Friday, August 31, 2012

Beautiful Machines

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I opened to the Metro section of the Boston Globe to find a large image of an 1891 double-decker streetcar with once ran in Cambridge, MA.  I can't show you the image because it's the property of the Boston Globe Archives (the discussion of using images that do not belong to you is an active and contentious one these days, and I'm not planning to violate any restrictions).  Suffice it to say, it is not only a functional vehicle, capable of transporting a few dozen derby-hatted commuters, under the watchful eye of two conductors and several other employees of the West End Railway Company (which in 1897 was integrated into the Boston Elevated Railway); it is also lavishly decorated.  Its upper roof sports a cheerful broad-striped frill that flutters in the breeze.  Its sides are embellished with painted swags and garlands.  Its front bears an ornately framed panel proclaiming the name of the company.  In short, the planners and owners dressed it up.

I know, it's boring to hear me talk about an image you can't see, so I'll swap this for an example of my own:  an 1854 hand-pumped fire engine, built in Philadelphia by John Agnew & Co. (est. 1820) and named "Young Mechanic No. 6," now in the possession of the Middleboro Historical Museum, of which I have taken my own pictures, with the permission of the institution.  And while smaller, it proves the same point.

This fire engine was the direct inspiration for my most recent Museum Mystery, Fire Engine Dead.  I enjoy visiting historical societies and small museums, so I made a point of seeking out my local one (not easy, since it's open Wednesday 12-3 and Saturday 10-1, only in good weather because there's no heat).  I was unprepared to walk in upon this impressive piece of equipment, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It has retained all its parts, including the separate trailer that carried the hoses.  It was built for the New Bedford Fire Department, remodeled in 1860, and remained in active service until 1864.  Since then it has participated in many parades and ceremonies.


What's more, much of its original decoration remains intact.  It is constructed of solid mahogany, and heavily embellished and gilded.  Many of the decorations serve no function other than to celebrate the wondrous piece.  Even the functional bits are decorated.

For us today, surrounded by marvels of technology all of our waking minutes, it is hard for us to imagine celebrating a simple machine.  It is also hard to imagine a relatively small group of craftsmen putting together something like this fire engine (the history of fire-fighting equipment makes very interesting reading; remember, this was long before the development of the assembly line, so many small companies or groups of individuals more or less reinvented the wheel each time they constructed a fire engine, and a lot of them failed quickly).

It was not strictly a functional, utilitarian item.  Rather, it was a marvel of modern engineering, worthy of veneration.  Picture how the humble citizenry strolling the sidewalks of a city must have marveled as the hose and ladder trucks raced by, drawn by a team of horses, boiler steaming, gilt decorations glinting in the sun.  It would be an event in itself just to see one pass. 


Today we venerate stark simplicity.  Look at our phones—we've even done away with the buttons, and now we use a smooth rectangular box.  Same with our televisions.  I remember (back in some other century) when the television was a proud piece of furniture encased in polished wood and occupying the place of honor in the living room or family room.  Now it's a flat hunk of black plastic plopped on whatever surface affords the best viewing for the largest number of people.  Not the same thing, is it?

So, just for a moment, consider when new machines were rare, and innovations were dressed up with ribbons and (I hope) brought a smile from passersby. 


Do you think things are better or worse today?


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Charlaine Harris, Sookie Stackhouse, & True Blood

Elizabeth Zelvin

There’s been a lot of indignation in the mystery community about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s wildly popular thriller protagonist, in a movie due out right before Christmas. Charlaine Harris’s vampire-loving protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, has been similarly transformed in the TV series True Blood, not by actress Anna Paquin but rather by the show’s creator, Alan Ball, and his team of writers. And that’s okay.

I’m a big fan of Charlaine Harris, who gets my vote for most beloved success story in the mystery world.
She spent 27 years soldiering on as an exceptionally talented midlist author, creating the model-cozy Aurora Teagarden series, the highly original Lily Bard, and the brilliantly conceived Harper Connelly books as well as the genre-bending Sookie opus before catapulting into superstardom with the success of True Blood. She deserves the recognition she’s getting, and she remains friendly, unpretentious, and approachable when sighted at Malice or Bouchercon or posting on DorothyL.

I’m still enjoying Sookie’s story as it unfolds in the books Charlaine is writing, and I’m also enjoying the very different story that is being offered to TV viewers.
Charlaine has said in public that she’s okay with the discrepancy, and I don’t think she’s just laughing all the way to the bank. She knows Alan Ball is inventing the developments in his story without reference to hers, and she continues to develop hers in the later books without reference to what’s happening on TV. In commercial terms, each success fuels the other, and readers who are also viewers get a double dose of enjoyment.

One of Charlaine’s greatest strengths as a writer is her gift for characterization. You’ll never meet more convincing, utterly down-to-earth characters than Lily, the traumatized but gutsy night-owl cleaning lady sleuth; Sookie, the telepathic barmaid who finds it a relief to date vampires because she can’t read their thoughts; and Harper, the lightning survivor who can find the dead and knows how they died. On TV, the actors do a fine job of inhabiting Sookie and those around her, although not all of them are quite the same characters as in the books. I like some of TV’s variations on the theme very much. Sookie’s brother Jason, for example, is more likable and is developed much more fully in True Blood. This season, he’s really growing up, and he’s played by a terrific actor (Ryan Kwanten) who’s moving quite subtly from being na├»ve, self-centered, and not too bright to a guy who’s thoughtful and wants to change. I also find vampire Bill’s “progeny” Jessica, who’s not in the books at all, tremendously appealing.

