Monday, December 31, 2012

I (Don't) Know What Boys Like

by Julia Buckley

Yesterday was my birthday.  I was able to enjoy some time with my husband at breakfast (at which point he had to go to work).  Then my sisters and nieces took me out for a very nice lunch.  My sons had promised that in the evening I could pick any movie and they would watch it with me.  This was very generous, since we can NEVER agree on a movie that we would all like to view.

So evening came, and I started perusing the Amazon movie downloads available for purchase.  I suggested It's Complicated, with Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin; even though it's a movie aimed at the older set, I knew my sons liked the two male actors and might enjoy the humor.

"No," said my eldest immediately.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because," he said, "It's the worst."

To Ian, "the worst" can describe just about anything: me, when I'm being too strict, or a class he doesn't like, or a movie he doesn't want to see.

Back to the drawing board.  "What about a Hugh Grant movie?"  I'm partial to Hugh Grant, but my sons immediately said (I kid you not) that he was their "least favorite Hugh."

I suggested a couple of Grant's films, including About a Boy (no--the worst); and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (Mom! You're making that title up just to annoy us!).

I went the Disney route.  "What about That Darn Cat?  I always like Haley Mills in that movie."

My sons stared at me, mouths agape. "Mom. Are you serious with these suggestions?"

And it went on.  No to Firewall.  No to Frantic. No to anything from too long ago.  No to anything black and white. I asked if we could watch a suspense movie.  They said yes.  "But no espionage," Ian said, "and no intrigue."  That time he was joking.  :)

We finally settled on Collateral, only to find out that it wasn't available on Instant Watch.  Ugh.  Who knew that this was so hard?

I asked if we could watch Bridget Jones's Diary.  "No--nothing with the word diary in it," Ian said.

They did say they would be willing to watch one of my favorites, All the President's Men, but I had just seen it.

I asked if they wanted to watch one of the Star Wars films, but we disagreed about which were the best.

Finally, after literally an hour of negotiations, we agreed to watch Snow White and the Huntsman.  The boys were willing because the cast had both Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Ian MacShane (Deadwood).  I was willing because I'd heard it had cool special effects and had an interesting twist on the fairy tale.

So we watched that movie, and the boys talked over most of it.  This is what they meant with their generous birthday offer.

But it was a good birthday, and I'm lucky to have lived another year and to have healthy children.  So ultimately I was quite satisfied.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Samuel Thomas Guest Blogger: Death and the Midwife

Sam Thomas is a fellow St. Martian and I'm pleased to welcome another historical mystery writer to Poe's Deadly Daughters. I met Sam face to face in Cleveland just this year at Bouchercon. In addition to The Midwife's Tale being Sam's debut novel, he teaches history at University School, an independent boys' school outside Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights with is wife and two sons. Readers can expect a sequel to Sam's debut in 2014.

When I tell people that I’m writing a series of murder mysteries about an English midwife, I often receive the kind of condescension that people reserve for the very young and the very old. That’s nice, they say with an uncertain smile, not entirely sure that they’ve understood me. Actually, that’s not true. They know they have understood me. They’re just not sure that I’m making any sense. After all, what could midwives have to with murder? Lawyer-sleuths? Sure, we’ll believe that. Crime-solving doctors? Absolutely. But midwives?
Yes, midwives. While we (rightly) associate midwives with bringing life in to the world, for several centuries midwives also sent people out. Most obviously, thanks to comparatively high infant and maternal mortality rates, midwives saw their share of death in the delivery room. But this is just the start, for midwives were key players in England’s legal and judicial system, and when a woman came into contact with the law, whether as a victim or a suspect, a midwife often was on the scene.

The most common legal task that midwives faced was to discover the fathers of illegitimate children so that they could be made to pay for the upkeep of their offspring. Midwives did this by – to be blunt – threatening the mothers: If a woman refused to name the father of her bastard child (perhaps she had been paid for her silence), the midwife was supposed to withhold care during the birth.

“You don’t want to name the father?” she would ask. “Then you’re giving birth alone. Good luck and Godspeed.” (It is not for nothing that I opened The Midwife’s Tale with just this situation.) And while most mothers probably relented, there are cases in which midwives did indeed make good on their threat. In thus was the midwife’s job to expose infidelity and lechery to public view – reason enough for some men to kill, no?

More dramatic – and mercifully less common –was the midwife’s role in infanticide investigations. When an infant’s body was discovered, the constable would summon the local midwife and she would search out and interrogate suspects. Imagine the scene from the mother’s perspective:

A young woman has given birth to an illegitimate child, and she has done this in secret and by herself. Perhaps the child is stillborn, perhaps not, but the mother panics and abandons the child out of fear of discovery and punishment.

Within days or even hours, the midwife arrives with a dozen women in tow. She corners the mother and squeezes her breasts to see if she is lactating. She then insists on examining the mother’s privities (to use the early modern word) for evidence of a recent birth. Then the midwife and her assistants begin to badger the mother in confessing to a crime which had only one punishment: death by hanging. In depositions from infanticide cases, the language of pressing is ubiquitous: “after much pressing, Jane did confess” or “we pressed her further and again, until Jane did confessed.” There were no lawyers, no Miranda rights, just the mother and the women who would not be denied. Such work was not for the tender-hearted.

