Saturday, March 31, 2012

When You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Anita Page (Guest Blogger)

About twenty years ago, my husband and I decided to write a mystery. We were both writers—he was a journalist and I’d published a few short stories in addition to working as a freelance journalist—so we knew something about putting one word in front of the other.
I was the avid mystery reader in the family, and assured him there wouldn’t be much of a leap between reading mysteries and writing one.

Scheduling was a problem since I was teaching and he was facing daily deadlines, but we would use our two-week vacation in the Smoky Mountains to plan the book—plenty of time, I thought. As I’m sure is obvious, I was in a state of oblivion, aka: When you don’t know what you don’t know.

The lodge in the Smokies, with its mountain views and wood fires, was the perfect place to write except that our room was the size of a large closet. When we explained the situation to Ginger, the innkeeper, she graciously gave us the use of a large sitting room where we could work undisturbed. She seemed unimpressed by the fact that we were writing a book, which surprised us since we were awfully impressed with ourselves the first morning we sat down with our spiral-bound notebooks and pens.

By the end of two weeks, we had a chunk of the book planned, not as much as I’d hoped, but enough to make a start. We would write alternate chapters, my husband from the point of view of the investigating journalist, I from the point of view of his artist girlfriend. We knew who the killer was and we knew his motive. We also knew the victim. The setting would be Jersey City, New Jersey, where my husband had worked years earlier. Jersey City in those days was a gritty town that probably set a world record for the number of crooked politicians per square foot—perfect for the crime we had in mind.

We continued to work on the book at home, and I think got to chapter five before we hit a wall. So here was my first lesson in writing a mystery: You’ve got to have a plot.

I’m happy to say I figured that out by the time I sat down, twenty years later, to write Damned If You Don’t. Fortunately crime doesn’t go out of style, so I was able to adapt the murder in the first book to the new one.
Lesson two: Never toss your old manuscripts. The new book was set in the Catskills, our home for nine years, and a place where lives are conveniently intertwined, as they tend to be in small towns. My protagonist this time was Hannah Fox, a community activist raised in the sixties on picket lines and peace marches, who takes on town hall when a friend’s land is targeted by an eminent domain scam that ends in murder.

I worked on the manuscript full time for two years, taking it through six or seven drafts, and then spent a year submitting to agents. (My favorite rejection was a terse, “No thanks,” a great improvement over: “Unfortunately, I don’t feel passionate enough, etc. etc.”) Eventually I sent the manuscript to L&L Dreamspell and was offered a contract. Lesson three: While writing mysteries is a great pleasure, it’s also very hard work that comes with no guarantee of success. I realize that’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

Anita Page’s first novel, Damned If You Don’t, is set in the Catskill Mountains where she worked as a journalist. Her short stories have appeared in journals, ezines, and anthologies. She received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story in 2010. Anita and her husband live in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley. She can be found online at Women of Mystery and

Friday, March 30, 2012

Art and Writing

by Sheila Connolly

Recently my husband, my daughter and I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. My daughter had never been there, nor had my husband or I recently. But before we married my husband lived literally around the corner from the museum, and took advantage of their free evenings regularly. And in that same era I was an art history graduate student, so I was familiar with the collections for a different reason.

In my family we've all visited museums, singly and together, in this country and in other parts of the world, yet for some reason we've been remiss in enjoying our own local collections. Our loss!

It should not have surprised us that the MFA has undergone multiple major renovations in recent decades. I'm not sure anything is where it used to be, and without a map I would have been truly lost. We knew what we wanted to see—visiting old friends—but not how to get there. Needless to say we got lost a few times, and lost each other as well (note: always remind everyone to bring cell phones, set on vibrate!).

In a way for me it was like looking at a new museum, except I would recognize individual pieces along the way. But my memories also included seeing them from a different viewpoint (both physical and conceptual), and certainly over the intervening years, my taste and my perspective have changed.

In addition, I now often find myself looking at something (anything and everything!) in terms of how I could use it in writing, and this trip was no exception. No, I did not start plotting about how to stick a body in a mummy case, although there was a delightful set of four nesting sarcophagi. But there were two pieces that made me consider how to incorporate tension and emotion in writing.

The first was a simple Rembrandt oil portrait. I've always loved Rembrandt for the way his evolution as an artist is laid out in his pictures: early in his career he was producing clean, precise, commercial work, including a lot of "portraits for hire" (why does this sound familiar?), but as he grew older his style grew looser and more fluid. One of his late self-portraits hangs in the National Gallery in London, and one can stand very close to it and look at individual brushstrokes. I did, and was both moved by it and left wondering how when you step back, the clumps of paint come together to create a vivid and poignant image of an ageing, ordinary man. All the technique is right there to see, but the whole is so much greater.

The MFA portrait titled Old Man in Prayer is an early work, and extremely simple—no visible background, and even the man's clothes blend in, throwing all the focus on the face and one single hand laid across the man's chest. But the character in the face, and the immediacy of the hand, are extraordinary. If there is a (writing) lesson to be learned here, it's that simple can be very effective, as long as it's done brilliantly.

The other piece that struck me was a large fragmentary wall sculpture of a lion and bull locked in combat, an Assyrian work that dates from the 4th century BC. I'm not going to go into the details of symbolism, which are many and diverse, nor the details of execution (although I can still speak art-speak in a pinch). What I found most noteworthy was the tension in the piece. Two powerful figures are locked in combat, twisted together, equally matched. The lion, his teeth sunk deep in the haunch of the bull, seems to be staring at you, but the bull is by no means conquered.

