Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Oh My Goodness, I'm Laughing Out Loud!"

E. J. Copperman

I am, unquestionably, the world’s worst texter.

It’s not that I refuse to try new technology; I’m a fan. And I show up on Twitter (@ejcop) and Facebook (E.J. Copperman), and do all the other 21st Century things one is supposed to do. I’m not sitting in my 1970 Dodge Dart with the 8-Track player running and wondering why people don’t realize the true artistry of the Bay City Rollers. Not at all. I text, mostly with my daughter, but I do text.

Still, I refuse to conform in one way—I will not mangle the English language. I won’t write “ur” when I mean “you are.” I won’t fail to capitalize a name just because you have to press another key before the letter (don’t we do that on keyboards?). And no matter what the Oxford English Dictionary things, I will not, in any medium, un-ironically write “LOL” or “OMG.” I won’t.

I use words for a living. Words, to paraphrase the immortal Chico Esquela, have been very, very good to me. I think they hold power; they can amuse, uplift, persuade, convince, provoke or galvanize. Words can be weapons or roses; they can be tools or blunt instruments. They can inspire love or rouse the rabble. Words have recently brought change in Egypt and Tunisia. Words fill the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta and Mein Kampf.

To turn them into truncated versions of themselves merely to save a few keystrokes and work one’s thumbs less vigorously seems to high a price to pay. I won’t do it.

And so, my daughter (and to be fair anyone who texts with me) has a good chuckle at how long and formal my text messages are—she always says I sound like I’m writing a term paper. I always say she sounds like she’s writing in Estonian.

I teach a writing class at the college level. And every time a new term begins, I have to remind my students that what they will be writing for me will not be text messages. That means “your” and “you’re” have to be used correctly. Punctuation and capitalization will count. “It’s” will only have an apostrophe when contracting the words “it is.”

I’m sure they think I’m a dinosaur, a relic of a different age. Someone whose values are being displaced and obliterated by the onslaught of modern technology. Someone whose opinion on such matters is irrelevant and unimportant.

But then I get to grade them at the end of the term. Those who don’t use proper English in a writing course will see their grades suffer because their usual means of expression comes in 140 characters or less.

This is called “learning a lesson.”

I might be a lousy texter, but I am a really serious advocate for words.

E.J. Copperman is the author of AN UNINVITED GHOST, the second in the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series from Berkley, which was published April 5. This tale of sand, surf, murder, reality TV and ghosts follows NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, which began the series last year.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Whatever Happened to Women's Fiction?

by Sheila Connolly

When this blog posts, I expect to be at the Malice Domestic convention in Maryland. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s an annual event that brings together several hundred writers and fans to celebrate traditional mysteries. It’s a lot of fun.

If you scan the crowd there, you will quickly see that the majority of attendees are women, both writers and readers. Since women make up a large of percentage of the readers of this genre, that’s not surprising. However, it’s not true of other mystery conferences such as Bouchercon, where you will see a better gender balance in the crowd. Of course, the definition of mystery there is much broader, encompassing thrillers, procedurals, suspense, etc.

The national organization Sisters in Crime, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, in 2010 commissioned a survey evaluating who buys and reads mysteries and why. The analysis showed that 65% of mystery readers are female. Why, then, do male mystery writers make more money and get more reviews? One simple (simplistic?) explanation is that women will read across the spectrum of mystery writers and subgenres, but men read books by women much less frequently than do women (and they’re also less likely to read traditional mysteries).

An article in the Southern Review of Books this month adds to the mix the fact that the publishing world is increasingly dominated by women as editors and publishers, but for all of that, in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement, reviews of books (all genres) written by men far, far outweigh those of books written by women, sometimes by as much as three to one.

All right, perhaps I’m ranting. Many of us female writers know this, and have known it all along. I started thinking about it again recently because I’ve been reading Meg Wolitzer’s new book, The Uncoupling, published last month. In the story the women of a small New Jersey town all stop sleeping with the men in their lives—and yes, the Greek play Lysistrata plays a role in the book). It’s not a Mystery (although it may be a mystery)—there’s no crime, no blood, no officers of the law poking around. But it felt familiar, and I realized that was because it reminded me of a crop of books that came out in the 1970s—books by Alison Lurie, Gail Godwin, Fay Weldon, Marilyn French and their peers. These were books about relationships and characters—mainly women. Women as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends (not necessarily in that order). The books were labeled “women’s fiction.”

Somewhere along the line the term acquired negative connotations, although I’m not sure why. But to come full circle, I think I write the kind of mystery I do—call it traditional or cozy or amateur sleuth—because of these books, many of which are still on my bookshelf. In all my books my protagonists are women who happen to solve crimes. They’re smart, they’re independent, and they understand people, and that’s how they unravel murders. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for. And that’s why it’s such a pleasure to go to Malice Domestic, which gathers together lots of intelligent, interesting women who enjoy that kind of book.

One final note: just this week Harvard history professor and author Jill Lepore wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Poor Jane’s Almanac.” It’s about one of Benjamin Franklin’s many sisters, one who wrote to him regularly, and the one to which he wrote most often—and their letters have survived. A woman who could read in Jane’s 18th-century world was a rarity. Jane Franklin did not lead an easy or happy life, and yet she never stopped reading or writing. Nor do women now, with or without accolades or reviews or recognition. That’s why I wouldn’t miss attending Malice.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

We’re off to play at Malice!

Elizabeth Zelvin

Today is the day I pack up my car with bookmarks, chapbooks of my Agatha-nominated short story, dress-to-kill duds for the banquet, the obligatory box of books, and a few boring necessities like toothbrush and clean underwear, and head south on the New Jersey Turnpike toward Bethesda, MD, the site of this year’s Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of traditional mystery lovers. For me, Malice has been one big lovefest every time I’ve attended, even the first time, when I knew almost nobody and had great apprehension about whether I’d enjoy it. Today, on the eve of my fourth Malice, I can hardly wait.

Malice is primarily a fan convention, and I suspect one of the reasons it works so well is that the authors who attend are themselves fans and avid readers of traditonal mysteries. So we’re all in it together, voting for our favorites for the Agathas, getting a kick out of sharing a dinner table with Margaret Maron, Nancy Pickard, or Barbara D’Amato—first come, first served, no celebrity tables at the Agathas!—talking a mile a minute about the books we love, and taking home more of them than we promised ourselves we would.

Malice begins on Friday, and the reason I’m driving down today to get there bright and early tomorrow is one of my favorite features of the con: Malice-Go-Round, billed as speed dating for authors and readers. Groups of readers are seated at fifteen or twenty tables, and pairs of authors make the rounds, presenting at each table in turn pitches that have varied, since I’ve been doing it, from a challenging ninety seconds to a leisurely three minutes. In fact, one year I prepared for ninety seconds and then found we’d have twice the time. I started my pitch with: “I’m from New York City, so all I have to do is talk more slowly.” It’s an opportunity for the authors to give out promotional materials for their new work in optimal conditions and for readers to form a connection with the authors that gives everyone an extra charge that lasts till Sunday afternoon. That sense of connection has me grinning all weekend and hugging people at the drop of a hat.