Nor was this all. As the local expert on women’s bodies, it fell to the midwife to examine women or girls who had been raped, and to testify against their assailants. If a woman were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant (which would prevent execution), the midwife judged whether she was lying. When a woman was accused of witchcraft, the midwife examined her body for evidence of the Witch’s Mark, where Satan’s imp had suckled. Guilt or innocence lay in the midwife’s hands.

Midwives thus dealt in their community’s darkest secrets:  adultery, murder, rape and witchcraft were their stock in trade. And in these cases, the midwife’s word determined who lived and who died.

What more could you want from a protagonist?

Sam Thomas is an author and teacher living in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His debut novel, The Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery, will be released by Minotaur/St. Martin’s on January 8. For more about mysteries and midwives, visit, The book is available for preorder at Amazon and B&N.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sometimes There Is No Why

by Sheila Connolly

Recently the wildly successful mystery writer Lee Child wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, titled "A Simple Way to Create Suspense."  While what I write is hardly similar to his books, what he said made a lot of sense to me.  It can be boiled down to this:  Ask a question. Then don't answer it.

At a regional conference, Dennis Lehane recently spoke about a related idea.  As an example, he suggested beginning a book with the protagonist—call him Joe—opening the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat.  Immediately we want to know:  what did Joe decide?  If the author never tells the reader what Joe ate for lunch, we feel cheated, because we humans are hardwired to look for answers.

In both Child's and Lehane's examples, the opening question, trivial or not, creates a sense of tension.  Child takes it a step further by deliberately withholding the answer.  As he wrote,

        "Someone killed someone else:  who? You'll find out at the end of the book.  Something weird is happening:  what?  You'll find out at the end of the book.  Something has to be stopped:  how?  You'll find out at the end of the book."

Keeps you reading, doesn't it?

This is something my editor and I have been wrestling with in the edits for my next Museum Mystery, Monument to the Dead.  Someone dies in Chapter 1, but it seems to be a natural death.  Then other people are identified as having died the same way, but all were called natural deaths.  Question 1:  are these deaths natural, or is someone killing them?  There is no evidence of murder, and nobody has investigated these deaths.

But to say they were murdered, someone has to ask:  why?  Who would want these people dead? There's no obvious reason for killing them.  So my protagonist and her allies go to work trying to find links between them.  And they do find a primary connection, but that doesn't explain the "why". That's because the "why" makes sense only to the killer, and it's not obvious to anyone else.

My editor (with whom I have worked on many books) wants to make this a more typical cozy, with a body up front (got that), and a cast of likely suspects who are first to be identified and then eliminated one by one.  I don't have that. There is really only one person who would have a motive for killing these people, and it takes the whole book to identify that person (and it's my protagonist's very specific knowledge that finally points to the killer).

I read an official FBI report on serial killers that states that motive is not the first thing an investigator should look for. FBI profilers caution against working to identify motive rather than looking for the killer.  And in most cases that makes sense. Follow the evidence first.

But I'm trying to twist it around in my book, because there is very little physical evidence to be had:  the victims are long buried, the autopsies cursory, the crime scenes cleaned up.  For me, the "why" is the important question. And I do give an answer.

The tragic recent events have left everyone asking "why?"  Why would anyone decide one day to start killing innocent children he didn't even know? Why would some guy set his house on fire and start shooting at anyone who came to put the fire out? Investigators are digging for every piece of family history, where the weapons came from, et cetera, et cetera, and reporting every shred of tangible evidence to the hungry press—because people want that "why." 

But what if the "why" is never answered?  Lee Child has got it right: we want the answer.  These awful events will linger in our memories, because that missing "why" will haunt us.

Lee Child, me, and this other guy

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Kids, Reading, and Storytelling

Elizabeth Zelvin

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project came out with a study recently on younger readers. Their stats, not only on teens but on younger adults up to age 29, found that more than 8 in 10 Americans aged 16 to 29 had read a book in the past year. (The 29-year-olds would have been 14 when the first Harry Potter book came out in the UK in 1997.) “Some 75% read a print book, 19% read an e-book, and 11% listened to an audiobook.” In fact, the under-25s’ stats (86% for 16-17s, 88% for 18-24s) compared favorably with 50-64-year-olds’ 77% and a shameful 68% for over-65s, my own age group.

So not only is reading still alive and well, but so are books, although we know that more and more kids—and younger and younger, as thumbing a digital device becomes one of those skills that those who start as toddlers learn easily, like walking and languages—are falling heir to only slightly dated e-readers and tablets as their parents trade up. The Pew study didn’t look at middle grade readers or the even younger readers of picture books. I’m sure that more and more parents, librarians, and teachers will read illustrated books to children on tablets, but if any books have made the most of the texture of paper and the subtleties of color and form, it’s surely children’s literature.

