Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Karen Dionne: From Freezing to Boiling

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

After reading her first environmental thrille
r, a harrowing tale called Freezing Point that takes place in Antarctica, David Morrell declared, “Karen Dionne is the new Michael Crichton.” Unlike Crichton, though, she came to a writing career not by way of science or medical training but through a personal attachment to the environment.

A Detroit native, Karen dropped out of the University of Michigan in the 1970s and moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with her husband and infant daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement. For the next thirty years she expressed her creative side by making stained glass, weaving, and constructing N-scale model train layouts. Eventually she returned to writing, an interest in her teens, and sold short stories to a number of magazines. She worked as Senior Fiction Editor for NFG, a print literary journal, before founding Backspace, an Internet-based writers organization with over 900 members in a dozen countries. Karen and her husband now live in Detroit’s northern suburbs.

Freezing Point was published in September, 2008. Karen’s second book, Boiling Point, is scheduled for publication in 2010.

Q. You’ll be going from cold to hot with your second novel, Boiling Point. Will some of the characters from Freezing Point return?

A. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to write another environmental thriller for Berkley. Boiling Point is about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming. It’s both a stand-alone and a follow-up book, since it brings back two of Freezing Point’s secondary characters and gives them a more major role. Both were deeply affected by the calamitous events that took place in Freezing Point, and because of that, the new story spins off into an entirely new direction. I think Freezing Point’s readers
will enjoy the new book, but those who haven’t read Freezing Point should too, since the problems Boiling Point explores regarding what should be done about global warming are both current and universal.

Q. Science thrillers are usually male territory. When you were marketing Freezing Point, was there any resistance from editors because you’re a woman? Did you feel comfortable in the thriller community from the beginning?

A. I can honestly say I’ve never felt any bias from the thriller community because of my gender. I did wonder before I sold my first novel if my future publisher might suggest I publish under a different name in order to disguise the fact that I’m a woman. But the subject never came up. And now that I’m published, as far as I can tell, my readers seem to be evenly split between men and women.

Q. You’re not a scientist and don’t have an education in any scientific field. Why did you choose
to write about science and the moral dilemmas of scientists?

A. I think all writers are drawn to the subjects that interest them most. I’ve always loved science, particularly anything to do with the natural world. I ended up choosing a different career path than pursuing a university degree, so now, I get my science fix by writing thrillers with a scientific bent. Not only do I get to learn more about the subjects that fascinate me, I can people my novels with engineers and experts and every sort of -ologist and live vicariously through them.

Q. Do you have advisors who help you make sure the science is accurate and your scenarios are plausible? How did you find them? What advice would you give to unpublished writers who may be hesitant to approach experts for help?

A. I’d be lost without my experts. For Freezing Point, I consulted with microwave scientists, explosives experts, and medical experts in the fields that are touched on in the book. More recently, while researching my new novel, I found a professor who’s an expert on South American volcanos after I read an article in which he was quoted. I went to his university’s website, found his email address, and sent him a short note explaining who I was and asking if he had time for a few questions. That conversation eventually led to a completely new plot point for Boiling Point which promises to be very exciting. Without his input, I doubt I would ever have discovered it on my own.

All of the experts I’ve talked to have been accessible and eager to help, and I know I’m not alone in my experience. I think the best way to approach experts is to begin with a brief email and a few questions, and after that, if the expert is inclined and has the time, you can ask more. And don’t forget to keep good records of who you’ve talked to so you can thank them later in your acknowledgments!

Q. Not only is Freezing Point an exciting, suspenseful story (with one of the most nerve-wracking openings I’ve ever read), it’s also beautifully written. Would you say that your style came naturally and easily, or have you worked to refine it? What authors, if any, have influenced your writing style?

A. Thanks so much for the kind words. My writing style did not come easily to me, and it was probably a good year before I stumbled into it. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but when I first began writing, I made the common new-writer mistake of trying to sound “writerly” rather than letting my personality come through. Now, my writing style comes naturally to me, because it is me -- a slightly wry, slightly snarky, slightly self-deprecating tone that’s very similar to my everyday conversation. I also love puns and word play, and can’t resist sneaking a little of that into my characters’ observations. Now when I find myself struggling with a sentence or a scene and the words just won’t flow, I know it’s because I need to stop trying so hard, and just have fun.

That said, I do spend a lot of time crafting individual sentences. I care very much about the musicality of my work -- whether the rhythm of a sentence requires a one- or two-syllable adjective; whether a sentence ends on a hard or soft note. I have a classical music background, and this is probably why very often, before I even know what I’m going to say, I hear the rhythms of the sentences in my head.

Q. You have said that you didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer, that you never had a “passion to write” or felt it was something you had to do. How did you end up becoming a writer? And now that you’ve sold two books, have you developed a passion for it? Do you feel more of a compulsion to go on writing now?

A. I won writing awards when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until ten years ago when I was encouraging my son to enter the same contests I had that I started thinking, “What about me? I used to be a pretty good writer.” I had an idea for a novel that had been kicking around for some time, so I sat down to write it. Ultimately, that book didn’t sell, but it did get me my wonderful agent.

After having come so close and learning so much from my first attempt, I couldn’t imagine not trying again. Even though it’s been a year since Freezing Point was published, I still feel tremendously lucky that it found a home. Writing fiction is now such a big part of my life, I can’t imagine not doing it.

Q. What aspect of craft gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction? Which has been most difficult for you to master?

A. I love those moments when everything clicks; when I’ve found the perfect words to express exactly what I want to say, whether I had to dig them out of my subconscious, or they popped into my head on their own. I also love the process of taking imaginary characters and making them real.

The most difficult aspect of novel writing for me is tension and pace. There’s a real art to knowing how much to reveal and when, and that’s something I’m constantly working on.

Q. You’ve described your writing process as “excruciatingly” slow. How long does it take you to write a book? How much of what you write do you discard before you’re finished? Do you think you’ll ever be a book-a-year author?

A. I’ve always considered myself a slow writer, though I wrote Freezing Point in about a year, which really isn’t all that long. Boiling Point sold on spec, and my publisher has given me a year to finish that novel as well.

I think it’s not so much the length of time it takes me to write a novel that makes it seem slow as it is the process. I’m cursed with one of those ruthless internal editors, so I tend to obsess over every sentence, paragraph, and scene far too many times before I’m satisfied and can move on. But now that I’m writing to a deadline, I’m learning to pick up the pace. It’s not that the words aren’t there, or that I lack ideas, it’s a matter of discipline.

Q. How much of your time do you spend on research and consultation with experts, and how much on writing?

A. I know authors who spend months researching their novels before they begin writing. I’m not that way. I think it’s because I have a short attention span, and also because at heart, I’m lazy. I do just enough research at the outset to get a sense for where the story’s going, and then I dive in, augmenting the writing with more research on a “need to know” basis.

Q. Do you read other people’s crime novels while you’re working on your own? Who are some current authors whose work impresses you?

