Thursday, September 30, 2010

Are you listening?

Elizabeth Zelvin

I spent the summer writing my first historical novel. My protagonist is Diego, the young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s voyages who made his first appearance in “The Green Cross” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (August 2010). I did minimal research for the story, but when I decided to write more about Diego, I started to do my homework, and I learned a lot about Columbus and what radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale called “the conquest of Paradise.”

As a shrink (my other “hat”), I’m very aware of the importance of listening, not only in therapy but in all kinds of relationships. Something I came across in my research on Columbus’s voyages struck me as a perfect example of inability to listen.

The primary sources, ie the excerpts from Columbus’s own log book that have been preserved, the biography of his life written by his son, and other contemporary accounts of the European discovery of what he thought by the Indies all agree that the discoverers, who were eager to convert the indigenous Taino to Christianity, were certain, even after prolonged contact, that the Taino had no religion of their own.

Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Columbus in 1942, tells us that on the second voyage, when settlements meant to be permanent were founded on the island of Hispaniola, “It was not until September 21, 1496, that the first Indian was baptized in Hispaniola by Fray Ramon Pane.” That’s four years after first contact between the Christians and the Taino. Elsewhere, Morison says that Fray Pane “is remembered for having compiled the first collection of Indian folklore.”

Morison doesn’t interpret the juxtaposition of these two statements. But to me, it’s a no-brainer what must have happened. When the Taino told him what he took to be charming folk tales, they were trying to tell him all about their religion. But he wasn’t listening.

In the world of mystery and romantic suspense, the epitome of the character who doesn’t listen is the woman—it’s almost always a woman—who mystery aficionados dub TSTL: “too stupid to live.” (We’ll get to men who don’t listen soon; they’re found in abundance in real life.) She’s the gal who goes down into the dark cellar without a flashlight or cell phone when she’s been told there’s a killer on the loose and she finds the door of the deserted house unlocked. One of my favorite authors, Ariana Franklin, disappointed me in the fourth book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series by having her highly intelligent protagonist, Adelia, manage not to listen over a period of months as every person that she trusts tells her over and over that there’s ample evidence that someone is stalking her and her life is in danger. Of course, the book’s climax is a confrontation with the murderer (whom I guessed way earlier in the book, having experience with Franklin’s plotting methods), in which she narrowly escapes being killed. TSTL, and unworthy of this particular heroine.

The quintessential man who doesn’t listen, I’m afraid, is far worse than the TSTL heroine. He’s the date rapist or the marital rapist. There’s a popular expression that says it all: “What part of no don’t you understand?”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Life with search & rescue dogs

Interview by Sandra Parshall

My guest today is Rayanne Chamberlain, who works as a first responder with her local fire department and trains and works with search and rescue dogs.

As a member of a wilderness search team, she works an airscent dog, looking for
missing people. She has been involved in about 200 missing persons searches, both as a dog handler and in other capacities, such as providing field support for canine teams and manning the base of operations.

Rayanne is also a member of the Michigan Urban Task Force (MI-TF1), working a disaster specialist dog, which searches for live victims in natural or man-made disasters. MI-TF1 is a state disaster response team, set up much like FEMA t
eams, but working under agreements for state-to-state assistance. For the past two years Rayanne has also been a member of OH-TF1 (Ohio Task Force One), a FEMA disaster response team.

She is now training her fourth disaster response dog and will soon retire her wilderness/airscent dog and begin training his understudy. All training is done o
n her own time, at her own expense. For disaster work, dog handlers are paid a daily rate when officially deployed. Wilderness work is always volunteer and unpaid. The wilderness search team Rayanne works with is financed by donations and the proceeds of fund-raising activities.

Q. How long have you been training and working with search and rescue dogs?

A. I've been a search and rescue dog handler for about 14 years.

Q. How did you get into this work? What are the qualifications?

A. Search and rescue is a volunteer activity in the US and most of the western world. The only qualifications are a desire to do the job and the commitment to spend hours every week honing your dog's skills and your own. I got into it about the time I turned 40. It was something I'd always wanted to do and I knew if I didn't do it then, I never would.

Q. Do you work with a single dog or several?

A. I currently have two dogs. One is a 92-year-old wilderness dog [Cota]. Wilderness dogs search for missing individuals B lost hunters, Alzheimer's patients, children. They will locate these people whether they are alive or deceased. My other dog is a 2-year-old disaster dog in training [Bristol]. The disaster dog specializes in locating only living persons who are inaccessible and often trapped under rubble.

Q. Does the dog you work with always live with you? Is he, or she, treated as a pet when not working?

A. Yes, my dogs always live with me and to a certain extent they are treated as pets when they are not working. Their daily lives are more regimented than the average pet, but they have a pretty good life. This is my personal preference. A lot of handlers maintain their dogs in kennel situations, bringing them out only to work. There are very good working dogs who live in both environments.

Q. What breed do you prefer to work with?

A. I have always worked Dobermans. They are considered a non-traditional breed for search work, although there is a network of Doberman handlers around the country. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and German Shepherds are the
breeds most often seen in search work. All dogs have an excellent sense of smell, but very small breeds and giant breeds aren't usually found in search work.

Q. How often do you and your dog work? How do you keep the dog's skills sharp between jobs?

A. My older wilderness dog does not require daily training sessions although he enjoys every session and I train with him 2-3 times a week. My younger disaster dog gets some kind of work every day. The skills required for a disaster dog are many and in order to maintain a solid disaster dog, even an experienced dog must be worked 3-5 times per week.

Q. I've read novels that portrayed rescue dogs as feeling depressed or upset about failing to find people in time to save them. Is there any truth to this, or is it pure fiction?

A. There is no truth to this. For the dogs, this is a game -- like a dog that chases a Frisbee or a dog that participates in agility trials. As long as the dog receives his reward (usually a toy or food) upon completion of the job, he’s happy.

Q. What kind of situation are you usually called to work in? Would you tell us about some of the most memorable jobs you and your dogs have had?

A. I'm in Michigan, so we respond for quite a few drowning situations. Our other
big call-out is for missing Alzheimer's patients. Probably my most memorable search happened 6 or 7 years ago when we were called in to search for 3 children (ages 3, 5 and 7). We arrived on scene about 8 p.m. and deployed our dogs. By 1 a.m. local law enforcement had decided that there was a good chance the children had been abducted. At 2 a.m. our teams located all three, still together. Their core body temperatures had dropped to 96 degrees, but after a quick visit to the local hospital for warming up they were as good as new -- although I have a feeling they are still grounded.

The disaster dogs probably train the hardest and get deployed the least often. They are deployed either by the state in which they live or through FEMA and only when a disaster occurs.

My wilderness dog utilizes his skills when searching for a missing person and when a building or a junkyard needs to be searched. Disaster dogs are trained in all types of environments so are comfortable searching in situations that might be dangerous for the wilderness dog.

Q. Is there a limit to the number of days or the number of hours in a day a dog can work on a job?

A. That is very dependent on the weather and the environment we're searching in. My wilderness dog and I have worked up to three days straight, 8 hours a day in the woods when the temperature has been moderate.

When it's hot and the sun is beating down on rubble, a disaster dog can effectively work 20-30 minutes.

Q. Rescue dogs are obviously trained to find people who are still alive. Can the dog tell the difference between a live person and one who has just died? Have you ever been on a search in which the "rescued" person proved to be dead?

A. Yes, dogs can tell the difference between people who are still breathing and those who have stopped. This is particularly important for the disaster dog that must ignore the odor of deceased individuals and focus solely on the scent emanating from those who are still alive. If you look at the devastation in Haiti earlier this year, if the dogs had not been trained to ignore the odor of the dead and focus on the living, many lives might not have been saved.

Unfortunately, I think two-thirds of our wilderness finds are of deceased
individuals. Every time we head out for a search, we hope that the person will be found alive, but it is comforting to know that we've been able to bring closure to a family even when we find the person dead.

