are a lot more writers that slog through rejections and don’t give up. I think I was just better at handling rejection. (Remember, I taught junior high and high school.) I found my agent at a conference. She found my editor and I know she worked very hard at it, too. Yes, I worked with both of them on rewrites. I have to believe that they know a lot more about this business than I did or do even now and I should listen to them. And they haven’t steered me wrong.
Q. What would you say is the best part of being a published writer? Do you see any downside to it?
A. The best part is getting paid to send people on a fun adventure, one that I enjoy going on myself. A downside? Trying to fly to a book signing when there’s yet another ice storm. Ick.
Q. You must do a tremendous amount of research for each book. Do you try to do it all before you start writing, or do you research as you go along and the need arises? Has research ever thrown you off-track, when you discovered that something you had in mind wouldn’t work?
A. I do most of the research in advance, but I can’t anticipate everything. Then, it’s back to the books and the library. For example, towards the end of book 5 (Treasure of the Golden Cheetah – Hardcover, October 2009), I needed to delay a train for two days. That sent me on a search to learn about that particular rail line: the gauge of tracks, the locomotives, etc.
There was one problem that came up in Mark of the Lion that altered everything. At first draft, coffee farmers Madeline and Neville Thompson were supposed to go on safari with Jade. While researching coffee farming, I discovered that they would be entering a main harvest. They can hardly leave then. So Beverly, who was not supposed to be in the book after chapter 1, got married and the pair of them came out to see Jade on a honeymoon trip just so I could get another couple on that safari.
Q. You seem to be on an accelerated publishing schedule. How do you manage to cram so much research, writing, and promotion into one year? Do you have much time left for relaxation?
A. I like to hike and so I always find time to get into a forest and walk. When I can’t, that’s why God made 1,000 piece jig-saw puzzles. I find they help me clear my mind a lot. But in order to do all the aforementioned work, some things have to take a back seat. I don’t clean house much. I don’t miss it either. Funny how that works.
Q. When you read purely for pleasure, whose books do you pick up?
A. I’m a very eclectic reader. I love to go back to some old favorites: Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Pride and Prejudice, H. Rider Haggard. I love the Amelia Peabody series, Tony Hillerman, Dana Stabenow. I’m discovering Claire Langley-Hawthorne and Cordelia Biddle as fresh faces in historical mysteries, too. And anything by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. Persevere! When Mark of the Lion sold, I’d garnered over 350 rejects for all my articles and short stories, etc. I operated at a 7.5% success rate and was told that was good. If you want to do the book market, don’t ignore the magazine market. You want a resume to show a would-be agent or editor that you know how to meet deadlines and guidelines and can work with them. Finally, they say you never become successful until you can paper a wall with your rejections. So... choose a small room with low ceilings.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
This past week on-line Scientific America had a report about research into the power of storytelling: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-secrets-of-storytelling.
It seems, according to the scientists, that stories engage our brain in far more than just entertainment. What we feel and learn when engaged in listening to a story can influence what we believe and how we act in the “real world.” A steady exposure to stories about other people can form our values and help us develop and strengthen empathy.
Every culture tells stories, but the form of story varies greatly, depending on time and place. And, with the invention of things like the infomercial—a combination of story and advertising— and Matt Richtel’s new twiller—a thriller novel being written line-by-line on the social network, Twitter—we’ve managed to blur the lines between story and … well, take your choice.
No matter what the form, all good stories achieve what psychologists call a narrative transport. They sweep us up and take us along with their action. And it seems that the writer’s skill, while important, isn’t the only factor that makes a good story. People who have connection with story elements experience a greater sense of transport. If a reader has been to the place a story takes place, or knows someone similar to one of the characters, the story becomes more personal and more real for them.
This happens with both fiction and non-fiction. A biography or a news story can create transport in the same way that a short story or novel does. Part of what creates the “transport” is the ability of the writer/storyteller to craft. If we’d rather have dental work than listen to Uncle Gerald tell his snuck-in-a-snowstorm-on-Christmas-Eve one more time, chances are that Uncle Gerald hasn’t mastered transport yet. On the other hand, if we’d listen a hundred times to Aunt Eva’s story about meeting Lauren Bacall in the ladies’ room of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, then Aunt Eva’s “got it.”
Another essential component, empathy, lies not only in the writer but in the reader. Empathy is one of those gold nuggets of good story-telling. We use stories to learn to feel sympathy for what life is like for the other guy. We also use the imaginary world to explore options in our own lives.
One of the interesting things that neuroscientists are discovering is that the more a person reads well-crafted stories the more the parts of the brain responsible for empathy are stimulated. Contrary to popular belief, a person who spends a lot of time with books may have more, not fewer, social skills.
When I was a very inexperienced nurse, working in an emergency room, I played a game in my head called, “What would I do if …?” I would think of possible scenarios I might encounter in the ER and go over what I would do to respond. I’ve talked to other nurses who have done the same thing, and the interesting thing was that new nurses first focus on the hands on, physical things we would do. Where is this piece of equipment? What is the best drug for this emergency symptom? and so on.
The more experienced a nurse became, the more she or he dared to enter the murky questions of human emotions. How do I deliver bad news to a family member? What would I say to parents who have lost a child? How do I remain empathetic and non-judgmental when talking to a person who has a lifestyle that is different from my own?
What helped answer those questions? Stories. Not only the “My Most Difficult Patient” stories featured in nursing journals, but reading and reading and more reading. What was it like to be black? To be poor? To have a different gender orientation? To be the victim of abuse? To overcome hardship? To triumph against great odds? What helped in difficult situations? What didn't? It was all there in stories.
I hope that in this time of infomercials and Twitter-based novels that we aren't losing that ability to find empathy in story telling. If the world needs anything now, it's more empathy.