A. I read 3 or 4 thrillers a week, whether I’m writing or not. I think once an author is secure in their own writing style, they can read others’ work without the risk of being unduly influenced. I love getting caught up in another author’s story -- it’s a chance to get out of my own head for a while and experience something new. Occasionally, my analytical side comes to the fore, and I catch myself wondering about the mechanics of how the author has managed to engage me so thoroughly, but for the most part, I’m reading for pleasure. Some of my favorite authors are Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey, Tom Rob Smith, Sebasian Fitzek, Tana French, Laura Lippman, Jeffery Deaver, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Barry Eisler, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coban, David Baldacci, Brad Meltzer, Lee Child, and Joseph Finder. I also read several Booker or Pulitzer Prize winners each year. I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

Q. You had a unique launch party for Freezing Point – an online party. For those who didn’t have a chance to see what you did, would you describe the way it worked? Did you set up a web site for it? What kinds of content did you display? Does the “party” still exist in cyberspace so we can take a look? Do you plan to do the same for your second book?

A. I got the idea for an online book launch when I realized that no matter where I held a real-world party, only a few of my friends would be able to come. So I set up a special website ( and with help from a dozen thriller authors, I threw an online book launch where family, friends, and fans could mingle and win prizes – and catch the buzz about my novel in the process.

Entertainment included video welcomes from my agent and from the bestselling thriller authors who had given me blurbs, a reading by a professional voice actress who’s also a New York Times author, a compilation clip with four authors who write series characters answering the question “Would Your Character Read Freezing Point?” and a clip from a thriller author who’s also a medical doctor discussing the science behind my story’s premise. Naturally, there were door prizes and a guest book, and two independent booksellers made signed copies available for purchase.

The video endorsements from best-selling thriller authors turned out to be an unexpected bonus. When I asked the folks who’d given me blurbs to record a video or audio contribution for my party website, I was thinking strictly in terms of entertainment. What I didn’t realize until I saw the first video clip was how powerful these would be. Seeing and hearing Douglas Preston tell readers how much he enjoyed my novel and that he looks forward to seeing it on the New York Times list is the Internet equivalent of a 45-second television commercial. As one visitor wrote: “Swanky party! What a great concept. And with all these top names shilling for you who can resist? I'm picking up my copy today.” I can easily imagine authors putting similar audio and video endorsements on their regular websites. They’re certainly easier and cheaper to produce than a book trailer, and quite possibly, more effective.

All in all, the party was a great success. In three days, the website saw 2,700 visitors, and over 400 people posted comments in the guest book. I’m not sure if I’ll hold another online launch for Boiling Point, or if I’ll try something new. At this point, I still have a year to figure it out!

Q. You co-founded the writers’ site Backspace before you published a novel, didn’t you? How did you go about recruiting members? How does it differ from the online discussion groups offered by Sisters in Crime, MWA, and ITW?

A. Backspace began five years ago with a core group of highly motivated and talented writers who were serious about learning all they could about the business and helping one another succeed. Since that time, 47 of the original 110 members have been published — most by major publishers, several more than once, and six are now New York Times bestselling authors.

We’ve actually never gone out looking for members -- on the Internet, if you have something of value, the word spreads all on its own. From the beginning, the high quality of the discussions attracted other like-minded writers, and from there, the ball just kept on rolling. Backspace currently has over 1,100 members who write in all genres, and are at all stages of their careers. The common theme in all of our activities is “writers helping writers,” which we accomplish by means of the discussion forums, our main website ( and the conferences we hold in New York City every year. (

Writer’s Digest Magazine recently featured Backspace in their October issue, so folks who are interested in learning more can pick up a copy, or read the extended interview at Writer’s Digest’s website.

Q. How is your personal life different now that you’re a published, and successful, author? Do your family, friends, and neighbors treat you any differently?

A. My family and friends are terrific. I don’t think they treat me any differently now that I’m published than they did before, which is as it should be if you think about it, since career success shouldn’t change who a person is. That said, I’m definitely busier! In addition to my writing and my work with Backspace, I’m also deeply involved with the International Thriller Writers organization. Last year, I served as the ITW Debut Authors Committee chair, and I’m currently assisting the ITW website manager. Both of these activities take a big chunk out of my writing time, but I’ve been helped so much by others on the road to publication, I get a great deal of satisfaction from paying it forward.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are still struggling to break into print?

A. There are three things an aspiring writer needs to get published: talent, patience, and perseverance. A writer might have talent, but lack the patience to learn both the business and the craft and reach the level they need to succeed. Getting published can be a long and frustrating process, and sometimes authors who might otherwise have made it get discouraged and give up. But if you have talent, and you’re willing to learn, and you hang onto your writing goals for however long it takes to achieve them, odds are good that eventually, you’ll break in.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Merit Badges Four

Sharon Wildwind

Today we conclude our summer series of merit badges for writers.

Writers of a Certain Age

This one is for writers who have been around a while. Who began their writing careers writing in longhand or using a manual typewriter. Who remember the smell of mimeograph ink and the way it turned fingers purple. Who erased on carbon copies with a small brass stencil and a crumbly erasing pencil, which had a white eraser on one end and a stiff blue brush on the other end.Who can remember sending an SASE with their submissions and getting International Reply Coupons if their submission was going to another country. Who had to look up words on a dictionary and bits of data by going down to the library in person.

We’ve been around for a long time and this badge celebrates our persistence! You go, girls and guys!

Writers of the Purple Page

Award this badge to yourself if you’ve ever written—well, let’s just say anything involving parts of the body or clothing, which throbbed, heaved, ripped, or enlarged, or characters blessed with milk-white skin and raven locks. If you’ve ever written anything that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. If you’ve ever written under your burlesque name.

Burlesque, for those of you who don’t yet qualify for the Writers of a Certain Age badge, was a form of entertainment popular in Britain and the United States from approximately 1880 to 1920. It involved ribald humor and dances that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. The women who danced in burlesque theaters worked under pseudonyms, sort of nom-de-danse names.

To find your own burlesque name, take the name of your first pet combined with the street you lived on when you were ten years old. My burlesque name is Blackie Freemont, which has a nice ring to it. I may name a character that one day.

Of course, this formula doesn’t always work, especially if you lived on a numbered instead of a named street. In that case, try this alternate formula: combine an object that is either sweet or has a lovely odor with the name of a bird. Rose Nightengale? Robin Cinnamon? Hey, those beat out Bowser 68th Avenue.

What better symbol for writers of the purple page than a Mardi Gras mask? As they say where I come from, Laissez les bon temps roulier—Let the good times roll. If you're a little hesitant about going public with having written purple prose, you have my permission to keep this badge in a drawer instead of displaying it on your badge sash.

Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

I don’t have to explain this one. Those of you who have earned know who you are. Even though your contributions are hugely appreciated it's okay to stop volunteering! Why not spend the next few months at your word processor instead? A new novel is a good thing, too.

You can’t burn the candle at both ends forever.

I hope everyone has a lovely fall.
Writing quote of the week:

I love myself when I am laughing.
~Zora Neale Hurston, American novelist (1903-1960)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ed Sullivan and Nostalgic TV

Today is the birthdate of the late Ed Sullivan, who was born in 1901. If I ever mention Sullivan to my students, they don't know who he is (except some who had a part in Bye, Bye, Birdie, which references Sullivan in a song). And really, there's no reason they should know him--he died way back in 1974. There's no reason why they should understand the impact that Sullivan had on tv, and on the careers of many people who appeared on his show.

Sullivan himself was not talented; his tv persona was stiff and awkward. He had started out as a gossip columnist who somehow took hold and segued into television, and The Ed Sullivan Show lasted from 1948 to 1971. Sullivan had found his niche, and even if people don't reminisce about him, they remember some famous moments on his show.