Q. The training of dogs to find live people must be very different from the training of cadaver dogs. Are you familiar with the way those animals are trained? Are they exposed to human cadavers?

A. Yes, I work closely with several human remains specialist handlers and canines. These dogs are trained more along the lines of drug dogs. They offer a passive alert (meaning they sit or lay down at the source of the odor). Everyone I work with trains only on real human material. The specialist dogs, though, also train on much older material. They help reconstruct old cemeteries, they work cold cases and they can locate very small pieces following events like plane crashes.

Q. When does a rescue dog usually retire? What happens to the dog then?

A. A search and rescue dog tells us when it needs to retire. Some retire when they are 6 years old; others continue working until they are 12 or 13. Arthritis and other health concerns usually influence their retirement. As long as dogs remain healthy, they love the search game and are unwilling to give it up. When they do retire, they live out their lives in comfort. With our team, even those dogs that have retired are set simple problems at training. The dogs are like the ex-baseball player reliving the glory days. To them, that person hidden behind a tree 100 feet away is as fulfilling as the person it took them 6 miles and 3 hours to find in the old days.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Energy shifts

Sharon Wildwind

I had a great time over the weekend. So why do I feel so rotten?

On Saturday I went to a workshop on editing. Because it was held locally, there was none of the airport—customs—strange hotel bed—weird meals—time zone disorientation. The chairs in the meeting room were reasonably comfortable; the lunch was delightful; the weather outside was a spectacular fall day; and I hadn’t even joined people in the bar for a drink afterwards.

Sunday I woke up excited. I spent yesterday and today eliminating about 10,000 words from what had been a horribly bloated and—I had feared—completely irretrievable manuscript.

I should be ecstatic. I’m not.

I am in such a bad mood. I should have stayed home and gotten things done around the house. Our living room is a mess; it even smells bad. My office is falling apart. I can’t focus. I’m angry at everyone and everything.

Somehow it is up to me to make all of this right. I have to do the undone things. Make order out of chaos. Make everything all right in the world. Fix everything before I can get back to writing. It’s my fault that the whole world is out of balance; bringing it back to balance rests entirely on my shoulders.

I am tempted to
pick a fight
give up
rage at the living room
get angry
stop writing completely until I clean every room from top to bottom
spend time on anything but writing
lose myself in reading for 8 or 12 or 15 hours
piddle and piffle

I’ve blogged several times about going through Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way. I’ve completed the 12 weeks of exercises, but since it dawned on me at about week 10 or 11 that I hadn’t made that much progress, I decided to repeat the 12 weeks.

Something about my irrational feelings sounded strangely familiar. I thought I'd seen them in the past 12 weeks. Sure enough— Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity. I was having an energy shift.

Which got me thinking about coming back from conventions and workshops. People frequently write about getting ready for a convention or what to do at a convention, but I don’t think I’ve seen many tips for coming back from an convention.

It seems to me that there are three layers in this process.

The first layer is recovering from choices we made. These choices usually involve staying up late, and putting more food and possibly alcohol in our bodies than we should have. We know the drill: drink lots of water, get some sleep, do some exercise, take hot baths or showers, detoxify, get a massage, stick to green and orange vegetables, multi-grain carbohydrates, and lean protein for a few days. In other words, get the body back on track.

The second layer is getting back in the routine. Yes, the job is waiting. Yes, it’s likely in a mess. Yes, you have eleventy-zillion e-mail messages to wade through. Yes, traffic is worse than you remember it. Yes, laundry and dishes and vacuuming and errands and dental appointments and check book balancing need doing. Yes, you can and will deal with all of this, though you’re likely to grumble while you’re doing it. Grumbling is permitted.

For the third layer, prepare yourself for an energy shift that has nothing to do with either of the first two layers. Something has moved in your creative process. I am convinced that creativity is a split creature, like Captain Kirk in The Enemy Within. Creativity-1 can do wonderful things, such as bid farewell to 10,000 extra words and turn an amorphous mass into something resembling a book.

Creativity-2 hates change. She rages. She decides that she has to stop everything to focus on why the living room smells bad. She has to make change the whole world right now. She has to read for hours to the exclusion of getting anything else done. She has to reorganize her entire life before she can possibly touch any creative endeavor. In short, she has to do everything in her power to keep you from changing because she likes things the way they were, thank you very much.

My three suggestions for getting through the third layer after you come back from a convention or workshop are

Limit your reading and/or TV/DVD watching for at least the first week. I have nothing scientific on which to base this, but I had to start somewhere, so I picked a 3:1 ratio. After I’ve done something creative for 3 hours, I’ll allow myself to read or watch DVDs for 1 hour.

Do not do major cleaning right now. This is not a good time to rearrange all the furniture in your office or to clean out your closets. Creativity-2 is trying to get you to do this so that you will be so tired that you can’t focus on change.

Create. Start something new. Revisit something old. Work in a different medium for a little while. Give yourself permission to play and see where it takes you.

Just in case someone is curious about how I got rid of all those words, I had my writing program compile a list of how often a word was used in the manuscript. I use Scrivener, which is a Macintosh program, but there are probably other programs out there that do the same thing.

I compared the number of times a word was used to the number of pages in the book. In my case the count was about 300, so I focused on words that had been used over 300 times because that meant they were likely to show up more than once on a page.

I didn’t bother with words like the, a, to, and, in, if, her, she, was, I, that, you, had, and he, each of which appeared over 1,000 times. I figured those would sort themselves out as I made other corrections.

Then I used the “find” feature to locate each time a word had been used and tried to eliminate that word by rewriting the sentence. The first word I went through “as” originally appeared 426 times. By the time I finished finding and changing, I had 21 appearances left. I’ve also done the following words: yes, no, make, thought, think, and there.

These are the words I still plan to check:

Quibbling words (words that have a tendency to weaken meaning in a sentence): only, any, just, still, might, yet.
[She still might go to the carnival on Saturday, only she hadn't made up her mind yet. For gosh sakes, have that woman make a decision! ]

Words that tend to represent weak actions: look, took, put, turn, told, tell, smile
[He turned to look at her and smiled as he put his hat on the table. Even though actions—turning, smiling, and putting a hat on the table—are described, this is not an action sentence.]
Quote for the week:

I wonder if our creative calling is sometimes something we fear, avoid, and, if we're lucky, end up being pulled into in spite of ourselves.
~Susan Wooldridge, author Poemcrazy and Foolsgold

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cold Weather Reading

by Julia Buckley
This was the first cold week in Chicago, and I couldn't be happier. I come alive in fall, and I feel as though I get twice as many things done (including more writing) when the air is brisk.

I also enjoy reading things that are set in fall and winter. The first Martha Grimes book that I ever read, THE OLD SILENT, was captivating to me, especially the way that Grimes wove in a particular Robert Frost poem which contained the line "Goodbye, and keep cold." The book prompted me to read everything in the Grimes collection, and several of her mysteries were set in a mysterious and poetic winter backdrop.

Some fictional detectives live in cold climates, and so their authors set all of their mysteries in the cold.

I found this list while searching for cold-weather mysteries, compiled by "Leah Smith, librarian and avid reader." It's a terrific list, and I've read at least half of the books that Smith recommends, and can therefore agree to them.

I've always wanted to read Smilla's Sense of Snow simply because of the wonderful title, but I have not yet done it. Like many other readers, I sometimes feel crushed by the weight of all the books I want to read versus the amount of time I find to read them in. Still, it is a luxury, the thought of all those books . . . .

And now I'll be looking for the ones set in the cold. Something about that frigid air, and the delicious warm food that seems so much more appealing now than it did in July, makes me ready to embrace the news season, in life and in fiction.

What's your favorite cold-weather mystery?

(Photo by Julia Buckley: a hill-top in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, 2006).