I’m not saying I like everything about the story line in either version of Sookie’s adventures. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be just as happy without some of the gore and sex that Alan Ball puts onto the screen. But both author and creator have done a fine job with a character who’s both complex and original—Harris broke new ground when she started writing vampires with a sense of humor—and whom we care about as she pursues her destiny in two alternate worlds.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Missing Book

 By Sandra Parshall

A free download promotion for The Heat of the Moon has gained a lot more readers for my first Rachel Goddard novel, some of whom have already moved on to my second, Disturbing the Dead. And I’ve started hearing That Question again.

“What happened to Rachel between the first book and the second?”

Some readers have asked whether there’s a “missing book” that never got published.

Not exactly. But sort of. It’s complicated, as the process of getting published often is. Let me give you a brief tour of my brilliant writing career.

Poisoned Pen Press published The Heat of the Moon in 2006, but I wrote the book several years earlier. An agent who loved it tried to sell it to the big New York publishers at a time when companies were being sold and consolidated and droves of editors were losing their jobs with little notice. They were all looking for blockbusters that would give them some job security, and my book was not blockbuster material. Even so, two editors loved The Heat of the Moon enough to want to publish it. Each time the possible deal fell through – in one case because the editor lost her job the same day she’d planned to pitch my book at an editorial conference.

A year went by. After twenty rejections, the agent gave up. By then I was writing other things. I still loved Rachel and thought The Heat of the Moon was a good book, but I didn’t believe it would ever be published.

After a couple of years, my friends Judy Clemens and Lorraine Bartlett (aka Lorna Barrett) read the manuscript of The Heat of the Moon and urged me to try to sell it to small presses. By then, Judy had published a book with Poisoned Pen Press and was happy with them. I submitted the book to PPP and it started its long winding way through their vetting process. So much time passed that I almost forgot they had it.

After sixteen months, PPP offered a contract. (I remember the date: August 29, 2005. So today is an anniversary of sorts.) They published the book the next spring without any changes, and a year later it won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2006.

Between the time my agent gave up on The Heat of the Moon and the day PPP offered me a contract, I had written a couple more mysteries. I still wanted to write about Rachel, so I had changed her name, altered her backstory somewhat, and moved her to the mountains of southwestern Virginia. In the book that became Disturbing the Dead, Rachel-with-another-name had fled to the mountains to start over after a nasty incident with a client named Perry Nelson, who stole her prescription pad and used it to write narcotics scripts for himself. When she brought charges, he blamed her for ruining his life. While out on bail, he showed up at the animal hospital with a gun and tried to kill her. Instead of being found guilty of attempted murder, he was found to be mentally ill and sent to a hospital instead of a prison. From the hospital, he continued to harass his victim with threatening letters, and she feared what he would do to her if he was released.

When Poisoned Pen bought The Heat of the Moon, I was given the chance to continue writing about Rachel. I gave her back her name and reworked Disturbing the Dead to make it truly Rachel’s story. I kept the Perry Nelson incident as her reason for leaving Northern Virginia and beginning a new life in the mountains. But no, I have never written a book dealing directly with the three years that passed in Rachel’s life between the first and second books.

Rachel’s past, including both her crazy childhood and her fear of Perry Nelson, haunts her in Disturbing the Dead, Broken Places, and Under the Dog Star without dominating the mystery story. As she falls in love with Deputy Tom Bridger, she struggles with the question of how much to tell him about her family, but Tom knows everything about Perry Nelson.

Most mystery series have story threads that weave through all the books without ever being neatly tied up or even fully explained. So my books aren’t unusual in that respect. Many readers, though, have asked me to fill in the missing time in Rachel’s life. They’ve also asked me to revisit the events of The Heat of the Moon and resolve the question of Rachel’s relationship with her family. When I began writing my new novel, Bleeding Through, I felt the time had come to give readers at least some of what they wanted.

I won’t say too much here because I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but in Bleeding Through, Rachel’s sister Michelle steps onstage again for the first time since The Heat of the Moon. A stalker is hounding Michelle, but the police and her own husband doubt the threat is real. When she flees to Rachel for support and help, her disruptive presence in the home Rachel shares with Tom forces both sisters to face the past again after years of trying to ignore it. At the same time, Perry Nelson once more casts a malevolent shadow over Rachel’s life. Tom, meanwhile, is trying to solve a murder, and he can’t give Rachel’s troubles, or her sister’s, a lot of attention.

Kirkus Reviews calls Bleeding Through “a twisty mystery” filled with “nerve-wracking suspense.” I hope you’ll agree – and I hope you’ll be satisfied with the way things come together at the end of the book.

If you haven’t read The Heat of the Moon, you can download the e-book for free right now from Amazon and Apple iBooks and from B& for the Nook for only 99 cents. Bleeding Through stands on its own, but it will be a richer experience if you’ve read the first book.

Let me know what you think!
Elysabeth Eldering has an interview with me on her blog today at I hope you’ll stop by.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Social Media’s Death

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I mentioned that I was going to a breakfast where a social media expert was to explain why social media was dead and what would replace it.

The speaker was Ernest Barbaric, a Calgary social media and digital marketing strategist. In addition to running a local business he helped develop the Mount Royal University Social Media for Business Extension Certificate.

