Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Trouble with Eyewitness Testimony

by Sandra Parshall

Why do we continue to give so much weight to eyewitness testimony?

Again and again in the past few years, we’ve seen wrongly convicted people – usually men, usually serving time for rape or murder – freed by DNA evidence after losing years or decades of their lives because a jury believed an eyewitness’s testimony. In some cases, victims and even prosecutors have continued to insist that these people are guilty. They were seen committing the crimes. They must be guilty. 

The truth is that the human brain is lousy at remembering details, especially in emotionally charged events. Witnesses and victims remember the emotions far more clearly than they recall the perpetrator’s appearance. As time goes on, the brain alters memories in subtle ways, making them even less unreliable.

The fallibility of eyewitness accounts has been demonstrated in numerous controlled scientific studies and proved in the real world by DNA tests. Police and prosecutors know that five witnesses to the same crime may give five contradictory descriptions of the perpetrator. Yet eyewitness accounts remain the most common “evidence” used to convict people. Despite the popularity of forensics, nothing is more compelling to a jury than a seemingly credible witness on the stand during a trial, pointing at the defendant and declaring, “It was him. He’s the one who did it.” Sometimes, though, it wasn’t him, and he didn’t do it. Sometimes the guilty person goes free while someone who’s innocent goes to prison.

A lot has been written on this subject, with little effect. The latest book about our flawed criminal justice process is In Doubt (Harvard University Press), by Dan Simon, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California. He says that if you use only exonerations in capital murder cases as an indicator, the false conviction rate is around five percent, but he believes that’s a mere fraction of the number of wrongful imprisonments.

Simon uses research into the workings of the human brain to prove his conclusions about the destructive use of eyewitness testimony when the future of a human being is at stake. Studies have shown, for example, that our memories are highly selective in what they notice and retain and are not good at registering details of strangers’ faces. In a criminal case, witnesses may unconsciously alter their memories to conform to what they believe the police and prosecutors want – or to fit their own personal bias. Yet even when their recollections change over time, witnesses usually remain convinced that they have an accurate mental picture of what and who they saw.
Simon proposes that all interviews with witnesses, victims, and suspects be recorded and that jurors receive instruction from judges on the possibility that bias may affect testimony. Since prosecutors rely heavily on eyewitness  testimony, they’re not likely to welcome such a warning from the bench.
Personally, I’ve read too many stories of innocent people spending half their lives in prison to ever trust eyewitness testimony. If I were on a jury and the only “evidence” presented came from a so-called eyewitness, I would probably not vote to convict because I would still have that all-important shadow of a doubt in my mind.

What about you? Could you send someone to prison for ten, twenty years, for life, on the strength of a witness’s declaration that “It was him. He’s the one who did it”?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

First Aid for the Monkey Mind

Sharon Wildwind

I’m fairly certain that I suffer from monkey mind. Unsettled. Restless. Whimsical. Inconstant. Confused. Yeah, that covers is.

Nursing is a good antidote for monkey mind. It’s mentally and physically tiring enough to drain off excess energy, leaving just enough focus to have supper and fall into bed. Since I left nursing, the monkeys are stirring.

Writing is going well. My writing buddies are terrific. Publishing and its first cousins marketing, publicity, and social media are driving me right up the wall. They are my monkey mind’s favorite playgrounds, and I am dithering in them for hours without turning out anything useful.

I need a new strategy and I wondered if meditation might help. I’ve heard people say that it calms the mind.

I didn’t grow up in a meditation tradition. We went to silent retreats, which I suspect wasn’t the same thing at all. Since they usually focused on topics like sin or the crucifixion, I never found them particularly calming. The Church looked upon meditation as falling-off-the-end-of-the-earth “out there” practice, likely the tiniest bit heretical.

All I knew about meditation was that I assumed it involved contorting one’s legs into a lotus position and chanting “OM” or some such sound.

I started finding out more about it with a series of DVDs called Quiet Mind, produced by the University of Calgary. Six mini-views of techniques that people use to quiet their mind.

On those DVDs, three people interested me. Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk, who is part of the World Community of Christian Meditation. Hmm, The Church seems to have changed her mind about meditation. Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist. And Norman Fischer, a Soto Zen roshi, poet and Buddhist author affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center.

Come to think of it, I have a tenuous connection with the San Francisco Zen Centre. During the summer the Center operates a wilderness meditation retreat, formerly called Tassajara. Back in the 1970s the first cookbooks I owned were The Tassajara Bread Book and Tassajara Cooking, both by Edward Espé Brown, a Zen priest who helped found the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

As you can tell by the cover, these books have seen hard use, and they are still my favorite cooking references. I always feel peaceful after I spend a few minutes looking at them. Heck, if a forty-two year old cookbook from a place where people routinely meditate radiates peacefulness, I’m even more interested in looking at meditation.

In the inevitable way with my favorite library, all three resources I requested arrived on the same day. What the heck, a little cross-cultural exploration might be just the thing. As it turned out, it was. All three authors play off on one another nicely, often coming to the same material with different ways of phrasing it.

One of the things I’ve discovered is first aid for the mind. Even without having started regular meditation, I’ve found this to be remarkably simple and calming.

