Friday, July 31, 2009

Oh, deer me . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

For some months now a little doe has been visiting our back yard every morning for breakfast. Deer in our back yard is not unusual. ONE lonely little doe is. They usually come in herds of six or so. She travels alone. No spouse. No babies. No friends.

She seems to have no fear and no sense of manners when eating in a human's back yard. Early in the spring we moved several Hostas from the front yard, because the hot sun every summer burnt them up, and put them in the back yard under a row of trees where they could flourish. And they were flourishing, until she started snacking on them. Sigh.

Then she discovered hubby's tomatoes. She knocked down the protective cage and ate the unripe tomatoes and a goodly part of the plant. He is not happy. So far (rapping quickly on my desk and hoping there is some real wood in there) she has not discovered my tomato plants, tucked beside the porch steps with SEVERAL large tomatoes ripening as we speak. The tomato variety is Brandywine, by the way, and the tomatoes are VERY large and delicious. And NOT planted for wandering deer. I hope.

If you look closely at the pictures above, which I took while standing right by my tomato bed, prepared to defend it to the death, (my death, not hers) you will see that she is in my rock/metal garden. I love old metal tools and collect them for this garden. It's pretty close to the house and deer rarely wander this close to the back door. She seems to have no problem wandering anywhere in the yard and she didn't run when I stepped outside to take the pictures. In fact, her attitude struck me as: What are you doing in MY area? Sigh. Perhaps it's this sort of attitude that causes her to be a loner? That'd be my guess.

Recently, on our morning walk, hubby and I stopped to chat with our neighbor, Jack. I'd been dying to talk to him ever since I'd spotted an ancient lawn chair plunked down in the middle of his yard with a fake deer sitting upright in it. I almost tripped over my shoes the first time I saw it. And the fake deer was obviously holding a sign in its lap. Too polite to dash through Jack's big yard to read the sign, I contented myself with lying in wait, hoping to catch him coming or going. The sign was ruined in a recent storm, but you can still see the deer in the chair.

Jack laughed when I asked about the sign. Seems like a certain little doe has been sauntering through his yard as well on a regular basis, stopping at his (huge and lovely and makes me envious) vegetable garden to eat his tomato plants, tomatoes and all. She takes very large bites out of the green tomatoes and lets the rest fall to the ground.

Which brings me to what passes for humor in southern Illinois. Someone (Jack suspects either another neighbor or his son) sneaked the lawn-chair-sitting-deer into his yard, facing the house, complete with a sign that said: "Free 'Maters."

Bawhahahah! Okay, it isn't exactly funny to him, the damaged and destroyed tomatoes I mean, but the deer sitting in the chair is a real hoot. And who knows, it might spook the real one off, safely away from his tomatoes. If so, I'll be in the market for a chair and a fake deer. And a sign.

Someone suggested spreading Cayenne pepper on the ground near the plants to keep away the marauder, but I can't risk burning her mouth. Human hair scattered around plants doesn't seem to discourage predator deer or bunnies, though it's supposed to. And don't even get me started on the moles. I've tried chewing gum (chewed and unchewed) and everything else I can think of, and the little hills and holes just keep appearing. Our ground is very well aerated. Grrr.

Living in the country is lovely. We've had lots of different animals visit and/or set up housekeeping, including foxes, turtles, rabbits, lizards, snakes and all variety of birds from hawks to hummers. All are welcome. Please, just don't touch the tomatoes. Mine OR Jack's.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Music and Murder

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was brought up on folk music, including the high lonesome murder ballads of the Appalachians: “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Down by a Willow Garden.” All these tell basically the same story: a man murders a woman because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to marry her. Then there’s the great “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by just about everyone, from Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen and the Chieftains. In that one, the first-person narrator, accused of murder, is hanged because his lover, his best friend’s wife, won’t speak up and give him an alibi. In fact, the song’s a paranormal: “She walks these hills in a long black veil/Visits my grave when the night winds wail.”

I didn’t discover country music until 1988, when the New Country was just getting started, although I discovered that many of the “folk songs” I’d heard in college were by country singers like Johnny Cash, such as “Folsom Prison”: “I killed a man in Reno just to see him die.” At the time, as an addictions treatment professional, I was more interested in alcoholism and codependency than I was in murder. And country music certainly had more than its share of stories about my area of expertise. Why do you think these guys went so far as to kill their girlfriends? They’d probably been drinking. And why did their girlfriends stay with violent men who got them pregnant and refused to marry them? Codependency, of course. They were hooked on love, the victims of addictive relationships.

I once gave a workshop at a professional addictions conference on alcoholism and codependency in country music. I had a great time making the tape. Some of the greatest country singers were alcoholics: Hank Williams, killed at 29 driving drunk on an icy road on New Year’s Eve. Keith Whitley, a rising star of the late 80s who got sober and then died of alcohol poisoning at 32 during a relapse. And loving a no-good man was a staple of cheatin’ songs, songs about women who loved alcoholics (“Whiskey, if you were a woman/I’d fight you and I’d win, you know I would”), and such classics as “Stand By Your Man.”

I talked about how drinking beer (rather than effete wine) was considered a virtue of the working-class culture hero in dozens of songs. I pointed out how dysfunctional some of the love situations in these songs were. “I Will Always Love You,” written by and a hit for Dolly Parton and then a megahit for Whitney Houston, was used for the soundtracks of two movies, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Bodyguard, in which lovers don’t live happily ever after. As a therapist, I assure you that if you don’t see somebody for thirty or forty years and have a modicum of emotional health, love passes.

Then there’s Linda Ronstadt’s gorgeous “Long, Long Time,” in which there is no love affair, only unrequited mooning over a man who isn’t interested: “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine/And I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time…I never drew one response from you…Living in the memory of a love that never was.” Does this woman need therapy or what?

When I listen one of the many “darling, please let me come home” songs that male country singers still write and perform, I always think, “There are three reasons she could have thrown him out: infidelity, alcoholism, or domestic violence.” When you read between the lines, his request doesn’t sound so reasonable or his declaration of love so sincere. Nowadays, there are many other ways than murder to deal with a failed relationship or an illegitimate child. And sometimes the woman turns the tables on the man, as in Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” in which an abused wife takes a burning-bed revenge. But underneath the surface, when they’re chirping about love, I can still see death.

I can even see a serial killer in an upbeat country song. Take Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket.” It’s about an 18-year-old girl, and it’s sunny as a day in July. “She was in the backyard…when her prince pulled up - a white pickup truck…Well, he must have been a looker - smooth talkin' son of a gun/ For such a grounded girl - to just up and run/… you can't stop love/…She's got her pretty little bare feet hangin' out the window/ And they're headin' up to Vegas tonight/…She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line.” It’s love at first sight, right? Does the image of those “pretty little bare feet” fill your heart with romance? Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m a mystery writer. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t listen to that song any more, because every time I hear that line and imagine that young woman going off with a stranger, I think of Ted Bundy, and I shudder.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The books we buy, and why and where

by Sandra Parshall

I love polls, surveys, and reports – anything that reveals what people are thinking and doing. If the topic is any aspect of the book business, I’m doubly fascinated, so the dull-sounding 2008 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Report from Bowker Publishing Services is my idea of a page-turner.

This isn’t a survey based on a tiny sampling. Bowker had 11,933 people send weekly reports throughout the year. Some results weren’t surprising. We already knew, didn’t we, that women buy more books than men do? Last year, according to Bowker, 65% of all trade books were purchased by women. Women, after all, are the ones who buy books as gifts for others as well as for their own reading pleasure.

Baby boomers were the biggest book buyers – 35%, compared to 30% of “matures” (Don’t you hate that expression? Are baby boomers “immatures”?). The numbers for young readers were every bit as dismal as we might expect in this internet-obsessed era: only 17% of book buyers were classified as Gen X, 10% were part of Gen Y, and a pathetic 5% were teens. We can take heart from the certainty that some of those books purchased by women were gifts for the young people in their lives. Maybe the kids even found time between Twittering and Facebooking to read them.

