Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letting Go: Both Gift and Resolution

Elizabeth Zelvin

Once again, it’s the time of year for gifts and resolutions. First, we’re supposed to wish for what we want, whether wishing takes the form of a letter to Santa Claus, hints to our loved ones, impulse buying for ourselves, or prayer. Then, we’re supposed to resolve to meet our goals for the coming year. For many, this involves grim determination: we must get that job, publish that manuscript, lose that weight. The catch is that grim determination is not a good method of capturing the bluebird of happiness. The other catch is that things happen the way they happen, not the way we want them to, most of the time.

It’s no secret that I subscribe to the theory that life is a lot more manageable if we take it one day at a time. The concept of New Year’s resolutions posit that life must be attacked in giant, indigestible one-year gobbets. Everybody knows this doesn’t work. But people continue to pursue the triumph of optimism over experience and go on resolving to force the outcomes they want.

What’s the opposite of this approach? It has many names: acceptance; detachment; wanting what you have, as opposed to insisting on getting what you want and feeling miserable, cheated, and defeated if you don’t. I like to call it letting go.

I’m no saint. I’m not saying that I enjoy letting go. But it’s a great alternative to frustration, envy, and a host of other unpleasant states of mind. I’ve learned this lesson over and over. Being human, I forget. But life has a way of reminding me that letting go is both inevitable and effective as a way of dealing with whatever comes up.

At Bouchercon in October, I learned—not for the first time, but I needed to hear it again—what a valuable tool letting go can be for writers. I attended a panel on the state of the short story market. The panelists were the editors of the two remaining and highly respected print journals that publish short mystery fiction and two authors who have published many stories in these journals over the years. My moment of enlightenment came in the answer to a question I asked the panel.

I don’t always raise my hand at these things, but I really wanted to know what they’d say. In the course of the discussion, they’d already confirmed that these are the only two major paying print markets for mystery stories and that both journals refuse to consider revised and resubmitted material as a matter of policy.

I started by mentioning that I’d had two stories accepted for one of these journals. I brushed off the patter of applause at that, adding that two other stories had been rejected by both the journals. What, I asked, could I do with these two stories? Should I go back and revise them, try to make them better? Should I submit them to the e-zines, a less prestigious but perhaps more receptive market?

You guessed it. Both veteran writers had the same opinion: let them go. Write the next story. Move on. “I hate it when I have to let go,” I muttered to a couple of friends in the audience with me. But I knew the writers were right. I’d learned it before as a writer, when I gradually developed the ability to “kill my darlings.” Then, the “darlings” were a treasured adverb, a witticism, a cherished scene that failed to advance the story.” These were just bigger darlings: whole stories. And since then, my wise and valued agent has said the same about a manuscript or two.

Perseverance, even persistence, is one thing. Hanging on when you need to let go is another. Letting go is so often the only path to peace of mind, fresh ideas, and sometimes success and happiness that may come in unexpected, even unimaginable forms. So it’s a gift. And I think I’ll commit to letting go whenever I need to today...and then tomorrow...and the day after that. So it’s a resolution.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Year of Books

Sandra Parshall

I’m always disheartened when I look over my list of books I’ve read – or listened to – during the past year and realize I can’t recall a thing about many of them. No, this isn’t a consequence of advancing age. It’s always been the case: a lot of the books I read are instantly forgettable.

If I can remember the plot or style or – most important – the characters in a novel months after reading it, I know there’s something special about that book. It’s either very good or unforgettably bad. This year my list has an unusual number of terrific novels on it (some of them published in previous years).

My favorite was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, not a mystery but a surprisingly suspenseful story about a young white woman in the 1960s south who secretly transcribes and publishes the tales told by black maids working in white households. This was a time and place when white people could kill blacks with impunity, so the risks taken by “the help” in the novel are enormous. The story is spellbinding and every character is unforgettable.

I also loved The Last Child by John Hart, another intense, gripping novel set in the south. The child of the title is a boy who has watched his mother slowly destroy herself with drinking and an abusive relationship since her daughter disappeared. The young son is determined to find his sister, dead or alive, and give his mother some degree of peace. His probing sets off a string of terrifying consequences. I found The Last Child riveting, and I think it’s the best Hart has published so far.

I read two Michael Robotham novels this year, Shatter and The Night Ferry, and this writer is now on my must-read list for his future work. Shatter is about a man whose past comes back to haunt him... only trouble is, he doesn’t believe it is his past. The Night Ferry is equally gripping but utterly different, except for the always superb writing. It introduces Alicia Barba, a British police detective who is the child of Indian immigrants, a character I would love to see in a series. When an old friend is murdered, a shocking revelation sends Alicia on a hunt for the truth about her friend’s life and the baby everyone thought she was about to have.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is a stunning debut. Her lead character is a young female newspaper reporter with a history of emotional problems that included a compulsion to cut herself. Now she’s out of treatment and must return home – the source of her troubles – to write about the murders of several children. Flynn’s insight into human behavior is keen and her prose is as sharp as the razors that tempt her heroine. The conclusion of the book is going to stay with me for a long time.

The Brutal Telling may win Louise Penny a third Agatha Award and a few other honors as well. She’s on a par with Julia Spencer-Fleming and Nancy Pickard, producing traditional mysteries with all the expected features – the familiar community, the beloved regular characters, respect for the gravity of murder without dwelling on the gore – plus the emotional depth and insight found in the best literature.

When Will There Be Good News? is, in my opinion, the best of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody novels. Her books are considered more literary fiction than crime novels, but this one is as compelling as any mystery or thriller I’ve ever read. The opening sequence left me gasping in shock.

I loved Karin Slaughter’s Undone because it brought together Dr. Sara Linton from her Grant County series and Will Trent, the GBI agent from Fractured. This is a powerful story, perhaps the best Slaughter has ever written.

Other novels I enjoyed this year are The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah, Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon, Death and the Lit Chick by G.M. Malliet, Exit Music by Ian Rankin (the last Rebus novel), The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell, The Private Patient by P.D. James (possibly the last Dalgliesh novel), The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen, Careless in Red by Elizabeth George, Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron. I've just started Jeri Westerson's Serpent in the Thorns and I can tell already it's going to be one of my favorites. I have lots more 2009 releases that I haven't gotten to yet.

I feel as if I’ll never catch up with all the books I want to read, and now here comes 2010 with a whole new crop. Erin Hart’s False Mermaid in March, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was a Soldier and Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death in April... Do you ever wish you could drop everything and just read for a few months?

What books did you love in 2009? What are you looking forward to in 2010?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Open the Phone Booth Door

Sharon Wildwind

Remember Candid Camera?

Periodically, from 1948—yes, that long ago—until the early 1990s, Allen Funt and his crew filmed classic street comedy. They set up situations such as having a man come out of a phone booth and carefully close the door. What people waiting in line didn’t know was that as he came out he activated a strong electromagnet that prevented the booth door from opening.

The next person in line stepped up to use the phone, pulled on the door handle and—nothing. The comedy happened as people in line, and sometimes a passerby planted by the Candid Camera crew, struggled with a door that had opened easily for one man, but was impervious to being opened by anyone else.

The people struggling with the door had been conditioned to believe a simple premise—phone booth doors open—not only because they had just seen a man open the door, but because every other phone booth door they ever encountered had opened.

The anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain, was responsible for the increasingly desperate, and in some cases funny, antics as people tried to open the door.

