Friday, May 31, 2013

In my Grandmother's Footsteps

by Sheila Connolly

When you read this, I will be in Italy, if all goes as planned.  And for once, I didn't have to do the planning—this is a trip for a group of us who were in the same college class, proposed a year ago at one of those milestone reunions.  Two classmates who have access to villas and vineyards and good things like that are doing all the organizing; all I have to do is show up.  No spouses or significant others allowed.  I feel like I'm walking into a Lifetime network movie.

I always knew I wanted to go to Europe, thanks mainly to my grandmother.  As I've mentioned before, she was orphaned young, and anything she achieved in life she did through her own efforts.  She ended up in upper management at Lipton Tea Company in New York in the 1950s, which was a pretty significant achievement in those days.

She was "encouraged" to retire in 1958, when she wasn't even sixty.  Her long-time mentor was retiring, and a new administration was coming in, so she had little choice.  But the company gave her a nice parting gift:  a luxury trip to Europe.  This was defined as a working trip:  she had been instrumental in assembling a collection of tea-related antique silver items for the Lipton Collection, and she was asked to take it on the road to the capitals of Europe that summer. 

And they put her up in style!  She took the Queen Elizabeth (the first) one way, the Queen Mary the other.  She had a driver in each country.  All her rooms were booked for her, all meetings scheduled, all appointments made. All she had to do was be there and be charming, which she did well.

And of course she sent postcards to my mother, my sister and me.  We dutifully kept them and put them all in an album, which I still have, so I can reconstruct the trip.  If we assembled it right, she started in London (not surprising, since most of the silver pieces were English in origin), and the first postcards are of the guards at Buckingham Palace, in late June of 1958.  Then Holland (yes, colored postcards of cute little Dutch girls wearing wooden clogs), Lake Lucerne, and on into Italy—Florence, Rome, Venice (lots of postcards from Venice—she must have liked it!), and finally Paris, by way of the chateaux of the Loire Valley.  The trip took a month.

Then she joined us at our rented house on the Jersey shore, laden with souvenirs—I still have some of the little soaps and tiny perfume bottles she brought me, tucked in a trunk in the attic.

Her trip had a tremendous impact on me.  I knew early that I wanted to follow in her footsteps (only more than just once!), and ended up majoring in art history so I'd have a professional excuse to do it.  It was fun traveling as a starving student back in those days, when you could get a prix-fixe three-course meal for less than five dollars, and a hotel room in the country might cost you ten.  Renting a car (a Deux Chevaux which sounded like a lawn mower and had about as much power) was the big splurge, but it enabled me to see out-of-the-way places and small towns, and actually talk to people.  So I visited all the sites (except for Holland) that matched the long-ago postcards from my grandmother, and much more.  And later I took my mother and my daughter (together) on the same trip through France.

For a while life got in the way, so there was a decade or more without any grand trips, but now I'm making up for lost time.  And forty years after my first (and only) visit to Florence, I'm going back, to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi and Michelangelo's David—and the extraordinary gelato! My first visit was with a college classmate, so it's fitting that the next one should be as well, except that this time there will be thirty of us, and drivers.  And the better part of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom so I can appreciate what I only glanced at before.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Big Brother Is Watching You

Elizabeth Zelvin

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was published in 1949. I read it as a teenager in the Fifties and found it very scary indeed. I’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Orwell was. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. ...It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. ...

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the moustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at streetlevel another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind.... In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.

It was a great relief to me when the year 1984 came and went without Big Brother and the Thought Police becoming a reality. It’s almost thirty years later, and in the US, at least, proponents of the Thought Police are still fighting an uphill battle, partly thanks to that unruly avatar of the proletariat, the Internet. But Big Brother is here.

I’ve recently watched the entire series Prime Suspect (1991-2006) with Helen Mirren on Netflix, and I was struck by how much information the police got from closed-circuit television (CCTV). According to Wikipedia, CCTV is more heavily used in the UK than in the US, but our recent history of terrorist attacks has made Americans more willing to relinquish some of their privacy—and the law more insistent on observing us.

Then there are the global positioning satellite (GPS) locators in our cell phones and tablets. I’m not talking about my traveling companion Sadie, who cheerfully recalculates whenever I make a wrong turn. But on my iPhone and my iPad, some app or other is constantly asking if I’m willing to let them identify the location where I am right now.

Then there’s the targeted advertising on the Web. Google offers content matching as an advertising option. What it means to the consumer is that, if I buy a pair of rain boots online or visit the fantasy sports site that’s my son’s employer—once—ads for rain boots and online betting follow me around for days or weeks, whether I’m researching crime in medieval Spain or comparison shopping for vacuum cleaners.

In September 2012, my blog sister Sharon Wildwind wrote a wonderful post on information silos. As Sharon said, “If I go to Wikipedia all the time, and you don’t, Wikipedia is likely to show up in my results as the #1 or #2 hit.” In other words, as a result of my past researching decisions, Google gets to play Big Brother, herding me through a narrower and narrower gateway and thus limiting my future ease of access to a broad range of information.