I’ve heard and read many times that romance outsells mystery by a wide margin, so I was pleased to see that the Bowker report puts mystery in the top spot – 16% of all sales, compared to 12% for juvenile books (Yes! Moms, aunts and grandmothers are buying books for kids) and only 11% for romance. Espionage/thriller is a separate category, and those books account for 4% of sales, so if you add them to mystery and call it all crime fiction, the percentage hits 20% of the market. Science fiction and religion make up 4% each, followed by autobiography and biography at 3%, and history, cooking, and business/economics at 2% each.

The question of why people buy the books they do brought predictable answers: 17% of all book buyers said they purchase a book because they’ll read whatever that particular author publishes, and another 17% buy because of the topic. Additional factors that influence purchases: matching gift books to the recipients’ tastes, 8%; adding to a collection, 8%; price, 7%; recommendations, 5%. When the question is narrowed to fiction only, 28% said they buy a book because of the author and only 9% mentioned the topic.

I found a couple of revelations genuinely startling.

While women buy more printed books, men are driving the e-book business, making 55% of all electronic purchases in 2008 (and in the first quarter of 2009, that figure went up to 57%). E-books went from 0.6% of book sales in 2008 to 2.4% in the first quarter of 2009, so the long-predicted boom in this market seems to be happening at last. Less surprising is the news that 52% of e-book buyers were between the ages of 18 and 34.

I was happy to learn that books aren’t by any means a luxury purchased primarily by people with a lot of disposable income. A whopping 41% of book buyers earned $35,000 or less per year. Another 36% earned between $35,000 and $75,000. The wealthy make up a tiny percentage of the country's population, and it's good to know that book sales aren't entirely dependent on that small group of readers.

Perhaps the saddest news, which isn’t really news to any of us, is that brick-and-mortar bookstores have lost so much ground that the internet now claims the largest market share for books – 23%, compared to 22% for major bookstore chains, 10% for book clubs, 7% for independent bookstores, 6% for mass merchandisers, and 4% for warehouse clubs. Supermarkets, religious bookstores, discount/closeout stores, book fairs, and drugstores hold minuscule slices of the market, and various “other outlets” lumped together account for 22%.

Where does Amazon, the elephant-in-the-room we can no longer ignore, rank in sales? It took 14% of the market last year. As devoted as both writers and readers may be to the concept of a neighborhood bookstore with a friendly atmosphere and helpful staff, busy people are finding the convenience of online ordering irresistible. Writers who shun or preach against Amazon and its internet brethren may be attacking their own best interests.

Furthermore, the Bowker survey reveals that the internet is now the most popular source of information about books. Twenty-one per cent of all book buyers reported that they learned about the books they bought through internet promotion, while 16% said they discovered books through traditional sources – print reviews and ads, etc. In fiction, the percentages were 21% online and 13% traditional sources.

All the crime fiction writers I know are well aware of the promotional value of an online presence. It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that a novelist must have a website, must have a blog, must contribute to listservs such as DorothyL. What about Facebook, MySpace, Twitter? Groan all you wish about these time sinks, but today’s fans expect writers to be accessible, and social networks are free paths to that connection between author and reader. (I’m not on Facebook or MySpace, and I don’t tweet, but I have a feeling at least one of these is in my future. Will you be my friend?)

Do any of the Bowker report findings surprise (or dismay) you? Do they match your book-buying habits? Let’s narrow the questions to crime fiction only and do a little poll of our own. (I won’t ask you to reveal your annual income, although one question is economics-related.)

1. In your household, is the primary book-buyer male or female?

2. Do you buy hardcover books, or do you save money by buying only paperbacks and getting hardcovers from the library?

3. Do you buy more books online or at brick-and-mortar bookstores? Do you buy books in supermarkets, drugstores, Wal-Mart, etc.? In each case, why?

4. What influences your purchase of a book? (Choose all that apply.)

(a.) Author
(b.) Topic/story summary
(c.) Recommendation from a trusted person
(d.) Print review or ad
(e.) Internet buzz
(f.) Price
(g.) Other (specify)

5. Do you purchase e-books? Do you plan to continue or begin purchasing e-books in the near future?

6. Which age category do you fit into?

Baby boomer
Generation X
Gen Y
None of your darned business!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ideas may be closer than you think

Sharon Wildwind

You know the inevitable question. All together now: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Honestly, some fall in my lap, completely ripe and ready to use. Unfortunately, those are most often the ones I CAN’T USE.

A woman in my family loved a man for many years, but he would never ask her to marry him. Tired of waiting, she became engaged to another man. The evening before the wedding she received a telegram—yes, a telegram—which read, “You will never leave the church alive.”

Who she told about the telegram, who she refused to tell, and what the people she told did is a ready-made story. I heard it forty years after the events happened. An elderly relative and I were rocking on her front porch one summer evening. A man walked past the house and tipped his baseball cap to us. My relative turned her face away and ignored him. I asked her why? She told me the story as casually as if it were her recipe for peach cobbler. The man who had tipped his hat to us was the grandson of the man who’d sent the telegram. The families hadn’t spoken to one another since the day of the wedding.

All I had to do was write that story down, just the way she told it, but I can’t use it because one of the people involved is still alive. Some day . . .

There is, of course, an obvious second story. It was a small town. The telegrapher knew both the person who’d sent the telegram and the person to whom it was addressed. Why the heck did he deliver it? Why didn’t he take it to the police chief? No one knows, but I bet I could make a story out of that, too.

When the universe doesn’t smile with a ready-made story, here’s an exercise I do when I’m teaching and someone asks the idea question. I start by asking people in the audience to tell me one thing they did in the past twenty-four hours. I write five or six thing on the board, then the group picks one.

Let’s say the group pick: washed my clothes at the Laundromat.

So, a character is in a Laundromat, washing clothes. What happens?

Most people, even professional writers, don’t think of a great story idea right off. The most common answers? An old lover comes in. An old enemy comes in. A missing relative comes in. An escaping bank robber takes everyone in the Laundromat hostage. A body is found in one of the dryers. The pay phone rings, the person on the line screams, “Help me,” and then the line goes dead.

Suppose we go with the missing relative idea. Who is he? How is he related to our person washing clothes? How long has he been missing? Why does him showing up now mean something? What’s the turning point that’s happening?

It’s interesting to watch the group at this point. Some people get excited, calling out possibilities, some get quiet. When I first started doing this exercise, in my na├»vety, I thought the quiet ones probably watched too much television and couldn’t think of anything original. Now I think they’re probably the ones to watch. There’s a good possibility that a story is brewing in their head, and they don’t want to share it yet.

Here’s one scenario a class built:

The person washing clothes is a detective and the missing relative is his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in years. The detective’s seven-year-old son is dying from a blood disease. He needs a bone marrow transplant, but none of the family is a close donor match. The boy’s uncle will turn out to be the needed match.

Next step, throw in something weird, something short of aliens landing in the park, but a complication that narrows the available options, and complicated or limits the protagonist’s choices. Yes, the astute among you will recognize this as raising the stakes.

The Laundromat owner appears to burst into flame from spontaneous combustion and burns to death. Police departments being reluctant to accept the the existence of spontaneous combustion arrest the brother for first-degree murder. Because a mob boss won public sympathy and an eventual acquittal on a murder charge after donating a kidney to a terminally-ill wife and mother, there is a new state law prohibiting anyone under charges for a major crime from participating in medical research or organ donation. If the detective can’t prove that the Laundromat owner died of spontaneous combustion, or another cause that his brother had nothing to do with, the detectives son will die.

Main plot: who killed the Laundromat owner, why, and how.
Sub-plots: the relationship between the two brothers, the reasons the brother left and returned, the detective’s relationship with his son, and the question of whether spontaneous combustion is or isn’t possible.

All this from washing clothes.

If you want to try this as a party game, here are the steps:

1. Make a list of several every-day things that individuals in the group did in the last twenty-four hours. Pick one.
2. Ask what happens, and make a list. Expect the list to be pretty pedestrian. Pick one of the things on that list.
3. Start filling in details.
4. Throw in something weird—no aliens landing in the park—a complication that narrows the available options available, and complicated or limits the protagonist’s choices. Extra points for raising both public and private stakes.