When life seems to be in chaos, try saying this

“Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”
~Sylvia Boorstein

Her explanation is this:
  • Relax. Being startled matters. It interrupts the stories our mind tells. We can’t do anything helpful when we are startled and confused.
  • Breathe. Steady breaths not only calm the mind, but they replenish oxygen.
  • Pay attention. When you sense chaos, something is wrong. Your mind is trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
  • Figure out what to do next. Calmed minds know what needs to be done.

It’s even helping dealing with publishing.

It’s a tough week out there. I hope everyone, without exception, is safe and cared for. Please take care of yourself.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Time, Philosophy, and Seventeen Halloweens

I know that I often write about the passage of time--I suppose because it's a phenomenon that is ever amazing to me.  And if we mark our days by special occasions, then I am approaching my 17th Halloween with children. (That's them, above, when Graham was about five months old and Ian was four).  In the old days they would dress as little jesters or cowboys or, on one splendid Halloween, like Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter.  And it seemed, year after year, as though those days would never end.  But gradually they stopped dressing up and focused more on being with friends for the big day.

(Ian is Robin Hood and Graham is Woody the Cowboy. Flanking them are their friends Grace and Bennett).

Recently my son Graham celebrated his Confirmation, and his brother served as his sponsor (that's their picture at the practice, below). They looked almost like adults in their black suits, and I was reminded again how time slides elusively by--how our children remind us of ourselves, and how we become like our parents--a river of continuity that defies explanation.

I know that to my children and my students I probably sound like one of those annoying oldsters who is always saying "I remember when you were a baby!"  And I do in fact say things like that all the time--but it's not, I realized, to express regret that young people grow older, but merely to give evidence to the fact that I have existed for a certain amount of time, and I'm seeking to give context to my own life. I was present at the birth of these children, and now I am present as they knock on the door of adulthood.  So what, if anything, have I learned in the interim?

These questions give me pause now and again, as I watch my children out of my own mother's eyes and say some of the exact things she used to say, perhaps for the very reason that she said them.

One of my favorite Robert Frost poems is called "The Passage of Time."  It goes,

"The old dog barks backward
Without looking up.
I can remember
When he was a pup."

It's so simple, but it really says it all, along with another of my favorite Frost poems called "The Secret."

"We all dance round in a ring and suppose;
But the secret sits in the middle and knows."

Frost was a philosopher poet, and I am given to philosophizing more and more as I get older--aren't we all?

What philosophical questions have you been asking lately?  What proofs of time have amazed you?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Launches

To tell you the truth, I don't know what other people do. I might have seen a book launch or two where the author serves a cake or it's a cocktail party sort of an affair. But no. Not me. I always wanted my book launches to have the same dramatic flair as my books, and get the reader in the mood.

And I think I did that adequately when I launched the fifth book in my medieval mystery series, BLOOD LANCE, on October 20th. Since my books are set in the middle ages, the first order of business was to make sure I served medieval food. Now I'm not talking a full course dinner, but more like medieval munchies, finger food, but something that wouldn't look unfamiliar on an English medieval table. And so I serve figs and olives and grapes. And cheese. Lots of cheese. Along with small bits of toast (i.e. crackers) to go with it. But any medieval table involves meat, and so that's there, too. Salami, and pork tenderloin stuffed with prunes.

Westerson-made mead.
Libations are in order, and along with the decidedly not medieval champagne (we have to make some concessions), we also serve my husband's award-winning homemade mead. It was a real hit, I can tell you. Many people have never had mead and my hubby knows how to brew it. It beat the champagne hands down, as a matter of fact.

Food helps to conjure the right atmosphere, but there is nothing like a little entertainment to get the ball rolling. In previous years I had the help of a cousin who plays a Celtic harp. But along with that, I always have my knights. Armored fellows who take time away from their other knightly duties to add verisimilitude to the proceedings by dueling and offering me and my guests a chance to get medieval on things.

And then I did a reading, and to accompany that, a brief Power Point presentation on the Origins of Knighthood with pictures of yours truly all armored up for the sake of research.

It's an unusual When I did it for my first book, VEIL OF LIES, five years ago, the folks at Vroman's bookstore--the oldest continuously running indie bookstore in America--said they'd never seen a launch like that. And I don't feel I can disappoint.

But sometimes...sometimes I wish I just served cake.


Friday, October 26, 2012

The Group

by Sheila Connolly

I was reminded this week by an article in The New York Times (in the Styles section, not the book section) that the author Mary McCarthy would have been one hundred years old this year.

McCarthy's book The Group (published in 1962) had a significant impact on my life. I grew up in a simpler time, or so it seems looking back now.  Few of my high school friends dated at all, much less enjoyed a sustained relationship with a boy. Forget about having S*E*X—we didn't even talk about it, much less do it.  All right, we weren't totally naïve, and we all knew about those girls who "went away" for a few months. There was even one classmate who was dating a football player a year younger, who became pregnant and flaunted it, sitting in the bleachers for all his football games.  That was unusual back then.

The Group was one of those books we (girls) passed around, concealed in a deceptive cover, and we all read it eagerly.  If I were to reread it now (and I could, because I own a copy), I'm sure I'd find it delightfully innocent, but when it was first published, it was daring.

I'm not going to analyze the book; mainly I'm looking to retrieve my memories and to understand why the book was so important to me.  In the book, a group of young women meet and form friendships at a women's college (modeled on Vassar, McCarthy's alma mater, before it went coed), and then take the first steps into their own independent lives.  To say that the author laid out all possible avenues—career, marriage, relationships without marriage, and even (gasp) a lesbian relationship—reduces the book to formula, and fails to convey the strengths of the characters as written.  They weren't all successful, and they weren't all happy, but to the younger me, they were believable.

