Monday, September 30, 2013

Touring Chicago's Lakeshore

On a splendidly sunny day in Chicago, my school took part
in their annual walk-a-thon along Chicago's Lakeshore.
While I live in the near suburbs of the city, I seldom make it
to the lovely Lakeshore, and when I'm there I always tell myself I should
visit more often.
Several of these sailboats were just going out into the
lake--I'm guessing to prepare for a race.
There is always a multitude of bikers and joggers on the path.

I took some terrific shots while walking along this fence.

And all I had to do was lean over to see these ducks
swimming toward me.  I fear they were looking for treats, and I had none.

There are plenty of trees along the way, providing delicious
shade for overheated joggers.

My favorite street.  :)

I found this little bicycle rather picturesque against the blue water.

These geese found both the shade and some lunch. 

Some kind walkers accommodated my goofy picture idea.

Nearing the end!

And getting a well-deserved rest before boarding the buses.

If you visit Chicago, spend some time walking on the path along Lake Michigan.
You'll be inspired by its beauty!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Find the Right Conference for You

by Sharon and Bill Hopkins

Our guests this week are husband and wife writers Bill Hopkins and Sharon Woods Hopkins. Sharon is the author of Killerwatt, Killerfind, and the just-published Killertrust. Bill is the author of Courting Murder and River Mourn, also a new release.

We have gone to many writers’ conferences for the last five years. There are different kinds of conferences and good ways and bad ways to attend them.

Let’s start with the different kinds of conferences. Some do not allow independent writers to sell their books or appear on panels. If you fall into that category, check the information about the conference carefully before you spend your time and money.

 Fan conferences (such as Malice Domestic and Bouchercon) are great fun because you get to meet your readers! Usually these gatherings have a bevy of famous authors who are interesting to chat with and listen to.

Workshop conferences (such as Sleuthfest and Mystery Writers of America University) are mainly for writers. You’ll be doing workshops, exercises, and perhaps receiving critiques or talking to agents or pitching to publishers.

At study conferences (such as Killer Nashville and Writers Police Academy) the lessons and information are so intense and exciting that you’ll wonder how you ever did without such a source.

State or local literary or book festivals are mostly oriented toward authors selling their books. Some are friendly to self-publishers (Missouri Writers Guild and Mississippi Writers Guild, for example), and some prohibit self-publishers altogether.

Regardless of what conference you want to go to, we suggest you go to at least one per year. At every kind of conference, you must not be shy! Writers from the most famous to the brand new ones are friendly and interested in talking with you. We always attempt to make several new friends whenever we go to a conference.

A final note of encouragement. We heard at one conference that mystery writers could benefit from participating in Romance Writers of America activities. Neither of us writes anything remotely romantic, but that group is probably the strongest writing group in the whole country. Those people know how to market and how to teach writing.

Jodie Renner has compiled a list of gatherings that you should go through:
If you know of a conference that should be on there, please let Jodie know AND thank her for the hard work she did in compiling this.

Please write us if you have any questions:
Sharon Woods Hopkins
Bill Hopkins

Friday, September 27, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

I just returned from the mystery mega-conference Bouchercon, which is a rather overwhelming experience—the estimate I heard was that there were 1,200 attendees scattered among multiple hotels in Albany, all trying to find their way through a convention center with little signage.

But I was happily surprised to find how many friends I have made over the past few years.  I think this was the first year I could actually introduce people to each other and remember both their names.  You'd think writers could keep names straight, but maybe we're too busy naming our characters to bother with the real people standing in front of us (if I snubbed anybody, I apologize).  Since writers so often labor alone, the broader writers and readers communities are important to us, and it's a pleasure to have meals or to attend panels with a whole array of people, both familiar and newly met.

But before the event I had been thinking about an advice column from a recent Boston Globe Sunday magazine, titled "Betrayed by a best friend," written by Robin Abrahams (AKA Miss Conduct).  Someone wrote to her to complain that she had been dumped by a friend of over twenty years, who suffers from a mental illness and, to put it kindly, had not been a very good friend at any time.

That's hard enough.  I'm sure we've all had friends who suddenly turned on us for no apparent reason, and there's no way to find out why since that friend is no longer on speaking terms with you.  But the rejectee seemed extraordinarily troubled by this rejection:  five years later she is still haunted by the betrayal, to the extent of having nightmares about the former friend at least once a week. This can't be healthy.

Miss Conduct wisely said: find a therapist.  The writer has to come to terms with what happened before she can move on, which she has so far failed to do (and five years seems like a long time to nurse the hurt). 

But what stuck in my mind was a more general comment Miss Conduct made:

We don't have a cultural bank of stories about friendship gone wrong.  We have stories (and songs and quality cable dramas) about bad parents, bad lovers, bad bosses.  Our culture doesn't offer up many templates for "bad friend" stories or songs about breaking up with your best buddy.

Why is that, I wonder?  In one way we have more "friends" than ever, if we use social media at all.  We've turned "friend" into a verb:  will you friend me?  On the other hand, that friendship is about a quarter of an inch (or 140 characters) deep. We probably know more about our friends' pets than we do about them.

Friendship takes work.  It takes time to meet face to face, and talk, and share.  And listen.  There should be give and take.  There should be sympathy and support in hard times, and applause for the good things that happen.  That kind of durable relationship doesn't happen quickly.