I was reminded of the power of illustrations while reading the first three books in L. Frank Baum’s series that begin with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. I got a dozen or so, those actually written by Baum, for practically nothing on Kindle. I first read them some time between third and sixth grade, because I used to sleep over at my best friend’s, and she had them on her bookshelves. I last read all forty of the Oz books in high school, or it might have been college, so going on fifty years ago at the most conservative. A high school friend had the whole collection, and he brought them over to my house in a little red wagon when I expressed interest in rereading them. (Today he’s a seller of collectible books.)

The Kindle edition had no illustrations. But as I read, I found I remembered each illustration vividly. In the first book, Dorothy had dark hair in braids and looked not unlike Judy Garland in the movie. In the subsequent books, she had short blond hair chopped off below her ears and wore a short dress that belted below the waist. Or maybe the flapper effect was due to the fact that she wore the Nome King’s magic belt. Ozma of Oz was portrayed in a sinuous art nouveau style, and I’ve had a fondness for that school of art ever since.

This fall, I attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I got there through a chain of digital-age circumstances: the author’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, who’s written the introduction to a special anniversary edition and reads the book aloud on the audio version, found me on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and emailed to ask if I could spread the word about a signing and panel in New York, at the Bank Street School (which my son coincidentally attended from the ages of 5 to 13). She had also been in touch with my blog sister, Julia Buckley, who (like me but even more so) was a fan of Joan Aiken’s adult romantic suspense novels. Julia couldn’t get to New York, but I exchanged a few emails with Lizza, who lives in England, and was happy to show up.

The event included a film clip of the author, a panel including her agent since 1958, one of her publishers, and a teacher, a writer, and a librarian who had been influenced by her strong heroines and tongue-in-cheek Dickensian style. The author’s daughter read one of the early scenes aloud. In it, a little girl traveling alone by train is terrified first by the offer of a mammoth box of chocolates and then by a wolf coming in through the window. If it doesn’t sound as charming to you as it did to me, well, you had to be there. But the thought that came to me was that it is not only reading that it is essential for us to preserve as a legacy to the next generation, but also the art of storytelling.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books I Loved This Year

by Sandra Parshall

I’m not sure what it says about my reading taste that two of my favorite 2012 novels were a massive historical about a cold political schemer in Henry VIII’s court and a merciless, thoroughly modern drama about a high school cheerleading squad.

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to the extraordinary Wolf Hall. It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, first Earl of Essex, a man of low birth who rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and to play an indispensable role in England’s break with the Catholic Church. Mantel tells the story from Cromwell’s point of view, in a sly, wry, witty voice that I suspect has made most readers like the man despite his sometimes reprehensible behavior.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott is something completely different. High school, as we all know, is a universe apart, inhabited by not-quite-adults whose clique-dominated lives barely intersect with their parents’ world. Athletes and cheerleaders reign supreme, and each group has its anointed leader. In Dare Me, the power structure within the cheerleader squad begins to wobble when a young, attractive female coach named Colette takes charge and challenges the queen bee status of head cheerleader Beth. Addy, Beth’s longtime sidekick, gets caught between Beth and the coach in a little war that eventually turns lethal. Nobody on the planet writes about adolescent girls with a clearer eye than Megan Abbott does. This is a terrifying, pitch-perfect psychological drama, and the author pulls it off with no onstage violence.

While Megan Abbott enthralls the reader by drilling deep into the psyches of her characters, Gillian Flynn keeps pages turning with misdirection and outright deception in Gone Girl. Published in June, Gone Girl is still riding high on bestseller lists in the U.S. and around the world. Why? The husband and wife protagonists are both unsympathetic. Anyone who has read a lot of suspense will figure out what’s happening long before the end. But I kept on reading, pulled along by Flynn’s sharp prose and her surefootedness on tricky ground. 

One book I loved that didn't get nearly enough attention from readers was So Much Pretty, an absorbing debut novel by Cara Hoffman. Stacy Flynn, a young journalist looking for a big break, moves to the rural, insular New York community of Haedon to investigate the effect on the environment of the area's main employer, a dairy farm. But she is drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a local girl and begins trying to fill in the blanks in the girl's past. Hoffman creates and sustains an atmosphere heavy with menace and secrets, and she turns the countryside of upstate New York into a toxic trap for natives and visitors alike.

I read
Sister by Rosamund Lupton early this year, but it was published in 2011. A simple plot description -- it's about a woman searching out the truth behind her beloved younger sister’s supposed suicide -- makes it sound like a hackneyed amateur sleuth tale, but Sister is much more than that. Like Abbott, Lupton explores characters and their relationships more deeply than most mystery writers would ever try to.

This year I read (or, more often, listened to) a number of Scandinavian crime novels, and I suppose I have Stieg Larsson to thank for that. I found Larsson’s “Girl” novels almost unreadable, but their popularity in the U.S. opened the door to American publication for other authors from that part of the world. I enjoyed The Hypnotist and The Nightmare by Lars Keplar (a husband-wife writing team), 1222 by Anne Holt, The Caller by Karin Fossum, and especially The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg, a wonderful Swedish writer I discovered last year with The Ice Princess.