Saturday, September 25, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

A couple of weeks ago I was ready to throw my laptop at a wall. It was doing everything v..e..r..y.....s..l..o..w..l..y, from booting up to shutting down, and everything in between. Okay, it's three years old--not exactly new, but not ancient either. Having overloaded computers in the past with non-essential programs, I've been careful in choosing what to download to this one, so there was plenty of disk space available. I had even added RAM, a year or so after I bought it. So why was it dragging its figurative heels?

I did everything a semi-intelligent computer owner should. I defragged. I ran Check Disk. I dumped my recycle bin and cleared my temporary files. I ran scans up one side and down the other, for all those evil invaders that might have crept in from cyberspace. Didn't make a bit of difference.

I was getting desperate. I mean, I couldn't even log on to Facebook for more than a few minutes. It was freezing when I wanted to add more than a few friends. Who was this piece of machinery to dictate who my friends should be?

So finally, at the end of my patience, I contacted the Geek Squad. No, this is not a paid endorsement. But I've used them before, for a variety of computer problems, including the total meltdown of my daughter's hard drive. They have always been up front about what they can and cannot do, and they deliver on their promises. So what the heck? I needed help.

There's a physical Geek Squad near here, but being lazy/thrifty/impatient, I logged onto their website and contacted a real live person. At least I think he was live, but who can tell these days? He said his name was Jason. Sure. But I'll call you anything you want, as long as you can speed up my computer. Please.

I gave him (gulp) permission to peer into the inner working of the laptop, remotely. Good thing I hid that international money-laundering scheme on a different computer. Oops, never mind. He poked and prodded, and came back with this evaluation: there's nothing actually wrong with the computer, but apparently my assorted virus protections (all recommended by various knowledgeable people, including a U.S. government IT employee) were warring with each other, making it increasingly difficult for anything to open, much less operate. The cure? Let the Geek Squad run their basic clean-up program. Could it make anything worse? I pulled out my credit card and said "go."

And then came the fascinating part. Someone, somewhere took over control of my computer. I know, we've all seen this in numerous movies and television shows. But I'd never seen it on my computer. The cursor darted; windows opened and shut. Decisions were made. Software was removed and installed. All this happened very fast--faster than any human could work? Was Jason human? Heck, for all I know he was working on four different computers at once. Or eating lunch at the same time.

The whole process still took three hours, even with Jason performing at warp speed. I could do nothing but sit and marvel. In the end the machine was purged and polished--and it works a whole lot better now.

But as I watched this happen, I had to remember that I grew up in a pre-computer world. When I was in high school, we took a field trip to Bell Labs in New Jersey, where we were awed by their cutting-edge technology. I took the first "computer science" class my high school offeredBand there wasn't even a computer at the school, so we had to travel to a nearby college to spend a couple of hours a week, mostly waiting for our turn to use the keypunch machine, and if we were lucky, to get one run of our program. The "textbook" was a mimographed copy, unbound (and I still have it, an antique now).

And here I was whining that my home computer is a little sluggish accessing a few million people and websites. What a world we live in!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Switching Places . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Today marks my last regular Friday post on Poe's Deadly Daughters. I'll still be here, but I'm switching places whith Sheila Connolly who posts on PDD once a month on the fourth Saturday. Sheila will post every Friday and I will post on her once-a-month day. I know you all will enjoy seeing more of Sheila's posts!

Why the change? Because nowadays I'm mostly writing non-fiction study booklets for women rather than mystery, so it didn't seem fair for me to hog a weekly spot while Sheila had only a once-a-month slot. And I've pretty much said about all I can about mystery writing/reading. Of course, mystery is, and always will be, my reading of choice. And I'm RARELY at a loss for words.

Blogging is something (at least for me, and maybe you, too?) fairly new to the mystery world, meaning withing the last decade. It gives readers a chance to get to know their favorite authors much better and even interact by posting in the comments area. That interaction between writer and reader wasn't as easy when authors only had web pages.

There are zillions of blogs out there on the Net, and it isn't easy to keep up with all of them. We at Poe's Deadly Daughters are VERY grateful for our readers. Without you there would be no need for the blog! So thanks for hanging around, reading what we have to say, and commenting when you feel comfy to do that. And we'd REALLY love to hear more of your comments, so feel free to click on that link below each post whenever you like.

I'll still be here, posting, reading, commenting, seeing what the rest of you have to say. We want to know what's going on with you as much as you want to know what's going on with us!

I also want to thank my fellow Poe sisters. Their support, help, and friendship mean the world to me. We have really gotten to know each other, behind the scenes, while keeping the blog going.

But remember, we created this mystery blog for you. So, with many thanks and hugs to each of you, that's it for this Friday.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Joy of Selling

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I blogged about my nostalgia for Girl Scout camp a few weeks ago, I got a lot of response from women who had also been Girl Scouts. Along with singing campfire songs and building one-match fires, we had common memories of selling Girl Scout cookies.

A woman’s age can be calculated by how much she remembers selling Girl Scout cookies and exactly what kind of cookies were available in her day. When I was a kid, they cost twenty cents a box. First there were only the sandwich cookies, and later they offered a choice of sandwich or chocolate mint. But that’s not why this activity lingers in my mind.

I was a shy kid, and I hated selling. For years, I used to cross the street to avoid the agony of saying good morning to a neighbor—any neighbor, however nice. But in their efforts to make money for the worthy cause of Scouting, the troop leaders would turn the annual cookie sales fest into a competition. And of course, I didn’t want to be left behind. Some parents peddled cookies for their kids to all their office workmates. In big families, every grandma, aunt, and cousin bought multiple boxes. (In fact, the selling involved taking orders; actual cookies were delivered later.) My mother took the route of accompanying me from door to door, dragging my feet and squirming with reluctance.

First, I would ring the doorbell. The woman of the house would open the door. (Trust me, men were not involved in this process in the 1950s.) My mother would announce, “This little girl has something to say to you.” Then I would have to step forward and squeak, “Would you like to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?” What a nightmare!

I managed to avoid selling for quite a few years after that, but thirty years ago, after working for publishers without getting anything published myself or editing anything more interesting than an accounting textbook, I answered an ad for trainees for a big life insurance company. I was supposed to call everybody I had ever known and pitch life insurance as an absolute necessity. I was also given long lists of prospects to cold call. What a nightmare! I ruined a couple of friendships that way. One woman, whom my boss—and what a shark he was!—insisted on visiting with me because she was a doctor, was still telling me how traumatized she was by his hard sell twenty-five years later. I bought several policies on myself and my husband (then fiancĂ©) to make my quota so I would get my monthly…draw? bonus? I can’t remember. I do remember I used to come home and cry for two hours every night.

That career didn’t last long. It didn’t make me rich, as my boss the shark had told me it would when he recruited me. (Why wouldn’t he paint the rosiest possible picture? He was selling.) I swore off selling forever—until I learned that nowadays, authors have to do their own book promotion. This was a challenge. I would be trying to sell the cherished products of my imagination—in other words, my own heart and guts—and the stakes were not the future of Girl Scouts of America or Mutual of New York but my own career as a writer.

Luckily, my shyness is a thing of the past. I love to schmooze and to speak before an audience. I had a wonderful time on my first book tour in 2008. In 2009, in a tanked economy, when a number of the bookseller friends I’d made the first time around had been forced to close their indie and mystery bookstores—not so much. Even then, connecting with people—book loving, mystery loving, and, thanks to my themes of alcoholism and codependency, recovering people—was a delight. But there were a few dismaying moments.

I will not name the generous cozy writer who offered to share with me her meet & greet signing at a midwestern Barnes & Noble, except to say that she writes about dogs. (It was a trade for my invitation to her to join my panel in an indie bookstore. As we all know, mystery authors love to help each other.) There we sat, side by side at a table in full view of the front door in a busy B&N. I had my stack of hardcovers, priced by my publisher at $25.95. She had her stack of mass market paperbacks, $7.99 each. She also had heaped on the table in front of her a huge mound of pink, green, and tan dog biscuits. As customers entered the store, we both tried to catch their eye.