Writing quote for the week:

Raise the public stakes. Make the public stakes private. Raise the public stakes again.
~Donald Maass, editor and agent

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mangling Shakespeare and Other Popular Pastimes

by Julia Buckley
A while ago I posted a little essay about this product; I thought it would be fun to get my students a little memento of their reading of the Bard, and I scanned the net for a likely trinket. I found these cards with tiny matching flowers and thought they were cute until I noticed the egregious error. (Click on the picture to read it better). Shakespeare fans, you might feel a desire to light a torch and march toward this company with righteous literary indignation!

I guess if you're in the business of selling stuff, you're not necessarily in the business of reading Shakespeare. :)

This got me thinking of other humorous (yet ire-inducing) mis-quotings that I'd encountered in the past. Here are some of my favorites:

--My sister's college roommate, who demanded imperiously that someone let her by: "Out of my way, damn spot!"

--The inevitable commercials, at Halloween time, which show three witches in stereotypical garb, chanting "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, watch our brew begin to bubble." Geez. All they had to do was look it up. They could Google it, for goodness' sake.

--Even worse offenders are the endless take-offs on the lovely balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Inevitably some actress will be stuffed into a costume and placed into a makeshift balcony in order to sell cars, or spoof a tv show, or hawk a beauty product. And inevitably she will look out of her balcony, her hand over her eyes, saying, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" As though she is LOOKING for him. Come on! Didn't any of these directors read Shakespeare in high school? Doesn't anyone in the present know what "wherefore" means? It's quite disappointing.

--The far more forgivable errors come from my students, who are occasionally offered extra credit if they are able to complete the rhyming couplets that they are (supposedly) studying. I'll write one half, and they have to come up with the other. So one girl, confronted with "Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow . . ." wrote "So I'll just talk to you tomorrow."

I gave her credit for making Juliet such a pragmatist. :)

Do you have any favorite Shakespeare-mangling tales?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Becoming a Writer-holic

Chris Grabenstein (Guest Blogger)

Recently I realized that, come December 2009, I have been making my living as a writer for exactly 25 years.

I guess I need to buy my laptop a silver keyboard.

It all started when I answered a full-page ad from Mega Ad Agency J. Walter Thompson in the New York Times headlined “Write If You Want Work.”

There were eight questions. Everything from “write a love song for punk rocker Poppy Putrid about stale pizza, moldy butter and a beer that’s gone flat” to “how would you sell a telephone to a Trappist monk who has taken a strict vow of silence?”
The coolest thing about the ad?

It was written by J. Walter New York’s Creative Director, a guy named James Patterson.

Yep. That James Patterson. Before he kissed the girls, he, like I, wrote Burger King commercials.

And he was damn good at it, too. In fact I still use a lot of what Jim (we called him Jim back in the day) taught me when I write my books. On our first day of “training camp” as Junior Copywriters, Jim stood at a podium, preparing to give us what promised to be a long-winded boring lecture.

Then somebody ran in the door and slammed a cream pie in his face.

After we stopped being shocked, amazed, and confused Jim uttered these immortal words: “That’s how you write good advertising: Throw a pie in their face and once you have their attention, say something smart.”

I spent 17 years throwing pies in America’s face. Writing commercials for everything from Matilda Bay Wine Cooler (sheep mowed the lawn in one spot) to KFC (middle name changed to hide the fried) to Miller Lite to Seven Up (as in "make seven...up yours") to Trojan condoms (yes, I created Trojan Man, even wrote his theme song).

I started my writing career on an IBM Selectric and, some days, still wish I had one. I loved that pinky finger correction button. I moved on to word processing programs in a Kaypro computer (the two thousand dollar computer that actually costs two thousand dollars), a boxy thing the size of a Singer sewing machine.

I even bought this cool battery-operated thermo print Canon typewriter that remembered a whole line of copy and only printed it when you hit the return button. I took this typewriter with me to L.A. when we were filming a TV commercial and I still needed to write the radio copy.

I had a great room in the Sunset Marquis, this swanky rock n’ roll hotel (you didn’t want to be staying there during the MTV awards or you would be mobbed by the Pet Shop Boys fans). One day, I put on my sunglasses, ordered a pot of coffee from room service and lived my dream: The Hollywood writer, sitting on his sunny deck, typing away, smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee.

I was writing some pretty funny spots.

And then I learned something about that Canon typewriting gizmo. Heat made the ink disappear. Everything I wrote faded away in the California sunshine.

I had to give up the dream and head inside to finish writing the copy.

Speaking of cigarettes -- that was the worst part about quitting smoking for me. I had inexorably linked my writing with my smoking. On a good writing day, I’d be at my desk at 7 a.m. Every time I wrote a spot or a good chunk of copy, I’d fire up a Merit Ultra Light and re-read what I just wrote. On a good writing day, I would have fifteen butts in my ashtray by ten o’clock.

In 1995, when my late wife was diagnosed with cancer, we had to quit smoking. It comes with the biopsy.

I thought I would never write again.

Fortunately, when I first quit, all I had to do was go on a shoot. No writing required.

Three months later however, I faced my worst nightmare. A blank page with no smokes.
I learned to drink a ton of water and suck Hall’s MenthoLyptus drops like crazy.
Two years later, I realized: I could actually write without smoking.
I could also run around Central Park and not have stinky clothes or a cough in the shower every morning.

Four years later, after four recurrences, my first wife died.
It was enough to make me want to smoke.

But I didn’t.

I did decide that life was, as advertised, short and I no longer wanted to write about Crystal Light or Jell-O Holiday Molds.

I wanted to tell stories.

So I quit my job but kept to my routine.

Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. Regular office hours in the spare bedroom.
Four years later, in 2005, my first mystery TILT A WHIRL was published by Carroll & Graf.

I thought about this when I heard my wife on the phone the other day telling her dad, “Chris is a writer-holic. He gave up cigarettes, took up writing.” And J.J., my wife, wouldn’t have it any other way because she knows I’m happiest when I’m writing.

This month, that has meant doing line edits on THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, the third of my haunted places YA mysteries, handing my agent THE EXPLORERS’ GATE, the first book in what we hope will become a new YA series, starting work on ROLLING THUNDER (John Ceepak mystery #6), and touching up a thriller I’ve been toying with for a couple years titled EVELYN that’s ready to see the light of an editor’s submission pile, while attending to the launch of MIND SCRAMBLER (Ceepak mystery #5) and prepping for the launch of THE HANGING HILL (YA chiller #2).

At the launch party for MIND SCRAMBLER in June, I realized that, when THE HANGING HILL comes out in August, I will have published nine books in less than four years.
And I did it all without firing up one Merit Ultra Light.

I just became a writer-holic instead.

Chris Grabenstein won an Anthony Award for his first John Ceepak novel, TILT-A-WHIRL, and an Agatha Award for his YA novel, THE CROSSROADS.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Did you hear the one about . . . or . . . let's talk about the weather . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Did you hear the one about the woman who was struck by lightning recently while standing indoors in her own kitchen? It certainly got MY attention, so I clicked into the news story reported on Yahoo! and watched the video of the victim being interviewed by a reporter. The woman survived and is hale and hearty, but what a scary scenario. She was standing at the sink, holding a metal baking pan. As she turned the pan over, lightning came into the kitchen through what looked like one of those "can" lights in her ceiling, struck the pan and glanced off it into her, entering her chest area and exiting her foot.

The woman's nine-year-old son witnessed the event and called 9-1-1 when his mom could not respond to him. There were other children in the home, uninjured, thankfully, and he was the oldest. Rescue workers were sent out and mom was saved. Good thing she'd trained her son so well. But imagine being struck by lightning inside your own home. Yes, we all know not to stand by open windows or talk on a corded phone during a storm. And we've been warned not to take a bath or wash dishes during a severe storm, but she didn't have her hands in water. And lightning through a light fixture? Yikes. No lightning in the above picture, but I like the dark clouds. Well, unless they bring a tornado along.

No lightning in this picture either, but I did manage to get a shot of a rainbow.

According to Wikipedia, lightning can also occur at the erruption of a volcano or during a dust storm. Who knew? And I seem to remember reading somewhere that lightning can go from ground to sky as well as sky to ground. Scary thought.