For over two thousand years these two stone figures have fought in silence, and the message is as strong as it was in the beginning. We as mystery writers are always told to create and maintain conflict in our books, to keep the reader engaged—and reading. Here conflict is given physical form, the combatants tense as coiled springs, with no clear outcome. We're in the middle of the story, and we want to know what happens. And that's the key to story-telling.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

PLA: A Feast of Librarians

Elizabeth Zelvin

A couple of Thursdays ago, I drove from New York City to Philadelphia and back to schmooze with librarians, promote my work, and do a good deed by helping staff the Sisters in Crime booth at the Public Library Association’s biennial convention. Parent organization ALA, the American Library Association, stated in a March 6 press release:

“During this dynamic time of change, thousands of public librarians, library professionals, authors, publishers and vendors from across the country and around the world will meet in Philadelphia, March 13 – 17, for the Public Library Association (PLA) 2012 Conference to discuss a host of pressing issues affecting the future of public libraries, such as access to e-book lending, library funding, new technologies and advocacy.

“According to the American Library Association’s 2010-2011 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, more than 74 percent of libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create resumes and employment materials, and 72 percent of libraries report that staff helped patrons complete online job applications.

“Public libraries not only provide free access to information, but also to e-books and other digital content. Over two-thirds (67.2 percent) of libraries now offer access to e-books, up 12 percent from two years ago. According to the e-book distributor OverDrive, library patrons checked out 35 million digital titles in 2011, up from 15 million circulations in 2010. Unfortunately, access to this valued resource is in jeopardy as several major publishers have decided not sell or license e-books to libraries, dramatically limiting the options available to readers.”

We mystery writers know that librarians are a writer’s best friends and that libraries are hard pressed, with cuts in funding and the whole book industry in flux and disarray. Sisters in Crime is now in its second year of offering its “We Love Libraries” grants: a drawing for $1,000 each month to a library that submits a photo of its staff members holding books by Sisters in Crime member authors, to be spent solely on acquiring books (not necessarily mysteries).

So while I hailed passersby—“Hi! Do you read mysteries?”—and offered them first-chapter chapbooks and bookmarks for Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my new mystery due out next month, free hardcover copies of my first book (I brought fifty, and I was determined not to take a single one home with me), and postcards promoting Outrageous Older Woman, my new CD (hey, why not? many of the librarians were in my demographic, ie old enough to appreciate my songs), I was also helping SinC Library Liaison Mary Boone and Liaison emerita Doris Ann Norris (who calls herself the Two-Thousand-Year-Old Librarian) encourage librarians to join Sisters in Crime themselves, let their digital name tags be swiped to enter drawings for goodie packets of mysteries (and incidentally join the SinC mailing list), and take information about applying for one of the grants.

I shared my two-hour slot at the SinC booth with fellow mystery authors Robin Hathaway, Elena Santangelo, and Merry Jones. I ran into Hank Phillippi Ryan in the blocks-long corridor before I even reached the exhibit hall and Jane Cleland at the registration desk. I left some chapbooks with the folks at the Cengage booth, the parent company of my current publisher, Five Star. Once my stint was over, I headed for the Booklist exhibit, lured by the promise of a wine and cheese party and encouraged by the fact that Booklist just gave Death Will Extend Your Vacation a good review. The corner area was packed. I spotted Otto Penzler and the Caroline half of Charles Todd, as well as Hank and Jane again, in the first thirty seconds.

But I hit the jackpot when I got to meet Tiffany Schofield, the Five Star person I’ve exchanged dozens of emails with but never met face to face before. She’s crucial to the launch of my book and getting copies to the right place at the right time (eg Malice), and I was thrilled to get a chance to talk with her in person. Luckily, she was equally thrilled. We were averaging a hug about every three minutes for a while there. I never did get any wine or cheese, but I drove back to New York a happy mystery writer.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2011 book sales: the best of times or the worst of times?

Sandra Parshall

The Publishers Weekly annual report on the previous year’s bestselling books usually has a sameness to it – same household name writers selling about the same number of copies – but this year there’s a difference. For the first time, e-books became a real force in the book business in 2011.

You’ve read and heard it before: print sales down, e-book sales up. In 2009, 156 hardcover fiction titles sold more than 100,000 copies each in the U.S. In 2011, the number was down to 111. Only one hardcover novel sold over a million copies: The Litigators by John Grisham. James Patterson had seven of the top sellers, Janet Evanovich had two, and Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, and Clive Cussler had three each. 

Only two new authors had books among the top 30 fiction titles: George R.R. Martin, whose A Dance with Dragons sold 750,000 copies and is ranked fifth for the year despite being released in July, when the year was half over; and Paula McCain, whose The Paris Wife sold 301,883 copies and ranked twenty-seventh.

Martin also made a splash in mass market paperback last year, publishing four books with total sales of more than 5.5 million copies. He was the only newcomer to the million-copy ranks, as mass market sales continued their steep drop. PW reports that in 2001, eight paperbacks sold more than two million copies and 39 more sold over one million. In 2011, only six books went over a million copies. Among higher-priced trade paperbacks, 106 titles – a record low -- sold more than 100,000 copies each.

That doesn’t mean people are buying fewer books or reading less, only that they’re buying and reading in a different way. E-book sales continued to break records. PW lists four and a half pages of titles that sold more than 25,000 downloads each – and that’s a partial accounting, using only figures solicited from select publishers. The biggest seller was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which sold 1,950,000 downloads during the calendar year (and is still going strong). The number two e-book was the inspirational Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo (958,837). Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife sold more e-copies (332,169) than hardcovers.