“Hi!” I would say. “Do you read mysteries?”
“Hi!” she would say. “Do you have a dog?”

Guess who sold more books that afternoon, by a ratio of about five to one.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I wish I'd been warned...

Sandra Parshall

Do you ever wish novels came with warning labels?

Something like: WARNING! This book could plant images in your mind that will disgust you and haunt you forever.

As a writer, I hate the very idea. I don’t want anyone passing up a book because of a label that might not apply to everyone. As a reader, I’ve sometimes wish I’d had a little warning about the content of a novel.

Ironically, this happens most often when I’m reading a book by a favorite author,
and it’s usually my own fault. If I love an author’s work, I avoid most reviews of a new book so the story won’t be spoiled for me, but that also means I’m not prepared if it contains horrific scenes that I’ll find revolting. I’m talking about scenes in which the torture of women is described graphically and at length. I’m talking about similar scenes involving animals. And scenes in which children are abused or molested in any way.

Like all mystery readers, I have no problem with ordinary murder. People are murdered all the time. It’s part of the world we live in, and as a storytelling device that allows for the exploration of human motives and society, it is unsurpassed. As a writer, I try to make murder scenes realistic, and that may involve unpleasant details about the state of the body. I can usually read such things, and write them, then put them out of my mind.

Some images, though, won’t go away, and I’d rather not put them into my head
in the first place. I avoided reading one Minette Walters novel – although I admire Walters enormously – because I was told it contained descriptions of animal abuse. When I came upon a scene about a cat being tortured in a Robert Crais novel, I had to skip it. The whole point of the scene was to show that Joe Pike had a compassionate heart underneath his silent, forbidding exterior, and I had already seen that demonstrated many times in previous Crais novels.

My most recent “I wish I hadn’t read that” experience was with Nevada Barr’s new book, Burn. (If you plan to read it and don’t appreciate spoilers, you may depart now.) I looked at one review in advance, but it didn’t raise any red flags for me. I listened to the unabridged audio of the book, and although the characters didn’t appeal to me I love Barr’s work and her protagonist, Anna Pigeon, and I never thought of abandoning the book.

I listened to most of Burn with no particular reaction one way or the other. I could tell it would turn out to be about the sexual enslavement of children, and I applauded Barr for tackling such an important and disturbing topic. Then, toward the end, I suddenly found myself listening to graphic descriptions of small children performing sex acts on men in a popular New Orleans establishment and being physically abused in other ways. I continued listening, or half-listening, thinking this part of the book was necessary to make the author’s point and would pass quickly. It continued for many pages, though, and I have only myself to blame for not quitting when I should have. Now the images vividly created by a gifted author are in my memory to stay, and I wish I had passed on that installment of the series.

After finishing the book, I read the reader reviews of Burn on Amazon and was shocked by the virulent tone of many of them. A lot of people seemed personally offended that Barr chose to write about children being used for sex by men. One person called the book “prurient” and implied that Barr was peddling pornography. As a writer, I have to be on Barr’s side (not that she will ever know or care about my opinion). I am opposed to official censorship. I hate the idea of any author being told what he or she may write about. Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and that’s a freedom we should all protect vigilantly – even when we don’t happen to like what’s being said or written.

As a reader, though, I have another right: to choose what I read and to pass up what doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe I’m a weakling, or oversensitive, but there are some things I don’t want to read about and plant in my mind forevermore. I don’t believe in censoring writers, but as a reader I practice a kind of self-censorship. And after my experience with Burn, I’ve decided that in the future I will have to read more reviews, and read them more carefully, before I read the actual books.

What about you? Are there certain topics that will always make you pass up a book? Do you ever wish you had clearer warnings about disturbing content in novels?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intergenerational Theater

Sharon Wildwind

I had a wonderful time playing on Saturday afternoon.

As part of the second Creative Aging Calgary Symposium, I attended a drama workshop taught by David Barnet of the University of Alberta. David is the Artistic Director of Geriactors and Friends, an intergenerational theater company based in Edmonton, Alberta.

In Geriactors and Friends about fifteen people over the age of sixty-five and an equal number of graduate students in drama from the university come together to write and present plays that center around issues of aging and personal experiences.

David showed us some of the ways that he brings a group of people together to get them started working on ideas that might turn into plays. We started with a standard ice-breaker: dividing up into pairs, learning a little about the other person and then introducing that person to the group.

Then we started playing.

Again, in pairs, one person in the pair could only say “Yes” and the other person could only say “No.”

Two people had to say only “good-bye” to one another as they parted. Move apart a few feet, say “good-bye” again, and keep doing that until one person reached a door and left so the people were out of sight of one another. They they were to wait a few seconds, the person who had left re-entered and the two people moved closer to one another a few feet at a time, saying only “Hello.”

We sat in a circle and were each given a colored ball. We learned a short song in Spanish and on the chorus, which was a single syllable sung over and over, each person passed a ball to the person on his or her right.

On the first try, everyone ended up with a ball at the end of the song. As we picked up the tempo, some people inevitably ended up with two balls or none at all. Then the balls began to disappear. David looked around at one point and there were only 5 balls still in play; we’d started with 25.

It turned out that one of the participants had decided to toss a ball over his shoulder each time he felt himself falling behind in passing balls along. The really funny thing was that no one in the circle had noticed him doing it, except for the woman sitting next to him, who then began tossing balls over her shoulder, too.

If you have any experience in drama you’ve guessed by now that we were playing acting games. David described this play as a non-threatening way to teach people who have no acting experience something about stagecraft.

We divided up into groups of five each. Everybody picked a prop that reminded them of a story from their lives. We told our stories to each other and from the five picked one or two stories to turn into an improvised play.

Okay, I’m bragging, but our group’s playlet brought down the house. One of the women in our group had chosen a Barbie doll for her prop. She told us a story about her mother.

Back in the 1920s, when things on the farm were good, her mother received dolls and toys at Christmas. In the 1930s, when things weren’t good, she had to give away all of her dolls and toys to younger children in the family because there was no money to buy new toys. The woman in our group had only learned decades later that her mother had never been allowed to keep a doll for herself. When her mother was eighty-five she bought her mother a doll from the 1930s so that she would finally have a doll that she could keep.

This is exactly the kind of story that Geriactors and Friends are looking for.

If you have the opportunity to see some intergenerational theater, do it. Even better if you, as a writer, have a chance to participate in or assist this type of theater company, do it even more.

The Seniors Theater Resource Center has a lot of background material about and for such companies.

In addition to Geriactors and Friends, here are some other well-known intergenerational theater companies:
Target Theatre, Victoria, British Columbia
Act 2 Studio, Toronto, Ontario
Roots & Branches, New York City
Elders Share the Arts, New York City
Stagebridge, San Francisco, California
Young at Heart, Northampton, MA (If you haven’t seen the movie by the same name, it’s another must see.)
Magic Me, London, UK
Age Exchange, London, UK

Quote for the week:
I had a conception of seniors that did not include playfulness. The laughing, playing, and silliness caught me off guard. . . There is a powerful energy created in playfulness.
~ Matthew Gusul, Assistant Director, Geriactors and Friends, 2009

Monday, September 20, 2010

Giving a Literary Gift

by Julia Buckley
I've been gift-hunting online lately; it's so much easier than driving or walking to a variety of stores, searching for that perfect something. And even if it seems early for Christmas shopping, online gifts can be bookmarked for later purchase. All in all, virtual shopping seems quite preferable to the real and more exhausting kind--and in the end, you still get a product to wrap and share.

Many of the gift recipients on my list are literary types, so I was thrilled to find all of the potential presents that meet this requirement. Just to give a sampling:

Classic mystery lovers would enjoy this Sherlock Holmes Journal, available at Cafe Press. It's moody and colorful enough to encourage them to write their own mysteries between its covers.