We get lots of lightning around here. It's beautiful to watch, from a safe distance, which used to be inside one's home. Because it seems to be high up and far away, we can be tempted to take chances and watch it outside. But we probably all know people who've been struck by lightning. Not fun. Can be fatal.

The cloud formations in this area tend to be pretty spectacular. I like taking pictures of them (again, when there is no sign of lightning.) I wonder what it would be like to touch a cloud. Probably pretty cold. But cloud formations often turn ordinary sunsets into jaw-dropping events. Again, something I love to watch. I wrote this blog post after going outside late in the evening to trim a bush and got caught up in sky watching.

How about you? Are you a cloud watcher? Storm chaser? And if a storm chaser, is your insurance paid up?

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Elizabeth Zelvin

Pace is one of those elements of a story that readers may not be aware of as part of the writer's craft, but which makes the difference between a story that drags and one that keeps readers turning the pages. I've been writing my whole life and editing the writing of others for what feels like almost that long. But it's only since my first novel was published that I have become fully aware of all the details that can make or break the pacing of my novel or story and how I can tighten a scene or a chapter in revision so that it sweeps the reader along.

Backstory is everything about the characters and setting except what happens during the period in which the story is taking place. In a mystery, it may include the protagonist's whole history, information his family, and the events that took place in earlier books in the series. In crime fiction, current opinion seems to be that the less backstory, the better. Some writing mavens even say that no backstory is the right amount. I wouldn't go that far, but I have learned how leaving it out can improve pace. In a literary novel, all those details that have nothing to do with the immediate scene form the texture of the narrative. In a mystery, they may slow it down.

Suppose my protagonist, Bruce, says: "Jimmy walked into the coffee shop ahead of me. Just inside the door, he stopped short." I might like to have him tell the reader a lot of digressive detail about Bruce and Jimmy's relationship to each other, how they feel about coffee, that the coffee shop used to be a neighborhood candy store when they were kids where it was a big treat to go in there with a dime or quarter to spend and the old man behind the counter would let them take as long as they wanted choosing the candy. This could be great stuff. But not now. We want to move the reader right on to what or who in that coffee shop takes Jimmy by surprise.

One bad habit I let myself make in a first draft but have learned to change in revision is starting a scene in the middle. Suppose Bruce says: "I was standing on the corner, waiting for Jimmy to bring the car around. He had promised me he'd drive me out to Brooklyn to the cemetery." That "had" is a clue that I need to revise. I can improve the pace by taking the events in sequence. "'I'll drive you to the cemetery,' Jimmy said. The next morning, we drove across the Brooklyn Bridge."

Another bad habit is starting a scene before the beginning. If the scene is about what happens in Brooklyn, why not start the scene in Brooklyn? When I’m writing the first draft, I have a tendency to rev myself up by starting a scene with the phone ringing. The first sentence of Death Will Help You Leave Him (out in October) is “I scootched into the back of Jimmy’s Toyota.” In the first draft, before Bruce got into the car, he answered the telephone, engaged in some banter with Jimmy and Barbara, and ran down the stairs from his walkup apartment into the rain before getting into the car. Luckily, I ran that chapter past a workshop group that included a very experienced short story writer. (Short story writers had better know about pace.) He looked at Page 1 over my shoulder, put his index finger on “I scootched,” and said, “The story starts here.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Katy, Chaz, and the Dead Detective

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Katy Munger has been absent from the mystery world for several years, but she’s returned with two 2009 novels: Desolate Angel, the July debut of the Dead Detective series written under the pseudonym Chaz McGee, and Bad Moon on the Rise, a new mystery in the Casey Jones series that is due out in September. Katy is also the author of the Hubbert & Lil series, written as Gallagher Gray.

Katy was raised in Raleigh, NC, and describes her childhood as “a crazy, chaotic parade of odd people moving in and out of our house on their way to and from all corners of the world” that taught her to “appreciate the insane diversity of the human species.” She became the black sheep of her bohemian family when she moved to New York City to work on Wall Street. After 16 years, she retur
ned to North Carolina, where she has lived for the last 11 years. She divides her time between her daughter Zuzu and their cats and dogs, fiction writing, business writing, political volunteer work, and fishing. Visit her website at for more information about her books and her appearance schedule.

Q. After keeping up a hectic schedule for years, you took a break from writing fiction. Did you have any qualms about letting some time go by without a new novel – or about jumping back into a demanding round of promotion with not just one but two new books?

A. I took a break for two reasons really: too many family responsibilities and disenchantment with the world of publishing. My family duties eased a lot as my daughter grew older so, for the last three or four years, I actually have been writing a number of different books and trying out new voices. I probably could have returned a few years earlier but still needed more of a break to re-align my attitude about writing as a business and fin
d the joy in it again. So, by the time I did jump back in this year, no qualms were left! I am worried about the time needed to conduct enough promotion, though – it’s just not there. And self-promotion is really not effective unless you can put ALL of your time into it. So I have reconciled myself to building the Chaz McGee series by word of mouth, more slowly. And that’s okay with me!

Q. How did you come up with the concept of a dead detective who must solve the cases he mishandled in life before he can rest in peace? Did the character come to you fully formed, or did he develop as you wrote the story?

A. Kevin
Fahey, the dead detective, came to me as my first and only “Aha!” moment of my writing career. All of my other books emerged as a sort of ensemble vision, i.e., envisioning how different characters would interact. But he came to me on the verge of sleep one morning, and I got my butt out of bed and wrote down the concept quick before I forgot it! I had been reading a lot about Buddhism at the time — a standing joke among my friends was that I had my own brand of “in your face Buddhism,” which is, of course, a contradiction — and somehow it intertwined with my love of more hardboiled novels and I came up with a hybrid! As I wrote the book, I found the core of him and he developed beyond a melancholy loner into someone with wisdom to impart.

Q. Desolate Angel is different from anything you’ve written before – a lyrical, melancholy style (although not without touches of humor), and a wrenchingly emotional story. Do you feel that you used a different set of writing muscles on this book and explored new territory?

A. I think I have become a totally different person over the past ten years, and developed a whole new set of writing muscles, and that is what long-time readers of mine will pick up on when reading Des
olate Angel. First, having a child and confronting my own childhood memories deepened me emotionally and made me more forgiving. Secondly, I have faced a lot of lifelong patterns of mine squarely in the eye and worked through them in the past decade. It’s left me more thoughtful, less angry and more open to accepting the flaws in others but without blinding myself completely to them. All of that probably comes through. I still have a bawdy side, thank god, and my new Casey Jones, Bad Moon on the Rise, proves it. That comes out in September.

Q. The belief in ghosts is ancient, and there have been countless tales of restless spirits unable to leave the world behind and find peace. Do you believe the dead are still among us? Did you research various concepts of existence after death, or accounts of hauntings, before you wrote Desolate Angel?

A. Yes, I absolutely believe that parts of the dead linger among us. What parts I do not know, and I do not feel a need to pinpoint that beyond imagining. I am happy to accept that the essence of humans, some vestige of their being, can linger and that it is possible to learn from these vestiges if you are open to them. We have never been able to pinpoint what that indefinable spark o
f life is – how a bag of chemicals, essentially, which is what our bodies are, can be alive one moment and dead the next. What changed? I think there are planes of existence we aren’t meant to know about until we arrive in them. But I am quite content with this plane, so maybe that is why I don’t have the burning curiosity to prove life after death that others do. I don’t need to prove it; I just know it’s true. And other than being a hardcore X-Files fan and doing lots of reading about weird stuff since the time I could hold a book, I did not research other death accounts specifically for this book. Kevin Fahey came alive in my head and lives there still, and that’s really where this book comes from.

Q. When you began writing, you used the pen name Gallagher Gray. Now you’re writing the Dead Detective Mysteries under the name Chaz McGee. Why do you use pseudonyms? Where did these two names come from? Do they have any special meaning to you?