According to Ernest:

The ground is shifting out from under social media because sites have gotten too complex. There is too much information, too many visuals, too many links, too many likes, and too many distractions. Complexity kills usability and fun, which were the reasons that social media started in the first place.

Where there was once distinctions among major players like Facebook, Twitter, Foresquare, Linkedin, and so on, they are all moving toward replicating the same focus, which is away from the consumer and toward advertisers. When Facebook started in 2007, it took roughly two years before the first serious advertisers appeared on the site. When Pinterest started in 2010, advertisers were major players within days.

Businesses are flocking to social media in droves, without having a clue how to use social media. They fail to understand that social media is all about communication and don’t establish two-way communication with potential customers. Instead, they attempt to shoe-horn traditional advertising onto the web. It’s not working.

The flood of businesses failing at Internet marketing are actually shutting down social media participation. Companies are doing crazy things like including Quick Response (QR) Codes in bus and billboard advertising. People who are driving can not point their cell phones at these Codes, so they are absolutely useless in these kinds of ads.

Across all of the social media sites, likes are down. Clicks are down. 60% of people who have indicated a brand loyalty don’t bother reading updates that the companies to which they have indicated a loyalty send out.

If social media is dying, what will replace it?

What’s big right now is the pain point. What can your company do that would be a pain for your competitors to duplicate? If you get there first, with something thats painful for your competitor to imitate, you win the round.

A Calgary realtor is having professional photographers produce videos for each house he has listed. This is not simply the walk-through of the bare house, but a video of the neighbor, the near-by amenities, etc. Did you pick up the key words there. EACH HOUSE. That means in order to outshine him on the web, another Calgary realtor would have to produce better videos for EACH HOUSE she has to sell. It’s not going to happen. 

Technology moves so fast that it’s useless to speculate further than three years into the future, but here are some predictions that may come barreling down the pipeline.

Go mobile or go home
The immediate future is mobile. Whatever content you produce—web site, blog, Twitter, video, podcast, etc.— find out what it looks like on a variety of devices. Each time you create something new, look at it on as many devices as you can. Change it so that it looks good on as many different devices as possible.

Applications will die along with social media
No one wants hundreds of apps (applications) on their mobile devices. Stop wasting your time writing them.

Forced ads will die as well
When SIRI (the ability to speak instructions into your mobile phone) combines with Bluetooth (that borg-like device people have growing out of their ears), visual ads disappear. People will no longer be looking at their cell phones.

Pre-recorded ads also disappear because when you say to your phone, “Phone my mother,” you won’t want the response, “I’ll be glad to phone your mother, but first listen to this message from your phone company.”

Forced ads are based on advertisers’ needs, not customers’s needs. As soon as technology gives the user the ability to opt-out of advertising, the customer will use it.

Reputation will become the new battleground
Companies need to spend their time on- and off-line dealing with the angry minority. Where PR once meant Public Relations, it now means Personal Relations. A happy customer is not as likely to post on the web as an unhappy customer. A car company can’t ignore an unhappy car buyer in Alabama because the bad review that person writes, will affect the car buying choices in California, and Alberta, and Timbuktu.

Real-time marketing means that speed and responsiveness are the keys
Suppose you’re in a new neighborhood and want lunch. Your phone finds three possible restaurants, all within walking distance. You text an identical message, such as,“What’s your special today?” to each restaurant. The restaurant that answers first will get your business.

Where does future power lie?
The bottom line is to consider what you’re using now—whether it be a device or a social media service—as disposable. When what you are using stops working, stop using it, and move on to the next thing.

Build and sustain a community on your own turf. The most valuable thing you have is your list of electronic contacts, your mailing list, if you will. Own it, keep it, do not share it, take it with you as you migrate to new devices and new platforms as they develop.

Keep what you are doing real. Keep it simple. Make it fun. Developing and sustaining relationships sells; selling doesn’t develop and sustain relationships.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Examining Time

by Julia Buckley

This weekend I was making my long, long, long chore list.  My husband and sons never make lists, and this causes friction between us, since I contend that, by not making lists, they are delegating everything to me.  They certainly all benefit from the things that I accomplish, and would not be pleased if my chores weren't done.

Despite our arguments, they process time rather vaguely--they do not divide it into sections and check off tasks as they accomplish them.  For them, time is amorphous, and they enjoy sitting in large pockets of time, enjoying life.

At this age (and with three jobs), I simply cannot process time this way.  While I enjoy sitting and lounging (as I am doing now), I cannot do it for long before my brain starts asserting my list.  My eyes scan the room for things that need doing, and I only glean real satisfaction from the checking off of those items.

I'm sure that my way of dealing with time, taken from an aerial view, would be ridiculous.  I am under the illusion that I have control of my life, and that by checking off tasks I am finding happiness.

At the same time, the men in my family are under an illusion as well.  They indulge in the "I have all the time in the world" idea, which is why they are often shocked when a deadline arrives, or when it's time to leave for an event, or when they have to go to work or school.  Time sneaks up on them.

Time rarely takes me by surprise, but it holds me prisoner.  I spend my day in blocks of time separated by bells.  I have this many minutes to teach, that many to have lunch, this many to teach some more, that many to get to my next job, this many to get my son to work, that many to make dinner, this many to grade papers.
Time is a taskmaster.

This website shows various ways that authors have examined time metaphorically: Time is a circus, Time is a trap, Time is a coin, Time is a prison, Time is a gift.  We all think about time, and we all try to express the way that we feel about it.