Authors, if you want to show your agent your undying love this season, try wearing this and sending it with a Christmas or Hanukkah card.

Does someone on your list love science fiction? Why not buy them this purse, which can be a constant reminder of their favorite genre?

Is there a mystery lover who doesn't love the rich, colorful art of the old Nancy Drew books? Thrill your loved one with this address book and be sure that your own address is written in so they know where to send the thank you card. :)

Enjoy a good satirical cartoon? You can have one put onto the product of your choice, for the enjoyment of that sardonic writer in the family.

This one is my favorite: Russian literature fans would love this map of St. Petersburg, which is made up entirely of the words of Russian authors. You need to see it to believe its beauty.

If you love Agatha Christie (and are willing to fork over 3000 dollars), you can find a signed book page here. I was pleased to see that Dame Agatha had lovely handwriting which makes her signature as readable as her mysteries.

And finally, for the writer or reader on your list, how about a tiny book on a necklace, so her beloved hobby is always close to her heart?

What do you think? Does this get you thinking about that Christmas list? Or does it just make you want to read?

Either pastime sounds most enjoyable.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guest Blogger: Vicki Lane

The winner of the signed copy is Iil (Lil?) Gluckstern! She will need to send me her snail mail addy (vicki_laneATmtnareaDOTnet)

Vicki Lane is the author of The Day of Small Things (coming September 28!) and of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries — Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, Anthony-nominated In A Dark Season, and Under the Skin (coming from Bantam Dell in 2011.) Vicki draws her inspiration from the rural western NC county where she and her family have lived on a mountainside farm since 1975. Visit Vicki at her daily blog, her website or go HERE to learn more about The Day of Small Things.

A Minor Character?

“Why don’t you do a spin-off before you do another Elizabeth book?” asked Herself, my indefatigable editor, during our yearly conference at Bouchercon a few years ago. “A stand alone — a non-series book. Maybe about one of your minor characters. No Elizabeth.”

Hmm. After four books about Elizabeth Goodweather, I was open to trying something new. Besides, when Herself speaks, I tend to listen.

“I could do that,” I said. “What if I picked up where I left off in the historical subplot of Signs in the Blood? I’d been thinking it might be interesting to tell Clytie’s story – you, know, Little Sylvie’s sister. I could …”

I could tell Herself wasn’t interested. She was gazing off into the middle distance as she said, “Mmm, I was thinking about one of Elizabeth’s neighbors . . .”

That’s how Herself operates. She doesn’t so much tell me what to do, as nudge me till I end up where she wants me.

“A book about Miss Birdie.” I said. “You want a book about Miss Birdie?”

“What a good idea!” Herself exclaimed. “I can’t wait to read it!”

Miss Birdie is Elizabeth Goodweather’s eighty-something year old neighbor. She’s based on several of my own neighbors and is a gutsy little woman who reminds many of my readers of a favorite grandmother or aunt. A cute little lady who says ‘Ay, law’ a lot, she bustles around her kitchen making cornbread and dispensing local color. A wonderful minor character – but could I write a whole novel about her?

About this time, while I was trying to decide if there was an interesting past to Miss Birdie, my friend Kathy (the original of Sallie Kate, Elizabeth’s realtor friend) told me a heart-breaking story about a local woman. Now in late middle age, she had always been kept at home by her mother, not even allowed to attend school. Why? The mother had wanted to be sure that this youngest daughter would never get married and move away – this daughter was raised to be her mother’s caretaker in old age.

Building on this true story, I began to imagine what Birdie’s life had been before she was that quaint old woman down the road from Elizabeth’s farm – before, in fact, she was Miss Birdie.

Oh, my! As I wrote, more and more of Birdie’s past made itself known – from her early life close to nature in a lonely mountain cove to the raucous setting of a local tavern/dance hall/brothel. There was Cherokee magic, there was romance, there was unsolved murder.

And then, in the present day, Birdie emerged in all her power – not the cute little neighbor who seemed to sit around waiting for Elizabeth to drop by and bring her to life, but a woman of power – capable of risking all in defense of a child.

I really loved finding out more about this woman I thought I’d invented. And I’ve decided that there are no minor characters – in fiction or in life.

They’re all just waiting to have their stories told.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Promoting our published work . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I've talked about Facebook before, but this is a sort of different take on it. If you are a reader and not a writer, and you are on Facebook, do you connect to writers there? If so, to any and every writer? Or only to your faves?

IF you connect to writers, what do you want to hear from them? Writing ONLY? What they are working on, promoting, just had published, etc? Or do you want to connect on whatever personal level they are willing to share? We could use some input here.

When I first joined Facebook, I joined because other authors mentioned it as THE place to promote our work. I was quickly friended by other authors, quite a few other authors, over three hundred to be exact. Nearly all of them were touting their own work, and not much interested in mine or what I had to say. It just struck me as, ME, ME, ME! I soon lost interest in Facebook. Authors DO buy other authors' books, but promoting primarily to other authors isn't a good way to sell books. We need to reach dedicated readers, not just other authors.

A few months later my best friend (she's an avid reader, but not a writer) joined Facebook and connected to me. I was able to touch base with her daily (she lives a couple of hours away) and keep up with her and her family. I found other friends and connected to them, and I'm also enjoying meeting up with people I haven't seen or heard from in ages, getting to know them again.

I'm still friends with several authors, but those who only talked about writing and publishing and nothing else, I pretty much disconnected from. Yes, there is an album with pictures of my book covers on MY page that interested readers can click on, and my profile states that I have several published books, but probably 90% of my pages are about other things in my life besides my writing. I want to promote my work but I don't want to turn people off by sticking to that one subject.

I've not tried Twitter, so have no opinions on it. I have had pages on MySpace and CrimeSpace and CrimeSpace seems to be a place where promoting our work is very acceptable and actually expected. Facebook doesn't seem (to me) to be that sort of place. I dunno. Maybe the other authors there have had great success selling their books via promoting on Facebook. Maybe it's just me.

If you are a reader, we'd love to have your views on authors promoting their work on Facebook. Does such promotion by authors bother you or does it help you decide what to buy/read next? Do you actively seek that knowledge, or avoid it?

Love to hear from you authors as well. Do you actively promote your work on Facebook, discussing little else? Or only mention it in passing, discussing many subjects? Does Facebook help your sales at all, so far as you are able to tell?

I do know that on some book discussion lists, members prefer self-promotion of an author's work to be kept to a minimum and discussions kept focused on what each person has recently read and wishes to express an opinion about. Same for the Amazon Kindle discussion lists. Authors CAN mention/promote their work, but it has to be done VERY carefully. That set me to wondering about sites like Facebook and/or Twitter. And about the readers' reactions to authors promoting on those sites. Our listening ears are open! Care to share?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

James Patterson, Writer

Elizabeth Zelvin

James Patterson’s books are everywhere. It’s said that one out of every seventeen books sold in America for the past three years has been a Patterson book. As the person who introduced him as the speaker at the last meeting of Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter said, his sales equal those of Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined.
The only apparent catch in Patterson’s candidacy for the title of most successful writer is the fact that other writers collaborate on many of his books. So is Patterson really a writer? After hearing him speak about his process, I say yes.

First, he writes every day, often all day. He still gets up at 5 AM to do it, as he did when he had a high-level day job at a major advertising agency. Second, he’s an Edgar winner, taking Best First Novel in 1977 at the age of 26. Third, after his coauthor on any book has made his or her contribution by writing to his outline, Patterson himself does draft after draft—as many as seven—reworking it so each scene does exactly what he wants it to, without further reference to the collaborator. I call that writing.

As Patterson pointed out, team writing is not a new concept. Screenwriters do it, and so do advertising copywriters. There’s storytelling, and then there’s craft. (He said it, and I agree: I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about storytelling, craft, and characterization as the “three-legged stool” that supports a novel.) Patterson is a prolific and gifted storyteller. It’s not that he has no talent for craft (“Edgar!” he reminded us with a smile), but he admits he’s less interested in craft than in storytelling. He chooses collaborators whom he considers better stylists than he is. It doesn’t stop him from rewriting dialogue and all the rest over and over until he feels he’s got it right.