Here are some significant musical moments:

I also tried to get the plate spinner, Erich Brenn, but there was a commercial embedded into his clip--you can see it on You Tube. It's still pretty remarkable after all this time.

How many of you witnessed the events above on the Ed Sullivan Show? What was your favorite Sullivan moment?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Character for A Day: Which sleuth would you be?

L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)


We’ve all had fantasies of living someone else’s life for a day or a week. And it’s safe to assume most of us would want to step into the shoes of someone rich, famous, talented, adventurous, and/or beautiful. But what if your dream day was limited to a character in a crime novel? Someone posted a similar question on the Dorothy L list recently, and it made me think about the various lifestyles of fictional investigators. There are many intriguing options: Jack Reacher with just his toothbrush and no responsibilities, Stephanie Plum with her choice of good-looking lovers, or Lucas Davenport with his pile of money and high-ranking detective job.

But after a little thought, I quickly chose Archy, the investigator (of sorts) in the McNally series (McNally’s Caper, McNally’s secret…), written by Lawrence Sanders—my all time favorite writer—then continued by Vincent Lardo. Why Archy McNally? No person, real or fictionalized, seems to enjoy himself as much. In fact, he’s totally spoiled, a condition I’ve never experienced, but would love to, if only for an imaginary day.

Archy lives with his parents on a five-acre estate in South Florida, quite near the ocean where he swims every day. They have a live in-cook who makes exquisite meals, often on demand. A typical breakfast is “duck pate on toasted bagel.” Archy drives a red Mazda Miata and works for his father’s law firm as an investigator. But his assignments are infrequent and he spends his days playing tennis, having lunch at the local Pelican Club (of which he’s part owner), drinking vodka tonics, and sleeping with beautiful members of the opposite sex, who often give him expensive gifts such as gold lighters and cashmere pullovers.
He worries about nothing (including calories or liver disease) and has almost no responsibilities. Here’s a typical Archy sentiment: “As I headed up the coast in my sparky chariot, I felt such a sense of joie de vivre that I broke into song.” Archy describes himself as “an amiable, sunnily tempered chap” who “sees no need to concern myself with disasters that may never happen.”

Archy occasionally takes on an inquiry, but it’s nothing like my poor homicide detective who, during a case, works round the clock and lives on coffee and pizza while he stares at phone records and digs through trashcans. In Archy’s world, an investigation involves a little snooping around (more fun), attending rich people’s parties, eating exquisite meals that end with “warm New Orleans pralines and chilled Krug,” and getting involved with suspects, i.e., “sexual romps where realization exceeds expectation.” Archibald McNally truly lives a life of carefree pleasure and self-indulgence, and I think I could handle that for a day.

What about you? If you could live the life of a character in a crime novel for just one day, who would it be and why? Everyone who comments will be entered into a random drawing to win a free copy of Secrets to Die For, the just-released second installment in the Detective Wade Jackson series. (My single-father, sober, worried character doesn’t know what he’s missing.)

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and her second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, has just been released.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bonding with Buffalo, Butterflies, and the occasional Bear . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Recently we traveled to Yellowstone National Park with our oldest son and his wife. Our youngest son met us there and we spent a week seeing the wonders of Yellowstone. We passed the Tetons (picture on left) on the way in, and we were impressed with the beauty of those mountains as well. And the snow still decorating the highest peaks.

From Monday to Monday we spent each day seeing a different part of the park. Yellowstone, by the way, was the first area to be declared a national park in the entire world. If you haven't been there, you don't know what you're missing.

Right off the bat I fell in love with the buffalo, whether a herd or the occasional loner. At first I worried about the loners until I bought and read a book about their habits and learned that the males like to wander off on their own, and it wasn't necessary for me to fear that they'd gotten themselves lost from the rest of the family. After that I was able to relax and enjoy watching them.

What I really loved about the loners was the sight, here and there, of a two-ton male, head lowered, focused on his mission, marching down the highway (usually against traffic) never distracted from his journey either by the other wildlife or humans (like me) snapping pictures and admiring his bulk from the safety of the car. I envy that kind of focus.

Buffalo might look a bit dumb, but they aren't. A lone buffalo can hold up traffic for great distances (because who wants to pass one and risk having their car gouged or bumped by something that large?) They can run faster than humans, at thirty-two MPH, which is why park rangers will warn you quite severely not to approach them. And they aren't afraid of anything. Even a coyote or wolf wandering through the herd doesn't seem to upset them.

It was rutting season when we were there, so when gathered into a herd, the buffalo communicated with loud grunting noises, which I can easily imitate for you, should you . . . no? Oh. Okay, never mind. And they fight with each other. THAT was quite a site. And they can be silly, rolling around in the dirt, casting huge billows of dust into the air. And did I mention that one evening as we were leaving our campsite, we spotted three buffalo wandering through the campground? It's not a place you can aimlessly walk, you have to be aware.

The really young buffalo are brown and look like a lost calf from a beef herd, but within a year or so they turn black and begin to grow the hump and the dark hair. Mostly we were able to tell the females from the males only because the females often had a youngster tagging along.

The sight of several hundred buffalo swimming across a river and crossing the nearby highway to reach better grazing is something I won't soon forget.

We didn't see a lot of butterflies while there, even though the wildflowers were still blooming in much of the park, so much so that I nearly filled my memory stick with pictures of the different blooms. But one butterfly landed on my hand while I was leaning on the car. I was so surprised I missed getting his picture, but I *think* it was a Zebra Swallowtail. Don't hold me to that, I haven't had time to look him or her up.

As to the bears, everyone who passes through Yellowstone wants to see a bear, but now that humans aren't allowed to feed the bears, sightings are quite rare. We got lucky on day one, and only then. After that we didn't see any bears, though we kept our eyes peeled every time we were in the car. Our youngest son saw one on his way home, but we left by a different park entrance. Sigh. Anyhow, on our first real day in the park, at sunset, we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road. We inquired and discovered that a grizzly had been spotted. We soon saw him down the hill from us, moseying along. While we were parked there he crossed the road to our side, ate his way through the resident wildflowers until he was just a few feet from our car, right beside us. Flashes from cameras went off everywhere, but the bear behaved as if no one was around, casually munching through the flowers.

The geysers at Yellowstone are amazing. Old Faithful was pretty, but there is another, Grand Geyser that only erupts every 14-17 hours and we happened to be there at the right time. It was like watching white fireworks, so high and so amazing that people cheered while it went off. And people waited for over two hours to see it. Our wait was only about thirty minutes. Besides the geysers there are pools that are bright blue and so deep you can't see the bottom, and the water is far too hot to touch. Amazing sights.

Besides the buffalo, my other favorite was the wildflowers. In one spot, high on a mountain the entire side of one hill was covered with yellow blooms. And this was at the end of the blooming season!

There is a huge lake and lots of waterfalls in Yellowstone, some a short walking distance, others quite far. Our oldest son, having spent more time in Yellowstone than we had, was our guide, and he hiked the daylights out of us each day.