The ACC is the part of the brain that recognizes errors and contradictions. When we experience something that we KNOW to be wrong, the ACC gets a squirt of blood to tell us that something in this situation doesn’t match what we expect to happen.

Perception of what’s right and wrong in a situation is also affected by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. This interesting brain bit is just behind the forehead. It doesn’t fully develop until young adulthood, and its function is to suppress information that doesn’t square with our preconceptions.

Phone booth doors open. This phone booth door is not opening. DLPFC kicks in. I will ignore the idea that this door can’t open. If must find the latch, key, or right place to put my fingers, and then the door will open.

Eventually, Allen Funt would come along to say, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,” and the people would stop trying to batter the poor phone booth.

“The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC ‘turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right. They’re also inhibiting that information.’”
~Dr. Kevin Dunbar, director of the Laboratory for Complex Thinking & Reasoning; University of Toronto quoted in Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer, December 21, 2009.

Dr. Dunbar goes on to compare two laboratories where scientists were trying to figure out why proteins weren’t behaving in the expected way and were, in fact, screwing up the experiment.

One of the labs had scientists from a variety of backgrounds. The other had people very specialized in one area. Both groups eventually hit on the same solution. The specialized group took several weeks, and a lot of lab experiments, to find the answer. The multi-discipline group found the same answer in 10 minutes, sitting around a conference table.

“When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix [of having team members with very different backgrounds] generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. . . .These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism. . . . This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box.”

As writers (a specialized trade), and mystery writers (an even more specialized trade), we spend a lot of time interacting with our own kind. I live in a state of perpetual gratitude toward my co-writers who so generously share their critiques and suggestions.

Occasionally, I feel that writers, as a group, are as perplexed as those people trying to open the phone booth door. We beat our heads against the same problems to the point that we lose perspective. We’re looking for that latch, key, or right place to put our fingers that will magically open up our writing.

If those two parts of our brain busy revising and deleting information, maybe sometimes we need to ask non-writers, even non-readers to look at our work. Maybe I should show my problem scenes to my dental hygienist, or the Mohawk-haired kid with iPod buds in his ear waiting at my bus stop, or the seniors’ walking group at the mall. I’d even pay them a couple of bucks to read it and give me their first impressions. Ten minutes over coffee and crullers at the mall seems such a better idea than multiple rewrites, and the multi-focus input might solve the problem.
Quote for the week [If we substitute “draft,” “book,” or “short story” for the word “experiment” below, these same truths hold true for writers as well as scientists.]:

Too often, we assume that a failed experiment is a wasted effort. But not all anomalies are useless. Here’s how to make the most of them.

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.
~Jonah Lehrer, Wired article, 2009 December 21

Quotes in this blog used with the kind permission of the author, Jonah Lehrer (

Monday, December 28, 2009

Letting Go of Odd Numbers

by Julia Buckley
Christmas Day is past, and we all, hopefully, have happy memories of the time we spent with family and friends. We ate good food, opened nice presents, and--in the case of my family--sang carols in three and four part harmony that would rival the Von Trapp's holiday performances.

But now Christmas, like every holiday and every event in life, is something we will see only in retrospect. In fact, everything we do and say must be viewed through the rearview mirror, because as Kierkegaard famously wrote, "Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backwards."
So I'm preparing to let go of 2009 and look at it from my new vantage point. It's an odd number, and 2010 seems more promising at least in that it is more symmetrical. Maybe I'll even remember to write it on my checks. (It's not just that I might still write 2009--every New Year I have that one weird episode during which some crazy random year pops out: 1989 or 1992. The clerk who catches that one always gives me a weird look).

So just for the next couple of days (wherein, ironically, lies my birthday), I will enjoy that limbo moment when I can see both the horizon and the road behind me. They're both beautiful, and both hold promise. From one, I can always retrieve the happy memories (perhaps even slightly altered by time). In the other, I can pursue hopes and possibly even achieve them, one by one.

And, of course, I can make my resolutions. Maybe this year I'll just commit to a new mantra every day, like: What would a puppy do? or This day will be great because . . . .

May all of you enjoy the view both forward and backward. Any fun resolutions to share?

Happy 2010!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Interview with Charles Atkins, MD

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Dr. Charles Atkins, psychiatrist and thriller writer, and I met as fellow panelists at the New York Public Library. The panel, sponsored by MWA New York as one of its monthly events, brought together a group of professionals--psychiatrist, doctor, lawyer, psychologist, social worker, and reporter--who use what they know in the crime fiction they write. Dr. Atkins had some good answers, which Poe's Deadly Daughters shares with our readers today.

To lead with the question that started our panel at the library, how does what you do as a psychiatrist inform your work?

It has everything to do with it. My day job as a psychiatrist finds its way into both my fiction and non fiction. Writing provides another means to explore what I find so fascinating about working with people. Obviously I don’t write about specific patients—that would be bad—but if I’m working with kids I’ll write about how it happens that a child grows up to become a sociopath (RISK FACTOR, THE PRODIGY). Or in the case of my first novel—THE PORTRAIT—I wanted to have a person with a major mental illness, in this case Bipolar Disorder, be the hero in a mainstream mystery. And it’s similar with my other novels; they are first and foremost fast-paced and entertaining thrillers and mysteries, but embedded in each are explorations of what I consider fascinating subjects in psychology/psychiatry and human psychopathology.

For the non fiction, it’s quite similar, but it goes further than just the connection between my two careers. I’m from a family with significant mental illness—some who cop to it, others who don’t. I’ve also had a couple rather bad bouts of depression in my life. So when my literary agent had a publisher query him about finding an author to do a book on bipolar—THE BIPOLAR DISORDER ANSWER BOOK (Sourcebooks)—I raised my hand. Again one career feeds the other, and this, as well as the following book on Alzheimer’s and Dementia, provided me a fabulous opportunity to read hundreds of articles and meet with leaders in the field. My first hand experiences with mental illness—both personal and professional—gave me the added insight that in order to do books like this right, it’s important to not just talk to the medical professionals, but also to leaders in the consumer movement, family members and people with the various conditions.

Why do people kill? And are their reasons any different in fiction—yours and others’—than in real life?

As a writer getting the motivation for your killer correct is paramount, and I can’t think of an example where fictional motivation to kill would be different from real life. The reasons why people kill aren’t a lot—love gone bad, money, lust for power, a need to cover up wrong doing, warfare and revenge. I suppose the major difference between reality and fiction, is that in fiction we can go ahead with the murderous impulses we would never pursue in real life. In my most recent novel—MOTHER’S MILK—my female villain is a woman who was betrayed by her husband of many years—a philandering plastic surgeon who seduced a teenage girl they’d taken in to foster. In real life this would typically end in an ugly divorce. But my villain took another course, one that many (possibly most) women who’ve been betrayed at least fantasize about—what if I killed the bastard? Or what if he just dropped dead? Wouldn’t that be easier?

Booklist called the protagonist of your thriller, ASHES, ASHES “thoroughly evil,” and you’ve said yourself that your novel, RISK FACTOR, “explores the question of whether a child can be born pure evil.” Do you think that evil exists, and if so, what is it? What’s the difference between evil and sociopathy?

Evil—the deliberate and potentially avoidable infliction of pain and suffering—most definitely exists. Because sociopaths—individuals who don’t care for the feelings and rights of others and who are purely motivated by getting what they want…now!—often commit acts that will be evil. It doesn’t mean that all sociopaths will take this path—some learn to cover their inner lack of empathy and put on a face of social acceptability while all the time believing they are above everyone else. For others, and this is the meat and potatoes for writers like us, they will let their desires instruct their behaviors and do some very naughty things.

