Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A New Voice: Sherry Scarpaci

Sandra Parshall

In Sherry Scarpaci’s debut mystery,
Lullaby, Vicky Langford is raising her 18-month-old son, Josh, alone after her policeman husband was murdered on the job. A former police officer herself, Vicky is using her current position as an investigative reporter to gather evidence against the crime boss she blames for her husband’s death. Someone is stalking and threatening Vicky, but she refuses to let that stop her investigation. When Josh is kidnapped, though, the intimidation becomes pure terror for his mother. The author, a former magazine and newspaper writer, is the mother of two grown sons and lives in the Chicago area.

You’ve said it took you many years to write Lullaby. What slowed you down?

Pretty much life and the fact that I had no outline for Lullaby, just an idea. I sat down and started writing with no clear cut vision of where I wanted the story to go. That was just one problem. Along the way I detoured into non-fiction. I ended up writing for a local newspaper for a year and then Woman’s World magazine for about six years. During that time I also had to work outside of the home because of a divorce. Working full time and writing for the magazine left no time to pursue any other writing. Then when the magazine writing dried up, I had to take a second job in order to take care of my family. Again, there was virtually no time to write, or so I thought.

Ironically that was when I finished the first
draft of Lullaby. I’ve always been an early riser, so I’d get up at 4 a.m. and work on the novel until I had to leave for work. I had a lap top I took to work with me, and I’d write during my lunch break. After getting home at 9:30 – 10 p.m. from my second job, I’d write till around midnight, go to bed, get up at 4 and start all over again.

When I finished the manuscript, I sent it to Harlequin, who expressed a strong interest in it. I really thought I had it sold. Harlequin had it for months, only to reject me with a very nice letter telling me that I had a strong plot
and wrote well, but the romantic theme wasn’t strong enough and they thought the subject matter wouldn’t “sit well” with their readership. Then began the rounds of revisions and the search for an agent. Lullaby would be out there for months at a time and along the way I’d get great rejection letters, sometimes a page or page-and-a-half, suggesting ways to improve my story. I always wrote thank you notes to those people and rewrote Lullaby again.

Then about four years ago I joined a second writer’s group, this one a critique group, and it made a huge difference. They made suggestions, caught mistakes and inconsistencies. I did two more revisions and submitted it to Five Star at a writer’s conference in February of 2006. Two months later they accepted it.

Was it difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the story and characters over a long period? Did you ever consider dropping it and starting something new?

I never thought about not finishing it. The problem was that when I’d send it out, I’d start another project, then get the rejection with suggestions and decide to rewrite Lullaby. That meant putting aside the other projects. I must admit I did get a little sick -- no, make that a lot sick -- of Lullaby after a while. By the time I got it back from Five Star for final revisions I had had enough. There were other characters bothering me, wanting a voice.

Did the characters and story change a lot over the years you worked on it?

My heroine, Vicky Langford, pretty much stayed the same, but the finished manuscript bears no resemblance to what I started out with. That story is still in the back of my mind and maybe I’ll tell that one some day.

The story in Lullaby is about the abduction of a young child. You have children yourself -- was this a hard topic for you to deal with? What made you want to write this particular story?

The idea for Lullaby came about because I had a friend who was babysitting for a young woman who was being stalked by her baby’s father. I was telling my brother about it one day, thinking it was a good story idea. We started playing “what if,” and Lullaby was born.

To a degree it was a hard story to work on because my own kids were young at the time I started it. It was more difficult though, to write stories for the magazine about sick children. (I wrote a lot of those.) By far the worst story, and the one that impacted me the most, was a story I did on parents of murdered children. That was absolutely heart wrenching, and I can still recall every detail. I was on the phone with those mothers for hours, them crying, me crying. It was awful. I felt like I was picking at wounds that were still fresh, but they were eager to talk about their children. They told me other people shied away from talking about what happened because it made them uncomfortable. Talking to me served as a kind of outlet, I think. I became more paranoid about my kids after that, though. I was always a bit over-protective and I got much, much worse.

Where did Vicky come from? Is she based on you or on anyone you know?

I didn’t base Vicky’s character on anyone in particular. I just wanted to craft a strong character. I love kick-ass women in movies and books, and I wanted Vicky to be the same. No damsel in distress here. No knights charging in on horses to save the day. I wanted Vicky to be the one to do that.

What aspect of the writing craft have you worked hardest to improve?