Writing quote for the week:
The literature of women’s lives is a tradition of escapees, women who have lived to tell the tale. They resist captivity. They get up and go. They seek better worlds.~Phyllis Rose, biographer
Monday, September 22, 2008
My current babysitter is an Italian exchange student. She looks like Sophia Loren's niece. Tall, graceful, lovely, silky-haired. She is babysitting my two sons, who have not reached puberty, but might cross over soon if she continues to visit. Sometimes I wonder how we look from her perspective.
On the first evening we met her at the door, but not before our dog did, leaping up on her with his rotten little paws and almost knocking her back down the stairs. Our cat, who is not allowed out of the house because of his pugilistic tendencies, darted past her in a bid for freedom. A shouting boy chased the cat down the sidewalk, fearful that he would get in yet another fight. (We've already been warned that if Pibby catches some dread disease from some other cat's saliva, he could potentially give feline AIDS to every cat in town. Are there greeting cards for that? Sorry I gave your cat AIDS?) The remaining boy sat glued to his Playstation, mumbling a greeting and shaming his mother.
I laughed nervously. "Sorry about the mess," I said, because I say this to everyone who comes over and sees the random piles of laundry, waiting in vain for someone to claim them and wash them, not to mention the stacks of paper and books and various boy toys: action figures and video game covers and Lego creations that simply cannot be taken apart, Mom.
She smiled uncertainly, and I gave her some final instructions: "Just be sure to keep this door shut, because the cat has torn holes in all the screens and he can jump right out. And try to keep the dog out of the attic. He goes to the bathroom up there. You know--bathroom?" We smiled, not certain of each other, and I was forced to leave her with the hyper dog, the AWOL cat, the boy who was somewhere outside, and the boy who was comatose inside. I figured she would never return.
To my surprise, she agreed to come the following week. She said the boys were quiet and she was able to do her homework; she would come that night. This sounded good. Unfortunately, some mysterious foreign object had made it inside our oven, and when I turned it on to bake something, the horrible smell of burnt plastic filled the air and smoke billowed through the house. Lord knows what superhero became an ashen offering, but the house smelled about as appealing as a rendering plant when the babysitter arrived. I stood, fanning away the last wisps of smoke and trying to smile about this kooky experience. "Our oven burned something," I said, shifting the blame where I felt it belonged. "So it made kind of a smell," I added, hoping she understood the part about the odor not being our fault. She wore a quizzical expression, perhaps trying to come up with an Italian equivalent of Pee-yew.
The stove dilemma was eventually solved (but not the mystery of what was burned), and the day I needed the sitter rolled around once again. I went out to the car that morning to find that it had rained all night and I had left the windows down. I ran back in for a dry towel to put on the driver's seat. No big deal--not until I came out of work eight hours later and the entire car smelled like a bad apple. The wet upholstery had soured, and the odor was unbearable. I wrinkled my nose all the way home, then tried various deodorizers--even just a few frantic squirts with a bottle of perfume. Yet when I arrived at her place to pick her up (of course she needed a ride this time, when my car smelled like a dumpster), the smell was worse than ever.
She climbed in and her lovely eyes squinted as the odor assailed her. She was so well bred, though, that she said nothing, and soon even her nostrils stopped flaring. "Heh, heh," I laughed nervously. "I left the car windows down, and it rained. WET," I added, in case she hadn't understood my excuse. What I really wanted to say was, "I swear, we're really not as smelly as we seem!"
She smiled and nodded. I could only imagine the e-mails she was sending home about the eccentric family with the disobedient pets and the odd collection of aromas in an untidy house. Was there a word for "slattern" in Italian?
As we sat together in the smell, I asked if she was going to any dances at the school. "Yes," she said, smiling. "I go, but I don't know who."
"That's fun," I said. "Do you have a dress?"
"Yes." Her face brightened. "Black, with silver. And silver shoe."
That sounded glamorous. And she was going to look knockout gorgeous. I glanced down at my utilitarian sweatsuit, navy blue with a red racing stripe. It was the third day I'd worn it because it was really comfortable. People were probably talking.
I wondered, were there people in Italy with smelly cars and smelly houses and cats that picked fights and dogs that annoyed people and children who drooled in front of the television? Or were they all sort of elegant and effortless, the way this girl seemed to be?
Was my lack of glamour obvious? And what of my whole public persona? Would it come across at book signings that I had a messy house? Would people at conventions know that I had driven there in a minivan that smelled like saurkraut? Would I really be able to chat in the bar without spilling drinks on people?
My reality is this: life is smelly. It pretty much has been since I changed my first diaper, and it probably will be until both of my sons leave home and I can really deodorize--maybe even pull up the floorboards and soak them in Pine Sol. I probably can't explain this to a beautiful Italian girl whose life does not smell, but I guess I've learned to live with it. And though I'm sometimes tempted to present a public image that includes a girdle, a wig and some neon tooth whitener, I figure I'll just be me, warts and all.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Your books take place in the forests of West Quebec. Can you give us an idea of what geographical area is included in that term, “West Quebec?”
West Quebec is a term used by the English-Canadians that inhabit the area rather than being an official region of the province of Quebec. It encompasses the province’s sparsely inhabited western part that is bounded by the Ottawa River to the south and stretches northward to the vast forests of La Verendrye Park. In French, the region is called ‘Outaouais’, meaning Ottawa, after the tribe of Indians that lived along the river when the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.
Meg’s home, Three Deer Point, is located in an isolated corner in the north-east part of West Quebec, about a two hour drive from Canada’s capital city, Ottawa.