Speaking of hats, there’s no longer a hat contest at the closing tea on Sunday, but anyone who feels like wearing her most outrageous Easter bonnet is more than welcome to do so. I won the last contest for Most Creative Hat in 2008. It was a black confection with a bobblehead Poe (a favor from the previous year’s Edgars) perched on top and a black bat hanging down, as well as a blood red rose and a little tombstone. You can still see pictures of it on my website.

Besides the Agathas banquet, socially eventful meals include the New Authors breakfast, at which everyone with a first book out gets showcased with a brief but excellent interview, the Sisters in Crime breakfast highlighting the national organization’s work for the year, and what has become a traditional lunch gathering of Guppies, the online chapter of Sisters in Crime that started out as the Great UnPublished and currently has five hundred members—two or three dozen of whom attend Malice—and an impressive collective record of publications and awards. Again, I’m looking forward to a lot of squeals and hugging.

If you’re going, see you there! I can’t wait—and I don’t have to, because I’m ready for the road!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

E-books are not the problem

Sandra Parshall

As many of us head off to Malice Domestic, where the traditional printed book is the focus, news from the publishing industry is grimmer than ever. In the first quarter of this year, while e-book sales jumped by 169.4%, sales of print books in all categories fell a total of 25%.

According to the American Association of Publishers, e-books and trade paperbacks were tied in the early part of the year as the leaders in all book sales.

Nielsen BookScan, which covers approximately 75% of retail book sales, reported that in the first quarter mass market paperback sales dropped by 26.6%. (The AAP statistics show an even steeper fall of 36%.) Hardcover fell 7.2%, and trade paperback dropped 6.4%.

Adult fiction lost the most ground among the various categories, falling 18.3%. (By contrast, adult fiction is the strongest segment among e-books, accounting for 61% of sales.) Juvenile nonfiction fell 11.7% and juvenile fiction dropped 8.1%. Only adult nonfiction, with a 1.1% drop, avoided a precipitous fall in print sales.

The soaring sales of e-books takes some of the sting out of the decline in print sales, but the sad truth is that books in all forms are losing their attraction as a source of entertainment and information. Vast numbers of people simply do not read books. Ever. In any format. However, the average Facebook member spends more than seven hours on the site every month. The average American watches more than 84 hours of television each month. Video games also claim a huge share of our attention span, and a single video game will sell more units in a month than all the top 20 New York Times bestselling books combined.

In a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, independent publisher Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers noted that our concern over the rise of e-books and the decline of print books is misplaced. The real competition isn’t between different forms of books but between books and other forms of entertainment. Putting a book on the Kindle won’t suddenly turn non-readers into readers.

All the evidence is that reading as a pastime began to fall out of favor when computers and then the internet became ubiquitous. That decline continues. But as fewer and fewer people bother to read books, those of us with an emotional, intellectual, or financial investment in all forms of publishing spend our energy arguing about whether e-books are good or bad. We should be talking about how to turn more people on to reading. We should be trying to figure out what it takes to lure kids away from video games. We should be trying to reawaken the love of reading in people who may have given it up because they were too busy raising kids and working. We should be persuading parents that reading to and with their kids is good for all of them. While we’re at it, we should support our local libraries in any way we can.

E-books, print books – what good will any of them be when no one is left to read them?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Latching on to characters

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I wrote about inspiration for a new novel. I’m thrilled to report that it’s been a great week in novel land. I’ve had so much fun auditioning bits and pieces of my use-one-day collection to see if they might work in this book.

The only downer was day I found out that the marvelous 1890s brick school building where I attended first grade has been torn down and the land it was on turned into a mall, but such are the perils of research. At least I was able to add to my do-some-day list writing a story set in that building as I remembered it.

This is that heady period, before the first word of Chapter 1 is written, when anything goes and everything works. My plot is inspired, my mystery is devilishly clever, and my characters paragons of just about everything. We all know, of course, that first paragraph in Chapter 1 will begin to rub off the shine, but I’ll just hang on to my illusions for a few more weeks, okay?

I’ve also been re-reading my basic tips binder to remind myself of things I should have already learned. Some things I have learned, for other things the refresher is a good idea. Here are some tips I came across about how to develop characters whom the reader will want to latch onto.

Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of something with a high physical and/or emotional content.

Give each character a unique name. Mix up names so that there is a variety of sound mixes, number of syllables, and ethnic origins.

Give each character a unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, automobile, electronic gadgets (or lack thereof) and their relationship to each of these.

Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.

If two or more characters share the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique name and character sketch so that Father D’Arcy won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.

Make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, give each character an attitude toward being frequently mistaken for the other person.

At the beginning of a book, the reader files every new character with due diligence until she can figure out how important a particular character is to the story. Avoid minor characters in the first three chapters, other than background characters who make the story flow. The doorman at the hotel or the dry cleaner who ruined the protagonist’s best dress, can set events in motion, but they should be mentioned in passing without names or details. The more details the reader is given—that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent—the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story. A summary like, “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress” will cover what’s needed to move along.

A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have appeared least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all of your major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is your detective(s); it’s hard to have him or her show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.

If you must hold a major character in reserve until later in the book, at least making a general reference to him or her. Statements like, “My sister is arriving tomorrow. You’re going to love her. She has such a sense of humor,” or “What really pisses me off is a guy in a thousand-dollar suit, with that look-at-me attitude” sets up reader expectations. They’ll be expecting the sister to arrive or for the protagonist to meet a guy in a thousand-dollar suit.

Quotes for the week (It’s a two for one week)

Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before you yank them out and pull them into another mind.
~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer

Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name.
~Elizabeth George, mystery writer

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Celebration of Charlotte

by Julia Buckley

With the success of yet another film version of JANE EYRE, and with a very recent anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth, I thought I'd pay tribute to both the woman and her work. On April 21st, 1816, Charlotte Bronte was born--one of six children of a clergyman in Yorkshire. She wrote often, even as a young person, perhaps as an escape from a rather dreary life. In adulthood she wrote under the name Currer Bell. Her greatest work, of course, is Jane Eyre.

I often teach Jane Eyre to freshmen, and I would have to say that it is the most underestimated and unappreciated work of all the literature that I teach. The young people, in general (despite a few fans in every class), cannot seem to relate to Jane Eyre, and yet I wonder why. It's wonderfully Gothic, and young people still appreciate the Gothic elements in their books and movies; it has a touching love story, a strong sense of mystery, a focus on the underdog--the very plain Jane. Yet it often leaves them cold.

I suppose the difference is that many young people can no longer stomach the style--the long sentences, the formal diction (much of which they don't know and often refuse to look up), the antiquated sensibility. This is about a girl, then a woman, who is continually oppressed. What the girls don't always see, however, is the gradual journey Jane makes: from weakness to strength, from ignorance to awareness, from anger to enlightenment. It's a remarkable work, and my continuing job as a teacher is to try to make them see that.

I first discovered Jane Eyre on my mother's bookshelf when I was very young--eleven or twelve,perhaps. I wanted to read it because it looked very adult: it was big, leatherbound, and intimidating. But when I opened it and found Jane sitting behind a curtain at Gateshead, hiding from her horrible adopted family and looking out at the dreary November day, I was hooked. Bronte was a brilliant storyteller, and Jane is such a worthy protagonist that reader can't help but be drawn into her life and to root for her success.

