Friday, November 30, 2012

Historical Fiction

by Sheila Connolly
Recently I was exchanging emails with my agent and she said something like, "you like history—why don't you write an historical?"  I said no—fast.

Fellow Daughter (that sounds wrong, doesn't it?) Jeri Westerson writes mysteries set in the Middle Ages and does it well, and I applaud her.  But I can't do it.

Many, many years ago, when I was trapped in a dead-end job and had a memory typewriter (I did say "many years," didn't I?) sitting in front of me, I thought I'd try my hand at a medieval mystery, since I was once a medievalist.  I had the perfect opening:  someone is found dead in the cloister of a monastery under construction, his head crushed by a falling capital. Actually, in hindsight I realize I did one thing right:  I had the body right up front. But I gave up after three pages.  I had an interesting death and nothing more—no plot, no characters, and no idea where to go from there.

Obviously I came back to writing mysteries, a couple of decades later, but I chose to write contemporary ones.  Why?  Because as I told my agent, writing a historical is TOO MUCH WORK.

Once upon a time I was an academic: I have a Ph.D. in Art History.  If you've never been a member of the rarified world of academia, you probably don't realize that you can't make a statement, at least in writing, without having researched it thoroughly, and without adding at least two footnotes to back up your carefully phrased assertion.  Here's an example of academic-speak: "there are those who have suggested that the prevailing influence in the peripheral ornamentation of stone sculpture in the Southwest of France in the later twelfth century owes much to the infiltration of Moorish scrollwork appearing slightly earlier in manuscripts smuggled into the country by itinerant monks." You've gone to sleep, haven't you?  Obviously if you tried to write like this in a mystery, your reader would have turned her attention to her grocery list, which would be far more interesting.

A more normal person would write a simple statement like "French stone carvers copied a lot of Moorish motifs."

You might say that the same principle applies to writing mysteries. But still…  It's hard to let go of that training.  Suppose you say, "the colonial house sat proudly on a hill overlooking the old King's Highway." The reader gets a quick image of the setting, no problem: old house on hill.  Me, I'm saying—early colonial? Late colonial? Was it there before or after the King's Highway was built?  When were the King's highways built? And so on.  And one thing you're not supposed to do is insert "infodumps" into your book—you lose your reader's interest, fast.  They do not want to read two pages about the evolution of domestic architecture and its correlation with public infrastructure in the American colonies during the eighteenth century.


So I cheat, just a little, in my series.  My protagonist in each case probably knows very little about certain subjects, so she can ask stupid questions of someone who does know.  That way I sneak a little information in, without overdoing it.  It's a balancing act.

I love history, really.  In all my books I'm aware of how much the past informs the present, whether it's in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, or County Cork. But that may be as close as I'm going to get to writing historical fiction. I think I've found the perfect intersection:  a t-shirt I bought at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, which bears a quote from Henry David Thoreau, "Simplify, simplify."  Words to live by.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

Living through History

Elizabeth Zelvin

If Thanksgiving hadn’t fallen on November 22 this year, this post would have appeared a week ago, on the 49th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Yes, I’m of the generation that remembers exactly where I was at the time: in my off-campus apartment at college, where the friend I’d planned to spend the afternoon with arrived on my doorstep two hours late, tears streaming down her face as she said, “Oh, Liz, the President is dead!” But this blog isn’t about that.

I’m not a fan of horror—in books, in movies, or on TV—and for many years I avoided the works of Stephen King, about whom all I knew was the erroneous belief that he was just a horror fiction writer. Writing mysteries and hanging out with genre fiction writers over the past ten years corrected that impression. First, I read John Dunning’s wonderful mysteries about the used book business and learned that first editions of King’s early books are highly collectible. Then, I became aware that King is highly respected by other writers, in fact, a writer’s writer, as well as author of what’s considered one of the best books on writing. I also learned that he has written well in a broad variety of genres. Finally, I heard him speak in person, when he was named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. I’ve repeated many times his advice to aspiring writers: “Read, read, read; write, write, write; and lose the adverbs.” But I’d still never picked up one of his books until this fall, when I decided to read the novel 11/22/63, about a time traveler from 2011 whose mission is to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

I was born in 1944, just ahead of the boomer babies. For me, “the War” is World War II, and “history” ends (and “the present” begins) at its conclusion. When I hear fiction set in the 1950s or 1960s referred to as historical novels, I get a little wigged out, even though I’m well aware that I’ve lived through more than half a century since I went off to college. What King does with tremendous skill in 11/22/63 is not only to render the texture, the idiom, even the smell of the period from September 1958 (my junior year in high school) to November 1963 (my senior year in college), but to bring to vivid life how different it was from the America we live in now. The book is 842 pages long, so he’s got plenty of time to build up the detail, while never allowing the pace of the story to flag as the reader keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next and empathizes ever more deeply with the engaging protagonist.

Having lived one day at a time through the period that Jake Epping spans by walking a few steps through a figurative “rabbit hole,” there are many ways in which I’ve experienced the changes with which we all live so gradually that I’d never really thought about some of the sharper and more subtle disparities that King’s discerning eye illuminates. Of course, I’d made the broad comparisons. I know there were no computers or cell phones in 1963. We hadn’t sent a man to the moon or a woman to the Supreme Court or what we then called a Negro to the White House. But do I really remember the omnipresent tobacco smoke and the cheerful way advertisers encouraged the public to light up? How about airports, how passengers flapped their tickets at a clerk and then carried their unexamined bags across the tarmac to their planes? How about hospitals, the lack of security and of technology we take for granted? Two characters acquire disfiguring injuries in the book, and the best that cosmetic surgeons can do in 1963 lags far behind the laser treatments available in the 21st century. Nor can a severely injured or comatose patient be monitored via digital screens that graph and beep the difference between a beating heart and one that’s flatlined, as we say in our era. Nor would I have thought I needed Stephen King to remind me of the impact of the women’s movement (in which I myself participated). But he draws attention to the magnitude of the gap between our speech, appearance, expectations, and assumptions then and now.

Here’s a bit of Jake’s first impression of 1958: “Mostly I was just plain freaked....I kept thinking about the ladies in their long dresses and hats, ladies who would be embarrassed to show so much as the edge of a bra strap in public. And the taste of that root beer. How full it had been.”