But time, they say, is a man-made construct, which means that we could, potentially, live outside of it.  But to do that we would have to leave our societies, our families, our jobs.  All of those are influenced by time.  I once saw a documentary about a Native American culture (still in existence) that does not acknowledge time. They do not have clocks or watches; they don't live by bells, and they don't structure their lives according to how long things should take.  They acknowledge only the setting and rising of the sun, but not as a way of marking time.

I can't imagine living this way, but knowing that human beings are, in fact, doing so makes me realize that I should probably occasionally try to forget about time, and to try to exist outside of it merely as an exercise in personal freedom.

In the meantime, though, I have to finish this blog, because I still have a pretty long list to get through before I go back to work on Monday.  :)

What is your metaphor for time, and why?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Medievalia in Modern Times

There is a lot we owe to the Middle Ages. Though the Victorians dubbed the early Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” because of an erroneous belief that there were no advances in science, literature, or art, these were far from “Dark” times. In fact, we continue to benefit and to use in our everyday life, that which was medieval.

Besides buttons and buttonholes, sundials, clocks, the printing press, and a host of other medieval things that we still use today, did anyone out there in the internet—yeah, I mean YOU—ever go to college? There is the familiar campus with its large quad area, perhaps grassy, surrounded by an arcade of arches and maybe even a bell tower. But this design that we know so well stems from the cloister, a monastery, where monks and nuns, sometimes the only ones in their town who could read and write, walked grounds almost identical to college campuses today. These became areas of learning (the word “college” goes back to the fourteenth century meaning a body of religious colleagues). Educated men could be clerks and they were considered part of the clerical class—religious without actually having to take vows. They sometimes wore their hair with the tonsure, that shaved bit at the crown of their heads. Eventually, all colleges and universities simply took up the same design. The bell tower also goes back to medieval beginnings when the bell was rung for the call to prayer. This was called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Now it calls students to class. We have monks and nuns to thank (or shake a fist at, depending on your point of view) for giving us the modern concept of dividing up the day into hours.

And while we are on the subject of monks and nuns, we can’t forget that many orders today still wear the medieval garb they started with. A monk’s habit is far older, back to the roots of Christianity and Roman garb, but some of the quite extraordinary nuns’ habits come direct from medieval and Renaissance fabrications. The modestly long skirts and sleeves, the wimples and head veils, are medieval, and in fact, they would be at home in any medieval village or town as an average medieval woman’s clothing.

Have you held the door open for someone? Showed someone some courtesy? The very word “courtesy” as well as “curtsy”-- when a woman gives that little bow--come down to us from the manners you would exhibit at court. And when you give up your seat in the subway for a woman and thereby proving chivalry is not dead, you have just shown some of the medieval knightly virtues of days past.

The term “chivalry” first referred to mounted men (a chevalier is French for knight) and then it came to mean a body of mounted men (the chivalry of the King of England, for example), and eventually a code and set of virtues attributed to a proper knight. Chivalry is not dead when people defend the weak and swear not to lie. But a knight’s code took this to extremes and defended and often offended with a sword.

Chivalry aside, have you ever gotten a prescription for eyeglasses? Take a look at the paper form. See the letters on the far left that say O.D. and O.S.? Know what that stands for? Oculus Dexter and Oculus Sinister. That refers to your right and left lenses.

“Dexter” and “Sinister” are familiar medieval terms, especially if you were a herald, one of those guys who kept track of or designed the shields and blazons (what most people think of as coats of arms) for the nobility. “Dexter” is Latin for right side and “Sinister” is Old French for left. So those letters on your eyeglass prescription are referring to your right or left eye. In heraldry, it was the same. The left and right described is left and right as the bearer sees it, not from the view of the opponent.

And since we are speaking of heraldry, the College of Arms, that unusual body developed as a specific guild in the fifteenth century, is still around today in England, and is the only official body that can create and present you with a blazon, and they can only do that if they can find good cause, like some sort of lineage or a company that has served the commonwealth in some capacity, or if the current monarch knights you. Otherwise, those internet scams that will get you a coat of arms for a fee really mean nothing. Either they’ve made the whole thing up or just gave you the arms that rightly belong to someone else of the same name. You have to earn family blazons. You can’t buy them.

But you can acquire a holdover of the coat of arms and badges of the past. They are called company logos, those little drawings and caricatures associated with a company name, like the little Templar knight for King Arthur Flour (which really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it) or the Michelin Tire man.

With my current diet, I save calories and consume less sugar by drinking almond milk instead of skim milk. Almond milk was, in fact, a medieval dish. Milk itself was quite valuable to make cheese with, something you could store for long periods of time. But almond milk, merely crushing and milling almonds to a flour and adding water, made a suitable drink for children, for when one felt ill, and was often used as merely a dipping sauce. So even the food we consume can be traced to medieval beginnings.

All of these are remnants from days gone by, from architectural elements of gothic arches, to today’s instantly recognizable image of the Golden Arches. Medievalia is everywhere.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

by Sheila Connolly

My grandmother was fond of saying, "man walks in the direction in which he looks."  She wasn't far off:  if you can visualize your goal, you're closer to achieving it, and you're more ready for it when you get there.

That's one of the interesting ideas included in a very interesting book written by English professor Jonathan Gottschall called The Storytelling Animal, about why humans create stories—something we as writers should all pay attention to.  I read a review of the book and realized that it was something I needed to read, and I wasn't wrong.  The author provides much food for thought.

