Monday, May 31, 2010

Leisure and Remembrance

by Julia Buckley

On this Memorial Day weekend, reflection seems to be in order, especially because the weather lends itself to some back yard resting. Lorraine Hansbury said, "Never be afraid to sit awhile and think," and I'm with her. I'm going to dare to sit and daydream and possibly eat some ice cream while I do it.

However, a part of the day's reflection always leads me to the reason for the day--the memorials that are in order for those who serve the country--enlisted people both living and dead.

I always like to ponder the words of Abraham Lincoln, whose graceful prose showed the proper respect for both the dignity of service and the pain of loss. In his second inaugural address (1865), he said:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Happy Memorial Day to all veterans and their families, and to all American troops and the people who wait for them at home.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Veiled Prophet Lives On

By Joanna Campbell Slan
Guest blogger

Ah, fame. It certainly is fleeting.

Most of us would scratch our heads in confusion when hearing the name “Thomas Moore.” But back in the 1800s, Edgar Allan Poe called Moore “the most popular poet now living.” His Oriental poem “Lalla-Rookh” not only inspired Poe’s “Al Aaraaf,” it also inspired a St. Louis tradition that I included in my latest book, Photo, Snap, Shot (May/Midnight Ink).

More than one hundred years ago, a businessman named Alonzo Slayback spun “Lalla-Rookh” into what he called “an illuminated nocturnal pageant,” featuring “the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan,” a character from Moore’s poem. The pageant would include a lavish parade and a debutante ball. Slayback wrote in his diary, “for next year, and the year after, and so on for a hundred years, the strangers who visit our October fairs can be entertained.” Along with his goal of civic boosterism for St. Louis, he and a group of likeminded individuals wanted to create an ongoing organization, a “mysterious brotherhood.”

To build interest in their organization, the group sent a messenger bearing “information” to the local newspapers. The image you see here ran in the Missouri Republican along with information about the “carnival feature” to come.

On October 8, 1878, at 8 p.m., a crowd gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River. The air was crisp, the sun had set, and anticipation grew to a fevered pitch when someone cried out, “I see it! I see it! The barge! He’s coming!”

Rockets exploded, filling the sky with streamers of fire.

As the flat boat grew closer, onlookers could make out a lavishly costumed figure who looked much more benevolent than the image in the woodcut. The Veiled Prophet wore a white veil, a Carnival-type mask, and a deep green robe. In one hand was a mirror and in the other was a “magic scroll.” To the cheers of fifty thousand spectators, the Prophet was escorted to a gold throne on a float pulled by prancing horses. Seventeen more floats followed behind, making their way down one and one-half miles of cobblestone streets lit by more than 1,000 torches.

The Prophet had arrived to bestow his blessings on St. Louis, a city that found great favor with him. As a token of his esteem, the Veiled Prophet also made an appearance as a special guest at a debutante ball. There he chose one young maiden to rule for an entire calendar year as his Queen of Love and Beauty.

This tradition continues today. And my protagonist Kiki Lowenstein learns that a murder at her daughter’s school may have its internecine roots in the city’s century old pageantry.

Over the past 132 years, the Veiled Prophet has meant many things to the people of St. Louis. Slayback would be proud that his idea has enjoyed such a long and colorful history. Today, the Veiled Prophet (VP) is still a vital part of St. Louis high society. The debutante ball remains unparalleled in its beauty and grandeur. What was once an elitist organization has become ever more inclusive. The organization has made investments of more than $1.75 million in the city, and VP volunteers have given service projects more than 1800 man-days of sweat equity.

For my purposes, the Veiled Prophet celebration forms a fascinating diversion in a murder investigation. When I started this series, I chose St. Louis as the setting not only because I lived there (“write what you know”), but also because I think St. Louis is such an interesting and unique place.

I’m curious. What do you think about all this? Would you like to see a Veiled Prophet Parade? Have you ever attended a debutante ball? Can you imagine yourself as part of a coronation fit for a queen?

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of eleven non-fiction books as well as Paper, Scissors, Death, an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel. Photo, Snap, Shot (May/Midnight Ink) is the third book in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. Publisher’s Weekly called Photo, Snap, Shot a “diverting” mystery that is “a cut above the usual craft themed cozy.” Joanna is a regular blogger at Visit her at

Friday, May 28, 2010

A brush with danger?

By Lonnie Cruse

A while ago I received a very nasty, very threatening phone call on my cell phone. Luckily some people who break the law (this IS against the law, though only a misdemeanor) aren't as sharp as they could be.

Case in point, this guy not only didn't block the calling number he was using, but since I didn't answer the phone (in my purse, didn't hear it ring) he left his message in my voice mail, TWICE! Therefore I was able to report him, give the authorities his cell phone number, AND record the call for them, giving them proof of the calls.

Next case in point, at that time I had an outgoing message on my cell phone voicemail giving our name and saying we weren't available to take the call, so please leave a message. I've since changed it to a generic voicemail message from my phone company which gives the caller my number (but not my name) and says I'm not available. However, like I said, this genius called TWICE and obviously didn't hear me say my name, so if he misdialed, he never noticed he had the wrong number. The wrong person. The jury is still out on that one. The local state's attorney and the deputy who took my complaint are tracking down the caller.

My hubby used his cell phone to call the number back and the guy who answered not only sounded different from the nasty caller, but he also swore he loaned his phone to someone else who made the call. He begged us not to turn it over to the authorities and promised to take care of it, but because the call was obviously threatening and obviously directed at a woman (judging by the words used) hubby told him to do whatever he had to do, but the report was going to the authorities.

I did wonder about whether to turn this in to the authorities. The caller didn't use my name so it well could be a misdial. Turning him in might make him mad and turn his focus on me instead of who he really meant. However, he needs to learn not to threaten others. He also could stand to learn some real English, as he only used about five words that weren't filthy.

I titled this post: A brush With Danger for a reason. The threat in the call/voicemail was that the caller was going to do certain particularly nasty things to me (or whomever he meant to call.) Since then I'm keeping the storm door locked as well as the front and back doors, taking more precautions, and wondering if I need a new cell phone number. And FYI, my cell phone company would do NOTHING to help me with this beyond blocking that person's number. IF he meant this for me, he can easily give my number to his friends (assuming he has any) OR borrow other phones to harass me.

So far that hasn't happened and I hope it doesn't. I used the Internet to try to track the number he called from and tracked the phone owner to a city about an hour from us. I used several tracking sites and all took me to the same place. However, in order to get the owner's name, I had to pay a (small in some cases) fee. I decided to let the sheriff's department give it a shot first. Thing is, HIS phone company would not help me either. They were not interested in the fact that one of their customers is using their system to make illegal phone calls. Might violate HIS privacy. Sigh. Must have a court order, which authorities here are trying to get. Yeah, I understand both phone companies' reasons, I don't agree. You break the law, you should lose your phone priviledges. End of story.

My point about the danger is that if this guy is only an hour away, with all the information on the Internet today, he could easily track me down. It made me nervous. So I'm being cautious. And if I have to, I'll call in some favors from other law enforcement folks I know to find this guy. Folks who owe me. I can play dirty too, if need be.

The voice in the voicemail was not familiar and I can't, for the life of me, think of anyone I've ticked off THAT badly lately, so I'm hopeful it was a dialing error. Still, I don't give out that number to many people, the threatening calls were two hours apart so who loans their phone out for that long, and other things worry me. I'll let you know if anything comes of this. Meanwhile, folks, be thankful that some people are not savvy about how to make threatening phone calls and that you have voicemail. If you don't have it, you need to enable it. Right now.

Stay safe, sometimes it's a nasty world out there. Hmmm, I probably should use this in a plot line somewhere?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Paradigm Shift

Elizabeth Zelvin

The term “paradigm shift” was coined in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn in a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It means change so fundamental that it is impossible to go back to old ways of thinking. Kuhn meant it to apply only to science. For example, as Wikipedia puts it, “Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or that ether carries light.” I would add “that the human species began 6,000 years ago and is not descended from earlier primates.” In fact, those who still insist on such beliefs are not scientists. Physicist Stephen Hawking tells the wonderful story about the little old lady who speaks up at a lecture about the earth, which is now known to be a sphere revolving in space and rotating around the sun, rather than standing on the back of a giant turtle which is standing on the back of another giant turtle, etc. “You can’t fool me, young man,” she says (or words to that effect). “It’s turtles all the way down.”