The Group made me want to attend a women's college.  And I did:  I applied to only one college, early decision.  I was accepted, and that decision shaped my life.  I know, that sounds a bit over-dramatic, but it's true.  I had no idea what my second choice would have been, because thanks to McCarthy, my vision for the college experience was crystal-clear.

I wanted the friendships that McCarthy described, and I found them.  Sure, there were some rocky times, and issues between some of us, and ever-shifting allegiances.  For example, after a few months I told my freshman roommate to her face that I couldn't stand living with her and more or less forced her to move out of our shared dorm room.  Guess what:  we're still friends, and we still get together now and then.

Of course I couldn't know when I read The Group that the ongoing history of our friendships would be important.  We all shared a critical experience during our college years, circa 1970.  The world was changing around us—fast—and we all had one foot in the past and one in the future. That gives all of us a unique perspective of that time. And that makes us a special group even within our generation.

Celia McGee, the author of the NYT article, says, "Those among us who do not remember our first time with "The Group"…raise a hand." I'm sitting on my hands, because I remember it well.

Can you name a book that played an important part in how you have lived your real life?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Scare or Not to Scare

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everyone know how fairy tales end: “And they lived happily ever after.” On the other hand, the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as originally written, were dark rather than sunny, as were the folk tales on which some of them were based. Thanks to the popularity of the horror genre, we are now seeing movies and television series that put the grimness back into stories that had been sweetened for the palate of the innocent back when I was a kid.

On the one hand, realism demands that bad things happen in 21st century stories. Our family subscribed to Jack and Jill magazine in the Fifties, and I remember the outraged letters from parents when it dared to publish a piece about a non-anthropomorphized duckling that got separated from its mother that ended, “And there the fox found it, for that is the way of the wild.” (Amazing what one remembers for sixty years, when so much useful information is as lost as the unfortunate duckling.) On the other hand, current “political correctness” (oh, how I hate that phrase, even when I agree with the opinions it supports) demands that we discourage competitiveness in children with the philosophy of “everybody wins” and an objective of “nobody gets scared.”

I’ve now seen two or three times a trailer for the Christmas movie Parental Guidance, in which Billy Crystal as a babysitting grandpa (Bette Midler plays the grandma) is outraged to find there are “no outs” in his grandson’s Little League baseball team—an inning lasts until everyone has had a turn at bat. The grandkids are of the Barney generation, brought up on the principles of the friendly purple dinosaur. I found this in Wikipedia:

"His shows do not assist children in learning to deal with negative feelings and emotions. As one commentator puts it, the real danger from Barney is 'denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.'"

The reference for this quotation is Lyons Partnership v. Ted Giannoulas, 179 F.3d 384, 386 (5th Cir. 1999), citing Chala Willig Levy, "The Bad News About Barney", Parents, Feb. 1994, at 191–92 (136–39).

Sounds like somebody got sued over this. But I digress.

I’m baffled by the coexistence of today’s kids protected from negativity and today’s adults, especially young adults who will soon be the next generation of parents, reveling in vampires, zombies, and other paranormal villains.

I recently helped my granddaughters, 8 and 5, reenact The Wizard of Oz. I remember the older one being bored when I tried to share the movie with them, but now she’s just learned to sing “Over the Rainbow” and would like to see it again. (My VHS tape had a fatal accident; I’ll have to get her a DVD for Xmas.) The little one was too scared by the witch (as her father was at the same age) to take part in our skit unless we followed a version they’ve seen, I guess as a TV cartoon, in which the witch is not destroyed by a pail of water, but joins Dorothy and her companions on their journey to the Emerald City, where she asks the wizard to grant her wish to learn to dance.

Oddly, I remember reading somewhere that Frank L. Baum, the creator of Oz and author of quite a few additional books about it before someone else took over the series, deliberately did not put monsters or terrifying events into his stories. How ironic that generations of children have found the movie version of the Wicked Witch of the West far more frightening than any movie monster. The Wicked Witch doesn’t scare me or any other adult, as far as I know. I’m not enamored of the plethora of horror movies, new and old, in theaters and on TV in honor of Halloween. I don’t find being scared enjoyable. Not only don’t I read scary books or watch horror shows, but I avoid rollercoasters and would never take up extreme sports like skydiving. But only intense and unconditional love of my granddaughters could have made me willing to act out the bowdlerized version of what happened on Dorothy’s visit to Oz.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updating Poirot and Marple

by Sandra Parshall

During an interview on Suspense Magazine Radio (listen to it here), interviewer John Raab asked which Agatha Christie sleuth I find more intriguing, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Pressed to choose, I said Poirot. But the truth is that I don’t find either of them intriguing.

Christie’s protagonists are flat characters who don’t evolve over the course of the two long, long series they anchor. We know little about the past or private life of either. Many of us have mental images of Poirot and Marple that are influenced more by actors’ portrayals than by Christie’s text.