A. I use them to differentiate very different series from one another. I have always been a reader and I treasure my authors, but also expect very sp
ecific things from them: a certain tone, a certain dimension to their characters. I chose my author to fit my mood. I want my readers to always be able to do the same. The pen names do have significance to me. Gallagher Gray consists of the maiden names of my grandmothers put together and Chaz McGee was the name of an invisible friend my daughter had as a little girl. I thought that was fitting!

Q. You’ve had a long career, much of it during times of upheaval in the publishing business. What are the most striking changes you’ve seen in publishing? What changes have you welcomed, and what has saddened (or maddened!) you?

A. I’m welcoming the advent of small presses made possible by publishing on demand. I think that will allow more authors to find their readership niche without the pressures of diluting their books to fit all tastes. I’ve been active in publishing since 1990, and it seems to me that it has always been very, very cluttered with authors who do not have distinct voices and are not partic
ularly original with either their characters or their plots. They are basically emulating other authors, which is why publishers are buying heir books, in hopes of emulating a bestselling author’s success. But you can’t chase someone else’s voice as a writer and expect to be either fulfilled or a good writer.

The sheer number of writers that has come from this marketing-first mindset has created such a crowded book landscape that it makes it harder for everyone to get noticed and reviewed. And, of course, the demise of book review sections and journalism in general is not gong to help! But if my history serves me, it’s never been easy for writers, it shouldn’t be easy for writers or the field would be even more overcrowded, and people have been bemoaning the loss of reader intelligence since at least 1895 when Arthur Conan Doyle bitched about it. So, I find myself blissfully unconcerned about the publishing landscape these days. I can’t do anything about it. I can only write the books I want to write and hope that readers who are kindred spirits find me. The most striking change has been in the average age of editors. They used to be women in their forties and fifties. Now I believe they are all about twelve.

Q. Do you plan to continue the Casey Jones series? What is it about Casey that makes you want to write about her life? If I remember correctly, she’s not fond of children – will that change now that you have a young daughter you adore, or will you let Casey hang on to her attitude toward kids?

A. I am continuing the Casey Jones series for sure! Bad Moon on the Rise will be out on September 1st from Thalia Press and I loved writing this book. Casey has always been an alter ego of mine, in part because she is physically strong and that’s such a factor in how confident women are. But I do love her humor and I love the side characters so much, I never want to leave them behind! As for children – hah! If I even let them in my Casey books, they’ll be lucky to survive. I’m joking a little, as one of the main characters in Bad Moon is fifteen years old. But Casey will continue to avoid small children on the grounds that they are uncooperative and sticky. Unless maybe she meets a tiny Casey one day – that might be pretty fun to write about! Hmm…

Q. You’ve promised that new editions of the Casey Jones books will contain “censored” scenes that were originally deleted to protect the tender sensibilities of some readers. Can you give us a hint about what’s in those scenes?

A. Sex, of course! The good kind, as in the kind left more to the imagi
nation than detailed on paper so we can all fill in the blanks the way we want to! I’m adding in more sex not just because that’s an important part of her character but also because writing about sex is a huge untapped reservoir of humor for that series! Finally, I just thought it would be fun to rev up the books a little before I re-released them!

Q. Who are your favorite writers? Which crime fiction writers have you learned from by reading their work?

A. I love Joseph Wambaugh above all others: his characters, his humor, his intertwining plots, and his love of all creatures large and small. He is gentle but such black humor is at play. He never makes fun of his characters, no matter how down and out they are. He gives them dignity and a place on his fictional earth. After him, there is a huge tier of crime fiction writers I admire and learn from, too many to list, and then I have to get into the realm of forgetting to list friends, so I’ll just stop and say: I read. I read a lot. I have never lost the joy of reading crime fiction or any other genre. I think
it is a huge mistake when writers do stop reading! You lose touch with words and how characters and plots can be played around with. Reading is essential to being good a writer!

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers in this unusually tough market?

A. Moi, give advice? Oh, well, since you asked:

1) Read so you don’t inadvertently imitate someone else and go out there thinking you have a brilliant new idea only to be confronted with the fact it’s already been done.

2) Accept that you are not going to make a living at this and that it’s actually good for you to have another life or profession to draw on in addition to writing. It keeps your life larger and the character ideas coming. And if you ever manage to earn a living at it, then good for you – you are one of the lucky ones. But if you don’t – you still get the immeasurable reward of writing and creating worlds. Be glad for it!

3) Don’t make the mistake of promoting yourself so much you take time away from your writing. As mentioned before, self-promotion is only going to make a difference in your career if you are willing to eat, sleep and breathe it. The same goes for conventions – if all they are is a bunch of writers hoping to get more fans… from a bunch of other writers who are also hoping to get more fans… stay home and write instead. Often, your best strategy is to take that time and put it into another book, even better than the first one.

4) Listen carefully to criticism from agents and editors when you receive it. They know what they are doing. Don’t take it personally, mind you, but learn from it and, depending on what your goals are, adjust accordingly. Accept that agents and editors come in all stripes, just like actual human beings, and that some books and voices just aren’t going to resonate with them. Find new ones to approach and move on.

5) Never compare yourself to anyone else, ever. Not your sales, not your voice, not your success. Just hone in on what you want to say, how you can best say it and pour your energy into creating the book that is you and you alone. If you write it, they will come.

6) Stop accepting other people’s definitions of success as your own. If you don’t get a big fat contract from a huge publisher and become the next NY Times bestselling author, then so what? Some of the most miserable people I know have occupied that lofty position and it has not made them any happier. Find a smaller press. Publish it yourself. Concentrate on finding your readers, the ones you were speaking to when you wrote the book, and don’t worry if it’s twenty readers or twenty million.

7) Remember why you write: because you have to, because it makes you feel whole. Be careful what you compromise, because if you start writing books that aren’t you, you are going to destroy the very reason why you are doing it in the first place: so you can sit down and have the joy and privilege of writing, and give life to the characters inside your head, and touch the lives of other people, namely readers who recognize something in your writing they feel connected to… and vice versa.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Sandy, and for those of you who read to the very end of this interview and who decide to give my books a try — I hope you enjoy them!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Merit Badges 2

Sharon Wildwind

Last month, I began a short series of merit badges for writers. If you missed that blog first time around, click here for another chance to read it. After Sandra mentioned that readers need badges, too, I’ve expanded it to merit badges for writers and readers This week there’s is one of each.

The first one will never be much fun to earn, but like all first aid, some days you'll need it.

Writers' Merit Badge #2: First Aid For Writers
Not for ordinary disasters. This the badge for those worst days of days. Your publisher just declared bankruptcy. The agent you love sent you an e-mail saying she’s seriously ill. Real life has dealt you such a blow that you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to write again.


Sit down.

Breathe slowly and steadily.

You are a part of a strong writers’ community. Trust us. We will be there to help.

Here our first badge for readers.

Readers' Badge #1: Extreme Reader

Award yourself this merit badge when you have completed at least 4 of the suggested requirements listed below.

Someone has said to you at least once, “Turn off that light and go to sleep. Don’t make me come in there.”

You finished a book sitting in the bathroom because you didn’t want the light to bother a significant other.

You own more than one book light. [I think our household’s current count is 7, but I could probably lay my hands on only 3.]

You left clothes home in order to take more books on vacation.

Your TBR (to-be-read) pile doubles as a piece of furniture.

You’ve left a bookstore or library thinking your collection is more extensive, and better organized.

The first thing you do when moving to a new town is to find the library. Then you worry about non-essentials like schools, grocery stores, gas stations, and fire, police, and ambulance.

The first gift you buy for a newborn is a book.

When the clerk asks for your debit card, you automatically hand them your library card because it’s the most accessible one in your wallet.

You can read a book’s bar-coded ISBN number faster than the scanner can.

Quote for the week:

Books are like lobster shells. We surround ourselves with them, then we grow out of them and leave them behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.
~Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery writer

Monday, July 20, 2009

Midwestern Paradise

by Julia Buckley
About an hour south of Chicago, right around the place where Illinois meets Indiana, you can find the little town where my parents are spending their retirement years--but you won't find them resting. My dad is a retired electrical engineer, and my mother has mastered every creative endeavor, from macrame to writing to quilting. The two of them spend much of their talent and ingenuity on their back yard and its resplendent pond.