Every time I finish reading a book on Kindle, the device insists on asking me if I want to share what I’ve just read before it will let me close the book. Facebook constantly changes its algorithms controlling whose comments and pictures I see on my own page and how and to whom my messages reach others.

With cell phones, everyone’s a photographer. And with instant sharing, a headshot of me could be transmitted to thousands of strangers without my knowledge or permission. (In one of SJ Rozan’s recent books, a murderer was caught that way, by enlisting the detective's followers on Twitter and their followers to track him through the streets of New York.)

When I first became an online therapist in 2000, we were already talking about the “disinhibition effect.” Since then, cell phones have given license to the holding of intimate conversations in public, and social media to the reporting of the minutiae of daily life, even in the bathroom and the bedroom. In short, we are constantly exhorted to tell what we’ve just read, what we’ve bought, and what we’re doing right now. And for those who don’t care to share, Big Brother is on the job, processing the countless data breadcrumbs that we leave as we go about our lives.

At least Big Brother isn’t monitoring our thoughts or rounding us up—yet. As my 101-year-old Aunt Hilda (born nine years before Orwell) said the other day, “It’s a capitalist world.” So far, he’s just trying to make us buy, buy, buy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Retire? I'm just getting started!

by Sandra Parshall

A neighbor who just turned 100 asked me what I expect to be doing when I’m 100.

My answer? Writing, of course. At whatever age I reach ultimately, I hope I’ll still be killing people on the page and sending villains to a just punishment.

Novelists don’t retire in any conventional sense. We don’t decide that on a certain date we will walk away from our jobs forever. Nobody holds parties for retiring novelists and presents them with gold watches.

We may be involuntarily retired by illness, but only afterward do we look back and realize that A Particular Novel was our last. We’re likely to wish desperately that we’d known, so we could have made it better, more worthy of the honor of being a swan song.

The same is true for most creative people, who continue to paint or sculpt or create music into advanced old age, as long as their general health and mental state permit. Studies have shown that keeping our minds active and having work to do helps us live longer and more satisfying lives. Furthermore, the non-creative public expects artists of all stripes to go on producing their art, whatever it is, until they slam into that immovable object called death. Admirers are mystified when somebody simply stops for no discernable reason and drops out of sight.

I started thinking about all this while reading an article about Billy Joel in the May 26 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Maybe you saw Joel perform during the Hurricane Sandy relief concert, but you haven’t seen him on any other stage recently. At 64, he’s retired. After finishing a 2010 tour with Elton John that left him literally crippled by pain, Joel had double hip replacement surgery, and he feels fine now, but he has no desire to return to an active performing career. He gave up recording long ago: he hasn’t released an album in 20 years. He lives a quiet life in Sag Harbor with his dogs, his motorcycles, and his current girlfriend.

A lot of people seem puzzled when a celebrity chooses to give up the glamorous trappings of life in the spotlight. But if you read what Joel says about it, that life will seem much less desirable. He couldn’t enjoy an evening out with the woman in his life because he was constantly approached by fans. He couldn’t take his daughter to an amusement park or do any number of other ordinary things most people take for granted. Now he’s “an oldies act” who isn’t popular with today’s kids, and the longer he stays away from performing, the closer to normal his life becomes. He still writes music because he still has the creative urge, but it’s not rock music anymore. His term for the Rolling Stones, Pete Townsend, Paul McCartney, and others in their 60s and 70s who still perform is “rocking-chair rockers.”

Writing is an easier career than popular music for older people, as long as our minds stay sharp. We’re encouraged to get out and about and meet readers, but public appearances aren’t strictly necessary. Our publishers want us to do Facebook and Goodreads, but no one expects us to dance around a stage and destroy our hip joints by leaping off pianos. Only super-famous authors are recognized in public and treated like celebrities. Most writers can live perfectly ordinary lives while thousands of people are reading what we write.

Some authors don’t even begin their writing careers until they get the kids out of the house or retire from other jobs and, at last, have time to follow their hearts’ desire. Many – like myself – write for years before we finally get a toehold in the publishing world. Others my age may be settling into a life of leisure, but don’t talk to me about retiring – I’m just getting started!

What are you planning to do with your golden years? Relax – or pursue a long-deferred dream?

(And be honest: do you think it’s time for Mick Jagger, who will turn 70 in July, to hang it up?)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mobile Me

Sharon Wildwind
It must be summer because I’ve been to computer camp. I even got a T-shirt.

Here are some things I learned at camp about web sites and mobile devices.

60% of computer users in North America use a mobile device as their preferred source of Internet information. The days of designing web sites for the desktop computer are way behind us. Unfortunately, many of us designed our web site way back when desktop computers were the norm. Have you ever seen your web site on a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone?

There are programs on-line that allow you to do this, but you can also do a quick mobile check just by resizing your screen.
Go to your home page.
In the lower right side of your screen should be a resize tab.
Move that tab up and to the left until the screen is about the size of a laptop screen. Here’s what mine looks like. 

