Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

by guest blogger Leslie Wheeler

With all due respect to Shakespeare’s Juliet, who had good reason to proclaim to Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” I beg to differ. 

What’s in a name?  A lot actually.

For me at least, a character can’t come to life until I’ve found just the right name for him or her.  The naming process is often fun: you start with the vague idea of a character and select a name which seems to fit that character, because of the associations it carries. Sometimes these associations are deeply personal, sometimes not.  When I can’t think of an appropriate name that belongs to someone I know or have known, I find those name-your-baby books helpful. Or if I’m really desperate, I’ll pick up the phone book.  Once I’ve got my name, I can begin the process of fleshing out the character.

In the past, I haven’t had to worry much about dreaming up place names, because my first two books are set at real places: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, at the Pilgrim village of the same name, and Murder at Gettysburg at the town in Pennsylvania.  My third book was supposed to be called Murder at Mystic Seaport, but then both the Seaport and my publisher decided the name needed to be changed “to protect the innocent” (the Seaport and my publisher) from the aspersions that would be cast on the Seaport if it were connected with a murder, albeit fictional.  So I was faced with the daunting prospect of re-naming not only the museum and the village of Mystic, but all the real-life restaurants, bars, and ships I’d mentioned in the book.  

I began my quest for a replacement name for Mystic by jotting several possibilities on a legal pad. But none satisfied me.  Then, on a long drive from Burlington, Vermont back to Boston, I had a “Eureka” moment.  Mystic would become Spouters Point (with no apostrophe, as in Harpers Ferry).  Readers of Moby Dick will know that the name comes from the Spouter’s Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Ishmael spends the night on his way to Nantucket, and where he meets the native harpooner, Queequeg. 

From then on it was smooth sailing: Mystic Seaport became the Spouters Point Maritime Museum, the whaler Charles W. Morgan became the Susan Kilrain (after a woman who’d won the right to have a character named after her in my next book at a charity benefit auction), and so on until I hit another snag.

Mystic Seaport wasn’t the only real place name I’d used in the book.  There was the Mashantucket-Pequot-owned gambling casino of Foxwoods.  An important part of the book is devoted to Foxwoods and to the history of the tribe itself. Anxious to get permission to use the Foxwoods name, I contacted a lawyer for the tribe, who told me he would need to present my request before the tribal council.  I dutifully made my case, and by the time I was done, I’d sent the lawyer copies of every page in the manuscript where Foxwoods and/or the tribe were mentioned. 

Weeks passed and still no answer was forthcoming. “It could happen tomorrow, or it could be months down the road,” the lawyer told me.  Reluctantly, I decided to withdraw my request and change the name.  Foxwoods became Clambanks. I wasn’t finished, however.  When I contacted the “rights” person at my publisher to make sure I had done everything I was supposed to, I was told that I needed to change the name of the tribe as well.  Fortunately, I found a glossary of Algonquin words in the back of a book written by a seventeenth-century visitor to New England, and there found a name for my tribe: the Mashantucket Pequots became the Dottagucks.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a big-name author with a big-name publisher, you may have to fictionalize names of people, places, and institutions, as I did.  Once I got going, the process of re-naming wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, but I still wish I could have avoided it. 

But back to the question with which I began: Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Yes and no. “No,” because I’d seen people’s faces light up when I told them I was writing a mystery set at Mystic Seaport.  Knowing and loving the Seaport, they were excited about the prospect of reading a book that takes place there. Now, of course, this doesn’t happen.  Instead, I get puzzled looks. “Where is Spouters Point?” people ask, assuming it’s a real place. This is the “yes” part, because it shows that at least I’ve managed to pique their curiosity with my new name. And their interest in the location of the village I’ve created gives me a chance to explain that Spouters Point is a fictionalized Mystic Seaport.  So, in a sense, I get to have it both ways.

Visit Leslie’s website at

Friday, October 29, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

Recently I went to an Irish harp performance. I wouldn’t call it a concert, because it took place in a small community center with perhaps thirty people in the audience. It was sponsored by Cumann na Gaeilge (Friends of the Irish), the people from whom I take Irish language lessons.

It was a delightful event presented by a solo performer, Regina Delaney. She provided not only some lovely music but also a brief history of the harp in Ireland and the musicians who played it, and she played samples of music from every era, spanning over a thousand years. She also explained how her harp works (to be precise, it is a wire-strung lever harp; the levers are used to change the pitch of individual strings and thus the key of a song), and the charming terminology that the old harpers used.

In the middle there are two strings tuned to the same pitch, and historically in Ireland these have been called the “two sisters.” All the other strings were then defined in relation to those central strings (e.g., the “third string from the first sister”). I’m not much of a musician so I won’t even try to explain the intricacies of tuning or playing the thing. But it certainly sounds pretty. In fact, one interesting tidbit that Regina told us was that there is some inherent tonality in that kind of harp that is particularly soothing to humans. I’m willing to accept that (although beware if you do any online research, because the claims quickly drift into the realm of “woo-woo”).

But, believe it or not, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Regina Delaney is a fifty-something American-born woman, whose harp is nearly bigger than she is (and, yes, she carried it around by herself). She was originally from New Jersey, and has training in both nursing and engineering. She was holding down jobs in both fields at once as well as raising her children a decade or so ago when she happened to accompany a friend into a music store, and fell in love—with a harp.

The observant shopkeeper saw her interest and told her she could borrow it, take it home, get to know it. She did, and she never looked back—she completely changed her direction in the middle of her life. And her joy in her playing, and in sharing it with others, is still clear and strong. Her message is simple: follow your dream, do what you love. Does she make much money? No. We passed that hat at the event, to cover her gas money. Is she happy? I’d say yes. How can you go wrong nurturing a tradition that goes back over a millennium, and making other people happy, all at once?

And that’s what writers do. We use a different medium—words rather than musical notes—but we feel the same sense of passion and connectedness when we write, for ourselves or for others. We work within an historic framework that is far older than we are, and we are part of the continuum. For most of us, it’s not a profession, it's a dream.

You never know when you’ll stumble over your true passion, but when you do—embrace it!

(Now, aren't you glad I didn't write about politics?)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An extraordinary book

Elizabeth Zelvin

I almost never blog about a book and always decline any invitation to review one. But Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows, which my husband passed on to me because he thought I might like it, is so good that I have to talk about it. I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit. Both the bio on Gruber’s website and Publisher’s Weekly classify him as a thriller writer, and he’s a New York Times bestselling author, which I guess makes him mainstream. He ghostwrote somebody else’s bestselling series before starting to write under his own name. And man, can he write.

The Book of Air and Shadows has as its McGuffin a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. There are two point of view characters, the first person protagonist, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, and an aspiring young film maker who works in a bookstore and discovers contemporary documents indicating that the play exists, along with other matters of Byzantine complexity. So what’s so great about this particular thriller? For one thing, all three of the essential elements of the novel—storytelling, craft, and characterization—are brilliantly executed. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. The reader can’t possibly get them mixed up.

Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable. I read page after page with a big grin on my face. He’d treat the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’d drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.

Here’s an example. Jake, the first person narrator, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.

“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”

The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.

Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.

“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”

The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.