And of course one of my favorite things about Jane Eyre is its mystery; the wonderful sense that there is something going on that Jane doesn't understand, which creates tension for long portions of the book. I don't wish to spoil anything for those of you who might now be inspired to pick up Jane Eyre in honor of Charlotte's birthday, so I'll just say that the mystery itself has made an indelible imprint on our literary culture, and Jane Eyre remains as a beloved work of English literature.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Goodbye is not an easy word . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I've been a member of Poe's Deadly Daughters since the very beginning. I've loved working with these lovely ladies, excellent writers, wonderful friends, one and all. But it's time for me to move on. Therefore, I'm leaving Poe's Deadly Daughters today and Jeri Westerson is taking my monthly Saturday slot. I wish her good luck. I wish the other "Daughters" much continued success.

I'm now writing non-mystery non-fiction, so to continue to hog a good spot here on PDD isn't fair to other authors and doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm going in another direction with my writing, but I will ALWAYS be a mystery fan and will never stop reading mysteries until someone pries a book out of my cold, dead hands. I'm sure that is true of the rest of you. Mysteries are such fun to read, be they cozies (my personal choice) or fast-paced thrillers (which scare me too much to read, sigh.)

If you want to keep in touch, I will still have a web page at and I will still be writing my weekly newsletter for women: Encouraged Together, every Tuesday. You are welcome to hang out with me at my web page and/or subscribe to said newsletter. Back issues are archived there, should you wish to check them out.

May all your mysteries be great and your TBR (To Be Read) pile ever full, near to toppling over. May you never lose the delight of being so lost in a book that waking up to reality is a bit of a shock. And please remember, I STILL have six mysteries in print, available on Amazon or to order from your local book store.

Thanks ever soooo much for reading me here and in my mysteries. Good--nope, can't type it, so let's just say "So long" for now.


Friday, April 22, 2011

World enough and time

by Sheila Connolly

"Had we but world enough and time…"  Andrew Marvell began his poem, To His Coy Mistress, with that line, in the mid-17th century, and while the rest of the poem wanders off happily into ramblings about fleshly love, that first line is lovely, and sticks in my mind (with a lot of other assorted stuff).

But lately, being limited in my mobility, which in turn limits the range of my activities, my take on time has changed. As I’ve said here before, I’ve been doing a lot more reading. The past week I’ve torn though The Dirt on Clean, by Katherine Ashenburg (which I bought when it came out in 2008 and have only just arrived at), and I’ve started Christopher Kimball’s Fannie’s Last Supper, which was published last year.

On the surface these would seem to be very different books, but both have made me consider how people in any culture choose to spend their time. Perhaps “choose” is too limiting a term, because for a long time most people did whatever they had to do to survive, which consisted mainly of hunting or growing food, procreating, and dying early. No doubt there was little discussion about how to best use leisure time—because there wasn’t any.

Ashenburg addresses attitudes toward personal hygiene, and how different cultures perceived cleanliness over history. Indoor plumbing has been around for a long time (the Romans did a pretty good job with that, as did some religious orders like the Cistercians in the Middle Ages), but its perceived importance has fluctuated widely. At times people thought bathing was evil, and changed their clothing rarely. But the pendulum swung and now many people are obsessed with both personal odors and germs. Have you looked at the range of settings on a new washer? It takes a degree in computer science to figure out how to program one for a simple load. And if you’re supposed to treat each kind of fabric, each color, separately—how much time are you spending at it?

Kimball’s book is interesting because the author takes it upon himself to recreate a (high-end) meal based upon the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook from 1896. This involved twelve courses, each incredibly elaborate, all cooked on an authentic cast-iron stove. The author, clearly passionate about both cooking and the Victorian era, also includes a wealth of peripheral detail (who knew that Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix existed before 1900?).

Admittedly this event does not represent the way most people in the country approached making a meal; instead it captures a particular moment in urban, upper-middle-class fashion. In this rarified niche, It took well over two hours to consume such a meal, and that was with servants presenting each course and clearing away the detritus from the prior one. More servants operated below stairs, chopping, peeling, simmering, etc., etc., to create individual dishes designed to impress and delight—and to disappear within minutes, to be followed by the cleanup (imagine all those dishes!). It didn’t last, though. Servants became harder and harder to find, so the woman of the house began to assume a greater role in shopping and cooking, and then there were all those wonderful time-saving machines and packaged foods that came along in short order.

But for all of that, domestic service was a way to enter American culture. For a time a lot of cooks and maids were Irish, and that included my father’s mother, two of her sisters, and two of my father’s father’s sisters, all of whom arrived in New York shortly after 1900. The house I live in now, which in 1910 housed five or six unrelated people in addition to the owners, also had a servant who was Irish—her room was in the unheated attic. By 1920 there was no servant.

Modern perceptions of time, particularly “free” time, keep changing. Take reading (please!). These days it is a luxury to sit down and immerse yourself in a book, to lose yourself in an alternate universe or a wealth of factual information, purely for your own pleasure. The recent and continuing evolution of the ebook is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because books are now available instantly, in a form that can be carried anywhere; it’s a curse because readers now snatch minutes here and there to read a paragraph or a page, before we’re interrupted by something else. Children, teenagers, twenty-somethings reduce their lives to 140-character tweets in an endless stream.

Does this change how we read, and how we write books? Will the rising generation have the attention span of a gnat?  Must we as writers make our stories bigger, brighter, faster, just to keep them fresh in an intermittent reader’s mind? There are those who say that we mystery writers must put the body in the first chapter, and add a hook to the end of each chapter, to keep our readers engaged. We’re happy that they’re reading at all, but how must we adapt to keep them reading?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The up side of aging memory

Elizabeth Zelvin

No, I’m not talking about how much easier it gets, the more we age, to forget whodunit when we put the book aside, so that we experience the joy of a fresh solution every time we reread a mystery—although it happens. I’m not even talking about how, no matter how many songs extol the passionate melancholy of “I will always love you,” when we Google him thirty years later and find he’s married and living in New Zealand, it doesn’t hurt any more—though that too is true.

Like most people, I have some early memories that have never left my mind, lodged there by some kind of mental superglue. Are they random or emotionally selective? Are they true memories, or do I just remember that I once remembered them, as I remember telling these stories over and over in the course of my life? I don’t know. But on some level, I have never forgotten them. I can call up the image of scribbling in crayon on the margin of another little girl’s Bugs Bunny coloring book; of my first grade teacher breaking it to me that I didn’t know everything; of my seventh grade classmates applauding when I returned to class after winning a big spelling bee—and not applauding when I lost the next round. I even remember the word I misspelled that time, back in 1955.

Do the math, and you’ll know I’m no spring chicken. The older I get, the more I experience the truth of certain platitudes. The parent’s warning: “Wait till you have children!” Yes, whatever one’s transgressions as a child, the tables get turned when the next generation comes along. The French saying, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Look at politics—any level, any time—for examples of that one. Another French one: Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieillesse pouvait. “If youth only knew, if the old only could,” an irony I find playing out in life in all sorts of situations.

But something new and marvelous has been happening to me lately: I’ve been retrieving fifty-year-old memories that were lost until some incident or object, a Proustian madeleine, triggered the recollection. I couldn’t find on Google (on the first page of Google, anyhow) how old Proust was when the dipping of a cookie in linden tea unleashed a flood of memories, seven volumes’worth, in fact. The trigger in this case was smell, although I read a passage about how simple words spoken on film or video in a forgotten childhood language triggered vivid memories of the writer’s (a blogger’s, not Proust’s) grandparents. The phenomenon is called involuntary memory.