I feel very lucky that I have held on to a few friends for several decades—one from high school, a few from college.  We still get together from time to time, to catch up.  Even if we don't always approve of what they have done with their lives, they still hold shared memories, of the people we were when we met.  We don't want to lose that.

If a friend turns toxic, grieve and move on.  But cherish those who are true friends.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Unsinkable Cousin Lisa

Elizabeth Zelvin

My beloved cousin Lisa died last Sunday at the age of 93. This is my tribute to a remarkable woman.

Lisa at 24
I've never met anyone with more effervescence, more joie de vivre, than my Viennese cousin Lisa. In 1938, when the Nazis occupied and annexed Austria and most Jews in Vienna had already fled if they could, my cousin Lisa caught the proverbial last boat to New York. Her mother and father (my grandmother’s brother) had been refused visas to enter the United States, so they remained in Vienna, where they were imprisoned and eventually murdered in one of the Nazi concentration camps. Eighteen-year-old Lisa arrived determined to survive and be happy if possible, a goal she achieved over and over in a long lifetime filled with both great adversity and great joy.

At the time, the United States government did what we would now call profiling in dealing with the influx of European refugees. Hungarians, whatever their profession at home, were trained to be bakers. (I remember many Hungarian bakeries in the Fifties and subsequent decades.) Viennese were sent to massage school. So Lisa went to Florida to become a masseuse (don’t worry, not the X-rated kind), or perhaps the triage took place at some kind of refugee camp in Florida.

Lisa at 41
All the women on my mother’s side of the family are great swimmers. Lisa herself told me the story of how she met her first husband, Simon, the great love of her life. She was swimming off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, then a pretty but quiet town. Seeing her quite far from shore, he became concerned that she might be in trouble.

“Are you all right?” he called out.

She waved and yelled back, in the delicious Viennese accent she never lost in a long lifetime, “I can take care of myself!”

Lisa at 68
Some happy years followed. Lisa had plenty of chutzpah: the family was proud of her for talking her way into the chorus of the Miami Opera, which she enjoyed immensely, without any formal vocal training. But she and Simon found they were unable to have children, so they adopted first a boy, then an adorable little girl—who died of leukemia at the age of three. They were working on the adoption of another child when Simon was diagnosed with cancer. They tried everything—I remember them going to Mexico for an attempt at alternative treatment—but sadly, he died at fifty. She had barely become a widow when not one, but two babies became available for adoption, a boy and a girl. She took them both.

Lisa at 72
For the next ten years, she raised her three kids as a single mom. Then she met her second husband. Their relationship had its ups and downs. But she always said that he adored her, and for her, that was the defining factor. Lisa had her own bout of cancer when she was in her sixties, but it didn’t stop her; nor did her broken neck or her heart valve replacement when she was in her nineties. She got right back in the swimming pool, and that’s no metaphor. It might have been the ocean except that she was no longer living on the coast. Again following a tradition for the women in our family, she got a doctorate in her sixties too. Her kids called her Dr. Mom forever after. In more recent years, she had a Facebook page and loved to send jokes by email.

Lisa spent her final days in hospice at her own home and was surrounded by loving family at the end. I chuckled through my tears as I read in her son’s email that after she stopped taking medication and entered hospice, she “surprise[ed] everyone with her renewed vibrance for life…even swimming a couple times.” I wasn’t surprised to hear it—that was Lisa.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hardboiled...But Other Things As Well

By Jeri Westerson

With my newest book coming out October 15 (SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST), I started reflecting on my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.

The great thing about writing my series seems to be the freedom it affords me to write pretty much whatever I like, as long as it still carries with it the "Medieval Noir" sensibilities. That means that my stories follow a hard-boiled detective model, even though they are set in the Middle Ages. It's my own little sub-sub-genre, my own little kingdom.

At the same time, though, I still get to play around with other genres while still getting the hard-boiled detective stuff in there. In my debut in 2008, VEIL OF LIES, I did the locked room scenario, but with the suspicious femme fatale and all the other tropes that made it hardboiled. In other words, it introduced the hard-drinking, hard-living lone detective with a chip on his shoulder. He is quick with his fists and his mouth, and gets knocked around for it. He is also a sucker for a dame in trouble, and trouble comes in the form of religious relics or venerated objects, something everyone either wants to get their hands on or can't wait to get rid of. Think Maltese Falcon and medieval Sam Spade.

In my second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, I penned a medieval thriller, what I like to call my ticking sundial story. The king is in danger of an assassin and it's up to Crispin to stop the killer in time. But it was also about discovering who the assassin was and why a courier was killed. It lead to ideas about running around London that I would use in a later plot.

In number three, THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT, it's a serial killer story based on the life of a real medieval serial killer. But it's also the story of a monster, a golem stalking the streets of London, so maybe it's Frankenstein, too (As Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal.") And on top of all that, it also does triple duty as a commentary on religious prejudice and Jews standing in for the contemporary topic of gays as our current pariah. How's that for packing it in?

Number four, TROUBLED BONES, was my Agatha Christie story, with a bunch of suspects all trapped together. But instead of a manor house in the country, it's a cathedral in Canterbury. Showing up and getting into trouble as well is Crispin's old friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who is later to be inspired to write his famous Canterbury Tales based on the people he meets in this adventure. I almost believe it myself. It's the Canterbury Tales only with murder.