I have written two short stories about the voyages of Columbus and am doing research for more. I’ve already learned that contrary to popular belief, most people in 1492 knew that the earth was round, not flat. Columbus based his quest for the Indies on his belief that the distance across the intervening “Ocean Sea” was not as great as everybody else believed. In 1633, Galileo was forced to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than being the still center of the universe around which all else revolves. His post-recantation mutter, perhaps apocryphal, “And still it moves,” is the antithesis of “turtles all the way down.” Sometimes paradigm shifts take a long, long time to become complete.

Nowadays, the concept of the “paradigm shift” is applied broadly to describe times in which everything changes. The Industrial Revolution was a paradigm shift. World War I was a socioeconomic paradigm shift that shook up class structure, human mobility, and a host of basic assumptions. So was World War II. Remember the guy in the movie The Graduate who says, “Plastics!” with such gravity he’s clearly attempting to convey the secret of the universe? Before the War, people used glass bottles and wooden picnic forks and metal buckets get the idea.

We are going through a paradigm shift now. When did it start? It’s hard to say, but think about the technology in early episodes of Star Trek, or re-read some science fiction novels from the Eighties or even the Nineties. The World-Wide Web has something to do with it, and so does the miniaturization of electronic devices, which for some reason an awful lot of writers failed to imagine. Can anyone deny that everything is changing? I for one was profoundly surprised when vinyl records disappeared from record stores. Now these stores, as well as video stores, are themselves becoming obsolete as more and more people download music from the Internet and get their movies from Netflix. Now I take discussions of the possible demise of printed books in stride. A calligrapher friend tells me that in her circle, they have the same discussions about handwriting. I’m not surprised, because my son, now pushing 40, went straight from printing to the computer keyboard, leapfrogging over cursive. I’m beginning to get used to people blurting all their secrets on cell phones on crowded buses, because it isn’t going to go away. I wish I’d had my GPS twenty years ago. And I use the Internet constantly to network and promote my books, do therapy with clients all over the world, and keep my friendships strong and current. I don’t yet do texting or own a Kindle, but I’d be a fool not to consider the possibility that at some time within the next ten or twenty years, I may have to join the party unless I want to become not just a Luddite, but a hermit.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eye of the Beholder

by Sheila Connolly

Sandy is recovering from successful knee surgery which makes it hard for her to sit at her computer for long, so she asked me to fill in.

Sandy recently pointed out an interesting article that appeared in the New York Times: "For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?" (May 11, 2010), by Patricia Cohen. In it, the writer discusses whether physical attributes are correlated with the likelihood of committing (or being convicted) of a crime. There are studies currently being carried out by economists (why not psychologists, one might ask), and these suggest that certain physical traits are associated with criminal activity, namely:

–height: short men are apparently 20-30% more likely to end up in prison


–physical attractiveness

This last one is certainly a loaded issue, because nowhere does the writer indicate what the standard for attractiveness is. Who gets to decide who is beautiful and who is ugly?

In any case, economists have already observed that in the labor market, height is directly related to salary (every inch of additional height means nearly 2% in greater earnings), beauty (employees rated beautiful earn 5% more per hour than an average-looking person; those rated "plain" earn 9% less than average–can someone tell me what the different between "average" and "plain" is?), and obesity. Sad to say, the last seems to apply primarily to white women.

The standard determinants such as education, experience, and productivity are not enough to explain the observed variation in wages. If you're still wondering how we jump from employment to crime, apparently crime can be considered an "alternative labor market."

So the bottom line is, someone who is overweight, unattractive or short is more likely to commit a crime.

Of course there are many other factors–health, social conditions, genetics, upbringing, and psychology–that affect criminal behavior, and I'm not going to discuss them all. What intrigued me about this whole discussion is one of those curious bits of serendipity: in a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago I happened to pick up a copy of Phrenology: New Illustrated Self Instructor, dated 1868. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, phrenology was a popular 19th-century theory that personality traits of a person can be determined by observing the shape of the skull (the skull conforms to the brain beneath, where traits manifest in specific, consistent areas). It is now considered a pseudoscience.

In light of the recent interest, I had to take a look at the book's section on Destructiveness, which is as close at the authors (O.S and L.N. Fowler, Practical Phrenologists) come to criminal inclination. I will say that the most of the slender volume is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat about the human condition; the Destructiveness section takes up all of two pages.

The header for the section on Destructiveness includes "Extermination, Indignation, disposition to Break, Crush, and Tear Down, the Walk-Right-Through-Spirit (don't you love it?)," as well as "Perversion–wrath, revenge, malice, disposition to murder, etc."

The authors describe the cranial characteristics that may suggest destructive behavior. According to their theory, animal propensities reside at the sides of the head, between and around the ears; ergo, brutes have little top-head. Destructiveness is located over the ears, "so as to render the head wide in proportion." Very wide and round heads indicate strong animal and selfish propensities.

For balance, I also looked at the section on "Beautiful, Homely, and Other Forms." There the authors stated:

"...shape is as character, well-proportioned persons have harmony of features and well-balanced minds; whereas those, some of whose features stand right out, and others fall far in, have uneven, ill-balanced characters, so that homely, disjointed exteriors indicate corresponding interiors, while evenly-balanced and exquisitely formed men and women have well-balanced and susceptible mentalities...and the more beautifully formed the more exquisite and perfect the mentality...those naturally ugly-formed are naturally bad-dispositioned."

Phrenology survived into the twentieth century, and even though neurological science has revealed much about the physical structure of the brain, it persists here and there–maybe even among those curious economists. Does appearance–as perceived by society–dictate character? Which comes first, physical form or behavior?

To add another twist, Edgar Allen Poe wrote an article about phrenology entitled "The Imp of the Perverse" for Graham's Magazine in July 1845. In it he proposed to add a principle of Perverseness, which prompts individuals to "act for the reason that we should not." He went on to say:

"I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy to an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis..."

Just in case, writers, make sure your villains are ugly, with large, round heads. And of course your heroes and heroines are all tall, slender, and beautiful.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Single, Still Thought

Sharon Wildwind

Years ago, moving from being a mystery reader to a mystery writer hinged on a single, still thought: somebody, somewhere knew how the mystery-writing world worked, and I had to find them.

I’d read mysteries for forty years, but I had a nagging feeling that what I’d read previously included only a tiny slice of what was available. I started at my local library, picking books without looking at covers or reading jacket blurbs, but rather using a formula like “count in 32 books from where the mystery authors’ last names begin with G.” That's how I discovered Sue Grafton.

This was back where authors were only beginning to develop web sites, book trailers were unheard of, and Facebook was years in the future. Still I could parlay those random library selections into opening tiny doors by looking up authors and publishers on the Internet. Sometimes I’d even find them there.

The first big door cracked open when another mystery writer, with whom I’d shared a creative writing course years earlier, asked, “You’ve joined Sisters in Crime, haven’t you?”

Sisters in what?

I joined. After that, the deluge.

Fast forward about a decade and come to a screeching halt at the end 2008. Stacked precariously beside my bed was an unstable pile of magazines, a good two years worth of unread mystery journals. My single, still thought had become that too many blankety-blank people knew too much about how the mystery-writing world worked and it was time I fished or cut bait.

Who’d been mixing my metaphors?

Choice #1: if I wasn’t going to read them, I should stop subscribing to them. That would clear up space beside my bed, and I could use the subscription money to buy art supplies, but there were niggling feelings that those journals were actually useful and that I already had enough art supplies.

Choice #2: go back to reading them as my bedtime reading, which was the system that had worked fine for a few years. This was where I realized that I’d changed. I no longer found reading about other writers comforting and fun. In fact, my usual reaction to all that glossy promotion of other writers was to want to throw the magazine across the room. While I wasn’t watching, something mean-spirited and cynical had snuck into my life.

How come other people were getting the great book deals, the prime promotions, their books in advertisements in those magazines, and I wasn’t?

I realized I developed a case of plain, old-fashioned jealousy.

I gave myself permission to not read the magazines for a while, but didn’t give myself permission to stop subscribing to them. It took me a year to work through my feelings enough to get some perspective and come up with a plan.

By then I had a three-year unread stack teetering precariously beside my bed, but that was okay because I still had the single, still thought that one day, I was going to find a solution.