These days, few authors of mystery series could get away with writing such hollow protagonists. Thriller writers may come close – how much does Lee Child reveal about Jack Reacher? – but mystery authors have an ingrained belief that people read their books more for the characters than the plots. Fans want to “keep up with what’s happening” in a favorite character’s life. They want to watch protagonists “grow and change” over the course of a series. Readers want to know what made characters the people they’ve become. They enjoy the secrets, big and little, that are revealed as a series goes on. They love stories in which problems from the past show up on the doorstep of the present, ready to cause trouble.

Poirot and Marple are more symbols of justice than living, breathing people.

What do we know about Poirot beyond his appearance (“a quaint, dandified little man... hardly more than five feet four inches... his head was exactly the shape of an egg... his moustache was very stiff and military), his fussy mannerisms, and his high regard for his own “little gray cells”? He “had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police," according to the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that debut novel, he walks with a pronounced limp, but the disability disappears in later installments. He comes from a large family about which we are told virtually nothing. Poirot himself provides false autobiography in a number of books, the deception always in service of his investigation. Christie said that she envisioned the detective as old from the beginning. At various times, she expressed her dislike of her creation, calling Poirot "insufferable" and a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep" whose popularity seemed to mystify her.

Christie apparently concocted Poirot from bits of other fictional detectives of the early 20th century, including Marie Belloc Lowndes' Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans' Monsieur Poirot, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.

Christie gives us bits and pieces of Jane Marple’s background in the books, and the character in the later novels is strikingly different from the snarky village gossip in the first, The Murder at the Vicarage. However, the change was the author’s attempt to make the character more likable for readers, and it wasn’t due to any soul-shaking experiences Miss Marple endures on the page. She has never married, never held a job, has some sort of independent income and also receives help from her nephew (and only living relative), the author Raymond West. She grew up in a Cathedral Close, is well-read, and attended an Italian finishing school. She is always described as old, and she continues to age in the novels.

How would today’s editors react if they encountered Marple and Poirot for the first time in fresh submissions? A few mysteries with “senior” protagonists are being published, so careful research into niche markets might lead to a receptive editor or two. But most editors would want the characters younger, perhaps a lot younger, and intriguing back stories would be a must.

In modern cozies, maybe messy divorces would be enough to add a little color to both characters’ private lives. If the ex-spouses are nearby and keep showing up at inopportune times, all the better. Maybe there’s still a spark in both relationships, enough to disrupt any new romances.

A single/divorced woman who has never worked a day in her life is almost unheard of now, so Jane Marple needs a cute job if the books are cozies and something more substantial if they take a turn toward darker traditional mystery. Maybe her husband divorced her because she’s never gotten over her love for her first fiancé, who died in car crash three days before their scheduled wedding. Jane, of course, was driving, and she dreams about the accident at least every night, always waking with tears pouring down her cheeks. Give her a couple of cats and she’s ready to meet readers.

Poirot needs a good reason for leaving the police force. (But honestly, can you imagine this man as a cop, even in his youth?) Maybe his partner was shot and he feels responsible. Or he was shot, and now he feels like a coward because he's afraid to risk life-threatening injury again and takes refuge in solving what are essentially mental puzzles. Maybe he drinks too much. Don’t all modern detectives drink too much? Ditch the mincing walk, but the mustache might work if it’s bigger, bushier, and left unwaxed. To round him off, Poirot needs a big dog who senses his every mood and always lays a fuzzy chin on Poirot’s knee at the right moment.

What do you think? With a little updating, could Christie’s characters make it as modern sleuths?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to say Yes when you want to say No

Sharon Wildwind

Recently someone asked me to read fifty pages of her manuscript. You can probably guess what’s coming. It was a difficult read. There was a moment when I wanted to tell her something had come up and I didn’t have time to read what she’d given me.

Ninety percent of people who say they want to write a book never start. Ninety percent of people who start a book never finish, so she’d beaten the odds twice. She deserved an honest critique, but what in the world was I going to say to her?

I fell back on an honored Southern tradition—food—and invited her to talk about the book over lunch. On the way to the restaurant I wondered what I could order that would require a lot of chewing, giving me time to think about what I was going to say before I said it.

She bounced into the restaurant. Her first sentence was predictable. “I’ve never had a real writer read what I’ve written before. How did you like it?”

I’ve been in this situation before and, like a chess match, at least I had an opening gambit. “Before we talk about the book itself, tell me how you came to write it?”

She’d read an article she found interesting and thought it would make a good story.

Not a bad beginning. I was a little surprised that a single article had carried her all the way through finishing a book. There had to be something else going on in her favor.

What did she know about the job the protagonist had? Nothing really, but she’d worked in the same building as a company that did that kind of work.

What did she know about police procedures? She named several cop-television shows she “watched all the time.”

Had she included anything in the book that had happened to her in real life? I fished here to see if she might be a healing writer, someone who was using writing to work herself through bad experiences. No, her life was boring. Nothing interested had ever happened to her. I kind of doubted that because interesting things happen to everyone, all the time. The trick is to learn to recognize them.

By now we were well into our meal, fed and watered, and I couldn’t put off starting the critique any longer. “Congratulations. Finishing a first draft is a huge accomplishment. A lot of writers never make it this far. My best guess is that you’re at least three years from being published.”

She looked shocked. “Why does it take so long?”

I explained that getting published in three years was way ahead of the curve; that the average was for writers to spend ten to twelve years writing between their first finished manuscript and first publication. Then I gave her my bottom-line question, “Do you like writing?”