What my site looks like on a laptop.
It’s not that bad. My name is still there, most my photo, and that I’m a writer, etc. However, I’ve lost my contact information, which is at the lower left corner of the full screen.

Keep decreasing the screen size until it's about the size of an iPad or other tablet. Essential information is still there, but my photo is starting to disappear.

What my web site looks like on a tablet.
Finally, go all the way to mobile phone screen size. Here’s mine.
What my site looks like on a mobile phone.
Design Rule #1: Design for a mobile screen first.
Remember that mobile is used on the go. What is the first thing your user looks for on the mobile device? Design your mobile for that essential, information.

Two people are having coffee. One says, “Have you read [Insert your name here]?” The other woman says, “No,” and pulls out her mobile to look for you. What information does she need on her mobile screen?

Your name. How to reach you by Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

I’m not doing too badly, but the only contact information visible is my Google+ link. So I went into my web program and reorganized two items. I moved my Twitter information up on the screen, and I added sub-menus under the Books and Art headings. The mobile user can now click on one of those little white triangles and get a list of my books and the art pieces I’m currently showing.

My web site revised for a mobile phone.
 Fortunately my program allows me to make these changes very easily. If you have a similar program, think about rearranging the information on your home screen so that the essential information is in the upper left corner of your screen.

If someone helps you with your web site, ask them to check how your home screen looks in a mobile phone format and rearrange information so that essential contact information is in the upper left corner of the screen.

Down the road, when you’re ready for a site redesign, think about or have our computer guy or gal think about designing your screen in columns.
  • Essential (mobile) information should be in the far left top corner.
  • Most desired information is one column over: this will show up on tablets.
  • Desired information one colum over from that: this shows up on laptops.
  • Finally, your nice to have on the far right. Chances are this last column will show up only on full-screen desk computers or very large laptops.

Here are a couple of other tweaks you or your computer person might consider.

This first one comes with a warning: it’s the most techie two paragraphs in the blog.
Dump meta keywords and descriptions entirely. They are no longer used and if meta information hasn’t been changed in a long time, hackers think this is a vulnerable site they can take over.
Remove generator tag entirely. An unchanging generator tag alerts hackers to blogs that haven’t been posted to in a while.

I’ve managed to locate my meta keywords and delete them, but generator tags are a foreign country. Someone else is going to help me with that.

You can use customer descriptions as key words: for example if you would like to sell your book to book clubs, add mystery and book club to your key words. Don’t bother with a phrase such as mysteries for book clubs because for is not a good key word.

When posting photos, name your photos well because photo names become key search words. Suppose I’d taken a research trip to Ireland (Don’t I wish) and I’m posting photos of that trip.
  • Worst photo name I could use would be not to change what comes out of the camera, such as IMG0568
  • Slightly Better photo name Donegal Trip. At least Donegal would become a key search word. Trip is too generic to be a good key word.
  • Great photo name Sharon Wildwind-Donegal-Ireland, because all three are good key words.

In naming photos, use hyphens rather than underscores because the Google Search Engine reads these marks in different ways. If I’d named my imaginary photo Sharon_Wildwind_Donegal_Ireland the underscores may do strange things in Google.

If you’re not sure what size to use for a photo try resizing it to 585 pixels x 585 pixels if it’s a square photo and 585 pixels on the long side and 366 pixels on the short side if a rectangle. That’s an average base size that is likely to work on a lot of devices, including mobile phones.
Quote for the week

What is the best social media for us to be on? The one where everyone else is. This means we have to move as the crowd moves. This doesn’t mean that we abandon other programs, but we change our emphasis of where we spend the most time, energy, and financial resources.
~Chris Garrett, author and smart computer guy, 2013 May 25

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Value of Nostalgia

My sons on their way home from school, sometime around 2006.
My sons will both graduate in the next couple of weeks--one from eighth grade and one from high school.  Therefore, almost without consciously choosing to do so, I've been reflecting a lot on their school days and the way they've framed our lives.

My oldest son had only been in first grade for a couple of weeks when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists. That terrible event sealed the day, and the time, into my memory.  My children were too young to really be conscious of it as anything significant, and I had to surreptitiously watch footage while they strolled past the television clutching Batman action figures and rehearsing imaginary scenes of imposed justice.

Looking back at a child's school years, it's not always clear which year he grew the most, or which teacher(s) had the biggest impact on him.  I remember that my smaller son's pre-school teacher had an event in which she taught them how to be "ladies and gentlemen."  The boys wore little suits and asked the girls to dance--quite a comical sight when the dancers are four years old--and the children took it very seriously. On Mother's Day she had the children treat us to manicures.  I can still see my youngest concentrating on painting my toenails with metallic blue polish, his face intent on his task.

I recall my older son's second grade teacher telling me gently that yes, my child was very smart and clever, but that he was in a classroom full of smart and clever children, and he would need to try if he was going to keep up. (Even then she had spotted Ian's habit of coasting on his intelligence).  That was a lesson to me as a parent, as well.  While it's easy to assume, when you've watched your child grow in amazing ways since the day of his birth, that he is in fact the best in the world, it is also good to be reminded that "best" is relative, and probably a term in every parent's vocabulary.