What do fiction writers get wrong about psychiatry and also about mental illness? Do you have any pet peeves on that topic?

This is a huge topic. Accurate portrayals of mental illness in the media are few. People with mental illnesses are frequently portrayed as dangerous, are often confused with sociopaths, and inaccuracies around diagnoses and terms run rampant. The same holds true for depictions of mental health professionals; if we believed the media we’re all murderous sociopaths who hop in and out of bed with our patients. While this might make for pot boiler fiction, it’s far from the truth and fuels the fires of stigma and prejudice against people with mental illness and the people who work with them.

What kind of boundaries do you maintain between your “two hats” as psychiatrist and crime fiction writer?

I never write about specific cases, and I’m very clear that when I hit the road to do lectures and speaking gigs that people know I’m not trawling for patients.

Do your patients ever read or ask about your books? How do you feel about that? ;) How do you handle it?

As I become more successful, and am often in the paper—hopefully not the police blotter—patients will ask me about my books and career as a writer. I’m quite open about what I’m working on and generally answer questions as I would outside the office.

What are you working on now?

Where my Barrett Conyors series of thrillers (THE PRODIGY, ASHES ASHES, and MOTHER’S MILK) is currently under contract for a potential TV show, I’ve moved on to a new and quite large project. I’m also veering slightly from the realm of reality and starting a group of supernatural thrillers that key off classic books such as FAUST, PARADISE LOST and Dante’s INFERNO. That said these are still very much rooted in my day job and are going after hot-button issues such as the perversion of the medical profession by the pharmaceutical industry. The first of these is entitled—GO TO HELL—and the manuscript is currently with my agent, Al Zuckerman/Writer’s House.

Charles Atkins, MD is a board-certified psychiatrist and author. He is a former medical director for the Department of Behavioral Health at Waterbury Hospital, and spent six years as the regional medical director for the Department of Mental Health and addiction Services (CT). He currently practices part-time at Waterbury Hospital.

As an author, Dr Atkins has published six psychological thrillers; his first non-fiction book THE BIPOLAR DISORDER ANSWER BOOK was published in fall 2007 and his second, THE ALZHEIMER’S ANSWER BOOK was released in 2008.
In addition to books Dr. Atkins has published hundred of articles and columns in both professional and mainstream newspapers, journals and magazines; he has been a consultant to the Reader’s Digest Press and lectures extensively.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to youuuuuu!

By Lonnie Cruse

It's Christmas Day. Hopefully we're all spending time with those we love rather than reading blogs, so this blog post is gonna be real short and sweet.

I hope Santa brought you the gifts you were dreaming of and that you don't have to spend the entire day either putting them together or figuring out how to use them. I love new technology but sometimes it doesn't love me! Mostly I hope you still feel the same magic at Christmas that you felt when you were a child. I know I do.

I hope next year brings you great days, all 365 of them. I hope you find loads of new and interesting mysteries to read. And I hope you will share the titles with us.

Most of all I hope you will keep hanging out with us here on PDD, discussing books, discussing authors, discussing life, discussing what to discuss.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

When They Don’t Want to Buy Your Book

Elizabeth Zelvin

There’s no better way for an author to remind herself that, however long she’s yearned and hard she’s worked for it, being published resembles in certain respects the more ingenious forms of torture inflicted by sadists, dictators, and fanatics and endured by martyrs religious and political than participating in a kind of book tour event known as a “meet and greet.” The format is that a bookstore, usually one of the larger chains, sets up a display of the author’s new book either just inside or just outside the bookstore door, where the author is committed to sitting or standing by the display for two or three hours, meeting and greeting passersby and potential customers, and charming or cajoling them into buying the books, which the author then graciously signs, or if the customer chooses, inscribes personally to the buyer or the intended recipient of the book. There are indeed passersby, since the bookstores that host such events are usually located in malls. But do they buy? Ah, that’s another story.

Right after Bouchercon this fall, I toured a number of cities in the midwestern states between Indianapolis and New York, during which I endured—er, enjoyed—several of these meet and greet events. As a formerly shy person, I’m rather proud of my ability to do a meet and greet, even to get some fun out of it. I have a pretty good technique. I stole from the legendary Sarah Campbell, author Chester Campbell’s wife, the opening line, “Do you read mysteries?” Actually, I usually ask, “Are you a mystery reader?” I hold a book in each hand, so I can hand it over with a smile and an invitation—“Here, take a look”—to two prospects at a time.

Let no one tell you that people don’t read the jacket. Some start with the front flap, others with the blurbs and review excerpts on the back. A smaller number flip immediately to the first page of Chapter One. A dreaded minority riffle through or even make a beeline for the last page. A few check out the back flap, studying my photo to make sure the pictured author is really me.

I did sell some books at these events, and it was delightful to meet not only those who bought, but even some of those who didn’t. But the best part—what made me resolve to blog about it—was what people said. It seems to me that the excuses for not buying have gotten more memorable since the economy tanked, ie between when I went on the road with my first book and this fall, when the new one came out. Stationed outside the door through lunchtime at a downtown mall, I found some people admitted, “I got no money.” Others couldn’t stop because they were on their way to job interviews. “Sounds like a good book. How long will you be here?” they asked. Alas, not long enough for them to get the job and make it to the first paycheck. Many wanted to know the price before they bought. My publisher priced this book higher than the other, though it’s not substantially longer. In fact, I’ve weighed them both, and the new one is half a pound lighter. Cheaper paper, maybe. Publishers, too, are feeling the pinch and trying to compensate in whatever ways they can.

In the chains, you get a lot of, “Oh, I don’t read.” Only one woman laughed self-consciously and added, “Even though I’m in a bookstore.” A gentleman laden with shopping bags said, “I just spent all my money on a coat.” One lady confided, “I’d buy it for my daughter, but she’s a proofreader. She says she can’t stand to look at words once she gets home from work.” Another identified herself as a psychologist. “I’m not going to buy your book,” she announced. “But I’m very interested in your online psychotherapy practice.” As my protagonist, Bruce, would say, Thank you for sharing.

Some readers’ browsing patterns in the stores made it evident they were interested only in the remaindered bargain books, the paperbacks, or the steeply discounted bestsellers. One fellow whom I asked if he reads mysteries—I wish I could remember the slogan on his T shirt, but only the F word remains in my mind—said, “Only if it’s got a vampire in it.” Some would consider only local authors. “Is it about Cleveland?” one man asked, disappearing when I shook my head regretfully. Both inside and outside stores, about half the customers breezed past me with their cell phones to their ears, their mouths working, and their eyes gazing into space, impossible to engage.

Among both buyers and those who declined the book were some who were thrilled to shake my hand. “I’ve never met an author before,” they said. “You’re the first author I’ve ever met.” This was heartwarming. I needed to travel to Cleveland and Toledo and Pittsburgh to have it happen. Back home in New York City, I suspect everybody who enters a bookstore has met an author at least once. It was heartening to see children going for the books, even some of those whose parents aren’t readers. And I was surprised and pleased to meet at least three poets. Poetry must be on the upswing. One said he’d look up my poetry online. Another delivered perhaps the best line of all: “Sorry I can’t stop—I’m on my way to a poetry slam.”