I finally realized there was a connection between my struggle with those pesky journals and a basic tool from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Her morning pages have a simple formula: Get Up/Write.

My choice #3 became Get Up/Read.

I realized that the last thing in the evening, when I was tired, was the absolutely worst time to deal with how other people were succeeding. All that did was make sure that my last thought before I went to sleep was that I must not have done enough with my day.

I get up and read those journals for fifteen minutes before I turn on the computer, before I read my e-mail, before I have tea, many days before the sun even comes up. I actually set a timer because on days I still don't want to contend with other people's successes, I can tell myself that I only have to do it for another twelve minutes—eleven minutes—ten minutes—. Anyway, you get the idea.

Every day I try to come away with one new author I might read, or one new idea I might try. It's a much more effective system than counting 32 books in, though that system did have it's merits.

Make no mistake, the jealousy is still there on some days, but now it’s accompanied by another single, still thought. I’ve got the whole day in front of me to be an active participant in the mystery-writing community. This where I belong, and I need to get on with doing whatever I need to do today, and let the future take care of itself.

Quote for the week:

Jealousy is simply and clearly the fear that you do not have value. Jealousy scans for evidence to prove the point - that others will be preferred and rewarded more than you. There is only one alternative - self-value. If you cannot love yourself, you will not believe that you are loved. You will always think it's a mistake or luck. Take your eyes off others and turn the scanner within. Find the seeds of your jealousy, clear the old voices and experiences. Put all the energy into building your personal and emotional security. Then you will be the one others envy, and you can remember the pain and reach out to them.
~Dr. Jennifer James, cultural anthropologist and motivational speaker

Monday, May 24, 2010

du Maurier on Fame

by Julia Buckley
Long before the age of book tours and blog tours and author websites, Daphne du Maurier complained of the public's growing desire for authors to be seen by the world. "Living as we do in an age of noise and bluster," she wrote, "success is now measured accordingly. We must all be seen, and heard, and on the air." (from The "Rebecca" Notebook: And Other Memories.)

du Maurier, a private person who became even more reclusive after her literary success, felt that writers should be just the opposite. "Writers should be read," she contended, "but neither seen nor heard."

I think of this now and then when I contemplate the world of publishing--all its joys and sorrows, its ebbs and flows, and its growing trend of bringing the author to the forefront in a way that du Maurier would have hated. Of course, she had the option of simply saying no. She lived in a grand estate which rivaled her fictional Manderley (and on which, it is said, Manderley was based). Her privacy was secured by her wealth and her remote Cornwall location.

In a moving obituary to du Maurier, Richard Kelly revealed that du Maurier felt her success itself was "a very personal thing, like saying one's prayers, or making love." It was certainly not something for the public's consumption.

But the public is a hungry animal, as modern writers know. It must be fed, not only with books, but with photographs and personal anecdotes and live appearances. J.K. Rowling is a household name and a familiar face because her books thrust her into the limelight in a way that she, an equally private person, could not have expected or wanted.

Still, if du Maurier saw the world as full of "noise and bluster" in the 2oth century, she would perhaps see it as noisier now.

How many writers, I wonder, wish for a world more like du Maurier's, where one could allow one's fantasies to unfurl on the page and then could turn them over to a publisher, and eventually to a reading audience, without ever really having to leave that realm of fantasy?

(Image from Daphne du Maurier page)

Saturday, May 22, 2010


By Sheila Connolly

Recently I returned from the Malice Domestic conference in Arlington VA. It's primarily a celebration of the traditional mystery, gathering together fans, writers, librarians and booksellers for three intense days of swapping stories and skills, and just plain having a good time.

Unlike the much larger mystery conference Bouchercon (in San Francisco this October), Malice Domestic focuses on a single genre. The characteristics of this genre have been debated often and I won't go over them again, but very broadly, a true traditional mystery (often called a cozy) features an amateur sleuth, and limited violence, sex and profanity. There is a crime, but it's often off-screen, and the culprit is caught in the end–that's the equivalent of romance's Happily Ever After ending.

Certainly it's a familiar genre–Agatha Christie is the most-often cited example, and her books are still selling more than thirty years after her death. Obviously they must have an enduring appeal, since multiple generations have enjoyed them.

But as in any genre, there are internal cycles and trends. This year at Malice I heard similar opinions voiced by two well-informed people (an agent and a multi-published writer): readers and publishers of cozies are looker for slightly rougher protagonists.

If we were to sketch the demographic profile of the typical cozy heroine, she comes out as pretty bland: between twenty-five and forty; educated (usually college, but sometimes with an advanced degree); employed; from a comfortable background. She's white-bread, vanilla, what we used to call "upper-middle-class." Of course there are exceptions: protagonists may be older, may have unusual physical features, and their professions may vary widely (although there is currently a lot of emphasis on "crafts," often traditional women's pursuits such as sewing, knitting, or cooking).Basically they're white-collar, not blue-collar. Is this changing? Should it?

Romance Writers of America, with over 10,000 members, conducts surveys of romance readers annually and publishes their demographic analysis on their website. The representative contemporary romance reader:

–is female
–is aged 31-49
–is involved in a romantic relationship (and more likely than the general population to be married or living with a partner)
–is a book buyer, both new and used, from mass merchandisers and book superstores, independent bookstores and on-line sellers
–prefers mass market paperbacks to hardcovers or e-books
–reads at home and while traveling

There is (to my knowledge) no comparable data collection for mystery readers. I'll go out on a limb and guess that the profile for cozy readers is not much different (although for other mystery genres, there are probably more male readers). This is not a scientific analysis, after talking with a lot of readers, both on-line and in person at signings and conferences.

One theory is that readers want to be able to identify with the characters they read about. They want to be able to envision themselves in the heroine's shoes, even if they never plan to solve a murder or take up a new craft. So the question is, have readers become bored with the "nice" protagonists they've been lapping up for so long, and now crave something edgier? Is that why Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone have been so popular? Of course, both of those role models are professionals–they don't track down criminals with a knitting needle or saute pan in hand (although both make good weapons). But are cozy readers tired of sanitized, fairy-tale stories where everyone is clean and friendly and sincere? Do they want just a bit more reality, some authentic grit?

Or have our readers changed? There are so many demands for our attention these days, and that includes our leisure activities. Do we watch television, or movies on television? Do we make something, build something? Where does reading fit? And what does a book have to offer in order to compete with all the other attractions?

Maybe the genteel heroine just doesn't cut it any more, even as a diverting fantasy. Maybe she's just too removed from the real world to be believable.

If this is a real trend, the market will let us know, through book sales. There's nothing wrong with an amateur sleuth who gets sucked into crime-solving, wanting nothing more than to return to her ordinary and unremarkable life. But maybe women's lives have changed, and they want and expect more. In any case, a little variety can be a good thing.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Switching genders?

By Lonnie Cruse

This one's kinda for writers, but I hope you readers will weigh in as well. Please, feel free to do so, in the comments section!

Writers, do you write only female or only male characters? Think you can't write a character of the opposite sex? Think it won't be believable? No one will want to read it? C'mon, don't be chicken!

Even if it's just a short story, why not try writing a character who is totally different from you? Different gender, different ethnicity, different job, different spouse, different family, different beliefs, different everything you can imagine. Why? Because it will stretch you as a writer. Stretch your thinking and your abilities. It will probably force you to do more research. More thinking. More imagining. And you will learn a lot, about what other people are like, what they think like. How they got to be who they are.

Getting to know why people are who they are can be fascinating. Mind you, I do not believe our background is always an excuse for our adult behavior. Yes, many people are severely damaged in childhood. That doesn't mean (to me) that we should pat a serial killer on the head and send him/her on their merry way because they had a very bad childhood. There are ways to get help and survive that. But it IS fascinating to hear about the backgrounds/childhoods of various individuals to see what helped shape their adult lives. And maybe to write about it?

Stretching yourself as a writer can lead you in amazing directions. You learn more about what makes people tick, you learn more about yourself, about your talents, etc, and you learn whether or not you can move into other, different areas of writing.

It's scary, but moving in new directions is also exciting. I've gone from writing one series with a male sheriff lead character to a female retired teacher as my lead character to writing non-fiction self-help for women. Each stage has really helped me understand myself and others and led me into a new career.