We had emergencies: the worst was when Ian broke his arm in kindergarten.  I was called to the school, and (for reasons I can't recall) I was the one who drove him to the emergency room while he grimaced in pain at every bump.  What I had hoped would be a quick alleviation of pain and marching home with a cast on his newly-repaired arm turned into half a day of pain and X-rays and eventual anasthesia and surgery.  Every doctor and nurse who looked at his X-ray winced in sympathy.  He had cracked his humerus in half between his elbow and his shoulder, and it needed to be pinned back in place.  I actually watched my hair get grayer in those few days I slept in his hospital room.  

There were days, too, that I had to leave work suddenly to pick up a sick boy, and days I had to leave work to pick up a boy pretending to be sick.  :)  There were colds and flus and stomach bugs.  When Ian was a freshman in high school, he called me from inside an ambulance to say that he'd been hit by a car.  I got there, my younger son in tow, to find Ian with a big red welt on his head, a pair of bleeding hands, and a missing shoe (we never did find it).  Miraculously, the ambulance attendants told us he had no serious injury, nor did his friend Adrian, who had also been struck by the car.  They had crossed the street on a rainy day and happened to encounter a woman who was texting, driving without a license, and speeding.  A whole herd of their friends watched the incident occur (the boys, luckily, went onto her hood and over the side), and one of them chased the car when the woman tried to drive away.

There were victories: they both ran for student office and won.  They created wonderful essays and beautiful works of art.  Ian won first place in a creative writing contest.  Graham's fourth grade teacher told me that he was "a delight" because of his affable personality.  He still is the nicest member of our family.  Ian got his first job, his first paycheck, his first review, his first raise.  Graham started babysitting for our next door neighbor. 

Through it all they have loved each other. Yes, their battles are mighty and frequent, but they are arguably closer to one another than they are to anyone else. 

I am sentimental, but I don't tend to be too emotional about their various milestones.  I didn't sob when they left pre-school and kindergarten; or when my oldest graduated eighth grade (although I did get teary).

But this year might be different.  This year I'm going to hear that significant use of the middle name--the full-out graduation name that I really haven't contemplated since they were newborns and I wrote it on their birth announcements.  So when I hear someone intone Ian James Buckley and Graham William Buckley, that might send me into some nostalgic tears.

But nostalgia is good and important.  Our memories frame our lives and remind us that we existed in the past and have taken lessons into the present.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Guest Author Kim Fay

Today, the fabulous Kim Fay. I met her at one of the many literary events throughout southern California. She's bright and charming and you can't help but like her. And because paying it forward is my personal mantra, I wanted to give her a leg up. Turns out she didn't need it. Her first novel, The Map of Lost Memories, earned her an Edgar nomination this year. And she'll be talking about that.

Solving the Mystery of My First Love
by Kim Fay

One morning in January, I opened my email to find a message from the marketing manager assigned to my novel at my publisher: I just heard the Edgar news and wanted to send you my congratulations!

Edgar news? Congratulations?

Although I didn’t know what she meant, my heart still skipped a beat. I quickly Googled “Kim Fay” and “Edgar.” There it was. My novel, The Map of Lost Memories, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. An Edgar! The mustachioed Oscar of the mystery writing world! Incredible! Except for one thing …

My novel wasn’t a mystery.

Was it?

Since its publication in August of 2012, it had been marketed as a historical novel. As a literary novel. As an adventure novel. And, unsurprisingly, a historical-literary-adventure novel. Not once that I knew of had it been slotted into the mystery category. Yes, it had been chosen for one of Poisoned Pen bookshop’s monthly book clubs, but it was a Modern Firsts pick, not a First Mystery or Mystery of the Month or Thriller pick. This would explain why it wasn’t just me who was caught unawares. My editor, publicist and agent (none of whom had submitted the book for nomination) were surprised too.

Then I started to think about it. My mind wandered, all the way back to my childhood, when I couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew and Phyllis A. Whitney’s gothic stories of suspense and Betty Cavanna’s mysteries set in Marrakech, the Spice Islands and Thailand. My first first novel, written at the age of ten, was The Mystery of the Golden Galleon. I recalled my early forays into literary fiction and how intensely I was drawn to Graham Greene. Then I reconsidered The Map of Lost Memories: its quest for a lost Cambodian history, its suspicious murder (was it intentional or was it an accident?) and its family mystery that slowly unfolds. I realized that, without my knowing it, I had stayed true to my first fiction love: the mystery.

Kim at the Edgar banquet. Photo by Steven Speliotis
Because of this, at the age of forty-six, I tumbled into a literary world where I finally feel I belong, and where I had wanted to belong, subconsciously, even before the nomination. When I attended the West Hollywood Book Fair in October to speak on a panel, I found myself at the Sisters in Crime L.A. booth, uncertain since I did not write traditional crime fiction, but asking anyway: may I join? Jeri Westerson, the chapter’s vice president (and also president of the SoCal Mystery Writers of America chapter), enthusiastically let me know I was more than welcome as she handed me the application brochure. But a month passed, and I did not apply. I was invited to speak at Mysterious Galaxy during the holidays, and still I did not apply. I was afraid I might be called out as an imposter. Then came the nomination. My entire world changed.

