Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Times They Are A Changing

Sharon Wildwind

I think it was about 1984 when I ended up on a bulletin board for the first time. No, no one thumb-tacked me to a large piece of cork. I joined what was then called a BBS or bulletin board system.

I still know the system operator from that BBS and, recently he told me, “The BBS was a group of geeks, mostly males in their teens or twenties, who were hanging out together, and all of a sudden this thirty-something woman shows up on-line, and asks if she can join. We had no idea what to do with you. We figured we’d be polite and after a little while you would get tired and drift away. Only you didn’t. You stuck with it.”

Keep in mind we were communicating by text only. For my terminal, green letters on a black background. No photos, no graphic, the best we could do was one of Scott E. Fahlman’s mail markers. Professor Fahlman, who still works at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, had proposed that e-mail writers use a sets of cleverly-arranged of punctuation marks to show the feelings accompanying a message.
:-) for what I just wrote was a joke
:-( for I’m unhappy about what’s being said
:-o for I’m startled and my favorite
<|;-)8 for a winking clown, wearing a bow tie, which usually had nothing whatsoever to do with the message, but it was fun to turn your head side-ways like a seal and figure out what the little figure was supposed to be.

If a person was really, really creative and had lots of time on their hands, they could make simple graphic art, and hope like heck that the computer of the person receiving the message didn’t make the spacing go all colly-wobbly because then the graphic wouldn’t make any sense.

(It’s a heart in case you can’t guess)

I think one of the reasons I continued to hang around the BBS was not only that I found it fascinating to exchange ideas with people I couldn’t see and equally fascinating to have a window on what guys half my age thought, but that on Sunday afternoons we played softball and maybe went out for pizza afterwards. We might be in the middle of a hot discussion on-line, but once we were at the diamond, animosities disappeared for the afternoon.

Twenty-five years later, I’d have trouble spending an hour or so each night e-mailing green letters on black backgrounds back and forth.

I’m also having trouble with what’s happening to a good many of the on-lines lists to which I subscribe. Back about 2001, I fondly remember some great discussion lists. I think I was on about three of them at that time. Yes, some people never figured out how to summarize previous messages, so occasionally there would be the mile-long message. And yes, familiar topics would surface with the same regularity that the Nile once flooded surrounding farm land, and I’d feeling like smacking my forehead and saying, “Oh, no, here we go again.”

But weaving in and out of those inevitable problems was great discussion. People exchanged ideas and opinions, rather like we were doing back in ‘84 on the BBS. Today I find that the content on many lists is 80 to 90% come-ons to visit blogs. I say that knowing that a lot of people I respect, including my siblings here at Poe-Central, write great blog blurbs. They’re short, they don’t get in the way, and unfortunately for me, I go right past them. I’m developing the fastest delete key in town.

It’s the same with newsletters. Even more so than print newspapers, print newsletters are already dead. Every newsletter, except one, to which I still subscribe comes to me electronically. Currently I have 23 writing-related issues and 33 nursing-related ones unread in my e-mail and that’s only since January, since I clear out my newsletter files—most of them still unread—at the start of each year.

My pet peeve this week is the electronic newsletter that still uses a three-column format. Scroll down to read the rest of the first column, scroll up to read the beginning of the second column, scroll down to read the end of the second column, then up and down one more time and I’ve done one page. Only 17 more of the 18-page newsletter to go. Likely I won’t make it past page one.

I’m not really as grumpy as all of this sounds. Mostly, I’m lost. I simply don’t have time to keep up with the old formats like lists and newsletters and the new formats like [insert your favorite new thing here], so I'm going to have to pick and choose. Maybe what we all need, instead of an avalanche of new electronic formats to join, learn and manage is a few more Sunday afternoon softball games, followed by pizza, if anyone is interested. Make mine black olive and mushroom.

Quote for the week:
If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects. They reflect one's mind and psyche of yesterday. I throw away what has no dynamic, living use. I keep nothing to remind me of the passage of time, deterioration, loss, shriveling.
~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 - 1977)
From those of us living north of the 49th parallel to those of you living on both sides of the border, Happy Canada Day, which will be tomorrow, July 1. Here’s one of my favorite bits of Canada, Banff National Park.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why You Can't Save the Mouse

by Julia Buckley
When I was a newlywed, I woke one day to find that our cats had triangulated a mouse. They sat around it watchfully, planning murder.

I was horrified. It was the first mouse I had ever seen outside of a pet shop (yes, I was a sheltered thing). I begged my husband to save it before the cats could do their worst.

“What?” he asked in disbelief. “This is the benefit of cats. They catch your mice for you.”

“But it’s cruel to just let them kill it. Just save it in a jar and we’ll put it outside.”

“If you put it outside, it will come right back in whatever hole it used the first time.”

I must have given him a persuasive look, because he sighed and went into our kitchen for an old Tupperware container. He approached the mouse and tried to trap it under the plastic. Once. Again. Again. The mouse was having none of it, and every time it saw him coming it would dart away; in his effort to “save” it, Jeff managed to brain it with the corner of the container several times. In fact, whether it was from the stress or from the Tupperware smackings, the little mouse died. I actually saw it breathe its last tiny breath.

The cats stalked away, disgusted.

I was sad. “We were trying to save it,” I insisted.

Since then I’ve learned that you can’t save the mouse. Our house is very old and most likely has a million wonderful mouse holes. Usually our three cats (two of whom are very good mousers) won’t bother me with the ethical dilemma: they do their murdering in private and then proudly bring me the corpse. There is never even a dot of blood on these mice. I can only guess that they die of fear.

The other day a small dead mouse was placed on my son’s pillow. There was much familial horror, many expressions of disgust, and some appropriate disinfecting. Today, I emerged from my office to see Mr. Mulliner, our youngest and suddenly most determined mouser, batting something around near my slippers.

For some unknown reason, the mice try to hide in my footwear. Last Christmas one hid in my winter boot before Mulliner rooted him out. Today my slippers were a last oasis. Can they smell my compassion in my shoes?

Mulliner got him out. “Stop it,” I said. “Mulliner, stop it.”

Naturally I know the cat can’t understand me, and if he attributed any sense at all to my words, it was probably the message, “Well done. Continue murdering.”

That, in fact, is what he did, but with seemingly gentle velvet slaps that somehow sent the mouse into a tiny cardiac arrest. It died quietly, with mouse dignity.

My sons, brave as the cat mousers, did me the favor of removing the corpse.

Since about twenty years have gone by since my first mouse incident, when I tried to save a little mouse life, I realize I’ve hardened a bit. I do not, in fact, want mice wandering around my house if it’s at all possible to prevent it. Mr. Mulliner is on the job, as is the aging Pibby Tails. I know I can’t stop the processes of nature, but like all of the squeamish (which I suppose can be translated into “weak”), I wish that Darwin’s theory did not ever have to be demonstrated on my dining room floor.

But when these events occur (and thanks to the plentiful holes in our house, they will keep occurring), I must admit that I intend to step aside and let the cats do their job. I feel guilty, but I am asserting my territorial rights.

The perpetrator, Mr. Mulliner, most likely thinking of mice.

Mouse image link here.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Building a Bewitching World

By Juliet Blackwell

I was taken aback at a recent dinner party when an author friend referred to writing fiction as “world-building”. I had never really thought of it that way.

But she’s right.

Writing a novel is like constructing a whole new world; one that demands its own internal logic and myriad quirky inhabitants. And I can’t deny that it’s exhilarating, knowing that I’m in charge. Need a major art museum with a dictatorial director? Go for it. A sympathetic villain with a complex past? No problem. Great-looking, romantic men looking for committed relationships? Why not? It’s not fantasy, it’s fiction!