Other books by favorite writers I enjoyed this year were The Buzzard Table by Margaret Maron, Catch Me by Lisa Gardner, The Pain Nurse by Jon Talton, Mad River by John Sandford, Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay, The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook, and Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham.

My favorite crime novel of the year, though, was Criminal by Karin Slaughter. I’ve read her books from the beginning, and I think her growth as a writer has been phenomenal. In this complex story of murder, ambition, betrayal, greed, and family secrets, Slaughter deftly shifts between time periods covering forty years and explores the darkest reaches of her characters’ hearts without stalling the pace for a second. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent is at the center of the story along with his partner Faith, but the long law enforcement career and personal life of Faith’s mother, Amanda Wagner, tie the past and present together. This is Karin Slaughter’s best book yet. Will is a fabulous character, and I was happy to hear a few months ago that a series of television movies based on the books is in the works. I can only hope the casting of Will is an improvement over the casting of Jack Reacher.

What were your favorite books this year?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Wonderful Christmas Eve Reading: Children's Books

My children are too old for children's books, but then again, these stories are so wonderful and nostalgic that I still like to read them, so I assume my children will love them always, as well.

For a lovely pictorial examination of Christmas Eve (each with a moving story accompanying it), consider reading one of these, alone or with a child upon your lap.  They have always made Christmas special in our house.

First, appropriate to the day, is Margaret Wise Brown's gentle On Christmas Eve, which captures the special magic of Christmas for three children who live in a big mysterious house where the attic is cold but hearts are warm, and the tree is . . . spectacular!

One of my all-time favorites and an example of the most beautiful Christmas prose ever written, Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales is filled with his own special memories, and it famously begins, "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." 

Anyone who has read Arthur or watched the wonderful Arthur series on PBS knows how much fun this aardvark boy and his family can be--and Arthur's Christmas is a special experience with beautiful full-color pictures and a story by the great Marc Brown.

Carl's Christmas is a wonderful adventure. Carl, the beautiful rottweiler dog, is not just a babysitter, but a companion who leads the baby into a wonderful Christmas adventure while the parents are away.  Very sweet--with practically no text at all, it tells a powerful story.
The Snow Lambs also features a wonderful dog--Bess the sheepdog--who disappears in a terrible storm to find a lost lamb. Everyone is very worried; will Bess make it back?

This story has a sort of Away in the Manger motif, as the animals in the stable wonder who is approaching their humble barn on such a cold night.  A lovely animal tale.

Toot and Puddle, that irrepressible pig duo, are separated for the holiday, and it just won't be the same if they can't spend it together.  Can they find happiness in Christmas without each other--and with a terrible snowstorm?

These are just some of the many wonderful Christmas books that sit on our children's book shelf.  We'll never give these away, but pass them down to grandchildren who will appreciate them just as our children did.

Merry reading, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happiest New Year!  May all of your resolutions come to pass.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Frosty and Me

Jeri with Frosty There's no men like snowmen. Yes, as you can see, I've been infatuated with snowmen from quite an early age. I think I am five years old in that picture. 1965. Yup. That's me. And that's an inflatable snowman next to me. And we were inseparable. Some kids had teddy bears or dolls. But I had a snowman. Why a snowman?

Well, for a little Jewish girl, I suppose a snowman is a safe, secular image of winter when there abounds many Christian symbols all around us: Christmas trees, holly, angels, Santa, reindeer, and mangers. Snowmen are safe. They are always cheerful. They're happy.

Of course, what's a kid in southern California (who never even saw snow on the ground until we ventured to the mountains when I was about ten) doing with a snowman?

I think we must have gotten it from a dime store, when things really did cost a dime. And snowmen are happy when my childhood wasn't so much. It must have coincided with my love of the Frosty the Snowman story. Which came first, I wonder, the inflatable fellow, or my hearing the song or reading the Little Golden Book? Doesn't much matter. I was left with a lifelong love of the chilly fellows and I've been collecting them ever since.

These are just a few of the many snowmen in my collection. Some only make appearances during the holidays, and some sit around the house in my office and in the living room all year.

Snowman story And just to keep things medieval here, here is a picture of the earliest known depiction of a snowman in a Book of Hours, ca 1380. Presumably, my character Crispin Guest could have made a snowman when he was a lad.
Above, in that picture from the wall of a castle in  Italy, Castillo del Buonconsiglio, seems to be the first representation of a snowball fight.

According to The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein, snowmen have come to mean different things throughout history. Perhaps they were blobby at first, but somewhere around the Renaissance, they were scuplted with a lot more skill and were more representational of individuals. Now, of course, they are just as much part of crass commercialism as anything else.

There is Frosty, though. I'm certainly not talking about that horrible 1969 Rankin Bass amateurish cartoon catastrophe. No, please excise that from your memory banks. It is an affront to the ice person of Frosty and all who love him. No, there is the Gene Autry hit song from 1950 that spawned the wonderful Little Golden Book with the politically incorrect illustrations (and only so because there are only white kids in the story) by Corinne Malvern.