One last thought . . . we heard far more words in foreign languages than we did in English. Lots of folks from foreign countries enjoying one of America's most beautiful destinations. With the economy like it is, I'm hoping more Americans will choose to tour our wonderful country instead of traveling overseas, and trust me, Yellowstone should be top of the to-see list. Followed closely by the Grand Canyon. The Black Hills were beautiful, and Devil's Tower, but nothing holds a candle to Yellowstone. If you have a chance, visit there. But you might want to board your pets with someone, it's not always a good place for them. And use caution taking small children to the geysers and the hot pools.

Have fun, and say hello to the buffalo for me. As we were leaving the park the last day, several buffalo lined up at the exit to our campground to say goodbye. It's nice to know their mothers raised them to have such good manners. I hope they don't miss me too much.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the panels I participated in at Killer Nashville in August was on building buzz about our mysteries. I shared the podium with publicist Tom Robinson, and Chester Campbell moderated. Chester’s the guy whose ace-in-the-hole promotional tool is his wife Sarah, who stands in the bookstore doorway asking people if they read mysteries. They’re my role models, both of them, since I have to be both author and author’s wife in these situations. (My husband said he’d rather die than accost strangers in bookstores. Maybe when he's 80 he'll feel differently.)

As the panel proceeded, it became apparent that there are, in fact, two kinds of buzz—the kind a publicist can provide, and the kind you have to do yourself. One that Tom demonstrated by “show, don’t tell” was frequent repetition of his clients’ names. One of them was in the room, and I suspect people who attended (or who get the tape) will be more likely to remember her name than mine. He did it very smoothly too, talking about steps this author had taken to get her name out and how he helped her do that. The impact was very different from an author saying, “I...I...I...,” which can quickly become BSP (blatant self-promotion) that may work against the author. The publicist can get a hearing in some places where an author may be ignored: radio and tv stations, newspapers and magazines, for instance.

I do work with a publicist, PJ Nunn of BreakThrough Promotions, and she does these things. But the kind of buzz I talked about is the inside job that only the author can do: putting ourselves on the map and doing all we can to make sure we stay there. In my case, it was essential, because it took such a long time to get published, and when it finally happened, it was a long stretch until the next book. I had no control over this.

When I joined DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise and MWA (I was already a “pre-published” Sister in Crime), I had just acquired an agent and thought it would happen fast. That was 2003, and my first mystery came out in 2008. So having become visible in mystery lovers’ cyberspace, how did I sustain that presence for five years? By participating actively. I joined in the discussions on DorothyL. Two I remember as great fun were characters we hated (nobody likes Spenser’s girlfriend Susan Silverman or Melrose Plante’s Aunt Agatha) and characters we’d go to bed with (everybody loves Jamie Fraser, Jack Reacher got mixed reviews seeing as how he never washes his underwear, and other contenders ranged from Archie Goodwin to Miles Vorkosigan). I had great fun, and by the time I needed to tell folks about my book, they were already my friends.

I went to conferences, getting comfortable and, again, making friends long before I had a published book to sell. By the time I went to Malice with a brand-new book and to my first Bouchercon six months later, these big conferences had ceased to be overwhelming crowds of strangers and had become lovefests that offered quality time with friends.

So far, I’ve been lucky enough to get on panels, but that’s not the half of it. Here’s an immediate example of the kind of indirect buzz that can fall into your lap if you put yourself out there. After a Killer Nashville panel that I wasn’t on, but attended as a member of the audience, I got into a conversation with another woman about what we’d heard and ended up having lunch with her. She was a total stranger, not published, not an agent or editor or reviewer. We had a good time at lunch—and the next morning, about 15 minutes before my “buzz” panel started, she came up to me and said, “I bragged about you on Facebook last night.” Priceless buzz.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Famous Dead People as Sleuths

Sandra Parshall

Jane Austen takes time off from writing to track down criminals.

Queen Elizabeth I skulks around castles and manor houses in search of conspirators and killers.

Leonardo da Vinci solves crimes in 15th century Italy, assisted by his apprentice Dino, who then records their adventures just as Watson chronicled the exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

Dante Alighieri has turned sleuth, Oscar Wilde pursues killers, Elvis enjoys a bit of detecting now and then. As if she doesn’t have enough to do as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt goes after bad guys. Now Ernest Hemingway is getting into the act.

What’s going on here? Why are so many famous dead people showing up as amateur detectives in mysteries and thrillers? It’s more than a trend. It’s beginning to look like the way to make a mark in crime fiction these days.

So far I’ve resisted reading any of them because I would bring too much personal bias to the experience. I’ve never been a fan of historical fiction about the lives of real people. Even the use of a historical figure as a minor character, as Caleb Carr used Theodore Roosevelt in The Alienist, automatically stirs my resistance. I’d rather read straight history, with an index and a bibliography of sources. I can enjoy dramatizations, but only if they don’t embroider on the historical record. I’ve never forgiven the makers of the otherwise excellent 1971 film Mary Queen of Scots for the scene in which Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) and Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson) had a face-to-face meeting. So you can imagine my reluctance to read a mystery series in which a real historical figure plays amateur sleuth.

I seem to be in the minority, though. Karen Harper’s Elizabeth I series g
ets rave reviews and, aside from the queen’s crime-solving activities, the author is apparently meticulous about the accuracy of period details. Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series has a loyal following. At the end of this month, Barron’s The White Garden will launch a new mystery series with Virginia Woolf as the protagonist. The Oscar Wilde series, written by British broadcaster and former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury Gyles Brandreth, seems to be going strong.

I haven’t read any of these books – yet.

Now, though, I’ve come across a historical mystery featuring a real person that I may not be able to resist: The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, first in a new series about Abigail Adams. At first, I’ll admit, I was aghast. Abigail Adams is one of our most beloved First Ladies, possibly more admired than her husband, President John Adams. She was an intelligent, strong-minded, politically savvy woman, as well as a warm and loving wife and mother. How could any writer turn her into an amateur sleuth? Learning that “Barbara Hamilton” is actually Barbara Hambly, a graceful and insightful author, reassured me that Abigail is in good hands. And Abigail probably did have what it takes to be a good detective. A few sneak peeks into the book told me the writer has captured the roiling and dangerous atmosphere of pre-Revolution America.

I think I’m going to read The Ninth Daughter to find out how Abigail clears John of suspicion of murder. And it may open my mind to many more mysteries featuring historical figures.

Reading the books, however, won’t satisfy my curiosity about the reason why we’re seeing so many of them published. Is this a reflection of our modern celebrity-obsessed society? Do we want even our fictional characters to be genuine famous people, even if their activities in the books are entirely imagined?

Do you read any crime fiction featuring real people as sleuths? What attracts you to them? Do you insist on accurate historical details in the books?

And the big question: What’s next – or, rather, who is next? Ghengis Khan as a private eye on the mean streets of Mongolia? Lucretia Borgia trying to clear herself of murder charges? Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn teaming up to solve a murder that a major studio is trying to keep hidden?

What historical figure would you like to see as a mystery protagonist?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Metaphor or Truth?

Sharon Wildwind

This is going to be the shortest blog on record. I’m up to my eyebrows in deadlines and my brain is fried. Hey, “up to my eyebrows” and "my brain is fried": are metaphors: ways of comparing two things, saying one is the other. Here are two quotes I collected at the World Fantasy Convention last year. I thought both of them were terrific examples of how, as writers, we write one thing and, as times change, the reader gets a completely different meaning.

Anyone got any other examples of where one thing was true when the book was written, but it’s a whole new ball game now?