I can do this. After all, I was a whiz with Tinker Toy towns as a kid. In fact, a certain heady god-complex takes over when I’m on a writing roll… Bwah hah hah! (Evil laugh while rubbing hands…) This is MY world and it will do as I—and only I-- see fit!

Only it doesn’t. Just as in the real world, the universes I create in my mind somehow develop their own issues and problems, contradictions and convoluted situations th
at I then, as their author, am obligated to try to unravel.

For instance, I’m launching a new Witchcraft Mystery Series this summer (Secondhand Spirits will be released July 7, 2009). My protagonist, Lily Ivory, is a bona fide witch….So now I’m dealing not only with creating a whole new world, but one that includes several dimensions of reality, as well as ghosts, demons, and phantoms.

Talk about your world-building exercises… How do I create a universe that includes witchcraft –and makes that magical craft an integral part of the mystery and its solution--without crossing the line from “fascinating” to “cheesy”? In my humble opinion the last thing the world needs is another Bewitch
ed redux.

First, I did my homework: I interviewed self-proclaimed witches, went to coven meetings, and researched the history of witchcraft not only in Europe, but around the globe. I learned many fascinating things: If a child is heard to cry while still in the womb, it is assumed by many cultures to be a witch; the Wicca religion is as flexible and variable as those who choose to follow it; and according to the Malleus Maleficarum, known as the Witch Hunter’s Handbook, it was a crime punishable by death NOT to believe in the power of witches.

Above all, I learned that witchcraft –and the accusation of said powers—is not to be taken lightly. Still, specific problems arise with regard to writing a paranormal mystery. For instance, couldn’t a powerful witch just read tarot cards o
r tea leaves or a crystal ball and figure out Whodunnit? A lot of supernatural thrillers contend that the messages from beyond are vague and often misleading, but through my research I came up with a simpler, more elegant solution: Witches are good at different things. Some are root-workers (brewing potions and salves) while others are brilliant at reading the future, and still others are gifted at focusing their intentions in order to influence the normal course of life.

My protagonist is rotten at seeing into the future, and frankly she’s a little touchy about the subject. Her life would be much easier –but the mysteries so much less interesting—if only she could look into her crystal ball and figure out what’s what. In the world I created for her, Lily’s powers put her in the unique position to help discover the truth, but she has to work for it just like your average human detective. That’s what makes her struggle to solve the crime compelling; and, I hope, what makes readers empathize with her. She’s powerful, but she’s not all-powerful.

Mystery fiction allows us to spend time in worlds where the good guys always triumph and the murderer’s always caught…sort of. I suppose there are some true noir novels that go a different way. But by and large these are worlds in which even amateur detectives blunder into situations that any sane person would avoid like the plague, and eventually, inevitably, everything turns out for the best. In most mysteries, a good heart, a sharp brain, and sheer determination can lead a person to become their best selves, and to triumph over adversity.

Now that’s a world worth building.

Juliet Blackwell, aka Hailey Lind, is the pseudonym for a mystery author who, together with her sister, wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery Series--including the Agatha-nominated Feint of Art and the IMBA bestsellers Shooting Gallery and Brush with Death. The fourth in the series, Arsenic and Old Paint, will be released in fall, 2010. Juliet’s new paranormal Witchcraft Mystery series begins with Secondhand Spirits (July, 2009), about a witch with a vintage clothing store in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.

A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France. She currently resides in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California, where she is a muralist, portrait painter, and recipient of the overly zealous attentions of her neighbor’s black cat, who seems to imagine himself her new familiar. Juliet/Hailey is two-term president of Northern California Sisters in Crime. For more information and to read an excerpt from her new novel, please visit www.julietblackwell.net.

Friday, June 26, 2009

You want to be buried where???

By Lonnie Cruse

Well, you all know me. Have camera, will travel, will blog about it. The above pictures are of the old Lindsey Cemetery near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Most modern cemeteries are placed on fairly level land, but this old one is on a hillside. An extremely STEEP hillside. Think nosebleed section in a HUGE gymnasium.

Unfortunately you really can't see from the pictures just how steep it is because I'm parked inside the area at the first level, but imagine trying to place flowers for your loved ones on the highest points. You'd be risking life and limb. Both pictures were taken with the zoom lens as far out as it would zoom. In the center of the top picture, yes, those ARE ancient headstones. Can you imagine trying to dig those graves with nothing but a shovel back then, before the advent of backhoes, and trying to keep yourself from rolling downhill at the same time?

So, where do you want to be buried? Have you given that any thought? Too touchy a subject to consider? Too morbid? You must be young. The older you get, the less that matters, and the more you want to make those decisions so your family won't have to.

I confess, I love old cemeteries, and we sometimes stop to explore an interesting looking one. You can read the history of a family there, mostly the heartache. Five tiny graves lined up in a neat row in an ancient graveyard in The Land Between The Lakes area of Western Kentucky are there most likely because the mother was pregnant year after year in a day when modern medical advances that save many infants didn't yet exist. Often husbands and wives are buried side by side, the dates showing how long one lived on without the other. And, as our minister recently pointed out, the little dash between the birth and death dates on a headstone represent a person's entire life. What happened to that person during that little dash between birth and death? Was that life good or bad? Was he or she successful or a failure? Loved or hated? Busy or bored? The list goes on and on.

You can usually spot an old, out of use cemetery, or at least the oldest part of a newer one where lots are still sold, by the tall monuments, most of which are no longer even allowed. To facilitate mowing, most cemeteries now only allow flat markers that are lower than the surrounding grass, and don't even get me started on flowers and how fast they wind up in the ditch after a loving family member placed them at the headstone.

Speaking of headstones, the oldest we've ever come across marks the grave of a Kentucky man who, as a young boy, served as drummer for his regiment in the Revolutionary War. He later married, had a family, lived out his life, and now rests deep in the woods, again on top of a high hill, and what is it with these hills? Were they used as cemeteries because that part of the land couldn't be plowed or planted? Where was I?

Nobody wants to think about their own death. Yet mystery writers think about it, research it in depth, play with it in our minds, and write about it over and over. And sometimes we get ideas and/or character names from our research, be it the obits or wandering through a cemetery. For their part, mystery readers read about death, book after book, and don't turn a hair. Is it because we all tell ourselves it's only fiction? Are we blind to our own mortality? I don't know.

I do know that hubby and I have made our own plans and written our decisions out for our grown sons, hopefully making a difficult time easier for each other and/or for them. As to being buried on a steep hill that only a mountain goat could visit? No thanks. For me, cremation and scattering on the beautiful lake where we spent so many happy hours with our boys when they were small. And if you want me to have flowers, please send 'em now. When I can still enjoy them. Thanks.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking about suicide

Elizabeth Zelvin

Suicide is a highly charged topic that a lot of people are afraid to talk about, but that affects more of us than anyone would wish: 32,637 in the United States in 2005, according to the statistics at www.suicide.org. Real or apparent suicide is one of the staples of crime fiction: to disguise murder, mistaken for murder or accidental death, or as a killer’s way out on being apprehended. I’ve chosen to use a chronically suicidal character in my forthcoming mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, to carry a major subplot and support the theme of addictive relationships.

More than half of all suicides use firearms, and the state with the highest suicide rate is Alaska, where the winter nights are long, the days even in summer often gray, and depression and substance abuse flourish. My books are set in New York City, and I don’t write about gun-carrying cops or private eyes. As a mental health professional, I do write about depression and other mental health conditions, alcoholism and other addictions, and dysfunctional families in which violence and more subtle forms of abuse may flourish.

The suicidal character in Death Will Help You Leave Him is Bruce’s ex-wife, Laura. Without spelling out the backstory too much in the book itself, I’ve given Laura both bipolar disorder (what used to be called manic depressive disorder) and borderline personality disorder, which make her emotionally labile (in plain English, on an emotional roller coaster all the time) and terrified, on an unconscious level, of being abandoned. Laura uses pills, illegal drugs, and sex to medicate her moods. That was fine with Bruce when he was abusing drugs and alcohol himself. But when he gets sober, he can see how self-destructive Laura is. You’d think he’d drop her like a hotcake. But of course, he doesn’t, or where would my story be?