Now that he’s called my attention to it, I can remember that we used to be greatly embarrassed if a bit of strap or the edge of a slip showed or if a stocking seam was crooked, and how little that matters now. And I guess things tasted better, but I’d have attributed that to my changing relationship with food and the increasing age of my taste buds. In spite of the ubiquitous smoke and a smelly factory or two, King reminds us of an era when air, water, and food both animal and vegetable were cleaner, doors less likely to be locked and guarded, and the human race as a whole more optimistic about the future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tales of Two Hitchcocks

by Sandra Parshall

Who was the real Alfred Hitchcock?

The sex-crazed obsessive who tortured Tippi Hendren when she rebuffed his advances? Or the henpecked director who let his wife tell him how to make his films and was sweet as a doting uncle to Janet Leigh?

A recent television film called The Girl and the new biopic Hitchcock remind me of the cautionary tale about two blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. After one touched the animal’s trunk and the other its tail, they gave wildly contradictory descriptions of the complete creature. The two films about Hitchcock have a lot of verifiable facts in common, but they offer very different perspectives. Hitchcock is so light and breezy and The Girl so dark that it’s hard to reconcile the two viewpoints.

In Hitchcock, which opened in theaters last weekend, Anthony Hopkins plays the director with a mild comic edge that makes him seem harmless and likable even when he’s conversing with the dead serial killer Ed Gein. The movie is about the making of Psycho, inspired by Gein’s devotion to his mother. Gein dug up his mom’s corpse and returned it to their house, where he slept beside the rotting body and carried on as if she were alive and well.

Hitchcock’s penchant for blonde actresses is well-known and was obvious in his films – he worked with Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vera Miles, Ingrid Bergman, among others. For the lead in Psycho he chose Janet Leigh, and he gave the subsidiary female role to Miles. Although the new biopic shows him briefly lamenting Miles’s refusal to let him turn her into a film goddess, there’s nothing obsessive about his behavior, and he is depicted as a perfect gentleman toward Leigh, played by Scarlett Johansson.

With a total lack of conflict in Hitchcock’s relationships with the actresses, the filmmakers resorted to invention, concocting a romantic attachment between Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (played by the incomparable Helen Mirren), and a male screenwriter who wants her help in doctoring a script. Alma, by all accounts a gifted film editor who worked on her husband’s movies without an on-screen credit, is portrayed as the savior who whipped Hitchcock’s flabby, unexciting version of Psycho into shape and made it a masterpiece of suspense and terror. Without her intervention, it seems, Psycho would have had a limited release and died a quick, quiet death. Alma suggested killing off the Leigh character after 30 minutes, and she insisted on the unforgettable music in movie history’s most famous shower scene.

Alma is also depicted as a discontented wife, fed up with her husband’s “fantasy affairs” with his blonde leading ladies and craving his attention at the same time she feels disgusted by his weight and piggish eating habits. He rebels against her criticism at times, but he knows that he needs her.

The Girl, a joint production of the BBC and HBO that was shown on U.S. cable TV recently, is about the making of The Birds, the film that followed Psycho. Alma is a minor character in The Girl, and Hitchcock is a man teetering on the brink of madness. Played by Toby Jones, he is sexually obsessed with Tippi Hedren (acted by Sienna Miller). When the actress isn’t playing her physically exhausting role on the set, she’s narrowly escaping the director’s advances behind the scenes. Hitchcock punishes her for rejecting him by forcing her to do dozens of takes, a full day’s worth, of a scene in which she is attacked by a mob of birds. Nothing about that attack was faked. Hedren ended up collapsing, covered with bleeding wounds.

The Girl has stirred up a storm of protest from those loyal to the Hitchcock legend. The filmmakers say they based much of the script on interviews with Jim Brown, Hitchcock’s long-time right-hand man and assistant director on The Birds. But Brown died before the movie was completed, and his wife has declared in interviews that she is “absolutely sure” her husband would never have spoken ill of Hitchcock. Scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes, a BBC veteran, responded that her screenplay reflects Brown’s frank statements about Hitchcock’s “painful relationship with Tippi Hedren.”

Hedren says the film is an accurate account of what happened to her while she was working for Hitchcock on The Birds and later on a second movie, Marnie. She has called him “evil and deviant” and told the audience at a London screening of The Girl that his obsession with her was “oppressive and frightening” and a “horrible experience.” Another of Hitchcock’s blonde leading ladies, Kim Novak, told the press that he never made a pass at her, therefore she doesn’t believe the stories Hedren tells about him.

It’s up to the viewer to decide which film is closer to the truth about the real Hitchcock... or whether they show two sides of the same man. Fortunately, nothing we discover about the filmmaker, his personal behavior, or his wife’s role in shaping the movies, can diminish the films themselves. Like any brilliant work of art, they live on as distinct entities, quite apart from their creator.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Next Best Thing

Sharon Wildwind

Thanks so much to Texas mystery writer, Bill Crider, for tagging me last Wednesday in The Next Best Thing go-around. I was supposed to answer these questions tomorrow, on Wednesday, but Bill, sweet guy that he is, said I could do it a day early, so that’s what I’m doing.

Here are the questions he passed on to me to answer:

What is the working title of your next book?
Carrying the Blood

Where did the idea come from for the book?
One night as I sat in a folk club listening to a musician-friend perform, I noticed how much of the audience was my age, that is to say we remember the great folk scare of the late fifties and early sixties. My involvement with the folk music world has waxed and wained over time, but what about creating characters who have been heavily involved for a long time? The live music world is a small family and eventually family secrets come out. That could lead to murder, couldn’t it?

What genre does your book fall under?
Amateur sleuth with a touch of romance.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I watch very few movies, and what I do see comes from Britain, this is a tough one. So I decided to go with two people no longer with us, and one British actress, still very much alive.

Jay-Jay is absolutely Waylon Jennings: big, tall, gravely voice, and likely needs a haircut. For Sid I wanted an extreme contrast, a quiet man who always sink into the background. How about Don Hebert, who was Mr. Wizard on Watch Mr. Wizard? Rosemary Harris, the wonderful British actress who plays Peter Parker’s aunt, would make a terrific Robbie. As you can guess, all three of my main characters are of an age to also remember the great folk scare.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Robbie Breland believes that great music matters more than backstage shenanigans, but when a young musician dies it’s the backstage goings-on that point to murder.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Wherever I can get the best deal.