But my very favorite was a guy who bought. We had quite a conversation. I told him what the book was about. He asked a few questions, hesitated, then, with a little encouragement from me, decided to go for it. He went in to pay for the book, but stopped to talk to me again on the way out. I could see him move toward me as if he wanted to hug me. He checked, then held out his hand for a shake. I thought, Why not? and gave him a brief hug. He held up the book and waved goodbye, beaming all over his face and calling back, “Now I have something to do this weekend!”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What did you just call me?

Sandra Parshall

I once had a doctor, my junior by 10 or 15 years, who always addressed me as “young lady.” He probably thought he was being charming. I thought he was being condescending and irritating as hell.

Yet I never asked him to stop. There’s something about the doctor-patient relationship that makes many people afraid to offend anyone wearing a white coat, even when the doctors themselves are relentlessly offensive.

But that was then. I probably wouldn’t put up t
he “young lady” stuff now. In recent years I’ve had enough bad experiences with doctors to cure my reticence and deference.

I started thinking about all this last week after reading a New York Times essay by a woman doctor who has noticed an increase in “chummy” behavior from patients. More and more patients, she says, are calling doctors by their first names. At first she thought it was happening only to female physicians, and in her own case the overly friendly patients are most
ly older men. But she’s heard from male doctors who also say that some patients, men and women alike, address them by their first names without being invited to do so. She wonders if it makes the patients feel less vulnerable if they can dispense with the doctor’s title.

Personally, I would never address a doctor by his or her first name. I don’t want doctors calling me Sandra either, but I’ve known some who did. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed that a majority of patients surveyed, particularly older patients, want their doctors to address them by their first names. But this older patient does not. I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way, though. Maybe I simply feel safer when the re
lationship is professional and dignified in every sense. A 35-year-old doctor addressing me by my first name, while expecting me to call him Doctor, is just as demeaning as being called “young lady.”

The doctor’s Times essay pointed out that nurses – the people who really hold our lives in their hands when we’re hospitalized – are routinely addressed by their first names, not just by doctors but by patients. Every nurse I’ve encountered in recent years has introduced herself only by her first name but has usually addressed me as Mrs. Parshall. That’s just the way things are in the medical profession, I guess, and it seems to be accepted by everyone involved. I find it jarring, though, when a nurse calls me by my f
irst name the minute she meets me. I can’t very well object, though, can I? After all, I’m calling her by her first name.

When I thought about it, I realized that every encounter has its own etiquette rules regarding names. At the grocery store, where I see the same clerks every week but never get to know them, I am on a first-name basis with them but they always call me Mrs. Parshall. At the salon where I have my hair cut, everybody calls me Sandra. Department store clerks are trained to thank customers by name, but I would be shocked if a store employee ever said, “Thanks, Sandra.” I don’t know how to address department store clerks, so I never use their names at all.

Waiters and waitresses? Plumbers? Yard workers? Most of the time I never learn
their last names, and they always call me Mrs. Parshall. What we call each other is a sure sign of our relative status. Anybody who thinks America is a classless society should pay attention to how people address one another.

All of us in the book world, I’m happy to say, are on a first-name basis. A writer may start a query letter to an agent with “Dear Ms. Jones” but once the representation contract is signed Ms. Jones promptly becomes Jane. Writers call their editors – and people higher up in the publishing chain – by their first
names. It’s all very friendly. True, that agent or editor or publisher may control the writer’s work and dreams and destiny, but they don’t demand formality while they go about it.

What do you prefer to be called? Would you ever call your doctor by his or her first name? Do you want a doctor to address you by your given name? Have you ever been offended when someone you’d just met used your first name?

Whatever you call yourself or wish others to cal
l you, I hope you have a lovely holiday season!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The HP factor

Sharon Wildwind

During my forty years in nursing, I’ve battled big words.

First there was equipment, like sphygmomanometer. Then there were diseases: idiopathic cytopenic purpura comes to mind. Followed by the gobbledygook of pharmacology. “This medication is a dihydropyridine calcium antagonist that inhibits the transmembrane influx of calcium ions.”

Being from a bilingual state (Louisiana) and now living in a bilingual country (Canada), I can even read nursing articles in both English and French.

But for the past few years, a new term in nursing journals has confounded me. I can’t pronounce it. When I see it my eye glides over it. My brain has taken to referring to it as, “The HP Factor,” after the popular British vinegar, fruit, and spice condiment.

The term is

Take a minute to study those words. Try to pronounce them. The best of British luck to you.

A couple of weeks ago I came to an article where understanding those words was essential to understanding the article. I resolved, finally, to find out what they meant.

I spent a morning Googling my way through Greek myth, philosophy, the dialectic between the critical and the romantic, text as the artifact of lived experience, interpretative dialog, re-constructionist criticism, ontology versus epistemology, phenomena versus noumena, and Edmond Husserl’s Zu den Sachen, which I learned means, more or less, “Let's get down to what matters!”

Fortunately, I’d packed a lunch and remembered to tie the end of a ball of string to my desk chair before I set out, so I was able to find my way back to my office.

It turned out that hermeneutic phenomenology means that lived experiences are meaningful in themselves, but in order to communicate both what happened, and what meaning the experience had, the person who lived through something has to be able to convert the experience into descriptive language.

As writers, we call this, “Write what you know.”

I’m so glad to have that out of the way. Now I can start my holidays with peace of mind.

I wish everyone the best of the season.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Holiday Parties Have Begun

by Julia Buckley
celebrating in 1994

I am a bit late posting today; I'm afraid I got caught up in holidaying. My son turns fifteen on the 23rd, so we celebrated his birthday yesterday, stuffing a large extended family into a small house and hoping no one would notice the close quarters if we plied them with enough pasta and red wine.

After they all left, we barely had time to clean the tables before my old college chum turned up for a fun evening visit and a sleepover, as in days of yore. It seemed that time had never passed as we snuggled in front of the television and critiqued the performances in various tv shows and one movie, pausing in between viewings to fill each other in on the complications of our lives. Apparently we still possess some of the melodrama of our youth, since we spent a portion of our time despairing over colleagues whom we considered, in our righteous rationality, to be insane. :)

This morning was similar to any "after the ball" experience: my husband had to go to work, Lydia had to hop in her car and drive back to Indiana (where she is, I add proudly, a university professor) and I am faced with the dishes that I didn't get to last evening.

The boys are tired and watching Spongebob; I don't anticipate this state of affairs changing for several hours.

Thank goodness for the holidays, though, because they allow for these bursts of fun that are never possible in the work week grind of the relentless year. Despite two bags of research papers that I must grade over this break, I intend to see movies, lunch with friends, take walks, grow older (my birthday is a week after my son's) and oh, yes--I'd like to write.

And somewhere in between all of those mini celebrations will be Christmas. In this nostalgic season, I wish all readers of this blog a wonderful holiday, and the finest words I can bestow as a holiday blessing come from Dylan Thomas, whose nostalgia is beautifully memorialized in A Child's Christmas in Wales. Here's an excerpt to brighten your holiday thoughts:

“Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like pure and grandfather moss, minutely white ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb numb thunderstorm of white torn Christmas cards.

‘Were there postmen then too?’

‘With sprinkling eyes and wind cherried noses, on spread frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was the ringing of bells.’

‘You mean the postman went rat-a-tat tat and the doors rang?’

‘I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them.’”

May you all hear those bells in your hearts this week. Happy holidaying!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Canada Calling: Joan Boswell

Joan Boswell is an artist and writer, who lives in Toronto.