E-books already account for a big slice of the sales at most publishers, and the percentage has grown so rapidly in the past 18 months that some in the industry predict e-books will soon make up more than 50% of sales from established, royalty-paying publishers.

With all these figures in my head, I had to laugh when I was doing some research and came across a comment by a reader on a blog way back in 2007. He asked, “Have you seen that Sony e-reader thing?” and said he hoped he wouldn’t live to see the day when people preferred e-books to printed books. His comment was posted a couple of months before Amazon introduced the Kindle. I hope he has reconsidered what he can and cannot learn to live with.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What Happens Next? Who Cares?

Sharon Wildwind

I had lunch with a fellow writer. In answer to the question, “What are you’re working on?” I received a long list of “and thens.” . . . “and then she decides she has to go back to Vancouver . . . and then she runs into an old school friend . . . and then they try to find out why Harold divorced his wife . . . and then . . .”

I found it hard to care, and then, going home I tried to decide why. It was because during the entire description I was never clued in about what was happening inside the character. What motivated her? What internal struggles did she face? How had she grown because of the experience?

Which is a shame because this writer’s work is nowhere near as dull as her lunchtime recitation. Her stories are full of internal, meaningful character exposition, so why did what she told me resemble listening to a bus schedule? Was she in query-letter mode?

Is the internal life in or out of query letters just now? Would it be better to start with, “University student Jo Fleming survives by driving a cab at night.” or “Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life.”? I think the second choice grabs my attention a whole lot more.

It would be interesting to write a story without a plot in mind. What if we started with an opening incident, but no clue about what would happen next or where they story was going? Maybe, at first, we wouldn’t even know what kind of a book we were writing.

A Week to Kill

Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life. When she finally meets the man of her nightmares, they are both a long way from the corner of Bloor and Dundas. With a week to kill in a posh resort where three Canadians have already died, Jo revels in the opportunity to plan a perfect murder. But, she, not her quarry, may be the fourth Canadian tourist to die. Desperately running from an attack, she is horrified to realize the only person who can save her is the man she hates enough to kill.

There. So what’s it going to be? Mystery? Thriller? Romance? Science Fiction? Paranormal?

Have fun writing.


Quote for the week

Your heart is the beacon, your heart is the storm. Dare to embrace it; you'll never be torn.

~Vanna Bonta, novelist, poet, film actress, and inventor

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Ever-Present Impact of Poe's THE RAVEN

by Julia Buckley
Fascination with Poe and his works continues to beget other works. The latest is The Raven, a film starring John Cusack. The movie poster's slogan reads: "The only one who can stop a serial killer is the man who inspired him." That's right: a madman is loose on the streets of Baltimore, and a young detective must join forces with Poe in order to stop more stories from becoming reality.

The premise is interesting, and it was inevitable that Hollywood creatives would try to mine Poe in the same way that they have borrowed from Shakespeare, Austen, and other literary greats to create new texts. I'm not sure if I'll see the movie, since it has potential to be violent and gory, but I'll be curious to see the public's response to a film inspired by Poe.

We've written about Poe here before--his life, his works, his environment, his demons--and even our blog borrows his name, since he is credited with writing the first detective story. There's no doubt that the man continues to generate interest and reverence long after his death.

In honor of this latest tribute to Poe, I dug up my own tribute to "The Raven," posted last year in our "spend a day with Poe" blog, and I thought it might be fitting to share it here. It deals not with a potentially mad narrator bemoaning the loss of Lenore, but instead with an obsessed author, fearing the rejection of an agent.  It seemed apropos.  :)

The Craven

by Julia Buckley (with apologies to Poe)

"Once upon a keyboard dreary, while I slaved over a query
Which I’d send to many an agent in the hopes of being loved,
While I tried out various phrasings, paired with chocolate-peanut grazings,
And repeated small appraisings of the words upon my screen—
Suddenly there came a dawning, in a spurt of endless yawning
That my query sounded fawning—those damned words upon the screen—
“Sycophant,” I grumbled, giving up and feeling mean.

Oh, how clearly I’m recalling that sad query, most appalling
Of all queries fearless feckless fools had ever fawned before;
While I sat, bereft and quaking, all my soul within me aching—
Knowing I would not be staking my profession on a query such as this . . .
Then I came to my decision—this required vast revision,
And significant excision! So I grabbed my bowl of peanuts
And I sat upon the floor . . .
Eating fast and eating faster, nearing gluttonous disaster
I consumed my chocolate comrades and ignored the evil screen.

To this day you can still find me, with some Fannie Mae and Chablis
On the padded carpet under the computer in my room
And the words continue mocking, in an endless writer’s blocking
And my brain continues knocking in my head amidst the gloom—
And I never shall be freed
Unless—perhaps a nom de plume?"

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Guest Author Timothy Hallinan

One of the great pleasures I discovered on becoming a published author were all the other great authors out there I get to meet. And not just because they are terrific writers, but because they are also really great people. One of those is my guest here today, Tim Hallinan.

Tim's done a lot. He's got three series out there. The Poke Rafferty series, and in fact, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth Poke Rafferty thriller, was nominated for two major awards, the Edgar and the Macavity. He also writes the Simeon Grist Mysteries and the Junior Bender Mysteries. Not only that, but he's also got some short stories up his sleeve with a contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, a collection of stories set in the Big Mango – written by some remarkable storytellers, and for a great cause—taking care of Bangkok's poorest children. And finally, moved by the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, Tim gathered mystery authors--including yours truly--to write Japan-themed original short stories for an ebook collection called SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, with all proceeds--including those collected by, truly unprecedented--going to Japan Earthquake relief.