I mean look at that icy punim. That corncob pipe, that button nose, those two eyes made out of coal. Who couldn't love that?
Here's a cake I made a few years ago. It's freakin' adorable!
Given where I live, I never even made a snowman until late childhood. It's hard work. That's a lot of snow to move, after all. I still live in a snow free southern California, and the Snowman that sits on my porch this time of year is, alas, made of plastic. Such is life. But if you love the Snowman like I do, you gotta have them around in one form or another. They make me smile and there aren't too many things that can easily make me do that.

If you'd like to know more about Snowmen, do get the Eckstein book. I'm thinking it's the definitive book on snowmen, many people really want to write about them?

Friday, December 21, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

I had a nice thoughtful piece about plotting all ready to go, and then I had one of those "duh!" moments:  today is the Winter Solstice.  Since I'm writing this post, you may infer that I do not adhere to the Mayan theory that the world will end today. 

But I will confess to a long-standing fascination with prehistoric monuments, many of which are aligned with one or another solstice—no mean achievement in a time when tools were rudimentary at best, and calculations were based on untold generations of observations and oral histories.  Think Stonehenge (which I have visited more than once) and Avebury (larger than Stonehenge but less well known—I have also been there, including a day after the summer solstice when, yes, there were people there who were hugging the stones) in England; the standing stones in Carnac in France; and the many stone circles in Ireland, with a particular concentration in County Cork. (I know, there is a batch in Cornwall, but I haven't seen those yet.)


The Drombeg Stone Circle is one I've seen many times, because it is a truly moving and mystical place.  But there are other more obscure circles, and my daughter, my husband and I have gone wandering through the lanes of Ireland hunting for them.  We have walked across wheat fields (my apologies to the farmer), and attempted to wade through mucky fields and cross streams and avoid angry dogs and curious cows in this pursuit—not always successfully.  But we relish the hunt, thrilling at the sighting of our elusive pray in the distance.

One we couldn't reach--too much mud
This year we found several but could get close to only one.  The instructions for finding it ran along the lines of, "turn left at the garden center and follow the right fork of the lane for 1.3 km, then walk up the hill."  But we triumphed. The circle was small but lovingly maintained, in a well mown field with a sturdy gate.  We rejoiced. 


I have always accepted the theories of the various alignments of the stone circles, but this was the first time it became personal. Two of the opposing stones were carefully lined up with each other, and on close inspection, each bore a shallow groove on the top, perpendicular to the main faces.  The grooves lined up with each other as well. 

The stones and grooves aligned
I was fortunate to have a compass with me.  No, I don't usually carry a compass, but after getting lost in the dark lanes more than once (and having a conversation with a local policeman about where we thought we were going, which turned out to be completely wrong), I saw a nice one in an shop and bought it.

Anyway, I laid the compass on the stone and sighted along the groove, toward the opposite stone, and came up with a near-perfect southwest direction. Which wouldn't have meant much to me, except to satisfy my curiosity.  But later that day, we returned to our rented cottage and I realized the sun was setting, so I grabbed my compass and checked the point of sunset:  a southwest alignment.  Only a few weeks before the solstice.  The ancients had it right.

It is powerfully moving to run your finger along a shallow cutting that someone made with great effort a couple of thousand years ago, to find that their calculations were so accurate.  It's like touching the past.

Welcome to winter—and to the beginning of the lengthening of the days and the return to spring.  Celebrate!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Importance of Dialogue

Elizabeth Zelvin

We all know that dialogue is one of the most important aspects of fiction, as well as one of the most enjoyable. But why? At Killer Nashville this August, I participated in a panel on the topic (“Talk Is Cheap”) that came up with a number of different answers—all valid—and, in the short time available, managed to leave out perhaps the most crucial reason, which I didn’t think of until the next day, while chatting with one of my fellow panelists.

The initial question at the panel was, “What is the purpose of dialogue?” When I first heard it (in an email from the moderator to the panelists weeks before the conference), my first reaction was that for me, that’s the wrong question. Somehow it made me picture the writer deliberately fabricating dialogue that would serve whatever he or she thought the purpose was and plugging it in to make sure that that element of a well-constructed novel or short story was present.

For me, dialogue is intuitive. In fact, where the creative process usually starts is with characters—already in existence in previous work or new ones—talking in my head. At the panel itself, as soon as someone answered the question by saying that the primary purpose of dialogue for him was to advance the plot, I realized I had an opinion after all: for me, it’s to build character. We talked a lot about what makes good and bad dialogue; how a character’s voice may differ from the narrative voice; how dialogue can vary according to the gender, education, age, and physical location of the characters. Writers and readers have varying opinions about whether a dialect should be rendered or implied and whether, when, and how much profanity or obscenity is acceptable.

Since I have written both male and female characters in the first-person narrative voice and given them a lot to say in dialogue, I am well aware of how differently men and women express themselves, even if they belong to a common culture in other ways. The theme of my mystery series is recovery. My protagonist, Bruce, is a recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth (and a good heart, of course). His sidekick, Barbara, is a world-class codependent who’s addicted to helping people and minding everybody’s business. She’s also a non-stop talker and an inveterate enthusiast. (Come to think of it, in the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober I had all her dialogue in run-on sentences, but once I started showing the manuscript around, I quickly learned that didn’t work.) And Bruce’s second sidekick, Jimmy, is less cynical than Bruce and has been sober a lot longer, but he’s also a guy.