Sharon asked me whether being a painter contributed to my writing and if being a painter made it easier to write. I don’t know the answer to those questions but they stimulated me to consider creativity. I think that in all creative work asking the question, ‘what if?’, is something you must do every time you approach a project.

Everyone is creative in some way. Whether it’s writing, visual arts, cooking, gardening - most spheres of living provide the possibility to be creative. But, in order for the work, whatever it may be, to be truly creative the writer, sculptor, chef has to have challenged herself, forced herself to ask, ‘what if?’. She has to explore the question, dismiss the obvious answer and come up with a novel solution to make the work unique.

There is nothing wrong with following a cookbook recipe, duplicating a garden plan, imitating a favourite painter - you end up with delectable food, a lovely garden and a pleasing painting. You have duplicated a plan originating with someone else.

If, on the other hand, you take basic knowledge and introduce new elements you are creating something new.

Basic knowledge. Mastery of the ‘how to’ of writing, painting, cooking or gardening is the first step in creation. Often this means taking a course. If the instructor does not share her knowledge of the tools of the trade the course will be useless. Art teachers who tell the class, ‘relax and allow your imagination to tell you what to do’ are of no help whatsoever. If you don’t know how to apply a watercolour wash, to mask areas of paper, to lift off unwanted paint the aspiring artist ends up with a muddy mess. If a garden instructor talks of plants and gardens without sharing her knowledge of local soil, useful fertilizers, planting times and other information the would-be gardener will feel cheated.

For writers the ‘how to’ books fill the bookstores as do inspirational books. Once a writer knows the basics of story telling, the need for a story arc, the do’s and don’ts of dialogue, the always important need to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ she is ready to read the inspirational books - Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s many books, Susan Wooldridge’s Poem Crazy. And maybe the scary books about overcoming writer’s block, facing down the critical monster or her shoulder who tells her whatever she’s written is garbage. Once the basics are in the toolbox the writer, painter, chef or gardener is ready to place her individual stamp on her work.

In Toronto there is a wonderful woman trained as a visual artist and landscape architect who creates community gardens that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also reflect the ethnicity and needs of the community. In a largely Asian neighbourhood Chinese and Vietnamese vegetables grow alongside flowers. Similarly in a largely Jamaican area she has enlisted the help of knowledgeable local Jamaicans to do the same thing. She knows what plants will or will not flourish and helps the neighbourhood create a garden unique to its needs. The gardens provide food and beauty and community involvement. She has asked the ‘what if’ question for each one and come up with answers that make these gardens unique.

For writers the ‘what if?’ question is particularly important. For some writers it is difficult to answer and apply. Those who write formula fiction like Harlequin romances may tell an engaging story but because their work is tightly hedged with rules they cannot deviate far and are unlikely to break free of the mold. They are not allowed to be creative. For mystery writers too there are conventions but they are much less rigorous and allow leeway to add twists that startle and engage the reader.

How does it happen? First, the germ of an idea starts you thinking about a story or a book. Characters appear and you consider whether or not they are stereotypes. If they are your readers and critics will call them cardboard figures and probably not relate to them although they may like the pace and the plot. You need individuals with personalities of their own.

If they are boring the writer has to ask ‘what if’ the protagonist was a man rather than a woman? What if he had physical limitations instead of a robust body? What if the hero was seriously flawed but had one redeeming feature?

Given interesting characters what of the setting? Is it one you’ve read about, one that others have used? Is it a ‘dark and stormy night’? If so you have to ask ‘what if’ again. Reconsidering the path you’ve chosen, forces you to look to the side and search for an alternative way to reach the end and exercise creative choice.

Every facet of the story or book needs to pass the ‘what if’ test. Many writers from long practice have internalized the question and avoid the easy and stereotyped answers. It’s a question every writer has to consciously or unconsciously ask if she hopes to create unique stories.

Cut to the Chase is her third book in the Hollis Grant series. This is the proto-cover and Joan says the final cover will have lovely red splatters on it.

For more information about Joan and her books, and to read a lovely short story involving pigs, go to her website.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Decades Come And Decades Go . . . But Where DO They Go?

By Lonnie Cruse

It's nearly the end of 2009 and nearly the beginning of 2010. I'm already having trouble writing 2010, not to mention remembering to say twenty-ten. I mean, I'm still waiting for Y2K to hit. You know, the world-wide disaster that was predicted nine years ago? Computers would fail everywhere which meant we couldn't buy anything because most stores are computer run. So we were all in serious trouble. Remember that?

Actually, if you live in small town America, like we do, it's quite possible to buy the necessities of life, even if every computer in the area goes down. We in the mid-west found that out during this past winter's ice storm, when there was no power anywhere. Local stores allowed customers to buy $25 worth of necessities if the customers used cash. Stores sold, customers bought, and the world kept spinning on its axis. Not a lot of fun, but it taught us that we could survive without the luxuries we've all come to think of as necessities. Where was I?

Oh yeah, the passage of time. For me, Y2K seems like it was just last year, not nearly last decade. Where has this decade gone? I'm still living (in my head) back in the early 1990's but most children born then are now teenagers, quickly headed for their twenties.

Life is whizzing by all of us at an alarming rate. And it isn't coming back around. Is there something you've always wanted to do? Write a book, fly a plane, see another part of the world, start a different career? Anything?

It may seem impossible or unreachable, but there is always a way . . . if you are willing to take a chance. The end of 2010 (which will be here before we know it) will also end this decade and we will be into a whole new one. Don't let life zip by you without fulfilling at least a bit of the dreams you've had. Give it a shot, take a chance, or whatever other cliche' works for you. Just do it. You might not get another chance.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Editing Bug

Elizabeth Zelvin

I come by my editing skills honestly. I learned to read so far back I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I do remember the first grade teacher asking us to read aloud on the first day, so she could see what skill we had, if any. I had read out all of Look and See before she recovered from her astonishment enough to stop me.

My mother did freelance writing and editing, and I remember laying out index cards on the dining room table like a tarot deck and alphabetizing them from the time that I was ten. I was the kind of kid who could catch a typo on a cereal box. Perfect spelling was a matter of course. If I wasn’t sure, my father would say, “Look it up.”

“Do I have to?” I would whine. “Can’t you just tell me?” I can’t remember where the unabridged dictionary lived, but it wasn’t readily accessible, the way Google is today. I do remember that the Encyclopedia Americana lived in the basement. Kids today can hardly imagine a time when all of human knowledge could be compiled in twenty-six volumes.

My whole family had the eagle eye that pounced on every typographical sparrow and spelling mouse. I suspect it’s genetic. Does anybody know? I haven’t been following the mapping of the human genome, but I wouldn’t be surprised. That went for grammar too. I winced every time they used the egregious “to boldly go” on Star Trek. A split infinitive makes my teeth ache. For the young and innocent, that’s putting anything—anything—between between “to” and the verb. I’d have been drummed out of the family if I’d ever said “to better understand.” What’s wrong with “to understand better”? Nothing.

I worked as an editor for fifteen years. My job was recasting textbook and reference book authors’ infelicitous language and catching every typo. I remember once my boss gave all the editors a horribly mangled piece of prose to fix as a text. Afterward, she said my edit improved the piece beyond her own conception of a perfect score. It was downright embarrassing. But I couldn’t help it. If I saw it, I had to fix it, and I always saw it.