His newest Poke Rafferty book, THE FEAR ARTIST, will be on its way to bookstores in July. But today, Tim is talking about playing with his words.


by Timothy Hallinan

How come what I do for a living isn't called playing?

I've always been envious of professional athletes and musicians. When they show up for work, they're turning up to play. Me, when my wife asks me what I'm going to do all day, I say, “Work.”

Okay, I know it's just a word. I know that the pitcher who's just tossed three home-run pitches, or the defensive lineman who spends all Sunday colliding with guys the size of pre-fab houses, doesn't feel like he's frolicking. I've seen how deeply Venus Williams feels a loss. It's real, not just—well, play.

But the word “play” means something, and it's something I need to make a conscious effort to integrate into my writing. Of course, writing is, on at least one level, playing—it's playing make-believe. It's also play in that it involves daydreaming; imaginary friends; fantasies of love, adventure, and getting even; and, of course, wordplay.

And it's a unique form of play, because—if you imagine it as a board game—we're allowed to invent the entire board, one square at a time. No Park Place and Baltic Avenues for us: we've got an unlimited GPS. For that matter, we can make up the rules, within reason, and change them at will, also within reason. (Learning what comprises “within reason” was one of the most exciting things about writing for me, almost as exciting as realizing that I can occasionally move that boundary, as I become more accomplished.) And it's also play in another way: You get better at it by doing it.

I shouldn't even have to remind myself of all this. Who else in the world is as privileged as writers, composers, and artists? Who else is permitted daily to be at the moment of creation? Who but a writer gets to uncover whole segments of story, one word at a time, like using a soft brush to clear the sand from the spine of some long-buried beast? Who else experiences the thrill of realizing that a character has chewed through her leash and lit out in her own chosen direction? Who else gets to laugh out loud several times a day at jokes she didn't know she was going to make? Who else gets to leave the first footprints in the snow every single day? Who else gets to write something trivial on page five and realize on page 270 that it's absolutely essential?

On the second page of the next Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, due for release by Soho in July, a stranger dies in Poke's arms. I needed, obviously, to describe the stranger. (“What are we looking at?” is one of the questions I ask myself most frequently.) This is what I wrote:

He’s a once-tough sixty-five or so, the planes of his face softened by the passage of years, wearing a T-shirt and a photographer’s vest over cargo shorts, both soaked from the rain. The chunky garments emphasize the thirty or thirty-five extra pounds that suggest he might be American or German. His fair, wet hair, vaguely military and brush-cut, all of an inch long, is in retreat from a high, balding forehead. For some reason what draws Rafferty’s attention, as people continue to run past, is that the skin on the top of the man’s head is crimson from sunburn. It’s been raining for days, but the man is sunburned.

When I wrote that, I was on the second page. I was just warming up. I paid no attention to the fact that the man was sunburned; it was just how I saw him. Not until about 65 percent of the way through the book did I have Poke ask himself why the man was sunburned, and the answer pointed him toward an understanding of his problem—and it's a whopper of a problem.

Things like this—mysteries like this—aren't part of the experience people usually have in mind when they use the word “work.”

I'm aware that the writing session isn't always going to be mystical or exhilarating, sometimes it's a slog, when every word weighs five pounds and you have to heave it into place by hand, when at at the end of the day, it feels like you've just built a sagging, uneven, substandard wall around something that wasn't even worth walling off. But the stubborn truth is that frequently, when you go back to those slogs, you find that you managed to strike the vein anyway, that it's pretty good, or—at the very worst—that you've learned one way not to write it.

Athletes and musicians qualify to “play” for a living by hours and hours of practice, thousands upon thousands of repetitions. Some of those sessions, perhaps most of them, are probably pretty boring, drudgery, in fact. But skill comes with drill in sports and the interpretive arts; and in writing, I think that drudgery can be the path to inspiration and inspiration can power the drudgery.

And yet . . . and yet. And yet, knowing all this about my chosen life, I still have a hard time putting my seat in the chair three days out of five. There are days when I would rather safety-pin my socks into pairs than write that first word.

I'd rather do anything, at those times, than go to work. And maybe that's most of the problem. Maybe, from now on, when my wife tells me what I'm going to do, I'll say I'm going to play. The very word lightens the heart. In fact, I've just had an idea about this book I'm working on.

Pardon me. I've got to play now.

For more on Tim's books, go to his site here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Farewell Britannica

by Sheila Connolly

When I was ten or eleven, my father bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World from a travelling salesman.

My father was not one to fall prey to a glib tongue, but I was too young to question why he thought our household was incomplete without this 54-book set with matching bindings. He'd grown up in a not-affluent Irish family in Syracuse, and though he obtained both a college and a master's degree, maybe he felt his broader education was incomplete.

The set came with its own bookshelf; the bookshelf occupied a space in the hallway for the next few years. I was shorter then than I am now, so I could sit in front of the shelf and read the gold-stamped titles on the spines. I don't recall ever opening one of the books, much less reading it. When my parents' marriage fell apart, I don't know what happened to the books. Maybe my father got custody of them, while my mother kept custody of my sister and me. But I still have the bookcase.