Patterson is a big advocate for getting kids to read. He has a website,
Read Kiddo Read, that steers parents, teachers, and librarians to books that he believes are such good reads that kids will love them and want more, eventually becoming readers for life. When asked what he thinks about the future of e-readers, he said, “It’s a done deal.” He went on to say that it doesn’t matter in what form readers read their books, but that the shift to reading on screen leaves him deeply concerned about the future of bookstores.

One might think that Patterson’s publishers pour a fortune into promoting his books. Not so. He does all the promotion himself. He works with an agency, but he’s the client and has the control as well as footing the bill. That way, he can make sure he gets it right. He said he probably loses money on a book by book basis, but overall, it’s worth it.

Patterson made it clear that he’s not taking any shortcuts or cynically writing to the market. Like the rest of us, on every book, he’s doing the best he can.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy 120th, Dame Agatha!

On this day 120 years ago, a little English girl named Agatha was born. Little did her parents suspect that their innocent gurgling baby harbored one of the most devious imaginations the world has ever seen and she would one day be celebrated as the Queen of Crime. Long after her death in 1976, her books continue to sell, British TV regularly produces new adaptations of her intricately plotted stories, and her civilized sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, are known to mystery fans around the globe. In many ways Dame Agatha (she received her title in recognition of her contribution to literature and popular culture) shaped the modern mystery genre.

Today Poe's Deadly Daughters raise their glasses in celebration of this unforgettable writer's 120th birthday.

Sharon Wildwind

Even more than Nancy Drew, Dame Agatha was the first and bestest mystery author I read as a child. She left me with a life-long craving for British mysteries. Happy Birthday, dear Agatha.

Lonnie Cruse

I was a serious science fiction fan until I discovered Agatha Christie. I've read all of her books, a few of them more than once. I love the television shows and movies based on her books. The love of mystery her books fostered in me gave me the courage to write mysteries as well, and find a publisher, but mine certainly can't touch hers. Happy Birthday, Queen of Mystery, Dame Agatha!

Julia Buckley

When I was in junior high, my mom was a volunteer librarian at my school. She would sort through books that she thought I liked and then suggest them to me when I, a voracious reader, would seek something new. One day she handed me a book by Agatha Christie and said she thought I'd like it. I sat down with They Came to Baghdad and was immediately sucked into the danger and intrigue surrounding a young woman traveling in Iraq. It was exciting, romantic, fun, even funny. I loved it, and of course I ended up reading every book by AC that I could get my hands on.

Imagine my joy when I found out just how many books she'd written--it was a smorgasbord of mystery, and a stepping stone to my love of many kinds of mysteries. I've been fascinated with Agatha--her life, her legend, and her books--ever since.

Sheila Connolly

When my husband and I were first married, a few decades ago, we started collecting mysteries. Since we were both starving students, that meant haunting used bookstores. Remember, this was before the heady days of Amazon et al., where you can get almost anything, anytime, without leaving your chair.

This quest provided us with much low-cost entertainment, and we were scrupulous about hunting down all the works of various authors. And, yes, I read them all (although I can't swear that my husband did).

We have shipped this collection back and forth across the country, and when we moved into this house we built a wall of bookshelves for them. Agatha occupies an entire shelf. I did a quick inventory this week, and I have all but four of her books--which means I do have over fifty. Happy birthday, Dame Agatha!

Elizabeth Zelvin

My father was the Agatha Christie reader in my family. Those well thumbed paperbacks were a lot more fun than most of the many books my parents had on their shelves. I remember reading them over and over. I loved reading the casts of characters and the blurbs on the back cover and on the flyleaf. I read or reread all Christie's books systematically at the age of twenty-two, when I first had an apartment of my own in New York City and could do whatever I wanted. I think it's important to remember that she invented the unreliable narrator, the least likely suspect, and other plot devices that mystery readers nowadays take for granted or even think overdone. And I loved some of her memorable one-book-only women characters, like Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow and Lucy Eylesbarrow in 4:50 from Paddington.

Sandra Parshall

Like many people, I first became familiar with Agatha Christie's work through movies and television productions, and my visions of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were formed by the actors who played them. When I began reading the books, I joined the legend of mystery fans who feel dissatisfied by the failure of all actors except the wonderful David Suchet to capture the essence of Christie's creations. Although my taste in crime fiction led me to darker stories by the likes of Ruth Rendell, I have to credit Christie with awakening my interest in mysteries and making me wonder whether I, too, could write crime fiction that others might want to read. Thank you, Dame Agatha, for bringing me into this wonderful genre.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rainy Saturday

Sharon Wildwind

It was a dark and stormy night …

Actually, it was a bleak and rainy Saturday afternoon at the Memorial Library. As you may guess from the photo, the Memorial branch is a Carnegie library, first opened in 1912, making it the oldest library in Alberta.

Having been built at a time when proportion and balance mattered in architecture, and having been carefully maintained for 98 years, it is a beautiful building. It contains high ceilings, molded plaster cornices, and colorful yellow walls.

Because it’s located close to the downtown area it serves a number of office workers who like to pop by at lunch to pick up a quick read. Those people love mysteries, so despite the fact that Memorial is a small branch, the mystery collection is very good.

I’d come to attend a reading by the library’s current writer-in-residence, the Canadian mystery writer, Gail Bowen. Since I was a little early I settled myself in a comfortable chair and picked a photo book at random off the shelf. Rainy Saturday afternoon in a lovely library looking at a photo book. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Except that it did.

After about half an hour as I stretched, yawned and looked around, this is what I saw across the room from me. Now I knew that the library had copies of this book, but it was like, okay, look it up in the electronic card catalogue, see how many copies they have, etc. But to see it center stage, with a green “New and Notable” sticker on the cover sent this little thrill through my entire body. I was actually tempted to check it out and read it, but common sense prevailed and I left it there for other people.

About two o’clock a lot of people—me included—went downstairs to hear Ms. Bowen read. We packed every seat in the house and had people standing in the ante-room. The crowd was bang on the demographic for “those who read for pleasure;” that is mostly women in the 45 to 65 age range.

I tried to guess how many of the people there were readers, how many closet writers, how many out-of-the-closet writers, but it wasn’t that easy to tell. If I had to make a guess, I’d say over 50% of the people there had a manuscript tucked away somewhere.

There was a buzz in the air which confirmed that we’d really come to hear the author rather than simply to get in out of the rain. The reading was wonderful. Ms. Bowen worked the room, shaking each of our hands and smiling. She read from her newest Joanne Kilbourn book, The Nesting Dolls.

The audience laughed at the right places, groaned at the right places, and when she stopped reading, they wanted more. Ms. Bowen grinned and said then they were just going to have to read the book, which got the big laugh and the clapping.

I’m so excited that she will be in residence for the next three months. I already have my 25 pages in and I’m waiting for my appointment to sit down and talk with her. Thank you, Calgary Public Library.

Quote for the week:
People who come to our library to hear authors want to hear (1) where authors get their ideas; (2) how you go about the craft of writing (3) what writers have influenced you and (4) what you’re currently reading.
~Mary Boone, Sisters in Crime Librarian, 2008

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Existential Sandwich

by Julia Buckley

When I was in the 2nd grade, my mother and father had five children in Catholic schools. They were not rich, and I'm still not sure how they paid the tuition, but they were always wise with money and willing to sacrifice for the sake of education.

One of my key memories of this time involves my mother, a lonely figure in the kitchen with the nightly task of making five lunches (while we all sat, unrepentant, in the living room. I harbor a fair amount of guilt about this). My mother was one of those moms who made a hot meal just about every day, although sometimes she took a break and we ordered pizza or made hot dogs or my dad made his specialty, eggs at night. :)

After dinner she often did dishes alone--that is, until we were old enough and my parents assigned the task to us. But my mother never delegated the lunch making; still, she sighed a lot while she made them. I always thought this was a bit melodramatic, but that was because I had no sense of empathy.