We all make up stories—not just writers, but everyone.  Take any pair of random facts and put them together, and you'll find yourself trying to create a reason why they're connected. Read any set of words in a novel, and you'll notice that not only have you absorbed the facts the author gives you (the sky is blue, the protagonist is a thirty-year-old male), but you've dressed him in clothes and set him in a three-dimensional universe.  If the author says he's in a forest, you fill in the trees, without any prompting from the author.

But the process is both reactive and proactive.  When we read, we insert the details into the story based on our own life experience.  At the same time we also create:  we project, we envision, we try out scenarios in our minds, in preparation for potential future experiences.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that corroborates these observations.  For example, scientists can now demonstrate that reading about an event or experience stimulates the same areas of the brain that actually participating does.  That goes a long way toward explaining why we read (particularly romances!), and why we watch scripted television shows (including the so-called reality shows) and movies.  We empathize with the characters we see, to the extent that our physical responses mirror theirs—our hearts pound, our blood pressure goes up, we gasp or even shriek (tell me you've never done that!).  And this happens not only when we're alone, but when we're in a crowded movie theater—we are all linked by a common response to what we are seeing. And we carry that forward.

What's more (and here's where it gets interesting for mystery writers), we as readers/viewers anticipate a positive outcome.  We want our stories to have moral weight; we want to believe we share a core set of social values.  There is almost always a conflict to be overcome. When someone is killed (in fiction), the violence is condemned, and the villain must pay the price.  However, if the hero(ine) kills in the name of justice, it's acceptable—as long as it's done for the right reasons, to protect the good and the weak from evil.

Which makes murder mysteries the epitome of the general case. Who knew?

Gottschall believes that despite the flood of electronic media, stories will survive, although not necessarily in forms that we will recognize (consider, for example, interactive online games).  He tells us that fiction "will make you more empathic and better able to navigate life's dilemmas"—because we've already visualized them.  Stories reinforce our shared cultural values and bring us together. 

And don't feel guilty about daydreaming, because we learn from our own imagination.  Give yourself permission to imagine—and keep reading!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

On the Road

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m actually on the road as this post appears: halfway between home in New York City and Nashville, 900 miles away, where I’ll attend the Killer Nashville mystery conference this weekend. Crammed into my trunk are boxes of my three mysteries and my Outrageous Older Woman CD as well as my guitar, my dress-up duds, my Kindle in case I have to do any waiting for long enough to want to read, my netbook in case I get a chance to write, my running shoes in case I get a chance to run, my bathing suit in case I get a chance to swim, three or four umbrellas as a magical-thinking preemptive strike against rain….Underwear? Who do you think I am—Jack Reacher?

I had to go back to my last four tax returns to figure out how many miles I’ve driven to promote my mysteries since the first one, Death Will Get You Sober, was published. Back in the olden days, in 2008, the physical book tour was still a viable means of promotion for midlist writers who were paying their own way.
On the principle of leaving no highway unrolled-on, I drove a rental car around Arizona, another from Florida to New York, my own car into the American heartland, as far as Madison WI, and another rental car from Seattle down to San Diego and over to Anaheim for ALA, the American Library Association convention, before flying home.

I’ve driven to Malice every year since 2007, and I drove to Bouchercon in Indianapolis and various lesser distances. (I have friends in the DC area and in-laws in Columbus, OH, which has helped with the expense of lodging.) All told, that makes 22,050 miles. If we count New York to North Florida and back in 2006 for a writers’ master class at the Atlantic Center for the Arts with SJ Rozan, where I worked on the changes that legendary editor Ruth Cavin wanted before she would offer me a contract as well as new material that became Death Will Help You Leave Him, that brings the total up over 24,000 miles. At the same distance, I could have “put a girdle round the earth,” as Shakespeare said, though not in Puck’s forty minutes.

I do have friends along the way: my best friend from high school in Lexington, VA, a writer friend from that residency in Florida in Roanoke, my Guppy buddy bestselling author Krista Davis in New Bern, NC—which was evidently a much more happening town back in the 18th century, the days about which Diana Gabaldon has written in her Outlander series.
But it’s mostly about the driving: just me and my car and my country cassettes and CDs that range from my own music (both with and without lead vocals, the latter allowing me to indulge in a kind of narcissistic karaoke) to the sound track of Crazy Heart (great movie about two topics of interest to me: songwriting and alcoholism, and a superb sound track including classics you barely hear in the movie from such greats as Lightning Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt) to Mozart symphonies. There’s nothing like Mozart when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in a ring road around a city you’re just trying to get past along the way. I sing along to everything but the Mozart.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kittehs on the Interwebs

By Sandra Parshall

Oh hai, cat peeps.

Have you had your LOLcats fix for the day? How many cat pictures and videos have you seen since you sat down at your computer this morning? How many have you shared on Facebook in the well-founded belief that an audience of staggering proportions will be enthralled?

We can’t get enough of kittehs on the interwebs.

I suspect none of us was surprised when Google's network of research computers, programmed to recognize the most important internet content based on 10 million randomly chosen YouTube videos, came up with this picture of a cat.

We always knew they would take over the universe if we slipped up and cleared a path for them. The internet is that path. And we slipped up big time: humans have been reduced to the role of publicity agents. As with meals, cats couldn’t have done it if we weren’t around to open the can, so to speak, but the real power lies with them and they know it.

I just typed “funny cat pictures” into Google and in 0.46 seconds I received a list of 49.2 million sites. “Funny cat videos” generated more responses in less time: 69.5 million in 0.37 seconds. One gets the strong impression that Google’s search engine is used to answering these queries and stands ready at all times to shoot an emergency day-brightener to the computer of anyone in need.