How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?
Six months, and counting.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’m fond of both Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper series and Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series. In my wildest fantasies I’d love to write to their level, so that’s what I’m aiming for.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The most immediate inspiration was a British Columbia performer named Tom Lewis who was on stage when the idea of the book came to me. And a dear friend, no longer with us, named Tex König. And a whole lot of time listening to music at summer folk festivals in Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Calgary.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Robbie thought she’d gotten over Jay-Jay decades ago when she divorced him and married Sid. Now she’s not sure where her heart lies.

What I was supposed to do now is tag five other writers, who would answer these same questions next week on their blog. I’ve always had a problem with chain-type thingys, so what I would prefer is for you to leave a comment with the name of some of your favorite mystery-related blogs. Bet we get more than five.

Quote for the week
Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.
~Pete Seeger, musician, songwriter, and activist

Monday, November 26, 2012

How Killers Blend In

by Julia Buckley

I was contemplating the idea of murderers who get away with crimes--from fictional characters like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov to real-life controversial figures like O.J. Simpson (who was exonerated in the courtroom but not necessarily in the court of public opinion)--and wondering what it is that allows some people to walk away from a crime and never face consequences, while others are caught, either instantly or after an investigation.

Part of getting away with it, Dostoevsky suggests, is random.  His character, Rodion Raskolnikov, commits a murder that is quite bloody.  He is almost caught in the act, which compels him to commit another, quite unplanned murder, and then he is almost caught again.  The only thing that saves him is the whim of the other person, who decides to go and get help rather than investigate what is behind the door of the apartment.

After that come more coincidences--the fact that there is an empty flat in which Raskolnikov can hide when the police come; the fact that no one happens to be on the stairwell when he comes down, and the fact that the courtyard of the building, at that particular time, is empty.  He is able to slide out onto the sidewalk unseen, unnoticed, even thought his clothes are stained with blood.  The only thing that leads to his eventual detection is the gradual disintegration of his mind, partly due to the persistence of his own conscience.

If one goes with the theory that O.J. Simpson was guilty, there is all sorts of evidence to support that idea, from previous 9-1-1 calls made by his wife, alleging violent attacks by him; blood and hair evidence linking Simpson to both Brown and Goldman; clues left at the scene of the bloody double homicide; and the behavior of Simpson himself after the murders: strange, erratic, inappropriate. He led the police on a now-famous slow-chase in his white Ford Bronco and left a rambling, self-pitying suicide note implying that he himself had been victimized.  One line read, "At times I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend but I loved her, make that clear to everyone. And I would take whatever it took to make it work" (The Trial of OJ Simpson--selected documents).  Simpson's seemingly unconscious alteration of that final cliche could be read as a chilling sign of his obsession and his violence.

Simpson suggested that he was a good person who lived by the Golden Rule and that the media was to blame for the way people perceived him. If he is guilty of the crimes (and several people have come forward since the trial to say he "confessed" to them), he has lived with his own guilt since 1994, first as a free man and later in prison.

So how do killers go on with life and with potentially crushing guilt?  The most successful of them are probably psychopaths, according to Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, who wrote this blog for Psychology Today.  The psychopath has no conscience, O'Toole notes.  He or she also knows how to "look normal" and "land on [his] feet."  In OJ's case, it helped that he was a national hero, a beloved sports icon whose fans were reluctant to believe that he could do anything so dastardly as double homicide.

Simpson always contended that he would search for "the real killers" of Nicole, but never took steps to do so.

After the recent acquittal of Casey Anthony, whom many believe to be guilty of killing her own two-year-old daughter (and who displayed some of the most narcissistic behavior in the history of accused killers), one might raise the question of just how many murderers walk the streets, undetected.  O'Toole points out that "dangerous people do not look any different than non-dangerous people. They can be married, live in houses, and have pets and children."

So, not to turn this into Rear Window--but do you ever look at your neighbors, or at your block, or your neighborhood--and wonder just how many people are getting away with murder?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Medieval Hanukkah

Since the first night of Hanukkah is December 7th--not very far away--I decided to post an article I've run before on my other blog, Getting Medieval (because like any older person, I'm beginning to repeat myself):

Growing up Jewish in a Christian America was sometimes trying, especially when my family was of the reformed variety. Christmas couldn't be avoided. It was everywhere in shops, on television in the children's fare of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and on the radio with Christmas carols bombarding the airwaves. Little wonder this little Jewish girl comes to look on at Christmas with brightly shining eyes.

But it was the Dickens Christmas of roast goose and wide-skirted carolers; Father Christmas and plum pudding (of which I had never partaken), that captured my imagination.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that rolled around usually at the same time as Christmas, just couldn't hold a candle. Er...

But it is a holiday with many meanings and expresses many events at once. The medieval Jew embraced it: the idea of the smaller army of Jews rising up to conquer their gentile oppressors. Always a popular theme with Jews in Europe when they were ousted from so many places, just as they had been ousted from the Holy Land. They could relate to that ancient history since it kept happening to them again and again.

Given that this is a holiday with no biblical source (the Books of Maccabees where part of the Hanukkah celebrations can be found, are listed in Christian bibles, which are apocryphal to Jews and not considered part of the canon), there was a clash between those rabbis who followed oral rabbinic traditions and those that were strictly biblical. (The same clash occurs between Protestants and Catholics regarding traditions with a small "t" and Traditions with a large "T". In the Last Supper, for instance, where the gospels say that Jesus is reclining at table is a perfect example of the importance of following tradition with a small "t". Biblical commandments in Exodus have God exhorting Moses to instruct the people to eat their Passover standing up as a people in flight, ready to high-tail it when the time is right. But sometime between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition changed to the partaking of the Passover in a reclining position. As it says in the Haggadah [the prayer book used during the Passover Seder] the Egyptian Hebrews stood to eat just as a slave stands to eat in the presence of his master. But to recline is to exclaim one's freedom. Thus Jesus, as a good Jewish boy, follows Jewish tradition rather than God's biblical command.)

The source for Hanukkah, or the Dedicating of the Temple, comes from something called the Megillit Antiochus or the Scroll of Antioch, dating from somewhere between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD (there's more on that in the Jewish Encyclopedia.) The Books of Maccabees talks about a re-dedication of the Temple by Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and his army, but never specifically mentions a miracle, only that the celebration should last for eight days, which, indeed, most Jewish holidays do. (In Jewish numerology, Seven is the perfect number: seven days of creation. But the number eight--God--is beyond perfect. When a boy is eight days old he is circumcised and brought into the covenant. Eight days for most Jewish celebrations.) It is this scroll that gives us the story of the miracle of the oil.