Now, more than thirty years later, I am a mom with three less children than my own mother had, and I too am faced with the nightly task of making lunches (and even this isn't as onerous, because my husband and I take turns). As my mother probably did, I find the task rather joyless and boring, and so I'm never eager to leave my book or television show to go into the kitchen and start my little assembly line: tin foil, tin foil, tin foil, tin foil (parents get lunches, too); bread, bread, bread, bread. Baloney, baloney, baloney, baloney.

You get the idea. If one looks at it the wrong way, it can seem like an endless and spiritless task, an invitation to martyrdom. Hence my mother's sighing, and my sighing, a generation later. I am not one of those super efficient mothers who have fun finding ways to do things in the kitchen. I can be relatively efficient in my job and in my writing, but in the household I am sometimes at sea.

Today, as I tried to get a head start on the whole lunch-making thing, I thought of Albert Camus and the philosophy he put forth in his famous essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus." Sisyphus, of course, was the mythological man who was fated to push the boulder up the same mountain in the Underword again and again. Camus suggested that this fate, rather than a punishment, could be a joy, if only Sisyphus chose to embrace it as his own.

So I decided to love lunch-making. I focused on the happy reality that we could afford to buy food. That we had healthy children who were able to go to good schools. That we were intelligent, and understood enough about nutrition that we were able to give the boys a good foundation of learning, starting from the inside out. That we were a family, and that we were able to share in this food each day, even when we were apart.

I found that the more I focused on my blessings, the more blessings I seemed to have.

And while I doubt I will entirely stop sighing while I make the lunches, I think that my positivity will have an effect on just about everything I do--I just have to embrace it as my own.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Canada Calling: Tony S. K. Wong

Tony S. K. Wong is a Toronto, Ontario lawyer and a member of Crime Writers of Canada. He has a specialized practice in media law (libel, defamation, and freedom of the press).

The Daughters asked him questions about defamation and the advisability of using real people and places in works of fiction. Unfortunately, due to an technical glitch, that material is not available this weekend.

However, you can still learn some interesting things about defamation, particularly as it applies to Internet postings in this article that Tony wrote for the Toronto Star.

We hope to bring you Mr. Wong's blog in the near future.

Friday, September 10, 2010

How much news is too much???

By Lonnie Cruse

Used to be, you got news at noon and at six P.M. and at ten P.M. Anything REALLY newsworthy, the three major networks would break in and keep everyone updated until the situation was resolved. Then back to your regular programing. Not so now.

Nowadays we have SEVERAL major news networks that air nothing but news. Well, mostly. There are a couple of shows that, for me, border on talk shows, not news reporting, but whatever.

But it seems like we hear the same news over and over. On all those news stations. Different people discussing the same story. And sometimes they get pretty graphic, issuing warnings for children, then showing lots of dead bodies on camera. NOT for the faint of heart, even after you've gotten the children out of the room.

Is it too much news? I dunno. One CAN hear a rumor of something going on in the world and check it out immediately. One can also be overwhelmed, hearing the same news stories over and over. Hard to decide how much is too much. Or maybe not enough.

It's good to keep up with what's going on in our world. However, I confess, I'm greatly disturbed by one change. The feeling of freedom by newscasters to show THEIR personal opinion of the story they are reporting, by facial expressions, personal opinion comments, etc, that let the listener know exactly where that news anchor and probably the entire news station stands on any particular issue.

I'd personally prefer the news to be delivered without seeing/hearing the news person's rather obvious opinion on the subject. I prefer to hear the news sent out unbiased and make up my own mind as to whether or not the person involved in the story is intelligent or stupid.

Actually I sorta grew up with the idea that that's how it was supposed to be. News delivered straightforward, no hint of the deliverer's opinion, and I decide what to think about it. And don't even get me started on news media's need for "explaining" to America what the President (whichever President happens to be in office at that time) REALLY meant by his talk to America. Like we're too dumb to figure it out for ourselves so they have to tell us what he meant to say. Sorry, stepping off my soapbox now.

So, is there too much news? Too little? Too much personal or corporate opinion delivered with the news people? What are your thoughts? You already know mine! Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Mystery of DNA

Elizabeth Zelvin

I am besotted with my granddaughters, 6 and 3. Since they came along, my son and daughter-in-law figure in my pantheon only as the chauffeur and nanny for these two utterly charming, beautiful, brilliant, and sweet-tempered little princesses. Thanks to their Asian mom, they look very little like me. Oh, that straight dark silky hair like the hair I always wanted! Oh, those little noses! And yet, they are genetically mine, all 25% of them, and it crops up in mysterious ways. And that bond, along with who they are in and of themselves, makes my heart crinkle with foolish love of them (a line I think I borrowed from one of Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg novels, which I read a million times in my youth).

My son is in many ways (aside from gender) more different from me than his daughters are. When he was 8 or so, I brought home the first Black Stallion book and read it to him, hoping he’d get interested in horses. Instead, he developed a fascination with horse racing and other kinds of mathematically based betting. He recently celebrated his fortieth birthday at Monmouth Park Racetrack—which has a nice picnic area and playground, if you’re looking for an offbeat party venue. I love performing; the one time I remember him going onstage, in a nonspeaking part as an ancient Egyptian in the fourth grade play, he bit his fingernails the entire time. So how come my older granddaughter, whose mom is also quiet and reserved, was doing karaoke at 3 and now, at 6, is performing in hiphop competitions? She’s totally self-possessed and can throw her heart into dancing for an audience of a thousand (no, she’s not famous—the recital featured four hundred kids, all with families) with complete aplomb. Clearly, she got it from me.

And what about the little one? Her little pointy chin is just like mine. And speaking of pointy, how come she has the same pointy elf ears as my son, even though we always assumed his were due to squeezing in the birth canal? It must be in the DNA, maybe a one-gene mutation. (Have the folks mapping the human genome identified the elf ears gene, I wonder?) Both girls are becoming swimmers, a tradition among the women in my family since my grandmother’s generation. What other familiar traits will pop up as they get older?

The older one is already becoming a writer. On a recent visit, she wrote, illustrated, and published (okay, two staples) a whole book. At 7, my son was writing “I hate pickles” and “I hate writing” in his school journal. (I brought it to his 40th birthday party to amuse his daughters.) Here’s what my 6-year-old granddaughter wrote:

Once there was a little girl in a little cottage. She wanted a flower castle and she found not 1, not 2, but 100.
“How much is it?” asked the little girl.
“It is no money. It needs a flower.”
“Here you go. I got a new house.”

I’ve added the punctuation, but she is already enough of a pro that she asked me to edit her spelling mistakes and was interested when I showed her how to do proofreader’s marks.

“How many books have you written?” she asked me.

I counted up my published work: two mysteries, two books of poetry, and a nonfiction book on gender and addictions.

“Five,” I told her.

“That’s all?” said my granddaughter.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

We Are What We Say?

Sandra Parshall

When you look at a bridge, do you see it as male or female?

If your native language is English, you probably think that’s an absurd question. A bridge is a an object without gender. If you’re a German speaker, though, you’re likely to see a bridge as slender and elegant – feminine. A Spanish speaker may see it as possessing physical strength and other masculine qualities. German and Spanish, like French, assign genders to inanimate objects, and psychologists have found
in studies that this aspect of language literally affects the way the speakers see the world.

To me, language is the most fascinating and baffling aspect of human life. All animals communicate in one way or another, and many mammals and birds have vocabularies of spoken sounds with specific meanings, but no other creature has carried communication to the extreme that humans have. On a recent TV documentary about the brain, a neurosurgeon observed that most people feel they would have no reason to live if their ability to use and understand language were taken away.