The fifth, BLOOD LANCE, could be styled a psychological drama...with jousting! In it, a knight, a former friend of Crispin's, seems to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I researched  and explored the nature and history of PTSD and wondered if knights could have been imperiled by it. In this story, one certainly is, as he is accused of cowardice and desertion from John of Gaunt's army and must perform a judicial joust to the death to prove his worthiness. Crispin goes through the usual soul-searching about what is right and honorable and at the same time must find a relic and solve a murder.

And my number six, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, due out October 15, is largely a treasure
hunt all over London, instigated by a Moriarity-type villain in search of the fabled Philosopher's Stone.

Number seven, that needs to find a home with a new publisher, THE SILENCE OF STONES, (in the outlining stages) involves no murder at all, but a twisting story of a missing "relic" of sorts that Crispin must find or Jack, held in captivity by the king himself, will die. Kathrine Swynford, Lancaster's longtime mistress and eventual wife shows up in this one, as well as three witches from Shakespeare's Scottish play.

In number eight, yet to be outlined, TEARS OF A MAIDEN, is a medieval courtroom drama, with Jack doing the investigating while Crispin languishes in jail. 

To be sure, each book still has the hard-boiled tropes of a detective down on his luck, a sucker for a dame in trouble, a hard-hitting action hero who's not afraid to use his fists. And they also have that elusive relic or venerated object, the McGuffin everyone is trying to get their hands on, either pivotal to the plot or just a red herring. Steeped in the time period of fourteenth century London, we can't help but get encompassed by the politics of the time as well. Corrupt officials, rich nobles passing laws in order to stay rich, the ultra religious faction trying to force its will on the any of this sounding familiar? Strange how the more I research the more it looks like little changes over time.

I've got other things planned for future books. How about a beautiful con artist and thief? That's coming up. A black comedy? That's coming up, too. The possibilities are endless.I have a definite timeline in mind and know where we are headed for Crispin. His story is by no means over yet.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It's Drafty In Here

Sharon Wildwind

Did you have a good equinox?

Mine was terrific. 2:44 Mountain Daylight Time Sunday afternoon was lovely: bright blue sky, green and yellow trees, and a cool breeze blowing off the snow-covered Rocky Mountains west of us. Yep, snow-covered, but not for long. Environment Canada promised the new snow would melt in a day.

This year was especially nice because this hinge of the seasons corresponded to a hinge in writing. Last week I finished the first draft of a book; this week I’m starting draft two. Between those two things I had to transfer multiple comments to my files. I’ve been fortunate for this book to belong to an in-person critique group and to have some other readers, too.

There I was, faced with several inches of hard-copy chapters and about a dozen Word files with track changes. The critique group had talked about different ways to combine files and compare changes, so I was all set until the slap-the-forehead moment when it dawned on me that I write in Scrivener, not in Word.

While it’s easy to compile, convert, and export chapters from Scrivener to Word documents; it’s not possible — or if it is I haven’t figured out how to do it — to import comments from Word documents into Scrivener.

Fortunately I was able to work a kluge that involved copying-and-pasting. The process took a little longer than I’d planned, but worked and eventually got me ready to start the next draft.

Here are some things I’ve learned about managing scores of comments from many kind-hearted and talented people.

I really, really, really should have entered comments after each critique group meeting, rather than trying to review over thirty chapters at once. Next time I promise to do better.

Devoting a notebook solely to critique notes was exactly the right thing to do. We usually submit three or four chapters at one time, and this notebook would have worked even better if I’d bothered to make a note about which chapter comments related to.

No matter how many negative comments other people have about a certain passage, some ideas are worth fighting for. The trick is to figure out why you love that particular material and everyone else hates it, and then change it so that you all love it.

I told people in advance that while I appreciated their line edits, I intended to ignore wording, punctuation, spelling, and grammar corrections unless the mistake makes a real difference in the sentence’s meaning. By the time I finish second and third drafts, chances are a lot of those errors will have self-corrected or have been deleted.

Color-code comments in the draft so that, if I have a question, I know which of my critique buddies to call for clarification. Fortunately, that’s something that Scrivener makes easy to do.

Keep a sense of humor. No, I did not intend to convert an innocent sentence into a scatological comment, but it was uproariously funny, and totally inappropriate for a family-oriented manuscript.

Quote for the week
Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It is one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.
~ Nicholas Sparks, American novelist, screenwriter and producer

The second most enjoyable moment in writing is rewriting the first page of the second draft and watch how the bumps smooth out.
~ Sharon Wildwind, Canadian novelist and baby playwright

Monday, September 23, 2013

Organizing Life

by Julia Buckley
Sometimes I block my own progress by focusing on where I've
been instead of where I'm going. 
I just had another one of those weekends in which the time ran out before my necessary tasks did.  In fact, I almost forgot to write this blog post.  I made time to spend with family on Saturday--and family time is important--but it meant that the list I'd made for Saturday and Sunday all got smooshed into the Sunday time slot, and that ended up looking like this:

Breakfast with a friend (which had been planned weeks in advance).
Do dishes
Finish grading papers
Bag up and put out donations for Monday's pick-up
Make two power point presentations for work (these are big time-stealers)
Read and annotate tomorrow's chapters for work
Type son's homework while he dictates it to me
Make dinner (which includes forming and baking meatballs)
Make lunches for tomorrow
Write PDD blog post
Take a walk for health reasons (while walking, pass the Animal Care League so you can see the new kittens in the window)
Figure out tomorrow's outfit (which saves time in the morning)
Vacuum car upholstery (long story, but a necessary task)
Try to work on book for brand new publishing contract!
Watch Breaking Bad and part of the Emmys while doing other tasks
Feed the cats (they all have to be in separate rooms because two of them steal food)
Start planning some October family birthday celebrations
Pay bills
Go grocery shopping

These lists can feel overwhelming, so I went to the Internet to find some help.  Perhaps you might enjoy some of these "organize your life" sites:

27 Organizing tips from Zen Habits
My favorites from this list are "Simplify" and "Have less stuff."

How to Organize Your Life
My favorites are "Write things down" and "Declutter regularly."