I have worked for years in indie bookshops, I have made the literary rounds, but never have I belonged to a literary world so welcoming and supportive. Since January I have been surrounded by mystery writers—at Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America meetings, at the Tucson and L.A. festivals of books—and bar the odd exception (aren’t there always odd exceptions!), they have opened their arms and taken me in.

Along with the above-mentioned Jeri Westerson, there is Patricia Smiley, the oh so hospitable president of Sisters in Crime L.A. Naomi Hirahara, generous author of the Mas Arai mystery series. Travis Richardson, equally generous editor of the Sisters in Crime L.A. newsletter. Hilary Davidson, author of the Lily Moore mystery series and terrific partner in margarita-drinking crime. Susan Elia MacNeal, my fellow nominee and keeper of my foot-in-mouth secret after the Edgar awards banquet. Hank Phillippi Ryan, the gracious and deserving winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Margery Flax, hand-holder extraordinaire and Administrative Director of Mystery Writers of America. And, and, and … I could go on and on. About how great these people are. About how much fun they are. About how at home they’ve made me feel. About how inspired I am, to fully explore the mystery in my next novel and even to pull out a series I’ve been secretly plotting for the past few years. 

As for the Edgar Awards, when my category was called at the banquet at the Grand Hyatt New York on May 2, I sat on the edge of my seat, surrounded by my husband, agent, editor and dozens of new friends. I did not win. Did I feel a bit boo-hoo about this? Of course. But even if I had won, that wouldn’t have been the best part of the experience.

I didn’t prepare a just-in-case speech for the awards, but if I’d had the honor of standing up on the stage, I know how I would have finished it: If I was given the choice to belong to any group of writers in the world, it would be this one. Thank you for inviting me to your party.

Kim Fay is the author of The Map of Lost Memories, published by Ballantine Books/Random House and available in paperback on June 18, 2013.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Small Boast

If I may be permitted a brief mention, last week I published a new ebook, Relatively Dead, wherein my heroine suddenly starts seeing people who aren't there.  I think Edgar Allen Poe would be proud.  

You can find it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Listening to the Irish

by Sheila Connolly

Long before my County Cork series saw the light of day, I started taking Irish language classes at a local Irish cultural center.  The classes were offered by an organization called Cumann na Gaeilge, which translates to Friends of the Irish.  I spent five years of Thursday nights trekking to the center, and emerged with a rather rudimentary knowledge of contemporary Irish, plus a few memorized poems and songs.  No fault of the instructors—it's a notoriously difficult language to learn.  In truth, mostly I went to listen, since both my primary instructor and more than half the people in the class were Irish-born (which does not necessarily mean that they learned the language in Ireland in their early years), and I wanted to absorb the speech patterns and inflection.

Due to internal conflicts, Cumann na Gaeilge split apart in the past year, and my former instructor founded a new group, Ar dTeanga Dhuchais, which means Our Native Language, to offer language classes.  Somehow I found myself agreeing to be treasurer of the new group, mainly to keep some contact with the language.  Recently we held a meeting at an Irish pub in Boston.

I was the only American-born person at the table of five.  I knew two of the people there, and the other two were strangers to me.  I mostly listened, and after a while I wished I'd had a recorder with me, because what I saw unfolding was exactly what I've tried to include in my irish-based series.

First a stranger (Irish) walked up and started a conversation with Seamus, one of the men at the table, asking if they'd met before.  They hadn't, but it turned out that Seamus's brother had worked in the same union as the newcomer (all but one of the men are now retired from one or another of the building trades).  Then there ensued a long conversation amongst them men about what other contacts they shared, covering a few decades.  There was a strange aside when the newcomer was somehow reluctant to reveal his surname, at least until everyone (or at least the men) had established his bona fides.  (It turned out to be Keneally.)  And then this segued into where each had come from and when (but not why) and who and what they knew back in Ireland.

And I'm sitting there still as a mouse, gobsmacked (another good Irish phrase—"gob" means mouth in Irish) by what I'm hearing, because it's exactly what I wanted in my book, and here I am hearing it like it was a script, or something I wish I'd written.  These men are decades removed from "home," and yet they're still talking about where they came from.  Not on a grand level, but about details—about waiting for the tides, and curraghs (a kind of small boat I'd only read about), and harvesting kelp not for food or fertilizer but to dry and use in weaving. About neighbors helping neighbors when the seas were too rough to travel to the mainland from the little islands off the west coast. About families maybe none of them knew, but they knew about from others.

All the elements I've seen in Ireland—as an American outsider—were there:  the attachment to the land, the connection to a network of people, the way of establishing not "if" but "how" they connect with an Irish stranger. All rolling out in front of me, unasked. 