Wouldn’t you love to know what the first human word was – the first sound that had a specific, widely accepted meaning? (An easy guess: it probably had something to do with either danger or food.) Look how far we’ve come since then. Why did so many different languages develop? Does the language we speak train us to see the world in a particular way?

I hadn't thought much about that last question until I read Guy Deutscher’s article on the subject in the August 29 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Deutscher rounds up recent research that indicates the answer is yes. (The article is adapted from his new book, Through the Language Glass.)

English is unusual among European languages, because it doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects. English speakers don’t go through our days viewing cups, brooms, clocks, violins, rain and garbage as male or female. To us, almost everything is just an impersonal it. Does this mean we truly see the world in a different way? Apparently so.

Deutscher writes about an experiment in which French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign gendered human voices to objects in a cartoon. Most French speakers wanted to give a fork (la fourchette) a woman’s voice, while Spanish speakers said the fork (el tenedor) should have a gravelly male voice. What would English speakers say, after they stopped laughing at the very idea? My own reaction would probably be to study the shape of the fork and assign a gender voice based on its appearance.

As Deutscher notes, the research hasn’t yet been done that will demonstrate whether the “emotional maps” imposed by a language’s gender system have broad societal effects on tastes and behavior (not to mention the design of bridges). As we learn more about the human brain, we will discover just how strongly the languages we speak shape our everyday perceptions and actions.

Another intriguing aspect of language is the way we describe space and give directions. Studies have shown that women and men see the landscape around them in different ways. Men are better able to create maps of an area in their heads and use them to navigate, and they give directions accordingly. Women tend to rely on landmarks – pass the church on the corner to your left, look for the school on your right – to find their way, and most languages allow them to give directions in those terms. The majority of us use the words behind, front, left, and right routinely.

But what if your language didn’t include such terms? Guugu Yimithirr, an
Australian aboriginal tongue spoken only in far northern Queensland, doesn’t. Everybody, male and female, uses north, south, east, and west exclusively, even when talking about body movements. A left arm is never a left arm; depending on the person’s position, it’s a south arm or a west arm, etc. Children in the society learn this way of perceiving the world at a very early age, and they always know exactly where they are, and which direction they’re facing, on the compass. They have to develop this ability quickly, to be able to communicate when they speak – and they aren’t unique. Researchers have discovered a number of other languages scattered around the world that rely on geographical coordinates. All of these people think and live, to some extent, in ways forced on them by their languages.

It's more than a little amazing that we’re only now beginning to wonder whether language helps to shape our habits of thought, our perceptions and attitudes. We still don't always recognize the tremendous cultural weight some words carry. Considering how vital clear communication is in our dangerous world, we should all hope this field of research receives much more attention.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Sharon Wildwind

Over the summer A LOT of kids moved into our neighborhood. Since our windows look out on the green space that they have taken over as their playground, I’m relearning a lot about playground dynamics.

There are the bossy–notably a girl of about 11 or 12 who seems to believe that it is her destiny to ride rough-shod over everyone else—and the bossed. That one is a 5 or 6 year old who dissolves into tears and caterwauling about three times a day.

Then there is the boy who discovered that the girls aren’t going to pay one bit of attention to the orders he gives. I happened to be looking out the window the first time that little interplay happened. From the stunned look on his face I think he experienced what they call in business a paradigm shift.

Many activities require running and these kids have neither a slow gear nor an off-switch. They have no volume control either and those same activities also require screaming. At the end of the day bikes, scooters, pink helmets, and pieces of clothing litter the ground and chalked hopscotch courts and large colorful flowers cover the sidewalks.

Coming home from work one day, I couldn’t resist one of the hopscotch courts. As I hopped my way through it, nursing bag in hand, this very young voice behind me said, “Cool.”

I agree and considering a few books I’ve read lately, a lot of other people are also deciding that play is cool. Either there is a new underground thread running through parts of the business community, or that thread has been there all the time and I’m just discovering it. The new message is: play at work.

Of course that message is not coming from the people who inhabit those little isolated boxes at the top of organizational charts. It’s coming from the cube farms, the water coolers, and the office intranets.

The theory behind it runs like this: business as it has been conducted for the past century no longer works. Organizations are so mired in mission statements, organizational charts, office buildings, time management, selective information distribution, and power they have become forts where the main objective is to defend the fort, not explore the frontier, or even engage the customers.

Companies have lost sight of the fact that ordinary workers, the people on the line, the people in the cube farms are smart cookies, know far more about the nuts-and-bolts of the business than anyone else, and are busy getting on—as much as they are allowed to get on—with the business of the business.

People who are now defining success as getting meaningful work done are building their work environment on four things: open, direct access; respect; conversation; and play.

The play here is not about putting goldfish in the water cooler or chalking hopscotch courts in the hallway. Nor are we talking about sneaking off from work early to get in a few holes of golf.

This is about playing with ideas. Building work groups based on who plays well with others rather than who is where in the organizational chart. Asking “Who is going to help us make this work?” instead of thinking of reasons that it will never work. Getting the work done when the work is done rather than working to artificial deadlines. It’s about people beginning to sound like themselves again.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
Quote for the week:

The Cluetrain 12-step program for Internet Business Success
1. Relax
2. Have a sense of humor
3. Find your voice and use it
4. Tell the truth
5. Don’t panic
6. Enjoy yourself
7. Be brave
8. Be curious
9. Play more
10. Dream always
11. Listen up
12. Rap on
~Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto. Basic Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-465-01856-9.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Close Calls: Abductions That Failed

by Julia Buckley
A girl in my town was abducted a couple of years ago. She was in her back yard playing, and a man came to the fence and asked if she'd like to see a puppy. He told her that her mom had said it was okay. The girl, who was six, agreed. He lifted her over the fence and put her into the back of his car, where he buckled her into a child seat. He drove her several miles into a different town before he pulled over and told her to get out. For whatever reason, the abduction had gone awry. The frightened girl went to a mail carrier and said she needed to get home.

Her parents had a couple of bad hours, but their story had a very happy ending.

My female students have harrowing stories, every year, about the people who follow them when they walk to school, when they get off the bus, when they're out with friends. Luckily they are all smart enough and old enough to know a suspicious character when they see one.

But I've been reflecting lately about how many abductions ALMOST happen. This had me thinking back to my own childhood. I still remember sitting with my dog in the parkway in front of my house, as a child of about ten or eleven, and watching a man stop his car and get out. He walked up to me and asked me about my dog: what breed she was, when we got her, whether I liked to pet her. He said he loved dogs and he just had to ask. At no point did I think he was anything but a dog lover. Eventually my mother's face appeared in the window; the man waved, got into his car, and drove away.

In retrospect, there is much that I suspect about that man's motives. It makes me wonder how close I came to the sort of nightmare many children endure.

There were other incidents, as well: people who offered me rides when I walked to school as a teenager. Because I was vain and wouldn't wear my glasses, I sometimes went close to the cars, thinking it was a friend who had pulled over. And then I'd run away when I realized it was a stranger--a supposedly well-meaning stranger.

Generally people don't attempt to abduct women in their forties, but last year a man who must have been seventy pulled up next to me as I walked to the store.

"Would you like a ride?" he asked.

I almost laughed. "No."

"It seems we're going in the same direction," he persisted. "I just thought I'd save you the trip."

"I don't know you," I said.

And then, to my utter shock, he moved up the block and began talking to another woman. I didn't even know what to make of that situation. Can that sort of thing ever be "innocent?" Was I to believe that he was just a friendly man looking to give another adult a ride?

In retrospect, the world seems full of shadows and near misses for which I suppose we must be grateful.

Does everyone have a near miss story?

(Disclosure: this is a reprint of an essay I wrote in 2009. In honor of Labor Day, I took a wee vacation from blogging duties and went to a movie with my husband. Please forgive in the spirit of the season, and definitely please leave your comments!)