Then there's this CNN article called Organize Your Mind to Organize Your Life.
An interesting contention within is that "Whether or not you have an organized mind depends upon your ability to 'drive' your attetion and keep it focused when you're under pressure or faced with challenging conditions."

Finally, there's The Ultimate Guide to Organizing Your Life, Amanda Abella's virtual links for every kind of organizational tool to be found online.  A very interesting assessment of organization from a twenty-something who has been immersed in the computerized world since birth.

Do you seek organizational strategies?  Did any of these seem helpful?  Or do you feel too unorganized to go through them?  :)

Have a great, ORGANIZED week.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Bar at Bouchercon

Elizabeth Zelvin

Many of my mystery-loving friends are spending the weekend at Bouchercon, mystery’s biggest annual convention, which draws hundreds of writers and even more hundreds of fans. This year it’s in Albany, only three hours’ drive up the New York State Thruway from New York City, where I live. Though I’ve chosen not to attend, I know everyone who does is already having a wonderful time.

Before my first Bouchercon, I’d heard over and over that the best place to network there is the bar. This presented me with a dilemma, since I’m an alcoholism treatment professional whose mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober, is about recovery. Who would I meet at the bar but people who drink too much? It was an educated guess, since in more than twenty-five years as a therapist and program director I’ve been exposed to the pain and tragedy of hundreds, even thousands of men and women who met their alcoholic loved ones—or a series of disastrous loves—in just that way.

But I was wrong. As I realized within half an hour of sailing through the lobby of the convention hotel (in Baltimore that year), a subdued but not dim or smoky space so packed with mystery lovers it resembled, as we say in New York, the IRT at rush hour, I realized that at Bouchercon, the bar is not where people go to drink. It’s where they go to schmooze. And hey, I was born to schmooze, so I fit right in.

As early as the Wednesday night before the convention’s opening day, the bar was packed three deep and every table filled. Some folks were drinking beer. Others were eating dinner. And the rest, like me, were talking a mile a minute about crime fiction and writing and everything under the sun.

Kaye Barley, a fan at her first Bouchercon who has since gone on to write a novel of her own, reported afterward on Dorothy L: “There was a group of us sitting around a table just talking and feeling so totally comfortable with one another that we decided to pass on going to the Lee Child Reacher Creature party to just continue sitting around getting to know one another and enjoying one another’s company. It was lovely.” I was one of that group, which included authors Shane Gericke, Robert Fate, and Gwen Freeman.

What else happened in the bar? British author Stephen Booth recognized me as one of his MySpace friends (how dated that sounds, and it was only five years ago!), and we had a long conversation about cabbages and kings. Reed Farrel Coleman and I bonded on the topic of blowing off a major Jewish holiday because we didn’t want to miss a thing at Bouchercon.

I ate crab soup and exchanged life stories with my roommate, author Kate Gallison. We were strangers—didn’t even know each other online—when we agreed to room together, but it was a match made in heaven. We talked nonstop and roomed together again at subsequent cons. I met Joe Konrath, whom I got to thank for one of the best tips ever for authors going on book tours: Get a GPS. When I told him about how Sadie got me to my destination all over the country, was never wrong, and never lost her temper, he confided that his is named Sheila and that they, like Sadie and me, have lengthy conversations on the road.

I know it wasn’t just that year, that city, and that bar, because I had an equally good time the following year in the bar at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. It’s where I first met Steve Steinbock, then writing for The Strand but who has since become the reviewer for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and a friend (I gave him a ride from the Edgars down to Malice this spring). It’s where I first confided to a fellow author that my publisher had dumped me. I won’t name her, but it had happened to her too, and she was immensely supportive and encouraging. By the following year, half the authors in the bar had lost their publishers—okay, not half, but it was a great place to commiserate and strategize a comeback. Among my bar memories is stretching way, way up on tiptoes to kiss Lee Child on the cheek. In short (no pun intended), people are really, really friendly in the bar at Bouchercon.

A version of this post appeared on Poe’s Deadly Daughters in 2008.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kittens on the Tracks

by Sheila Connolly

There is a rule in writing cozy or traditional mysteries:  don't kill animals. If you browse in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, you will quickly see that most cozies have a kitten or a puppy on the cover, and sometimes more than one.

It's kind of ironic, since cozies are murder mysteries, which means that at least one human person dies in each book, and sometimes more people as the killer attempts to cover his or her trail. Even children are fair game, now and then. The protagonist is often a target of violence, although we know by definition that s/he will survive, since most cozies are issued as series (I can't offhand recall an example where the series was not renewed by the publisher and the author, in a fit of pique, massacred the protagonist).