Jake is a philanderer. The one aspect of the book that annoyed me slightly was how sexualized most of the female characters were. In my world, you can live an active, well-populated life for years and years without the men and women jumping into bed with one another. (Unless I’ve been missing something about Bouchercon? Or MWA meetings?) But as the story unfolds and the characters develop, Gruber gradually reveals that the charming bon vivant image Jake presents of himself in his narrative is not the whole truth about his character. In one third-person scene, we see him behaving abominably to Crosetti, the young film buff. And when Jake resumes the narrative, we don’t feel quite the same about him or trust completely what he tells us about himself.

But I’d already forgiven Gruber for the sex scenes, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.

“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”

Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.

This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. He includes a lot about ciphers, which I always skim when I encounter them in fiction because my brain is not equipped to follow that stuff. He also has his fictional 17th-century character describe the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters.

I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book!”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let there be (incandescent) light

Sandra Parshall

I’m hoarding lightbulbs.

I can’t help it. Every time I go to a supermarket, I buy more incandescent lightbulbs. Beginning in 2012, they will no longer be manufactured in the U.S., they will vanish from store shelves, and all I will have are the bulbs I can accumulate between now and then.

Yes, I know lightbulb hoarding is a shameful thing to admit. In every other way, I try to be environmentally responsible. I drive a hybrid car and scowl at gas-guzzling SUVs. I turn in ink and toner cartridges for recycling. I carry even the tiniest scrap of clean paper to the recycling bin and hate it when paper is so soiled that I have to toss it in the trash. Bottles, caps, cans, anything and everything that can be recycled goes into the bins.

I’m also in favor of saving energy by using more efficient bulbs. In principle. But this is where environmental consciousness collides with personal needs. Fluorescent lighting gives me headaches. It makes my eyes hurt. The longer I’m subjected to it, the worse I feel. I’ve read that this reaction is caused by flickering that’s invisible to the eye but nevertheless has an effect on the body and brain. Whatever the reason, the ill effects I suffer from fluorescent lighting are real and unmistakable.

And I hate the way it looks. Weak, watery, with a blue-green tinge. Manufacturers can give fluorescent bulbs the outward appearance of  incandescents, and they can claim fluorescents have equivalent light output, but I have yet to find one that is bright enough and provides the kind of warm, soothing light an incandescent does. We already have fluorescents in the fixtures outside our two back doors, and the low level of light they provide is noticeable, regardless of their “equivalent” wattage. When a fluorescent is installed in every lamp and fixture in the house, I will feel deprived, trapped in a dim, cold place that will be bright only when the sun streams through the windows. I expect to have a constant headache. How will I write under these circumstances?

I have read that professional studio photographers are concerned because they’re being robbed of the best lighting for their indoor work. Photographers may be doing a lot more Photoshopping of images if they’re forced to shoot in fluorescent light. Maybe some of them are hoarding bulbs right now too, just like me.

I will collect incandescents and I will use them until the last one burns out. Maybe by then the manufacturers will have found a way to warm up fluorescent light and make the lamp bulbs brighter and less irritating to the eye than they are now.

How do you feel about fluorescents? Are you prepared to screw them into every socket in your house and never look back fondly at the days when a lamp cast a a soothing, natural glow over a room? Or are you collecting incandescents against the dreaded 2012 date when they will disappear from stores forever?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trying to Fix Vanilla

Sharon Wildwind

[On technically correct, but boring writing.] You’re like, “There’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve got nothing to tell you to do to fix it. It’s just...there.”
~Lee Boudreaux, editorial director of Ecco, February 2009

That is one of the scariest things I ever read. Trying to fix there is like trying to fix vanilla.

I love vanilla, but it’s never going to win awards except possibly from the Amalgamated Vanilla Growers, should such an organization exist.

And yes, I’ve tried a variety of vanillas, including a gourmet whole bean. I finally settled on a 100% organic, fair-trade brand that’s not only tasty but has a social conscious. Bottom line? Even being a complex mixture up of over 250 organic components, vanilla is still vanilla.

I spent time this past weekend reading a vanilla book. The words were ho-hum. The punctuation was unobtrusive, which is how punctuation should be. Every character hit the light in each scene. Hitting the light is a theater term meaning to end up on the exact spot on the stage where the lighting technician plans to shine a spotlight. The book had what could have been an interesting setting and a couple of cute characters.

I made it to page 75 on which the protagonist declared —for reasons that remained murky — that it was up to her to solve the murder. I gave up and read the last chapter so I’d know who did it. The murderer turned out to be a character who hadn’t been introduced by page 75.

So okay, maybe this didn’t fit the exact vanilla definition because there were a couple of things that I could suggest the author fix. Like give your character some decent motivation for gosh sakes and introduce us to the murderer before page 75.

I think — I hope — that after seriously writing for ten years, I can recognize vanilla, but I’m still not sure that I recognize it the first time around. My first clue is usually what I call the “too-complex-to-live fishing expedition.” It usually starts with a question; finding the answer to the question requires more and more elaborate details until I have to ask myself if this is all worth it.

Marsha meets Todd in a bar on Saturday afternoon. Why? What compels her — absolutely compels her — to meet him there? Because she’s the only person who knows that they were both in Chicago a year ago. Todd has told everyone, including the police, that he’s never been to Chicago.

What was Marsha doing in Chicago? Helping her aunt give tours about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By the time I’ve spend a couple of hours thinking about the aunt and researching the fire, including learning that Chicago’s Fire Department Training Academy now stands on the site where the fire started, I realize that
a) None of has any emotion attached to it;
b) nothing about it has enough juice in it to send Marsha to that bar and;
c) who cares if Todd was in Chicago last summer?

One vanilla cone coming up.

I have a theory that vanilla comes out of not paying attention. It’s getting by with what we hope that we can get by with without the reader noticing. They’ll notice. Take my word for it.

The solution to vanilla comes out of the Anne Morrow Lindbergh quote at the end of the blog. It’s always been one of my favorites.

I have to start being inwardly attentive to Marsha and Todd. Forget the fire, forget Chicago, forget the bar. What might have happened that was so compelling that it happening in Chicago was only incidental?

What if Todd was underaged a year ago? He just turned 18 this week. What if he seduced Marsha’s aunt and got her pregnant? Charming young guy, middle-aged woman living a dull life conducting tours? It could happen. What if in the throes of post-partum depression Marsha’s aunt tried to commit suicide? What if she succeeded and Marsha is determined that Todd will somehow provide for his child? That sounds a whole lot better than vanilla to me. I think we’re on to something here.
Quote for the week:

Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day... What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author

Monday, October 25, 2010

Remembrance of Halloweens Past

by Julia Buckley

As Halloween approaches, I tend to feel nostalgic, not only for the Halloweens of my children's youth, but those of my own. I remember Halloween being a very family-oriented event, and my mother, always one to note the changing seasons, made much of helping us find costumes (often lending her talents as a seamstress to the cause) and to do fun Halloween things. One year she wrote a play that she encouraged us to perform with our friends for a gathering of parents. Another year she made homemade deep-fried donuts filled with jam and offered them, with hot cider, to all of the children who tramped through the house.