Some towns have "house walks" that are sponsored by a local architectural society, allowing people to tour various lovely homes and their creative decor. My parents take part in a similar thing called a "pond walk." Those who have backyard ponds or dream of having one can tour the little garden paradises of people like my parents. The event is remarkably well-attended, and my son and I volunteered to take tickets for my parents on one of the days of their event.

Now I will offer you a mini virtual tour for free. I hope you find it restful. Imagine the sound of the waterfall.
First you must pass through my parents' garden and all the whimsical things within it, like the wooden deer who guards their garage.
Then you pass by several gnomes, including the one who perches on the overturned flowerpot.
My parents have a commemorative brick from every one of their pond walks--each one represents weeks and weeks of painstaking work. (They have four bricks now).
My father was disappointed that a couple of his train cars, usually reliable, were not working on the day visitors came. Still, two game little trains rode around the pond all day. This is their yard from an aerial view.
Every few feet along the way my father has tucked some whimsical little thing into the scenery, like this little water tower and the men (with their vehicles) who tend it.
This little hotel sports a tiny American flag, a testament to my Dad's patriotism. Look all over this beautiful pond and the gardens beyond it: you won't find a weed. My attempts at lawn care are laughable in contrast to my parents' sculpted gardens.
Here's another view, from which you can see my dad's talent with landscaping.

My father built the pond himself; he had to add on to include this waterfall, which is remarkably soothing. All around the bond are bird feeders and special houses for attracting different songbirds. The two dominant sounds are the falling water and the singing of birds.
This little Swiss chalet with matching cars on a ski lift wasn't working; my dad said that the European company where he bought the little motors had gone out of business, and now the tiny cars hang suspended but still.
If you look closely at the lily pond, you'll see the Koi fish that float underneath, waiting for the cheerios my parents throw them at feeding time. There are some baby fish in there now, as well as some frogs. (Note that in the first lily pond picture, at the top of the blog, you can see only the reflection of sky).
One year my father got this little traveling circus for Christmas. They quickly earned a spot on the pond, where they entertain all day.
I'm really only sharing a few highlights of many lovely sights in their back yard; this little antique ship is moored against the rocks in a picturesque way. I imagine some year a matching sailor will appear.
My father attached this miniature bridge the day before the event. It makes one wish to become small, like Alice, so that she could wander the periphery of this pondland.
Here are my parents, in their blue pond club T-shirts. My mom, as ever, is closing her eyes in the photo. :)

I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour and that, if only for a moment, you heard the sounds of birds and water.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Canada Calling: Stars of stage, screen, and television

Sharon Wildwind

You've probably seen more Canadian actors and actresses than you think. Raymond Burr, he of Perry Mason fame, was Canadian. So is the impressionist Rich Little. Here's a summer quiz on exactly who came from the great white north. Answers can be found at the end of the posting.

1. This Toronto-born actress was instrumental in the establishment of the United Artists studio and the founding of the Academy Awards. She and her American-born husband’s hollywood home was known as Pickfair. Name the actress.

2. This actress starred in vaudeville and, in 1914, had top movie billing over her co-star Charles Chaplain. She’s best remembered as the salty captain of a tug boat. Name the actress and her most famous role.

3. This actor was wounded in World War I and World War II. He played both a crusty doctor and an American president. His younger brother was the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada. His family used their fortune to support cultural venues, such as Massey Hall in Toronto. Name the actor, his two most famous roles, and the product responsible for his family’s fortune.

4. Speaking of brothers, this actor grew up in the Northwest Territories, where his father was an RCMP officer. His brother became deputy prime minister of Canada. He’s known for his screw-ball comedy, including guest appearances in a television series as Sergeant Buck Frobisher, an RCMP officer. Name the actor and the TV series in which Sgt. Frobisher appeared.

5. Originally trained at Stratford, this actor is remembered for one role, though he has almost 200 movie and TV credits. In 1988 he played Bill in a cult-movie with a pun for a title. Bill’s greatest ambition was to produce a rap version of Shakespear’s Julius Caesar. Name the actor and the 1988 movie.

6. This actor could assume many dialects, but he is most famous for a pseudo-Scottish voice. He worked with the actor in the question above. Name his most-famous role.

7. These two actors, also trained at Stratford were best friends, but they ended up playing on opposite sides with one playing the hero and one the villain in a 1978 TV space opera. Name the two actors. Who was the good guy and who was the bad guy?

8. Primarily a singer, he played U.S. Marshal Morrie Nathan in Harry Tracey, Desperado (1982). Name this singer/actor.

9. This Metis actress has played many First Nations women, including a role in Dancing with Wolves. Name her.

10. Born in England to Canadian parents. She played Aunt Lil Trotter in Dallas and Dr. Ruth Levitt in The Andromeda Strain. Name the actress and tell why Dr. Levitt didn’t like flashing red lights.

1. Mary Pickford
2. Marie Dressler/Tugboat Annie
3. Raymond Massey/Dr. Gillespie (in the TV series Dr. Kildare) and Abraham Lincoln/farm equipment
4. Leslie Neilsen/Due South
5. William Shatner/Free Enterprise
6. Commander Montgomery Scott of the USS Enterprise. The actor was, of course, James Doohan.
7. John Colicos played the bad guy and Lorne Green played the good guy in the original television version of Battlestar Galactia.
8. Gordon Lightfoot
9. Tantoo Cardinal
10. Kate Reid/Dr. Levitt said that red lights reminded her of her time in a bordello. In fact, the character was hiding that she suffered from epilepsy, and that flashing red lights triggered seizures.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Some college classes are downright fun . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Recently I asked the daughter of a friend what her plans were, now that she'd graduated from high school. She's planning on attending Shawnee College in Southern Illinois. I attended Shawnee back in the mid-nineties in order to finish the college hours I'd started way-back-when and to get my substitute teacher's aide certificate. I remember a couple of classes I took at Shawnee in particular: Psychology, because I cried my way through it, and Outdoor Biology, because it's the most interesting and the most fun class I ever took, bar none. I recommended my friend's daughter take the Outdoor Biology class and neglected to mention Psychology.

If you or someone you know is about to head to (or back to) college, and if there is an Outdoor Biology class offered, take it! You won't regret it. I took this class nearly fifteen years ago, and I still think of it often. And recommend it often. The class was taught by Tony Girard, an enthusiastic young guy who loves the outdoors and shares that love with his students. Far as I know, he's still teaching it. As an aside, he also had a small part in the movie LAST OF THE MOHICANS as an extra, a soldier in a red coat, but you have to look really fast to see him march by. Where was I?

The class was conducted outdoors by transporting students to one of several southern Illinois hiking areas once each week via a school van in order to view plants and animals in their natural environment. There are no books. Girard points and lectures, and students take notes. In my case, I took a tape recorder, recorded the lectures, then transcribed them into a notebook when I got home. By the way, I was on the wrong side of forty-five when I took this class. So were three other female students. The rest of the students were kids fresh out of high school. Keep that in mind.

The first outing found us zipping down the highway in the van toward our first encounter with nature. All of a sudden Girard slammed on the breaks, introducing a few noses to the back of the seat in front, then he put the gear shift in park, and leaped out, racing down the road while we all stared after him in amazement. From the back, someone mumbled: "Hope he didn't spot a snake." Our silent prayers and "amens" went unanswered as Girard returned to the van, gently holding a black snake. All together now: Ewwwwww!

He insisted we all get out of the van and/or the station wagon transporting the overflow students and admire his find. One of the over-forty-five gals flat out refused. The rest of us were too scared of him (Girard) to refuse. And why wouldn't we be in awe of a man who chases down snakes?

The snake, not happy being part of show-and-tell, used his defense mechanism on our fearless teacher, spraying him from the stink sack located near his tail. The snake was safely returned to his/her habitat and we continued on our way to our first hike, holding our noses against the smell wafting from the driver's seat. I used that lesson in my second book in the Metropolis Murder Series nearly a decade later. We writers are like elephants when it comes to memory. Back to my story.