Editing, by far. In the beginning everything I wrote seemed so important. I had to learn to be brutal and get rid of things even if I liked them. Someone once told me to think of editing like packing a suitcase. Only so much will fit and you have to leave some stuff out. That concept helps me, but I still struggle with it.

Once you had the book in its final form, how long did it take you to find a publisher?

Once I had rewritten the book for the umpteenth time, not long. I think I finished the rewrites in October of 2005 and pitched to Five Star at the writer’s conference in February of 2006. My acceptance came in April of the same year. This was after a lot of years of searching for an agent and suffering through enough rejections that I can paper an 8 X 10 room.

Now that you’re published, you’ll have to speed up the writing. Have you completed a second book yet? If so, was it easier to write than the first? Do you think you can handle the book-a-year schedule that most mystery writers are on?

I’m working on a new book that will definitely be a series. It’s called Resurrection, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first draft. I’m really enjoying writing this one. I think because I’m working smarter this time around. I worked on an outline first, and that really helps me keep on track. Doesn’t mean I stick to it strictly, but I at least have a sense of direction that I didn’t have with Lullaby. And yes, I will have to speed up my writing. I’m 51. If it takes me as long to finish this new book as it did Lullaby, I’ll probably be published posthumously. I wouldn’t say this story is easier to write, but I have a stronger sense of the story and the characters this time. I’m not sure about the book-a-year thing. Life gets in the way of writing Resurrection just as it did when I was writing Lullaby. Writing a book a year is something I would like to work toward. That’s one of my writing goals.

Did anything about the publication process come as a surprise to you?

How long it takes to actually get the book into print, and how hard it would be to get it onto shelves in book stores. I didn’t realize I’d have to contact booksellers and ask them to please carry my book.

Do you have a day job? How do you fit in writing and promotion?

I’ve been with the same company, Linear Electric, for the last 13 years. They have been very supportive of my writing since the day I started. I’m very blessed. I fit in the writing and the promotion where I can. I still get up early, 4–4:15, and try to fit in writing before leaving for work. I try to write on weekends, but it’s difficult at times. I’m very busy. Promoting Lullaby eats into the little time I have to write. I’d be interested to hear how other writers do it when they work full time. I’m constantly nagged by guilt, knowing I should be writing more, but not sure how to fit it in anymore than I do.

How much promotion are you planning for Lullaby? Will you attend any mystery conferences?

I know for sure I’ll be at Love Is Murder in 2008, beyond that I’m not sure. I’m trying to line up as many book signings as possible and take advantage of opportunities like the one you offered me, to be interviewed. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have some very nice press. I pass out postcards everywhere, the bank, the doctor’s office. My mom is hawking my book, too. She carries my postcards with her and hands them out wherever she goes.

Who are your favorite mystery and suspense authors? Have you learned writing techniques from studying other writers’ novels?

I love Agatha Christie. Ten Little Indians is one of my favorite stories. I’m also a huge fan of Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia McDonald, and Janet Evanovich. I do try to learn from what I read. See how other authors use dialogue to move the story along, for example.

Where would you like to be as writer five years from now?

Knocking out that book a year would be great. I would love to be home writing full time. That’s a dream. Who knows, maybe it will happen. So five years from now I would like to have three to five published novels under my belt. Guess that means I’d better get busy.

Visit the author's web site at

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

All Hallow E'ven

Sharon Wildwind

Today's blog is brought to you by the librarians at the Springfield City Library; Springfield, MA

I hate gucky, bloody, scary movies, so the proliferation of TV marathons like "Blood Feast/24" does not thrill me. I asked myself if there could possibly be any nice Halloween stories out there, things reminiscent of when we would dress up in bed sheets or our mom and dad's old clothes, and go out with paper bags to collect Tootsie Roll pops and home-made popcorn balls? Yes, I go all the way back to that kinder, gentler time.

Anyway the librarians in Springfield apparently had a smiliar idea, because they collected a whole bunch of "nice" or "nearly nice" mystery titles for Halloween. Some of them do have a sharp edge, but I don't think any of them drip blood. An abbreviated list is below. If you still want more, check out

Susan Wittig Albert Witches Bane
Texas herb shop owner and part-time private eye China Bayles sets out to catch a Halloween night killer when one of her friends turns up dead at witching hour.

Carol Lea Benjamin The Long Good Boy
Three transsexual prostitutes, working a warehouse district in lower Manhattan, enlist private detective Rachel Alexander to find the murderer of one of their coworkers, who was killed following the infamous Greenwich Village Halloween parade. As Rachel investigates, with the help of her pit bull, Dash, she finds the death tied to the murder of an undercover cop.