In the photo above, I am wearing a giant witch's hat--a costume my mother saw in a magazine and felt confident she could make herself. I thought it seemed interesting, so I gave her the go-ahead and ended up looking like an extra from Macbeth. I'm amazed, looking back, that my mother didn't settle for sweatpants and a T-shirt under that cardboard hat; no, it was the full blouse and skirt with festive red hose and shiny black shoes. I am a far lazier mother than she, I must admit. :)

You might wonder how difficult it was to Trick-or-Treat while wearing a giant cardboard cone. The answer is: very. I also recall being pretty sweaty under there. I think I had much in common with Scout Finch--remember the scene in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD when Scout was dressed as a giant ham, and therefore couldn't see much of anything around her? She only heard things and saw tiny bits of scenery through her eye holes.

Luckily, I did not face any of the dangers Scout faced; I merely lost out on some candy opportunities because I didn't want to walk as far in my huge hat.

What I recall most, though, is that I felt special in the big hat because my mother had made it for me, and it had required a great deal of time, energy, and woman power. So I knew that I was loved while I sweated in my hat, and my parents photographed my strange costume for posterity.

Do you have a favorite Halloween costume? And did anyone EVER dress as a giant hat?

:) (photo circa 1972)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Halloween Reads and Movies . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

October is Halloween month, and though there are only a few days left in October, it's not too late to enjoy it, movie-wise and book-wise. During October I always make time to watch some of the older scary movies. The classics. Dracula with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein with Lugosi in a bit part. Wolfman, also with Lugosi in a bit part. The Black Cat, my personal Lugosi fave, with the added treat of Karloff. Sigh. Doesn't get much better.

As to books, I've tried reading Dracula and Frankenstein but did better listening to the audios. Couldn't sit still long enough to read them. Modern day Halloween mysteries? There are a bunch, many listed on Amazon. I like reading seasonal books. I mean, really, how much fun is it to read a Halloween mystery in April???

I suppose the very eeriness of Halloween makes it the best month to watch scary movies or read scary books. Sets the tone.

To date I'd have to say that my favorite Halloween mystery book is HALLOWE'EN PARTY by Agatha Christie. Anything by Christie gets to me, but I like this one because it's holiday related.

Of course I MUST mention that anything by Edgar Allan Poe is Halloween-worthy to read. I was discussing Poe with one of my grandsons recently when he spotted my little action figure of Poe on my desk. Nobody writes scary like Poe. Nobody. I've introduced both boys to Lugosi, but I've been remiss in not introducing them to Poe. Must correct that error!

Do you have a favorite Halloween mystery to read? Favorite movie to re-watch? And, more important, what Halloween candy do you buy? To eat for yourself? To give to the kids? Just wondering! As always, thanks for stopping by. Hope your treats outweigh your tricks!

Friday, October 22, 2010


The UC Berkeley campanile
by Sheila Connolly

I just spent a week in San Francisco, attending the Bouchercon writers/fan conference. I’m not going to write about that, wonderful though it was, since many people have already reported on it, more promptly and better than I could. But I allowed myself one free day to sightsee, and I want to talk about Berkeley.
Yes, that Berkeley. Years ago, not long after my husband and I married, we lived in California, in the East Bay. It’s easier to just say Berkeley, but we couldn’t afford that neighborhood, so we lived in UC student housing in Albany, and then in an apartment in Richmond, and finally in a house we bought in El Cerrito (and left before the earthquake!). But Berkeley was always the center of the universe. I worked there, both on campus and in the city, and I took classes there, even got a degree there. So that was what I wanted to see in my few precious hours of free time. The BART stop was directly in front of the conference hotel, and it was an easy 20-minute ride to the heart of Berkeley.
It’s an interesting experience, revisiting a place you knew well, once upon a time. Things change, of course, although the memories remain strong in your mind. It’s like watching a slide show in your head: you’re looking at the current reality while images of the past flash over it.
There were surprises. Sure, I remembered the Cal campus. At one point I held two part-time jobs, one in a building at the very top of campus (across from the nuclear reactor, looking out over the Hayward Fault. Don’t ask.), one downtown, and I used to walk from one to the other (parking in Berkeley was next to impossible even then). But I had conveniently forgotten how far apart things are, and how high the hill is. Obviously I was younger and fitter then. Sigh.
The Cal campus hasn’t changed as much as I expected. The trees are bigger, but there’s still a guy in Sproul Plaza ranting about how big cars and big oil are destroying the world; still street vendors selling odds and ends (mostly earrings); still homeless people panhandling on Telegraph Avenue. Sadly, Cody’s Books there is long gone, but I knew that, and I walked far enough to pay homage to its shell.

The menu I used to drool over
One of my long-cherished goals was to go to Chez Panisse. For those of you who aren’t foodies, that’s Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant in Berkeley, where she all but single-handedly launched the local food movement a generation ago. My husband and I ate there a few times, back when the prix fixe dinner was something like $15. We took our daughter there to celebrate her first birthday (yes, she was a Berkeley baby), so I can tell you almost to the hour the last time I was there, and I can even remember what I ate (pasta primavera). I dedicated my most recent Orchard series book, in which I create a local-food restaurant in a small New England town, to Alice Waters. The restaurant is still there, and still thriving—and the food is still very good.

There were only two additional memories that connected past and present for me in Berkeley. One, I could point to the precise place where our @#$%& Chevette died, on a three-lane, very busy street in the middle of town. The bleeping PCV valve decided to croak right there, and without it the car didn’t work, period. The other: I remembered where I had a dentist who made three gold crowns for me. He was something like head of the UC dental school, but he did what amounted to pro bono work for starving students, and we qualified. I still have all three crowns, in good shape—a lasting (and solid gold) souvenir of my time there.
Berkeley was never “home”, and I arrived a bit late to embrace Robin Williams’ famous line, “if you remember the sixties you weren’t there,” but it was great to visit and retrieve old memories before heading back to the Bouchercon madness.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Can Do Anything

Elizabeth Zelvin

In the course of an e-list discussion on the teaching of mystery fiction in schools, one of my fellow Guppies mentioned that she is planning to have her students start a class novel. It was a timely reminder for me, coming a few days before a get-together with a group of junior high school classmates with whom I wrote what our English teacher called a “cyclical novel,” of which each of us wrote a chapter. It is one of our most powerful memories as a group. It started me thinking about why that was so and exactly what kind of impact the experience had on us.

A little backstory first: we grew up in Queens (the second least cool of New York’s outer boroughs) who spent two years together in a class for kids with high IQs and musical aptitude from 1955 to 1957. None of us became musicians, and I’m the only fiction writer, but we have several accomplished poets, teachers, lawyers, academics, and one billionaire who walked away from tenure as a philosophy professor to become a hedge fund manager (very cool). We all rediscovered each other as a group shortly after the 50-year mark. There’s a great fascination in getting to pool memories of yourselves at eleven. The boys have vivid, detailed memories of playing baseball every day at lunch. The girls remember who got interested in boys first and which teachers were supportive of our preadolescent angst. We all remember playing spin the bottle and the hoopla around invitations to the prom. We even remember some of what we learned in class. We were smart kids, after all. But writing that novel was powerful enough to stick in everybody’s mind.