What might Barbara say to Bruce that Jimmy would never say? Example: “I think it’s absolutely fantastic that you have a whole year of sobriety, sweetie.”

What might Jimmy say to Bruce that Barbara would never say? Example: “You’ve gotta stop leading with your dick, bro.”

And if you think the epithets “sweetie” and “bro” make it too easy, take them out. Without them, the voice in each of those lines still makes the gender of the speaker obvious.

The mots d’escalier (wonderful French expression for the words you think of on the stairs afterward, when it’s too late) on this topic are so crucial that I can’t believe we all forgot during the panel: Dialogue is the most expressive way to present conflict. This is true regardless of whether the work in question is a TV sitcom or Shakespeare.

No matter how many times it’s been used, in the right circumstances, “I did not!” “Yes, you did!” “I did not!” “Yes, you did!” can still get a laugh.

On the other end of the spectrum:

Mercutio: O calm, dishonorable, vile submission.
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?
Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives, that I mean to make bold withal, and, as you shall use me hereafter, dry-beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out.
Tybalt: I am for you.
Romeo: Gentle Mercutio, put your rapier up.
Mercutio: Come, sir, your passado.
...I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene One)

Of course, the sword fight represented by those ellipses (...) expresses conflict very well indeed. A fight, a chase, or a competition are all forms of conflict that advance the action. But there’s not much difference between Shakespeare and Men in Tights until the writer puts words into the characters’ mouths.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Does lead poisoning cause violence?

by Sandra Parshall

Although society seems to be reeling from the worst violence in history, the truth is that crime rates in the U.S. have dropped steadily since peaking around 1990.

Politicians and law enforcement agencies are happy to take the credit. Then-mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton basked in praise when the city saw the sharpest drop in crime since the end of Prohibition. But did their get-tough policies bring about the change, or was something less obvious happening, not just in New York but across the country?

For years I’ve read off and on about scientific studies showing a link between high levels of lead in the environment and violent crime, and corresponding drops in crime when people were exposed to less lead. Yet no government body, certainly no law enforcement agency, has shown an interest in the possibility that lead poisoning is the cause of a lot of criminal behavior.

The correlation between lead exposure and crime looks strong in the statistics. For decades, the single greatest source of lead in the environment was auto exhaust. As children who were exposed to lead grew to adolescence and young adulthood, the violent crime rate increased. The phase-out of leaded gasoline in the U.S. began in 1973. When children born in the 1970s and after began to mature twenty years later, in the early 1990s, the crime rate started to decline. The turnaround has happened not only in the United States, but also in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Finland, and West Germany, all countries that quickly and dramatically reduced the amount of lead that vehicles spewed into the air through their exhaust pipes.

The January-February 2013 issue of Mother Jones magazine has a comprehensive report on the lead-crime connection, written by investigative journalist Kevin Drum. The article contains documented information that every American, and especially those with children and grandchildren, should pay attention to, because our environment still contains far too much lead. This isn’t a matter of politics. It’s simply a question of what we’re willing to do to protect children from the brain damage lead causes – permanent, incurable damage that can result in violent behavior and uncontrollable impulses.

Scientists have long known that eating chips of lead paint causes brain damage in children – lower IQ levels, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and juvenile delinquency as the children aged. In the 1990s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided it might be a good idea to remove lead paint from old houses, and they hired Rick Nevin as a consultant on the costs and benefits of this massive project.

Nevin followed the link between the metal and brain damage beyond paint to a far greater source of lead in the environment: gasoline. Lead isn’t a natural part of gasoline. General Motors invented tetraethyl lead in the 1920s as an additive to prevent pinging and knocking in engines. After World War II the auto industry boomed, and soon children all over the country were breathing in lead every day. Tetraethyl is doubly dangerous because, unlike the lead in paint and pipes, it’s easily absorbed through the skin. In the 1960s, twenty years after the auto boom began, crime levels started rising dramatically. The crime wave continued until the early 1990s, twenty years after the phase-out of leaded gas began.

Rick Nevin presented the results of his research in a 2000 paper, laying out  detailed evidence of the correlation between lead and criminal behavior. Children who were exposed to high levels of lead in the 1940s and 1950s were indeed more likely to become violent criminals in the period between the 1960s and 1990.

Nevin’s findings, published in the journal Environmental Research, were ignored by government bodies and law enforcement.

Nevin wasn’t the only researcher looking into the topic, though. Harvard graduate student Jessica Wolpaw Reyes investigated the connection between lead and violence for her dissertation in the late 1990s and came to the same conclusion Nevin had. She carried it further, and learned that in states where lead-free gasoline was quickly accepted, the rate of violent crime committed by young adults declined rapidly a couple of decades later. In  states where consumers were slow to begin using lead-free gasoline, the drop in crime was slower.