In recent years, I’ve endeared myself to agents and editors by turning in a compulsively clean manuscript. If anything, I have to watch the successive revisions like a hawk to make sure those through whose hands the manuscript passes leave things the way I wrote them.

Reading the printed version of Death Will Help You Leave Him when I first got my copies of the book, I was mortified to see a proofreader had “fixed” one of my jokes since my last look at the galleys. A secondary character has very heavy eyebrows, so bushy that they meet above the bridge of his nose. When he’s mentioned again, Bruce says, “I don’t like his eyebrow.” He adds (to the reader), “I waggled mine like Groucho Marx,” just in case either we or the character he’s talking to missed it. But what did the proofreader do? Yep. In the printed book, he says, “I don’t like his eyebrows.” I can’t do anything about it, but it makes me crazy.

The latest incarnation of my editing bug has surprised the hell out of me: editorial changes in my own songs. I’ve been a songwriter (on and off, with long stretches of off and bursts of on) for fifty years. Many of my songs were copyrighted in 1975, most of the rest in the late 1990s or in 2000 to 2002. I have performed them many times. My music has been on the back burner as I’ve pursued my mystery writing career. But recently I picked the guitar up again.

I had to relearn the songs before I could sing them. My aging memory considers 1975 or later “recent” and therefore forgettable. (I have no trouble remembering songs I learned in Girl Scout camp in the Fifties.) Luckily, I have the melodies taped and the lyrics written down. I didn’t expect the flaws to start leaping out at me, the same way infelicities in a mystery manuscript do. I had to change the rhyme I’d always thought sounded forced, the musical phrase that would sound better going up than going down, the line that was just a little weak. I couldn’t help it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

...a book by its cover

Sandra Parshall

Have you ever been so entranced by a book’s cover that
you bought the book on the spot? Or so revolted that you put the novel back on the shelf without so much as opening it to the first page?

Writers dream of having the first kind of cover and live in fear that they’ll end up with the second. Tales of bad covers abound – writers gnashing their teeth and sobbing to sympathetic colleagues, “I hate it! And I can’t get them to change it!”

Yes, believe it or not, those wise, all-knowing folks who run publishing houses sometimes insist on covers that anyone with functional eyesight should be able to see as awful and off-putting. If a writer is well-established, fans won’t care; they’ll buy the book regardless of the mess on the cover. If an author is a first-timer or someone still trying to break out of the midlist, he or she may worry that a bad cover will hold down sales. Seeing your beloved baby dressed in an ugly frock can take a lot of the pleasure out of promoting the book.

I’ve just been through my own nail-biting wait for a final cover for Broken Places, the third Rachel Goddard mystery that will be published in February. If you’ve already looked for the book online (bless you for that!), you probably think the cover will look like this.

But that’s a dummy cover, put forth by the distributor before I had even finished writing the novel. These days information about new books goes out long in advance, while final covers may not be available until just before the books are printed. There’s nothing wrong with the dummy cover, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have it on the book, but it seems too pretty and sedate for a novel that is, I promise you, intense. The book will go to the printer soon, and I learned last week that the final cover will look like this.

It still needs tweaking -- my name will be made more visible, and a review quote will be added (fortunately, it's had some nice pre-publication reviews; snippets are now posted on my web site ) -- but this is pretty much what the published cover will look like. I think it’s scary and perfectly tailored to the story. (Yes, a fire plays a vital part in the plot.)

While waiting for my own cover, I was obsessed with the whole subject of mystery covers and looked at hundreds, both on my bookshelves and online. Some are hauntingly beautiful. Some are truly awful. Some are simply bland, doing nothing to sell the story. What I find most fascinating are the differences between covers on various editions of the same book. If you go to my web site, you can see the US cover of The Heat of the Moon (which I like), along with the radically different UK cover (which I don’t like), and the Japanese cover (which I love).

Karin Slaughter’s books not only have different covers in different countries, but often the title is changed. These, for example, are covers for the same book.

Tana French’s covers are markedly similar from country to country. These two remind me of the cover of my second book, Disturbing the Dead (on the sidebar to the left).

Lee Child’s cover designs in different editions often have similar graphics, although the colors are different.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has had many looks in many countries, but this is the one that captured the Anthony Award this year for Best Cover Art. It's on the US hardcover edition from Knopf.

I think it's rather blah compared with some of the book’s other covers, especially the third one below.

When Laura Lippman wrote paperback originals, all her covers had a variation of this design, with the picture sandwiched between two blocks of text.

On her first few hardcovers, the designs bore little similarity to one another, but now her covers have settled into a pattern, with the title in a box overlaying the art.

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine has published so
many books that she’s probably keeping an army of cover artists in regular work. Her covers, like Larsson’s and French’s, look strikingly different on different editions.

Some publishing imprints, primarily those that put out cozy and humorous mysteries, have distinct styles they use for all their authors’ books. An Obsidian mystery often has an uncluttered look with a woman as the focus, like this Elaine Viets cover.

Berkley Prime Crime, a Penguin imprint like Obsidian, usually puts extremely detailed and realistic art on its cozies, depicting the inviting environment of the story rather than characters. The cover of my friend Avery Aames’s first Cheese Shop Mystery, to be published next July, is a good example.

Some writers are one of a kind, and their covers often reflect that. Megan Abbott, for example, writes hardboiled mysteries set in the first half of the 20th century, and you know when you pick up an Abbott novel that you’ll be transported back to an earlier era.

Returning to my original questions: How much does a book’s cover matter to you? If you haven’t read the author before, will an enticing cover draw you in? Will an ugly cover make you put the book down without giving the story a chance? What are the elements that make a cover work for you? What’s the most striking book cover you’ve ever seen?

Writers, share your own bad cover stories!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Getting Finished with Getting Started

Sharon Wildwind

The first hurdle is starting. Not gathering research or making notes or developing characters, but writing Chapter 1.

The second hurdle is finishing the first draft, all the way to the end of the book.

Real life being in the way is the most common reasons that want-to-be writers never make the leap into being a beginning writer. Real life is hard. Horrendous events happen to individuals and to families. Those events require courage, professional intervention, and sometimes legal action to overcome.

I wish the solution was to tell the overwhelmed writer to take however much time she needed to get her life in order, then come back to writing. The sad truth is that many would-be writers never find their way back from real life.

When I was in university, I hit a spell when I wasn’t keeping up. Every week I had another good reason that I hadn’t finished my assignments. There had been a family crisis. I’d been sick. I had to work extra hours to make money for tuition. We’d had a fire in the dorm. Finally my professor said, “Life will always get in the way. You came here because you wanted a university education. If you really want that, get whatever help you need, and find a way around these obstacles. If you’re only kidding yourself about wanting it, stop now and figure out what you do want.”

As cruel as it sounds, some times the best thing for a person to do is admit that she isn’t a writer, never will be one, and go on to figuring out what she really wants. Her creative talents may lie in a completely different artistic endeavor and when she finds her niche, she’ll know it.

If we can get past real life; if writing really is what we want to do, here are eight other reasons that stop want-to-be writers. They’re listed in alphabetical order.

1. Feeling overwhelmed.
2. Knowing there are problems with the story, but not how to fix them.
3. Knowing there are problems with the writing, but not how to fix them.
4. Losing interest in the process of writing.
5. Losing interest in the story.
6. Losing track of the story.
7. Realizing more research is needed.
8. Wondering if I’m a real writer.