But I'd always regarded this rule as sort of an urban legend particular to publishing and other media.  Not so, I discovered recently while reading the newspaper.  In New York City, that paradigm of the Big City, power was cut on two subway lines to Brooklyn because…there were two kittens on the tracks.  Yes, part of the New York transit system was brought to its knees by a pair of curious felines.

Yes, of course they're adorable
The Associated Press provided many useful details.  The kittens were black (one) or white with gray stripes (the other).  No age or gender given.  The  woman who owned them reported to transit officials that they had escaped to the subway, and it took seven hours to rescue them (during which they were reported to have been seen "running dangerously close to the high-voltage third rail."

They were lured to safety with cat food provided by the owner, then removed from the subway tunnel in crates.  The transit authority provided passenger shuttles for those inconvenienced. No estimate of the costs of providing the service was given.

As a good cozy writer, I should have remembered that I was a party to a similar event in the Bay Area in California, a couple of decades ago:  there was a dog in the tunnel between two stops on the Richmond line.  It took an hour or two to persuade the dog to make an exit—apparently he thought it was a big game.

But it's comforting to know that there is still a sense of kindness in the world. Transit officials knew there would be a financial cost to them (ultimately passed on to the subway riders, no doubt) to save those two kittens, but isn't that far better than having them say, "forget it, those little buggers aren't worth that much—run 'em over"? 

It would be nice if the AP had added a final note:  was there applause and cheering when it was announced that the trails were once again kitten-free?

Addendum:  in my books, the closest I've come to attacking an animal was a woman who was aiming a two-by-four at a goat, but she stopped before she could make that swing. And all pets in the books, including the goats, are rescue animals.

Coming very, very soon!

Populated by: one cat (Lolly), one dog (Max), and two goats (Dorcas and Isabel).  And a bunch of humans.  Yes, there is a bunny in the story--briefly.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Best Kept Secrets of the Hamptons

Elizabeth Zelvin

This month, September, is proverbially the most beautiful of the year on the forty-mile stretch at the eastern tip of Long Island known as the Hamptons. When the summer renters and group house vacationers go back to the city, the homeowners and year-round residents heave a sigh of relief at having gotten through another season and emerge to enjoy the many pleasures of early fall on the beach, on the farms, and in the garden.

Most Septembers (barring those pesky hurricanes that sometimes strike),the grasses and waters sparkle, the sky is profoundly blue, the air is balmy, and the ocean, having spent the whole summer warming up, is at its best for swimming. The beach, packed solid on Labor Day weekend, is deserted the day after the holiday, perfect for long walks, meditational sunbathing, and maybe even a little discreet skinnydipping if you avoid the public beaches.

Another treasure of the area, crowded on holiday weekends but sparsely populated the rest of the time, is Gerard Drive in Springs, the part of East Hampton that was cheap enough in the 1950s to attract such artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning. Now it’s prime real estate, and in the wetland areas, which include Gerard Drive, not much new building is done.
The drive is a 1.7 mile peninsula. The unwary tourist, if not deterred by the Dead End sign, comes out of the .4 mile stretch at the beginning onto a narrow road with water on both sides: Accabonac Harbor on one hand and Gardiners Bay on the other, with Gardiners Island, where a 17th-century Gardiner caught Captain Kidd burying his treasure, in the distance. On a clear day the island looks an easy stone’s throw away, but it’s often dusted with haze and sometimes disappears completely.

The mud flats exposed at low tide are shared by human clammers and a host of wading birds, including egrets and oyster catchers. Ospreys build their nets on platforms set on poles amid the wetlands to encourage the birds to breed. Piping plovers and least terns, both classified as endangered species, have roped-off nesting areas near the tip of the drive, where fishermen and gatherers of shells can enjoy the view across the narrow channel between harbor and bay to Louse Point, another secluded and beautiful spot.

I love to walk the length of Gerard Drive and back—I used to run, but now I use Exerstrider walking poles, which prompt a lot of comments about snow and skiing. Cornflowers, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace grow by the roadside. The air is filled with goldfinches and tree swallows. You can hear the chirr of redwinged blackbirds and the occasional mockingbird running through its repertoire. A seagull wheeling overhead may drop a whelk or moon snail on the road to crack it and get at the edible creature inside. There’s a house right before that first glimpse of the water on both sides where a recorder consort practices on Sunday mornings. You may see deer or rabbits bounding across the road. And every walker, runner, dogwalker, bike rider, and rollerblader you meet will smile and say, “Hello!” “Good morning!” or “What a gorgeous day!”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Animals Between the Pages

by Sandra Parshall

Forget all those formulas for writing a bestselling book. The real secret may be reclining at your feet – or in your lap – right now.

Write a book about your pet.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households have one or more pets in residence. We spend more than $60 billion a year on them. We spend more on our pets than we spend on books. But publishers have always known that books about pets are sure sellers, and that’s more true now than ever.

Domestic animal books fall into several subcategories. Advice on basic feeding, training, and health care is always popular and usually authored by a veterinarian. However, according to Publishers Weekly, the top dog training books remain the classic bestsellers The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, written by the Monks of New Skete, who live as a community in Cambridge, NY. In January, competition arrives in the form of Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, a product of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. If enough people read it, maybe fewer dogs will be dumped at shelters because of behavioral problems.