It’s an outdated cliché that all Canadian literature deals with the wilderness. Yet, in your books, the setting provides an incredibly textured backdrop for your characters. How do you research the land?
I suppose one could almost say I’ve been researching the Great Canadian Outdoors ever since I was a child. I have always loved tramping through the woods, either on foot or cross-country skis or exploring the many waterways via canoe. And when my husband and I were looking for a cottage, we immediately honed in on the forests of West Quebec across the river from our home in Ottawa.
Like my heroine, Meg Harris, I like to sit on my cabin’s porch and listen to the timeless sounds of nature, be it a solitary ‘peep’ of a warbler intent on finding his dinner or the lonely cry of an upset deer. And because I have this great interest in the natural world, I have always been curious about its inhabitants, so over the years I’ve made a point of informing myself as best I could. If I have one guidebook, I have twenty.
They often say authors should write what they know. So when I set out to write the Meg Harris series, it only seemed natural that I make the setting the wilderness, where I spend half my time.
You worked with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation to create the Migiskan Anishinabeg, a fictitious band. What was that process like?
When working on Death’s Golden Whisper, the first book in the series, I was fortunate to meet up with two very helpful women at the KZ reserve’s Cultural Centre, Pauline Decontie and Annette Smith. In fact Annette suggested the name Migiskan, meaning fishhook. So the Migiskan Anishinabeg means Fishhook People. Although much of my research into Algonquin culture comes from books and the Internet, including the KZ website, I have found the women invaluable in helping me ensure that the Algonquin culture is reflected as accurately as possible.
Do you have English-Canadians, Quebecois, and First Nations people read any of your drafts to comment on if you have the characters “right?”
I’m not sure one can say whether a character is ‘rightly’ English-Canadian, Quebecois or First Nations. I view all my characters as people foremost, each with his or her own unique personality regardless of culture. But I do try to have them view the broader world from their own cultural upbringing. To do this I will bring in aspects specific to the culture of that character.
Sometimes I do this through dialogue with the characters using Algonquin or French words as appropriate or terms that are culturally specific, such as when Eric Odjik, the chief of the Migiskan Algonquin, is called an “apple” (red on the outside, white on the inside) by dissenting members of his band in The River Runs Orange.
Other times I will use scenes, like the smudging ceremony in Death’s Golden Whisper or the building of a birch bark canoe in The River Runs Orange. In Red Ice for a Shroud Meg is served pets de soeur, meaning ‘nun’s farts’. Although it is a typical Quebecois pastry made from leftover dough, it is not considered good form to serve it to guests. So when Meg is served this at the Gagnon home, it is intended more as an insult than an act of hospitality.
Generally, for these culture specific aspects of my books, I will have my contacts within the various communities read them to ensure they are accurate.
Do you plan to continue using a color as part of each title?
I love colours and I loved John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series in which he used a colour in each title. So in part as homage to John D, I decided to use a colour in my Meg Harris series’ titles. The fourth book, due out in Fall 2009 is An Arctic Blue Death, which needless to say takes place in Canada’s Far North. I felt it was time for Meg to travel and since I’ve always wanted to visit the Arctic myself, I took her there last summer in search of her father whose plane vanished over 35 years ago in the arctic blue ice off Baffin Island.
For more information about R.J. and her books, visit her web site at http://www.rjharlick.ca/index.htm.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Ever made that statement about wishing you lived in the good old days, like maybe a hundred years ago? Two hundred? Ever heard someone else make it? I know I've said it. Yet how few of us really have the courage or strength to actually do it? And those who do are often looked on as weird or strange for choosing to forgo all modern conveniences and live as our ancestors once did. There is one woman who created a life set in the 1830's for herself in modern day Vermont. Her wonderful paintings as well as her lifestyle have made her a legend.
In June of this year the world lost that lovely legend when artist Tasha Tudor passed away. Tudor illustrated numerous children's books as well as greeting cards, stationary, and other items. But the most interesting thing to me about Tudor was her love of the 1830's to the point that she actually managed to live in that time. Almost. She spent a good many years without running water or electricity. Tudor's son, Seth, hand built her Vermont farm house the old fashioned way, and she lived there many decades, cooking her meals on a wood burning stove and tending her now-famous garden. She often made her own candles, sewed her 1800's style clothing, and for reasons best known to herself, went barefoot most of the time. She wasn't lonely on that farm, populated with Welsh Corgis, goats, birds, and various other animals. Besides, she was too busy enjoying life to be lonely.
I've been a Tasha Tudor fan since childhood when my step-mom presented me with one of Tudor's wonderful children's books. I still have it, and as an adult I've collected many of her other books, including my favorite, THE DOLLS' CHRISTMAS. I also have TASHA TUDOR'S GARDEN, THE PRIVATE WORLD OF TASHA TUDOR, and TASHA TUDOR'S COOKBOOK, written about or for her by others.
I don't want to be guilty of copyright infringement so rather than post pictures here of Tudor or her art or her wonderful farm, I'll simply share a link to her family's site which will lead you to other sites about her as well.
If you are a fan of Tasha Tudor, you know what an inspiration her life and work were. If you aren't familiar with her but have ever wondered what it would be like to go back in time and live that life, please check out the above website. Or find some of her wonderful books to read or the books written about her. You won't be disappointed.
I hope one day to visit Vermont where Tasha Tudor's farm is located and take the garden tour. Meanwhile, I'm re-reading her biography and enjoying her wonderful art. I do miss knowing that she was alive and well in Vermont but I'm still enjoying "the good old days" through her books. But do I still want to live in those good old days? Nope.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Liz: With the third Dr. Rebecca Butterman mystery, Asking for Murder, just out, I’m delighted to have Dr. Butterman’s creator, Roberta Isleib, visit us on Poe’s Deadly Daughters. As a therapist myself, I get a big kick out of Dr. Butterman and her adventures. Roberta, what prompted you to make Rebecca an advice columnist rather than having her sleuthing come out of her therapy practice?