The most famous cat on the interwebs, the one who can be credibly accused of starting it all, is Maru, a stout-bodied Scottish fold tabby (whose tiny ears stand straight up instead of folding) who resides in Japan. Maru’s thing is boxes, or, really, almost anything made of cardboard or plastic that he can use as a container for the aforementioned stout body. With wild abandon or careful calculation, depending on his mercurial feline mood, Maru jumps into boxes, jumps out of boxes, runs and slides into boxes, maneuvers boxes around the floor from within. The recently posted Marulympics featured only one athlete, Maru, doing only one thing, and you can probably guess what it was. He finished with a slew of gold medals.

The world-famous Maru, doing what he does best
Maru (whose name means “circle” or “round” in Japanese and is quite fitting) is so famous that he and his female owner live in an undisclosed location. They occupy a home purchased with Maru’s website advertising and photo book earnings. Maru has an entry in Wikipedia. Maru is one of YouTube’s brightest stars, with his own channel. He and his boxes are regularly featured by the Huffington Post. You could spend a month doing nothing but watching The Best of Maru. Journalists can’t get anywhere near him, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus discovered when researching an article on internet cats for the September issue of Wired magazine. All he wanted was “thirty minutes with the cat” but “months of obsequious email courtship” of Maru’s owner failed to gain him an audience. 

What makes Maru so special? Darned if I know. Maybe we enjoy getting a concentrated dose of the cute things our own cats do on those rare occasions when they're awake and on their feet. Perhaps Maru only does cute stuff for the camera occasionally too, but any cat will look lively and athletic with proper editing. 

If Maru has been the leader, we have seen no lack of followers. Every cat owner in the world seems to have a digital camera and video recorder and an irresistible urge to share the latest bit of adorableness from Kitty Sweetums with the world. If you’ve ever seen my Facebook page or my Flickr photostream, you know I’m as shameless as the rest about putting pictures of Emma and Gabriel out there. (Emma tends to be the funnier one.)

Emma, being cute in the laundry sink
So what is it about cats? They’re inherently funnier than dogs, and kittens are far wilder and more inventive in their mischief than puppies. Cats can jump and climb and work their magic on many levels. Dogs are pretty much rooted to the floor, doing little beyond the occasional shredding of magazines and sofa pillows, which I assure you is not cute.

But it’s not just feline cuteness that we go for. Well, maybe some shallow people demand all cuteness all the time, but I think most of us are looking for catness. A surly expression on the face of a battle-scarred old tom can captivate us as readily as the big eyes of a two month old kitten.

Are we attracted to their essential wildness, that untamed soul within the cutest of kitties? Dogs can be funny, certainly, but there’s always something forced about it, as if the animal expects to be rewarded with a treat. When we see a video of a dog playing the piano, we think, “Yeah, sure, a dog will do any trick to please its owner.” When a cat plays the piano, we know beyond doubt that it was the cat’s choice, the cat’s idea, and we marvel. Dogs, in short, allow themselves to be trained, so there is nothing natural about their cuteness beyond the puppy stage. 

A popular subcategory of cat videos features cats playing tricks on or stealing food from dogs who are TSTL. (Watch it and weep.) We may love sweet doggies, but we recognize the biological truth embodied in these videos. Dogs are servants by nature, always laser-focused on their people. Cats exist to be served, and the supreme being in any cat’s life will always be...the cat. We may laugh at them, but we do it while bowing to their superiority.
Would you like your own cute cat – or dog, if that's all you've got – to appear in the Rachel Goddard novel I’m writing now? Go to my Facebook author page and post a photo of your pet. (“Like” the page first if you haven’t already.) The pet whose picture gets the most “likes” will be given a role in my work-in-progress, and the owner will receive a signed copy of my new book, Bleeding Through.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Colliding Words

Sharon Wildwind

If you’ve done something twice, is it a tradition? I certainly hope so because two weekends ago I attended the second When Words Collide Conference here in Calgary. This is one tradition I sincerely hope continues.

When Words Collide was put together by a whole bunch of people I’ve known for the better part of two decades. The conference is all about genre literature, so if you read, write, illustrate, publish, or sing anywhere in the science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, Sherlockian, steampunk, paranormal, urban fantasy, filk song, young adult genres or any mash or cross-over of those genres, WWC is for you.

Here are some of the high points of what I learned.

The University of Calgary Library, Special Collections is collecting retro video games and the equipment they ran on. They are most interested in the time period of the 1970s and 1980s. In some cases, they are having to rebuild or repair the computers in order to get them to play. Helen Clarke, librarian and Associate Vice-Provost - Collection commented, “This project is the first time I’ve seen a librarian with an soldering iron.” If you have a game, or a machine that might fit in this collection, get in touch with special collections. Their e-mail address is

Irene Adler appeared in only one Sherlock Holmes story; Mycroft Holmes in two; the Baker Street Irregulars also in two; and Moriarty in one, but they are indelibly part of the Holmes canon. It just goes to show what you can do with great character development.
~ Charles Prepolec and Jeff Campbell, co-editors of Gaslight anthologies of Sherlock Holmes stories

Romance is about the surrender and acceptance of power. Anything that increases a character’s vulnerability and gives another character an opportunity to refuse to take advantage of that vulnerability is romantic.
~ Panel: Beyond the Bedroom — There’s more to Romance than Sex

Cooperative efforts between genre and literary writers strengthen both camps. Literary books are about a central event, happening in an arena surrounded by hungry tigers. Science fiction asks the big questions. Fantasy books teach us about survival. Horror shows how to mess with readers’ head. Mysteries are about strategy. Romantic characters bond with their opponents.