The Story: Around 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes King of Greek Syria and other places, ruled over the Jews and outlawed Judaism, ordering a statue of Zeus to be erected in the temple. The Maccabees revolted, won, and worked to reconsecrate the Temple, getting all that nasty gentile stuff out of there, building a new altar, etc. In order for the re-dedication to be complete, the menorah or candelabrum or multi-burning oil lamp was to burn for seven nights, but there was only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day and there was no time to get more. But it miraculously burned for eight days. Thus the eight day celebration.
Menorah3 In the middle ages, the Megillit Antiochus was read aloud in synagogues much as Purim, another rabbinically declared holiday and another tale about Jews rising up against their oppressors, was celebrated. Jews reenacted the lighting of a menorah in the synagogues as well as in their homes. The proper way to light a menorah is to have it in a doorway. Not quite practical, so the next best thing is to have it in a window, fulfilling the rabbis decree to show the miracle to the world (which is why there are all those public displays of menorah lighting. It is NOT the Jewish answer to a public lighting of a Christmas tree. If anything, it's the other way around.)
Though for all that, Hanukkah was never a huge holiday. It was just one of many. Certainly not a High Holy Day like Rosh Hashonnah (Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It was another reminder to Jews of God's miracles and His dedication to the Chosen People no matter where they find themselves and under what circumstances.

And by the way, have you noticed that it falls on different days year by year? That's because it's a moveable feast. The Jewish calendar follows the cycles of the moon and so Hanukkah can fall as early as Thanksgiving and as late as after Christmas, but usually comes somewhere in between.

The tradition of giving a gift for each day of the holiday is more a reflection of their Christian neighbors during a gift-giving season than part of any older tradition. The Eastern European tradition of eating foods cooked in oil, however, can be more gratifying if not cholesterol-building. Because it is a feast of oil burning, foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts are part of the fare. Can't knock that. Playing the dreidel is supposed to be a reflection of a game that the Maccabees played while waiting to attack their enemies. It's like dice. It's a gambling game.

Menorah-16020m Incidentally, you haven't miscounted when you see a menorah and wonder why it has nine places for candles instead of only eight. The center place is for the shamash or helper candle. It merely lights the other ones. However, you will notice in all the older images and bas reliefs of menorahs, they have the more traditional temple number of seven arms (six and the shamesh).

So next time you see a menorah and hear about Hanukkah, don't do what my Christian contemporaries did when I was a child (and still hear on occasion); don't compliment the Jew on "their Christmas". Appreciate it on its own level, its ancient and varied traditions.

And have a latke. They're tasty. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sea Change

by Sheila Connolly

Have you had moments in your life when you felt as though your personal universe has rotated on its axis, just a bit, and things aren't the way they were before?

It doesn't have to be one of those big life events—a birth or death, a job loss or move, or (if you're a writer) a phone caller who says, "we want to buy your book."  We all recognize those, and mark them on our calendars to celebrate again and again.

Nor am I thinking of those moments when you hover over the Send button and tell yourself, if I do this, things will change.

I'm thinking of something more subtle yet more pervasive.  You may not even notice it when or while it's happening, but suddenly you look back and say, what just happened? When? It's not any one event but a string of events, small in themselves but cumulative.

I've always called this a "sea change," but online sources tell me I'm wrong, that a sea change is a larger, more significant transformation.  Most sources agree that it originated with Shakespeare in The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Would that we all could enjoy the "rich and strange" part, but obviously in this case, the late father has been radically transformed by death.

Maybe what I'm thinking of what most people would call "luck." You may believe you have a luck ration for your life—you're lucky, you're unlucky, consistently over time.  Or maybe both—you win at cards, but you get into fender-benders a lot. It's your own luck ranking—and sometimes it changes.

Once upon a time I thought I was a lucky person (or at least that's what I wanted to think).  On the plus side, I've lead an interesting life; I've had wonderful educational opportunities and some stimulating jobs with great co-workers; I'm in a long-term marriage, with a smart, funny daughter we both adore; I've finally found a profession that I love and that is very rewarding to me.

But if I were a glass-half-empty person, I could say that I'm the product of a broken home, with an alcoholic father and a depressive mother; that we moved all over the map when I was growing and even since; that I've had multiple, diverse careers and have been unceremoniously booted from several positions and I never even saw it coming; that my husband is nearing retirement and has no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life because he has no interests outside of work; that my daughter is still "finding herself" at 27.

Weirdly enough, it all goes into my writing—my last, best career.  I may complain about the non-linear track of my employment, but along the way I gathered experience and knowledge that go far beyond what I could find just doing Google research.  It's as though I've been in training to be a writer for my whole life.

That's what I would call the sea change: the happy surprise of finding a whole new direction in my life, long after I expected to. The turn that lets me use everything that has come before in a meaningful way. And the only choice I have is to welcome and embrace the change.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Three Elements of Thanksgiving

There are three essential elements to America’s favorite national holiday: the food, the company, and the thankfulness its name denotes. Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrate the day by writing about the contents and the balance of these three elements for each of them.

Elizabeth Zelvin

The food isn't that different when I prepare the feast from how my mother did it when I was a kid, though the stuffing no longer gets cooked inside the turkey and the pies are the best pecan and pumpkin pies I can find instead of homemade apple pie. The sweet potatoes with marshmallows are a family tradition (as is my husband's contemptous eye roll regarding the marshmallows). We've often spent the holiday weekend with friends in Virginia who've added the Southern tradition of a ham along with the turkey.

The company, which in my childhood was always the whole extended family in my parents' house, can be a challenge, since our granddaughters have three sets of grandparents who take turns. One couple we used to enjoy without-the-kids Thanksgivings with moved to California. This year we're going out for dinner, just me and my husband, to a celebrity-chef restaurant (no marshmallows) and spending the rest of the weekend seeing some of this year's crop of great new movies.  

The thankfulness begins with our being lucky with regard to Hurricane Sandy, the storm being the reason we and a lot of others aren't traveling this weekend. Thankfulness was never stated in my parents' day (nor was the probable explanation, that my parents, with the recent memory of the Holocaust, would have considered it bad luck). But in recent years, thinking about how much I have to be thankful for has become, for me, one of the sweetest aspects of the holiday.