Homer wrote of a “wine-dark sea,” and for centuries readers took this to be a metaphor. The sea can take you places in the same way that too much wine can take you places. But what if Homer was speaking the truth? Possibly, in Homer’s time
a) the water in the Mediterranean was actually wine-colored.
b) wine was a different color.
c) people’s eyes could not process the color turquoise. There is some evidence in painting to indicate that turquoise became a recognizable color in the 1600 or 1700s.
~Violette Malan, Canadian author

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” That’s the opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. When that book was published in 1984, Gibson was referring to a mixed white-and-gray color, which was what a viewer saw on a dead channel. The metaphor was intended to set the tone for a dis-topian, cyber-punk universe.

As satellite technology developed, the color of a dead channel changed to a bright, electric blue. A reader who grew up after the proliferation of satellite television would see a very different image from what the author originally intended.
~Robert J. Sawyer, Canadian author

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fear of Flying and Other Uncontrollable Phobias

I am a published author, which was a long-standing goal of mine. Now of course the goals simply escalate. I need to publish more books, build a readership, build a reputation, make more money. But what if the big break really happened? What if someone called and said my book was being made into a movie, or a new book had been offered a huge advance, or some other unlikely scenario? And what if, in addition to all that, I was required to get on a plane?

I don't know if I could do it. I've never been on a plane, aside from my babyhood. I've been told all of the rational reasons why this makes me a fool: car accidents are much more common, airplane technology is so advanced, most airlines have very few accidents on record, some have none. Blah blah blah.

My fear of planes isn't about anything rational, although it is about a need for control. Number one, I feel that if I'd prefer not to die in a fiery crash (and I do prefer that) then one way to guarantee it doesn't happen is not to leave the earth. Makes sense to me. Number two, I'm a Capricorn. The Goat. We goats were meant to keep our little hooves on solid ground--it's written in the stars. Number three, I see no logic in placing my trust in a pilot that I don't know. And number four, it only took one glimpse of wreckage floating on the ocean--way back in the seventies--to make me say, "No thanks" to planes. And that was long before September 11 gave me more horrible visuals.

The biggest plane crash that probably affected me in my childhood was Flight 191, which crashed leaving O'Hare. It had severed its main engine on take-off. The impact killed 258 passengers, 13 crew, and two people on the ground. It was May of 1979; I was fifteen years old.

My mother and I read about the crash with horror, especially the sidebar in the Chicago paper that said a writer named Judith Wax (I remember this clearly after thirty years) was killed in the crash, along with her husband Sheldon. That same year Wax had published a book called Starting in the Middle, in which she had written about her fear of flying. Added to that irony was that the passage was on page 191--the number of the ill-fated flight.

I think I may have inherited my fears from my mother. I literally think some fears are implanted in the DNA. My mother never told me to be afraid of water or of planes, but I'm afraid of both, and so is she. I really don't know how she made it here from Germany without having a major panic attack. When we were children and we would walk by some lake or river on a family vacation, my mother would become pale with fear, would nip at our clothing with her fingers, pulling us back from the sides of bridges that had huge safety gates. It didn't matter, and now I feel that same fear with my children. I fear that they have no fear of death, and therefore no built in protection. I also obsessively think of the worst case scenario. What if they fell in to the lake, the river, the deep end of the pool? I can't swim. I can't save them. I have become my mother, and now we worry about the children in tandem.

I can't swim. I took swimming lessons twice, once as a child and once as a young adult. I failed. In my defense, the teachers were terrible both times, but still, this is bad for my own children, who might enjoy water fun if I ever felt like indulging. They've been to the pool with neighbors and friends; they've been in hotel pools. But Mommy doesn't join them.

Naturally, if I were ever forced to get on a plane, I would have to fly over water. Then I'd be forced to confront two fears at once, and I'm not convinced this is a good thing. People who love flying should fly. People who don't, I think, should stay on the ground.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sharon Fiffer (Guest Blogger) on Stuff . . .

. . . and writing and community service.

Not all that long ago, the cozy mystery could be spotted a mile away: cats, tea, quirky characters, a police officer who despaired of getting any work done because of the interfering amateur detective, etc. In the last few years the tradition has changed, but publishers insist on using the same terms. Today Sharon Fiffer, author of the Jane Wheel mystery series talks what it means to be labeled a cozy writer.

How did you become known as a cozy writer?

When St. Martin's bought my first book, I didn't know what a cozy was, was unfamiliar with the term, and my editor told me that "cozy" might be my marketing niche, but my books weren't really that cozy, so I wasn't to worry about it or any label. After that, in every review and on every panel at every convention, I was referred to as a cozy writer. At first, I thought that particular label diminished my books—wasn't I a mystery novelist? Why the categories and why the marginalizing of writers into categories—especially, why was I relegated to "cozy?" Neither I nor Jane Wheel even own a cat! I begged conference planners to mix up the panels (thinking I was the first to think of that!) and wrote a "give-and-take" article for a fan magazine with a noir writer and took every opportunity to explain that I wasn't a cozy, cozy writer.

Then, a few years ago, after a Bouchercon panel, a reader/fan approached me and asked why all the writers she loved spent all their time denying they wrote the very type of books she loved—cozies! And I realized that all this self-loathing, this need to identify myself differently or deny any category was only important to me—not to my readers, not to anyone who loved Jane Wheel and looked forward to her adventures. I could talk until I was blue in the face about Jane's story arc and the novelistic approach I take—rather than the heavy action and break-neck speed—how I long for a sense of place and development of character more than the plot-heavy story—but all of that was only important to me. My readers demand a good story, an honest problem, a sensible solution and a lot of Jane Wheel, her friends, her mother and the stuff which she obsessively gravitates toward.

What is that stuff that Jane gravitates toward?

Bakelite and old photos and old books and depression glass and crocheted potholders, etc. that tell her the stories of peoples' lives, of what people leave behind.

Jane almost swoons for Bakelite. What is it? How do you recognize a really good piece of it?

Bakelite is an early plastic that was invented primarily for use in industry—it was sturdy and didn't melt, so could be used for electrical plugs, etc. It could be colored and carved and it begin to have a second and wildly successful life as dimestore jewelry. Bangles bracelets, pins, some with intricate carving and dangling fruit, dress clips, beads, pendants—all in gorgeous saturated colors. And when metal went to the war effort, I think it got an even greater boost as colorful, cheery decorative pieces.

Production stopped because, as with many beautiful, colorful things (think gummi bears and jujubees) it turns out to be not so good for you. The production of Bakelite was highly polluting. Formaldehyde was used or given off as a by-product—my chemistry is a little weak here—and that very formaldehyde smell is what will reveal a true piece of vintage Bakelite.

Take a piece of what you suspect—a butterscotch bracelet with nice deep carving—and rub the piece between your thumb and forefinger. Does it give off a chemical, formaldehyde smell? If it does, it’s probably Bakelite, particularly if the red, green, or butterscotch piece has a muted, deepening of color. The patina of true, vintage Bakelite makes us all go a little weak in the knees.

I allow Jane Wheel to find it for almost nothing in the books, but I can't afford most of it in real life, except for the way I fell into it years ago. Before everyone was collecting buttons, I would find a big tin at a rummage sale, open the lid and the chemical smell was overwhelming. I'd buy the whole thing for $2 and take it home to sort through, finding all kinds of beautiful Bakelite buttons. I felt like a prospector panning for gold! Alas, those $2 tins of great-grandma's buttons are a distant memory.