More recently, other researchers have published studies demonstrating the link between lead and violence at the local, state, national and international levels. “Put all this together,” Kevin Drum says in his Mother Jones article, “and you have an astonishing body of evidence.”

Using a new generation of neurological scanners, researchers have also documented the ways in which lead damages the human brain and nervous system. Lead poisoning can cause a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with reasoning, mental flexibility, attention, emotional regulation, and control of impulses and aggression.

Of course, not all crime is caused by lead poisoning, and not all of us who were exposed to lead as children (I am in that group myself) turned into violent adults. Drum points out that almost everyone in the U.S. over the age of 40 was exposed to excessive lead while growing up, and most of us probably suffered no more than the loss of a few IQ points. But millions of children already living on the margin of emotional and physical health were vulnerable to lead’s most devastating effects.

Why have criminologists, public authorities, and law enforcement agencies ignored the mountains of evidence that lead poisoning causes violent behavior? Every expert wants to explain violence in terms of his own expertise. A psychologist looks into the offender’s background for a psychological explanation. Politicians blame lax law enforcement or the  booming trade in illegal drugs. And so on. None of the criminology experts Drum contacted showed the slightest interest in the lead hypothesis.

In any case, auto fuel and house paints no longer contain lead, so the problem is solved, right? No. As Drum points out, millions of houses with leaded paint remain in the U.S., and the lead can be released to do more harm during remodeling. Airplane fuel still consists of as much as 60% tetraethyl. Small plane exhaust, by some accounts, contributes at least half of the lead remaining in our air. The lead that cars vented into the air for decades is still with us, absorbed into the soil beneath our feet. The soil our food is grown in. The soil children play on in parks. Tetraethyl, invented to stop car engines from making annoying sounds, lives on as a toxin  everywhere in our environment.

The Lead Safe America Foundation advises that if you live in an old house or neighborhood, you and your children should be tested for lead levels. If you want to renovate an old house, find out how to do it safely – or, better yet, hire a company whose workers are trained to remove lead paint.  

The cost of lead abatement nationwide would be staggering, and that, in the end, may be the reason no one wants to face the dangers of leaving it in place.

Drum concludes, “This is the choice before us: We can either attack crime at its root by getting rid of the remaining lead in our environment, or we can continue our current policy of waiting 20 years and then locking up all the lead-poisoned kids who have turned into criminals... Cleaning up the rest of the lead that remains in our environment could turn out to be the cheapest, most effective crime prevention tool we have. And we could start doing it tomorrow.”

Mother Jones, the January-February issue: buy it and read Kevin Drum’s full report. I’ve touched on only a fraction of it here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Building Worlds and Villains

Sharon Wildwind

Let’s keep astrophysics out of this discussion, okay?

Several years ago at a science fiction convention, I spent an interesting and throughly confusing hour listening to a panel discussing world-building. Since I spend my working days more-or-less building imaginary worlds, I thought this panel might be helpful.

In reality, it was a discussion of how to physically build a world. How big should it be? Should it be round or oval? How does its orbit affect weather? How old is it in geological terms? How much of the planet is water? How much is desert? What is its albedo?

I didn’t even know what albedo was. Turns out to be the reflective coefficient of an object, and this affects the planet’s equilibrium temperature. In case you’re interested, the Earth’s albedo 0.39, but that’s an average. Sunlight on fresh show can be as high as .85 (this is why you need sunglasses while skiing) and dense forests as low as 0.1 (bring a flashlight).

Occasionally I’m asked to critique a story set on an alternative world. My first question is, what is the major premise on which your world runs?

Sometimes I get a confidential, “It’s really England in the early 1800s, but instead of a working steam engine someone is going to invent a steam-powered airship.”

Sorry, but that’s not an alternative world.

An alternative world proposes a major change in how the world works. When it’s well written, an alternative-world story depends on implications that flow from that proposal. Sherlock Holmes proposed that criminals far more devious and ruthless than the police. Usurla LeGuinn’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas proposed that an entire city’s happiness depended on how one child was treated. Ray Bradbury said that Fahrenheit 451 proposed how television destroyed interest in reading literature, which led to believing unrelated factoids passed for knowledge.

As writers, we build alternative worlds. As mystery writers, we believe that a killer’s reason to kill makes sense to him or her and can, under the right circumstances, make sense to the reader as well. That’s the basis on which we build the villain’s alternative world.

Here’s a proposal: the world owes clever people a living.

Right away three sub-proposals pop up. Clever people are in the minority. Life is a zero-sum game: when a clever person wins, a less clever person loses. This is the way life should be.

This is where we get to what I call my Havoc Hedge Fund. What can I invest in the character that’s likely to pay the most dividends in plot stakes later? It’s always complex; the more layered the motivation, the better the payoff.

My villain is clever and he’s been told so all his life, but the people who pushed him to think of himself as clever are not reliable and they’ve used his cleverness for their own gains.

Let’s look at the four “stocks” in our Havoc Hedge Fund and see how they pay dividends.

He’s clever: He’ll have credentials and a good job, but it’s never enough. He’s always after the next big score. He has a right to the best because he’s clever. Anyone who gets in his way is fair game.