When I say that Bruce is addicted to Laura, I mean that sexual chemistry and an attraction to her dramatic ups and downs keep him hooked, and wanting more, against his better judgment. Laura has found a boyfriend who gives her an equivalent “high” by being emotionally and sometimes physically abusive. She’s hooked into him, but she doesn’t want to let Bruce go. On an unconscious level, she is so terrified of being alone that she has to hang on to anyone she connects with. As Bruce discovers, divorce is irrelevant in this relationship.

To get back to suicide, or let’s say suicidality (which includes ideation—thoughts—as well as gestures and attempts that fail), the way Laura keeps Bruce on the hook is by threatening to kill herself. This is a well established pattern that began long before we first met Bruce in Death Will Get You Sober. She calls him up in the middle of the night, tells him she has a plan and the equipment to carry it out (in her case, a razor and a bucket of water), and convinces him that if he doesn’t come rushing to the rescue, she’ll die—and it will be all his fault. This is powerful emotional blackmail.

I won’t tell you how the situation between Bruce and Laura turns out. (No spoilers here—you’ll have to read the book.) But I will say that nobody is responsible for another person’s suicide. There is nothing more cruel and unfair than saying, “It’s all your fault,” and making that the final message to those who love the person who chooses to die. As a therapist, I’ve seen plenty of pain and suffering caused by survivors’ erroneous belief that they are to blame.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Tyranny of Rules

Sandra Parshall

It happens regularly: A writer attends a workshop or conference and hears a well-known author, teacher, agent or editor lay down a strict set of “rules” for creating fiction. In a fit of pique or, more likely, self-doubt, the writer posts a “Do you agree with this?” message to an internet group, and within days the topic is being debated all over the web by angry, astonished, or pedantic writers.

The latest “rule” being discussed goes something like You can’t write about anything you haven’t experienced. Apparently the person who issued this pronouncement was talking about writing from the point of view of the opposite sex. On chat lists, the names of Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina have been invoked, but of course many modern authors in all genres are writing from the POV of the opposite sex. And many authors are writing about experiences they've never had personally, after doing something called research and applying something called imagination. They don’t all do it convincingly, but you can say that about any aspect of craft.

I can understand why beginners and writers who are trying without success to get published would look for a set of rules to guide them. It’s tempting to think that if we do this, this, and this exactly as we’re told, publication will be guaranteed. The trouble is, that’s not true. Established authors and publishing professionals know better than anyone what a quirky business publishing is and that more than one book that broke all the so-called rules has landed on the bestseller lists. The drive to impose our preferences on others is a strong element of human nature, though, so the rules keep coming.

One that I hear all the time is You can’t use a prologue because editors hate prologues and won’t read any further if you have one. This advice is often paired with If you must have a prologue, call it Chapter One. Apparently something magical happens to a piece of writing when you merely change its label, and editors who would hate it under one name will love it under another. But open a stack of recently published books and you’ll find plenty of prologues, so there must be editors out there who don’t object to them.

Never switch point of view within a scene seems to be an American rule. Some popular British writers switch POV freely within scenes, but it’s so rare in American novels that the exceptions stand out. I don’t usually like head-hopping within scenes, but a few writers are good at it – it works especially well in satire – so I’m irked when anyone claims it’s always wrong.

Kill your darlings is good advice if it refers to descriptions or phrases that don’t fit the story or feel labored or make readers stop and puzzle over their meaning. But some people advise deleting any colorful writing. I’m glad James Lee Burke doesn’t take this advice. If a bit of writing feels exactly right, if it perfectly expresses a mood or a meaning in a memorable way, why should any writer take it out?

You must introduce the killer in the opening chapters is accepted as gospel by a lot of traditional mystery writers. But why is this necessary? Will the story fall apart if the killer doesn’t come on the scene until halfway through? Just asking...

You must have a murder by the end of chapter one. This kind of thinking is a direct result of TV’s fast pace. The assumption is that audiences have become accustomed to immediate and constant excitement, that this carries over into their reading, and they won’t have the patience to wait. Even a lot of cozy writers now dump the body in the first chapter, before the reader has a chance to get her bearings and learn a little about the characters and situation. I believe you must have conflict and tension in the first chapter – and every other chapter – or readers will have no reason to keep reading, but whether the murder should occur so quickly is another question. I’m afraid, though, that readers have already begun to expect a murder almost immediately, and it's too late to turn back.

Some of the worst writing advice is aimed at beginning writers. I’ve heard of a mystery workshop teacher who told students that a beginner shouldn’t attempt to plot a complex crime novel on her own but should choose a novel she admires and copy its structure, forcing her story to fit it. Other voices of wisdom think beginners should stick with first person because it will be easiest for them. Then there are people who think no beginner can produce a compelling first-person narrative, so novices should only use third person.

I believe a writer should tell a story the way it needs to be told, and think long and hard before changing it just because some people don't like it. I once sent The Heat of the Moon, my first published book, to an agent who stopped reading as soon as she discovered it was in first person. “When I read first person,” she said, “I’m distracted because I keep wondering who the narrator is talking to.” If I would rewrite it in third person, she told me, she’d be happy to read it. I tried. Changing it to third person drastically altered the intimate, almost claustrophobic, mood I’d aimed for. The book was eventually published in the original first person.

Rules can be helpful sometimes, but the worst of them, especially those handed down by a single self-appointed expert, can stifle creativity and hold writers back. The one rule that always makes sense is a simple one: If it works, do it; if it doesn’t work, don’t.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Merit Badges I

Sharon Wildwind

One of the few things I’ve bought on e-Bay is a ©1953 Girl Scout Handbook. For those of you who don’t remember those dim mists, the 1953 edition was the last handbook published before there were Juniors and Cadettes, each with her own handbook. Daisies and Ambassadors weren’t even a gleam of a thought. Nope, back in 1953 you were a Brownie, then a Scout, then a Senior Scout.

I went looking for this book because of the badges. I’d unearthed a denim jacket on which I’d sewn my badges and other awards; I blush to say I couldn’t remember what all of them were.

I loved merit badges. Not only was earning them fun, but it was neat, at the end of the school year, to hear my name called and receive the badges, a smile, and a Scout handshake from my leader. Then came the fun of sewing them on my sash. Long before there were sewing machines that embroidered for you while you did something else, these 1 1/2” green circles were miniature art.

A few designs, like Adventurer, were ambitious, the entire badge covered with pale blue thread over which a tent and two green trees were embroidered. Most were a colorful symbol on a green background: a telephone for Clerk, a winged ballet shoe for Dancer, or a tea cup for Hospitality. Since the tiny line drawings in the handbook were black-and-white, it was always a surprise to see what color the real badge would turn out to be.

Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas reclaimed the merit badge idea for adults. She began writing what would become the You-Can-Do-It!: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls. Her idea was that women, particularly middle-aged women, should continue to explore the world in the same way girls explored it by earning merit badges. Lauren died in a plane crash before she finished the book; her two sisters collected her notes and got the book published.

They also founded the Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas Foundation to provide funding toward activities benefitting women and children’s health, education, and welfare.

I think Lauren was on to something. Goodness knows writers, who labor long hours in solitude, could use a few atta-girls. So this summer, I’m issuing a series of Merit Badges for Writers. My badges will have a purple background in honor of purple prose. Feel free to design and make yours any way you want. If you want some suggestions and instructions, go to the Merit Badge Page on my website.