Interestingly, not everybody liked Mrs. P. She had a strong personality and tended to play favorites. Some remember that they loved her, others hated her and tell stories that provide ample reason. I liked her and did well with her—no more, because my mother was such a powerful role model for me that it never occurred to me to look for any others. This is relevant to my topic, because both these strong women gave the same message: You can do anything. Remember, it was the 1950s, when most girls were being groomed to be perfect housewives and mothers, even if they went to college, as we all expected to do. And even for the boys, I believe there was a glass ceiling, an unstated limit on what a middle-class Jewish boy from Queens could be.

In this context, it meant a lot to us to be told, Yes, you’re eleven years old, and you can write a novel. I certainly believed I could. Maybe it’s thanks to Mrs. P. that I had enough persistence to keep trying till I finally had my first novel published at the age of 64. She eventually quit teaching and went to law school, probably when she was in her forties, if not her fifties. My mother used to run into her at Queens College, where she herself got a doctorate in political science at the age of 69, after having gone to law school herself in 1921. She too taught me that I could do anything.

It’s not a matter of doing what these women did themselves. I never wanted to be a lawyer. But it’s probably thanks to them both that I went into the Peace Corps after college, took flying lessons in my thirties, became a therapist in my forties, and learned to use a computer in my fifties, so I could practice online therapy and write and promote my mysteries while sitting at the keyboard in my sixties. Now I’m working on a CD of my songs. The title is Outrageous Older Woman, and it might not be completed till I’m 70. But hey, why not? When I was eleven, I wrote a novel. I can do anything.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What kind of book promotion works?

Sandra Parshall

What makes readers buy a book?  

The answer is a mystery to most writers, but we need to know so we can target our promotional efforts at a time when the selling is seen as our responsibility, not the publishers’. Sisters in Crime set out to find answers in a survey of mystery book buyers conducted by Bowker. The first look at the results, presented October 14 at Bouchercon in San Francisco, reinforced some common beliefs but also provided jolting evidence that a writer needs several different marketing campaigns for each book. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to reaching readers.

The major difference, as you might expect, is between younger and older readers. Older readers are influenced by advertising, bestseller lists, and bookstore displays. To a much greater degree, younger readers are influenced by personal social connections with other readers and with authors, and they find out about books online through Amazon reviews, Facebook, and other sources.

Across all age groups, though, the greatest influence is something writers can’t really control: word of mouth, or recommendations from other readers. Those are the private exchanges that writers simply have to hope for.

The second most important influence is a book’s presence on a bestseller list. If it’s already selling well, more people will want to try it. Reviews online and print reviews are equally important. Next comes the book’s cover, with 18% of survey respondents saying cover art is highly influential and 57% saying it has some influence. (Those fights writers sometimes have with editors over terrible covers are worth the effort, apparently.) Coming in last among all those surveyed was “prominent display in bookstore” – 15% said this is highly influential and 56% said it has some influence.

Those of us who spend a lot of time online do it because we believe it’s an important way to reach readers, but the Bowker survey shows an author’s internet presence isn’t a major influence on book buyers. Only 9% of those surveyed said following a writer on Facebook led them to buy a book, with men and women giving it nearly equal weight. When the data gets down to age groups, though, it becomes more interesting. The under-40 readers are more likely than others to buy books because they’ve encountered authors on Facebook. Even so, only a little over a third of readers under 40 say they’re influenced in any way by the world’s biggest online community. The percentages drop drastically as the reader’s age goes up.

Where do e-books stand with mystery readers? Only 5.3% of survey respondents named e-books as a preferred format. Hardcover is still king, with 35% preferring it. Mass market paperbacks came in third at 34%, and trade paperbacks followed with 23%. 

And what about blogs, which consume so many authors’ precious writing energies? Not so important, according to the survey. It’s down near the bottom of the list, along with a lot of other things writers pour themselves into relentlessly. Named as low influences on purchases are author newsletters, promotional give-aways, mailings from authors, signings in stores, online discussion groups such as GoodReads, author blogs, postcard mailings, Facebook, banner ads on websites, publisher websites, online communities such as DorothyL and 4 Mystery Addicts, and, dead last, Twitter. The online activities are far more likely to reach young readers than older ones.

The survey is filled with information, which should become available gradually over the next few weeks, but this first look gives writers information they can use to decide where to put their promotional money and time. If you believe most of your fans are 50 or older, and you’re spending half your day tweeting or updating your Facebook status, you might want to reconsider those efforts. Unless you have a fantastically successful blog, and you know you’re reaching a lot of younger, web-loving  readers with it, you should probably think of it as a relatively unimportant supplement to more traditional forms of promotion.

A few other points:

Still most influential in the purchase of a new book is the reader’s familiarity with the author’s previous work.

Series books are preferred by mystery readers.

The majority of younger readers prefer dark crime fiction with strong suspense. Older readers prefer lighter mysteries.

So. What do you think of these findings? As a reader, what influences your book buying? As a writer, do you believe you’re focusing your promotion in the right direction, or are you spending a lot of time on activities that might not be working? 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Missing in Action

Sharon Wildwind

Attended the most spectacular conference on Friday. Came home late last with the worst sore throat and ear ache I've had in years. Temp hovered at 99+ all day, but just shot up to almost 102. We're trying to decide whether to go to Urgent Care or not. Chances are there won't be a blog on Tuesday.

Instead I'm giving you a chance to amuse yourself without feeling guilty about it.

More later after I talk to the doctor.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What Do You Do--To Prevent the Flu?

Flu IQ


The last time I had the flu I came face to face with my mortality. My fever rose to 106 and I couldn't feel my feet when they touched the ground. I was so sick I reached that terrible point that I wasn't sure if in fact I would recover. And then, in a seeming miracle, my body began its ascent to the world of health.

Since then I have not taken the flu lightly. I view it as my enemy, and I do all I can to keep it in its own camp. When the Swine Flu reared its ugly head a few years ago, there was a great deal of fear mongering in the media. Images of people in Mexico made us all think that a mere breath of air without a protective mask on might leave us prostrate and suffering.

That was not the case, and even though the word "pandemic" was tossed around until people were suitably intimidated, things seemed to be under control.

Still, last year I brought my entire family to the health center for the flu shots--seasonal and swine--and we remained healthy all year. I suppose this could be a coincidence. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who say 'no thanks' to inoculations and remain perfectly healthy anyway. There are others who say, "I got the flu shot and THEN I got sick." (That too, health organizations tell us, is coincidence).

But my memories of my last flu make me want to take whatever action I can to gird myself against ill health. Yes, I try to get enough sleep and eat healthy foods. But I feel that any extra weapon I can have against the monster flu, I will take. I teach at a high school, a veritable breeding ground for every virus that appears on earth. I have not used the drinking fountain at the school since my last flu (I read that it is the number one place that people pick up viri) and that, too, seems to have kept me healthier.

Still, we're making appointments for the innoculations.

What's your view of the flu shots? How did you do on the quiz above?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Canada Calling: Wordfest/Festivaldesmots

Calgary in October:
The trees are a mixture of bare branches that have given up any hope of a leaf until next May and stalwart dowagers in a battle to hold on to every remaining leaf until the first real winter wind sweeps over the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia. Gardens are in a raggly-taggly state. Flowers in unprotected locations have given up for this year. Those in more protected locations bravely bloom on though a little frost-browned around the edges.