Rita Mae Brown The Hunt Ball
When a faculty member from the local prep school turns up dead at the annual Halloween dance, "Sister" Jane Arnold discovers that the case is complicated by a controversy over local historical artifacts in the school collection that were made by slaves.

W J Burley Wycliffe and the Scapegoat
Every year, at Halloween, high on the Cornish cliffs, a life-sized effigy of a man is strapped to a blazing wheel and run into the sea -- a re-enactment of a hideous old legend where the figure had been a living sacrifice. And now Jonathan Riddle, well-known and respected local builder and undertaker, has disappeared -- and it seems all too likely that his corpse has gone the way of the historic 'scapegoat'. As Chief Superintendent Wycliffe begins to investigate, more and more unpleasant facts emerge until he is left with an incredible, and seemingly impossible, solution.

Agatha Christie Hallowe'en Party
Mystery writer Ariadne Oliver joins a Hallowe'en party where a girl falls victim to a game of apple-bobbing gone mysteriously wrong. Now she's joined forces with Hercule Poirot to unmask the killer.

Denise Dietz Throw Darts at a Cheesecake
Ellie Bernstein joins forces with homicide detective Peter Miller to investigate the murder of Jeannie Dobson and the "accidents" that are befalling her fellow members of Weight Winners.

Carole Nelson Douglas Cat with an Emerald Eye
Rough-and-tumble tomcat Midnight Louie, and his redheaded human companion, Temple Barr, are up to their ears in trouble when a Halloween seance to resurrect the spirit of Harry Houdini results in supernatural murder, and it is up to them to find out who -- or what -- was responsible.

Rosemary Edghill The Bowl of Night
When a local resident is killed at an outdoor pagan festival in upstate New York, Bast -- a.k.a. Karen Hightower -- discovers that her suspects include modern-day witches, a ceremonial magician, a survivalist, a dominatrix, an ex-boyfriend, and a few would-be Klingons.

Jerrilyn Farmer Sympathy For The Devil
Madeline Bean, caterer to the stars, is in the middle of the biggest job of her career. She and her partner Wesley have pulled off Hollywood's most outrageous A-list Halloween party for notorious producer Bruno Huntley, complete with an eerie fortuneteller who is astonishingly accurate, and exotic food that's to die for. Before long, Bruno is thrashing and writhing out on the dance floor. Just one problem: he's not standing up, And soon, he's not even breathing.

Jane Haddam Skeleton Key
The death of a glamorous and fabulously wealthy debutante finds Gregor Demarkian investivating a quiet Connecticut town to find troubling passions lurking just under the surface.

Carolyn Haines Hallowed Bones
Sarah Booth Delaney is both a Southern lady and a skilled detective, but her latest case takes her into the murky world of New Orleans where motives for murder, and a list of suspects, are as numerous as the stories of spiritual malfeasance that permeate the air.

Carolyn Hart Southern Ghost
Bookstore owner Annie Darling must set aside her shame and do some serious sleuthing when her husband Max becomes the prime suspect in an unspecified crime involving a beautiful blonde.

Leslie Meier Trick or Treat Murder
While preparing for the annual Halloween festival in Tinker's Cove, Maine, Lucy Stone investigates a series of arson fires that are destroying local architectural treasures, crimes that claim the life of the owner of the town's oldest home and turn an arsonist into a killer.

Tamar Myers Nightmare in Shining Armor
After a fire ruins her costume party, Den of Antiquity proprietress Abigail Timberlake is shocked to discover the body of her ex-husband's new wife, Tweetie Timberlake, stuffed into a suit of armor, and she must race against time to catch a killer before she becomes the next victim.

Katherine Hall Page The Body in the Moonlight
Minister's wife, professional caterer, and amateur sleuth Faith Fairchild does not know if she can stand the heat in the kitchen when a woman drops dead, ostensibly from Faith's yummy but poisoned dessert.

Corinne Holt Sawyer Murder OlÉ!
Angela Benbow and Caledonia Wingate, two savvy senior-citizen sleuths, find themselves embroiled in a south-of-the-border mystery when the residents of their California retirement home take a group trip for Halloween to Tijuana, Mexico, and two people fail to return.

Kathleen Taylor Mourning Shift
Sassy waitress and amateur sleuth takes on greedy relatives, old secrets, and a killer when a mysterious old man, the long-estranged husband of the cook at the Delphi Cafe, turns up dead in the diner's restroom on Halloween.