Obviously, authoring books like these is best left to the professionals. But the breakout bestsellers tend to be heartwarming tales of human-animal interaction, and writers like Willie Morris have produced bestsellers about life with their pets. This fall, Beautiful Old Dogs: A Loving Tribute to Our Senior Best Friends, edited by David Tabatsky, will provide anecdotes from a number of writers, including Anna Quindlen and Dean Koontz, and other celebrities.

Stories about dogs that made life more meaningful for their humans never fail to touch readers’ hearts. A September title, Weekends with Daisy by Sharron Kahn Luttrell, was written by a woman who, grieving the loss of a pet, volunteered for a service dog training program that involved sharing Daisy with a prison inmate. (Many service dogs, in case you don’t know, are trained by inmates.) Look for the movie version from CBS Films.

Jon Katz is back with his second canine-related memoir, The Second Chance Dog, about a romantic relationship that nearly foundered when his new love’s dog refused to accept him.

Other upcoming dog memoirs are Rescuing Riley, Saving Myself: A Man and His Dog’s Struggle to Find Salvation by former Marine Zachery Anderegg, and Flash’s Song: How One Small Dog Turned into One Big Miracle by Kay Pfaltz.

Dogs that serve in the military, law enforcement, and search-and-rescue units have been in the news a lot the past few years, and books about them have formed a subgenre of their own. Navy Seal Dogs by Michael Ritland comes out in October, and Trust Your Dog: Police, Firefighters, and Military Officers Talk About Their K-9 Partners by Joan Plummer Russell was published in July.

If you’ve ever doubted whether dogs understand what we’re saying to them, read Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann. Pilley, a retired psychologist, has documented his border collie’s understanding of human language.

But what about cats? Well, take a look at A Street Cat Named Bob and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen. First published in Britain, this book has been a runaway bestseller, with readers standing in line for hours to see Bowen – and Bob. The man signs books. The cat provides a paw print. You can keep up with Bob and his human at

You’ve surely seen Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub on the internet. Grumpy has her own product line, and now Bub has a book: Lil Bub’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet. Bub has a genetic disorder that doesn’t affect her quality of life but has kept her a kitten forever. Her owner, Mike Bridavksy, will donate his profits from the book to animal charities that support responsible pet ownership.

The New Yorker has a long association with cats, and The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (October) is crammed with articles, humorous pieces, poems, fiction, cartoons and such gleaned from decades of issues. Among the man authors included are Roald Dahl, T.C. Boyle, Calvin Trillin, John Updike, M.F.K. Fisher.

The internet is filled with funny cat and dog pictures, and those pictures have spilled over into books such as the Cheezburger cat collections and Dog Shaming, inspired by a captioned-photo web site of the same name.

Other pets get their moments in the literary spotlight too. The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990 by Miriam and Ezra Elia is the illustrated diary (described as existential by Publishers Weekly) of the short, darkly humorous life of a domesticated rodent.

Do you enjoy tales of interspecies love? Look for Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland and One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another by Lisa Rogak.

Animals have always been major figures in children’s literature, and they’re also solidly ensconced in the mystery genre. Even hardboiled detective Elvis Cole in Robert Crais’s thrillers has a cat in his life. My own books, mysteries on the darker side, always have animals in them because one of my protagonists, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian. You’re more likely to find animals front and center in cozies, though. Blaize Clement’s publisher, Minotaur, provided catnip-scented bookmarks for The Cat Sitter’s Cradle, eighth in her pet sitter series. The queen of mystery animals, though, is Sneaky Pie Brown, whose name is on the cover as co-author of Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. These books feature sleuthing farm animals that talk to each other but have a little trouble communicating with their dense humans.

I believe the addition of an animal improves any book, and millions of pet owners agree with me. So whether you’re sticking with fiction featuring animals or writing the story of a beloved pet’s impact on your life, I wish you luck and I look forward to reading your book.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Still Writing

Sharon Wildwind

I love travelling by Internet: no packing, no airport delays, and no breathing the same recycled air as hundreds of other people.

This past week I traveled from how to fold origami cranes to the difference between washi and chiri-gami paper, to traditional Japanese paper making, to the difference between the tame-zuki and nagashi-zuki methods of paper making, to tracking down and checking out from the local library a copy of the classic Washi: The World of Japanese Paper. (Sukey Hughes, 1978) If you’re interested in hand-made paper, there is a short bio and some photographs of Sukey Hughes’ art here.

In  that book is her essay on The Simplest of Substances containing her thoughts about how washi (Japanese paper) connects to nature, tradition, beauty, and the language of beauty.

I do not pretend to have more than a surface acquaintance with Japanese culture or aesthetics, much less of translating those ideas into English, but four key words in that essay stuck with me. The reason they stuck with me is that, collectively, they come closer to defining the transcendence of writing than anything I’ve found.

A quality that moves perpetually in its stillness. To encircle our life with beauty until finally beauty enters and rests within us.

This is what I call flow, or Zen, or being in the zone. Distractions stop; boundaries expand; I am alone with ideas converting themselves into words.

Restraint and calm, the beauty of inner implications that hold both the beauty of nature and health in high regard.

In other words, balanced. Knowing that I what I write at this moment has a deeper meaning, and that I’m getting as close as I can to conveying that meaning, even if I don’t quite understand it myself.

The pleasure of discovering something that is ripe, deep, approachable, mellowed with age and use, faded, traditional, quiet, and settled.

There are only X number of plots. The chance that I’m writing a story that has never been told before is zero.