People tell him he’s clever: Halo effect. He expects compliments, favors, and not to have to play by the rules. He’s the guy who has the perfectly good reason to jump to the head of the bank queue. Anyone who doesn’t think he’s clever is fair game.

People who pushed him to think of himself as clever are not reliable: He doesn’t make good choices about the people who surround him. He likes people who pander to his ego; dismisses people who don’t. Need a good secondary character here who sees through him. Maybe he’ll polish her off just because she does see through him.

People use his cleverness for their own gains: nice trigger point here. He was recently taken advantage of in a big, public way. People laughed at him. He hates that. Now he’s out for revenge and, heck, who could blame him? It’s not right to treat a clever person that way. The guy who embarrassed him needs to be taught a lesson and he knows just the clever way to do it. There’s no way he’s going to get caught. Clever people don’t get caught.

The sad thing is that this world view makes perfect sense to him. The great thing is it makes perfect sense to us as writers, even if we run our own lives on completely different values. This why we’re writers. As Geoffrey Chaucer said in A Knight’s Tale, “I give wide scope to the truth.”

By the time we meet again, the gifts will have been opened and the Christmas brunches eaten. All the holiday best to you and yours.

Quote for the week
The writer needs to react to his or her own internal universe, to his or her own point of view. If he or she doesn't have a personal point of view, it's impossible to be a creator. 
~Manuel Puig (1932 – 1990), Argentinean author

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Window Shopping (or Last Minute Gift Ideas)

by Julia Buckley

Half the fun of Christmas presents is window shopping.  But in case you need some last minute ideas, maybe you'll actually want to purchase one of these!

Check out this gorgeous book-lover's basket on Amazon!

This donut maker looks like a winner to me--but since I'm hoping to drop some pounds in 2013 I guess I'll forego. Check it out!

Love your earth by nurturing your own little ecosphere.

The gardener on your list might enjoy this beautiful sundial.

Feeling frugal? Click the link above for some thoughtful (yet money-saving) ideas.

I love this medieval knight; he makes a terrific companion to books on a shelf.

GAME OF THRONES fans would love these awesome dragon bookends.

Remember IT TAKES A THIEF with Robert Wagner?  Wireless catalog has the entire series on DVD.

I could go on, but of course the best gift you can give anyone is the gift of time with you.

As Christmas approaches, I hope you're all able to avoid the crush of shoppers and find some peace in the splendor of nature.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mayhem and Murder for Christmas

by Terri L. Austin
Author of Last Diner Standing

I’ve been a mystery fan from an early age. I used to play detective with my friends at recess. I don’t remember what we were investigating exactly, but we were always looking for clues in the field behind the school. I watched mysteries on TV—Moonlighting was my favorite show. And I loved Agatha Christie books from the time I was in junior high. 

I think as readers we like putting ourselves in the shoes of the sleuth, be it a cozy amateur sleuth like Miss Marple or a futuristic detective like Eve Dallas. If we relate to the main character, we want to read to the last page.

With an amateur detective at the helm, the reader can sympathize with the main character going about her daily life, only to be blindsided by a mystery. Stumbling upon clues and having a cast of suspects from which to choose allows readers to work the mystery right alongside the main character. And did the readers guess correctly? Or did they jump from suspect to suspect as the clues unfolded? 

I write about an amateur sleuth in The Rose Strickland Mystery series. In my latest book, I have a very unlikable victim, a motley crew of suspects, and a quirky gang of regulars that help my heroine, Rose. In my new book, Last Diner Standing, Rose’s friend Janelle has been arrested for attempted murder. Janelle has two small children and Christmas is only three weeks away.

It’s important that an amateur sleuth has a good, solid reason to solve the crime. The reader needs to know what’s at stake. My hope is that Rose is a character readers can relate to. And I hope they enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

Thank you so much for having me on Poe’s Deadly Daughters. It was a pleasure to be here.
Last Diner Standing
By Terri L. Austin
ISBN 978 1938383083
Henery Press
Released December 3, 2012

Rose Strickland is having a blue Christmas. Her friend is arrested for attempted murder, her sexy bad guy crush is marked by a hit man, and her boss is locked in an epic smackdown with a rival diner. Determined to save those she loves, Rose embarks on an investigation more tangled than a box of last year's tree lights. With her eclectic gang at the ready, Rose stumbles across dead bodies, ex-cons, jilted lovers, and a gaggle of strippers as she searches for the truth. What she finds will leave her entrenched in a battle for freedom she might not survive.

Terri L. Austin lives in Missouri with her funny, handsome husband and a high maintenance peekapoo. She’s the author of Diners, Dives and Dead Ends, a Rose Strickland Mystery. Kirkus Reviews said of her first book, “Austin’s debut kicks off her planned series by introducing a quirky, feisty heroine and a great supporting cast of characters and putting them through quite a number of interesting twists.” 

Terri loves to hear from readers. You can finder her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads,, and Henery Press. Terri and some of her writer friends have a Wednesday book chat on Little Read Hens. Stop by and join the conversation.