How about you? Time for a change? Want to be somewhere else in your writing life next year or in the next five years? Just something for you to mull.

Okay, readers, weigh in. Do you like it when a favorite author branches out in a new direction? I know you hate it when a favorite author stops writing your favorite characters, but will you follow that author into a new direction? How loyal are you, and why? Your thoughts? And thanks, as always, for stopping by!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Voice, Gender, Intuition, and Empathy

Elizabeth Zelvin

Some writers find they benefit greatly from books and workshops about the craft of writing. This is true not only for newcomers but for some well established writers. For example, the highly successful Nancy Martin wrote on Poe’s Deadly Daughters a while back that at a certain point in her career, she decided she wanted more control of her craft and turned to writers who had analyzed the process well enough to write books about it for guidance.

So far, this has not been true for me. I’ve participated in a lot of panels and interviews in which I’m asked how-to questions about various aspects of writing fiction, for example: How do you build a character? How do you make sure your protagonist’s behavior is consistent? How do you write dialogue that rings true for a historical character or for a character whose life experience is different from your own? How do you create voice? Some authors tell about how they keep lists and journals or arrays of post-it notes or read their draft aloud. Not me.

I often have to say that the process is intuitive. Having reached an age when I know a lot more about myself (as well as other things) than I did when I was younger, I can even tell you what “intuitive” is for me. I happen to be someone who processes information very, very quickly. That means that without consciously following a train of thought, I make many, many small decisions in a short amount of time. I think this is especially true for me in the matter of voice.

I recently took part in a panel on women writing male characters (like my series protagonist Bruce Kohler and others in my novels and the protagonists in some of my short stories). One of the questions the panelists were asked was whether we ever get it wrong. “Do men ever tell you that a man would never say something you’ve put in your male character’s mouth?” I hope my confident “No” didn’t sound too hasty, bald, or immodest, because it’s true.

One of the strengths of my writing (and believe me, I know the weaknesses too) is voice. I believe Bruce’s voice sold my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. And since then, thanks to the gift of opportunities to try short stories, a form new to me, I’ve discovered that his is not the only voice, male or female, that I have within me. When I write a line of dialogue or first-person narrative, my brain is using intuition, ie doing a high-speed unconscious sorting of choices based on all of my experience of how people talk and think, so the character will say the right thing for who he is.

There’s another factor at work, too. An old friend said to me not long ago that he became an philosophy professor because he loves to argue. (When he realized that he didn’t like the other aspects of academic life, he quit. No, he didn’t go to law school and become a litigator—or get a theology degree and become a rabbinical scholar. He went into finance and made a ton of money. But that’s another story.) Anyhow, his comment interested me. My parallel reason for why I do my own work is that I became a therapist because I love knowing people’s secrets.

Talking with a group of friends about our pet-peeve expressions, especially those our nearest and dearest use or used over and over, I came up with the one of my mother’s that used to drive me wild: “You can’t imagine....” Sorry, Ma, but indeed I can. Imagining what people different from myself are capable of saying, doing, thinking, and feeling is my stock in trade as both a therapist and a fiction writer.

This trait, skill, gift, or tool—probably all of the above—is called empathy. It’s enabled me to speak with authority in the voice of a sardonic half-Irish recovering alcoholic New York guy, a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage, a perennially traumatized Vietnam vet, and an eleven-year-old girl who’s being molested, among others. I have a lot of interactions, personalities, and secrets stored on the hard-drive of that marvelous computer, my brain, and I can empathize--feel vicariously what they feel, walk a mile in their moccasins, understand their motives and what they will or won’t do—well enough to form them into distinctive fictional characters who, when it’s working, come alive on the page.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Steel Magnolias and Dead Bodies

Interview by Sandra Parshall

Lila Dare and Laura DiSilverio are the same person, but their writing styles and subjects are completely different. Laura drew on her long career as an Air Force intelligence officer when creating Charlotte “Charlie” Swift, a former Air Force investigator turned Colorado private eye, for the thriller Swift Justice, which comes out this fall from Minotaur. Lila takes a lighter approach to crime in the just-published Tressed to Kill, first in the Southern Beauty Shop Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. Today I’m talking to Lila. She'll give free copies of her book to two of the people who leave comments today. If you want to be entered in the drawing for a book, please include your e-mail address.

Q. Tell us about Tressed to Kill and your protagonist.

A. I think of Tressed to Kill as “Steel Magnolias with dead bodies.” It’s set in the Deep South (the fictional town of St. Elizabeth, Georgia) and focuses on the five
women who work at Violetta’s salon. Grace Terhune, my protagonist, is Violetta’s thirty-year-old, recently divorced daughter who has returned to St. Elizabeth from Atlanta after her marriage blew up. This series is as much about the relationships between the five women as it is about finding murderers.

Q. What made you decide to write about a hairdresser? Have you ever worked as a hairdresser?

A. I have never worked as a hairdresser, but I spend lots of time in salons. I’ve always been adventurous with my hair and will frequently tell my stylist to do whatever he wants. Haircuts can be transformative, can’t they? In make-overs, it’s frequently the changes in hair (style, color, length) that make the biggest difference. I like to write about the power of transformation, whether it’s something little like a hair style or as huge as an attitude change.

Q. What is special about southern hairdressers? How do they differ from, say, Chicago hairdressers?

A. We all—hairdressers, soldiers, writers, politicians—grow out of our environment and our culture. I was born in Georgia and lived in Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, and I think there’s something about the rhythms of the South, especially small-town or rural South, that’s different from the frenetic pace of northern or midwestern cities like Chicago. Maybe it’s being closer to the land. Maybe it’s the heat that slows things down because you’re dripping with sweat twenty seconds after stepping out of an air-conditioned store. Maybe it’s the inherited genes of debutantes and slaves and plantation owners bestowing a more mannerly, measured approach to daily living. Whatever it is, I think it has eroded somewhat under the onslaught of global connectivity and mobility. But you can still find it in pockets like St. Elizabeth.

Q. What attracted you to mystery writing? Do you find plotting a mystery easier or more difficult than you anticipated?

A. I’m attracted to mysteries because I love plotting! When I first started writing, I was an outliner and I’d take weeks working in red herrings, twists, suspects. Now, I write by the seat of my pants and don’t always know who the murderer is for sure until I’m almost done with the book. My writing has more energy now and I can always go back and work in plot details during

Q. Is Tressed to Kill the first novel you wrote, or do you have several unsold manuscripts in a closet like the rest of us? Tell us about your road to publication.

A. I have several manuscripts stored in the basement that should never see the light of day: a romance, a Regency romance, and a mystery. I also have the first two books in another series (the books that got me an agent) that have never sold but that I haven’t consigned to the basement yet. I’ve been writing full-time for almost six years, now. It took me 2½ years to find an agent and another two years before we made a sale. Now, I have two books coming out this year and
contracts for several more through 2012. Perseverance and continual improvement are key!

Q. Has the publishing process – working with editors, seeing your cover for the first time, etc. – lived up to your expectations? Has anything surprised you? What have you learned that you wish you’d known ahead of time?

A. The thing that has surprised me the most about the publishing process is the looong, draaawn out timeline. I spent twenty years in the Air Force and was used to complicated, million-dollar, multi-player projects getting accomplished quickly. In publishing, it can be a year and a half between selling a book and seeing it on the shelf, even if you already have a completed manuscript. It was hard for me to get used to the slow pace and stop expecting things to happen instantaneously.

Q. How do you fit writing and book promotion into your life (especially with children around)? Are you able to keep a regular schedule for writing, or do you have to be inventive about finding the time?

A. Luckily, my children are school age (10 and 12), so I can keep a regular schedule. After I walk Lily to middle school and Ellen to elementary school, I make a cup of tea and plonk my butt down in the chair until I’ve got 2,000 words done. Then I grab a quick lunch and work out at the Y and come home to do promotional stuff before picking the girls up from school.

Q. Who are some of your favorite mystery writers – people whose books you want to read as soon as they come out? Have your favorite writers influenced your own writing?

A. Elizabeth George, Cornelia Read, David Liss, early Dick Francis, Lee Child, Craig Johnson, S.J. Rozan. I hope they’ve influenced my writing subliminally, by giving me a greater sensitivity to pacing and rhythm, to characterization and conflict.