Sabi is writing a story that has been told before, but telling it in such a way that it shines. This isn’t a bling shine; it isn’t neon lights; it isn’t a trumpet fanfare.

In fact, it is the exact opposite. I love the Japanese image that Ms. Hughes described to represent sabi: it is snow falling into a bowl of oxidized silver. It would be wonderful if my writing was that quiet and that powerful.

That which is poor to the point of being in want. This bothered me at first because I saw it as an excuse for homelessness, hunger, and the other wants of the world. I had to get my head around the difference between being in need and being in want.

 Living hungry on the streets is being in need. That is not wabi.

Wabi is being satisfied with imperfect, imbalanced conditions; finding beauty in roughness and extreme simplicity.

If where I live keeps the rain out and me from dying of either heat stroke or hypothermia, that is enough. If I have simple food to eat on a regular basis, that is enough. If I have have honest work to do, honest stories that are my own stories to tell that is enough.

One can not know sabi and wabi without experience. Maybe that is one of the pleasures of being an older writer.

And, oh yes, in the process of all of this, I did learn to fold cranes.

Quote for the week

Sabi is the quality of being seasoned enough to appear tranquil, serene, antique, and graceful.
~ Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889 – 1980), philosopher, professor, Zen Buddhist scholar, and Japanese tea ceremony master. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching Crime and Punishment

by Julia Buckley

I've written here before about one of my favorite books, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.  I first read it in high school, then again in college, then again in grad school.  I've taught it at the high school level for many years, and I even included it significantly in my novel, THE GHOSTS OF LOVELY WOMEN. So why, you may wonder, am I so smitten with a 19th century Russian novel?

Because, my friends, it has everything. It's a mystery, a psychological tale, a Shakespearean homage (Raskolnikov is Dostoevsky's answer to HAMLET), a love story, a story of faith, a story of doubt, a tale of redemption and loss, a police procedural, a story of police profiling, an examination of obsession and paranoia--and a story of friends and family.

The premise is this: a young man, (who is, Dostoevsky makes sure to note on the second page, VERY handsome), crushed by poverty and humiliated by the fact that he's had to drop out of law school for lack of money, is forced to sit in his garret in the stifling July heat.  He has not eaten in two days, and he has lost his job as a tutor, which only paid a pittance, because his clothing has been reduced to rags and he is no longer "respectable."  He is forced to witness, again and again, the suffering of the poor in the streets of St. Petersburg, and in order to survive he has been compelled to pawn one of the last things he has from his late father--a gold watch.

The pawn broker, a greedy old woman who squeezes the poor for their last drops of blood and then charges them interest, gives him very little for the watch.  He sees her as a roach, a louse, someone who increases the suffering of the rabble in the streets, and he wonders if humanity wouldn't benefit if someone killed her and re-distributed her amassed wealth back to the poor she took it from.  Starving, practically boiling to death in his hot attic room, he broods over this thought, and over the suffering of his mother and sister, who are poor and still living in a little country town, where they struggle to make money to send to him, their hero and the only man in their family, so that he can go back to school and make something of himself.

Under all of these pressures he poses this question: are some people, in fact, extraordinary men?  (Think of the theories of Hegel and Nietzsche and you have something close to his idea).  If so, then isn't he, perhaps, an extraordinary man?  He has a fine intellect, after all, and Fate has put him into the position of being poor and looking for some sort of salvation. Since he has rejected God as probably non-existent, he wonders if that salvation shouldn't come from himself.

And that is why Rodion Raskolnikov, at the beginning of the book, is contemplating a terrible crime . . . but what he chooses to do will change the course of his life and his family's, and it will test his intellect to its limits.

Sound interesting?  Give the book a try!! You'll like it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Self-Publishing Route

Susan Wittig Albert, Guest Blogger

Susan Wittig Albert has been a fulltime professional writer since 1985. She is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, The Darling Dahlias Garden Club series, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian-Edwardian mysteries, coauthored with her husband, Bill Albert—over fifty books in all. In addition, she has written two memoirs, two books of nonfiction, and over sixty YA novels.

I’ve been in the book business for three decades—more, when I count the books I wrote during my academic career. But recently, I’ve been seeing this business from a very different angle. I’ve had the interesting experience of self-publishing my latest novel, a standalone entitled A Wilder Rose. The book tells the true story of Rose Wilder Lane, who transformed her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, from an occasional writer to a world-famous literary icon—the author of the Little House books.

I knew that A Wilder Rose would stir up controversy with Laura’s dedicated fans, since the book reveals just how large a part Rose played in the writing of the Little House series. But when the proposal and sample chapters began to make the rounds of the publishing houses, I was surprised to discover that editors were put off, rather than intrigued, by the controversy. One editor rejected it with the comment, “Laura’s fans won’t like this one.” Another wrote that Rose was “too prickly.” A third asked the burning question, “Will Little House fans want to learn that their beloved hero didn’t actually write (at least not on her own) the books they’ve loved for decades?”  But the story I had to tell is a true story. This biographical novel is based on Rose’s diaries and the characters of both Rose (indeed a prickly person!) and her mother are based on the facts of their lives. I didn’t want to alter any of it to fit an editor’s idea of what the book should be.