Roberta: Besides being a psychologist, I’m an advice column junkie—my fave is “Can this marriage be saved?” in the Ladies Home Journal. When I was looking for a hook, the column seemed like a natural. As it turns out, clues come to her in both kinds of work—advice and therapy.
Liz: I particularly appreciate the concern Rebecca has for maintaining the boundary between how she works as a therapist and the kind of advice she gives as Dr. Aster. What’s the difference?
Roberta: These two jobs set up quite a bit of internal tension for Rebecca. The kind of therapy she does allows her patients to plumb their psychological depths and root out old baggage that interferes with daily life. Advice is very different—no plumbing, more of a jazzy style of delivery (or I should say, Rebecca and I try to sound jazzy), as she skates over the surface.
Liz: How easy or hard is it for you to come up with advice-column dilemmas and snappy answers? Which is more fun to write: the questions or the answers?
Roberta: Definitely the questions! I’m here to say writing the answers is not as easy as the columnists make it look. If I wrote a column, I’d worry a lot about whether millions of readers are taking my pearls as gospel. What if I was totally off base and some poor sucker made an important decision based on my advice? Rebecca worries about that kind of thing too.
Liz: Your first series featured Cassie Burdette, whom you characterize on your website as a “neurotic professional golfer.” I think a lot of people still think of “neurotic” as meaning “slightly crazy in a Woody Allen kind of way.” But I find that nowadays professionals tend to use “neurotic” as a synonym for “reasonably healthy considering our crazy world.” So what’s neurotic about Cassie? And is that a good or a bad thing?
Roberta: I would lean toward your first definition—mildly crazy! Cassie had “issues” that kept her from performing at a high level in the golf world. Her father was a golf professional who failed to meet his own goals and acted out his disappointment by leaving his family. So Cassie’s strong connection to golf is tied up with her feelings about being abandoned. And she wonders (unconsciously of course) whether it’s okay for her to be successful if her father wasn’t. (Isn’t it wonderful how real these characters become to us?)
Liz: And how about Dr. Butterman? What issues would you expect Rebecca to bring to you if you were her therapist? What would you hope for her to accomplish in treatment?
Roberta: Rebecca had a double-whammy as a kid—her mothered committed suicide when she was four, and then her father left the state. (He explains more about that in Asking for Murder.) So I wouldn’t expect her to be able to find a strong relationship until she sorts that out. It amazes me how well people function sometimes in spite of their tragic histories—Rebecca is one of those people. She’s a wonderful therapist, but she has blind spots in her personal life. She’s working on those!
Liz: Let’s talk about emotional health and murder. Why do we love murder mysteries? What do they do to us, and what do they do for us?
Roberta: There are different theories about this. Some people say reading murder mysteries is a way of containing the violence we can’t contain in the real world. Folks like to see the perpetrators caught and punished: Justice is served. Other people like mysteries because they enjoy the puzzle—working out the solution as the sleuth does (or ahead of the sleuth!) And some people read for the characters, the feeling of a familiar set of old friends who reappear in new books. I think I fall in that category.
Liz: Me too! Characters I care about with plausible relationships get me every time. You and I are different kinds of mental health professional: you’re a clinical psychologist, I’m a clinical social worker. So how come you made the social worker the victim in Asking for Murder?
Roberta: I couldn’t very well kill off my main character! Seriously, it was interesting when I was in training to notice the undercurrents between psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. While they do similar work, the length and depth of their training can be very different. There was definitely a hierarchy and some snobbishness. I worked some of that conflict into Asking for Murder, though in the end, I’d say the social worker comes off very well. Don’t you think, Liz?
Roberta: IF the series were to continue (and that’s always a question in these uncertain times,) you will certainly see Rebecca change. She learned a lot from her experience with sandplay therapy and she will apply that. Like Cassie before her, she has some issues to work out with her father. She’s on her way to that! There’s a snotty teenager who makes an appearance at the end of AFM—you could look for her in future installments!
Liz: The kind of mystery series you write are often categorized as cozies. And how do you feel about that? (I had to get shrinks’ favorite question in there somehow.)
Roberta: I’m so glad you did! I don’t really care what you call the books as long as they sell and people enjoy them. But I don’t want to shock readers who are expecting some other kind of book. This series is a little darker and more realistic than what most folks think of as “cozy”—I warn people about that.
Thanks so much to Liz and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for your hospitality!
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Sometimes I feel a lot like a chipmunk.
No physical resemblance, of course – I’m nowhere near that cute. But while photographing the chipmunks in our yard (great way to avoid writing), I’ve noticed some behavioral similarities.
We both spend much of our time cut off from the rest of the world, emerging periodically to blink at the sun and remind ourselves that there is an existence beyond our burrows. While the life’s work of a chipmunk is foraging for food to stock its larder and mine is foraging for words and thoughts to fill my books, we take much the same approach.
We both have to be selective. We can’t grab whatever happens to come along. We must examine all possibilities and choose something that will be worth our effort, something that will last. We’re both perfectionists.
Watching a chipmunk figure out what to do with a peanut I’ve offered him brings a jolt of self-recognition that makes me smile and groan at the same time. My “peanut” may be a sentence, a paragraph, a bit of backstory, a description, but the same trial-and-error method applies.
It has to go in here somewhere, but where will it fit best?
Ah ha. Right here.
Or maybe not...
I’ll see if it works better over here.
Nope. Back to the first spot. But does it really feel right there?
Oh, heck. It’s time to move on!