My memories have been unlocked not by anything as precise as a scent or a word, but floated up into consciousness in the course of relevant encounters. With half a dozen friends from junior high, I heard one of our number read a passage about his father at a bookstore signing. This group has talked about our friend’s father many times since we all rediscovered each other fifty years later: he was our favorite teacher, and we adored him. On this occasion, the son happened to read a line about how after having a heart attack, his dad went right back to “all his former habits.” And all of a sudden, there was my madeleine: a vivid memory of Mr. C.’s breath. “Your dad smoked,” I said, “right? Did he also use very strong cough drops?” “He did. After he died,” the son said, “we joked about Vick’s going out of business.”

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember actress/singer Elly Stone, who popularized in English the works of francophone/Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel. I ran into Elly, now over eighty, sat across from her at dinner, actually, at a party given by mutual friends. It wasn’t till late in the evening that I realized she must be that Elly. “Jacques Brel, right?” She confirmed it. As it happens, although I knew of her association with the Brel songs, I had never paid much attention to them. After spending two years in the Peace Corps in francophone West Africa, I had been crazy about Jacques Brel himself and listened to his songs (and sang some of them) in the original French. But I remembered Elly Stone all right, and this memory, too, came out of fifty-year storage for the occasion. “I see you on the stage at Carnegie Hall,” I said. “You were wearing a bright green strapless evening gown.” “Oh, yes,” she said. “It was a Givenchy, and it was absolutely the wrong thing to wear to a hootenanny, but I didn’t care. I loved that dress.”

When did this Carnegie Hall hootenanny take place? Wikipedia tells me it might have been 1958 or 1959. Elly told me which of these two years she wore the green dress—but I can’t remember.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do book awards have a future?

Sandra Parshall

In the past couple of years I was invited to judge novels for two major crime fiction awards. I accepted both times, not because I’m a glutton for punishment (although that might have been a factor) but because I wanted to know what the juried awards process was like on the inside.

We all quibble with the nominations and winners of the so-called “fan awards” given at conferences – the Anthonys, the Agathas, etc. – but in the end we accept that the people who pay to attend the conferences have the right to honor the books they like the most. The juried awards, though, provoke the same critical questions year after year. How can a small panel of people be trusted to choose the “best” books of the year? How could so-and-so’s brilliant work be overlooked? Why does she-or-he rack up so many nominations (and wins) while other worthy writers are slighted? Why are some obscure works nominated instead of books and stories “everyone” has read? And, of course: Why are so few women writers nominated for certain awards?

Many people, most of them writers, seem to assume that bias drives the decision-making. I wanted to find out if that was true. I especially wanted to find out if my own judgment would be fair or if I would feel a tug toward books written by friends.

I don’t know what went on the heads of other judges, but I can say honestly that I was as fair as I know how to be, and I didn’t observe any bias on the part of other judges. I’m acquainted with a lot of the writers whose books I was judging. Some are my friends. But personal feelings for the writer never influence me when I’m reading, and they didn’t influence me as an award judge. Furthermore, I never gave a thought to the author’s gender while I was evaluating a book. All I cared about were the words on the page.

I can’t go into detail about any books I judged, but I have to say I was amazed by the number of ineligible novels that were submitted. Most entries come from publicists at publishing houses, and I don’t think they bother to read the guidelines when they mail tons of books to awards judges. They throw everything into the pot and, apparently, hope the judges don’t pay attention to the guidelines either. 

But let's get real. A cooking or craft cozy, while it must have suspense in order to succeed as a mystery, probably won’t win a thriller or suspense award. To be considered in those categories, the thrills and suspense must be primary, not secondary. The same goes for “romantic suspense” novels in which the suspense vanishes for long stretches while the romance plays out in the foreground. These books face a lot of world-class competition from authors who always put the crime story first. Different awards exist for different kinds of books, and I find the claims of bias a bit baffling. After all, Lee Child doesn't complain because his books are never nominated for the Agatha Award.

I accumulated a big stack of books that had little or no chance of winning the awards I was judging. I gave all of them to a library book drive organized by Mystery Writers of America. I thank the publishers for their contributions to an underfunded library system in Mississippi.

As I completed my judging duties, the digital revolution was getting underway. E-books were, and are, threatening to take over the publishing business and relegate printed books to secondary status. That makes me wonder if I was one of the last participants in an awards process that will soon be obsolete. When major authors take their work directly to e-publishing platforms, leaving Big Publishing behind, and midlist and small press writers conclude they can make more money by getting out of print and self-publishing their novels as e-books, will mystery awards be rendered meaningless?

If the awards are to continue, shouldn’t they include all books, regardless of platform? If all books are included, the number submitted for awards consideration will be staggering. Will awards committees become huge and the process of dividing up the books for judging impossible to manage? If e-books kill mass market paperbacks, as is predicted even by professionals in traditional publishing, will entire award categories vanish and all books be lumped together? That, of course, will further diminish each individual writer’s chance of being honored.

Will there still be a place for awards in the publishing world of the future? What do you think? Do awards serve a purpose? Are they worth keeping? If so, how do we do it?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Folk Music

Sharon Wildwind

Last Friday night I went to a performance at a local folk club, and had a terrific time. The house band played the first set. A young local performer — a little unpolished, but great potential — did the second set, and a person I know off-stage and love listening to on-stage, the third set. I listened by candlelight (tea lights in orange globe holders), with people around me eating meat pies and sausage rolls, and drinking beer, and realized I’d been going to this kind of thing a darn long time.

Earlier that day I’d heard a CBC program about Record Store Day, which happened on Saturday. RSD is a celebration of vinyl records and the record stores that still sell them. Part of the show was someone asking people what was the very first vinyl album they bought.

No brainer. Summer of 1962, with money saved from baby sitting, I bought Peter, Paul, and Mary. Sometime around there I briefly took up the guitar long enough to learn the G-D-and A7 cords before giving it up as a bad job. The problem was tuning. I couldn’t turn a tambourine, much less a guitar. I realized very early that my role was going to be listening.

For a long time my contacts were records and later cassette tapes, and the all-too-infrequent performances by folk musicians on radio and television. None of my family was musical, except my brother who played clarinet in the high school marching band, so we had very little connection to live music. I knew about the Newport Folk Festival because of Bob Dylan being booed off the stage there in 1965 because he dared to go electric instead of acoustic, but I had no idea that folk festivals were springing up across the country. It didn’t dawn on me until decades later that I could climb in a car and go to a folk festival.

My first folk festival was a consolation prize. Big vacation plans fell through. I ended up with two weeks off and nothing to do. I decided to go to Vancouver, British Columbia because I’d never been there. When I picked up my room key, the motel clerk asked me if I was in town for the Vancouver Folk Festival. A folk festival sounded a whole lot better than doing nothing, so I took a cab to Jericho Beach Park. The only time I saw my motel room for the next three days was to sleep.

I was hooked. I listened to Simply Folk on CBC radio. I went to local clubs. I went to every Canadian folk festival within reachable distance. I volunteered several years with one of the festivals. I met a few musicians and became a groupie. I had a great time!