Kathy Hogan Trochek Strange Brew
When a local business is forced to close in order to accommodate a microbrewery and the head of the brewery is found murdered, Callahan uncovers some disturbing secrets that are better left hidden.
Writing quote for the week:

The narrator is a 60-year-old parrot. Having been raised by Carmelite nuns, she is incorruptible (Down these mean streets a bird must waddle who is not herself mean). As the Carmelites are a silent order, Polly Phonic can't talk but her calligraphy is to die for. ~Karen Affinbeck, mystery writer

This was the silliest quote I could find and I'm all for restoring the silly part of Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thurber for Mystery Lovers

by Julia Buckley
Recently I've been reading to my sons from James Thurber's wonderful humor anthology called The Thurber Carnival; they're having such fun with it that they've been picking it up and reading it themselves in quiet moments. The other day we asked my son if he had readied his uniform for school, and he yelled, "No, sorry, Mom--I was reading Thurber!"

Hard to be upset about an excuse like that, especially when it comes from a nine-year-old boy (who is currently writing his own novel, called The Vengeance Story). :)

Anyway, all this talk of Thurber put me in mind of a book of his that all mystery lovers would enjoy, called Thurber on Crime. Donald Westlake writes the Foreword to this fun volume of Thurber's crime-related humor, and he is obviously a Thurber fan. Only Thurber fans really "get" the idea that the little bland man with a shy manner and a deeply repressed desire for revenge can be amusing. Thurber is, of course, the author of such famous stories as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (once made into a movie with Danny Kaye that was nothing like the original and became something Thurber himself would have quietly parodied) and "The Night the Bed Fell," which are not mysteries at all. But in this book, Thurber's daughter Rosemary provides stories that can be linked by Thurber's bent toward the sly, the mysterious, even the subtly macabre.

Westlake writes, "Gentle comedy is the hardest to make work." This a good assessment of Thurber, whose jokes are not always obvious, but become funnier the more one thinks about them, the more his dialogues roll around in the back of one's mind. "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," seems to be much more an indictment of marriage than of murder, and "The Catbird Seat" continues the theme of the henpecked man, although both men get their revenge in the end, despite their mild-mannered reputations. In "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" a misguided woman decides that the solution to Macbeth was all wrong, that Macbeth didn't do it, and that she, a rather dubious sleuth, has it all figured out.

Added to the wonderful stories are Thurber's famous cartoons. Westlake writes, in the foreword, that a critic once called Thurber, whose cartoons famously appeared in The New Yorker, a "Fifth Rate Artist." Harold Ross defended him, saying "You're wrong. Thurber is a third-rate artist." Thurber's art, though, has an undeniable charm, and is even more impressive when one considers that toward the end of his life Thurber was almost totally blind, and had to create his cartoons on huge sheets of paper that were later photographed and shrunk down to size. Thurber once joked about this, saying he intended to title his autobiography Long Time, No See.

The cartoons, the vignettes and the stories all capture Thurber's sense of irony (and his capable use of parody) as well as his appreciation of crime fiction. Donald Westlake summed it up the best: "Thurber on Crime. There's nothing in the world quite like it."

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Rosemary Harris (Guest Blogger)

The gestation period for an African elephant (loxodonta Africana) is 22 months. I can top that. Even if I only go back as far as the date I got my agent, (as opposed to when I finished my book) I've been expecting for 27 months - with another 5 months to go.

I don't know this information first-hand, but I understand nausea, cravings, crying jags, moodswings, and insomnia all feature prominently in the expectant mother's life. What a minute! I DO know that stuff first-hand, I’m soon-to-be-published.

My story goes back even further. I never dreamed I’d write a book, but once I did, my husband encouraged me to find an agent. That in itself took about a year. I sent the manuscript to the first agent I’d heard of (insert eyeroll) and then waited six months for her to get back to me. Unsurprisingly, it was a rejection. Foolishly, I let that scenario repeat itself two more times before I did the math and calculated that at that rate I could be ninety before I connected with someone who recognized my book for what it was – a good, publishable mystery.

I rewrote the first chapter on a fourteen hour flight from Hong Kong to New York, with one leg suspended in the air due to an accident in Beijing the day before. I don’t know if writing in that position caused more blood to flow to my brain, but by the time we landed, I knew I’d made it better.