For the chipmunk, there’s always another peanut. For me, there’s always another rewrite.
NOTE: To leave a comment, check the COMMENT tab, not the little envelope!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
To the make of a Piper
goes seven years of his own learning
and seven generations before.
At the end of these seven years,
one born to it will stand at the start of
~Neil Munro, Gaelic writer (1863 to 1930)
Learning to play the bagpipes was noisier than learning to be a writer. The feedback was instantaneous. My mistakes were obvious, not only to me, but to the neighborhood dogs. Some of the mistakes—for one, discovering that tuning the bagpipes in a ceramic-tile shower stall was not a good idea—were downright painful.
The joy was that getting it right was immediately obvious, too. For those of us fond of bagpipe music, nothing can compare to standing in close proximity to a set of well-tuned drones and a well-balanced chanter. For those not so fond of bagpipes, I recommend a cool, gray morning, and about seven miles of mist-covered hills between you and the piper.
The problem with “the make of a Writer” is that the feedback is not instantaneous. The gap between finish first book and hold first published book in your hand may be years. By the time you get to book five or ten, you may neither remember what was in that first book, nor exactly why you wrote it.
Back seven years ago, when I decided to seriously devote my time to becoming a published writer, I said to myself, “Someone out there has to know what mysteries are all about. There must be a way to find those people.”
Well, there was, and today a good bit of my waking hours are filled with other mystery writers, Internet lists, blogs, web sites, mystery journals, and with the activities of writing, marketing, and thinking about mysteries. I’ve gladly crossed over into that state of insanity where, when I see a couple of police officers handcuffing a person in a mall, I have this brief, insane thought of, “I wonder if they would mind if I trailed along and took notes?”
The problem I’ve been puzzling on for some time is what comes next? If my first question was who knows about mysteries, my second is how do I move up into the journeyman stage of my writing career? If now, like a piper, I stand at the beginning of knowledge, where do I go from here?
If you’re familiar with the medieval apprentice/master arrangement, the middle step between apprentice (the beginner) and master (the person in control) was called the journeyman. The term had two meanings. First, from the French word journeé, meaning a day. A journeyman was allowed to charge for each day’s work that they did. As an aside, wouldn’t that be a great arrangements for writers: to be paid for each day we spend on writing. The mind boggles.
The second meaning of the journeyman was that he could move away from his master’s household; he was allowed to travel to study under different masters. So, if a carpenter heard of a wonderful cabinet-maker in a village on the other side of the hill, he could go there and study cabinet-making for several months. Then, perhaps on to someone who framed houses, or built barns, or did whatever kind of carpentry interested him.
He was, however, required to periodically return to his master, both to show him what he’d learned, and to have the master correct any bad habits he might have picked up that were leading him away from the one, true path. (All masters believed, of course, that only they knew the one, true path.)
I probably have this incorrect, but who knows. My theory is that they are secret cabals of my fellow writers out there who have learned the one, true path. Or, at least, they have learned to cope with the vagaries of writing in some advanced way. They are past the basics. They know how to sustain a writing career through its murky adolescence, which is where I think my writing is now.
But I also have an idea that getting into such a group requires an invitation. They have to recognize that you are ready. Maybe you get an engraved invitation in the mail. Or maybe at a mystery convention someone sidles up to you, looks around furtively, and whispers in your ear, “Ten-thirty tonight. Suite 2015. Bring Black-and-Green dark chocolate. Tell no one.”
So, just in case, I keep a bar of B & G dark chocolate in my refrigerator. As they say in Hollywood, I’m waiting for the call.
Monday, September 15, 2008
It's September 15th already. The school year is well underway, the weather is cooling (and damping, thanks to all those hurricane after-effects), and before we know it trick-or-treaters will be at our door. But I like mid-September, the calm before the holiday storm. Perhaps that's why I always remember Agatha Christie's birthday; today she would be 118 years old.
There are all sorts of websites dedicated to Agatha; this one looks intriguing, and I hadn't ever noticed it before. I like the picture of Agatha on the mysterynet website, and they offer all of the most notable events of Agatha's life.
I discovered Dame Agatha, thanks to a tip from my mom, when I was about fourteen years old, with a charming little adventure called They Came to Baghdad. I loved it. My mother, knowing me, had selected the best Christie to engage my teenage mind, but after that every one of the mysteries was fair game, because I knew that each one would hold a puzzle that I would most likely not be able to solve. But boy, I sure loved trying. And there were no hard feelings in the end, when I failed again to guess the solution. I'd always give Agatha a figurative bow, deferring to her cleverness.
You know when people sometimes ask "Who would you want to meet, if you could go back in time?" Well, aside from my own grandparents when they were young, and probably Abe Lincoln (I'd try to save him at the theatre), I'd want to meet Agatha Christie. Just sit and have some tea with her and say, "So what are you working on now, Agatha?" And I'd take a fairy cake from the tray, (hey, it's my fantasy, there's going to be cake), luxuriate back in my chair, and listen.
I recently stumbled across a book I got for Christmas long ago called In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie, by Francois Riviere and with photos by Jean-Bernard Naudin. The book is simply breathtaking with its images of Agatha's Torquay and of the many settings she made into the settings of her books. My particular favorites were the little English village of Miss Marple and, of course, the old seaside resorts.
The book recounts tales from Agatha's life, one of which was her determination to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles and how she ended up staying in moody Dartmoor for inspiration (this Dartmoor photo http://www.independenthostelguide.co.uk/jpegs/Dartmoor%20Exp%20Centre%202.jpg">link). Here's a little excerpt which I find particularly interesting and ironic:
"Mrs. Miller suggested that she leave the hospital for a while and stay in a hotel which they both knew well, on the edge of Dartmoor.