Q. What advice can you offer aspiring writers, based on your own experiences?

A. PERSEVERE! Keep writing. Keep learning. I’ve become a much better listener and observer in the years since I decided to write full-time, and it’s paid off in my relationship as well as in my writing. Don’t give up after ten rejections or thirty-two or eighty. I have more than that stinking up my file cabinet. Take another class, join a new critique group, and keep writing. Love the process. Getting published is a wonderful achievement, but if you don’t love the process of writing, you won’t be fulfilled.

Visit the author's websites at and

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kids’ Mysteries

Sharon Wildwind

Kids are as mysterious to me the traveling to the outer rim of the universe, maybe more so because at least I have a through grounding in Star Trek and have learned that if you wave you hands hard enough, you can reach the outer rim. The problem is getting back. Just ask Captain Janeway.

Never mind. I digress. Okay, me and kids.

Later this month I’ll have a table at a book fair. The library sponsoring the fair wants to attract more kids to reading. The organizers asked that each participant have at least one activity or take-away for kids at her table.

That threw me. Whatever was I going to do?

Earlier this year, I happened upon a book, What Really Happened to Humpty? by Jeannie Franz Ransom. (Charlesbridge Press, 2009) Joe Dumpty is a hard-boiled egg. No, I’m not trying to find a new way to describe a noir detective, he really is an egg, with a yolk and a shell, and everything. And he’s a detective, who is trying to find out the real real truth behind his brother Humpty’s near-fatal collapse. Mother Goose is the Chief of Police and nursery rhyme characters, the suspects.

That gave me a clue that there might be a whole range of mystery books for children that so far hadn’t made it over my event horizon.

For very young readers—or perhaps young lookers since these are picture books—I found a charming bunch of characters: a cloud that wants to be a policeman; an insect who tells puns while he solves crimes; a vet clinic where while an animal control officer and vet work to save sick and injured animals, the other animals at the clinic provide their own brand of healing; and the finest (okay, he’s the only) lizard detective in an elementary school.

As the books move grades 4 to 6 level, a common theme seems to be art. I found several both stand-alone and series mysteries where the children have some connection to the art world and the mystery revolves around finding stolen art treasures.

Summer themes are also popular, whether it’s kids who are spending the summer with a distant relative, going on vacation, or working at summer jobs. Summer will end sooner than most kids want, and that builds in a time pressure that works well in these books.

Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes as a boy is also popular and some authors have expanded this to include previously unknown Holmesian relatives, such as younger sisters and great-great-grandchildren. Okay, I know according to THE CANNON Holmes never had children, so how can their be great-great-grandchildren? Wave you hands very fast and pretend you are traveling to the outer rim of the universe.

Even for 11- or 12-year-olds, more serious themes start to sneak into these books. A girl solves the mystery of where her grandfather disappears to every day, but solving the mystery is only the beginning of her problems. An 11-year-old must fight an evil presence that her parents accidently unleashed at their archeology museum.

I have mixed feelings about this. Is an innocent childhood desirable or have 11-year-old children already figured out that world isn’t always a kind and loving place? Are books one way to open discussions about what human beings do to one another?

In the latter vein, there is a large series promoted by the American Girl merchandising line. Books by various authors, with various characters, and settings, tackle difficult historical issues, such as being the child of a freed slave in the late 1800s and the restrictions on Chinese immigration for women.

Not surprisingly considering the gargantuan success of Harry Potter and Twilight, once you get to about grade 6, ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural increase in popularity.

Oh, and the fusion of books and the Internet has arrived in The Armanda Project. This is a collaborative, interactive mystery series for girls. Part of the story is in the book and part is on the web site. You can’t solve this one without chatting with other readers.

By grade 8, the themes are often the same as in adult books: finding abducted children, neighbors murdering their husbands, family tragedies, the dark side of small towns, and moms marrying dirty cops. That was the level where I chose to stop, but I will say that there are even darker stories out there for high school students.

I think I prefer clouds who want to be police officers.

If you would like a copy of the short bibliography of mysteries for kids that I’ve assembled—and will be giving away at the book fair—send me e-mail. Soon the bibliography will be on my web site, but the site is under reconstruction right now, so you’ll have to wait a few weeks for that.
Quote for the week:
Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.
~Marilyn Jager Adams, psychologist and researcher in how children and adults learn to read

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Dusty Desk Reference

by Julia Buckley

Thanks to the wonderful Internet, most of my old reference books have become dusty shelf decorations. Even my beautiful dictionaries, because of my laziness (or perhaps a desire for super efficiency) lie neglected in the face of the online information at my fingertips.

Still, I love to explore these beautiful books now and then. This weekend I perused The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Second Edition), which before online encyclopedias was one of the most wonderful compendiums of knowledge--a whole set of encyclopedias smooshed into one volume. In the '90s I loved having everything I might need right there-- everything from the Emancipation Proclamation to the recipes for alcoholic drinks.

I also liked to go to the lists of authors, divided by geographical region, and to make my children quiz me on my knowledge. They did so, grudgingly, and I created my own little parlor game by blowing the dust off the books and looking inside them.

So I'm sharing the fun of that game now: without consulting the aforementioned Internet, how many authors can you identify by the information listed after their names in the Desk Reference?

American and Canadian Authors

1. This author was born in 1876 and wrote Winesburg, Ohio.

2. This author of The Underground Woman was one of the American Expatriots in 1920s France. I was lucky enough to meet her in 1987; she was 84 at the time.

3. This Illinois author wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1914.

4. This author of My Antonia is a celebrated chronicler of the American prairie.

5. This author, born in 1888, published The Big Sleep in 1939.

British, European, Russian authors

6. This famous Danish fairy-tale author was born in 1805, but he was no ugly duckling.

7. This woman, one of a trio of writing sisters, penned Wuthering Heights. (Can you remember what her sisters wrote?)

8. This Russian author of The Cherry Orchard was born just before America's Civil War.

9. This brooding Brit wrote The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure.

10. This champion of A Room of One's Own also penned To The Lighthouse.

Well, how did you do on my Desk Reference quiz? Are you sufficiently literary? I'd say anything from 7-10 would be a pretty good score!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Canada Calling: the Arthur Ellis nominees

Crime Writers of Canada has announced the short list for its 2010 Arthur Ellis awards. Winners will be announced on 2010 May 27 at the Arthur Ellis Awards Banquet in Toronto. Visit the CWC site for short plot summaries and information about the authors nominated. While you're there, sign up for the free Cool Canadian Crime, a free electronic newsletter about Canadian crime writers.

Take this list with you to your favorite library or bookstore and sample great authors from north of the border. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order.

Best Novel
Anthony Bidulka, Aloha, Candy Hearts (Insomniac Press)
Howard Shrier, High Chicago (Vintage Canada/Random House)
James W. Nichol, Death Spiral (McArthur & Co.)
Lee Lamothe, The Finger’s Twist (Ravenstone)
R. J. Harlick, Arctic Blue Death (RendezVous Crime)

Best First Crime Novel
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Doubleday Canada)
C. B. Forrest, Weight of Stones (RendezVous Crime)
Dennis Richard Murphy, Darkness at the Break of Dawn (Harper Collins)
Elizabeth Duncan, The Cold Light of Mourning (Minotaur Books)
Eugene Meese, A Magpie’s Smile (NeWest Press)

Best French Crime Book
Diane Vincent, Peaux de chagrins (Les Editions Triptyques)
Genevieve Lefebvre, Je compte les morts (Les Ếditions Libre Expression)
Jean Lemieux, Le mort du chemin des Arsène, (la courte échelle)
Jean-Jacques Pelletier, La Faim de la Terre (Editions Alire Inc.)

Best Juvenile Crime Book
Arthur Slade, The Hunchback Assignments (HarperCollins)
Barbara Hayworth Attard, Haunted (HarperCollins)
Norah McClintock, Homicide Related: A Ryan Dooley Mystery (Red Deer Press)
Tim Wynne-Jones, The Uninvited (Candlewick)
Vicki Grant, Not Suitable for Family Viewing (HarperCollins)

Best Crime Nonfiction
Jon Wells, Postmortem (John Wiley & Sons)
Alex Caine,The Fat Mexican (Random House of Canada)
Patrick Brode, The Slasher Killings (Painted Turtle Press)
Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose, Runaway Devil (McClelland)
Terry Gould, Murder Without Borders (Random House of Canada)

Best Crime Short Story
Denis Richard Murphy, “Prisoner in Paradise,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
James Petrin, “Nothing is Easy,” Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
James Powell, “Clowntown Pajamas,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
Rick Mofina, “Backup,” Ottawa Magazine
Twist Phelan, “Time Will Tell,” MWA Presents the Prosecution Rests (Little Brown)

Watch these names, our newest stars on the horizon.