Do you still make the rounds of estate sales, garage sales, etc? What's it like to handle possessions that were once a part of people's lives and are now discarded? Do you get immediate vibrations of a story from some items, or do you have to bring the piece home and possess it for a while before it will tell you its story?

I still go to sales, although not quite with the same fervor. I went through a period where, I, like Jane, would go through the classifieds on Thursdays like a pirate might study a treasure map. I would lift out the most desirable ads with scotch tape and then put them on a big sheet of white paper, in a logical driving order, and voila! My own Saturday morning itinerary. I don't do that now, but there are rummage sales I don't miss and I still pull over at the sight of a well stocked yard on a Saturday morning. I even work occasionally for an estate sale company.

A few years ago years ago, I paid for something at a conducted sale with a check, and the cashier asked if I was the one who wrote the books. When I said yes, she took me around and introduced me to everyone and the estate sale company owner, Walter, asked if I wanted to work a sale to see what the other side was like. I did—for research—and was hooked. I try to work a few sales a year with the company.

Prepping a house tells me a million stories. It also reveals secrets: what people hoarded, what they thought should be treasured. I always ask the children/heirs if they know the stories behind certain things. They might not know what I ask them, but they tell me other stories of their house memories and it's always evocative and real.

I've told this story before, but I probably should say it again, as briefly as possible. I wandered into a house sale well over twenty years ago at the end of the day. I had never gone to a "house sale" where the entire estate is being sold off. This was a small nondescript house and it was almost cleaned out. In a back bedroom, I found a box of frames and while looking through them, found wedding pictures. It almost broke my heart. Didn't this couple have anyone who wanted those, who wanted to take them home? Wasn't there a cousin who could stick them in a drawer rather than let strangers paw through them? And to add insult to injury, they were still there at the end of the sale. So, I bought them. I brought them home and began telling my husband and eventually my kids when they asked that yes, they were strangers, but someone had to adopt them. I believe that's when Jane Wheel was born.

As far as specific objects that tell a story, when I was writing The Wrong Stuff, I discovered a small typewriter ribbon tin with great art deco graphics. I felt that it demanded a place on Jane's shelf and then I used her find of a similar tin to help her figure things out. Part of what Jane has naturally—an eye for detail and a love of the objects themselves—is perfect for a detective. Part of what she learns from Detective Oh about listening, observing, allowing yourself to be a part of someone's life so they will tell you things helps develop the other side of her detecting personality.

I can't tell you—well I could, but I won't—how many old wooden recipe boxes I have. Okay, I'll tell you. Fifteen. I always think I'll remove the recipe cards and use them to store my other little things like buttons, industrial safety pins, sewing notions—stuff—but I have never been able to discard any of those recipes and scraps of paper stuffed into those boxes. I love to cook, but I don't save them for the jello recipes and brisket marinades. I save them because they seem like history to me. This is what what one woman prepared for her family, or more likely, wanted to prepare for her family or believed that she would make someday for a Sunday supper or a birthday party. The more margin notes and yellowed newspaper tear-outs, the better. Now those boxes tell me a story. They certainly gave me Lula, an important character from Buried Stuff.

You and your husband wrote a non-fiction book called Fifty Ways To Help Your Community: A Handbook for Change. Tell us about why you feel that communities are essential to bringing about change.

My husband was raised to believe that one should always give back to the community: coach a sport, serve on a community organization, volunteer, etc. I was brought up by parents, the real Don and Nellie, who believed you should work back-breakingly hard, be honest and mind your own business. I was also brought up marginally Catholic, and at Bishop McNamara high school, we all belonged to various service organizations, so some kind of volunteerism was built into my life. When Steve and I got married and had children, we coached, we volunteered in the schools, all the usual things, but we felt something was missing in the example we were giving our children.

Steve is Jewish, I was raised Catholic, but we didn't practice organized religion. We thought we could just raise them to be ethical and humanitarian and spiritual, but a funny thing happened. We realized that all around us, through their churches and clubs, people were trying to help others in a very hands-on way. We talked a good game, but we weren't really doing much beyond the minimum.

This led us to starting a "books and breakfast" program at our children's elementary school. Once we did it, and organized so many families in the school to participate, we realized that if we could take a problem—children coming hungry to school, facing conflicts on the playground before the first bell—and do something about it, there must be many others, all over the country tackling problems in their own neighborhoods. We wanted to profile these problem solvers and offer a blueprint to others who might be able to learn how to tackle similar problems in their own communities. Who knows your problems better? What's the simplest solution? You won't know if you can be effective until you try. Since Steve and I are writers, we chronicle just about everything we do, and my diary of the Books and Breakfast Program is the last chapter of the Fifty Ways book. The message was supposed to be if we can do it, believe us, anyone can!

In an attempt to break the stereotype, some people have changed from referring to books as traditional mysteries rather than cozies. What do you think are the important elements of the kind of books you write?

Readers want Jane to be real, honest, and to touch their heads and their hearts. And I want her to be funny and capable and able to right the wrongs in her world and inch toward self-awareness, and to get along better with her mother and not be so hard on herself! And it is only recently that I realized all those labels—cozy, noir, suspense, police procedural—don't matter. My job is to write the best books I can, to not take any shortcuts or easy ways out, and especially not to worry about any labels or categories.

Tell us about your new book.

Scary Stuff is a little bit of a ghost story in a personal way. I don't want to give away too much, but in SS, Jane discovers a family secret, a skeleton in the closet so to speak. It's based on a real secret in my own family. I wrote about it in the introduction to a collection of memoirs that Steve and I edited for Pantheon—Family: American Writers Remember Their Own—so it's not like I'm revealing it for the first time.

It is, however, much different for Jane Wheel. Highly fictionalized and different, but nonetheless, puzzling to her. How can a family give up one of its members? And since she's about to face some issues in her own nuclear family, it will continue to resonate. Oh yes, there's a mystery, too: internet fraud, attempted murder, and a battle over stuff—lots of kitchenalia!

Nellie also has a heavy hand in this story. My own mother, Nellie, died a few years ago at age 92, and she was as feisty as Jane's mother Nellie. I think one of the real advantages of being a writer is that I get to keep Nellie young and vital and funny and mean and ornery in the books, just as cantankerous as she was the whole time I had her with me.

To find out more about Sharon, her books, stuff, and to see wonderful wedding photos that people have rescued, visit Sharon’s web site. Scary Stuff will be in bookstores September 29, just in time for Halloween.
Canada Calling returns next month in it's usual 3rd weekend slot.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Time for me? For you? How can a silly red hat provide that?

By Lonnie Cruse

Nowadays we live in what I like to call "A Fast Food World." We go to bed exhausted and hit the ground running early the next day. Once on the road, we often don't even have time to get out of the car to take care of our errands. Restaurants, drug stores, banks, and--can you believe it--many churches and funeral homes accommodate us with drive-through lanes. Drive through, take care of business, zip back onto the street, and drive to the next drive-through. Whew.
We pat ourselves on the back because we all own labor-saving devices our grandmothers never even dreamed of, washers and dryers, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, you name it. Yet statistics have shown that we now spend MORE time on household chores than those same grandmothers! We're busy, stressed, frustrated, tired, and in need of a rest.