Writers’ Merit Badge #1: Creativity

Award yourself this badge when you’ve learned to think about writing in a new way. Try keeping an idea journal with images instead of words. Take a creative class, maybe dance or pottery; make something that relates to the story you’re working on now. Play in water or with colors. Create an inspiration board. Hold a tea tasting. Do all you can to wake up your senses so you’re writing with your whole body, not just part of your brain.

Badge creation should be a fun, community effort. If you design your own badge or have an idea for one, email me. If we can work out a design, I'll display your badge on my web site.

Writing quote for the week:

Ours is a circle of friends united by ideals.
~Juliette Gordon Low, who brought scouting to the United States from Great Britian

Monday, June 22, 2009

I Miss Ann Landers

by Julia Buckley
Back when I was a kid, my family had a subscription to the Chicago Sun-Times; one of my daily reads at the breakfast table, aside from the funnies and Sidney Omarr's horoscope, was Ann Landers' advice column. I thought of Ann Landers today, because the NY Times website reminded me that she died on this date in 2002.

"Ann Landers" was really Chicago reporter Eppie Lederer, who won the column in 1955 after the death of Ruth Crowley, who had previously written the "Ask Ann Landers" column and who had died right around the time that Lederer was looking for a job in Chicago. Lederer entered a contest to become the next "Ask Ann Landers" author, and she won.

For many years, I read letters to Ann Landers and Lederer's responses--sometimes tart, sometimes compassionate, but ever offering a large dose of common sense. I didn't always agree with her advice, but the column made for lots of family discussion (my family LOVED to talk at the table, and still does, much to my restless husband's chagrin).

"Ann Landers" became such a household name in Chicago (and in all the other cities where her column was syndicated) that I can't think of anyone who has ever succeeded her as America's advice columnist. Nowadays people air their problems (often their really seedy problems) in other venues: tv talk shows and court tv, where authorities like Judge Judy dispense the same sort of common sense that Ann Landers once did in her little column.

But I miss being able to read her advice and to apply it, sometimes, to my own life. Ann Landers didn't suffer fools gladly, and she often provided a mirror for people to look at their own behavior and see it for what it was, good or bad.

I found a website that offers classic Ann Landers advice columns; you can read some here

The old letters are fun to read, because people's problems are universal, and the advice applies today just as it did then.

And please excuse my overuse of parenthesis in this column. I seem to be full of non-essential information today. :)

(photo link here).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Canada Calling: Terry Griggs

Terry Griggs is a Canadian author who has written for both children and adults, and in a range of forms: short story, novels, fantasy, and most recently fiction that has been described as a “biblio-mystery,” “noir farce,” and a “slacker cozy.” A number of her books have been nominated for awards, most notably the Governor General’s Award and the Writer’s Trust Fiction Award. In 2003 she received the Marian Engel Award from the Writer’s Trust of Canada. This award is for a Canadian woman author who has contributed a substantial body of work to Canadian literature.

If there were a Mount Olympus of literature, you’re certainly there: awards, teaching at the Banff Centre, seen as a literary writer, etc. Have you encountered any negative comments from your co-writers about delving into crime writing; as in, “How could you stoop to that?”

Mount Olympus? How kind of you. I am pretty earthbound, though. 

No negative comments from co-writers so far re my delving into crime writing. Some, I know, might be scratching their heads, but most are used to me doing the unexpected. (Possibly they think I’m selling out--I wish.) I’ve had a few puzzled questions from interviewers. Readers, marketers, publishers, do tend to want to keep a writer in an identifiable place. But I’m interested in all kinds of fiction and I love the idea of reaching a new audience, as I did when I wrote a series of kids’ books. And while I find the mystery genre full of absorbing and accomplished works, Thought You Were Dead is not in itself purely that—it draws on other forms: farce, myth, orphan narrative, literary, quest.

You speak of “passing through” books. Passing through what? From where to where? Are you referring to the mystery of the human heart and mind, the waiting for consequences of decisions-made, etc. as opposed to the dead body, police procedure, forensic evidence, etc?

By “passing through” I’m merely referring to the writing journey from page one to the end. Yes, mysteries of the “heart and mind”—that’s a good way of putting it. Mystery in the sense of what compels and intrigues us, what we’re drawn repeatedly and irresistibly toward. But . . . I have also often pulled elements of the mystery genre itself into stories and novels: a disappearance, an investigation, a wrongful accusation, justice affirmed in the end. Admittedly, the authorities come in for some joshing. In The Lusty Man my police officer spends his investigative time sitting in a boat in the middle of the lake with a paper bag on his head.

For you, research is foraging, and the results are multiple notebooks for each book you write. I’d love to hear you expand about how different elements come together as you forage.

There’s an interview I did on the Random House book club site a while back, in which I compare this process to a bird building a nest. Some nests are really quite artful, bits of this and that woven in—cellophane, cigarette filters, flowers, stems, spider webs, feathers—and I suppose I do a similar thing. When I have a sense of what I want to write, I start looking around, picking up this and that, reading stuff, making notes. It can be anything that might be potentially useful or inspiring—a poem, a quote, an observation, a comment overheard.

This seems to have a stimulating and generative effect, giving me a better sense of what I’m up to. Ideas for scenes, characters, conversations, jokes, are interleaved with all this. Words alone I find particularly rich sources—their provenance, their range of meanings, their possible narrative uses. I read up on particular subjects and take notes that I may or may not even refer to again.

In one of my notebooks for Thought You Were Dead I have info from books such as, Forensic Anthropology: The Growing Science of Talking Bones, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research, and Scottish Roots: From Gravestone to Website and Canadian Women Invent! While writing, I keep making notes which helps to give a clearer view of the way ahead.

A lot of your work deals with male/female differences and with ambiguity. Why those two themes?

I doubt that my view of the male/female differences is my own. I just seem to write about it, and in fact male/female contentious situations often structure the works. Wasn’t even much aware of doing this until asked about my main concerns. I have a settled and happy personal life, so this is not me therapeutically working out any tempestuous relationships.Male/female difference is central to our whole existence, hence a central subject for investigation, or dramatization, or playful assessment. And often in my books as well there’s a switching of roles—sexual confusion—which is a feature of screwball comedy. Think of Cary Grant wearing that frilly dressing gown in Bringing Up Baby.

Ambiguous situations are a gift to writers because right there you have conflict, tension, motivation. This is the everyday heartrending stuff we all, I assume, get caught up in--the things we want and don’t want in about equal measure. My main character in Thought You Were Dead, for example, desperately wants to be part of a family, but the moment it seems possible he feels crowded. He longs to have his old girlfriend back, but only next door, not too close. He knows he should look for his missing boss, but, well, he doesn’t quite get around to it. 

Do you have a secret passion?

I must confess I have a secret passion for thrilling linguistic achievement, something like say, Eric Ormsby’s series of Lazarus poems. And a passion for footpaths. Grassy ones that snake along, in and around and behind. Paths that might just lead to mysterious places. If I saw one right now I wouldn’t be able to resist, I’d be gone.

Do you have a web site or an e-mail address that you would want included in case someone wanted to contact you or learn more about your work?

I’ve been slowly moving toward setting up a web site. I mean, slowly. But I may get there yet. By the fall, I hope. My publisher, Dan Wells, keeps giving me encouraging little nudges. In the meantime, anyone who would like to contact me is certainly welcome to do so by way of Biblioasis: P.O Box 92, Emeryville, Ontario, Canada N0R 1C0. e-mail is biblioasis@gmail.com.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Superman Celebration '09

By Lonnie Cruse

Every year the second weekend in June is the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois. Folks come from all over (unfortunately I don't have a head count as yet) and our small town bulges at the seams. Even in this tight economy, the crowd seemed to be fairly large. If you squint really hard you can see the famous Superman statue in the center background of the picture.