The summer festivals—folk music, the fringe, fireworks and an ever-growing number of celebrations of cultural diversity—are memories. Theaters have started their 2010-2011 seasons. Clubs are meeting again.

Calgarians have entered that fall triangle of emotional roller-coaster celebrations—Thanksgiving–Halloween–Remembrance Day—all of which are big deals in Calgary. And, for the fifteenth glorious year, Wordfest/Festivaldesmots has come around again.

This multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-venue, multi-community event is a celebration that brings together people who read and people who write. Roughly 13,000 people spread themselves over two cities (Calgary and Banff), and gather in thirteen venues (university halls, art galleries, museums, libraries, theaters, high schools, hotels, and The Banff Centre) to celebrate the power and pleasure of words.

Words about Alberta
Words about e-books
Words in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.
Words for kids age 6 to 18 so that they get to meet writers and are encouraged to become writers and readers themselves
Words from both sides of the Afghan War
Words from inside the book industry
Word of mouth, where authors show you how to play with words
Mysterious words (mystery writers at this year’s event are Gail Bowen, Peter Robinson, Martin Solares, Chevy Stevens, and Louise Penny)
Words as poetry
Words and wine
Words and coffee
Words and family

This year is a bittersweet celebration. The festival’s Founding Director, Anne Green, is retiring after 15 years. She’s promised that her successor Jo Steffens, the new Executive Director, will continue to bring the same eclectic mix of writers and events to the 2011 Wordfest/Festivaldesmots.

So here’s an invitation. Instead of coming to Calgary for our world-famous Stampede in July, plan a fall vacation for October and come to Wordfest/Festivaldesmots. Sit around and discuss books with other readers and writers. Which do you need more: midway heat, horses and fried pickles or words, words, words?

The person who normally checks comments over the weekend is away this weekend listening to words, words, words. Anything that needs a reply will be answered on Monday.

Have a good one.

Friday, October 15, 2010

CSI Don't See It

by Sheila Connolly

I watch CSI—the original consistently, and the off-shoots occasionally. I know they represent a non-professional’s fantasy of what forensic science is all about, and in the real world DNA analysis takes six months, not six minutes. But as long as I treat the episodes as fiction I’m fine.

But there was one thing about a recent episode that bothered me as a writer. In this episode, the victim was found draped over a barbed wire fence (I might question whether that particular fence was strong enough to support the dead weight of a body, but I could overlook that), and his head had been hacked off and was jammed on a nearby pole. All appropriately gory, blood duly spattered and dripping. Ray Langston (the character played by Laurence Fishburne) waxed a wee bit over-poetic when he said he could see the horror in the dead man’s eyes, which of course were open and staring.

And then Langston examined the head more closely, and lo and behold, a large insect climbed out of the victim’s mouth—an insect that I immediately identified as a long-horn beetle.

Let me say that my husband is a professional entomologist (although his job isn’t anywhere near as interesting as Gil Grissom’s was), so I’m attuned to insects. I suppose the average viewer wouldn’t know how many things are wrong with this scenario. Fact one: there was no earthly reason for that beetle to be inside anyone’s mouth, dead or alive (the victim or the beetle—take your pick). These are vegetarian beetles, if you will—they eat trees. No interest in flesh. Fact two: the victim had been dead only a few hours, and was killed late at night. This kind of beetle is active during the day. That beetle should not have been where it was—unless the writers were going for the “ick” factor. Lots of people go “eeew” when they see any bug, much less one crawling out of a corpse’s mouth.

I will concede that it was a very photogenic beetle—that variety is big (close to two inches) and has attractive variegated antennae that are longer than the insect’s body. They also move slowly, so they’re easy to film. They aren’t particularly dangerous to humans (they have pincers, but they can’t even pierce human skin), so Nick Stokes could pick it up easily (but why didn’t he bag it as evidence?).

It appears that the sole function of this vagrant beetle was to give Ray a chance to say “where’s the Bug Man when you need him?”—an oblique reference to the absent Grissom. Insider joke. Cute.

But that was the problem. This beetle was introduced up front, with plenty of face time. He was even given a name: Longhorn Beetle. And then he was never seen again.

It’s the Chekhov’s gun problem. Chekhov wrote "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Mr. Beetle is the loaded rifle in this case: since we met him in Act One, we expect him to show up again later, complete with an explanation (he bit the killer and provided DNA evidence? He is found only in the remote reaches of Borneo, and only one suspect had been to Borneo recently?). Around the penultimate commercial break, I turned to my daughter and said, “They haven’t explained the beetle yet.” I was waiting—and it never happened.

For shame, CSI: you have violated a fundamental principle of good writing. Explain your beetles!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Missing Bouchercon in San Francisco

Elizabeth Zelvin

Mystery lovers are gathering in San Francisco today for the annual celebration of crime fiction, and I’m at home in New York, missing all the fun. To make it worse, the San Francisco Bay Area itself is one of my favorite places in the world. The Bay Area consists not only of what its inhabitants call “the city” (shocking as that is to New Yorkers, who think “the city” can have only one meaning), but also of East Bay, including Berkeley (which in its hippie heyday many called Berserkeley) and Oakland; Marin County to the north (beyond the Golden Gate Bridge), the home of est, hot tubs, Mount Tamalpais, and Muir Woods with its giant redwoods; and the Peninsula, including Palo Alto, San Mateo, and a host of other towns. Even San Jose, almost fifty miles to the south, is considered part of the Bay Area.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if Bouchercon will be as convivial as usual, or if participants, instead of hanging out and bonding at the con, will slip away to sightsee and visit friends. If I were there, I know I would be torn. I made my first trip to the West Coast in 1975, a little late for the Sixties, though I managed to catch the trailing edge of it. I traveled on a hippie bus called the Gray Rabbit. I wore blue denim and brought my guitar along. I stayed in Berkeley, first in a cousin’s communal household and then in student housing, in a suite along with several graduate students including a seismologist. I gave my very first poetry reading at a grungy coffee house on Telegraph Avenue, which abounded in street people (whom nobody called “the homeless”) and street vendors. I experienced my first full-body hug from a woman friend (would you believe we didn’t hug yet in New York in 1975?), my first hot tub, and my first clothing-optional social event. For years afterward, I thought one could only do these things in California.

Thanks to my seismologist roommate, I became fascinated by the fact that San Franciscans went about their lives knowing that “the Big One,” ie an earthquake as severe as the one that almost destroyed the city in 1906, might come at any time. I imagined the inhabitants of Pompeii before 79 AD as very much like the San Franciscans, going about their business with just enough denial not to consider moving elsewhere, even though they knew it was going to happen one of these days.

My most recent California visit was in 2008, the occasion my first mystery book tour. The Bay Area is rich in mystery and independent bookstores. I did talks and signings at several of them. At Book Passage in Corte Madera, my competition was Salman Rushdie. You can still see the photo of the two of us on my website. At Dark Carnival in Berkeley, I struck up a conversation with a customer who, it turned out, lived at Greyhaven, the SF and fantasy community started by Marion Zimmer Bradley. As Bradley herself told the story, her friends and family were sitting around one day, and somebody said, "Who needs to go to a writer's conference? We've got one right here around this table!" At M Is for Mystery in San Mateo, where the friends who showed up included at least one fellow therapist, we put the chairs in a circle and had a wonderful discussion. I was featured at one of Janet Rudolph’s famous At Homes in the Berkeley Hills along with Simon Wood and Michelle Gagnon.