Dartmoor is a bleak tableland in the very heart of Devon, scattered with weirdly shaped rocks and haunting to susceptible spirits. It is a remote, empty, windswept place at whose centre only two roads of any note cross. Seemingly uninhabited, except by ponies and sheep, the impressive scenery had always fascinated Agatha. As a child she had followed her parents looking for prehistoric traces known as 'hut circles', which seem to fade away as one draws near. She also remembered picnics on the moor in the pouring rain, and, like many of her contemporaries, had been marked by The Hound of the Baskervilles, that long investigation conducted by Sherlock Holmes in an other-worldly atmosphere and the setting of Dartmoor. It was to this land of dreams and mysteries that Agatha came to regain her forces and set her imagination to work again. . . .
The manuscript of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was completed in 1916 and sent to four publishers in succession. The first three replied with a polite refusal. The fourth, John Lane of The Bodley Head, did not deign to answer."
Even Agatha, the woman who would become the GREAT Agatha, couldn't get past those rejection letters. And that should give hope to us all. :) (Sounds a bit like J.K. Rowling's experience).
What's your favorite Christie?
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Bill Crider is the author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series set in small town Texas. The 15th book in the series, Of All Sad Words, came out in February. Bill is a master at making his home state feel alive for readers. Publishers Weekly said, "Crider expertly evokes this small Texas town and its eccentric cast of characters.
Bill has also written four other mystery series, several stand-alone mystery and suspense books, a number of westerns, some horror novels, several books for younger readers, and so many short stories I kept losing my place trying to count them all. He's a native of Mexia, Texas. The town's second most famous citizen--after Bill, of course--is the late Anna Nicole Smith.
*Parts of Texas are being battered by Hurricane Ike. Please keep their people in your thoughts and prayers.*
Hi. My name is Bill, and I’m a Texan.
Yes, that’s right. Born and raised in the Lone Star State, home of the Alamo, the (now sadly outdated and abandoned) Astrodome, NASA, longhorn cattle, the Marfa Lights, Tex-Mex food, Willie Nelson, Dr Pepper, and the Dallas Cowboys.
Is it true that Texans like to talk about their state? Yes. Let me tell you more.
Texas is the home of The Big Texan Steak Ranch a restaurant in Amarillo where they’ll serve you a 72 ounce steak. That’s right, 4-1/2 pounds of pure Texas beef, cooked the way you want it. What’ll it cost? Nothing. It’s free if you can eat it all in one hour. There’s are a couple of catches, of course. The first is that you also have to eat the sides: a salad, a baked potato, and a roll. The second is that if you don’t eat it all, you have to pay, though it’s only around $50 for the meal. I’d call that a bargain. You’d probably pay that much for some artfully arranged arugula and soy protein in New York City.
Amarillo’s also home to the Cadillac Ranch, the place where you can see a bunch of Caddies buried nose-first in the Texas soil. Nothing says Texas like a half-buried Cadillac.
Closer to home (my home, that is) you can find the Beer Can House, covered with something like 50,000 flattened beer cans and other beer can adornments. Its beer can wind chimes give the house a unique sound when the wind blows, and some people say the house itself sings. Possibly they’ve been drinking too much beer.
Up on Interstate 45 near Huntsville stands the world’s tallest statue of an American hero, in this case Sam Houston. Big Sam is 67 feet tall and stands on a 10 foot base. A bit shorter is the statue of Stephen F. Austin on Highway 35. Austin’s a mere 60 feet tall, but he does stand on a 12 foot base.
Let’s say you like cemeteries (hey, who doesn’t?). In Houston you can visit the Glenwood Cemetery, a very upscale resting place just a mile from downtown and the final destination of Howard Hughes. Not to mention Gene Tierney. Before you visit the cemetery, though, you might want to drop by the National Museum of Funeral History, a much more cheerful place that you’d expect.
If you’re planning on visiting any of these fine attractions, be warned: Texas has a lot of pests. Some years ago when we were living in Brownwood, we attended the annual rattlesnake roundup, an event now frowned upon by many. I’m not a fan of snakes in any form, whether they have rattles or not, and the sight of a gigantic pile of snakes writhing, hissing, and rattling was a little disconcerting to me. I never gave a second’s thought to animal cruelty or the ecological impact. I was too busy looking for an exit.
Our house was in Brownwood was occasionally host to scorpions. Some of them looked like this. I don’t care what this guy says. I’ve been stung by Texas scorpions more than once, and the memory of those stings still gives me chills.
Some of our pests don’t hurt you, at least not with bites or stings. If you visit the Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, don’t miss Liberoachi.. I don’t know if he has his brother, George, with him.
I could go on, but you’ve probably already stopped reading and gone to do something exciting, like watch the grass grow in your front lawn. But if you’re still there and if you want some really outrageous Texas bragging, you could do worse than to click here.
Before I leave, I’d like to thank the Deadly Daughters for inviting me here. They might regret it now, but it’s too late. Hook ‘em Horns!
Friday, September 12, 2008
I've had a boulder on my shoulder for weeks and weeks. My snail mailbox recently filled to overflowing with best wishes for my upcoming sixty-fifth birthday in October, and by the way, while the sender had my attention, would I be interested in signing up for their wonderful supplemental insurance? Free information. No obligation. Sigh.
Having married a slightly older man, I knew I needed Plan F when I reached Medicare age, but WHICH company's plan F? And the Social Security people were inundating me with forms to fill out as well. Okay, okay, so it was only TWO forms, but they wanted me to fill them out RIGHT NOW, thank you very much. My favorite saying is from Douglas Adams and it goes like this: I love deadlines. I specially love the swhooshing sounds they make as they fly by.