I was reminded of this when Encyclopedia Britannica announced this month that it would cease print publication, although the digital version would go on. The EB: the oldest English-language encyclopedia still in print, now no more. Get your copy now, for there are only a few thousand print sets left. [Note: in doing a bit of research on this, I learned that the Great Books sold poorly in their first decade, until Encyclopedia Britannica took over the marketing strategy and had their experienced door-to-door salesmen handles them. In 1961, they sold 50,000 sets. That was the year my father bought ours.]

Yes, we had a set when I was in grade school. I couldn't tell you which edition it was, but I'm pretty sure it was purchased new for my sister and me to use in school—that must have represented a substantial investment. And we did, or at least I did use them (my sister was a reluctant scholar). In fact, every now and then I'd pull out a volume (they were heavy!) and read something purely for entertainment.

I also remember a handy four-volume set of books whose name is lost to my memory (until I checked Google and found that it was the Illustrated Library of Natural Sciences, four volumes, 1958). The boxed set sat on top of our television in the family room, and I learned multi-tasking early, watching after-school shows while leafing randomly through scientific explanations. I'm sure that was my mother's intention, when she chose where to put the books.

Now I wonder if those books provided me with a sense of order, implying that all important knowledge about anything could be encompassed in a finite set of books. Somebody else had made the decision about what was important, and there sat the results, within easy reach. All I had to do was learn everything in those books and I'd be set for life.

It was a nice fantasy while it lasted. In college I discovered that I was supposed to go beyond memorizing the facts I found on a page and instead question them. That was unsettling. Later in graduate school I realized that I was training to be someone who chose those facts. I was supposed to become one of those Experts on Everything. Really?

I almost feel sorry for young students today, because the available information knows no bounds, thanks to the Internet. At the same time, the ability to assess any piece of information has become increasingly important, at an early age. Sure, research is simple: just Google your topic and you'll find more details that you could possibly need. But scroll past the first page and you realize that the same information is repeated over and over—and how do you know if it's correct? A "bad" fact travels as far and as fast as a "good" one.

But one thing is missing: browsing on the Internet is not the same as picking a book at random and leafing through it—and learning something unexpected along the way. The same is true of buying books, now that bricks-and-mortar bookstores are assailed from all sides by online sites. Sure, you can find the book you want in seconds, but what happens to that lovely serendipity of browsing in a section of shelves and stumbling upon something that intrigues you? Something you would never think to look for?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Chieftains at Carnegie Hall

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last Saturday, my St. Patrick’s Day ended appropriately with the 50th anniversary concert of the Chieftains, Ireland’s Music Ambassadors, at Carnegie Hall in New York.
The sold-out concert provided more than ninety minutes of nonstop world-class music in Carnegie Hall’s splendid acoustics and ended with the audience dancing in the aisles and up onto the stage.
Founder Paddy Moloney (shown here with Matt Molloy, flute, and Kevin Connell, bodhran and vocals) is still going strong at 74, making musical magic on uilleann pipes and penny whistle and connecting with the audience with plenty of Irish charm.

Traditional Irish music, superbly played, is just the jump-off point for the amazing collaborations the group is known for (including Sting and the Rolling Stones), and this concert was no exception, with musicians, singers, and step dancers from places as various as Dublin, Nashville, Canada, Long Island, and the Isle of Lewis along with bagpipe bands, Breton dancers in full costume, and folk rock group Low Anthem, who hail from Providence, RI.

From my dizzying perch in the front row side of the dress circle, I snuck a few pix on my iPhone.

Chieftains with pipers

Breton Dancers

Dancing in the aisles

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Planning a blog tour? Read this first!

Sandra Parshall

Remember the writing life before blogs? It’s hard to recall those dim, distant days when we wrote in isolation, without a million online distractions at our fingertips, and the term “web log” – shortened to blog – wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary.

For better or worse, here we are in 2012, when every writer is expected to have a blog and “blog tours” are all the rage. If authors can’t or won’t do full-blown, rigidly organized blog tours when their new books come out, they feel the pressure to at least do a respectable number of guest blogs. That means contacting bloggers – most of them other writers – and inviting yourself into their space, their online homes.

In the case of well-known authors with major publishers, the chore of scheduling is often handled by in-house publicists. Other writers have started hiring publicists, at their own expense, to arrange blog tours for them. Some of the publicists, to put it gently, seem unfamiliar with how blogs work and who the blog owners are. And that can cause frustration on both sides. This has happened to us a few times lately at Poe’s Deadly Daughters, and we’d like to offer some tips to authors who may want to visit us. All of this applies to individuals arranging their own guest blogs as well as to those employing a publicist.

First, please remember that writers with blogs are writers first of all, just like you, and they’re busy with their own work. They fit blog duties into their few free moments. Never forget that the blog host is doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Can you imagine Eddie on a blog tour?

If you have a publicist arranging a blog tour for you, please pass this on: Don’t request a guest spot on very short notice, then proceed to be inflexible about it. Many bloggers – and the Deadly Daughters are among them – schedule guests weeks or even months in advance. Sorry, but we are not going to reschedule someone who arranged his/her guest blog months ago just to accommodate somebody who asked at the last minute.

Some publicists are savvy about the way blogs operate, but others are clueless. An author should find out which type of publicist she has working for her, and make sure that person isn’t ticking off the very bloggers who

would love to have the writer as a guest.

Even when the date is arranged by a publicist, the author herself should discuss the blog directly with the host and send the material directly when it’s ready. That goes for bestselling authors as well as lesser-knowns. Few things are more insulting to a blog host than being kept at arm’s length by a publicist, as if she or he is not worthy to communicate directly with the author. Again: the blog host is doing the author a favor, not the other way around, regardless of how famous the writer is. 