Sharon Wildwind

I'm lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice each year, on the second Monday in October (Canadian) and today (American). The essential elements apply to both, and I celebrate both the same way. Company? Me, my sig other, my sig other's mother. Maybe a cousin, if she's not travelling. Thankfulness? We try to do a bit of that every day so we won't be overwhelmed trying to cram it into two days a year. The absolutely essential foods are roast turkey, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin pie. My pie making skills approach zero, so I buy that, but I make huge amounts of turkey and dressing, freezing the leftovers so we have a little reminder to give thanks for months to come.

Jeri Westerson

Every year for the past five years we started camping with friends for Thanksgiving. Since the holidays were so hectic with trying to divide time with families, early on in our marriage my husband and I  decided to reserve Thanksgiving as a time we spent with friends instead of family (and incidentally, making it the most stress-free of the holidays). We go up to the mountains and camp with our trailer in a private campground, where--in a southern California full of palm trees, and when autumn arrives near the end of November--we can enjoy a fall like the rest of the country. It's cold, crisp, the leaves are changing, the wild turkeys in the area sometimes come calling, and we even get a bit of snow on occasion.

The couple we camp with often invite friends or their kids to come for the day and so do we. Our son attends, sometimes bringing his friends. And there is where we cook what has been known as the "Man Turkey" on a turning spit on an open campfire. Two birds turning for five hours, and you'd think it was the most entertaining thing in the world when we sit around it, mindlessly watching the birds turn and turn, getter browner and browner. Every year it seems a stretch in our budget to go to this feast, but we do what we can to try to make it happen. Friends, good food, and great atmosphere are a must to revive our souls and remind us of all that we have when the constant stress of making ends meet intrudes.

Julia Buckley
This year I'm especially grateful to be with my parents at Thanksgiving (along with all of my siblings and their families).  My father is 81, my mother 79. They have hosted our family gatherings for fifty-some years, but this will be their last round of holidays in their big house--they are looking at assisted living sometime in the new year.

It's a difficult and painful choice for them, and we'll all be aware of it as we gather together in love and gratitude.

Our Thanksgiving food has always been an immense affair, although that too will be downplayed now.  Still, there will be the American traditional turkey, stuffing and potatoes, as well as some Hungarian staples like Szekely gulyas and haluska, and some German desserts like bienenstich and dobosh torte, as well as a Cambodian dish my sister brings called Pancit. We're a multicultural clan, from my adopted-from-China sister to my German-born mother, so our food is a blending of geographies that is particularly delicious.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!  May your food be delicious and your times be merry.

Sheila Connolly

This year will be like no previous Thanksgiving for me, because I'll be in Ireland.

It's ironic because I live fifteen miles from the site of the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth. The longer I live in New England, the more amazed I am that anybody there survived that first hard year (half didn't), and they had much to be thankful for.  But this year our daughter is pursuing her interest in film-making in Chicago and will no doubt have friends to share the holiday with.  That leaves just the two of us at home: all our siblings are too far away to visit or to join us.

Anytime I travel out of the United States, I am reminded about how brief our history is.  Visiting places where the local church happens to be over a thousand years old, or where people are still complaining about battles that were fought in sixteen-something, gives me a different perspective.  It also makes me proud, that our predecessors left their homes and countries to travel to a virtually unknown land and take their chances.  And those early settlers were a restless bunch, not content to carve out a small plot of land and build a house and stay put.  Maybe that worked for a generation or two, but they kept looking for more space, more opportunities; they kept moving westward until they ran out of country.

I doubt that we'll cook a turkey in our cottage on a windswept hill in County Cork--not because the kitchen can't accommodate it, but because I'm not sure we'll find a turkey (although I can pretty much guarantee that there will be potatoes!).  And I've always believed that Thanksgiving should be shared with others, so we'll probably seek out a restaurant or pub and try to explain to the people there what our tradition is all about. Who knows--there may even be some Connolly relatives in the crowd!

Sandra Parshall

My preference is always for peace and quiet, so you're not likely to find me in a crowd, however convivial, on Thanksgiving. I'll cook a turkey breast large enough to please my husband and the cats, although I won't eat any of it. I'll make the southern cornbread dressing I've eaten and loved all my life. We like jellied cranberry sauce, which is easy enough because it comes ready-made in a can. I've varied the desserts over the years, but this year I'm returning to an old favorite that has come to be known as Sandy's Pecan Dream Pie. (If you don't know that story, ask me about it in the comments section.) On the day after both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I always make candied sweet potatoes to have with leftovers. If I get the syrup on the sweet potatoes to just the right consistency, that's one more thing to be thankful for.

All of us at PDD will be thinking this holiday season of those who lost so much in the recent catastrophic storm on the east coast. We hope they can salvage something to be thankful for, and we wish them much better days ahead. The tireless rescue and aid workers, both volunteer and paid, deserve the heartfelt thanks of our entire nation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Your E-mail and the FBI

by Sandra Parshall

I guess I’m jaded, because the prurient details of the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen kerfuffle don’t interest me. The computer stuff grabbed my attention. I don’t meet a lot of generals, but I am tethered to my computer like some poor dog chained in a junkyard.

First item of interest: The FBI doesn’t need a warrant signed by a judge to dig around in a citizen’s personal e-mail. I must have known this at some level, but I never gave it any thought before. Then I learned that even the e-mail account of the Central Intelligence Agency director becomes an open book to the FBI if they obtain a subpoena from a federal prosecutor. They don’t have to serve a warrant on the owner of the account. With a subpoena, they can compel the service provider to give them access.

Second item of interest: Apparently Petraeus and Broadwell could communicate in “private” (ha!) by leaving messages in the drafts section of his e-mail account. This is a tidbit to make note of for future use in a book.

Third item of interest: Jill Kelley, the Petraeus friend who ignited the scandal by complaining to the FBI about harassing e-mails from Broadwell, turned out to be “linked” (as they say; supply your own definition) to General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor as commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. She had 30,000 pages of e-mail from Allen on her computer. I don’t care about the affair, but I’d love to know more about those 30,000 pages of e-mail. What’s in them? And where, oh where, did he find the time for all that e-mailing? I don’t want to believe that a general on active duty spent vast amounts of his time composing personal e-mails to a Florida socialite. Maybe he was sending her the entire text of books that he thought she might enjoy. The complete works of both Dickens and Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet soon to consider legislation that would make a warrant for all internet communications mandatory. The bill might not pass, because law enforcement officials are against this restriction. The ACLU is strongly in favor of it. Chris Soghoian, a senior policy analyst for the watchdog group, says, "These are invasive powers that need to have a check against overuse and abuse. And that check should be a judge."