Best Unpublished First Crime Novel
Blair Hemstock, Bait of Pleasure
Deryn Collier, Confined Space
Gloria Ferris, Corpse Flower
Pam Barnsley, This Cage of Bones
Peter Kirby, Putting Them Down

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Battle Heats UP?

By Lonnie Cruse

The new Ipad was recently released, with updated versions already scheduled, or so I hear. Customers are beating down the doors of stores selling this latest techno-gadget, despite the fact that it's a bit expensive. No, it's a lot expensive. Still I was sorry to see a note on the door at our local Best Buy that this particular store does NOT carry the Ipad. I was soooo hoping to get my hands on one, just to try it out. Rumors circulate that more gizmos/gadgets are coming from other companies, with various capabilities and various prices. Whew!

I confess, I'm a gizmo/gadget freak. Not always able to operate them as easily as others, but willing to learn. Not necessarily willing or able to cough up the purchase price either, but hey, I got married once and gave birth three times, which gives me access to one anniversary and three Mother's Day gifts along with birthday and Christmas. I KNOW how to work the system! I have two words for you, people . . . GIFT CARDS!

Back to the Ipad. There are lots of discussions going on at Amazon (on the Kindle boards) about which current electronic gadget is better, and believe me, the lines of loyalty drawn during the Civil War could NOT have been much wider or longer or more difficult to cross than the lines drawn in this new electronic war. People are willing to die for or kill for their gadget of choice. Companies constantly fire shots at their competition with new improved applications. One must be careful where one stands in this battle of the electronics.

I own a Kindle, (birthday, Christmas gift cards) and an Itouch, (gift cards for birthday, Christmas, and Valentine's day, and did I mention I know how to work the system?) and am drooling over the new Ipad. Larger than the Itouch, which does wonderful things, smaller than a netbook, but no lid to shut and WAAAAY more expensive. Sigh, what to do, what to do?

If any of you have an Ipad or have actually gotten your hands on one, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Also, I'd love to hear your thoughts on these electronic gizzmos in general. You own any? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Secretly keeping an eye out for the newest? Wondering which to buy? Which to avoid like the plague?

Personally, while I'd love to at least try an Ipad, I'm mostly keeping an eye out. I think this year, and this decade, will bring out a ton of new stuff, stuff that out dates stuff that just came out last year, last month, sigh, last week. I don't want to jump in too fast. I want to stick my toes in at the edge of the water and see what happens. You???

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thumbs, or, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

Elizabeth Zelvin

Remember Captain Kirk’s tag line from the original Star Trek? “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.” What does it have to do with thumbs? I’ve been thinking about the nature of intelligent life lately as I cope with the early stages of arthritis in those oh so useful thumbs.

How did the crew of the Enterprise know intelligent life was missing from a new planet? Well, maybe they measured the brain wave activity of the local fauna with one of their handy electronic devices. But how would an alien visitor from outside our solar system know that we, humans, are intelligent life? For one thing, we make things. We make a lot of different things. We hope an interstellar visitor would check out our cities, our roads and bridges, our cars and planes and art and music, and say, “Hmm. Smart species—let’s make contact,” rather than, “Beam me up, Xroggh, there’s no intelligent life on Earth.”

Our capacity to build and use tools lies partly in our brain power and partly in those handy opposable thumbs. Dolphins are smart—maybe even smarter than we are—but with flippers rather than thumbs, they haven’t been able to create devices to protect themselves from us. Monkeys are dextrous—they can swing hand over hand between trees and peel a banana—but they have yet to invent a refrigerator or an aerial tramway. Nor have they come up with the works of Shakespeare or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s the combination of our ability to think and our ability to manipulate stuff that has resulted in our being, for better or worse, the dominant species on our planet.

To return to Star Trek for a moment, it’s remarkable how many of the devices the original show envisioned have become reality since it began in 1966. The fact that doors slide open as we approach them has not been a marvel for a long time. Nor does a tricorder look particularly impressive to the owner of an iPhone. We—the collective human we—have even accomplished cloning, at least up to the level of a sheep. We’ve done just about everything they dreamed up except for beaming up itself: transporting matter, including humans, without damage. Faxes, yes. People, no. We’ve even done some things the show did not anticipate, like the extreme miniaturization of computers and the use of thumbs to keyboard. And so we’re back to thumbs.

My arthritis, though mild so far, is truly a pain in the joints. I have to wear restrictive splints all night and part of every day to keep my thumbs quiet. I’ve given up knitting, and I haven’t touched my guitar since I got the diagnosis. I leave the child-proof caps off my pill bottles and try to figure out ways to open jars and doorknobs and plastic containers without overexerting my thumbs. I’ve discovered that we use those suckers (no pun intended) for everything.

In short, I’ve been downgraded. As my husband put it, “You’re not a primate any more. You’re just a mammal.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Finding Chandra's Killer

Interview by Sandra Parshall

When 24-year-old Washington intern Chandra Levy disappeared on May 1, 2001, the story became a worldwide sensation. Her romantic relationship with a married Congressman, Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, made him the prime suspect and focused relentless press attention on every aspect of his life, but no evidence linking him to her disappearance was ever found. The terrorist attacks on September 11 of that year eclipsed the story of the missing intern.

By the time her skeletal remains were found in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park the
following May, and the medical examiner declared her death a homicide, Condit’s political career was in ruins and police were no closer to learning the truth about Chandra’s disappearance and death. The case went cold.

In the summer of 2008, The Washington Post ran a 13-part series about the case, the culmination of a year’s work by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Scott Higham
and Sari Horwitz. The series pointed to a suspect the police had considered briefly but dismissed: Ingmar Guandique, who had assaulted at least two women in Rock Creek Park. Police renewed their investigation, and in March 2009 Guandique was arrested for Chandra Levy’s murder. He goes on trial in October.

Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz went on to write Finding Chandra, a look back at the case and their own investigation that includes some details never before published. The book was published yesterday. Today Scott and Sari talk about their work.

Q. When the two of you began your investigation of the Levy murder, many people probably considered it a cold case that would never be solved. Did the DC police have that attitude, or were detectives still working on it?

A. For many years, the D.C. police had given up on solving the case. In 2007, the new police chief, Cathy Lanier, assigned two new detectives to the case and promised Chandra’s mother, Susan, that she would do everything in her power to solve it.

Q. How did the police and the US Attorney’s office react to your investigation?
How cooperative -- or uncooperative -- were they?

A. Police and prosecutors did not cooperate with us before the Post published our investigation. After publication, they boxed up the police files relating to Congressman Gary Condit and redoubled their efforts to find Chandra’s killer. One of their first steps was to interview the prime suspect, Ingmar Guandique, in prison and obtain a sample of his DNA. And for the first time, they interviewed a woman he followed and two women he attacked in Rock Creek Park around the time of Chandra’s disappearance.

Q. In the book, you mention that unidentified sources provided you with hundreds of confidential documents regarding the case. What do you believe motivated these people to take what was obviously a great risk? To your knowledge, has any of your sources suffered any consequences for sharing inside information with you?

A. Many people in law enforcement knew the murder investigation had been badly botched and they wanted justice for the Levy family. They turned to the press because they felt the case was no longer a high priority inside the police department or the FBI. To our knowledge, there have been no repercussions.

Q. Your Post series detailed an incredible string of mistakes made by law enforcement investigators. They seem to have done almost everything wrong. After the series was published, did you get any blowback from them about any
part of it? Do you expect to hear from them about your book?

A. Most everyone involved in the case has acknowledged the mistakes that were made, although sometimes grudgingly. The former police chief and two of his top commanders said there were aspects of the case they did not know about until they read our investigation. As the case proceeds to trial, the new team of detectives and prosecutors will have to overcome those mistakes if they hope to win a conviction.

Q. Did your conclusion that Ingmar Guandique was most likely the killer take shape gradually? Or was there a lightbulb moment, a single revelation or piece of information that convinced you?