“You know, I was surprised how much fun it was being at the computer, writing. Is that crazy?”

“No, that’s called being a real writer. Honestly, your manuscript has problems, and you’ve got a big decision to make. You can stop here. You finished an entire manuscript. You can truthfully say you’ve written a book. Or you can start over, write a second draft and when you finish it, you’ll be one step closer to publication. That’s not a decision you have to make today. Think about it for a while. If you decide your want to go for round two, I can give you a lot of leads about people to contact and groups to join.

We parted amicably. I have no idea which choice she’s going to make. I’m hoping she chooses to go another round. We need more people who are just discovering how much fun it is being at the computer, writing.

Quote for the week

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.
~ Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Fall Outdoors Follow-Up

As a follow-up to last week's post, I have attempted to spend more time outdoors and enjoying fall, appreciating the beauty of the season while it's here and reducing my stress level in the process.  As my reward I got some terrific photographs to share with you.  

This is a birdhouse that I bought from SERVV, the fair trade company, in hopes of giving little birds shelter for the winter.  So far I don't think any bird has taken advantage of the free lodging, but I hope they find it.  Meanwhile I think it looks pretty against the yellow leaves.
 I love an autumn sky, and I've been rewarded with a lot of cool shades of gray this season.  (NOT 50 Shades, mind you).

 I love to capture the sun shining through the leaves. I got this shot at around 4:30 in the afternoon.

This is a shot of a street near my son's high school.

Back to those autumn skies I love.  And trees in silhouette against those skies are pure poetry.

 Fake black cat, real black cat.  Panther is not sure how much he likes the plastic guy.  He's knocked him down a few times.

 It wouldn't be October without pumpkins.  These three are brightening up my front porch right now, but this week we'll probably carve them up as jack-o-lanterns.

This tree is one of many gorgeous autumn displays on my way home from work.

My son took this shot out of our car window; we just had to capture this sunset.  We normally don't get such bright colors in our neck of the woods.

 More beautiful fall foliage.  My pet peeve: when people pronounce it "foilage" or "folage."

 Back to my autumn skies.  I love the heaviness of those gray clouds; they almost look like they're holding on to some snow.

Another great sunset shot.

Kitty face-off in the porch.  Panther is on the left, Pibby on the right.  They are, respectively, my youngest and oldest cat, but they actually seem to get along the best (but not in this picture).

These are just a few of my autumn photos, but I thought it was a nice mix.  Are you enjoying autumn?  What autumn moments have you captured on film?

I do recommend the outdoor time as a great stress reducer.  I feel better this weekend than I did last, that's for sure!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Guest Blogger Tom Lyons

by Sheila Connolly

Confession:  My daughter used to work at the New England Mobile Book Fair, and I have visited it regularly for years.  I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the greater Boston area who was concerned when we learned the store was for sale.  That's why I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to interview the new owner, Tom Lyons, here at Poe's Deadly Daughters.

Recently you purchased the New England Mobile Book Fair, an established bookstore in the Boston area, yet you’ve never been a bookseller before. What inspired you to do this?

My friends usually ask “What possessed me” as opposed to what inspired me to buy the Book Fair given the state of the book business.  Brick and mortar stores are constantly under attack by Amazon and electronic book purchases.  I simply thought the Book Fair needed to be saved and was very concerned that it was going out of business.

Why did you choose this particular store?

I really had no intention of buying a book store; it was the farthest thing from my mind.  I had just gotten back to Boston from a lengthy consulting project in Maryland. I decided to go over to the New England Mobile Book Fair to spend a few hours in the stacks and see what treasures I could find.  That was in June of 2011.  I knew the book store was put up for sale in November of 2010 and figured it had been sold. I mentioned it to one of the managers who informed me that it had not been sold. 

I spent the next two weeks thinking about it and finally called the business broker and spent 4 hours going over the business details with him.   I would not have even considered buying any other book store but the New England Mobile Book Fair is an ICON, at least in the northeast and has been written up in Fortune, Yankee and other publications.  I spent 6 months working on the deal because I wanted to make sure it could be saved.  

What physical and management changes have you made, and what changes are you still planning?

As you know I’m not a bookseller. I’m a business man. I have looked at this venture as a business first and book store second.  I have a great staff of knowledgeable booksellers who came with the store so to speak. They all stayed with me. So I felt I could concentrate on the business operations of the store while learning the book business as well.

For 54 plus years the Book Fair has operated pretty much as it had when it opened in the 1950’s. As everyone who has been to the Book Fair knows the books have been shelved by publisher, not by category or genre’ and there has never been an automated inventory.  The building is a warehouse and in recent years not a lot of updating or improvements have been made. 

I have replaced 300 lights inside and outside the building. It is much brighter now.

We are moving more than one million books from publisher to category. This has been going on since April 2012 and hopefully the majority of the moves will be done by the middle of November.  It is a logistical puzzle that is a real challenge, especially since the store is open while we are trying to move everything.   This has to be done to make it easier for the patrons to find books in the future.

It also is necessary as the foundation to create an on line inventory.  In order to run the Book Fair on a current and profitable basis an automated inventory is a must.  So we have purchased an inventory system- IBIDie,  which is a SQL based book store Point of Sale and Inventory system.  

This also required buying a new server with a RAD 5 backup system and 12 new computers including point of sale registers.