Meanwhile, if the FBI decided to take a look-see at your e-mail account, what would they find? Oh, you don’t think they’ll ever be interested in you? Read the long and appallingly generic list of words they search for in social networking communications (yes, they’re monitoring Facebook), and you might wonder why they haven’t shown up at your door yet.

Almost all crime fiction writers do research online, and we have a list of experts such as Dr. Doug Lyle and former cop Lee Lofland who generously answer our questions. We also post questions to various e-mail listservs. One day I might be asking where to find a dealer in illegal guns, and the next I might be asking which accelerant will most quickly burn a house to the ground. I may want detailed information about undetectable poisons.

The real mother lode is on the hard disk of my computer. I have files on every sort of crime, unusual murder methods, guns, lock-picking, the kinds of trace evidence that a smart killer will avoid leaving at a crime scene (do you want your darling cat’s hair to lead the police to you?). On the whole, my information collection doesn’t make a good impression.

On the plus side is the total absence of e-mails from highly-placed people involved in national security.

How about you? Have you ever written an e-mail you wouldn’t want to become public knowledge? Do you worry that somebody has a copy of it either on a server or a hard drive? Do you save all your e-mail, even stuff you should probably delete?

And do you worry that what you delete isn’t really gone, that somebody with sophisticated recovery software could find it and expect you to explain it?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Sharon Wildwind

I fret. I worry. I brood. I stew. Sometimes I even panic.

If there is a World Champion Fretter sweatshirt, I can wear it with no fear of false advertisement. The nice thing about the writing, publishing, and marketing world it’s so crazy that it provides an endless supply of fretting opportunities.

There’s micro-fretting. Is that comma in the right place? Is this the best word? How does Marion know that Randall was in Chicago in August? He said he was in Hawaii. Am I running out of printer ink? Can I get to the office supply store before it closes? Am I blogging too little? Am I Tweeting too much?

There’s metta-fretting. Should I work on a series or a stand-alone next? What are the current mystery trends? Do I know enough about where publishing is headed? Which social media platform is going to be big next year? Have I found my best market niche?

The good part of fretting is it leads to interesting side trips, also known as avoidance. This morning while I fretted about how over-the-top busy this week is, I also created my first Twitter hashtag. This is the electronic equivalent of sorting your buttons by size and color, but because a hashtag is vaguely work-related I feel virtuous while not getting any real work done.

The problem with fretting is that it solves nothing. It circles and spirals. I easily fret in a 360-degree circle, returning to the same place where I started. By applying a little concentrated effort, I fuse two or more frets thus raising my worry level to a higher plane, and making both problems more difficult to solve because they’ve become meshed in one another. This is good, how?

The fretting first aid routine I’m developed is brief.
  • Breathe: close my eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths.
  • Relax: start at my toes and tense all my muscles all the way up the body, hold, release, and repeat.
  • Inspire: go to my inspiration folder and look at photos of people who inspire me.
  • Exercise: shake my body even if it’s only for five minutes.
  • Fun: go do something fun for a few minutes.
You’re welcome to try it if you’re a fretter, too.

By the way, if you Tweet, the hashtag I created is #yycread (YYC is the airport code for Calgary + read.) It’s a place for readers and writers in the Calgary area to connect. If you’re a reader, or a writer, or both, drop by, even if you don’t live in the Calgary area. If do you live in the Calgary are, definitely drop by.
Quote for the week

It is the little bits of things that fret and worry us, we can dodge an elephant, but we can't a fly.
~ Josh Billings, 1818-1885, American Humorist

Monday, November 19, 2012

Undoing the Black Friday Damage

by Julia Buckley

The term "Black Friday" has a long and negative history. According to my ol' pal Wikipedia, the term was first used in 1869 in the U.S. in relation to a financial crisis. Its link to the Friday after Thanksgiving first arose in the 1960s, in Philadelphia, where it was well known to buyers, merchants, and the police, the latter group because "[Black Friday] usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing" (Wikipedia, "Black Friday.")

Even though Americans have used the term for more than 50 years, it's only in the 21st century that it has taken on even darker connotations, linking it not just to greed, but to violence and a seeming lack of compassion. The most notorious recent examples include:

2006--three incidents of Black Friday violence, including a customer assaulting another customer; a crowd of customers flooding into a Walmart and pinning employees against the merchandise; and several injuries which occurred when people tried to leap for gift certificates hanging from the ceiling.

2008--2000 shoppers outside a Walmart in Valley Stream, New York, charged into the building and trampled an employee to death. "The shoppers did not appear concerned with the victim's fate, expressing refusal to halt their stampede when other employees attempted to intervene and help the injured employee, complaining that they had been waiting in the cold and were not willing to wait any longer. Shoppers had begun assembling as early as 9:00 the evening before. Even when police arrived and attempted to render aid to the injured man, shoppers continued to pour in, shoving and pushing the officers as they made their way into the store" (Wikipedia).

2010--Six more incidents of Black Friday violence, including a man who cut in line and threatened to shoot the customers who tried to protest.

2011--a woman at a California Walmart used pepper spray on other customers, causing 20 injuries because she wanted an advantage in getting an XBox 360.

Why mention these depressing things at all? Because merchants have been pushing for an extension of the shopping nightmare into an additional Black Thursday, which would begin on Thanksgiving night.

Admittedly, not all people agree about the purpose of Thanksgiving. For some, it's a chance to be with family and to be grateful. For others, its a vague acknowledgment of a historical moment. For some, it's just a chance to eat a lot of food and watch television. But it's troubling that Thanksgiving seems to be taking a backseat to the festival of greed that the subsequent shopping season has become. And since the Thanksgiving holiday has traditionally been seen as a precursor to the Christmas holidays, one might assume that the notion of "good will to men" might apply in both circumstances.

You won't find me anywhere near a store on the Friday after Thanksgiving. And, if the statistics above have taught me anything, you CERTAINLY won't find me near a Walmart.