A. It took shape over many months as we interviewed nearly everyone involved in the investigation. The closer we looked at Guandique’s pattern of behavior in the weeks before and after Chandra disappeared, the more convinced we became that the police should have focused on him as a key suspect after his July 1, 2001 arrest.

Q. In your opinion, why did investigators cling to their belief that Gary Condit killed Chandra even when they failed to turn up any evidence of his guilt? Guandique looked like the perfect suspect, so why did they resist the idea for so long?

A. In the early days of the investigation, Condit was less forthcoming about his relationship with Chandra because he was trying to keep his private life private in an effort to protect his family and his career. That decision, along with some his behavior during the summer of 2001, made him appear suspicious to police and prosecutors. It also seemed as though the police, prosecutors and the press were captivated by the idea that a congressman might be involved in a murder. It made for a better criminal case, and it made for a better story.

Q. Has Condit, or anyone close to him, ever thanked you for exonerating him?

A. The congressman has not, though we understand why. He blames the news media for destroying his career. His lawyer said he appreciated that The Post cleared his client, but he is quick to note that his client’s exoneration came at an unacceptable price.

Q. Coverage of the Levy case has been called a media frenzy, a media circus – and you’ve called it “pack journalism” at its worst. Can you give some examples of irresponsible news reports about the case? Do you think the press coverage interfered in any way with the search for the truth, or was it a sideshow? If Chandra had disappeared yesterday, do you think the coverage would differ from what we saw in 2001?

A. A book could be written about this subject. Overheated press coverage frequently distorts the public’s view of high-profile criminal cases, and investigators frequently find themselves paying more attention to the press than to the facts. In this case, the press reported rumors and innuendo about Condit that were repeated in stories around the nation. Several false stories, such as a report that Chandra and Condit’s wife had a fight before Chandra’s disappearance, resulted in libel suits. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of blogs and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the rush to be first rather than right has become more intense over the years and the facts continue to suffer. When Guandique was arrested last year, the Associated Press reported that DNA had tied him to the crime. The story was picked up around the country and it was not true.

Q. How did the two of you work together on the series and the book? Were you always together for interviews and research, or did you split up assignments to save time?

A. We conducted all the major interviews together and traveled around the country together, spending a lot of time in California, home to Chandra, the congressman, and their friends and associates. We split up other interviews and many of the menial tasks of building the foundation of an investigation to save time and keep our momentum going.

Q. Your story sounds like the plot of a thriller, in which an intrepid reporter uncovers the truth that eluded police. Isn’t this rare in real life? Do you know of other cases in which reporters have helped solve murders?

A. It’s a rare opportunity to investigate a murder, and there have been reporters around the nation who have done amazing work in the field. The work by Jerry Miller, an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, prompted authorities to reopen several unsolved homicides by the Klu Klux Klan. We didn’t solve the Chandra Levy case. Our investigation ignited police interest in the case and the new detectives put together a circumstantial case against Guandique. The strength of that case will be tested at the October trial.

Q. Do you still work for the Post? Do you anticipate teaming up again?

A. Yes, we are assigned to the Investigative Staff. We are currently working on different projects with new partners, but we would love to work together again. Finding a great work partner is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect.

Q. Finally, a question that I'm sure the mystery writers and fans who visit our blog would love to ask: Do you read crime fiction, and if so, who are your favorite authors?

A. We do, though because of our work, we read a lot of non-fiction, which can read like top-flight fiction if done right. Poe, of course, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Agatha Christie, George Pelecanos, one of our local crime fiction heroes. Scott, who worked for The Miami Herald before joining The Post, is a big fan of Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard. South Florida is stranger than fiction. Sari likes Daniel Silva, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly.

For more information about the book, the authors, and their appearance schedule, visit

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I know I can dance

Sharon Wildwind

My doctor said that more aerobic exercise would be a good idea.

I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that a recent study indicated sitting for long periods without getting up for 10-15 minutes contributed to blood vessel changes that make heart attack or stroke more likely. So I’ve tried to develop the habit of sitting at the computer for 50 minutes, and then getting up for 10.

It’s working pretty well, except that I’ve filled those ten minutes things like dish washing and filing. Boring! I wondered if I could convert some of those 10 minute periods to that aerobic exercise the doctor recommended.

I need something that I can stand up, do immediately, then stop after 10 minutes. There’s tai chi and pilates, both things I like, so I already had a lot going, but both of those things are rather mellow and laid back. What could I add that was fun, high-energy, and didn't require me to put my outdoor clothes on and go find a gym?

How about dancing? I already had a great bookDance Your Way to Fitness by Natalie Blenford (Avon Books) that contains the basic moves of hip-hop, broadway, latin, bollywood, and burlesque dancing.

I figured I’d start by learning the warm-up routine, in itself a 10-minute aerobic workout. I quickly discovered a problem. The warm-up includes jumping movements and I am, let’s leave it at, more endowed in certain areas than I was when I took dancing classes at five years of age.

I jiggled.

So I took myself off to a local dance costume and accessory stop to ask the nice woman who runs it if there was a solution for jiggling. Turns out the answer is a sports bra and/or a leotard. The problem was that this store also has a large supply of fabrics for making dance costumes.

I obviously needed not only a leotard, but a tu-tu as well, so I bought a bunch of purple netting and some gross-grain ribbon.

And a purple boa. You see, Natalie Blenford had assured me that a boa would make my burlesque moves come alive. She also recommended shoes with heels, long gloves, a corset and red lipstick, but maybe one thing at a time.

What I really wanted to complete my outfit was tap shoes. My mother and I had a terrible fight when I was five. I wanted to continue taking tap dancing; she insisted that tap dancing wasn’t ladylike and it would give me fat ankles. So I was forced to take ballet instead. I held out for a year, then gave up dancing all together. Forever. Until now.

I know now that that “fat” which would have developed around my ankles was really muscle. If I had developed serious ankle muscles that might have ameliorated my two spectacular ankle injuries later in life. Come to think of it, why should a five-year-old be worried about the shape of her ankles in the first place?

So I’m all set. I have my book, my leotard, my purple tu-tu, my purple boa, and my purple fedora, which has a yellow band that says, “Police Line – Do Not Cross.” Yes I really have one. I wear it while I’m writing.

I did give up on the tap shoes for now. I just can’t put the guy in the apartment below us through that.

Here’s a bit of art I did to inspire me in those 10-minute breaks.

For those of you who grove on technical jargon, the substrate is #62 hi-art illustration board, worked with Golden acrylics, a variety of Micron pens, India ink, and a hint of Smooch. All those products should have a trade mark sign with them, so take them as read. The figure is from eleanor peace bailey’s tag people, © 2007 by epb. She said to have a good time with her people, so I assume that means non-commercial use is okay. If it isn’t, someone will undoubtedly tell me.

Oh, one more piece of good news. At the 2010 Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim, California, results of research were presented that showed laughter can produce the same health benefits as repetitive physical exercise.

So here’s my advice: write for 50 minutes, dance for 10, and laugh as much as you can. That’s my plan for the summer.
Quote for the week:
If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
~Emma Goldman, (1869 – 1940), writer, feminist, and activist

Monday, May 10, 2010

Put It On The Big Screen

by Julia Buckley
As a part of my Mother's Day festivities, my family took me to see Iron Man II. Yes, this was really for me, because I really liked Iron Man I and wanted to see the sequel.

After I saw the first Iron Man, I wrote this about it: "To me, Tony Stark, the arms dealer who becomes Iron Man, could have been a character written by Sophocles, if Sophocles could be brought to Hollywood and asked to write a screenplay (and I'm sure Sophocles would have a lot to say about Hollywood . . .)

Stark is a flawed man, a man who may have wasted his life in the pursuit of power and pleasure. But he has a moment of redemption, and that moment fuels a new passion. Still, he remains flawed, and the Ancient Greeks would suggest that he must take responsibility for those flaws, no matter how often he himself is a victim, and no matter that he has changed his worldview. He will always be burdened by his past.

I like the fact that a modern-day movie raises some of the questions of the ages: Why does power so often corrupt? Why do people seek to solve problems with ever-escalating violence? Where is the logic in thinking that we can make weapons ever larger, ever more powerful, and can somehow still remain unscathed?"

Today, when I saw the new Iron Man, I was impressed by the way that special effects can take a person right inside his or her own imagination. When I saw the villainous Russian, Ivan Vanko, forging his own iron costume, I saw Hephaestus in the forge on Mount Olympus, creating his own revenge for a wife's betrayal.