We actually went live on October 8th with the Point of Sale portion and we are training on the ordering and receiving portions now.  We already have a number of categories completed so as soon as the system is ready to go we can begin to scan the million books we are moving.

We had a web site but it was static and non productive. We built a new web site and now offer the ability to buy books on line.  In a few weeks book store patrons will also be able to buy E-books from us.

We will be building more pages on our web site to include staff picks, corporate direct links for corporate sales, weekly updates etc.

We have been doing a weekly newsletter since January 2012. We give updates on new books, what authors will be speaking and signing at the Book Fair and staff picks as well

The Book Fair was never known for having author signings and readings.  We started doing them in the store in January and have been steadily adding dates since.  A few weeks ago we had our first internationally known author here when Tess Garretson came and spoke about her new book and signed copies.  The Boston Globe covered the event. 

We have held two community events one on ART and another on Gardening. We will be expanding these types of community involvement for the Book Fair in the future.

We put in a new phone system that is digital instead of analog that will be more efficient for customer service as we go forward

In December we will be hosting a Mystery night to rival the ones Kate’s Mystery Book Store in Cambridge used to do before she closed.  We have already had 38 mystery writers accept an invitation to join us on December 6th.

We have been cleaning every day as we move books and adding more and better displays for the books and merchandize. 

We brought in a new General Ledger system to better control the financial side of the business along with a VP of Finance and a Manager of Accounting.

We do a lot of off-site book sales and have been doing some book fairs.  We do a lot of business with Schools and libraries.

All in all I would say we have been pretty busy for the 10 months we have been at this.

You’ve shown a particular interest in promoting mystery fiction. Why that genre?

I love mysteries!  I’m also a writer and I have started two mysteries and I “kind of” put them on hold when I bought the book store.  I’m hoping to get back to them after the holidays.  So you can understand why I have an interest in mysteries. Being a writer as well as a book store owner does have its challenges.

Doing the Mystery night on Dec 6, 2012 with all those authors is pretty exciting for me and I hope we can get a good draw and sell a lot of books.

I also love westerns.  I have written a western and even got some very positive feedback from a senior editor at a major publishing house. That is very encouraging for a writer.

What do you see as the future of the independent bookstore?

I think it’s important to note that many of the Indies have had a good year relatively speaking. I not only think that the Indies have a role to play going forward, I’m betting on it.  In general I believe that technology will have to be a standard part of the mix.  Selling on line is a must, and with the help of the ABA and other book organizations perhaps we can find a way to negate the Amazon factor if each indie gets their patrons to see the value of buying locally, even on-line. E-books are here to stay. I think they will level off and there will still be a mix of e book and physical copy for many book lovers. Managing the e book dilemma requires active participation, not being passive about it.

We as businesses are going to have to continually embrace technology and change both our pattern of selling and the mindset of our customers.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat.
For more information, see
About Tom Lyons:

Tom Lyons, CIA, CISA; BS in Business from Boston University  Graduate work also done at BU

Chief Executive of three businesses, COO of a Fortune20 subsidiary, Independent Management Consultant, financial and operational controls,  Director of Global Marketing for Insurance for Oracle Corp . Extensive  Audit and Risk Management experience.

And recently an apprenticeship to booksellers.

Friday, October 19, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

This week I heard Dennis Lehane speak to a packed hall—of librarians, not writers, at the New England Library Association conference.  I've crossed paths with him before, at the late-lamented Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, and at the New England Crime Bake, but I've never heard him give a speech.  Now I know what I've missed.
Lehane admits that he was an unlikely candidate to become a writer, based on his upbringing in some of the rougher parts of Boston.  But writing does not always emerge from book-learning, although he always loved reading, even when that was scorned by his classmates.  Or more precisely, male ones; the women found it appealing that this tough kid could quote Shakespeare and actually write books. That alone was a good incentive to pursue a literary career.

But I don't intend to write a biographical tribute to a writer, even one I admire.  What pleased me was I can still learn something about what makes a writer, and Lehane made his case convincingly. 

The part of his talk that resonated most with me was Lehane's description of his (large) Irish family and how they interacted with one another.  The members of the extended family (if I heard it right, his father was one of 17 children, his mother one of 14) all spent a lot of time together when he was growing up, and they, or at least the men, were all prodigious tellers of tales.  Moreover, those tales were often repeated within the family gatherings (Lehane estimated about every five to six weeks the story cycle would begin again).  But what was noteworthy to him was that the tales changed with each telling, just a bit, as they were polished and honed with repetition.  Now, you'd think that family members who had heard the same telling dozens of times before would notice this, but the important point was, it was the telling of the story that mattered, not the truth of it.

And that statement says so much about Irish tradition, or at least what I know of it.  The Irish people have a long tradition of oral storytelling.  The seanchaí  fulfilled a dual role as both storytellers and historians—guardians of a culture that was often imperiled by British rule. Some may have been the designated member of a given clan or family (remember, families in Ireland in the 19th century or earlier seldom strayed far from their origins, so effectively they functioned as an oral archivist); others were itinerant, and offered up entertainment, given a meal and a place to sleep as they passed from townland to townland, in exchange for their stories. 