Back to the boulder on my shoulder. My sixty-fifth birthday was bearing down upon me and I had no supplemental insurance. I couldn't even concentrate on "the happy event" for worrying about having insurance in place BEFORE that day arrived. So we tried to contact hubby's insurance agent and his phone wasn't working. At all. I sifted through the the multitude of offers I'd been flooded with and chose the three lowest. I called the number of the very lowest. The lady offered me a good price for supplemental insurance just for myself and an even better offer for hubby and I together, should he choose to switch companies. She'd call me back in a few days to get our decision. She never called me back. Obviously they didn't need my business.
Then I called the company who currently charges me a fortune to insure me now as an individual (since I lost my group health insurance when hubby retired.) They quoted a price that made my chest hurt, but hey, I can't afford to have a heart attack any time before next month so I thanked the lady and hung up. Sigh. I contacted hubby's supplemental insurance company directly, bypassing the agent with the nonworking telephone, and eureka, in five minutes, I'm supplementally insured. Bring on Medicare, I'm reeeaaaaady. Or am I?
Earlier this week, on my way to my monthly garden club meeting, (where I'd been asked to speak, so I'm toting my laptop with pictures for show and tell) it suddenly hit me right between the eyes. I'M ALMOST SIXTY-FIVE! I'M ON MEDICARE IN LESS THAN THREE WEEKS! SHRIEK! And I'd been totally too busy trying to wade through my multitudinous choices to digest this important information. (Don't EVEN get me started on whether or not to take the drug coverage. I can't deal with that. Yes, I know they will penalize me if I don't decide right now. I'd rather be penalized than make the decision right now.)
The real question I pondered as I navigated down Ferry Street, trying to remember which side street to turn onto in order to reach the garden club meeting was HOW did I get to be this old? What happened to those lazy summer days in Las Vegas back in the forties when I made tea cups and saucers out of fallen leaves and shared afternoon tea with my dog, Poochie?
What happened to going to the theater every weekend with my friend Francie to see those wonderful Fifties larger-than-life color movies? Coming home after watching WHITE CHRISTMAS and begging my mom for a glass of buttermilk like Vera Ellen drank in the show? What happened to Christmas with real trees? (Okay they were a fire danger but they were beautiful.) What happened to dating in skirts wider than the fella's car, sweater sets, rock and roll, The Stroll, Coke Floats?
What happened to the sixties, to our simple wedding at a small but famous Las Vegas wedding chapel, moving to California, moving to Kentucky, giving birth to three boys? And WHERE did the next three decades go with me as room mother, cub scout leader, sitting up half the night to help finish a science project, camping trips, little league baseball games, and waiting up, walking the floor until my last teenager slid in the front door mere seconds before the clock announced his curfew had at long last arrived?
I suppose they all eventually blended into a lifetime of experience. Growing up I saw Las Vegas, Nevada at a time when few people REALLY saw it. The Strip and Fremont Street that tourists saw or that was portrayed in movies and the behind the scenes families who lived and worked there and kept the city lights going, something few visitors ever saw. As an adult I've experienced life in a small town in Kentucky, raising kids, enjoying a simpler life than Vegas could provide. Experiences that I've been able to use in writing two different mystery series and various short stories. And experiences hopefully I've been able to share with others when they needed it.
Several years ago, after the boys were gone and the nest was looking mighty empty (and I hadn't even considered I might be able to write or publish a novel) I went back to school, first to learn how to use a computer, then to complete my college hours in order to earn a teacher's aide certificate. While there I met a woman with a fascinating and extremely difficult childhood. I begged her to write her experiences down and publish them. I believed her story would sell and others would benefit from her knowledge. We've since lost touch, so I don't know if she ever did.
One of the things I stress when I teach a writing class is that each of us has a unique story to tell, either in writing fiction or non-fiction. There are only so many plots in the world and Shakespeare, the plot hog, already covered them. Our job as writers is to cover them again, in our own way, bringing to the story our own life experience. And the reader will see it as a totally new story.
So, how did I get to be this old? By getting out of bed every morning, still breathing, still moving, just like the rest of you. And I am soooo aware that I don't have nearly as much time left now as I did in the fifties or the seventies. Or last week. My plan is to totally enjoy whatever time I have NOW. And to share my experience in my writing or with those who need encouragement. I confess, I've been very lucky since the good times outweigh the bad.
But good experiences or bad, folks, tell your story. Write it down, if for no one else, at least for your children and grandchildren. Share it. And don't let age hold you back. I didn't start my first novel until I was in my mid-fifties, and I held the first hardcover copy in my eager, trembling hands just one month shy of my sixtieth birthday. Most of the authors I know are, to put it politely, past their first bloom. In my humble opinion, most of the really good novels are written by those writers who are at least a weensy bit dry behind the ears. Who've lived a bit of life and survived it. Who have a story to tell.
And please do the research and prepare yourself ahead of time, before Medicare comes calling. At least that way you will know exactly when you can afford to have a heart attack. I'm planning mine for October. Oh, wait, we're going on vacation then, to celebrate my birthday. Maybe November. No, that would interfere with Thanksgiving and a couple of family birthdays. December? No, that won't work either. I'll have to get back to you on this. Until then, Happy Plan F, everyone.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I can’t bring myself to write about mysteries today. Seven years ago, we who live in New York City experienced our own international terrorist thriller, and it was no fun at all. Apart from a few passing storms, we're having the same kind of fall weather as we did in 2001. September 11 was a beautiful day that year: crystal clear blue skies, sharply etched buildings, the trees in the park still shaggy and heavy-headed with green. In the weeks that followed, we who survived marveled at the heartbreakingly beautiful weather that went on and on as we struggled to get past the shock, mourn our losses, and figure out how to function in a world that had gone suddenly unsafe.