Ever wish you could go out in public wearing something outrageous and silly and not care what people think? Every wish every head would turn to stare at you? Ever wish you could sit down for a long lunch with friends, share good food and good laughs? Not just a business lunch or fast food between errands?

What to do, what to do? How about joining the Red Hatters? If you haven't heard of them, it's a nationwide group for women over fifty who aren't afraid to be silly. Or to relax and enjoy life. Our kids are mostly grown, many of us are retired, some are widows, on their own for the first time in decades. Red Hats provides a time of friendship and fellowship and a place to let our hair down (underneath the hats, of course) and have fun. Most of these groups don't do charity work as a group or take care of business or any of the other things women generally do as a large part of their lives. Why? Because we're already doing those things anyhow. The main focus is to relax for an hour or so each month with other women with like interests, and de-stress. And who among us doesn't need that, ladies?

Trust me, there is nothing like a table for twenty or more where every woman is wearing purple clothes and a bright red hat (unless it's your birthday month, in which case, you reverse it, red outfit, purple hat.) Neither the clothes nor the food is expensive, and it's a chance to enjoy yourself and relax with women who share your need for an afternoon of fun. And in our group, The Forget-Me-Nots of Metropolis, Illinois, you can learn how to play the kazoo. If you haven't experienced a group of "mature" women brightly dressed, playing their kazoos in a crowded restaurant, you haven't lived. Really.

The Red Hat Society came about after a poem where the woman says when she's old she'll wear purple and spit in the street if she wants to . . . when she's old. Yup, that's what we do. Well, maybe not the spitting, at least not in our group. Not yet.

Are you beyond the polite side of fifty? Looking for time to relax with friends and have a good laugh? If so, check online for a group in your area. And try to find a red hat with feathers and flowers. You don't want to be the dumpy one in the group, do you?
Below, Lonnie and Debby at one of our first Red Hat meetings. My hair has "gone gray" since then. I'm still having fun.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Writing About Real-Life Relationships

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a reader, I’m a sucker for romance. No, not romance novels. Romance. I want to fall in love with series protagonists and sigh with satisfaction when they find true love. In mysteries, my favorite books tend to be the ones where things work out. I was delighted when Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott got married to her buddy Dwight and finally figured out he’d been in love with her all along. My favorite Sharon McCone book from Marcia Muller is the one where her friend Rae and her country music star ex-brother-in-law fall in love. In other genres, I gravitate to Big Love: historical, Diana Gabaldon’s Claire and Jamie, Sara Donati’s Elizabeth and Nathaniel; fantasy and science fiction, all the angel/human couples in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels. So why don’t I write that way myself?

For one thing, the authors I’ve mentioned are all masters. Without sitting down to write a pure romance, they deftly blend attraction, conflict, and eventual resolution in perfect proportions, played out by characters who are rounded and complex and endearing. Also, the ones who write sex scenes are very good at it. I’m not crazy about sex scenes. In fact, I tend to start skimming when the clothes come off. I feel like Diana Gabaldon’s kids, or was it her husband, who she says complained, “Nipples again?” Maybe that’s why I have trouble writing them.

But the real reason is that, as both a mental health professional and a veteran of two marriages (the second still going strong), I believe the kind of Big Love I adore in novels requires as much suspension of disbelief as the mystery convention that an amateur sleuth can solve a murder when the cops are baffled.

So there’s Bruce, my recovering alcoholic protagonist. In his first appearance, Death Will Get You Sober, the poor guy had to give up drinking. That painful process—and solving several murders—took up all his attention. There’s a good reason that newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous are advised not to embark on any relationships in the first year. The chances of screwing up the relationship and losing hard-won sobriety in the process are high. So Bruce abstains, except for sleeping with his ex-wife Laura when he gets out of detox for 24 hours—and ex-wives, as he points out, hardly count.

In the new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, he’s still sober, but the relationship stuff is starting to demand his attention. Laura is still around, now a major character who keeps him on a string as she pursues a new relationship with an abusive lover. And Bruce has what amounts to a crush with a nice woman whose abusive boyfriend has been killed, freeing her from his lies and manipulations but putting her in the frame for his murder. Laura, with her mood swings, easy sex, and middle-of-the-night suicide threats, offers a dysfunctional relationship that could lead him back to drinking. And Luz, the victim’s girlfriend, is still emotionally unavailable.

I’d be doing real-life couples a disservice if I used my therapist’s authority and writer’s plausibility to insist Big Love is the way things are if you get it right. In real life, you do have to say you’re sorry. In fact, owning your part in a quarrel is a key to emotional maturity. In real life, your partner doesn’t read your mind and say just the right thing every time. In real life, few women have mile-long legs and slender waists (and some of those who do are bulimics). In real life, few men past forty are sexual athletes with endless stamina (and some of those who are are sexual compulsives). Is true love possible, beyond the first burst of passion? Of course it is. But it takes work and honesty and a capacity for tolerating imperfections, both your own and your partner’s.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Farewell to Creatures 'n Crooks

Sandra Parshall

The dragons and witches are on display, waiting for someone to claim them. The furniture in the reading corner wears SOLD si
gns. Sunbeams stream through the skylights and fall on mostly empty shelves that will never be filled again. In the back office, Hamilton the cat snoozes peacefully, unaware that his life is about to change forever.

Creatures ‘n Crooks Bookshoppe is going out of business.

The closing of yet another independent bookstore is always a sad event, and it’s especially poignant for writers who have appeared there and readers who love its friendly atmosphere and personal service. The latest indie to fold is Creatures ‘n Crooks in Richmond, VA, a beautiful store in the historic Carytown section of the city. As owner Lelia Taylor prepares to close the doors forever on September 30, she threw a final “favorite authors” signing party last Saturday, and I was honored to be one of the 15 mystery, science fiction, and fantasy writers included. One of my first appearances as a published writer was at Creatures ‘n Crooks in the summer of 2006, when I joined Donna Andrews, Ellen Crosby, Laura Durham, and Ellen Byerrum to meet with the store’s mystery book discussion group.

The weather was perfect last Saturday, and customers came to buy books, but it was a melancholy afternoon.

Lelia opened Creatures ‘n Crooks on May 20, 2000. Hamilton, adopted from a shelter, has served as the store’s resident feline almost from the beginning, so his life, as well as Lelia’s, will change radically at the end of this month. Because Lelia’s cats at home might not accept him, he’ll go to live with people he knows and likes, who will provide him with the worshipful attention he’s grown to expect. He didn’t join the party on Saturday, but he granted me a private audience in the back office.

In addition to Hamilton, another animal was on hand, so to speak. Mystery writer and licensed falconer Andy Straka brought H.P. (Harris Potter), his gorgeous Harris hawk, and the two of them greeted startled customers and passersby outside the store. In case you might someday have to sign something while balancing a full-grown hawk on one hand, study Andy’s technique for autographing copies of his new PI mystery, Kitty Hitter.

Before introducing H.P., Andy chatted in the store’s reading corner with Bob Cohen (left) and Marcia Talley (seated).

John Lamb paused in his conversation with Ellen Byerrum and Ellen Crosby to sign a book for a reader.

Mary Montague Sikes and Pamela K. Kinney were among the authors attending.

G.M. Malliet and Ellen Byerrum talked among the shelves.

And Lelia did what she enjoys most: selling books.