Getting married put an end to all that, going to folk festivals I mean, not having a great time. Different interests, different uses for money, different ways to spend our vacations. I went back to CDs and music on the radio. Only by now the Internet had come along. Every year it became easier to listen to a global range of folk artists in the comfort of my living room.

Which was why it was such a treat to go to a live performance again. The weirdest thing happened in the middle of that second set. One after another, images going way back to that Peter, Paul, and Mary album flooded through me. I realized that each image would make a great scene in a book. I realized that I had a lot of good stuff tucked away about folk music, about musicians, about clubs, about folk festivals. So much good material that I’m pretty sure I’ve just started my next book.

By Saturday morning I knew who my protagonist would be. Her name is Robbie Breland. She’s the volunteer coordinator at a folk music club, and one night, while she sits in the club listening to music, everything she thinks she knows about herself, her two ex-husbands, and the folk music scene starts to unravel. Then, of course, a body is discovered.

Stay tuned for further developments.
Quote for the week
Alan Barrows: I always thought it was “hey nonny no, nanny ninny no” and I’m getting kind of confused with all the nannies and the ninnies.
Jerry Palter: There’s no nanny, just take that out of the equation. It’s “hey nonny no, nonny ninny o”.
Mark Shubb: Iron clad rule, Alan. Nonny before ninny.
~from the inimitable movie, A Mighty Wind, which is a very cool riff on folk music

Monday, April 18, 2011

Superhero Summer

by Julia Buckley

My sons inform me that this will be an epic summer at the movie theatre: a host of great superhero movies is on its way. Thor, Captain America, The Green Lantern, and X-Men First Class have all released their exhilarating trailers, and my boys (including my husband, who grew up reading Marvel comic books) are very excited.

I'm excited in my own way, but I know that I can never really be a part of the distinct club to which the men in my family belong. I learned this a couple of summers ago, when we all went to see TRANSFORMERS, the blockbuster about alien robots from outer space. Normally this would be a testosterone-only sort of event, but Mom had no other plans, and frankly I thought the movie looked fun. It was. I really enjoyed it, which must have won me some points with the guys.

However, on the way home things took a surprising turn. We were chatting about the Transformers and how indestructible they were. My son Ian asked, "What if the Terminator had to fight a Transformer?"

"Oh, the Transformer would win," I said. The men nodded their agreement. This was a given. We had all seen, hadn't we, how the Transformers could take on the U.S. Military and make it look like a bunch of boys with toy guns.

Then we said the same thing about the Transformers versus various powerful icons. My husband then posed a philosophical problem. "What I'm wondering," he said thoughtfully, "is how the Transformers would fare in a battle with the Hulk."

I laughed, remembering the might of the Transformer named Optimus Prime. "Well, duh. The Transformer would win," I said.

There was an eerie silence as three disillusioned males looked at me. My estrogen was showing. "Are you crazy?" asked my spouse.

I stuttered. "Well--uh--I mean--the Hulk isn't made of metal or anything. The Transformers are ten times his size and they have all those guns and knives and things."

My son shook his head. "Mom, you just don't understand the Hulk. I mean, anything the Transformers did would just make him angrier." The men all muttered their approval of this argument.

"But he has no weapons, and anger can inhibit judgment," I offered.

They shook their heads some more. They were exchanging "do you believe this?" looks among themselves. Finally my husband summed it up for the boys. "Mom would have to know more about the Hulk to make this decision, guys."

And with that final assessment, I knew I was out of the club. Sure, I could pretend to have opinions now and then, but my superhero knowledge has become suspect, and I have made the grave error of underestimating The Incredible Hulk, which simply isn't done in Superhero Circles. So I've learned my lesson.

Meanwhile, I'll be hunting for a club with less stringent membership rules.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Canada Calling: Pamela Callow

Pamela Callow is a Canadian thriller writer who wanted to be a vet when she was a kid but was allergic to too many animals. Instead, she decided to study English Literature, become a lawyer, do a Master’s degree in Public Administration, work for an international consulting firm… and then become a thriller writer who has dogs in her books!

PDD: The first three books in your Kate Lange series are coming out over an eighteen-month time span: Damaged in June 2010; Indefensible in January 2011; and Tattooed in June 2012. How many of the books did you have written before you sold the series? What are the difficulties and rewards in having three published books in a year and a half?

DAMAGED was sold based on the full manuscript. I was gratified that it didn’t require much revision. I wrote INDEFENSIBLE in the period of time between accepting the offer from my publisher and DAMAGED’s publication date. I am currently at work on TATTOOED – which was delayed due to my father’s illness – and that will be released in June 2012. Right after I complete TATTOOED, I will dive into my fourth book, which is projected to be released in 2012, as well.

The challenge with writing the second book before the first book was published was simply trying to guess how my readers would react to certain character dynamics, and trying to figure out which direction I should take some story lines. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and forcing yourself to jump. You don’t want to disappoint readers who have enjoyed the first book! However, at the end of the day, you have to stay true to the characters you’ve created, and it turns out that my readers have really liked the way I developed the characters in the second book. In fact, it showed me that my instincts are sound.

The rewards of having the first two published so close together is that when my readers would say, “I can’t wait for your next book!” I could relax, knowing another would be out within months. It’s also nice to realize that I’ve had two books published in the past nine months. It makes me feel like I’m developing a body of work.

PDD: You describe Kate as "an everywoman superwoman." Are you saying than any woman who aspires to a successful career as a lawyer has to be a superwoman? How closely does the life of a high-power lawyer in fiction represent what happens in real life?

Actually, that’s not at all what I meant. I’m going to have to clarify that on my website – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

“Everywoman” refers to the lives of most people at Kate’s age: balancing life, careers -- and trying to figure out what makes us happy. “Superwoman” refers to the inner strength that Kate must find. She has to face her worst fears and dig deep to survive in DAMAGED. Being a lawyer is incidental to this. This is about the most elementary part of our human nature: how far would you go to redeem yourself? How far would you go to do the right thing? If your very existence were at stake, would you flee or fight?

PDD: The books are toward the darker end of the thriller scale. How do you get your head into that darker space in order to write and, equally important, how do you get your head out of that space in order to resume ordinary life?

That’s a good question. I think I mine the fear that I have within myself about dark things. All my plot lines are inspired by the news. What I do with my books is take those crimes and remove the psychological distance of reading about it happening to “someone else”. I make it real for my characters, and by doing so, I have to go to some dark places. I do extensive research for my books, and this includes learning about the forensic methodologies employed to solve crime. It also means I read a lot about sociopaths/psychopaths, and the crimes they’ve committed. That is disturbing. I don’t put much violence in my books – it happens off the page – but in order to figure out what my characters have done, I often have to read more than I want to. I’m certainly extremely protective of my children. But I also recognize, after reading many of the psychological analyses of these cases, that there is an element of wrong place/wrong time with these crimes.

Getting out of that dark space can be difficult. I think because I have very busy kids and our home schedule is frenetic, my head gets snapped out of it pretty quickly, whether I like it or not! That being said, I definitely need a breather after finishing one book and going to the next. It’s not easy to do that with my deadlines, but I try to do things that are light, fun. I love watching shows like So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol. I generally find them uplifting and inspiring.

PDD: You're a great support of libraries. What do you think is the biggest danger facing libraries today?