The solution to every one of these barriers is one word. WRITE! Don’t worry about good, worry about finished. The goal here is to get to two words—THE END—because the writing at this point is pure process. Learn what it feels like to start a book. Learn what it feels like to finish a book. The first draft of a first book is a seed. No one knows what wonderful thing will grow out of it. And in order to find out, you have to get the seed in the ground.

Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.
~Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), American playwright and the inspiration for Nora Charles in the Thin Man stories

Monday, December 14, 2009

Explaining the Inexplicable: Steinbeck on Writing

I'm reading a beautiful book of letters that John Steinbeck wrote to his editor while he was writing East of Eden. Eden's not a mystery, yet it is one of the most suspenseful novels I've ever read; Steinbeck placed his reader between a monumental battle of good versus evil and created perhaps the most villainous woman I have ever encountered in fiction.

What struck me first about Steinbeck's letters is how much time he devoted to them. It must have taken him hours, sometimes, to write these brilliant missives in the margin of a special notebook his editor had given him. They were, he said, a warm-up to the act of writing fiction.

What I noticed second was his eloquence, even in a supposedly casual letter, and how diction makes all the difference in a piece of writing.

Early in the book, Steinbeck assessed the act of writing itself. He explained that in order to do his best writing, he would do it for his sons--not for some large nebulous group, but for his sons who would one day read his novel:

" . . . sometimes in a man or woman awareness takes place--not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through--not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can't be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible."

I couldn't put it much better than that. I feel "locked in wordlessness" much of the time when I try to write, and I'm reminded of the words of Fredric Jameson (a literary scholar and Marxist political theorist), who described this disconnect as "the prisonhouse of language" because we are, in a sense, trapped with the thoughts that we can never entirely express.

Interesting that Steinbeck and Jameson may have struggled to express it, yet the results were eloquent and memorable.

How do you define writing? Are you ever trapped in the prisonhouse, the wordlessness, that you must fight against?

Image: My college history notes. :)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Best Location in the Nation

Guest Blogger Lisa Black

Cleveland, Ohio (pop. approximately 500,000) is a Great Lakes Port city on the southern short of Lake Erie. Among many other commerce and cultural kudos, Cleveland was the home of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created the comic book character Superman in 1932.

I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first 36 years of my life. I swam in Lake Erie, felt the crunch of newly fallen leaves under my feet as I walked to school, spent summer nights in the Flats with teeming masses of the young and wild, music pounding out of the bars until everyone had to shout to be heard.

It was there I entered the world of forensics, spending the most interesting five years of my life at the coroner’s office. I didn’t mind the smell of decay, leached into the tile walls after decades of dead bodies. I learned to love the stuffy towering floors of the justice center where I waited to testify in trials, and the rattling of the rapid transit as it would cross the Cuyahoga River, steel valley cloaked in purple hues under the early morning mist. I loved my job for the stories it told.

One of these involved a missing escort, never seen again after a date with a new client. We could not prove the client did it, just as we never found her body. That was twelve years ago. But in Evidence of Murder I could write my own solution to the case of the missing escort. To do that, I needed to learn more about the history of Cleveland and a particular suburb, Lakewood.

America, as we are all taught, was founded on the idea of freedom. Europeans came here to be able to worship as they pleased, come and go as they pleased, break out of the strict social castes of the Old Country. At least that’s what we prefer to dwell on, because the reasons behind the founding of most major American cities are not quite so picturesque.

To sum: many American cities were founded to make money. The Dutch settled New York because it had a port and therefore a handy place to set up a trading colony, a franchise of the Dutch West Indies Company. Chicago came about when a Haitian man and his Indian wife set up a trading post at, again, a handy port. Los Angeles became organized when a Spanish bureaucrat convinced the king that the area could be a cash cow, since there were plenty of resources for the farmers to produce supplies to support the military forts, and both would usher in more trading with Asia. No lofty ideals involved; but then, Americans are nothing if not practical. 

And so it was in Cleveland, when the Connecticut Land Company sent Moses Cleaveland to set up a commercial port where the Cuyahoga River could take boats from the Great Lakes to within 4 miles of the Ohio river (and therefore the Mississippi, reaching the rest of the country down to New Orleans). Not even the disease-ridden mosquitoes could discourage them, not when there was money to be made.

That’s why people came to America, then and now—because they couldn’t make a living in a tiny town in Germany, as my mother’s grandparents found, or because a small place in Bohemia could only use so many cabinet makers, as my father’s. Around 1900, Cleveland had the second largest Czech population in the country and the fourth in the world. Many of them settled in a section of Lakewood, called Birdtown since the streets were named for birds—Robin, Lark, Quail.

This photo is from a school project to document the history of Birdtown. Click here to learn more and see more photos.

From their homes they could walk to work at one of the local factories, particularly the Cleveland Carbon Company, a collection of red-brick buildings next to what would later be the Red Line Rapid Transit tracks. Riding home from work at the Coroner’s Office, the impressive buildings where they once manufactured carbon brushes and other carbon items meant I had four stops left. Perhaps I was drawn to Lakewood because my sister worked in the hospital there for ten years. Perhaps I was drawn to the old manufacturing plant, similar to a woodworking factory my mother’s ancestor founded to help his fellow countrymen find jobs. In any case, I knew that Lakewood's Birdtown would be the perfect opening for my second Theresa MacLean mystery, Evidence of Murder.

I love setting my books in Cleveland. As I research the city's history, I run into my own.
For more information about my latest book, other books, or Cleveland, I’d love for you to visit my web site.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Writers Killing off Their Characters . . .

I just saw a very intriguing television advertisement by a VERY famous writer who says he'll kill off his lead character in his next book if readers don't buy enough copies of his latest book. He grinned and I took it as a joke, but it got me thinking. Chances are very good the ad will work and more copies will sell. I just wish I dared try it, but I don't.

Writers who kill off unlikeable characters often win the hearts of their readers. But writers who kill off popular characters risk everything from loss of readership and/or publisher to being chased into a dark alley and mugged by angry readers. Writing books is a risky business. Even killing off minor characters who were well liked by loyal readers can spark a backlash. Let's don't even talk about what happens when a writer kills a child or an animal in fiction. It's basically courting disaster. It's asking to be mugged in a dark alley.

Writers who stop writing an original series and begin a new one with new characters also court disaster. Pull it off, create new characters that your loyal fans can fall in love with, and you're in business, literally. Off with the old, on with the new.

Writers who don't pull it off will lose the loyal fans they already have and may or may not find a whole new fan base. Again, risky move in a risky business.

I've had female readers tell me they had a crush on my male lead character, Sheriff Joe Dalton in the Metropolis Mystery series. Lucky for me, those readers stuck with me when I began the Kitty Bloodworth series. There will be a new Kitty Bloodworth/'57 Chevy book in July of '10. Due to circumstances beyond my control, there was a longer than usual period between Kitty book #1 and Kitty book #2. I'm hoping that doesn't translate to lost readers.

In this down economy, and with more and more folks putting fingers to keyboard to write the next Great American Novel, just staying published is iffy, is difficult, is downright scary. Killing off favorite characters is becoming beyond risky. With less money to spend on books, readers are choosier than ever. Writers DO have to write what they feel and not what's hot because what's hot today is downright frozen out by the time any new book goes to press. However, we also have to keep an eye on what readers will and won't tolerate, if we want to keep our fans happy. And keep them reading our books. And avoid dark alleys.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kingship and inheritance

Elizabeth Zelvin

Literature has often used as a central theme the right to property and position by virtue of birth. Kingship is one of Shakespeare’s primary topics. Who’s the rightful heir? Who’s a usurper? How far will someone go to be the king? These were burning questions in Shakespeare’s day, when society was hierarchical and class immutable. Also, the Queen was Shakespeare’s boss. The history plays were propaganda for the Tudors. But the tragedies too—King Lear, Hamlet—and even some of the comedies—address the issues of legitimacy and power.