But maybe we should consider fostering a movement that un-does some Black Friday damage. A pay-it-forward sort of movement that encourages not just the spending of money (help out the economy, by all means), but the doing of nice things, big and small. Maybe we can start a trend of goodness that will obliterate the growing sense of remorselessness in the face of "getting stuff."

Are you on board? What would be the first nice thing you did for someone else?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why Billy Joe Jumped

A mystery that has always plagued me can be found in the lyrics of a 1967 song by Bobbie Gentry called "Ode to Billy Joe." The song is narrated by an anonymous girl who knows Billy Joe McAllister, and in fact was seen with him right before he "jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Billy Joe's suicide has always bothered me; the song neither reveals why he jumps, nor what mysterious reason he and the girl had for "throwin' somethin'" off the bridge before his death.

Many people were intrigued by Gentry's song. Herman Raucher adapted it into a novel, in which he suggested a reason for the title figure's suicide--this was later made into a film starring Robby Benson. The book and film changed the spelling of the main character's name from "Billy" to "Billie" for reasons unknown.

The book and film, though, offer only one possibility for Billy Joe's death, and Bobbie Gentry, who wrote the song, claimed that she did not know why Billy Joe died. Therefore, the song remains an unsolved mystery, as do these compelling characters that Gentry created. More intriguing than Billy Joe is the girl who tells the story--the girl who obviously has all sorts of secrets, and spends her time throwing flowers "into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

For those who remember this song, I wonder how you interpreted it back in the days when it was played on the radio? And if you've never heard it before, what would your theory for Billy Joe's suicide be, based on the enigmatic lyrics of the song?

(This is an encore post of one that ran on Mysterious Musings in 2009).

Friday, November 16, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

I live in a mid-sized town (population 22,000, more or less) in what is defined as a rural area.  And it is bright and noisy.

Okay, it's not Manhattan.  I used to love visiting my grandmother when she lived there, in a residence hotel in midtown.  When my sister and I stayed over (always a treat!), we could hear the ceaseless honking of taxi horns far below us.  I remember waking up in her apartment once and not hearing that familiar sound—because an overnight blizzard had shut down the city.

The sound of trains has been a consistent background to my life, since my family almost always lived near a commuter rail line, and I have continued that in my adult life.  For a time we lived across from a BART station outside San Francisco, and the first train of the morning served as an alarm clock:  when I heard that whistle and rumble, I knew it was morning, and time to get up.  The same was true when I lived in Swarthmore, and we lived three blocks from the train station.  Now I live two blocks from the farthest station on my line for the train to Boston.

My current town has streetlights, as did the ones before.  They're good things, I suppose, letting drivers find their way and discouraging burglars, maybe.  But they're obtrusive.  Unless you are compulsive and cover all your windows with three layers of curtain and blind, you can't escape the light from the street.  It's never really dark.

A few years ago cartoonist Gary Trudeau had a brief thread in which one of his characters started inventorying how many lights were on in her room, on her electronic devices:  alarm clock, phone, CD player, computer, surge protector, etc., etc.  Again, never fully dark—you can navigate by the On/Off indicators, without turning on a single lamp.


Why am I talking about this?  Because I'm in Ireland, in a small house on a windswept hill, the same place we stayed on our last trip.  And at night it's dark.  There are no street lights—heck, there are barely streets, only half-paved lanes, and no one just happens to drive by.  No light pollution.  You can see the lights of a few neighbors, but they may be a mile away.  Likewise, it's quiet: no cars, no trains, no airplanes above.  There might be a dog barking over the hill, or a restless cow lowing somewhere if it's summer and they're out in the fields.  We did once stay at a bed and breakfast where they had three thousand sheep, and the chorus by day was fascinating—who knew there were so many variations on "baa"? But they were quiet at night.

How often these days do we encounter true darkness, true silence?  Many years ago I toured a prehistoric cave in France with a guide and a small group of people.  The guide turned off his light (the only one), and you couldn't see anything, not even the hand in front of your face. That is rare, and disorienting.  Imagine those prehistoric people who ventured into that dark, with only a torch—and left artworks behind. We don't do that any more.

I'd wager than most of us writers surround ourselves with light and sound, but maybe the Irish are such renowned wordsmiths because they have that silence to fill (I know, it's not unique to the Irish, but still). 

Has anybody done a study about city versus country authors?  Whether external noise is a help or a hindrance to a writer? How much energy to we spend blocking out those external distractions? Does it matter?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Death by Crocodile

Elizabeth Zelvin

In 1986, when my husband and I visited Côte d’Ivoire, the West African country where I’d lived for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Sixties, we met a man with a unique job: the gardien des crocodils in then President Houphouet-Boigny’s home town of Yamoussoukro. Houphouet-Boigny had been involved in Ivoirien politics since the 1940s, became president when the country achieved independence in 1960, and kept a firm hand on its development until his death in 1994. But since then, the once prosperous nation, which produces much of the world’s coffee and cocoa, has been a mess.

At a recent meeting of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, the speaker was a guy who investigates violations of international arms embargoes for the United Nations. He had much to say about Côte d’Ivoire and its border with neighboring Liberia, both nations under embargo that is “more honored in the breach than in the observance,” as Shakespeare put it. The country has endured civil wars and what the guy from the UN called “post-electoral crisis” in the past ten years.

But let’s talk about the crocodiles.
As we were taught in Peace Corps training, Houphouet was a particularly potent leader because he was a hereditary chief of the Baoulé, one of the most populous tribes in the country, as well as a European-trained doctor and lawyer and former member of the French Assemblée. When he turned what I remembered as a village on a dirt road halfway from Abidjan to Bouaké, where I lived, into the administrative capital, with massive buildings in which to conduct affairs of state and formal gardens and roads lined with palm trees, he included an artificial lake stocked with crocodiles and a man to tend them.

BBC reporter John James writes:

Crocodiles have a mythic role for Ivory Coast's largest ethnic group - the Baoulé, who live around Yamoussoukro.

The ethnic group of Houphouet-Boigny fled from what is now Ghana three centuries ago - and to cross a river, the river god told the queen to sacrifice her only child.

When this was done, the tribe was able to cross the river on the backs of hippos and crocodiles who lined up to form a bridge.

A Baoulé proverb says: "When in the middle of a river, do not insult the crocodile."