Well, that seems to change on a weekly basis, there’s so much going on in the publishing industry. I think one of the biggest dangers is that governments and/or taxpayers might assume that the advent of e-books will allow them to provide less support to the infrastructure of a library, much like there is a fear that e-books will do away with brick-and-mortar stores. Libraries, however, are evolving and provide resources, programs and opportunity to many people who don’t have resources available to them. They can provide information through books, computers, special programs – to people who are not in the school system. I myself use specialized libraries associated with the medical and law faculties because they provide material that is not easily accessible elsewhere.

For more information about Pamela and her books, visit her web site, Facebook page, and/or Twitter address (@PamelaCallow).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Should Actions Speak Louder than Words?

by Sheila Connolly

As I excavate my way through my multi-year TBR pile, I’ve been sampling a few genres that I don’t read consistently—in this case, suspense and thrillers. Two in particular I happened to read back to back: John Connolly’s The Reapers, and the first two of Barry Eisler’s John Rain series, Rain Fall and Hard Rain (yes, the series that he is famously taking straight to ebook now).

John Connolly’s book is a couple of years old, but it’s a signed copy that I obtained from the author when we signed together at Bouchercon (guess who had the longer line?). No relation that I know of, but I haven’t given up hope.

The Eisler books are “homework,” since he will be one of the Guests of Honor at New England Crime Bake this year, for which I am co-chair (shameless promotion: it’s a great conference!) and I thought I should know something about his work when I interview him.

I think that for both writers, their characters are intriguing, their plots are fast-paced, their settings are drawn with a wealth of pertinent details. There are even moral messages tucked in here and there. But they also share a similarity that startled me: their use of language.

In both cases, I would be happily reading along, caught up in the alternately feverish or ominous story, and I’d come across a metaphor or a description that was so compelling that I had to stop and think about it. Like, “wow, that’s brilliant, and I know exactly what you mean!”

For example, in The Reapers, Connolly writes, “A wind farm occupied the hills to the west, the blades unmoving, like playthings abandoned by the offspring of giants.” If you’ve ever seen a wind farm, you’ll see the aptness of this. (I’m also much enamored of a throwaway line in the same book, “phlegm-colored golf shirts,” because I swear my father had at least one of those.)

Or Eisler’s descriptions of a Japanese city neighborhood, in Hard Rain: “Everywhere were metastasizing telephone lines, riots of electrical wires, laundry hanging from prefabricated apartment windows like tears from idiot eyes,” or, “A solitary vending machine sat slumped on a street corner, its fluorescent light guttering like a dying SOS.”

But is this a good or a bad thing?

Any book is a complex, multi-dimensional matrix of elements: character, plot, pacing, setting. In the case of mysteries, you have to add a puzzle, one that must be resolved by the end of the book in a satisfying way. Picture juggling five balls in the air at the same time, and catching them all at the end. No writer pretends it’s easy, although some make it look easy (curse them!). Often in the case of suspense and thrillers, the language and imagery take a back seat. In most cases that’s appropriate, because the writer wants the reader to be invested in the story, to be pulled along breathlessly--to keep turning the pages!

But still, the right image can capture so much in a few words, and can add depth and color to a character based in his or her perceptions of the world. Such nuggets of gold must be used judiciously and sparingly, lest the writer stray into florid Bulwer-Lytton territory (you know, the “it was a dark and stormy night” guy). You don’t want to read a paragraph-long tribute to the wine-dark polish on the revolver that’s about to kill our narrator, the symmetrical star-flash occasioned by the firing of the cartridge, the arrow-straight flight of the bullet headed for his chest. Because then the tension is gone.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.” I read this years ago , and I’ve always remembered it. But how much poetry can a mystery writer afford in his or her book?

I think we need a judicious dash of it now and then. We as writers hope that we’re putting our words in the best order, but we should recognize and salute it when a writer manages to slip in a measured dose of the best words, without sacrificing any other part of the story.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Elizabeth Zelvin

This coming Monday is the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Exodus, when Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. The traditional Seder, the festive meal and ceremony that takes place not once but twice, on two successive nights, consists of an abundance of special foods and the reading of the Haggadah, which is the retelling of the story of the Exodus in a peculiarly Jewish way. Only the People of the Book could have given so little space to the narrative of what happened and so much to a recounting of the arguments among various eminent rabbis through history about precisely what each word and phrase meant. Chanted in Hebrew (with the English translation on alternating pages), this is what is known to generations of American Jewish children, especially those raised along secular lines, as “the boring part.”

In my family, the children were not allowed to eat anything (except a corner of the ceremonial matzoh in its proper place and the parsley dipped in salt water, no treat to a child) until halfway through the Haggadah, when you got to eat the Hillel sandwich, invented by the first-century scholar of that name as a symbol of the bitter and the sweet: charoses, apples chopped with nuts and wine or honey to symbolize the mortar used when the Jewish slaves built the Pyramids, combined with horseradish so pungent it cleared your sinuses for a week on a piece of matzoh. Then we got to eat the meal: hard-boiled eggs in salt water (symbolic tears), gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh balls, a main course that in our house included my mother’s famous pot roast along with potato kugel that she always pretended to the guests she’d made from scratch. My father invariably blew the gaffe, perhaps in retaliation for having been sent to the kosher deli to buy it ready made. While recovering from this meal, at least enough to do justice to dessert, we would read the rest of the Haggadah, open the door so the prophet Elijah could come in for his ceremonial sip of wine (as close as we get to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny) and finally get to the songs. My favorite, “Chad Gadya,” was sung in a mix of Hebrew and ancient Aramaic—more evidence that we’ve been doing this every year for a very long time.

At non-traditional Seders, like those my family does today, the food is the same, but the Haggadah has been edited for relevance in a variety of different ways and has become a lot more fun. At different times, I’ve used a variety of materials. One is a recounting of the Exodus story from The Egalitarian Haggadah, including such priceless lines as “They collected back wages in goods from the Egyptians for 400 years of unpaid labor. Then they mobilized according to plan and marched out.” Another comes from psychologist Harville Hendrix, the author of Getting the Love You Want, who sees the story as a parable of the journey toward relationship health and happiness that couples make in counseling. He says that we are “prisoners of the fear of change” and that “we expect life’s rewards to come to us easily and without sacrifice.” Only when we accept the need for change and growth can we reach the Promised Land of intimacy and a fulfilling life. (I am not making this up. And if you’ve been in therapy less than forty years, you’ve got it better than the Jews in the desert.) Most recently, I’ve tried to condense the story and cast it in a form that my small granddaughters will sit still for: “Pharaoh was very mean to the Jews. He wouldn’t let them go home for four hundred years.”

In fact, my family today is a little low on Jewishness. My husband was born Irish Catholic, my daughter-in-law is a Catholic from the Philippines. My cousin’s father was a WASP, so he’s only half Jewish, and his children are one-quarter Jewish. My half-Jewish granddaughters are being raised in their mom’s faith.

The moving and powerful message that we repeat every year at the Seder for family, friends, and the strangers in our midst (who are especially welcome at this holiday table) is this:

In every generation throughout our history, oppressors have tried to destroy us as a people. Each time we have survived. We are telling this story not only because it happened to our ancestors, but as if it happened to us personally. And in spite of all this, we still fight oppression wherever we find it. Even if we are free, we cannot be completely happy unless all people everywhere are free.

This message is well worth handing down to our children and grandchildren, however fractionally Jewish. So we gather and feast and tell the story every year.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring Book Giveaway!