Is the art—or craft?—of this storytelling an historical artifact of a dwindling culture, or it is something innate in the sons and daughters of Ireland?  Lehane didn't address that issue, nor did he wax eloquent about his literary heritage.  Instead, what he took away from all those family gatherings (and later, gatherings of like-minded strangers in friendly bars) was the love of words, of the spinning of a tale, of drawing in an audience who had heard it all before and making it new for them. I'll let you decide whether he used wisely what he learned (I'd say yes!).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Military Contractors: Who They Are, What They Do

Albert Ashforth (Guest Blogger)

When I tell people I sometimes work as a Military Contractor, I know what their response will be. “What’s that?” After I’ve finished explaining, the second question usually is, “Is it dangerous?” I don’t blame people for asking either question.

When I say I’ve done tours in such countries as Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, I often see them looking at me strangely, clearly wondering why anyone would want to take a job like that.

A military contractor works for a firm that has a contract with the government to supply the military with a product or a service. Since the military has all kinds of needs, you could be supplying a product like weapons or a service like maintaining the weapons.

For example, the job of installing the sophisticated electronic components for an F-15E aircraft would be handled by an expert trained by McDonnell Douglas. And because the military today depends on technology to an enormous extent, people expert in those areas are always in demand.

Or, believe it or not, you could be scooping out ice cream at a Dairy Queen.

But it’s more likely you would be doing a job that is not for the faint of heart like trying to acquire intelligence. In The Rendition, Alex, the hero, is contracted in a roundabout way for a so-called “black op,” an operation for which the government wants to be able to respond with a shrug of the shoulders and “plausible denial” should it go off the rails. As it happens, the op does go off the rails, with the result that in the story it is Alex, not the government, who is left holding the bag. You might think that Alex would have learned from this experience, but he hasn’t. Later, he signs on with a contracting firm that seems to be a front for recruiting people for highly classified intelligence assignments. And that “op” too goes off the rails. I won’t say what happens then.

As a contractor, you could be one of a team guarding a VIP in a foreign country, perhaps a traveling Senator or Representative, or you could be guarding the President of Afghanistan. Today, in Afghanistan, some of the biggest contractors are firms training the Afghan police force. One of the things making this job so difficult is the fact that Afghanistan has never had a police force, and many Afghans don’t understand the reason for introducing one. Another difficulty is the fact that few Afghan males can either read or write.

But what makes this contracting job really difficult is the fact that some police trainees, after being given weapons-training and weapons, then turn them on their trainers. We call these attacks “green on blue” killings, and the only way to prevent them from occurring is not to give the police weapons. In a country like Afghanistan, a policeman without a weapon is probably not going to be able to exercise much authority.

So the answer to the second question -- whether contracting is “dangerous” -- is, “Yes, it can be.” In Afghanistan it definitely is. Last year in Afghanistan, there were roughly as many deaths among contractors as there were among service men and women.

Probably because our government does not want to publicize the amount of money it spends for contracting or say how many contractors are out there, military contracting is a low-profile occupation -- and figures to remain so. In the case of a contractor’s death, the military authorities are obliged to inform the firm for which the contractor is employed, and that firm will, in turn, inform the employee’s next of kin. Beyond that, there is seldom much further public discussion.

A third question might be, Who are these people and why do they take jobs like these? The answer is, they are nearly all former service people, and they mostly take these jobs for two reasons. One, contractors like being within a military environment. I confess that I liked the military atmosphere and missed it after again becoming a civilian. I served overseas, and I liked the order, the teamwork and most of all the opportunities I received to do all sorts of things. Second, contractors are very well paid, particularly where the duty is hazardous, and when you live on a military base it is easy to save money.

I admit that I’m surprised not only by the variety of the military contracts, but also by some of the jobs done by contractors.

When I was in the Army, we soldiers did our own cooking, cleaning and provided our own security. Today those jobs -- GI parties, KP and guard duty -- are outsourced to civilian firms. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly why. Perhaps it’s believed that civilian specialists can handle these tasks more effectively, but heck, keeping your barracks clean isn’t all that hard -- and our Friday night GI parties were often a lot of fun. And shouldn’t the task of protecting a military installation be the job of the people living there, in other words the soldiers stationed on the base? Admittedly, a four-hour tour of guard duty in a far-off land during the wee hours on a freezing cold night is not exactly fun, but it just seems to be one of a soldier’s duties. People like me sometimes wonder if the soldiers, sailors and airmen shouldn’t be doing these jobs themselves, if only as matter of self-reliance.

Cooking and preparing food might be a shade harder and more complex than swabbing and guarding, but again not so difficult that soldiers with a little training can’t handle it themselves. Service people used to eat in mess halls; now they chow down in “dining facilities” or “dee-faks.” After some fast-food chains like Dairy Queen, Subway and Burger King contracted to set up shop on a couple of installations in Afghanistan, there were a few contractors asking questions like “One or two scoops?”

Albert Ashforth’s first novel, The Rendition, came out this year. Al served in the Army overseas and worked for two New York City newspapers. As a military contractor, he has worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Germany, Macedonia and Afghanistan. He is now an assistant professor at the State University of New York and lives in New York City.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How much reality do you need?

by Sandra Parshall

A hot discussion on DorothyL has taught me – or maybe I should say re-taught me – a couple of things.

One: If an author is going to write about religion, he/she should get the details exactly right. Even lapsed practitioners of a faith are ultra-sensitive to the smallest errors in the portrayal of their religion.