Various circumstances kept me from Bouchercon this year. But I’m sending a big virtual hug to all the readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, and mystery aficionados gathered at the Hyatt Regency for the next four days. I wish you all a wonderful time—and I have no doubt whatsoever that my wish for you will come true.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Of Demon Dogs and Golems

By guest blogger Jeri Westerson

My protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a dark and brooding fellow, and no wonder. He’s an ex-knight turned detective, of the hard-boiled variety, but in a medieval London setting. And each story in the series always involves some sort of mysterious religious relic with mystical powers, either something everyone is trying to get their hands on or something they can’t wait to get rid of.     

So in my search for the next good relic, I’ve come across some quite interesting characters as well as fascinating creatures.

There is the legend of Thomas Vaughan or “Black Vaughan” as he is known, who had as a companion the Black Hound of Hergest Court near Kington in Herefordshire in the mid-fifteenth century. He was supposed to be an evil fellow who died for the Yorkist cause at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. Ever since his death, the Black Hound was supposed to appear to herald the imminent death of another Vaughan, but Black Vaughan himself was supposed to have wreaked havoc on the living after his own death, appearing in the form of a fly, a bull, or a black dog. It took twelve clergymen to contain his spirit, shrink it, and stuff it in a silver snuff box, which they buried in the drained moat of Hergest Court and laid a heavy stone over it. It’s still there!

The legend of Thomas Vaughan was one of a few demon dog tales that were said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.

And then there is this one—not exactly medieval; it’s 17th century—but it has inspired its own familiar literature. This is another Demon Dog, or as it’s more famously known, the Beast of Gévaudan.

This is a wolf-like creature that prefers to attack humans, even over sheep and cattle, surely an easier quarry. It is supposed to be unusually large with strange coloration and a strangely-shaped head (indeed, sightings continue to this day, with a photograph of one of these beasts struck down by a car, not looking like any known canine).

The killings—over one hundred of them—occurred first (or were at least first reported) in 1693 in Benais, France. But it is in the mountains of Gévaudan, France, in 1765, that the creature gets its moniker. A fellow named Francois Antoine heard of the killings of women and children and hunted down the beast. He killed a very large wolf, had it stuffed, and sent it to the court of Louis XV, but in December in a different locale, the wolf killings started anew. Was it a wolf? A dog/wolf hybrid? A loup-garou (werewolf)?

The fearful image of men transformed into beasts have terrified mankind as long as man himself has existed while sharing stories around a campfire. But other tales of manmade creatures have terrified, too, long before Mary Shelly penned Frankenstein.

In the third installment of my medieval mystery series,
The Demon's Parchment, a golem makes an appearance. A golem is that fantastical creature from Jewish folklore, born of man’s desire to create life from the simplest of forms (clay) and his need for supernatural protection.

A golem is a mindless being, only given life when a Hebrew glyph, created by Jews to protect their community, is inscribed on its chest, forehead, or placed in its mouth. The words of creation derive from the Kabbalah, a religious document that combines scripture, numerology, and philosophy. But it is only through extreme desperation that the power of the golem is invoked at all. So perhaps it is only natural that the story of the golem as we know it arose during the Middle Ages. This was the time when Jews were being kicked out of many European countries: from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492, from France...numerous times. Crusaders made no differentiation between the Saracen infidel (Muslims) and Jews they met along the way and so whole communities of Jews were wiped out by crusading knights. Every strange death in towns and in villages in Europe was blamed on Jews, and fearing for their lives, Jews found their hope in the defensive powers of the golem, a large, silent and plodding creature stalking the dark streets.

The most famous is the Golem of Prague, a sixteenth century tale. But golems go further back than that. The biblical Adam is essentially a golem (meaning unshaped form) before God breathes life into him.   

But is it a golem that appears in The Demon's Parchment, or something even more sinister?

Faced with such strange creatures and daunting relics, one needs a strong man, an avid detective. And so my ex-knight Crispin Guest prowls those dark streets as well, searching out the bad guys with his intellect, his fists, and sometimes through the beds of beautiful femme fatales.

Demon dog, indeed.

You can find out more about Crispin at his very own blog at or read the first chapter of
The Demon's Parchment at Jeri’s website

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Sharon Wildwind

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us in Canada to all of you who live in other places.

Having just come home from spending the evening with family and being too full of good things to write coherent sentences, here is a bit of Calgary in the fall for your viewing pleasure. I wish everyone a gloriously-colored autumn and a warm hearth at the end of the day. Sharon

Quote for the week

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
~Melody Beattie, author

Monday, October 11, 2010

Holidays and Special Moments

by Julia Buckley

Happy Columbus Day to all. In honor of the holiday, my children and I have the day off of school--a yearly treat that all who follow the school calendar come to rely upon. I recently had the honor of reading Liz Zelvin's new novel about a young man who sailed with Columbus, and it has given me a whole new understanding of Columbus's time, of the many conflicts in Spain and in the New World, and of Columbus himself. So Liz, I will be thinking of those details as I celebrate the day.

Speaking of celebrations, Friday the 8th was my husband Jeff's 50th birthday. So yesterday, his day off, we had a big party with many of his family and friends. I haven't thrown a sizeable party in a while, and since we had this one at a local restaurant, I didn't even have to clean my house first. :)

However, as is the tradition in my family, we did have to provide a little show. So I took liberties with the Beatles' famous anthem Hey, Jude and re-titled it Hey, Jeff to sing a ditty to my husband about the joys (and sorrows) of growing older.

Accompanied by my son Ian and his cousin Dan, talented guitarists both, the whole group of us sang to him (thanks to some cue cards we made in advance). Our song went like this:

Hey, Jeff (by the Beatles, with some liberties)

Hey, Jeff
You’re fifty now;
Seems like last year
You were just thirty.
Remember, when all your muscles felt new?
All you could do–-when you were 30?

Hey, Jeff
It’s not so bad
AARP has plenty of perks.
And restaurants will give you discounts on food;
Bring the whole brood, and order some soup.

And any time your back’s in pain, Hey, Jeff, it’s plain
You’ll need to apply some heat to your spine;
And limping home from work at nine
Hey Jeff, it’s fine–
You just need to sit down with some good wine.

Na na na na na–na na na na–na na na na . . .

Hey Jeff–

You have two sons;
They have stolen your strength and vigor
They jokingly like to call you ‘old man.’
But that’s the plan–-of getting older.

And now that you have turned 5-0, hey Jeff,
you know
Your view of the world is slightly calmer;
You still love rock, but folk is cool, yeah, Jeff, you rule
You’re like the toned-down version of Leila.

And don’t you know that it’s okay
Life goes that way
And you can just have some fun with fifty.

Na na na na na, na na na na. . .

Hey Jeff--
We’re on your side.
We brought presents and lots of pasta;
Don’t worry about the years that roll in
You can begin
To like it better, better, better, better AHHHh!

Nah, Nah Nah nananana, nananana,
Hey Jeff.

Nah Nah Nah nananan, nananan,
Hey Jeff.