Sandra Parshall

It’s spring, and a whole new crop of terrific mysteries is popping up. Want to try a book by an author you haven’t read before? Take a look at these story summaries and post a comment to enter a drawing for a free copy of a new novel. List your top three preferences to increase your chance of getting one you’ll like. Please don’t ask for a book that you intended to purchase. Ask for something by a new-to-you author. The whole point of this giveaway is to make new fans for the writers.

Flowerbed of State by Dorothy St. James, a White House Gardener Mystery

Cassandra “Casey” Calhoun has a dream job for an organic gardener – creating a new garden for the First Lady on the White House grounds. But just as she’s readying her creation for inspection, she gets a nasty blow on the head. When she comes to, she and the Secret Service follow a trail of damaged foliage to a dead woman in a trash can. Now both Casey’s livelihood and her life are in danger. First in a new series.

Spider Web by Earlene Fowler, a Benni Harper Mystery

If you read this outstanding entry in Fowler’s series, you won’t be able to resist going back to find all the previous Benni Harper novels. Benni, a folk art museum director, rancher, and occasional sleuth, is in charge of a Memory Festival where a mysterious sniper decides to launch a vendetta against police officers. The festival shooting triggers post-traumatic stress in Benni’s husband Gabe, the local police chief. When yet another threat to Gabe’s well-being surfaces, Benni is determined to make her husband and her hometown safe again.

Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames, a Cheese Shop Mystery 

Written by an Agatha Award nominee, this is one of the most charming new cozy series to come along in quite a while. Charlotte Bessette, owner of a cheese shop, is catering a fundraiser at an old winery when a dead body is discovered in the cellar. Her best friend’s niece is the prime suspect and Charlotte sets out to prove her innocence. Charlotte is a delightful protagonist – and the recipes in the book will send you off to the nearest cheese merchant in search of ingredients.

Infamous by Ace Atkins

This noir thriller by a Pulitzer Prize nominee is based on the true story of gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly’s kidnapping-for-ransom of oil tycoon Charles Erschel. Kelly’s unfortunate choice of partners in crime turned what could have been a routine kidnapping into a dangerous affair for everyone involved. Set during the earliest days of the FBI and filled with period detail. (Trade paperback edition of a 2010 hardcover.)

Classified as Murder by Miranda James, a Cat in the Stacks Mystery 

Librarian Charlie Harris and his rescued Maine coon cat Diesel are back in a mystery that revolves around the murder of a rare book collector and the disappearance of a valuable copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. The Mississippi setting adds Southern charm to this series.

Death Along the Spirit Road by C.M. Wendelboe

First in a new series featuring Native American FBI agent Manny Tanno. After many years away from home, Tanno returns to the Pine Ridge Reservation to investigate the murder of developer Jason Red Cloud on the site of his latest commercial project. The case brings Tanno into conflict with a way of life, and personal enemies, he thought he had left behind forever. The author is a deputy sheriff in Wyoming. First in a new series.

List the books that appeal to you most and you may win a free copy of one of them. If you don’t win a book, I hope you’ll look for some of these new books in your local bookstore.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Story Circle Network: May Sarton Award

Sharon Wildwind

Two days ago I started Book 59 of my memoirs.

Okay, it’s not exactly Book 59. There’s my baby book, the book I kept the summers I went to music camp, a few abortive attempts to do something campy and art-journaly before returning to black ink and black cloth-bound sketch books, my equally-abortive attempts to keep a journal using a computer journaling program, a couple of travel journals, and my art-portfolio journal which works terrifically on line because I can put information, instructions, reference links, and photographs all in one place. If I included every one of those in the count, I’m probably at book 75 or so.

But those 58, consecutively numbered books—my hard-backed, hard-core journals—extend in an unbroken line to Thursday, August 10, 1978. Not that I have written every day, or every week, but those books still document 32 years, 8 months, and 2 days of my life. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I started working with Julia Cameron’s morning pages May 30th of last year, and for the past 10 months I do have almost daily entries.

They’re not exactly memoirs either. More like memory seeds. When I started back in 1978 I made myself two promises. I was allowed to write anything in the journal and I would never rip an entry out. I’ve kept both of those promises. Yeah, there is good stuff in there, but there is also a huge amount of sloppy, sleazy, huffy, despondent, raucous, glib, weird stuff. That’s okay. When I either get around to mining this gold field—or someone else, say an underpaid graduate student—gets to mine it, all that stuff will go into the memoir pot.

Which brings me around to an organization that’s worth it’s weight in gold, and to a new award that is now accepting nominees.

Story Circle Network is an international organization “for women with stories to tell.” It’s focus is to help women share the stories of their lives and to raise public awareness of the importance of women’s personal histories. From their Internet story circles to their quarterly publication of women's writing, True Words for Real Women, to their sugar bowl scholarships that pay the membership dues for low-income women, to their writers’ mentoring program, to the on-line Lifewriters Group this organization has gone from strength to strength since founded in 1997 by Dr. Susan Wittig Albert.

SCN had just launched its first May Sarton Literary Award dedicated to women’s memoirs. First-person memoirs, printed or e-book format, first published in 2011 are eligible for nomination. The author, the publisher, a friend or relative of the author may make the nomination. Authors do not have to be a member of Story Circle Network in order to be considered. Deadline for submission is 2011 December 15 and full details on eligibility, how to submit and a submission form can be found here. The winner will be announced at the sixth Stories from the Heart Conference in Austin, Texas in April 2012.

I cannot say enough good things about this organization. Copy down the web address. Keep it with you. I’ve printed it out on business-card blanks and I always have three or four of them with me. Every time a woman tells me you she is thinking about writing about her life, or has written, or just wants to read some terrific writing about being a woman, I give her one of the cards, and encourage her to visit the site at least once. I’m encouraging you to do the same.
Quote for the week:

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Day of the Storm

by Julia Buckley
I write my posts on Sunday, and what I write here will be old news by Monday, but here goes:

I'm always blogging about storms, it seems. And yet, because Chicago is faced with a significant storm on the horizon (possible tornadoes, property damage, etc.) due to an unexpected 85 degree day in an otherwise chilly week, I am thinking about storms again.

In fact, while I was sitting here in my chair, indulging in online time with my trusty laptop (thank you, Santa), I was playing around with the title "The Day of the Storm," and wondering why it sounded so familiar. Eventually I realized it was because there was a book by this title written by my beloved Rosamunde Pilcher--she of The Shell Seekers fame. You can find the book at Amazon here.

It's not my favorite Rosamund Pilcher novel, but as far as I'm concerned there is no bad Rosamund Pilcher novel. And no, she doesn't officially write mysteries, yet she has slipped into my favorites list along with many mystery writers because her books contain those special elements:

--fine writing

--beautiful settings

--believable characters and conflicts

--warm and wonderful human stories

If you haven't experienced a Pilcher story, you should sample one or two online and get a sense of her special gift.

THE DAY OF THE STORM is a tale with a fairly Gothic structure: an orphaned girl must go to a wild and faraway place to find the truth. Amazon's summary is "On the last day of her mother's life, Rebecca learns she has a family in Cornwall, and sets out to find the grandfather and cousin she has never known. But only the enigmatic Joss Gardner, the outsider who seems to be the apple of her grandfather's eye, can help her understand the dark currents that lie behind her family's loving reception."