Used to be the Celebration started on Friday and ended on Saturday, but when I went downtown Thursday to Humma's Drug Store to deliver my books, vendors were already setting up on the street. (Bless them, Humma's has stocked and sold my books for as long as I've been in print. And you can bet when that new huge chain drug store opens fairly soon, Humma's will still have MY business. Where was I?) I'd forgotten that Thursday is the day for vendors to set up shop, and this year they were already selling their wares as well. Likely they've done that before and I didn't notice. As soon as the vendors start setting up, all the side streets are closed, so I wound up lugging a heavy box of books twice the normal distance. Below, Humma's sign over the store is to the left of the tree. Note the picnic tables in the middle of the street.

The next day I set up shop on the sidewalk in front of Humma's. They don't seem to mind the competition of me selling outside while they sell my books inside. First part of the day was overcast and cool, but around lunch time the clouds parted and I sweated. Time to close up shop and go home. The other vendors had tents, but I was in a freebie spot with NOOO cover. I sold fairly well, so a good day, but by the time I went home, a recent shoulder injury was bothering me so much that I cancelled selling the next day.

I mentioned the Celebration used to end on Saturday but now runs until Sunday. Lots to see and do, contests for the kids, the adults, prizes to win, celebrities to goggle at. I missed seeing Noel Neill this year. She was the 50's Lois Lane on television with George Reeves as Superman, and a nicer lady you will never meet. In her mid to late eighties, she comes every year to greet fans and sign autographs.

I went to the Celebration with a Slimfast tucked into my bag, but that plan fell by the wayside (or should I say into the gutter?) as soon as I realized I'd set my table up extremely close to a vendor with funnel cakes. Took me two days to eat that sucker, but well worth it. The vendor behind me was an artist who created beautiful items from blown glass. He got most of my profit at the Celebration, with the lady next to him getting a chunk as well for her homemade chow chow. (For the unfortunate who've never tasted it, it's sort of a relish made from green tomatoes and other good stuff, and you spoon it onto a bowl of beans that have simmered all day in a pot, with some ham chunks. Yum! And I can't wait to simmer a pot of beans!) Beyond that, I managed to get off of Market Street without buying anything else. It was a close call.

I don't know of any other town or city where you can see multiple superheroes hugging or taking pictures of each other, besides Metropolis, Illinois.

I also snapped a picture of a rock climbing wall, which I don't remember seeing last year, but hubby assures me it was here. No way was I climbing that thing. Curbs are about my height limit, thank you!

On Thursday, some out-of-state folks I met at previous Celebrations, Chris and Helen, asked me to meet them for lunch. Lovely lunch hour! I was hoping to connect with Cookie and Brian this year, but we somehow missed each other. These are all fans who come to the Superman Celebration year after year. And who keep me in business as well.

Metropolis, Illinois is an interesting town at any time of the year. And lots of good ideas for writers, particularly during the Superman Celebration. Ya'll come!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Killing Your Darlings in Art and in Life

Elizabeth Zelvin

“Kill your darlings” is one of those writing maxims that becomes both more comprehensible and more possible as a writer matures through the process of writing, revising, submitting to critique, sending out to agents and editors, weathering rejections, revising some more, getting an offer from a publisher, weathering the editorial process, getting published, weathering reviews and emails from the reading public—and going through the whole thing again in a never-ending process. Surely most novelists fall in love with their first first draft. And few writers, especially the vast majority in the proverbial and not-quite-dead-yet midlist, can avoid having to take a hatchet to some of their most cherished passages.

I fought tooth and nail against killing my darlings when I first made contact with other mystery writers and started sending out the manuscript that became my debut novel. Gradually, as I kept writing, I began to trust that if I deleted a clever turn of phrase, there were plenty left on the page—and more where that came from (my unconscious, the Muse, a Higher Power, or whatever). As I practiced my craft and became more open to critique, I got a much better sense of what was too much. With experience, I put a lot less on the page and write a lot tighter first draft than I used to. I also do a lot more revision than I used to. I took out the first draft of a short story the other day with a view to working on it for submission to an anthology. Before I knew it, I had my pen in hand and scribbled and slashed all over the first two pages. When I thought about it, I realized that’s what I do now. My writing process has changed. Now, I know the first draft is always provisional. It’s okay, and some of it may be great—but when I look at it again, I’ll see many ways to make it better.

I’ve talked about killing my darlings in my writing before. But only recently have I realized that the capacity to kill my darlings is improving not only in my art but in my life as a whole. I’ve always had a fast mouth, and I can be very clever. But maturity is revealing how to be tactful as well, and it’s making my life a lot easier. I’ve heard it said—as a spiritual practice, not a literary technique—that it’s a good idea to ask yourself, before letting fly with a witticism or a zinger or even a strong opinion, the following questions: “Does this need to be said? Do I need to be the one to say it? Does it need to be said in this way?” (In my case, a useful corollary: “Does it need to be said more than once?”) I may have the clever thought in mind—but I don’t have to jump in and say it. Killing those darlings instead of letting them fly to hurt or anger others has strengthened my relationships, saved me from making enemies, and kept me out of many an online flame war.

And here’s the payoff: I can create a character who has more trouble killing her darlings than I do. Barbara, the world-class codependent in my mystery series, gets to open her mouth and utter all the zingers, jokes, and tactless observations that I’ve had to deny myself. It gets her in trouble—but what good is a character who doesn’t get in trouble? Her efforts to zip the lip and mind her own business are endearing, but they always fail. And if what she says would be better left unsaid—hey, don’t blame me. I’m just the writer. They’re Barbara’s darlings.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Character with My Name

Sandra Parshall

I knew a character in a future Thomas H. Cook novel would bear my name, but – considering how long it takes a novel to wend its way through the production process – I thought “future” meant 2010 or beyond. I acquired the naming rights to a Cook character last October, when a generous friend placed the winning bid at the Bouchercon live auction and passed it on to me as a gift. I resigned myself to waiting a year or two to see it happen. So I was both startled and thrilled a few days ago when I was reading Cook’s just-released novel, The Fate of Katherine Carr, and came upon this bit of dialog on page 24: “Sandra Parshall, the woman who runs Brookwood Residential...”

I gave a little yelp of pleasure and read on, thinking that would be “my” only appearance in my favorite writer’s new book. But wait! On page 35, my name popped up again in a telephone conversation, followed by a full-blown scene. A speaking part! I felt like a lowly film extra who’s been plucked from the anonymous crowd and shoved in front of the camera.

I have to admit it felt weird. I’ve used real people’s names in stories, so I ought to know better, but there I was, comparing the fictional Sandra Parsh
all to the real me. She’s described as “a woman in her late thirties” – oh, hey, I like losing all those years and reclaiming what I’ve begun to think of as my youth. But... she has “somewhat lusterless brown hair, cut in a way that was ruthlessly indifferent to style.” Now hold on a minute. I don’t have the best hair in the world, and heaven knows it drives me nuts most of the time, but this seems a bit unkind. Oh, stop it, I told myself. This is a character, it isn’t you! But the next day found me in the hair care aisle at CVS, weighing the virtues of various products that promised to leave the user’s tresses shiny enough to blind onlookers. Can Tom Cook now claim that his novel has changed a life, or at least someone’s hair? Alas, no. After trying new products, I don’t see much difference in the luster level, and as for the style, I lay all the blame squarely on Cassie, my hairdresser.

The brief trauma of the lusterless hair behind me, I continued reading, certain I wouldn’t see my name again. But on page 63, the fictional Sandra turns up on one end of a telephone conversation. We don’t learn a great deal about her, but s
he seems a compassionate person, a professional caregiver who tries to project optimism for the sake of desperately ill patients. I approve. I’m happy to lend my name to this fictional woman.