I'll be in Dublin again on Sunday. I can't wait.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dolce far niente

Elizabeth Zelvin

“It is sweet to do nothing.” It’s an old Italian expression, first used in 1814, according to Merriam-Webster Online, and it describes a state of being that is almost impossible to achieve in the 21st century. The new technology has eliminated all the little pockets of time we used to spend with our internal Pause button on, all the periods of waiting that we could devote to daydreaming or in “carefree idleness,” as dolce far niente is frequently defined.

Remember when you had to get somewhere before you could talk to anyone? The ubiquitous cell phone has eliminated that period of grace. Being alone with our thoughts has gone out of style. If I choose not to conduct my personal life or business on the street or the bus, you’ll gladly make me privy to yours.

If you’re a writer or an editor, remember “turn-around time”? At every stage, manuscripts and then various kinds of proofs were marked by hand and sent by mail, while you got a breather waiting for them to arrive, and the publisher didn’t expect them back for at least a week or two. Today, publishers and even agents will send work that needs my attention by email on a Friday afternoon and want it back immediately for posting to the Web on Monday. And woe betide me if I have plans for the weekend!

How much time do you have to read these days? Is it less than it used to be? And to what extent can you do it without a guilty feeling that you’re supposed to be doing something more productive? If I pick up a book before halfway through the evening, I may start out assuring myself that reading is a justifiable pleasure, or even better, an aspect of my work. But before I know it, it’s bedtime, and I find myself thinking, “I got nothing done.”

I’m a believer in E.M. Forster’s famous motto, “Only connect.” If I didn’t treasure the human capacity for connection, if I weren’t fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of human relationships, I wouldn’t be a writer, and I certainly wouldn’t be a shrink. I believe that the communication that goes on in cyberspace broadens the range of how people connect with each other. For me, online connections have allowed me to help clients all over the world and given me the support network I needed to achieve my lifelong dream of being a novelist. To be engaged, online or otherwise, is an essential part of human experience. But to engage online is to do, not to be, and certainly not to do nothing.

I spent a couple of idyllic afternoons in Central Park with a book this spring. The weather was glorious, the magnolias in full bloom, the grass studded with daffodils. All around me, fellow New Yorkers were sitting or lying in the grass, mostly reading or talking quietly, some snoozing, others epitomizing dolce far niente by simply sitting there, taking in the beauty of the day.

How did I manage to give myself permission to come so close to carefree idleness? Well, I’m currently reading entries in a book competition, as authors are asked to do from time to time, so it could be classed as homework, not mere pleasure. And besides, I was obeying my maternal introject (that’s your mother’s voice in your head, long after she’s not around any more). My mother, a high achiever and a “human doing” if I ever met one, used to say, “It’s a gorgeous day—you should be outdoors!”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Villains Behind the Badges

by Sandra Parshall

I read far more books than I will ever write, so it’s not surprising that I have the same preferences and pet peeves as any other reader. I have a lot of pet peeves. Publicly criticizing another writer’s work, though, won’t make me popular and might create an awkward future moment when I come face to face with that author.

So: no names, no book titles.

But I have to tell you how tired I am of seeing law enforcement officers, from FBI agents to small town cops, appearing as villains in crime novels.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, a couple of people I had previously considered sane spouted the strong suspicion that the FBI and local police planted the bombs, killed and maimed all those innocent people (including children), and framed two young brothers whose backgrounds (Muslim immigrants) would make them plausible fall guys. Oh, and the older brother was unarmed when the two were surrounded, and he was murdered in cold blood by the cops.

The “proof” behind this theory: everybody knows the FBI and most police departments are corrupt, that they are working every angle to subjugate the population and control every aspect of our lives. (Why would they...? Never mind. That’s another discussion.)

One person told me that if I would stop being a blind sheep and do some research on the internet, I would discover ample evidence of this conspiracy. The internet is where we should all look for the truth. Oh wow. After I stopped laughing, I couldn’t come up with an answer to that.

I asked myself: Where do people get such ideas?

A person’s own inner sense of helplessness and hatred of all authority is a big part of his or her willingness to jump immediately to the wildest, most negative conclusion. But I’ve begun to wonder whether crime fiction writers are feeding readers’ suspicions and delusions.

Even in cozies, the police are often portrayed as bumblers who couldn’t detect their way out of a pastry box and have to rely on women with no law enforcement training and loads of free time to solve all the murders.

In darker mysteries and thrillers, it gets worse.

FBI agents or cops ostensibly pursuing serial killers may turn out to be the very killers they’re after.

Brutal, psychotic Sheriffs in rural areas, particularly in the south, have appeared in fiction so often that they’ve become a cliche.

Then we have entire police departments that are in on the drug dealing and  prostitution or whatever and do not hesitate to murder anyone who gets in their way.

Another type I’m awfully tired of is the rebel cop, sometimes young and relatively inexperienced, who happens to be the only competent investigator on the entire force. She or he breaks all the rules, goes off alone (without backup or notice to superiors) into potentially deadly situations, and may engage in a bit of illegal activity – but in this case it’s heroic because it’s the only way to work around the system-wide incompetence and corruption. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the poster child for rebel cop syndrome. In his younger days, Bosch was given to throwing office furniture through windows at police headquarters and similar acts of hotheaded defiance. He did things that would have landed any real cop on the curb in an instant, and possibly in jail, but like all rebel cops he suffered few consequences. Now he’s too old to be believable as a rebel, but plenty of younger characters are following his lead.