On one of the hikes Girard took us to an old church building in the wilderness. He parked facing left, explaining that there are two trails to hike there, and hikers are to point their vehicles toward the trail they plan to hike, in case they don't show up at home for their next appointed meal. That way, rescue workers will know where to begin rescuing. We began the hike, walking slowly upward for quite some time, stopping for lessons now and then, until suddenly we entered a clearing in the woods and found ourselves on the edge of a rocky cliff on the side of a REALLY high hill. We could see for miles around. And to give you an idea of the height, two hawks circled slowly in the air BELOW us. Fascinating. Girard taught us about the types of lichen on the rocks, among other things.

When it was time to leave, Girard offered us two choices. Hiking up the hill is the only way to this beautiful overlook, but there are two ways down, the trail we came up, or going down the side of the rocks via a series of ropes. Hmmm.

One of the over-forty-fivers and I walked to the edge of the cliff/hill and looked down. STRAIGHT down. Girard said he always went down via the ropes, but we need not feel compelled to go with him. We could use the trail and he'd meet us at the bottom. The student and I looked at each other. "You know we have to do this, don't you?" I said, nodding toward the just-out-of-high-schoolers. She agreed. We informed Girard we were going down the side of the cliff with him. The other two women joined us. Seeing all the over-forty-fivers determined to climb down by ropes, the youngsters had no choice but to follow. No way could they let us be braver.

We went down at least three sets of ropes that were about thirty feet in length each, with Girard going alongside each of us for safety. When we reached the last area to climb down, we discovered the rope was missing. No problem, it was only six feet down from there to level ground and the end of our decent. Right. The first three parts of the climb down were done by facing the rocks and looking at them, not looking down. With no rope here, we had to jump the six feet, into the arms of one of the younger guys who volunteered to catch us. Girard was bumfuzzled because every single student balked before jumping. Why descend rocky areas in thirty foot increments, on a rope, with no problem, no fear, and balk at the last six feet? Because we had to look down for this jump and trust that kid we barely knew to catch us. And if he missed, we were looking at landing nose-first in another huge rock. I'm happy to say we all survived. And impressed the daylights out of the younger students. And our teacher, since we were the first entire class ever to go down with him. Most took the easy trail.

As I said, there were no books for this class. Girard would point out flora or fauna or frogs and we took notes. As weeks progressed, he'd pass something and shout out a question. I could quickly identify most of the plants but the frogs were a bit of a problem for me. I nearly always wound up down on all fours, checking out the frog, while the other students stepped over or around me, calling out the answer before I could even think. Sigh. But I can still identify a tree frog or a leopard frog. I'm a fan. I think they're cute. Hopefully they feel the same about me.

Since there were no books, tests were done midway through the course and at the end with slides. We had to identify each slide. I only missed one. Red honeysuckle. Who knew honeysuckle came in two colors? Still, I pulled an A out of the class. Not bad for someone on the wrong side of forty-five.

We hiked many of the beautiful trails in southern Illinois. We learned a lot about flora, fauna, and frogs. We also canoed Cashe River. And we hiked to a place where snakes cross at certain times of the year. LOTS of snakes. That time our prayers were answered. None were home. Whew.

As I said, I enjoyed this class more than any I've ever taken. And it taught me a lot about the area I'd recently moved to. Things I should have learned in an indoor biology class and didn't. Nothing like hands on, is there? Well, except for the snakes.

If you ever have a chance, take a class like this. Hike your area. Learn about the area that surrounds you. Have fun, but watch out for the snakes.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The End" Is Just the Beginning, Part IV of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Elizabeth Zelvin & Sharon Wildwind

What have you learned about writing since your first book was published?

Sharon: Old habits die hard.

The word “the” should not make up 33% of an entire chapter.

Remove every qualifier (just, almost, nearly, possibly, etc) as a matter of course. Occasionally, you may replace one, but only one, and that’s usually in dialog because it reflects how a character speaks.

There are words for which I lack a gene to spell correctly, ever, under any circumstances.

There’s not enough time or space in my life for people who are rude or stupid when they critique.

If more than one person says something is clunky or doesn’t read right, fix that part, no matter how much you adore it the way it is.

One of the great joys of writing it to pick up a terrific book, say to myself, “I’ve read this before,” but know that can’t be true because it’s just been published, and then realize that I read it in manuscript form. To know I was there at the beginning, before the story went public, is a gift.

Liz: With each book, I internalize more of what I’ve heard about writing fiction since I started talking with—and listening to—other mystery writers. The kind of editing I learned at my mother’s knee is essential to a clean manuscript that reads smoothly. But fiction writing—characterization, plotting, pace, “showing, not telling,” dialogue, backstory, point of view—is a whole different skill set. Crafting a mystery novel is different from crafting a short story. I hardly ever read short stories, and certainly never dreamed I’d write them, until a couple of years ago. It’s not a matter of deliberately following rules to construct these elements of the mystery. I think the information about what’s needed gets assimilated gradually and then bubbles up—either in a new intuitive ability, say, to stick to a point of view or pace an action scene—or in a new ability to see what’s wrong and fix it when you read it over.

What aspect of your craft as a writer are you most proud of?

Sharon: That little click I get in my brain when I know that a heart-breaking scene is right. What makes it even sweeter is when someone later says, “I cried when I read that scene.”

Liz: In my mystery series, I’m very proud of my protagonist Bruce’s voice. I didn’t know if I could create a male character in the first person and make him real, smart, funny, and vulnerable—and nothing like me. To me, going beyond the autobiographical is the hallmark of professionalism in a fiction writer. I’m thrilled that reader feedback indicates I’ve pulled it off.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

Liz: The first draft of a novel is a nightmare. I’m telling myself the story, creating a world or community and characters to populate it, and I’m never sure I’ll make it through to the end until I’ve done it. And then I have dreadful doubts about whether I can do it again. It’s a little comforting that I’ve heard highly successful and prolific writers say the same is true for them. Revision is a breeze in comparison—and at that point, I have trusted critiquers to share the burden.

Sharon: It’s like this quote from the mystery writer, Claudia McCants: “What gets in my way when I'm writing? I think the question really is, What doesn't?” On any given day, anything, even things I’ve previously done easily, can be the worst chore in the world. Writing is a matter of keeping your courage up enough to write every day, even when you are convinced that you should have taken up any other occupation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reality: What a Concept!

Sandra Parshall

In a column in the July 13 issue of Publishers Weekly, children’s book author Peter Mandel deplores the current emphasis on getting the facts correct in fiction. He doesn’t understand why anyone cares whether the hair styles, clothing, and settings in the John Adams miniseries or in Mad Men accurately reflect the eras in which the dramas are set. He has personally received complaints that his new children’s picture book “wasn’t fully researched” and that one character was unfairly portrayed.

Oh, Mr. Mandel, you should come on over to the world of crime fiction if you want to witness a true mania for getting the details right. An entire branch of reference book publishing is devoted to guides for writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Behind me as I type this are bookshelves loaded down with such titles as The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, How to Try a Murder, Cause of Death, Bones, The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, Hidden Evidence, Corpse, Crime Scene, Death Investigator’s Handbook, Howdunit, Deadly Doses, Crime Classification Manual, The Criminal Law Handbook... Well, you get the point. I have at least 100 books covering various aspects of crime, police work, criminal thinking and behavior, and the workings of the US legal system, and I still have to go online sometimes to find answers to vexing questions.

Online sources of information are even more numerous than the books on my shelves. The Crime Scene Writers list on Yahoo and Dr. Doug Lyle’s blog and website are among the most popular internet sources for those of us who dream up ways to commit murder and get away with it for 300 pages or so. The national Sisters in Crime listserv has a feature called Mentor Monday that allows members all-day access to experts in various fields.

Why do we bother, if as Mr. Mandel contends in PW, the purpose of fiction is to divert and entertain us, to take us to an alternate reality, not to painstakingly recreate reality itself? Why are so many readers unable to enjoy a mystery if it gets a single fact wrong, and why do writers themselves jeer at CSI and Without a Trace for being more fantasy than reality? (Five-minute DNA tests? Don’t we wish! Thirty-second fingerprint matching done entirely by computer? Ha! We all know it takes hours, days, even a week, and a human, not a machine, must make the final match. The FBI rushing to launch a search when some guy doesn’t come home for dinner? Give me a break!)