Creatures ‘n Crooks will be missed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Sharon Wildwind

The day Benny, with two small boys in tow, showed up at Pepper’s apartment in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I knew that one day I would have to deal with a wedding.

I spent five minutes thinking of possible reasons for Benny and Lorraine not to marry, including Lorraine’s missing-in-action husband returning home in various states of disrepair. I asked myself the hard, unromantic question common to writers, “What can I get more story mileage out of, them marrying or not marrying?”

One wedding coming up, but not exactly right away. A few things had to happen first.

Benny, Pepper and Avivah left the Army, in various states of disrepair.

I had to find a plausible reason for Lorraine and her two boys to move from Missouri, where she was living next door to Benny’s parents, back to North Carolina. Otherwise, books were going to have to be written as a series of long-distance phone calls, and I didn’t think I was enough of an existentialist writer to pull that off.

Benny and Pepper were going to have to confront how they felt about one another. Another time? Another place? Another set of circumstances? Yeah, the bride’s name on the invitation might have been different.

By the third book in the series, I’d run through my “To Do” list. The next book had to be the wedding. Quietly germinating in a dark corner were a few seeds I’d planted in the first book, remarks about his family that Benny had casually tossed off that day he and Pepper took the two boys out for burgers and ice cream.

Benny’s mother was from Alaska. She and his dad helped build the Alaska Highway during World War II. There was an older half-brother, a younger brother who was a musician, and a younger sister, who more than anything else wanted to join the family’s hardware business in Missouri. Blessings on that writer I was years ago, who provided me with such rich material that I could now bring to maturity.

My husband gave me the title for the book, and it’s dedicated to him and my mother-in-law. If you have to marry into a family, I recommend theirs.

So here are two invitations for you.

Feel free to dress up and have a party. My characters will be doing the same.

Quote for the week:
Love is a symbol of eternity. It wipes out all sense of time, destroying all memory of a beginning and all fear of an end.
~Madame de Stael (1766 – 1817), writer, salon hostess, political activist

Monday, September 14, 2009

Going Back to High School (and Finding I Don't Fit)

by Julia Buckley
My husband and I attended the high school's "Back to School Night" so that we could go through our son's schedule and meet all of his teachers. When did I ever have the energy that high school requires?

For one thing, the school is huge--about four thousand students. We wore our gym shoes in preparation for the crazy running between classes, but I was exhausted just making the jaunt from our car to the school (we had to park several blocks away).

Once inside we began the journey: honors world history first period, honors English second period. Ian's English teacher was striking and impressive. "I will never accept a hand-written assignment from your child," she warned us grandly. "And I will never give a bathroom pass to your child." She wore a red suit and high heels and spoke of things like diction and annotation with appropriate passion.

Jeff and I were distracted by the desks. When did they get so small? They dug into our stomachs and we grimaced at each other as we tried to take notes.

The bell sounded and we darted down the stairs to gym class. There the coach had to compete with all of the other coaches, whom the event planners had inauspiciously stuck in the cafeteria together so that their talks all wove together in a cacophany of sound. "Your child is currently taking Life Fitness," shouted the coach. "In nine weeks he will either switch to swimming, dance, or an anti-bullying course called Step Back." We squinted, trying to hear him, smirking slightly when he mentioned dance (our son refuses to dance or sing, ever. School will be so good for him).

The bell, and we were off to Art. The loveable Sandy Duncan look-alike said she had finally "treated" herself to a vacation in the South of France that summer, where she had painted the scenery and felt serene. I doubt we concealed our envy well, but we did admire the things she had the students doing in the impressive studio, which had, according to her, a better kiln than the local universities.

Then (was there more?) we went to German class. I wondered if, at this point in the day, my son's stomach was growling loudly enough for everyone to hear, since I can rarely get him to eat breakfast. I know, I know. Such an important start to the day, and yet both of my sons claim nausea when I show them morning food.

The German teacher was sweet and energetic. She greeted us by saying "Wie gehts?" and told us in a brief English speech that she mainly talked to the students in German. Then she spoke in German.

My eyes drifted to the wall, where pictures of all the students' heads were attached to homemade paper "T-shirts" which sported German slogans. Ian's said "Ich habe drei Katze" (I have three cats) and "Ich habe ein hunt" (I have one dog). Not bad for the first week of school, I thought.

FINALLY we had a break. Jeff and I beelined for the bathroom and then called our littlest boy, who was home alone, manfully playing computer games.

And then there were MORE classes! Did we go to high school, Jeff and I wondered, and did we really learn this many things?

Ian's algebra teacher told us that he had motivated the students to bring in the parent form by promising to do a back flip if they all brought it back. 26 out of
27 students brought it back, so he didn't do the flip, but he made a separate deal with them that they won, and he did the flip in class a few days later.

Oh, did I mention? He's twenty-four.

If I told my students I was going to do a back flip they would A)laugh and B)dial 9-1-1 on their cell phones and keep a finger hovering over the "send" button. Plus I can't do a back flip OR a front flip. I can't even do a cartwheel. I suppose I could offer to jog in place or jump rope, but it doesn't have the same glamour.

When we finally got home, Ian asked what we thought. We said that we'd been quite impressed, for starters, that he could even navigate his way around that Noah's Ark of a school.

He shrugged. "Yeah, I'm great."

In this modern era we can keep track of his grades online, so we'll be able to give him a nudge whenever he ceases to be great.

But I must tell you: hurrah for high school students. I am one adult who is not sure she could--or would--go back.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Changing Gears

by Carola Dunn, guest blogger

Last week I finished writing my 52nd book, A Colorful Death, the second Cornish mystery, which also happens to be my 20th mystery. I'm about to start on the 19th book in my Daisy Dalrymple series (just as the 18th, Sheer Folly, comes out, and the 17th, Black Ship, goes into paperback). Not only do I have to come up with plot, setting, and a whole bunch of new characters as well as a host of returning characters, but I have to switch my head from the 1960s (Cornish mysteries) to the 1920s (Daisy).

For some reason this is more difficult than I ever found it to move from the Regency to the 1920s. For many years I dwelled in the early 1800s. I used to find myself using Regency terms in real life late 20th century America. Then I took up with Daisy and for a while I was writing both 1920s mysteries and Regencies. I rarely found myself confusing the language of the two, perhaps because both language and mores changed so much in the intervening hundred odd years. Great though the changes were between the 1920s and the 1960s, the two
periods were much more similar in many ways.

Perhaps another part of the confusion is that the main character in the Cornish mysteries, Eleanor Trewynn, is in her early 60s and so was actually around in the '20s. She's not so old-fashioned (having spent her life travelling the world) as to use '20s slang still, but she's not going to use '60s slang either, or at least not without a certain self-consciousness. Yet other characters around her have to speak the contemporary lingo.

So how do I travel in time? I've found the best way to get inside the language and mind-set of a period is to read the fiction of the period. I have a lot of early Sayers, Christie, Wentworth, and others, but I've reread them too often, so yesterday I spent 2 1/2 hours in the city library hunting down 1920s mysteries and non-mystery novels. Came out with Gladys Mitchell, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse, E.C. Bentley, E.F. Benson (if you don't know Lucia, go and make her acquaintance now!), Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A few evenings cuddled up with a cuppa and a book and my head will be right back where it needs to be.

Simply ripping, darling!

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