Dicko [the gardien] did not insult the crocodiles. Instead he had a reputation as their dedicated master and carer. Many said they could communicate with each other. Dicko made a regular show of pulling the giant monsters by their tail - posing for photographs next to a carpet of carnivores.

We didn’t see the tail-pulling or the sacrificial feeding of live chickens to the crocodiles when we visited in 1986. The monumental buildings and grounds were like a ghost town. (In the news, Abidjan is always referred to as “the commercial capital.”) As we made our way along one of the deserted streets and approached the lake, we saw the gardien, tall and skinny and, as James writes, “wearing the long-flowing boubou and with his rusty machete in one hand,” stretched out on the ground, taking a midday siesta.

When I essayed a timid “Ko-ko-ko” (the local equivalent of “Knock knock”), he got up and greeted us, asking if we wanted to see the crocodiles. “I’ll call them for you,” he said. He squatted on the ground at the edge of the lake and banged his machete a few times against the edge. For a minute, the lake remained placid. Then we saw ominous, leathery lumps with malevolent eyes set in them rising to the surface and slowly moving toward us. We skipped out of the way as several crocodiles, the biggest probably seven or eight feet long, heaved themselves out of the lake and waddled toward us.

Luckily, the gardien had them under control. He and his crocodiles coexisted with mutual respect for something like forty years. But sadly, one day in mid-August, Dicko Toki tripped and fell at the wrong moment, and in a flash, he was transformed from friend to dinner.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

At First Glance

by Sandra Parshall

The cover image on the December issue of Psychology Today was enough to make me stop and pick it up: a photo of a beautiful young woman with descriptive words written on her face – sensual, bold, arrogant, witty, smart, eager, etc.

The cover leads to a thought-provoking article about the accuracy of our first impressions of other people. Can we really tell at a glance what a stranger is like? Do snap judgments hold up under scrutiny?

Turns out the answer is yes more often than no. And that’s puzzling. Many studies have demonstrated that eye-witness testimony in criminal cases is unreliable because people often don’t remember details of a stranger’s appearance even a few minutes later. Yet Jena Pincott, author of the Psychology Today article, has assembled results of numerous studies, conducted by reputable researchers, that seem to prove we can often make accurate judgments about others the minute we see their faces.

As Ms. Pincott points out, quick impressions aren’t fail-safe, but they are too accurate – 60 percent or more of the time in controlled studies, considerably higher than chance – to dismiss. Many of us wear our true natures on our faces, and a perceptive person will probably recognize us for what we are.

What interested me most, of course, was an experiment at Cornell University to determine whether volunteers could identify criminals by looking at photos of their faces. Participants showed better-than-chance accuracy at distinguishing criminals from non-criminals. However, they were less successful at separating violent offenders from nonviolent criminals. And women consistently identified convicted rapists as harmless – unlikely to ever commit a crime. Why? The researchers who conducted the Cornell experiment theorize that rapists, for whatever reason, don’t always present the clues that would, consciously or unconsciously, trigger a woman’s defenses and make her more difficult to approach and assault. They are the exceptions.

What are those subtle clues that tell others what kind of people we are? Because sex hormones affect both our behavior and appearance in powerful ways, traits such as aggressiveness and heightened sexuality may show in the contours of the face and features. But it’s not all due to nature. Life experience and repeated behavior, good or bad, may alter our faces in subtle ways too.                                                  

The article also looks at experiments testing the accuracy of “gaydar” (on the mark 60 to 70 percent of the time). Then there’s the question of whether attractive people are judged positively because they’re nice to look at or because a majority of them really do have high intelligence, great personalities, and kind hearts. If you don’t count yourself among the beautiful, the answer may leave you gnashing your teeth at the unfairness of it all.

Do you make snap judgments of people when you meet them – and are you usually right? – or do you hold off until you have more information?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

To Launch or Not To Launch?

Sharon Wildwind

Years ago when my first book (non-fiction) came out, the question to have or not have a book launch never crossed my mind. Of course I was going to have one. Book launches were de rigueur; all the best people had one.

It was fun. I made a dress, had my hair done, etc. A bunch of congenial people crowded into the second floor of a local bookstore. I read, they listened. They asked questions, I answered them. We had nibbles. Some even bought books.

What sent my heart racing wasn’t that people were buying my books, but that some of the people buying my books were strangers. It’s one thing to sell to someone I knew. It was a whole other ballgame to realize that someone I’d never met lay down hard cash for my words.

By the time my first mystery came out, the world had changed. One big difference was that my non-fiction publisher was Canadian. I didn’t have to bother with cross-border ordering, exchange rates, etc. That made it easy both to get the books and price them at a reasonable rate.

On the other hand, my fiction publisher was in the States. The bookstore owner that I talked to about a launch laid out the economics for me: hardback price plus currency exchange plus Canadian tax meant that he would have to sell the book for $50.

There was no way I was going to ask friends or strangers to pay that kind of money.

There were other options. Eliminate the bookstore. Have the launch in a church hall or community center.  Price the books myself, but by that time I’d learned the numbers. For every hundred strangers or every ten people who knew me and saw publicity about the launch, one would be interesting in attending. For every ten people who attended, one would be interested in buying.

So to sell, say, thirty books, I’d have to get the word out to three thousand strangers or three hundred people who knew me or a combination of those numbers. I didn’t have three hundred friends locally and I sure as heck didn’t know how to get the word out to to three thousand strangers. So no book launch, not for any of books one through four in the series.

Here comes mystery number five. To launch or not to launch? Once again, the world has changed. What I know now is that the purpose of a book launch isn’t to sell books. It’s a party and I feel like celebrating this milestone in my writing life. Now I know my way around the business well enough to have worked out a lower price deal. I’ve got a bookstore all lined up. I’m sending out lots of e-mail notices, and using Twitter, and doing other e-marketing. Sure, I’d love a huge crowd and lots of books sold that night, but if it doesn’t happen, me and however many people show up are going to have a fun.

I going to read; hopefully, they’re going to listen. They’re going to ask questions, I’m going to try to answer them. There will be nibbles. Maybe some books will be sold. And a good time will be had by all.

And the next day, I’ll be back at the computer, writing the work in progress in the morning, and do e-marketing like mad in the afternoon.

Publisher's release date November 14th.

Tell a librarian.


Quote for the week

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. 
~ Ursula K. Le Guin, author, poet, and essayist