By the end there was much waving of arms; everybody knew the tune, even the senior citizens in the group, and the final words are a no-brainer. :)

The song was such a big hit that I realized again how important it is, not just for us to celebrate the moments of our lives, but to make them memorable in some meaningful way.

Happy Holiday to all! My husband, still exhausted from the party, is resting on the couch. Perhaps I can lure him out to enjoy this fall day and to contemplate the notion of this New World.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)

Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. “ He clearly wasn’t writing a mystery series.

Kindle readers have suddenly discovered my Detective Jackson series, and many are reading my stories back to back. This can be a dangerous thing! When the details of previous stories are fresh in their minds, readers are so much more likely to catch inconsistencies. So far, none have contacted me to complain about anything serious, but other authors haven’t faired as well. For example, this forum post about backstory—by a ticked off reader—caught my attention.

She doesn’t bother to keep the non-main characters' backstories straight. The mayor of the small town is a female obstetrician in book one, and by book three or four has become a male car salesman. The ex-girlfriend originally has a mother with whom the protagonist has had dinner, but in a later book she is an orphan who recently lost her only sister.

This complaint is about a mega-bestselling author, and these inconsistencies obviously haven’t cost her much. But as an upcoming writer, I believe I can’t afford to make these kind of mistakes.

Sometime during the writing of Jackson book two (Secrets to Die For)—as I kept searching the manuscript of the first Jackson story looking for specific details—I realized I needed to start a file to track these things. So I created an Excel document and started copying/pasting details into character columns right after I typed them. Parents’ names, make of car, cell phone ring tone—anything I attached to a character I added to my character database. At least that’s how it works in theory.

I didn’t know I was writing a series when I penned the first Jackson story (The Sex Club), so I didn’t start this file from the beginning. I wish I had. A secondary character who appeared in book one came back in book three with a different hair color. I keep expecting more of these little quirks to surface, but I’m doing everything I can now to avoid it.

Readers also follow character development more closely than I realized. Several people have contacted me to ask: What happened to Kera’s ex-husband? He disappeared in book three. As the author, I let go of that particular conflict because I’d given the main characters a new family member to struggle with. But readers hadn’t forgotten and wanted to see a more thorough wrap-up.

That complaint pales in comparison to what readers have posted about lack of character development from other authors. Here’s a sample.

You would think, for example, that by book four the chief of police might pay a little more attention to a guy who has sussed out no less than three murders originally thought to be accidents/suicides (in a small town, in a less-than-six-month timeframe) but no, he continues to dismiss all opinions as fantasy. The protagonist has some kind of interest in three different women over the course of the series, but the relationships don't really develop either sexually or as friendships.

It’s not that readers want characters to be static. They want protagonists to grow and change, but in a natural and logical way that comes from the story. If the protagonist is exactly the same from book to book, no matter what happens to her, readers get bored and give up the series. So writers must achieve a fine balance and create subtle, organic change.

It’s good to know readers take our work seriously enough to care and comment. If our characters didn’t seem believable, these issues wouldn’t matter. As a writer, I want my characters to come across so realistic that everything about them makes sense to the reader. Even the little details I didn’t think would count. It’s challenging but worth it.

Readers: Do you notice series inconsistencies from book to book? How much do they bother you? What kind of character development do you like to see?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series based in Eugene, OR, as well as two standalone thrillers. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, will be released in November. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, editing fiction manuscripts, and jumping out of airplanes.

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of L.J.’s current Jackson mystery, Thrilled to Death.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I'm happy to announce (heck, I'm bursting my buttons) that the first book in my new Museum Mystery series, Fundraising the Dead, was released this week. Publishers Weekly said "the archival milieu and the foibles of the characters are intriguing," and RT Book Reviews called it an "enjoyable and sophisticated mystery."

I'm particularly fond of the book because I lived much of it (except for the part about the body!).

I hope you enjoy it!
Sheila Connolly


by Sheila Connolly

I’m one of those dinosaurs who still reads a daily newspaper—yes, one of those paper ones. I know it’s possible to read it on line, but the process of skimming on-screen is entirely different. I like to pick and choose what I skip and what I read in detail.

I find such interesting articles (which now and then actually lead to story ideas). I’m still mulling this one over: an article that appeared a week ago in the Boston Globe about a MacArthur Foundation grant made to a local Massachusetts woman. You’ve probably all heard of the MacArthur grants—they’re the so-called “genius” grants of $500,000 each. How nice it is that somewhere a committee thinks that someone who has a good idea should be rewarded.

This grant was made by the Foundation to preserve a dying language. I have a soft spot for languages: I’ve been studying Irish for the past five years, and while I’m still terrible at speaking it, at least I understand more than I used to. My father’s parents were both born in Ireland, but for various reasons I never knew them, and I have always hoped that by learning the language I could understand them and their culture a bit better. And as a writer, I think it never hurts to listen to how a language is spoken—the inflections, the sentence patterns, the vocabulary choices. Plus the Irish have traditionally been a race of bards and poets, and I’d like to hope that a little of that has come down to me.

The newspaper article was about a language even more obscure than Irish: Wampanoag. It’s a language used by the Indians who were living in my neighborhood (literally) when the first colonists arrived, who fought those settlers in King Phillip’s War, and who can still be found in parts of Massachusetts (in fact, they toyed with opening a casino in my town, and still hold an option on over 500 acres of land). The director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, Jessie Little Doe Baird, is the grant recipient.

Even though the language is not in current use, and hasn’t been since late in the nineteenth century, it lives on in a lot of New England place names. The Wampanoag tribe, now much reduced in numbers, does make consistent efforts to sustain and pass on their cultural traditions. Baird will use the grant to record surviving records in Wampanoag, and will try to establish a school where children can learn the language. She has been teaching her own daughter to speak Wampanoag since birth—possibly the only child to do so for more than a century.

In a peculiar twist, I knew something about the Wampanoags before I ever moved to Massachusetts. When I worked at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I was asked to write a brief pamphlet about the dramatic actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872), whose collections were housed there. One of Forrest’s efforts to support his craft was to sponsor a play-writing competition beginning in 1828. The first winner was John Augustus Stone, whose submission was Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags, which Forrest produced and starred in for many years. (Sad to say, despite this success Stone committed suicide by jumping into the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia a few years later.) The play was based on the life story of the Wampanoag chief Metamora.

I think we all are impoverished when a language vanishes forever. Any language reflects the values and character of its speakers, and I salute Jessie Little Doe Baird for fighting for her heritage, and the MacArthur Foundation for supporting her.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Writing Up A Storm

Elizabeth Zelvin

I have announced many times in public that I find writing the first draft of a novel sheer torture. Many novelists are born storytellers. No sooner have they written their way through one bright idea than another one comes to them. Short story writers, especially the most prolific ones, are the same. I am not one of those. Characters and dialogue are another matter. My characters talk in my head all the time, especially when I’m running, driving, in the shower, or swimming. I have great confidence that I know what each of them will or won’t say, and I rarely make an error of voice, if it doesn’t sound too immodest to say so.