I’m getting a little worried, though, about reactions to the way I’ve used real names in my next book, Broken Places, which will be out in March 2010. I don’t expect the real Cricket to object to the fictional Cricket being bigger, heavier, and shaggier, but will the person who bought the naming rights for a dog feel that I’ve insulted the real Cricket? Will the owners of the real Maggie, Lisa, and Mr. Piggles take offense at my portrayals? Will the real Angie think my character, a young woman, is a bit too blindly devoted to her handsome employer? But I gave her nice hair, Angie!

I’m beginning to appreciate the courage of a writer like Robert Fate, whose new book, Baby Shark’s Jugglers at the Border, is filled with characters named for real people. Although most will be pleased with the mentions, Bob writes in the acknowledgments, “Andre Jardini will complain, but doesn’t he always?” I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to go that far with humans, but I’ll be at Bouchercon this fall, once more offering an animal name as a prize in the live auction. If someone wants to donate a princely sum to charity, I'll add another animal of any species the winning bidder wants. Then the PDD readers may have to suffer along with me as I struggle to justify the presence of a walrus or camel in a rural Virginia community.

By the way, my blog sister Julia Buckley recently interviewed Thomas Cook about The Fate of Katherine Carr and his writing life, and if you haven’t read the interview yet, you missed something special. It’s an excellent complement
to a wonderful book, which I would recommend even if it didn’t have my name in it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Sharon Wildwind

A platform is the writer’s connection to the real world.

Write what you know.

It’s no accident that Susan Wittig Albert, who is a gardener and herbalist, has a protagonist who is a gardener and the owner of an herb shop. Or that Dr. Camille Minichino, PhD [physics], writes mysteries with a scientific bent. Or that Dana Stabenow, who sets her books in Alaska was born, raised, and still lives in that state.

It helps if you come to your platform through your day job. Several years on the job gets you through the basic research for your characters. Robin Burcell not only knows about police procedure but how cops walk, talk, and why it’s important to take your handcuffs off your belt before going to the ladies room. Plus, when you’re ready to transform your day job into fiction, you’ve already made tons of contacts with people who can help you with further research.

Of course, not all jobs lend themselves to writing. Digging in my murky past would yield a degree that allows me to teach adults and fifteen years experience in doing just that, but for me, trying to create an adult educator as my protagonist isn’t something I’m interested in doing.

Work isn’t the only way to build a platform. Your protagonist might spring, as Dana’s does, from where you live or from your interests or hobbies. The important things are that you know it well, and that you can bring that knowledge to other people. Why? Because the reason for having a platform is to sell books.

Plain, vanilla book-signing are dead. Bookstores can’t risk an event where less than ten people might show up. If you add a short talk on “How I came to write this book” or “Five ways to develop your characters,” you’re still going to be preaching to the converted. Friendship with the author or wanting the author to help them get published are the top two reasons that people come to book signings.

Cynical, but true.

To sell well, you have to break out of the writers/friends ghetto, and that means being able to tie into current events with an article, speech, or guest appearance. If you were a feature editor for the local paper, which voice mail message would you answer first?

“I’ve just had my first book published. I know that your paper would love to review me because I’m a local author.”


“I’m a local chemist and I’ve got a scary perspective on the current recycling craze. People may be putting their health at risk with some of the things they are doing in the name of ‘being green.’ I’d love to talk to you about a possible article.”

Of course, when she talks to the editor, that platform-rich chemist is going to casually mention that her new mystery features death by recycled garbage. Score one for having a strong platform.

So what’s a gal to do if she has no platform? She builds one while she researches and writes her book.

Maybe she’s an administrative assistant in an insurance agency, and her mystery takes place on the glittering runways of high fashion. Any good author who writes outside of her life experience has to do a lot of research. Somewhere in that research she’ll get an inkling about what the hot issues are about being a fashion model.

One of the things that happened in high fashion a couple of years ago was that Spain banned anorexic-appearing models from their runways. So how about our author—the mother of two pre-teen girls–putting together a talk about the conversations she and her daughters have had about body image, and what she and they think of the stand that the Spanish government took? She may not command the audience that the producer of Project Runway would speaking on the same subject, but it may be enough to get her some speaking engagements book sales.

And that is what a platform is intended to do.

Writing quote for the week:

Your biggest problems and your worst obsessions contain the seeds of your own growth and development.
~Dr. Sara Halprin, author, therapist, teacher, and filmmaker

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Mystery of Time

by Julia Buckley

Today we attended a family party for the FIVE graduates in my extended family this year: four who are leaving grade school, and one who is off to college. It seemed odd to us that the young people (all of whom are taller than I am) are suddenly, it seems, knocking on the door of adulthood. Meanwhile, we parents looked at one another and said, "Weren't we this young just a couple of years ago?"

Of course we weren't, but time has a way of surprising one. It got me thinking about all the great songs about time. I'm listing my top ten here with the most famous and profound lines from each as a reminder that I'm not the only one disconcerted by the river that is time.

1. TIME IN A BOTTLE by Jim Croce. This was the first one to pop into my head, perhaps because of Croce's poignant reminder to "save every day like a treasure." This is all the more moving because of Croce's early demise.

2. OLD MAN by Neil Young. I heard this on the radio the other day and realized that my sympathies had at some point shifted from from the speaker to the old man, especially after hearing the callous nature of youth in the line "Doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you." Still a great song, though.

3. SUNRISE, SUNSET from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Can anyone, young or old, hear this song without crying? I challenge you: here it is, from You Tube.

4. TIME OF YOUR LIFE by Green Day. This is a lovely anthem to a life well-spent, and a well-meaning speaker sings repeatedly "I hope you have the time of your life."

5-7. IN MY LIFE, YESTERDAY, and WHEN I'M 64, by The Beatles. They were still young fellows when they wrote these songs, but they seemed to understand the mystery of time and its power to change things (and yet to leave things the same).
A great example of time is this clip of a very young Paul McCartney singing one of his most famous songs. He's yet to be married and have children, to achieve all sorts of musical milestones, to lose a wife to cancer, to lose another to a bitter divorce. Here time has not yet done its work, and yet the song wistfully recalls an earlier time.

8. BOYS OF SUMMER by Don Henley. One of my favorite wistful lines is "Out on the road today I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac; a little voice inside my head said 'Don't look back, you can never look back.' " So true, Don Henley, and yet everyone does it anyway.

9. CAT'S IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin. Only after time has passed does Chapin's speaker, a father, accept that he has shaped his own destiny in neglecting his son. "My boy was just like me . . . " There's another one: can you listen to it without crying? My sons like to sing it to me when they feel I'm neglecting them. Works like a charm.
Here's Chapin singing the song live in 1981, the same year he died at the age of 38.

10. TURN, TURN, TURN by The Byrds. These lyrics were taken from Ecclesiastes in the King James translation of The Bible, and perhaps that's why they have a timeless wisdom. "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven."

What great songs about TIME would you add to this list?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Congratulations! It's a Sequel!

Evelyn David (Guest Blogger)

If the first published mystery seemed like we’d just given birth to a long-awaited heir, having the sequel published felt like giving birth to the second child in the family. It's still exciting, but maybe not quite as magical as the first time round. You know about those sleepless nights. You know about those blow-out diapers. But you also know about those toothless grins and that newborn back of the neck sweet smell. In short, you know what to expect, so the stress is less.

Yes, we love both books equally, but differently. Frankly, the second child is a lot more fun! You're not afraid you're going to break something every time you pick her up. But even the second-time gestating a baby or a book, you’ve still got to walk around for nine months (or in our case, almost two years) like a beached whale. Finally, finally, the newborn, or sequel, is here, and the joy is immense.

Still, going with the baby comparison, with a second child – or sequel – you’ve figured out some shortcuts. You can better focus on the issues that are most important. Sure, you still sweat the small stuff, but not as much as the first time around when it seemed like you were in a foreign land, didn’t speak the language, and were without a guidebook or a guide.