Do corrupt cops exist in real life? Of course. We’ve read and heard about them following their arrests.

Are some detectives incompetent? Without a doubt.

Are some FBI agents psychotic? I don’t know of any offhand, but I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question, given the prevalence of mental illness in the general population.

Have any real FBI agents or cops ever been exposed as raving lunatic serial killers who managed to function professionally at such a high level that they had everybody fooled? If so, I can’t point to a case. Like anyone else, an FBI agent or police officer is far more likely to kill someone close – a lover, a spouse or other family member.

I’m not saying corrupt and crazy cops don’t exist in real life. I’m saying too many of them show up in crime fiction. Such characters probably reinforce the fear and distrust of police that many ordinary citizens feel. Maybe they feed the delusional fantasies some people harbor. Perhaps all forms of fiction – books, TV, movies – have helped to bring some people to the point where it seems rational that the tragedy in Boston was engineered by law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers were simply two innocent pawns.

All that aside, these characters have committed the cardinal sin of fiction: they have become ordinary and easy to spot. Predictable. And in crime fiction, “predictable” always means boring.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Victoria Day

Sharon Wildwind

Victoria Day (yesterday for those of you who don’t live in Canada) is my absolutely favorite Canadian holiday.

Yes, the Auld Queen was an interesting person, who lived in interesting times. Since I’ve suffered through more than my share of Victorian literature—I think I’ve explained before that I got an accidental minor in it the last time I was in university—so I know a great deal about the interesting times between 1837 and 1901. As a Steampunker, I know something of the life and times that never happened, but wouldn’t it be fun if it did.

All that aside, Victoria is not the reason I love Victoria Day. This is.

Those of you about to harvest your first tomatoes are asking so what? Green grass? leaves on the trees? What am I supposed to see here?

The answer is green grass and leaves on trees. Those leaves weren’t there seven days ago. Last Monday they were little buds, figments of our collective imagination. Let me try to explain spring in Calgary. Last snowfall April 13th. First buds noticeable on trees around May 10th. Yesterday, planted balcony garden in 13 degree Celsius weather (55 degrees Fahrenheit) while wearing trousers and two shirts to keep from freezing. Summer temperatures are expected by next week.

In short, we don’t have spring. We go from winter to summer in the blink of an eye. Victoria Day isn’t so much about the Widow of Windsor as it is about going outside without a coat, winter boots, toques (that’s a cap), and gloves. That kind of sartorial freedom makes us positively giddy. Finally released from winter, we get up to all sorts of things on Victoria Day.

Today the town was full of people dressed in tweeds and riding bikes. See here for the Calgary Tweed Ride. People having picnics on lawns. Tea drinkers in elegant white dresses. Large amounts of scone consumption.

I celebrated by making Shrinky-Dink labels for my planters. If you’ve never played with Shrinky-Dink, you’ve missed one of art’s great delights. I lunched on basil chicken salad, new potatoes, fresh strawberries, and lemon cake. I drank tea on my balcony, sitting next to my newly-planted garden. And I wore my Steampunk T-shirt and jewelry to my critique group.

I am so ready for summer.
Quote for the week:

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.
~Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), American author and humorist who
1) neatly spanned the Victorian era and
2) never lived in Calgary in the spring when he was observing the weather. No doubt his count would have been higher if he had.

Monday, May 20, 2013

May is Mystery Month

May is a great time to have a party--or many of them--in honor of your favorite mystery writers.  Yes, May is full of mystery writer birthdays!!  Here are some famous writers to celebrate, as well as a reminder of their famous characters.

May 2: CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG. 1957 Edgar Award Winner for A Dram of Poison.

May 6: JEFFREY DEAVER. He created Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic detective, who is perhaps his most famous character.

May 12: LESLIE CHARTERIS.  Wrote mysteries about Simon Templar, also known as "The Saint."

May 13: DAPHNE DUMAURIER.  She is famous for her gothic and atmospheric suspense novels, including Rebecca, The House on the Strand, and Jamaica Inn.

Daphne du Maurier

May 20: MARGERY ALLINGHAM.  She created the popular character Campion, the "gentleman sleuth."

May 22: ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE. A Scottish physician and the legendary creator of Sherlock Holmes!

May 23: GRAHAM MONTAGUE JEFFRIES: Blackshirt is a "gentleman criminal" in a series created by Graham Montague Jeffries (aka Bruce Graeme), and later by his son, Roderic Jeffries.

May 24: MARY WILLIS WALKER: Won the 1993 Edgar Award for her novel Red Scream.

May 25: ROBERT LUDLUM: This prolific American thriller author wrote 27 books, including The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum.