When you commit to a date, get the guest blog in on time – and that doesn’t mean late the night before it’s due to run. Your host needs ample time to get a guest blog ready to publish, especially when the guest’s typos and spelling errors have to be corrected and the author’s photo and book cover have to be sized and positioned with the text. If the host asks for the material a week ahead, or three days ahead, make a note of that deadline and be sure you meet it.

Don’t offer material that has already appeared, word for word, elsewhere. As fellow writers, we understand how difficult it is to come up with something fresh for every stop on a 15-blog or 30-blog “tour” – but our sympathy does not extend to letting you use our blog to recycle tired material. If you can’t write something new for every stop... well, to put it bluntly, that’s your problem, not ours. Perhaps you should scale back the length of your blog tour.

If your guest appearance takes the form of an interview, please recognize that an interview is extra work for the host and it’s up to you to make it worthwhile. Be reasonably expansive in your answers. Don’t answer every question with a yes, a no, or a single short sentence. Don’t use canned answers that you’ve copied and pasted from your website.

While we realize that your guest blog’s purpose is to interest people in your new book, we won’t use a post that is a relentless hard sell or little more than a summary of the plot with review quotes added. If you have a funny or intriguing story about what inspired you to write the book, tell us about it. If something unexpected turned up in your research and forced you to alter the plot, write about that. Choose a particular aspect of the story and write about your interest in it, or tell us how your kids or spouse contributed to the plot.

Unless you’re at a loved one’s bedside in the ICU or in Timbuktu without internet access, you should visit the blog on the day your contribution runs and respond to comments. It’s the least you can do for people who take the time to read what you’ve written.

Any questions or comments?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Event Boundaries

Sharon Wildwind

How are you doing on the healthy big five?

Exercising every day? Eating reasonable-sized portions of healthy foods? Keeping those blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels in good ranges? Sleeping enough? Brushing and flossing every day?

Ready for a new health hazard?


I swear I’m not making this up. Late last year researchers from the University of Notre Dame released results that showed walking through a door contributes to memory loss.

People who were asked to remove objects from a table, and then walk through a door, had difficulty remembering what objects they had removed. People who walked the same distance, but didn’t go through a door remembered more objects.

What’s more, the door didn't have to be real. The researchers found the same results whether test subjects walked through a real objects and a real door or a virtual-reality universe.

A door is an event boundary, a marker that separates activities and marks a change from that happened there; this happens here. That separation is handy for things like keeping the list of chemicals used in chemistry class separate from the list of ingredients for Aunt Matilda’s ginger chews. Chemistry happens in the lab; cooking happens in the kitchen.

Great for safety in the kitchen, but not so great when we can’t remember why we went to the kitchen in the first place.

This door thing started me thinking about event boundaries we build into our lives.

Breakfast at our house ends twice each day. For my husband, breakfast is over when he stands up from the table. For me, it not over until several hours later when I empty and rinse the breakfast tea pot. This probably accounts for the discrepancy when, sometime between noon and one PM, he asks, “What’s for lunch?” and I respond, “Lunch? I just finished breakfast a few minutes ago.”

It’s time to stop Christmas shopping when I hear Little Drummer Boy for the first time in a mall. I can take that song only so many times. Like once. Then it’s game over and time to either make gifts or segue into on-line shopping.

Dare we discuss Daylight Savings Time? Whatever Sunday springing forward or falling back is moved to, the real change for me happens at least two weeks later when my body grudgingly admits that the change isn’t going away and I’d darn well better get with the program.

Event boundaries are one of the things that initially made genre fiction, genre. They were the classic turning points—usually three—where the situation changed , making it impossible for the protagonist to return to a previous behavior pattern. Romance event boundaries were easy to spot: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. Any idea what these boundaries were for science fiction, westerns, and mysteries?

Here’s some door art for you to look at while you think of the answers. No peeking now.

Science Fiction

1. The sentinel awakens. That lowly engineering tech working the night shift knows the ship doesn’t sound right, but no one believes him.

2. The failure of conventional science. Nothing can stop the menace.

3. An unconventional idea saves the day.


1. An outside force threatens the community.

2. The community loses either courage (the sodbuster sells his farm) or reason (the lynch mob outside the jail).

3. The hero restores the community to safety.


1. The body is discovered.

2. The detective takes on the case out of a sense of duty.

3. The search for the killer becomes personal and the detective knows she has or will have to pay a price to see justice done.

If by any chance you want to remember those lists, maybe you should write them down before you leave the room.

And by the way, happy spring. Another boundary we're passing through today.


Quote for the week

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.

~ Charlie Parker (1920 to 1955), bandleader, bebop saxophonist and composer

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pessimism, Pragmatism, or Perplexity?

by Julia Buckley
The weather has been amazing in Chicago for four days now, and we're breaking all sorts of warm weather records. I'm sure people in all parts of the U.S. are used to the sentence, "We haven't had a day this warm since _________" (fill in your own date).

So naturally all of the warm-weather lovers see this early Spring-in-Winter as a boon, a gift from the gods, and have come out of the woodwork in their shorts and halter tops to rollerblade, walk their dogs, ride bikes, jog.