So what did we learn when writing, and now promoting, Murder Takes the Cake?

First, we were no longer strangers in a foreign land. We’d already made some friends, both the ones we’d created on the page and those we’d made while promoting Murder Off the Books. Writing about Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, the delightful Whiskey (Irish wolfhound extraordinaire) – and the supporting cast of characters – was like having a family reunion…only in this case, we like all of our family. It was much easier to start a story already knowing how the key characters behave, what their speech patterns would be, how they would react under stress, their jokes and nervous tics. It left us free to concentrate on the new guys in the neighborhood – the ones we brought on stage as we created Murder Takes the Cake.

Second, we knew each other better. We knew who was better at the first drafts of particular types of scenes. We both write all characters, but like dancing, someone has to lead. With the second book, we fell into an easier pattern of who wrote what and when. We eliminated a lot of false starts and stops. This familiarity with each other's strengths led to fewer missteps and a smoother overall writing experience. We wrote faster and leaner. We laughed more.

Third, we were confident in our ability to take an idea for a story, craft a novel, and get it published. With the first book there is always an uncertainty, a flicker of doubt in the back of your mind that you can't do it, that there is some mysterious thing that published writers have that you don't. There is a point in writing your novel where you hit a wall – and you don't see any way through it or around it. Many writers just give up when they smash into that wall. Somewhere around the hundred page mark, the plot in your manuscript is either starting to pick up speed or beginning to fall apart. In both books, we hit the wall. The first time we came to a dead stop and pondered the size and thickness of the wall for about a month. We questioned our ability to finish. Eventually we figured out where the problems were, and made it to the other side. The second time we were expecting the wall. We brought sledge hammers. When we busted through, we did it without the self-questioning angst of the first book.

We're sure now. We are writers.

We are very proud of our children.

And like the Waltons, we like big families. So look for more siblings in the Sullivan Investigation series. We’re hoping to deliver again in 2010.

Evelyn David is the pseudonym for collaborators Marian Edelman Borden and Rhonda Dossett. Marian lives in New York; Rhonda in Oklahoma. Until they finished the first draft of Murder Off the Books, they’d never spoken. Afraid to jinx their success, they still haven’t met in person. For more information about their collaboration and to read excerpts from both mysteries, please visit their website at www.evelyndavid.com.

Friday, June 12, 2009


By Lonnie Cruse

This past January/February was brutal for our area. The ice storm left us without power for days, some residents even weeks. Many, many trees were damaged, and believe it or not, clean-up is still going on. Sigh.

But spring IS here and everyone is heaving a huge sigh of relief. Somehow spring seems even more lovely this year. The storm made us all appreciate it even more. We can be outside, enjoying the world once again.

I love walking in our neighborhood early in the morning. Last week I grabbed my camera and snapped pictures of things I see and enjoy on my morning walk. Keep in mind, this is not exactly your basic cookie-cutter subdivision.

Below: I love saying hello to my neighbors first thing in the morning. Most of them seem to be busy with breakfast, but the fella on the right turned to greet me. This is just a few houses away from ours.

The early filly gets the fodder? Sometimes these neighbors manage to sneak through the fence and come our way for a quick visit before the owner rounds them up again. Frankly, I prefer to visit them in their yard, which is about three doors down, er, up the hill.

Some of our neighbors have been here for a while, as you can see below. I love this old log cabin. I don't imagine living there was easy when it was brand new. But the builder would have been perfectly comfy during the power outage. This is near the end of the road we live on, about three quarters of a mile from my house, and it's empty now, but still standing despite age and our weather. Did I mention we sometimes have rough weather?

Hubby dug up these orange lilies for me along the side of the road several years ago (no, not on anyone else's property, I promise, but on the right-of-way where the county mows them down each spring.) The flowers have really spread, and I've noticed that orange lilies are far more abundant this spring on ALL of our county roads. Wonderful sight! If you look close, you will see a bench behind the lilies. The rocks to the right help keep weeds down.

Queen Anne's Lace has always been one of my favorite flowers. Unfortunately, if you pick them, you will quickly be covered in chiggers. Sigh. Note the blackberries just below the right side of the flower. This was taken either at our mailbox or at the edge of our property, in front of our house, which sits a few hundred yards off the road.

Check the upper right-hand corner of this picture and see the hummer coming in for a quick snack. And who said hummingbirds are shy? NOT! The Air Force could take lessons in dive-bombing. This is the edge of our front porch.

Of course, I try to raise tomatoes every year. So far I have lots of blooms and one thumb-sized 'mater. I can't wait. Note the marigolds at the left of the tomato plants. They keep the bugs and caterpillars from eating/destroying the tomato plants. Hubby refuses to plant marigolds by his tomatoes. And the bugs often attack HIS plants but not mine. Must be a guy thing, not using marigolds to keep bugs away?
These are the steps leading up to our back porch (where I spend a lot of time writing and enjoying the back yard.) Tip: tomato plants seem to do really well when planted near a brick wall. Maybe because of the heat the bricks gather during the day and put off after sun down? I dunno, but I know I've had the best success in this location.
I'm trying a new variety of tomato this year. It's the center plant, given to me by a fellow garden club member. I bought some tomatoes at a local fruit/veggie stand recently that were raised hydroponically (raised in water, if like me, you'd never heard of them.) They were excellent. But if you want a really good tomato (one that's as ugly as homemade mud pies but salty tasting) try Brandywines.

Sooo, how is your spring/summer going so far? Are you enjoying the weather? Smelling the roses? Reading more? Writing more? Planting anything?
This kind of weather is inspiring (because cold weather sends me straight into hibernation, and I'm cranky as a bear if you disturb me. I'm just saying . . . )
I hope you are enjoying your spring, wherever you are, and I hope, like me, you are saving to buy a generator . . . just in case.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Point of view and the person from Porlock

Elizabeth Zelvin

In 1798, Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke from a particularly vivid opium dream and feverishly scribbled as many of the details of his vision as he could remember. The result was “Kubla Khan,” a poem that English professors still teach and readers of poetry still enjoy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Evocative and mysterious, the poem describes “sunny caves of ice,” “dancing rocks,” and “a mighty fountain” as well as Kubla Khan’s experience of “ancestral voices prophesying war.” It ends with what in filmmaking would be called a “reaction shot”—Coleridge’s idea of how Kubla takes this amazing experience from the point of view of an observer invited into the scene by way of Coleridge’s portrayal of the event.

I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

At least I think the “him” referred to is Kubla—or is it the poet himself? Like Poe and other Romantics, especially those addicted to mood-altering substances, Coleridge leaves much unexplained. In this case, moreover, Coleridge never finished the poem. He reported that while he was writing down his dream, a “person from Porlock” came to call, and the interruption dispelled the vision forever.

In 18th century England, the term “person” as used by the well-born and educated designated someone who was not a gentleman. The man from Porlock might have been a tradesman, a merchant, perhaps a provider of some low-level professional service that wasn’t as highly regarded then as it is now. Coleridge in fact might have known him, perhaps even had an appointment with him. But he did not consider such a “person” worth naming. From Coleridge’s point of view, this unwelcome interruption was an unmitigated nuisance and a great loss to literature.

But as we know, point of view is a powerful tool to alter perspective and elicit or dispel sympathy for a character. It occurred to me to wonder what the meeting with Coleridge might have been like from the point of view of the person from Porlock himself. Let us imagine him describing the encounter afterward—in 21st century idiom for the sake of the modern reader.