This is just a short little book--perhaps it was just a wee vacation that Pilcher took from writing much longer and signifant novels like SHELL SEEKERS and SEPTEMBER; yet for that reason it's a delightful distraction for a reader who hasn't much time.

Have I suddenly become Pilcher's publicist? No, of course not. But I just experienced that special joy of remembering an author I hadn't thought of in quite some time, and I'm sure you all know what I mean. It's like being given a present.

So, if I do have to sit in the basement tonight with the boys, the dog, the cats, and the husband, I think I'll take a comforting novel with me. And after all this, I'm thinking too that it will be a Pilcher story, and while the tempest rages I can pretend I am in rocky Cornwall, and the sea is battling with the sky.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Clea Simon: Cats, Dogs, and aTouch of Noir

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Clea Simon is the author of the Theda Krakow mystery series, the Dulcie Schwartz series, and the new Pru Marlow Pet Noir mysteries. She has published short stories as well as many articles on music, relationships, feminism, and psychological issues. She lives in Boston with her husband, writer Jon S. Garelick, and their cat Musetta. Visit her website at

SP: Two new books in the same month! You’re going to make the rest of us feel like slugs. Would you tell us a little about each novel?

CS: Gladly! Dogs Don't Lie is my first "pet noir" mystery. What's "pet noir"? Think tongue-in-cheek hardboiled, with a bad-girl detective, Pru Marlowe, who just happens to be able to hear what animals are thinking. Her first case involves a rescue dog, but her sidekick is a grouchy tabby cat. I seem incapable of writing a mystery without a cat in it. Grey Zone is the third Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery. This is a cozier series with grad student Dulcie and her ghost cat, Mr Grey. Dulcie is studying Gothic literature, so I figure a ghost cat makes sense. In this, third book, a student goes missing and a professor dies mysteriously just as Dulcie really should be grading midterms...

SP: How would you answer readers who think any book that involves clever pets and a woman who “hears” the thoughts of animals must be light and humorous?

CS: I was reading a lot of the new female-centered true noir, authors like Patti Abbott, and I was caught up in the voice. I love tough women! But when I write, it comes out softer. So my pet noir (a play on "bete noir") is tougher  than my usual, but still fundamentally cozy. Think of it this way - if you live with a cat, you know how your cat gets pissed off at you? How sometimes you KNOW your pet thinks you're stupid? Yeah, that's the attitude of a lot of the animals in pet noir.

SP: Where did Pru Marlowe come from? Is she a character you've had in mind for a while, or did you create her to tell this story?

CS: She just came out of the ether as the right voice for this story. I've been working on this book for about three years now, so she's had a little while to get her personality together. I think she's a side of me that not many people see.

SP: One of your animal characters is a pitbull refugee from a dogfighting operation. Do you think a lot of people have a distorted and unfair view of pitbulls?

CS: Probably. I confess, I am not a huge fan of pits -- they are bred to have lower reaction thresholds: like, other dogs will do more role-playing to figure out who is submissive, who is not. Pits are bred to just react. And they are very, VERY active, energetic dogs that should not be kept by people who do not have the time to exercise them. But nine times out of 10, problems originate with the owners. Just like with most animal problems! And in the book, I make it clear that Lily is a very gentle, abused dog.

SP: Do Pru and Dulcie share an ability to communicate with animals? What else do they have in common? How are they different?

CS: Well, Dulcie can't really communicate with animals. The ghost of her late, great Mr. Grey talks to her sometimes, but he didn't as a cat -- only as a ghost. Pru has this strange gift -- she can hear what animals are saying at times - but she's not that comfortable with it. It's odd and feels intrusive to her. At first, it caused her to doubt her sanity. Even now, she'd rather not always know, you know? Other than that, Dulcie is an academic, a little sheltered (despite her odd upbringing by her hippie mother) and very bookish. Pru is a hard drinking wild girl. One's a house cat, the other... definitely not!

SP: Did you write the two books at the same time? What is your writing schedule like?

CS: I had Dogs Don't Lie fully drafted when Severn House commissioned the third Dulcie book. Then DDL sold (to Poisoned Pen) and so I had to work on revisions while finishing up Grey Zone. It was a little crazy! When I'm writing (most of the time), I try to give myself word limits -- 1,000 or 1,500 words a day, usually. When I'm revising, I try to work to page limits. In reality? I don't know how it all gets done!

SP: I'm sure fans will want to know if you’ve ended your Theda Krakow series. Have you wrapped it up, or do you plan to return to it?

CS: I'd love to return to Theda at some point. I did get her to what seemed like a good place: she has been offered a steady job and her boyfriend has proposed to her. Odds are, she'll accept both but... well, I may have to write another book to find out!

SP: What are you working on now?

CS: I'm revising the draft of my next Pru book, tentatively called Cats Can't Shoot. After that, I'll tackle a fourth Dulcie book. That's a good year's work booked for me!

Friday, April 8, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

We’ve been together for a long time. Oh, things were a little unsteady at the beginning, when we were just getting to know each other, but we worked through that together. We went along smoothly for years. We did things together, traveled to wonderful places, went hiking, skiing, ice-skating. We enjoyed each other’s company. More important, we trusted each other, and you supported me in whatever I wanted to do. You were always there for me.

Then you betrayed me. I never saw it coming. I thought we understood each other, respected each other. I never asked you to do anything that wasn’t right for you. I accepted your limitations. I believed that you were strong and dependable. I was wrong.

And now I don’t trust you. How can I? My faith is shattered, and I don’t know how to rebuild the trust that I’ve lost. I know, you’re still there, waiting for me. Even I can see you don’t look good—you’ve lost weight, and your skin has lost its color. But you brought it on yourself, letting me down when I needed you. You’re going to have to earn my trust again, one day at a time.

I’m talking about my leg.

Funny how one little accident can make you reconsider a whole lot of things. One minute you’re going about your business; the next, you’re on the floor, wondering what the heck happened.

You get to consider all sorts of unexpected things. Like the sound of a breaking bone. We read thrillers where people pummel each other, accompanied by the snap, crackle, pop, and crunch of breaking bones. Now I have firsthand experience.

You learn interesting details about health care systems, and that’s before you get the bills.

You find out how your body reacts to anesthesia (I’ve had no side effects, even with morphine) and heavy-duty drugs (extremely boring—I fall asleep).

You realize that you’re a lot clumsier and less flexible than you used to be, and you have to readjust your mental image of yourself as lithe and supple (well, that was kind of overdue anyway).

You discover just how many things are difficult to do while balancing on one leg and holding on to something to support yourself with one hand. I’ll leave that to your imagination, but suffice it to say, you reconsider your clothing options. Stretchy is good; elastic is your friend.

You realize how many horror stories there are on the Internet about your particular problem, and you devoutly hope that it’s only the whiners who post.

You realize the garden isn’t going to get planted this year because it’s hard to dig with only one usable leg (I refuse to till the whole patch sitting down!).

You realize how many steps there are in the world, and how hard it is to get up and down them. That includes your own home.

You realize you need to ask for help, and you need to thank people for helping you, even while you resent your lack of independence. Most people are happy to help.

You realized how much worse things could have been. Bones heal, life goes on. Things will go back to normal—won’t they?

Can you win back my trust, dear leg? Only time will tell.