I certainly enjoy the breezes coming in my window and the scent of flowers beginning to bloom, but a dark part of me (and I fear a fairly large part of me tends toward darkness) sees this as a terrible illusion, a pleasant mask over something terrible. Last week I talked about Hamlet, and I can't forget his fear that "Time is out of joint; o cursed spite/that ever I was born to set it right." Hamlet was under the impression that he could set it right, which, in a way, he did. I'm not as sure that we have that option.

Whether or not one believes in the Global Warming phenomenon (and why wouldn't someone believe it, again?), one certainly can't deny that our weather is changing. Last month I heard an interview with a local meteorologist who said, in essence, that he'd been a forecaster for thirty years but that his job had become hard because "this is no longer an atmosphere that I recognize."

We've always weathered extreme storms, of course. But the storms of today, especially in a place like the once-stable Midwest, which could boast freedom from east and west extremes like hurricanes and earthquakes, seem different. After the last two summers, I feel tempted, for the first time in my life, to dig an underground shelter.

And what are we to make of an almost non-existent winter and too-early spring? I told my son, jokingly, that his children might not know what snow was, and he said, "It's okay; I can tell them." I suppose he is the optimist in this matter, but he pretty much has to be. He has many years ahead of him, and he needs a world that he can count on.

I realize that pessimism may just be a part of my makeup, a particular twist in the strands of my DNA. But because of it, I can't truly enjoy these sunny days because of my fear of that sun's encroachment on the earth.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Straight from the Parade in New York City

Elizabeth Zelvin

It's St. Patrick's Day in New York, and I jogged across the park in time to see the start of the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Here comes a marching band.
Then comes the Fighting 69th, an all-Irish regiment when they first gained fame in the Civil War, according to my husband the history buff.

I love the sound of the pipes and the way big men look so very fetching in their kilts.

I love to see women playing drums and tubas.

The crowd was enthusiastic.

But then disaster struck. We were lined up behind the barricades at Fifth Avenue just above 79th Street. The parade route was always up past the Metropolitan Museum and east on 86th Street. But for the last couple of years, it's been announced that it would only march to 79th--presumably as an economy measure. That would have been fine if they hadn't set up the barricades and allowed the first few contingents to march all the way past them. Suddenly, a host of police blocked off the route and directed the marchers to make the turn before they reached the hundreds of parade-goers lining Fifth Avenue above 79th.
All we saw of them was the horses' arses, as they probably say in Ireland, as they marched off to a chorus of disappointed boos from the crowd.

That was the end of the parade for us. But it's a glorious day in Central Park, with daffodils in full bloom, star magnolias (the early, fragrant ones) coming into their glory, and the pink magnolias around Cleopatra's Needle in bud.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

by Sheila Connolly

Indulge me—tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day. I'm half Irish. What can I say?

Why is this such a popular holiday? St. Patrick (c. AD 387-461) is one of the patron saints of Ireland, and was responsible for bringing Christianity to that country. It was made an official feast day in the seventeenth century.

But over the years it has lost its religious associations and is now primarily a secular celebration of Irish culture. Well, maybe, if you believe that the Irish run around in green clothes picking shamrocks and getting drunk, after which they see leprechauns. For all of that, Wikipedia proudly states that it may the most widely celebrated saint's day in the world.

For several years I've taken classes in Irish language with a lovely woman who is over seventy and grew up in Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, although she's lived in Boston for years. Ask her about St. Patrick's Day and she'll tell you that her people never made much of it. By "her people" she means not the entire population of Ireland but the ones she grew up with in a small town. It was just another feast day, one of many.

Millions of people left Ireland during the Great Famine, when there was no food. Or rather, there was food, but it was promised to the English landlords, and if the tenant farmers didn't deliver, they were thrown off their land. Many died: one of the most moving and disturbing sites I have seen in Ireland is the cemetery at Abbeystrowry, outside of Skibbereen in Co. Cork, where there is a single mass grave for eight thousand people who died during the famine (it may be more—nobody's quite sure). It's about the size of a football field.

A lot of those emigrants from Ireland ended up in the United States, which is why there are so many people of Irish descent here—almost 12% of citizens, according to the Census Bureau. Massachusetts, where I live, has the highest proportion of Irish descendants of any state, closer to 25%. There are still immigrants arriving, and most of the Irish-born people I know go back to Ireland at least once a year. The ties are strong.

I worry about all this because I'm writing a new series about a young American woman who ends up living in Ireland—and not because she wanted to. The thing is, the Irish don't buy many cozies, which is what I write. There is a thriving community of Irish crime writers, but they generally write grittier books. So I don't expect to sell many of my books in Ireland, which means my main audience is American. Of course, it may be an Irish-American audience that likes to fantasize about "going home." Or it may be readers who think they know what Ireland is: shamrocks and leprechauns, and a lot of Guinness.

What do I do? How far do I alter what I know of Ireland (and I'll admit that is limited, having spent maybe a month of my life there) to please American tastes? Do I take out the less pretty parts, or put in things that don't really exist but that Americans want to believe are true? I feel like I'm walking a tightrope: I want to be true to the reality, but I also want to sell books.

Maybe I should offer a quiz: what are the first three things that you think of when someone says Ireland?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Quick Visit to the Renaissance

Elizabeth Zelvin

If you’re within range of Manhattan, and if you hurry, you might make it to the exhibition of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The huge show closes this weekend, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
The Met is a ten or fifteen minute jog across the park for me, though I don’t get there as often as I would like. I particularly like portraits, which feed the fascination with people, the curiosity about what they’re really like inside, that led me to my two careers of writer and therapist.