And then I wondered--what great works would I like to see brought to the big screen now that special effects can really make things live up to our imaginations?

The first thing I thought of was Oedipus Rex. If you read this in high school or college, you remember that Oedipus had to conquer the Sphinx. How wonderful it would be to see a modern day Oedipus walk up to a creature of power and mystery--a lion's body with a woman's face--who knows the secrets of the universe?

Then I thought of other great works with potentially great visuals: THE TEMPEST, for one. But I don't have to just dream about that one. It's being made right now, with the great Helen Mirren in the role of PROSPERA (as opposed to the traditionally male Prospero). One can only hope they do amazing things with special effects to create Ariel and Caliban, the airy sprite and the earthy monster. Not to mention all of the island spirits who do Prospero's bidding.

And what about The Odyssey? Sure, there have been versions of this in the past, but this spring's remake of Clash of the Titans proves that some things, in the wake of Computer Generated Images, can and should be re-made for the most powerful visual appeal.

A more modern book that I'd love to see as a movie is Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR. In this wonderful, whimsical story, Thursday Next solves lit crimes and must leap inside various pieces of literature to capture the evil Acheron Hades, who has captured Jane Eyre. While she leaps about from book to book, Thursday is immersed in the literature she grew up reading. What possibilities exist here in terms of what we would see! The artistic talents of Hollywood are at the level now that they might actually do justice to the pictures created by our powerful imaginations.

So, in this roundabout post, I come down to one main question: What piece of literature would you like to see brought to life, or brought to life again, on the screen?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Please welcome Saturday's grest blogger, C. E. Lawrence

By C. E. Lawrence

BOOK BLOG – Silent Screams

Hi Everyone!
The experience of writing this novel about a serial killer was interesting, because I wrote most of it in a secluded cabin in the woods of Ulster County. My “security” consisted of a feeble hook and eye lock that a five year old could pry off with a screwdriver. My Home Protection System was a fat, indolent tabby cat who was more interested in chasing chipmunks and coming home smelling of skunk than warning me of intruders.

My beloved cabin is part of Byrdcliffe Art Colony in the Catskill Mountains, where I slaved over a hot manuscript for two summers, researching by day and writing by candlelight. I put in requests to the Woodstock Library for every book they had on serial killers, forensics, and other sordid topics. This was during the Bush administration, so I’m surprised they didn’t flag my library card – I kept expecting a Lincoln town car to pull into my driveway with two Men in Black wearing Ray Bans and ear pieces. I imagined being whisked away by the FBI or the NSA to languish in an Egyptian prison, where I would finally give up the names of my “handlers” – Pia and her colleagues at the Woodstock Library, where they don’t charge late fees, because, according to Pia, “We tried it once, but it was too much trouble.”

Such is the spirit of Ulster County at its best, and such were my summers, where recreation was playing an old upright piano (formerly owned by The Band), in between to-the-death matches of killer ping pong in the barn with fellow writers Randy Burgess and Katherine Burger, and composer/actor Anthony Moore. The closest I came that summer to real danger was the hike I took in the Catskills with Byrdcliffe colleague Alexandra Anderson and painter friend Lucy Nurkse. We entered the woods at about ten in the morning, thinking we’d be out by tea time. Our Three Hour Tour turned into a Death March that had us staggering out around sunset, covered with mosquito bites and poison ivy, down to our last bottle Evian. I’m not sure which of us was Ginger and which was Marianne, but I’m pretty sure I was Gilligan. We’re still not sure why our copious maps led us astray, but I learned something that day:
The woods takes no prisoners.

So I came back to my cabin, settled in with a bottle of ibuprofen and a cup of coffee from Monkey Joe in Kingston, and worked on my manuscript. I had a first draft by the end of the second summer there, and the rest, as they say, is silence – as in Silent Screams.

I wrote the sequel at Hawthornden Castle, an international retreat for writers in Scotland where I was a Fellow (I love saying that) last January. The castle was a medieval structure which provided shelter to William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, during their rebellions against the British crown. I hiked through the glens to Wallace’s Cave, where he allegedly camped while in hiding from the English. The castle was later owned by poet Lord William Drummond, and now is a retreat for writers owned by the heir to the Heinz corporation. So every packet of ketchup sold by McDonalds helps support working writers.

In Scotland, I learned to eat haggis (notice I didn’t say “liked”), took long hot baths in a tub the size of the East River, and was taken very good care of by the wonderful Scottish staff. They kept tea out for us at all times, which was good, since the Scots apparently don’t believe in central heating – and Scotland in January will freeze your tatties off.

Words can hardly do justice to a landscape that, even in January, brought tears to my eyes almost daily. The glens are as romantic and craggy as I had hoped they would be, and the Scottish people were as friendly as their landscape was rugged. My fellow writers included two wonderful British poets and a lovely Russian writer who spoke no English. We communicated through a computer translator program, which was rather like being on a bad episode of Star Trek.

Ah, Scotland! Ah, Ulster! I long to return to you soon . . .

Silent Screams is now available on CD through Audible Books; the sequel, Silent Victim, is due out in December of 2010, and will also be available on Audible shortly afterwards. Both books have also recently been sold to Piper Verlag in Germany.

Visit C. E. Lawrence’s website:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sitting out a tornado. Join me, anyone???

By Lonnie Cruse

It's mid-morning, hubby's gone to Paducah for the day, and I'm sitting out a tornado watch by myself. (And obviously I'm writing this ahead of my usual post date or I wouldn't be writing it at all because I might have to dash for cover any minute and might not get it posted on time.) A tornado watch is thankfully less severe than a warning. (A watch means a tornado is possible, a warning means a tornado has been spotted. Close by.) Still, it's not fun. I'm having to keep a children's cartoon program tuned in on my TV screen because it's the local station and I want instant updates. I'm prepped and ready to dash off to the neighbors' basement should the watch turn to a warning. Crossing my fingers that I won't have to, but the radar screen is pretty much orange and red. Sigh.

They predict high winds and hail. Not good for my car and there isn't a spot in the garage for it. Not good for the plants I just planted either. Knock-out roses and a climber. Not good for our house or garage or other outbuildings IF the weather gets really nasty.

We don't usually get the amount of severe damage you hear about in Oklahoma, which often makes the national news. I hope we don't this time. But we are in what is known as tornado alley, and we HAVE had some severe damage in this area in years past, including loss of life, very sad. Also including a car with a mom and her kids landing fairly high up in a tree (she lived in a trailer and was trying to get to safety.) Someone we know rescued them. Other folks we know rode that storm out in their bathtub and wound up landing just a few feet from their pond, (saved by a tree in the way) and their roof IN the pond. House gone. Totally.

Tornadoes do strange things like driving weak bendable bits of straw or hay straight into hard surfaces like trees and walls, something no human could ever accomplish. Like making an entire house disappear but leaving a china cabinet full of antique, expensive dishes sitting in the yard, untouched, with not a chip on a dish. So tornadoes aren't something we like to have around. Or earthquakes, but that's another story.

Different parts of our country have different problems. Like California with their earthquakes. Florida, with their hurricanes. If you are in an area that is not prone to any of these natural disasters, you are blessed. If you are in one of these areas, you've learned to adapt, right? You know what to do when a tornado threatens your area (flashlights, battery operated radio, and above all, a place of safety in a basement or local shelter! Or even an inner closet, away from windows and doors if all else fails.) You are hopefully prepared with food, water, fuel, flashlight, radio, etc, in case you are trapped in your home for a time by fallen trees or other damage that won't allow you to leave. And above all, you have books to read. Because you might be without power for a significant amount of time, should the power go out.

This is predicted to be one of the worst storm we've had in a while. I'm heading to the closet with a flashlight and a book. I wrote about this because (a) of course it's on my mind, and (b) if you live in an area where natural disasters DON'T strike with uncomfortable regularity, I thought you might like a glimpse of what it's like, waiting, watching the sky, hoping it goes north or south of us. Or you might not. Either way, hope you have a sunny, safe weekend!

(Hmmm, this would make a good plot for a mystery. I did write a tornado into a book a while back. Hasn't been published yet. Maybe it's time? Timely? Hmmm.) What IS your area like? Have you used your experiences in a book?