I heard the news at about the time the second plane hit. I had been running around the reservoir. I emerged from the park elated from my run, crossed Central Park West at 86th Street, and waved to the little guy who sells newspapers on the corner, who always greets me warmly even though I never buy a paper.
“An airplane has hit the World Trade towers!” he called out. “No, two planes!”
I’m sorry to say that at first, I underreacted.
“That’s terrible,” I responded politely as I continued to jog down 86th Street. I don’t ordinarily get caught up in disaster news. I’m not an avid follower of human tragedies and spectacular trials as televised and hashed over by commentators. And the reason I don’t buy the paper is that I prefer not to start my day with a dose of bad news. But as I gradually realized that normal traffic had stopped, that knots of people were huddled around the radios in cars parked on the street, I slowed down and finally stopped.
“What happened?” I asked. At last, I began to take in the magnitude of what we soon started calling 911, for the ironic convergence of the date and the numbers we dial for help in an emergency. This time, I was not a spectator. This was happening to me.
So deeply were people affected by the attacks that, to my relief, there was no exploitive rush to churn out books and movies on the topic. Five years later, novelists began writing their deeply felt 911 books, and special-effects-heavy disaster movies started to reappear. I know a couple of writers who thought they might never write again. To them, telling stories to entertain, especially stories of violence, seemed trivial and inappropriate in the circumstances.
I had a different reaction. I had not yet completed the first draft of what would become my first published mystery. At that time, I was involved with several songwriting groups, and song was the medium that came to me in which to grapple with the events of 911. I didn’t plan or choose it. The song came pouring through me on September 12 and was complete on September 13. I sang it the same day to fellow mental health professionals in a Red Cross van jouncing downtown to the respite centers where families were still hoping for news of survivors.
Here’s what I have to say about what happened in New York on September 11, 2001.
Two Tall Towers
(Click to hear the song)
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
If you want to start a lively conversation, ask a group of people what they’re most afraid of.
Answers might be hesitant at first, because grown men are a little embarrassed to admit, for example, that they’re afraid of the dark and women might think they’re playing to gender stereotypes by confessing a fear of creepy insects. After one brave soul comes clean, though, the dam will collapse and you’ll hear an astonishing outpouring of secret terrors. This is a gold mine for mystery writers, who can use phobias to add depth to characters and a little something extra to scary scenes.
Most of us start by giving our own fears to our characters. Easy to understand, easy to write. If you’re anything like me, you can harvest from your own phobia collection for a long time before you have to look elsewhere. I’m scared of almost everything. The only times I laugh at Adrian Monk are when he calls for a wipe after shaking hands or compulsively straightens and rearranges objects. I’m not afraid of germs, and if you could see my desk you’d know I’m not a neat freak. In every other way, I’m right there with Monk. Heights, depths, open places, closed places, spiders, deep water, fire, darkness -- they all terrify me. And my fear of failure (clinical name: atychphobia) goes way beyond terror.
My phobias are ordinary, though, common and rarely entertaining. For something exotic that I might afflict on a poor character, I can go to a site like The Phobia List, which offers page after page of clinical and popular names for all the things that freak out humans. Maybe I could work alliumphobia – fear of garlic – into a mystery. But no; that one’s better suited to vampire stories. How about allodoxaphobia, fear of opinions? Don’t we all know somebody who suffers from that and makes everybody around them suffer too? The world is also overpopulated with hedonophobes, those unfortunate souls who are afraid of feeling pleasure.
Some phobias raise baffling questions. How does an otherwise sane person develop aulophobia, fear of flutes? And bolshephobia, fear of Bolsheviks, seems like a big waste of time and psychic energy these days. I can’t even begin to understand bibliophobia, fear of books. How does anyone function with optophobia (fear of opening one’s eyes), or phagophobia (fear of swallowing), or nomatophobia (fear of names), or levophobia (fear of things to the left of the body), or phronemophobia (fear of thinking)?
But back to the question of phobias that can be used in mysteries. Iatrophobia, fear of doctors, is fairly common, but in extreme cases it would make murder by slow poisoning easy, because you could count on the victim not to summon his courage and seek medical care for his weird symptoms. Phasmophobia, fear of ghosts, offers the possibility of scaring somebody to death. Rhytiphobia, fear of developing wrinkles – poisoning again, with the toxin concealed in a face cream that must be applied lavishly. Pteronophobia, fear of being tickled by feathers, is too funny not to use, but offhand I can’t come up with a suitable scenario. (I’ll bet Donna Andrews could.) Any phobia that isolates the victim – and they are too numerous to list – would make the killer’s job easier and lessen the chance of detection.
Give a phobia to your sleuth and you can make it an obstacle that he or she has to overcome in solving the crime. Overdo it and your character may be dismissed as a Monk wannabe – and we know there can only be one Monk.
Two stories that use phobias to great effect are the Hitchcock film Vertigo (heights) and Nevada Barr’s novel Blind Descent (caves, water, darkness, tight spaces – all of which scare me). Lisa Gardner’s new thriller, Say Goodbye, is so loaded with spider stuff that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. And one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read is in Tess Gerritsen’s The Sinner, when she sends Medical Examiner Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli into a dark attic to investigate strange thumping noises. It’s not that any great violence takes place. It’s the situation that makes me shudder. Will you ever catch me crawling around in a dark attic? I don’t think so.
Okay, I’ve come clean about my innermost fears. Now it’s your turn. What are you afraid of? What books or movies have given you nightmares because they touched on your phobias? In case you’re thinking of moving on without answering, I’d like to point out that I also suffer from severe athazagoraphobia – fear of being ignored.