Getting your portrait painted was serious business back in the quattrocento, much like Victorian portrait photography, though more expensive, I imagine. No spontaneous poses, no “Say formaggio!” In the early portraits, both men and women were invariably shown in profile (“Do you think they were familiar with Egyptian art?” my companion asked), unflattering as that view was to some of the sitters’ aquiline or otherwise generous noses.
Instead of wedding photos, couples of means had their portraits painted together to commemorate a marriage. I can imagine all sorts of stories about them, especially the gentleman in red and what must have been his much younger wife.

If you think 21st century hairstyles are weird, look at what the Florentine gentlemen were doing with their hair.
The blurbs at the museum said this fetching style was called a zazzera. The glossary of the website defines zazzera as “a tuft or lock of hair on a man's head, especially in front.” In this case, I think a couple of pictures are worth a lot more than thirteen words of definition. The glossary makes up for its understatement by informing us that “a man with such a notable tuft or front lock” was called a zazzeruto. Notable, yes, that’s more like it. And “a very vain person, especially of his hair,” was called a zazzeatore.
The older gentleman’s more conservative haircut makes him look, to my eyes, Roman—or almost modern.

Portraits have survived of some of the celebrities of the day.
Here’s Giuliano de’ Medici, one of the family of merchant bankers who ruled Florence for three generations, painted by Botticelli. Considered a playboy compared to his brother Lorenzo, civic leader and patron of the arts, Giuliano was assassinated in the Cathedral (the Duomo) at the age of 25.
And here is Simonetta Vespucci, considered the most beautiful woman of her day and believed to be the model for Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell (no, that’s not what they really called it). Or perhaps it’s Simonetta, but not what she really looked like—the Met’s curators hedge their bets.

One of the most remarkable paintings in the exhibit was this one of an old man and his grandson, almost modern in the way it conveys their affection.
While the expression “warts and all” would not be applied to portraiture for another three hundred years or so (it’s attributed to Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century), they’re such a prominent feature that if the artist had left them out, the painting would not have resembled the old man at all. The Met’s blurb kindly explained that he suffered from the disease of rhinophyma.

Wonderful as the paintings are, the portrait that fascinated me most, in a creepy kind of way, was a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, he was the most brilliant and celebrated member of a family that had it all: wealth, power, patronage of the arts. To whom can we compare them? The Kennedys? The Rockefellers? No, there’s no comparison, because the Medici weren’t hampered by electoral politics or income tax or the media. So here’s a man whose name and achievements are still remembered five hundred years after his death, and this is not a painting. It’s Lorenzo himself. It’s what the guy really looked like, stubble on chin and all.

Not only did I find this intimate glimpse of Lorenzo mesmerizing, but it also raised a lot of questions. Have we killed celebrity by glutting the market? Has the flood of new information and constantly emerging personalities made it a lot less likely for people’s reputations to live on? Would you want the world to be interested in what you look like five hundred years after you die? Would you want them to see you dead? How long a shelf life do you think today’s photographs will have? How about the planet?

Some more faces of the Renaissance:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A slip of the e-mail

Sandra Parshall

I’ll never forget the feeling. 

I had disagreed with a woman in a group I belonged to on some minor issue (can’t even remember what, although I recall the aftermath vividly). She wrote an e-mail expressing her opinion of me. She meant to send it to another member of the group. Instead, she sent it to me.

I replied (with her message appended), saying simply, “I don’t think you meant to send this to me.” An embarrassed apology came back. Did I believe a word of it? Of course not. I don’t know whether the mistake resulted from her e-mail program auto-completing the TO address or from her subconscious taking control of her actions, but I am certain that I got a glimpse of her true feelings through that misdirected message, and it altered the way I regarded her and the way I interacted with her.

The experience also made me super-cautious about checking the recipient address on any e-mail that might be remotely sensitive. I’ve since slipped up once that I recall, but fortunately it was a relatively minor incident with no great consequences.

Slips of the tongue are common. We all make them every day, and usually they’re not significant. So-called Freudian slips, which supposedly reveal deep-seated hostility, desire or belief, are far more embarrassing but also less common. (Remember when Condoleeza Rice referred to George W. Bush as her husband?) Most people can laugh off such a gaffe – although everyone who hears it might take pleasure in repeatedly it ad infinitum, whether it’s funny or scandalous or sad.

E-mail slips are different. When you put something in writing, it’s awfully hard to claim you did it accidentally. And once people see a statement written down, they’re less likely to believe you didn’t mean it. Sure, you can fire off an angry e-mail on impulse (I’ve done it often enough), but it requires more conscious effort than simply spitting the words from your mouth. If you tap out a scorching assessment of your boss’s salient characteristics, he will care more about the opinion you express than about your mistake in posting it to the entire office network. 

When I saw the critical e-mail about me, I was wounded because I had thought the people involved were my friends, that we shared a common goal. I was willing to forgive the accidental (or subconscious-driven) misdirection to my inbox, but I couldn’t overlook the message itself. It made me more wary, more suspicious of others.

This is the kind of thing that destroys friendships in the computer era. I’m sure some romantic relationships have also ended because of e-mail mistakes. The worst errors of all, leaving damning e-mail on a computer where anyone can read it, or sending a sensitive message to someone who might reveal it, have undoubtedly ended a few marriages. As former Congressman Anthony Weiner discovered, once it leaves you, you have no control over how it’s used.

Do you have a personal e-mail horror story? Have you heard tales of woe from friends or relatives who have been done in by misdirected e-mail? Do you take any measures to safeguarded against sending messages to the wrong people?