May 27: DASHIELL HAMMETT and TONY HILLERMAN: Hammett was the creator of Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles; he wrote The Maltese Falcon.  Hillerman was famous for his Navajo Tribal police mystery series, with protagonists Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

May 28: IAN FLEMING. Famous for his series of spy novels featuring James Bond (007), he was also an author, a journalist, and a naval intelligence officer.

May 29: G.K. CHESTERTON: Famous for the Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton was also a writer of "philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics, and fiction" (Wikipedia).

Pick an author or two and rediscover them in honor of their birthdays!!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Truth Behind Book Signings

 by L. C. Hayden

Leave a comment this weekend and you’ll have a chance to win a free copy of When the Past Haunts You.

Ahhh, the infamous book signing filled with people, laughter, and glamour. This is the moment the authors shine—or do we? Let’s examine the facts.

First, I’ve always said that authors must dress up for the event. Call me old school if you want, but we’re representing the bookstore and all authors, right?  In my everyday world, I hardly ever wear make up, but I will to a signing. I wear church clothes and spend time grooming my hair.

My efforts have paid off. In Odessa, a man bought three copies of my books because he thought I was very pretty—did I tell you I like this man? Had I shown up with torn jeans and a t-shirt, that wouldn’t have happened.

The next day, I went to Wichita Falls, as a tourist, not an author. Since it was very hot and humid and I was just bumming around anyway, I decided to wear shorts. I didn’t care that my naturally curly hair looked like I plugged my finger into the electrical outlet, and my hair stood up.

As we were driving along, my husband, Rich, suggested we stop at Books-a-Million and sign stock. I was hesitant, but agreed.

The manager was very sweet and said she'd love to have me sign the stock. Then she proceeded to set up a table and announced that famous author--didn't I tell you I like that manager?--L. C. Hayden was in the store signing books. I had shorts on, terrible hair, and no make-up. I felt miserable and ugly. Who would want to buy a book from an author who looked like a scarecrow?

Within one hour, I sold out.

So much for having to look pretty.


Ugly or beautiful, the author needs to be on time. In New Hampshire, I had back-to-back signings. Although I had downloaded maps of the stores I was going to visit, I still asked for directions. I only had an hour to reach the next store and I certainly didn't want to be late. I was told to get on the freeway and at exit one the huge mall where I was to sign would loom before me.

Armed with new knowledge, I drove away and did as told. I took exit one, saw the mall, and noticed that its name did not coincide with the one I had. Being a smart cookie, I took out my cell.

“You’re where?  I haven't even heard of that mall!" the bookseller told me. "Now what directions did they give you?"

I told them about exit one.

“Oh no. You’re going to have to get back on the freeway and take exit two."
Due to construction, in order to get back to the freeway, I had to drive around several blocks before picking up the freeway. By now, I only had ten minutes to get to the signing on time. I hurried as much as I could, but traffic fought me all of the way. I finally reached exit two. Sure enough, I saw the mall—the same mall, opposite side.


At a recent California signing where I was proudly promoting my latest release, When the Past Haunts You, a lady approached me and stared at the promotional poster featuring me and my mystery novel. She studied my glamour shot, then looked at me, and back again at the picture. She turned to me and said, “Darling, that is such a nice picture of you. Too bad you don’t look like that.”


People do say the darnest things at signings. At a Houston signing, I met a very nice lady. She had checked out at least three Hayden backlist novels from the library, read them, and loved them. When she heard I was signing in Houston, she decided she’d attend. About five minutes before the signing ended, she arrived. She breathed heavily through her mouth. Her flushed features told me she had been running. “I just drove two-and-a-half hours to get to your signing,” she said gasping for air. “I’ve simply got to have all of your books.”

Naturally, I felt thrilled and honored. As we talked, my mind raced furiously. I wanted to write something very special on her book. Then, because she planned to purchase each of my titles, I had to think of several different things to say. We had chatted for about five minutes longer when she glanced at her watch, grabbed a copy of each of my books and dashed off.

“Excuse me,” I called her back. “Do you want me to sign those books?”

Her eyes widened and her eyebrows arched. “Heavens no!  I don’t like my books trashed.”


At another signing, this time for my nonfiction inspirational book When Angels Touch You, I walked into the store and saw a poster with a hand-drawn Happy Face, my name, and title of book, plus information on the signing. The store’s manager apologized for the poster. I told her it was cute. She said, “You don’t understand. I had a beautiful poster made. I want to show it to you.”

She took me to the back of the store where she had hidden the beautiful poster because of its one tiny mistake. The designer wrote Where Angels Touch instead of When.


During some of my signings, most of the customers look at everything but me, but exceptions exist. These brave souls approach me and my heart beats with anticipation. I’m about to make a sale. I smile and face Brave Souls. Then they ask me the Number One Question all authors get asked, “Where’s the bathroom?”

And that’s the truth behind book signings.


Leave a comment this weekend and you’ll have a chance to win a free copy of When the Past Haunts You.

L. C. Hayden is the author of the award winning Harry Bronson mystery series. Her latest mystery When the Past Haunts You is a finalist for Left Coast Crime’s Watson Award. Ill Conceived
, the first in a new series, will be released in June. Visit her website at