Plotting, however, has been my bane. If I dread that endless routine of putting my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard and coming up with 1,000 words of What Happens Next day after day after day, it’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because I’m not as intuitive about What Happens Next as I am about what my characters will say next. When I write a short story, a poem, or a song, it doesn’t always come in perfect shape straight through me from that mysterious source of creativity. But sometimes it does, and that’s the best feeling in the world. A short story can happen in two or three fell swoops, much too quickly for even temporary despair. And at most, it’s a matter of editing, which I don’t find painful at all, especially as my ability to kill my darlings has developed by leaps and bounds over the past few years.

Sometimes a day of novel writing is effortless. But that’s only one day. Unless you’re Robert B. Parker or Erle Stanley Gardner, it takes a year to write a novel. I can’t go faster, and that’s been an immutable law for me—until this summer. I’m writing a novel, probably for a young adult audience, about Diego, the young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage who appears in my short story, “The Green Cross,” in the August 2010 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Creating Diego was certainly an intuitive process: he demanded that his story be told. A second story, “Navidad,” will be the lead story in the January 2011 issue of EQMM. But Diego wasn’t through with me. His sister Rachel, who’s been sitting in my head for more than a year, has gotten the hell outta Dodge one step ahead of the Inquisition, and now they’re on Columbus’s second voyage, where things turn a lot nastier than on the first.

I spent about six months doing research, including parts of the primary sources as well as authorities who vehemently disagreed with each other about everything to do with Columbus. At first, it put me to sleep. I don’t ordinarily read nonfiction, and the ratio was twenty-five pages of history to one nap on the couch. But gradually, I became fascinated. And then, this past summer, I found myself writing up a storm. I never dreamed that the things I’ve heard other writers say—“It’s pouring out of me,” “The story is writing itself”—would ever apply to me with respect to the first draft of a novel. I was wrong. I wrote the first 50,000 words in a single month, not even writing every day but rather a few days on and then a few days off attending to the rest of my life. It got so 2,000 words was a mediocre day’s output and 3,000 highly satisfying but not unexpected.

In a sense, I already had the story: the history of Columbus’s second voyage. But my novel is a lot like Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The story everybody knows (in his case, Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is in the background, intersecting with those of our protagonists at crucial points. The story of our characters is still to be told. And they told me what it is, day after day after day, as fast as my fingers could fly.

It would be lovely to believe that having cracked the sound barrier of novel writing, I’ll never get stuck and have to crawl—or “mud wrestle,” as I once heard Laura Lippman put it—again. Of course I will. But I’m hoping it will make all the difference in the world that now I know I can write up a storm. I had one of the best summers of my life, yep, writing the first draft of a novel. So maybe I can do it again. As the New York Lottery ad puts it: Hey, you never know.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MAWs for Paws

Sandra Parshall

Why do some people smirk condescendingly at the very notion of “older” women loving animals? More often than not, when I read or hear news stories about grown women doing extraordinary things out of devotion to animals, I detect the word that remains unwritten and unspoken: crazy. When the public starts commenting on those stories, the word pops up a lot, along with nutcase and idiot and so forth.

Recently I saw yet another display of such a reaction, and this time it felt  personal. Four members of Pandas Unlimited, a grassroots group that supports giant panda conservation efforts and is based on Flickr, traveled to Bifengxia Panda Base in China to visit Tai Shan nearly eight months after he left the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC. They weren’t the first Tai Shan fans to visit him at Bifengxia, and they certainly won’t be the last, but a reporter and photographer for the Washington Post happened to be there at the same time, so they were interviewed and photographed for the Post.

I was delighted with the coverage in general because I appreciate anything that brings attention to efforts to save the critically endangered giant panda species. But I could have done without the tone of the lead paragraph, which started, “For four middle-aged American women...” The story went on to describe the volunteer work the women paid to do for almost a week: cleaning Tai’s yard and indoor room, hauling heavy freshly cut bamboo into his enclosure, and hand-feeding treats to their favorite bear. The word never appeared in the story, but I sensed it lurking between the lines. Crazy.

Members of Pandas Unlimited know how to turn an implied slur into a compliment. We’re not all middle-aged women, but we’ve embraced the concept of the MAW who will do anything to help animals. My friend M-Lou came up with a banner for the MAW’s animal welfare movement.

Some Chinese visitors to Bifengxia were amazed to see American women doing the kind of work usually done by the most impoverished in Chinese society, and astonished to learn they’d paid for the privilege. It’s a common arrangement, though. Many foreigners have paid to work with the pandas because they love the animals and want to feel that they’ve personally contributed to their welfare. (The money goes into the panda base’s budget to help pay for food, housing, and medical care for the bears.) But when four middle-aged American women do what a legion of others have done, it’s news. The story was picked up all over the internet and by many newspapers and TV stations, and in each case that I’m aware of, the term “middle-aged women” was right there in the opening line.

Are we supposed to put aside our capacity for loving another species just because we’ve grown older? Are we supposed to feel ashamed of loving a particular animal that has made us smile and laugh and forget our human troubles for the hours we’ve spent watching him grow up? Does middle-aged womanhood demand that we care only about our own species? Why doesn’t anyone make fun of actor Jackie Chan? He loves pandas so much that he travels with a couple of panda plush toys that he uses to start discussions about the plight of the species. I haven’t seen any references to his age in the stories about his conservation work.

I know the four women whose visit to Tai Shan became such a big news story. (One is Elise, whose photos of Tai in China I’m using here.) They’re  responsible career women with full lives. It’s sad to see people calling them insane in the comments section of the Post website. Again and again, those who left comments asked why these silly middle-aged white women didn’t give their money to charities that benefit people. How strangers can presume so much knowledge of anyone's personal life and giving habits is beyond me. Besides, do they ask that of people who spend thousands of dollars to go to Hawaii and lie on the sand for two weeks?

All of us in Pandas Unlimited love Tai. Anybody who ever spent two minutes in his presence or watching him on the zoo’s panda cam couldn’t help falling for him hard.  We loved seeing him grow up during the four and a half years he was at the National Zoo with his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. We wept when he went to China, and we worried that no one there would love him the way we do. Going to China to see Tai has been a thrilling adventure for a number of Pandas Unlimited members already, and others are planning their trips. 

But it’s not just about being close to a beloved bear and knowing that he’s loved and cared for. Tai represents the beauty and innocence that mankind has come close to destroying on our planet. This charismatic young bear, just by being himself, brought to wildlife conservation many people who had never before cared about the relentless human destruction of habitat around the globe. Since Tai was born, PU members have donated thousands of dollars in his honor to the National Zoo’s conservation work. We have adopted Wen Yu, a young female panda at Bifengxia, providing regular donations to pay for her food and medical care. When Tai went to Bifengxia, we paid for state-of-the-art ultrasound equipment to help the veterinarians there diagnose and treat illness and monitor panda pregnancies.

Call us crazy if you want to. Drag our age into it if you think that proves your point. But Luo Bo, the vice-director of panda care at Bifengxia, is grateful for our love of the bears and glad the four recent visitors from the U.S. received so much attention. Abuse of animals–horrifying abuse involving highly endangered species in many cases–is still prevalent in China, and the concept of animal rights has barely taken hold. “When you are poor you only worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep,” Luo told the Post. “Things like animal rights are considered a luxury. But that’s changing in China. If the Chinese see just how much these foreigners are able to love a single panda, perhaps they will start loving animals too.” And the world will be a better place because of that.