Two: Devout fans of an author do not want to hear that the writer has made a mistake in his or her presentation of any aspect of a religion. The fans may  accept the author’s version, a product of research, over that of someone who lives the faith.

This type of argument quickly bores me, and I’m not interested in reviving the DL kerfuffle here. But it brought to mind several questions that I think are worth the attention of writers and readers.

Why is religion different from other subjects? Why is the need for accuracy greater when an author ventures into the territory of any faith?

After all, readers routinely shrug off fictionalized, inaccurate details of criminal behavior and crime investigation. We all know that in the real world autopsies aren’t normally performed within 24 hours of a murder, but we accept that kind of speed because it’s necessary to maintain the pacing of a crime novel. We all know that in the real world most serial killers are sad and weird and revolting, and they don’t play clever games with the police, but we allow writers to glamorize these sick people for the sake of their stories. We all know that most thieves aren’t terribly bright, don’t look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, and don’t pull off brilliantly planned and executed heists involving a gazillion dollars, but we prefer the Hollywood version. And we all know that in real life private investigators don’t go around solving all the murders that baffle the police, yet we love reading about fictional private eyes who do exactly that.

Sure, writers try to get the tiny details of police work right. We know that the same readers who will accept a 24-hour turnaround on autopsies will complain loudly if we get a minuscule forensic detail wrong. Someone on DorothyL quoted the old adage of writing teachers: “Readers will swallow a camel and choke on a gnat.” So true. If we get the gnats right, maybe we can slip in a whopping camel or two and get away with it.

A disclaimer from the author can go a long way toward buying reader acceptance: “This is a work of fiction. I have taken liberties with geography, police procedure, the drying time of plaster, whatever, for dramatic purposes.” If such a disclaimer appears in the book, up front, I’m not sure purists who go ahead and read the book anyway have a right to complain about inaccuracies afterward. They’ve been warned: this is not a true story.

But would that work with books featuring religious life as a major element? Must the author have the credentials of a follower of the faith in order to avoid criticism? Faye Kellerman has written a long string of popular mysteries that have Orthodox Judaism as a strong theme, and as far as I know she has never been criticized for the way she portrays the religion and its people. On the contrary, because she is a devout Orthodox Jew herself, she is credited with offering a window into that world. We can’t always be what we write about, though, and we won’t necessarily learn enough through research to present the situation realistically.

How do you feel about it? How much realism do you demand in crime fiction? Do factual errors ruin a book for you, or can you overlook them?

Is religion a hot button for you? What else is, if anything? What kind of mistake would make you stop reading?

Do disclaimers work for you? Can you forgive mistakes if the writer states up front that he/she has taken liberties with reality?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How a 7/9 Split Improved My Business

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve mentioned before that my favorite math was geometry. Last weekend when I came upon Seth Godin’s Acute Heptagram of Impact, I loved it. Even the name. The Acute Heptagram of Impact could be steam punk, could be Dr. Who and I’m into both right now. Cool title aside, I like Godin’s blogs because they are gems of business information that make me think.

The Heptagram of Impact contains seven area, which Godin suggests successful businesses have to address simultaneously as they work to improve themselves. The problem is too many businesses try to address one areas at a time, instead of looking at the whole picture.

The problem was, I saw the heptagram as an optical illusion. If I counted the individual points, there were seven, just like they should be for a heptagram. If I looked at the drawing as a whole, my brain registered 3 sets of 3 points each. That makes nine. Seven—nine—seven—nine. My eyes and brain totally distracted me from thinking about my writing business, which wasn't what Godin had in mind. First, I had to sort out how seven points could become nine.

Godin’s drawing was in black-and-white, and since I love colors and fancy letters, I redrew the diagram. All that did was make the 3 sets of 3 stand out better.

What I finally had to do was make seven copies and, on each one, eliminate all but three points. What I ended up with was seven sort of Star-Trekie badge designs of three points each. What I’d missed before was that each of the seven elements shared a point with the one next to it. That’s why my eyes sometimes saw seven points and sometimes nine.

This is the triad that popped out at me. Oh, fiddle, that encapsulated a business problem I’ve wrestled with for months. I’ve made some promises to people that I haven’t kept, so I’m pretty sure that my reputation is certain quarters in the pits. I thought I was putting off rectifying those situations for lots of reasons, but it boiled down to fear. Fortunately, I think I have the persistence to make them right, and everything will probably be okay. That gave me a tremendous sense of relief.

I went into this writing business knowing there was a huge business component. My total qualifications to run my own business were
  1. I’d sold Girl Scout cookies as a child.
  2. I knew how to make a personal budget and had navigated filing my taxes every year, so how difficult could it be to do a business budget and file business taxes every year?
  3. I knew how to write education objectives, so how difficult could it be to write business objectives?

Building business acumen has been a bootstrap operation, literally pulling myself up one bit of information at a time. That’s why I’m so delighted when I find something that explains business simply, something I can get.

The seven triads, in case you want to look for connections related to your own writing business, are
  • Desire—Strategy—Tactics
  • Strategy—Persistence—Execution
  • Persistence—Fear—Reputation
  • Fear—Tactics—Desire
  • Tactics—Execution—Strategy
  • Execution—Reputation—Persistence
  • Reputation—Desire—Fear

Quote for the week
You have everything you need to build something far bigger than yourself.
~Seth Godin, entrepreneur, author and public speaker.