I sat back for a while, thought about it, and decided that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for to explore the world of self-publishing. If I published the novel myself, I would have full creative control over the controversial story. What’s more, I wouldn’t have to hang out for a year or more after the novel was finished, waiting for it to go into production and finally launch. And I could be sure that the book was marketed to its best audience, however small it might be. And I wanted to learn what the new author-publishing technologies are all about.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve been learning—and learning a lot. Here are four of the things I’ve learned in the past nine months, since I made the decision to author-publish A Wilder Rose.

Write your best book, then have it beta-read and copyedited. When Bill and I were writing our Robin Paige mysteries, we used to tell each other that we never really finished a book, we just ran out of time to make it better. When you’ve written your best book (or you’ve run out of time to make it better), find some beta-readers who will tell you what else needs to be done. For A Wilder Rose, I asked four very good readers to give me feedback. One was a Laura Ingalls Wilder researcher, the other three were book reviewers. All four gave me exactly what I needed: specific ways to make my best book better in terms of its coverage, content, and style. Then I sent it to the copyeditor with whom I had worked on my two memoirs, and she made it even better. With a team like that behind the book, I could be confident that what was between the covers was the very best it could be.

Cover it, front and back, professionally. While my readers and copyeditor were doing their thing, I began working with a professional cover artist. Most of A Wilder Rose takes place at Rocky Ridge, a hard-scrabble Missouri Ozark farm that is now a museum. Thousands of visitors have toured the house, and its image is iconic. That was what I wanted for the front cover. I also wanted the book to look enough like my traditionally-published mysteries so that readers would see a connection.

The artist gave me the design I wanted, in a series of four different color combos. We put these online and asked readers to vote for their favorite. I loved the white cover, and so did they. And on the back cover, I put the most important of the endorsements I’d been collecting.

Collect those endorsements. A Wilder Rose tells the true story behind a long-lived literary deception. For very good reasons (at least, that’s what they thought), Rose and her mother deliberately and carefully concealed her participation in the writing of the Little House books. I was confident that my fiction was very close to the facts of the matter—the true story of the collaboration. But I also knew that it would be more easily accepted if respected scholars and well-known authors endorsed it. From my research, I knew who these people were. While the manuscript was being copyedited, I sent it to six people and asked them for their endorsements. Cheeky and impertinent, yes. Brazen hussy, that’s me. But all six came through, bless ‘em. You’ll find their endorsements on the book’s website.

The endorsement that means the most to me personally? It’s from Carolyn Hart, who endorsed my very first China Bayles novel, twenty years ago. Thank you, Carolyn!
Give yourself plenty of time. It’s quick and relatively easy to publish an eBook or to go for print with CreateSpace or one of the other self-publishing presses. I wanted this book to be available to libraries and indie bookstores, so I opted to go with Lightning Source, because of its distribution partners, Ingram and Baker and Taylor. That part of the publishing process has taken much more time than I expected, and I’m not sure I’m going to make the announced publication date for what I think of as the “library edition.” If I had it to do over, I would have announced a later date.

If you’ve been down this self-publishing road, you probably have lessons to share, too. Or maybe you’re considering it, and you have a question. Leave a note here and I’ll do my best to respond.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Where Are We?

by Sheila Connolly

A recent post on the editorial page of the Boston Globe had me scratching my head.

What first caught my eye was a big image of the book cover of Jamaica Plain, a book by Colin Campbell, set in (you guessed it) Jamaica Plain.  To put this in perspective, if you wanted to put a paid ad with an image that size in the paper, it would cost you big, big bucks.  This was free advertising.

Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood of Boston, about four square miles, settled in sixteen-whatever. The opening line of the editorial reads "Colin Campbell has never set foot in Jamaica Plain, and it shows." The editor accuses Campbell of putting a raunchy nightclub in a sedate neighborhood, among other sins.  He's defending Jamaica Plain, and that's good.  He may also be a little miffed at Campbell for being an Englishman and writing about Boston.

I've met the author at a conference, and he's charming and funny and very clearly English—and I'm not talking snob English. He's writing fiction, about an English cop in Boston. Let me tell you:  I live a whole heck of a lot closer to Jamaica Plain than he does, and I couldn't find anything there if you paid me.  I think I've been there, but I'm not even sure.

Okay, I'm not the one writing about it. The real places I write about I usually (but not always) know pretty well.  I can tell you where the main streets and buildings are.  I can tell you how to take public transit, if there is any.  I can tell you what a blizzard or a drought looks like there, or what kinds of shops and homes line the streets.  I can usually tell you something about the history of the place and why it looks the way it does.

Why does it matter? 

I have heard it said that a writer has an unwritten contract with the reader, to be as accurate as possible about whatever he or she writes, be it geography or forensics or accents.  When you're writing about real places, how much do you owe the reader?  Can you insert a building where there is now an empty lot?  Can you rename major monuments?  Can you change the direction of the main streets? And how many people will know or care?

Apparently the Globe editor is defending his beloved town, and that's nice of him.  At the same time, he must like something about the book or he wouldn't have bothered to mention it at all (and provide all that nice free publicity).  Confession:  I own the book and have read it. I liked it, and I didn't wonder why the Jamaica Plain police station was here rather than there.  It was a good story.

That's the bottom line: just tell a good story.

(Much as I may like the guy and the book, I'm not going to give him any more free publicity.  If you want to find out more, look here.)

I'd much rather you looked at my book, Golden Malicious, coming October 1st. 

This is called Blatant SELF Promotion.