Golden Age mysteries and those of the Fifties and Sixties still assumed that the reader would root for the rightful heir, or at least be against the usurper. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar were organized around this premise. Both writers stacked the deck by making their usurpers bad guys who would kill to get what they wanted. But in each case, I find myself asking this: If the antagonist weren’t a homicidal villain, why would it be so bad for him to get the property?

While I still revel in the glory of Shakespeare’s language, I have become increasingly unsympathetic to this premise in his work in the past couple of decades. In the world I live in, I can’t work up any passion for someone’s right to power and privilege simply because of whom that person’s parents were. Is the defense of kingship a noble cause that moves anyone to passion nowadays?

Sure, some of Shakespeare’s themes are still universal. In King Lear, an aging man who hopes his daughters will care for him gives away his power prematurely and lives to regret it. We can relate because today we have to worry about whether our children will put us in a nursing home—and wonder if we can risk giving them power of attorney when we can’t handle our finances any more.

Traditional fantasy fiction is usually set in imaginary preindustrial kingdoms. (Urban fantasy, the genre that Charlaine Harris writes the Sookie Stackhouse books in, is another story.) Heroes and sympathetic characters risk their lives to protect the rightful heir, even when that heir is a baby. It’s easy for the author to stack the deck by making the usurper or conqueror willing to kill the baby to seize and retain power. Nobody likes a baby killer. But what has the baby done to deserve this extreme loyalty, besides being born to the right parents? Can you imagine what would happen to America if the majority decided that a baby was the rightful president? Yet a new generation of kids is being introduced to the notion of kingship through the movies, currently booming, based on fantasy novels.

Speaking of inheritance, remember that wonderful device, the tontine—where as multiple heirs died off, there was more for the survivors, until the last remaining heir scooped the pot? That fueled a lot of 20th century mystery plots. Even more revolve around who gets the money.But if the false claimant were not a villain, would we really be at all indignant if he managed to get the money? Especially if the false claimant has been on the ground, doing all the work? Isn’t it kind of unfair for the true claimant to show up out of the blue and scoop the pot? Brat Farrar actually is a false claimant, though he’s such a great fit for the family he originally plans to con that we want him to prevail, and of course he does.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Natural Death, an ailing old lady is killed in order for the villain to inherit before a new inheritance law becomes effective. Lord Peter Wimsey points out, “She didn’t want to die. She said so.” Now, that’s a right that I can get behind. But to me, the notion of inherited wealth and/or position is so far from my experience as to be downright bizarre. It’s a matter of class, I suppose—or classism. Why should Bunter be pressing the suits and Lord Peter wearing them? Simply because of their parentage. Lord Peter is intelligent and cultivated—but his brother, the Duke of Denver, is an idiot. And Bunter’s taste, especially in clothes, is better than Lord Peter’s.

Am I being cranky here? Do real-life people, except, perhaps, the very rich, even think about inheritance any more? Is it vanishing—or should it vanish—completely from mystery plots?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Almost Real

Sandra Parshall

I still need mailing addresses for Felissa L. and Sandi Lewis, who won free Christmas mysteries last week. Please e-mail me at!

Every Christmas season brings new toys, but only now and then does one catch on and become THE toy, the one every kid absolutely must have and parents drive themselves crazy trying to locate and acquire. Remember Cabbage Patch dolls? This year the “it” toy is the Zhu Zhu Pet, a toy hamster that does all the cute things real hamsters do without expecting food or a clean cage.

Zhu Zhu Pets were created by a guy in St. Louis who has suddenly found himself the head of an enormously profitable family-run company based entirely on a little mechanical rodent. The hamsters are supposed to sell for $10, but they’ve become some scarce that they’re fetching several times that amount on the internet. And once you’ve bought the hamster, what kid will be satisfied without some or all of the “accessories” available? The slide, the skateboard, the fun house, the playground, the little car and garage, the adventure ball, the wheel and tunnels, the “hamster city” ($129.99) – swallow hard and pay up, if you want your kid to be happy with his ersatz pet and stop begging for a real one. (For a while there, it seemed the Zhu Zhu Pet called Mr. Squiggles, pictured above, might be recalled, after a consumer group claimed it contained harmful levels of antimony, but the government has cleared Mr. Squiggles of the charge.)

What will you do if you can’t get your hands on a mechanical hamster for the kid in your life? Don’t despair – this is the golden era of fake pets. Consider the Zzz Animals, artificial puppies and kittens that do nothing but lie on their beds (included) and sleep. According to a catalog, their “little midsections” rise and fall in an amazingly lifelike imitation of breathing. And “the best thin
g about them is that they’re not real!” No walking, no feeding, no messes to clean up, no biting visitors or scratching the furniture. These “pets” never even wake up. Orange tabby and black and white kittens are available, along with a line of puppies – chocolate lab, pug, Shih-Tzu, beagle, schnauzer, golden retriever, Yorkie, Cavalier King Charles, and just in time for the holidays, the new Portuguese water dog that looks exactly like Bo Obama. Batteries not included.

Looking for something more active? Check out the monkey and puppy that say “Hello!” and proceed to “roll on the floor and laugh and laugh” before saying “Goodbye!” and shutting down.

Then there’s Scoozie, the all-purpose mammal. It looks kind of like a squirrel, but it purrs like a cat and wags its bushy tail like a dog – when it’s happy. If you neglect a Scoozie, it growls at you. It has light and sound sensors and responds to its environment. This fake pet does have to be fed, although the catalog copy doesn’t reveal its dietary requirements (perhaps there’s an expensive fake food available?) or whether it needs a litter box or regular walks. It sounds like almost as much work as a real pet, but I guess you save on vet bills. Maybe that’s the next thing: an artificial pet that needs shots.

If Scoozie is too much trouble and the rolling, laughing monkey and dog freak you out, try the Christmas bear, which will read “The Night Before Christmas” in what is described as “a soothing male voice” (accompanied by soft background music) while rocking back and forth. It will read your child to sleep so you won’t have to do it.

There’s a whole industry producing artificial life forms that are promoted as trouble-free, mess-free substitutes for the real thing. Maybe they fill a need in families where no one has the time to care for live dogs and cats. But it all seems rather sad to me. A child growing up without the companionship of a pet with a unique personality and real needs is missing out on a vital connection to another species. I have lived my entire life with cats and dogs, and through them I have learned to respect and care f
or all animals. They have taught me that sometimes I have to put my own needs and plans aside. They have shown me that if I give love unconditionally, I will receive it in return, many times over.

I can look to my left as I write this and see our cat Emma sleeping on her pillow under a lamp. Her midsection (not so little, alas) rises and falls with each breath. Any minute she’s going to wake up and start making demands, as real animals are inclined to do – pet me, feed me, love me.

Her brother Gabriel is already sitting by my chair, giving me that look I know so well: If I don’t leave the computer right now and give him a meal, I’ll find out just how much of a nuisance he can be.

They drive me crazy sometimes with their fussy appetites, and they scare me witless when they get sick.

I wouldn’t trade them for all the mechanical hamsters in the world.