The blame for our make-it-real mania may rest with the medium through which you are reading these words. Anybody with a computer and an internet connection can find out almost anything these days, verify any statement or prove it false. Readers who spotted bloopers have never hesitated to point them out to the authors, but those knowledgeable readers were once far fewer – and they sent their complaints on paper through the mail.

I don’t think our educational system is such a grand success these days that every student emerges with encyclopedic knowledge of the world – quite the contrary, unfortunately. And I don’t think television has enlightened anyone. After all, TV is what gives us those ridiculous scenarios on CSI and Without a Trace. Newspapers are teetering on the brink of extinction. So where are ordinary people picking up knowledge about crime and crime-solving? The same place I go for it, apparently – the internet. And once in possession of proof that an author has erred, the reader (chortling with vengeful delight, I’m sure) immediately taps out a withering digital letter to the writer and hits Send.

But am I complaining? No. I am one of those readers who demand accuracy. I don’t point out mistakes to authors because I’m a crime fiction writer too and the last thing I want to do is embarrass another of my species. I take notice, though, and I remember. And I remind myself yet again to check my facts when I’m writing.

To get back to Mr. Mandel’s “So what?” question about the effect of inaccuracies in fiction, I can only answer for myself, but I suspect my attitude is shared by many. I don’t choose accuracy over good writing and entertainment. I want accuracy and good writing and an entertaining story. I can find CSI entertaining as is, but I believe it would be more enjoyable if I weren’t rolling my eyes in disbelief every few minutes. I won’t throw a mystery novel against a wall if the author gets a fact wrong, and I can suspend disbelief and enjoy an amateur sleuth story, but the more realistic the novel is, the more I enjoy it. This is probably why I prefer the darker stuff. Murder is evil. Don’t try to make me believe it isn’t.

I’m also put off by inaccuracy in science fiction. I love Star Trek, and because it’s set in the future, I can accept whatever is presented. Who am I to say whether this or that amazing feat will or won’t be possible in a couple hundred years? Did Ben Franklin ever imagine such a thing as a computer, let alone the internet? The distant future no doubt holds technological wonders we can’t even dream of now. But SF stories set in the near future, in a universe that looks pretty much like the current one, have to be plausible or I’ll lose interest. (Egregious example: the new movie Moon. Don’t get me started.)

Returning to crime fiction, the genre in which I read most often, accurate facts don’t intrude on my reading experience or distract me from the story. They provide a solid foundation for the story, they make me trust the author. So my message to other writers is simply this: Get the facts straight while telling me a good story and I will happily follow you deep into your book’s fictional world.

How do you feel about factual errors in novels? Do you think the demand for accuracy is a good thing or a bad thing?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“The End” Is Just the Beginning, Part III of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Sharon Wildwind & Elizabeth Zelvin

What has been your experience with critique groups and critique partners?

Sharon: I could write a book on this. Horrible. Really bad. Great. Life-altering wonderful.

The horrible ones are the people who rewrite my story instead of telling me their reactions to it, or the ones who expect pages and pages of critique from everyone in the critique group, but never get around to doing a critique themselves. “I didn’t have time to read anyone’s work, so I made cookies instead.” The really bad are the ones with fixed rules and a condescending attitude. “Really now, dear, anyone past the fourth grade knows that you must use a comma to set off an introductory participle or infinitive phrase unless it immediately preceded, and forms part of, the verb.” Or they focus on some small detail, like the difference between American and Canadian spelling, but never make a single comment about the story itself.

The great ones—where the majority of people I’ve dealt with fall—know that critique is just one step in the process and that, as they say in the car commercials, your mileage might differ. They give a no-holes-barred view of how the material affected them as a reader, and why it affected them that way. They make suggestions and ask questions rather than giving fixed rules. “Between you and me, Chapter 2 could be better. Laurel playing with her hair is driving me to distraction. I wanted to slap her hand and tell her to pay attention to what Jonas was saying. In fact, what would happen if Jonas did slap her hand?”

The life-altering wonderful critique partnership—we need so many more of these—is like that ying-yang symbol. Each partner is ahead of the game in some areas and needs help in the areas where her partner is ahead of the game. Each partner treats the other with respect and humor. I read a wonderful line in a parenting book, “I love you just the way you are, and I love you too much to let you stay that way.”

Liz: I had one successful critique group experience back in the 1970s, when I first wrote poetry. It was a leaderless group of fine poets who were very good at constructive criticism. None of us had a book at that time, but I eventually published two books of poetry with a good small press, and one of the group is now a major poet whose name has become a household word.

I wanted very much to find a mystery critique group, but the online group I joined included an elderly lady who found my subject matter (recovery from alcoholism) “sordid,” so I didn’t last long there. I will add that one of my cherished critique partners and mystery-writer friends is someone I met in that group. As I have come to know many, many fellow mystery writers through networking in MWA and Sisters in Crime, online, and at conferences, I have found a few writers like Sharon whose opinion I respect enormously and who are kind enough to take the time to read and comment on in-progress versions of my novels.

Coming on Thursday July 16: Part IV, on the published writer’s craft

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Unsinkable Charles De Gaulle

by Julia Buckley
Last night we watched The Day of the Jackal, the 1973 movie based on Frederick Forsythe's novel in which an assassin (the Jackal) is hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle.

I remember watching this movie as a youngster and feeling unbearable suspense, wondering if the Jackal (who happened to be a handsome, ascot-wearing Englishman with a jaunty walk and impeccable style) would be caught before he could do his heinous work. Since I really didn't understand which side was which, I was of course rooting for the Jackal.

These days I am more interested in the political machinations on both sides. De Gaulle was a frequent target for assassinations because, for one thing, he favored independence for French Algeria. A variety of sources suggest that there were at least thirty attempts made on De Gaulle's life, and that De Gaulle had a surprisingly cavalier attitude about them.

In one 1962 attempt, which is portrayed at the beginning of Jackal, "gunmen attacked a motorcade carrying De Gaulle and his wife. De Gaulle's car was raked with gunfire; tires were punctured and the rear window shattered, but the de Gaulles were unhurt. After the car had rolled safely to a stop, de Gaulle climbed out and made the famous remark, "They really are bad shots." (Source:Almost Assassinated;

A previous attempt to kill De Gaulle occurred in 1961 in the Pont-Sur-Seine District, in which plastic explosives were stuffed into a propane container and hidden in a sandpile. According to this source, "De Gaulle's car (a Citroen Deesse) sped toward the sandpile at 70 mph, driven by his favorite chauffeur, Francis Marroux. As it came abreast, the sand exploded, causing the Deesse to lurch sharply and throwing a sheet of flame across the roadway.

De Gaulle ordered Marroux to drive straight through the flames. "Faster!" he commanded, as the car plunged straight for the inferno. "Faster!"

Neither the De Gaulles nor Marroux was hurt. They continued on their way, merely stopping to change cars at a military barracks nearby."

A 1973 TIME Magazine article referenced both the Forsythe novel and the attempts on De Gaulle, and pointed out that one of the reasons why so many of the plots failed is that so many of them were stupid.

"One zany plot called for poisoning the Communion Hosts at the village church in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where De Gaulle attended Mass. The idea was discarded after the plotters realized that the first person to receive a Host would keel over dead and give the scheme away. And there was no way to guarantee that De Gaulle would be first at the Communion rail.

Equally harebrained was a scheme for a kamikaze pilot to crash a small private plane into the French President's helicopter. While circling over Algeria's Blida Airport in anticipation of De Gaulle's departure, the pilot was dismayed to see that a swarm of helicopters had taken off at once. There was no way of knowing which one De Gaulle was in (French security forces routinely used dummy planes and juggled limousines as a precaution)." (link to this Time article from 1973).

Ironically, Charles De Gaulle did not die by any sort of violence; he died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 79. He was sitting in a chair in his own living room, watching television.

By his request, he received no promotions or commendations after his death, and his tombstone bears only his name and the dates of his birth and death.