“Poets! He came to the door hung over and half asleep. His shirt hung open. His pants were wrinkled. He was shoeless at 2:30 in the afternoon. He’d forgotten our appointment. He said he’d been writing, and showed a pen and ink-stained hands in evidence, but I would swear the man was high. He had the nerve to be annoyed at me for interrupting his creative process—his nap, more likely. I read the poem when it came out. I couldn’t see what everyone was raving about. Honey-dew, indeed. Why not come right out and call it opium? He should be grateful to me. The poem might have been worse if he had finished it.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Mysterious Appeal of Religious Conspiracies

Sandra Parshall

A conspiracy that lives on in the heart of an ancient order...

An astounding miracle and a secret that could change the world...

A truth so dangerous that it could destroy the very foundations of the Christian faith...

Considering that fewer than half of Americans ever attend church services, our fascination with religion-based thrillers is puzzling, but it’s undeniable. Although The Da Vinci Code has finally fallen off the bestseller lists after a record-breaking run, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons is still selling briskly in both mass market and trade paperback. The new Tom Hanks film based on the book will keep it on the lists at least until Brown's next book, The Lost Symbol, comes out in September. No other author has equaled Brown’s success in this subgenre, but the fresh crop of religious conspiracy thrillers that shows up in every publishing season indicates that readers are still receptive to variations on the theme. And there’s no shortage of writers eager to win over Brown’s readers.

Because this type of thriller relies heavily on Christian history, it necessarily revolves around the Catholic Church. In some stories, the Vatican itself is hiding an “explosive secret” that might destroy Christianity if revealed. In others, the keepers of the secret are an ancient order affiliated with the Church. In all cases, someone in the present is drawn into an investigation that powerful forces are determined to stop.

Ralph McInerny, a University of Notre Dame professor of theology and author of the Father Dowling Mysteries, ventured into religious thriller territory this year with The Third Revelation (Jove mass market paperback original). The first in a projected series called The Rosary Chronicles, The Third Revelation takes retired CIA operative Vincent Traeger to Rome on a clandestine mission to investigate the murders of the Vatican Secretary of State and a prefect of the Vatican Library. As you might expect, Traeger’s task soon expands to earthshaking dimensions as he fights an unseen enemy and searches for a secret hidden in the story of Our Lady of Fatima. This is a very different kind of mystery for McInerny, one that fans of Father Dowling might not warm to readily, but readers who love religious conspiracies and don’t blink at outrageous premises may enjoy it.

Another newcomer to the subgenre is James Becker, who debuted with The First Apostle in March (Signet mass market paperback original). Becker’s hero is British police detective Chris Bronson, who travels to Italy when his best friend’s wife – the woman Bronson was secretly in love with – dies in what appears to be an accident. Bronson suspects she was murdered by intruders who were after a strange Latin inscription that was uncovered above a fireplace when his friend’s house was remodeled. The action ranges throughout Europe, as Bronson and his ex-wife, a museum curator, attempt to decipher the mysterious inscription and encounter resistance from the inevitable powerful but unseen forces as well as the Mafia. The novel is fast-paced and may appeal to fans of Dan Brown’s books.

The pseudonymous Paul Christopher has published art world thrillers – Michelangelo’s Notebook, Rembrandt’s Ghost – but in July he’s stepping into Brown’s territory with The Sword of the Templars (Signet mass market paperback original). He takes on Brown on the first page of the book, as his hero, Lt. Col. John Holliday, dismisses as “bull” Brown’s depiction of the Knights Templar as sacred keepers of the secret of Christ’s bloodline. The Knights, Holliday contends, were “nothing more than a gang of extortionists and thugs.” The rest of the book demonstrates that those who carry “the secrets of the Templar legacy” are even more unpleasant than the original crew. The story is set in motion by discovery of a crusader’s sword wrapped in a Nazi flag, and it includes the usual beautiful woman as sidekick and dangerous race across Europe.

Any of these books, and the many like them, may find fans among readers who wait impatiently for Dan Brown’s next novel. But can any writer displace Brown as the master of Vatican conspiracy thrillers? For that matter, can anyone explain what makes Brown the master? Did he come along with the right book at the right time, or did The Da Vinci Code offer something truly fresh and different? When The Lost Symbol appears, will it be snatched up by ravenous readers, or will its appeal be diminished by the long string of similar books that have been published in the years since Da Vinci first caught the public’s imagination?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fail-Whale Snacks

Sharon Wildwind

My husband and I try to keep up. Honest we do. We hang around his college-age cousin, and have several college-age and 30-something friends. We even occasionally ask for simultaneous translations of 20-speak. But once in a while we end up in a conversation or on a web address at which we stare helplessly, knowing that what we’re hearing or reading is in our first language and that, individually, the words make a kind of sense, but strung together in this particular DNA-word-sequence, simple speech has mutated into something else.

Twitter Fail-Whale Snacks on User Avatars
Oprah gets pwned by Shaq on Twitter
Reblogging without Curation
Don’t crush the bunny

Through dint of effort and good Internet search techniques, we have managed to figure out three of the above four statements. Don’t crush the bunny still has us stumped, though we suspect it may be something like jumping the shark—let me tell you how long it took us to figure that one out.

I did a head count this past weekend. In my lifetime, I have learned more ways to do CPR than I care to remember, and at least 5 different methods—which my dental hygienist swore each time—was the absolutely final word on the correct way to brush my teeth. I can now be comfortable in spelling the possessive-singular of words ending with a “s” as Johnsons’s, instead of the Johnsons’ I learned in grammar school.

I mastered the Gestetner mimeograph machine, the Electrofax, and every generation of photocopier since 1960. Yes, photocopy toner is hazardous to your health, and if you get any on your skin, you should scrub it off right away.

I can barely remember, in my grandmother’s town, calling central to be connected to another party of the phone line. Our family’s first phone number was 5 digits. My mother made me memorize it when I was three years old—in case I got lost and needed to tell the police how to reach my parents—and I still remember that phone number. I’ve coped with 7-digit numbers, area codes, country calling codes, direct dialing, punch-1-for-sales/punch-2-for-service electronic call routing systems, and the intricacies of five different models of cell phones that we use at work.

I can program a coffee-maker, dual-alarm clock, coded locked box, door alarm system, digital pedometer, programmable sewing machine, CD and DVD players, and big-screen TV, but somehow lack the gene for the video-tape player, with which I have never, ever been able to successfully do anything other than turn on and off and find play or rewind. We will ignore the fact that, three years after I purchased my first CD player, I discovered by accident that I could ask it to play a CD multiple times, and could actually instruct it to skip cuts on the CD that I didn’t care to hear. For three years I'd been getting up and racing across the room to manually advance the CD to the next cut when a tune came on that I didn't like.

Now I am going to conquer Facebook and Twitter. In the words of country music singer, writer, and gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, “How hard could it be?”

Why am I putting myself through this? Because I have to do a marketing campaign for a new book that comes out in the fall, and if I don’t do this, I’m going to be behind the curve.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Plan your marketing campaign, then figure out how social sites can be part of that campaign. They are one tool, not the whole campaign.

There are sites that will explain to you how to get started. Some are good, some aren’t. I’m smart enough to figure out which ones are which.

If you’re interested in Twitter, you might have a boo at the Twitter site. Watch the video in the upper right hand corner of the home screen. It’s one of the most inventive use of simple graphics that I’ve seen in a video. Makes me almost want to try a book trailer, using similar techniques.

You might also try some of the material by John Kremer. No, I’m sorry, I can’t tell you what all those strange words Kremer uses mean. I’m still treading water here myself.

Contrary to what I originally thought, I’m not at the mercy of every other user out there if I create a social site. There are ways to limit who I interact with. There are also ways to keep the time spent per day on the social sites to a manageable limit. There are ways to reduce the identity theft potential.

Who knows, I might even eventually find the answer to that bunny thing. See you on the Net.

Quote for the week:
Words are harder than buttons.
~John Gruber, techi guy, at the South by Southwest Conference, April 2009