The question has stopped being should an author traditionally publish, self-publish, or e-publish. The expectation has now become that all authors will publish in each way at some point in his or her career. The question now is, which publishing format best matches my current work in progress?
~ Repeated in one form or another in almost every panel

In 2011, in the U. S., sales for every category (except one) of paper-based books declined from 2010 figures. The exception was young adult books, because of the Hunger Games. However, reading is on the rise for the first time in decades, thanks to electronic devices. Many returning readers make the switch initially for one kind of book, for example, to read something for their job. Then they rapidly expand into other kinds of books. Readers are doing direct buys more, browsing less, and visiting fewer bookstores. You have to go where the readers are if you want to sell.
~ Adrienne Kerr, editor, Penguin (Canada)

90% of the people who want to write a book never start. 90% of the people who start writing a book never finish. 90% of the people who finish writing a book have busier than average lives, so the line “I could write a book if I only had the time” doesn’t hold water.

$8.99 for an e-book seems to be the tipping point for reader anger. Books listed for less than that amount get a reasonable distribution of good/bad reviews. Books priced over that amount tend to get flamed on review sites. There also seems to be a movable tipping point for piracy, depending on the kind of book and audience. Go over the price tip point and people will download the book from any source they can find.

Having trouble coping with social media? Relax. Social media may be on its way out. What’s going to replace it? Frankly, I haven’t heard that part of the story yet. Someone on a social media panel recommended a local monthly gathering of people interested in social media and, when I checked out the group out on line, the death of social media turned out to be the topic of their August meeting. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

And if you like planning way, way ahead, When Words Collide III is 2013 August 9 to 11, here in Calgary. Come on up. You’ll have a great time.
Quote for the week
Publishing is a button, not a job description.
~ Adrienne Kerr, Commissioning Editor, Commercial Fiction, Penguin (Canada)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Midlife Angst

by Julia Buckley

Through the mere whims of Fate, my husband and I find ourselves scheduled for job interviews in the same week.  He, at the age of 51, is being forced by circumstances to look for something new (and hopefully better), and I am seeking part-time work at a local university in hopes of garnering some financial assistance for my son, who will be college-bound in one year.

Despite our advanced ages and our basic confidence in our own talent and experience, we are both unusually anxious.  In fact, despite all the advice that I give to young people about interviews, I doubt that I am less worried than I was at age 21.  When I sit down to examine the source of my anxiety (and Jeff's), it boils down to one thing: the unknown.

No matter how confident we are that we would be good for a certain job, we cannot predict the circumstances that will face us when we enter the room.

I, for example, will be interviewed by three people.  This is daunting simply in terms of numbers, but I also have no idea what those people will be like, what assumptions they might make about me the moment I walk through the door, what attitudes they are bringing to the interview.  While almost all of the people I have met in the world of academia have been smart and competent and often delightful, there is always a small minority  that could be described negatively: they are condescending or unfriendly or incompetent.

In addition to these concerns, there is the practical matter of my appearance. The business suit I wore in my twenties is about five sizes away from me now, so my clothing will be nice, but rather nondescript. Will this matter to them?

I also have a fear about the questions.  They are the true unknown.  Again, I feel confident that I can return the ball for most questions pitched to me, but there's always the worry about that one question that will catch me out, expose me as a fraud within my discipline, lay naked my ignorance on a certain topic.  And, in a nightmarish fashion, I imagine myself staring at them open-mouthed, unable to reply.

We'll have to power through our anxieties, because the meetings are fast approaching.  No matter what, this will be a beneficial experience for me, since I haven't been interviewed for years.  In some ways, not getting the job would be a relief, since it would greatly increase my workload and ensure that I'm working at least 50 hours a week.  On the other hand, winning the position would be a boon to my resume, to my son's chances for financial assistance, and to my self-esteem.

My husband feels the same way--there are pluses and minuses to every position.

So we are counseling each other as we prepare for these mid-life changes and try to channel the confidence of our best selves.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Weather is Divine!

It has been beautiful in Chicago for the last several days, and though I'm trying to enjoy the weather, I'm spending much of the time scrubbing my house for my son's fourteenth birthday party tomorrow.

How are you spending your weekend?  Take our PDD poll (above) and let us know what you like to do best on these last weekends of summer.

Friday, August 17, 2012


My thanks to everyone who helped make my new book, Sour Apples, #25 on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller list in its first week.

Sheila Connolly

The Book Problem

by Sheila Connolly

I know—you've heard it before.  Too many books, too little space.  But since I could no longer walk across the floor—heck, I couldn't even see the floor—in the so-called office, I knew it was time to take drastic action.

Of course I gave this much thought, and I came to a realization:  this house does not like books.  Why do I say that?  Because there is no room for bookshelves, or at least, not if I want any other furniture, like to sit on.  What's the problem?  No wall space.

I live in a stately Victorian house with a whole lot of doors and windows—and when I say windows, I mean six-foot windows that begin about two feet from the floor.  Front parlor:  two windows, two sliding doors, each six feet wide.  Back parlor:  three windows, the aforesaid sliding door, two regular doors (side by side, for some reason—you have multiple choices about how to go from any room to the next).  Dining room:  three windows, five doors, fireplace.  Kitchen:  three windows, five doors, and appliances.  Net result:  no space for bookshelves. Upstairs is just as bad.

I am not giving up my books.  Well, not all of them.  Several years ago we built an entire wall of shelves in the office, and they are now filled three deep.  I had not seen the books on the back layer for years until this great purge.  Mysteries take up fully half of the shelves, with the collection of Golden Age mysteries in the rearmost layer.  I'm keeping those.

Then comes contemporary mystery fiction:  books by my friends and co-bloggers; books by writers I truly admire, whose books I will buy no matter what.  (And I even have two shelves of my very own!)  I've been doing triage there, and my local library will be happy (I think I'm up to four boxes for them, and I'm not done yet).

So I filled in the extra space with
Agatha Christie books--hey, we have
the same publisher, don't we?

The other half of the bookshelves:  classic literature, including a chunk of '70s women's fiction I refuse to part with.  I'm seriously considering dumping the romance (where I tried unsuccessfully to fit in when I first started writing), not because they're bad books, but because I have to prioritize, and the mysteries come first.

That doesn't even touch the reference section.  Since I'm writing three different series, each has its own section, both historical and contemporary.  For the coming Irish series I've been trying to catch up with contemporary Irish crime fiction, which doesn't always make it to the US (save for Tana French, whose books I love), and then there's all the Irish history that I never learned in school.  And Irish poetry, and Irish language books.  For the others, there are books about Philadelphia history and society, and books about raising apples, and…

And don't forget the genealogy library—and genealogy is a thread that runs through all my books, so how could I get rid of those?

The reality is, unless I live to be 107 I will never have time to reread all these books, no matter how much I love them.  Why do I keep them?  Because they're old friends.  We've been through a lot together.  I'll admit that one of my newer criteria is, if I pick up a book from my shelf and leaf through it, and don't remember a single thing about it, it can go.  But most of those have been weeded out long ago.

The books that remain comfort me.  I've met many of the authors now, and a good number I call friends.  I'm proud to find myself among them on my shelves.  I'm keeping them—now that I've bought (and all but filled) another 48 feet of shelf space!

Any bets on how long that space will last?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My music? It’s not about murder, BUT...

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was brought up on traditional folk music, about half of which consists of murder ballads, which I sang with great relish from an early age. Well, maybe not half. Other crimes were represented, including robbery of both the Robin Hood and capitalist varieties.

Jesse James was a man who killed many a man
He robbed the Glendale train
He stole from the rich and gave to the poor
With a hand and a heart and a brain.

And on the other hand:

Oh, the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the people sweated for.

Or, as “Pretty Boy Floyd,” one of my favorites back then, put it: As through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve met many kinds of men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

But no question about it, the high lonesome subgenre was filled with songs about young men who did young women wrong and then killed them as a convenient alternative to marrying them. (My mother was always complaining, “Can’t you sing something cheerful for a change?”)

There was “Pretty Polly”:

“Oh, Willie, oh, Willie, I’m feared of your ways
I fear you will lead my poor body astray.”

“There’s no time to talk and there’s no time to stand.”
He drew out his dagger all in his right hand.

“Down in a Willow Garden” tells a very similar story:

I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife
I flang her into the river (I loved that “flang”)
It was a dreadful sight.

And then there’s “Banks of the Ohio,” which I still sing occasionally, because it’s a great singalong song with a delicious wailer of a chorus.

I took her by her lily-white hand
Down beside where the waters stand
I picked her up and I threw her in
And watched her as she floated by.

The first time I attended Killer Nashville, I had the unexpected opportunity to sing a murder ballad, accompanying myself on the beautiful black silver-inlaid guitar that had just been presented to guest of honor J.A. Jance. I sang “Long Black Veil”—not a traditional tune, but one written in 1959 that’s been performed by world-class musicians from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen. You can still hear my performance of it on YouTube.

In my own songs, which I’ve been writing since before I started writing mysteries, nobody dies (except in “Two Tall Towers,” about 9/11, which is something else again, and “The Mayor of Central Park,” about a beloved New York character who died of natural causes at 94). Since I’m heading to Killer Nashville again next week, I’ve been thinking about whether my music is Off Topic at a mystery event, and I don’t think it is.

I’m scheduled not only to talk about mysteries in a panel on dialogue but also to perform a couple of my songs at the Sisters in Crime party on Friday night. I certainly hope to sell copies of my CD, Outrageous Older Woman, as well as my latest mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation. I write songs in the urban folk subgenre that are all about issues and circumstances that cause the kind of murders I write mysteries about, such as love, abuse, alcoholism, family, and ambition.

On the other hand, what I have to say about these issues tends to be hopeful. My mother, if she were still around, might even admit that their message is cheerful, on the whole. I sing about love, healing, recovery, having roots, and following your dreams.

I’ll sing two songs at Killer Nashville. The album’s title song, “Outrageous Older Woman,” is a good theme song for a lifelong writer whose first novel came out on her sixty-fourth birthday. I hope it will inspire the aspiring writers of the senior persuasion who show up at most mystery lovers’ events. The other, “All She Ever Wanted,” is just as apt, because it’s about a woman who dares to follow her dream, as every mystery writer I know has had to persist and persist and persist some more to accomplish. All the protagonist of this particular song has ever wanted is a country music band—and I’m tickled to death that I’m going to get to sing it in Nashville.