Instead of waiting around like I’d done in the past, I sent the new first chapter and a letter to ten agents I’d identified as being cozy-friendly. Within two weeks, three of them had gotten back to me. I chose the one who seemed like the best fit for me, and I was right.

So, the bubbly flowed in the Harris household and I engaged in what my husband affectionately refers to as the “Rosemary dance,” probably because he’s too kind to use the word goofy. In my naivetĂ©, I thought the book would be sold in sixty days and likely be released the following year. (Insert second eyeroll.)

Between “it’s summer and everyone’s away,” “it’s Frankfurt and no one’s here,” “it’s the holidays, sales conference, fill in the blank..” I began to cobble together quite an image of the average book editor – tanned, athletic, a cross between Anna Wintour and Joan Crawford, constantly jetting off to one glamorous location or another, only stopping to check her mail periodically and break the hearts of little people like me.

By the time I got my book deal, another nine months had passed. I was beginning to sense a pattern of hurry up and wait, but I was still ecstatic. More champagne! More goofy gyrations! After two agonizing months, the long-awaited meeting with my editor took place. I was instructed to meet Anna/Joan at a cool restaurant in Manhattan. Since I was early (overeager?) I was ushered to her preferred table in the back to wait.

I’ve grown to love MM dearly, and I don’t think she’ll mind if I say she is not especially athletic and definitely not tanned. We had a wonderful lunch – she loved my character, my book, and me. She thought it needed very little editing – “yes,” she said, poking at her grilled watermelon, “we’ll release it Winter 2008.” What?? It was summer ’06, what was she talking about? “Well, these things take time.” Apparently. The only good news was that Winter 2008, didn’t mean December 2008.

For the first six months I gnashed my teeth. Friends were starting to lose interest, or worse, thought I was delusional, like that writer who lied and told his friends he was going to be on Oprah. Then a veteran publishing person said to me “Enjoy it. You’re soon-to-be-published. Anything can happen.” He was right. Hell, maybe I could get on Oprah. Or Victoria Beckham could be spotted in an airport with my book. The possibilities were limitless.

Since then, I have embraced my STBP status, going to shows, joining groups, and more importantly learning from the generous writers who’ve been down this road before and have been kind enough to share information with a newcomer. When you’re STBP the world is your oyster.

When Rosemary Harris finally does deliver, happily it won’t be a 260 lb calf, it will be a 290 page book, Pushing Up Daisies, her debut novel and the first in the Dirty Business Mystery series. St Martin's Minotaur, February 2008. (She does not really think she’s going to be on Oprah.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 6

How can I get real-life experience in the areas I love to write?

Judy Clemens, author of TILL THE COWS COME HOME, said in my blog interview with her some time ago that she worked on a dairy farm to research her novel. Now that’s hands-on!

Remember I mentioned earlier that I might be getting you involved in a high speed chase or two? Well, no time like the present. Metropolis, Illinois is a small town that has a sheriff’s department and a police department, but neither offer a Citizen’s Police Academy or ride-alongs. The Paducah, Kentucky police department (across the river from Metropolis, IL) DOES offer them, but primarily for McCracken County residents. I attend church with two Paducah cops, so I wheedled, and one of them helped me get into the class. (Never underestimate the value of your contacts to your writing.)

As a mystery writer of procedurals, I was in hog heaven attending the Paducah Citizens Police Academy. Class at 6 PM every Thursday night for eleven weeks, with coffee and cookies. Who could ask for more? Among other things, we took shooting lessons at the firing range, watched the bomb squad blow up things, did fake traffic stops, and studied a made-up crime scene. We learned tons of information about drugs, and at the end, had a graduation ceremony with a lovely plaque. The alumni from the first class formed a group that helps the police department by participating in fake drug busts so officers get more training, among other things.

My point is, writing about subjects we love gives us the chance to research same and participate in some of those activities. Get our hands ON.

For science fiction writers, this may seem tricky, but there are planetariums all over the country where you can observe the universe. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to observe a shuttle launch. (Side trip on a vacation? Tax deductible? Works for me.) There are classes in various places for wannabe astronauts.

Romance writers, how about a visit to a bed and breakfast, or some other romantic local spot you’ve always wanted to try? Either as a guest or to see how the employees work? Or maybe your story takes place at a race track? There’s a NASCAR operation in a mall in St. Louis where you can practice driving.

Western writers? The old west is still alive and well in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. And there are plenty of places to learn to shoot antique firearms or ride horseback all across the country. When my class arrived at the shooting range in Paducah, we had to wait for an antique firearms club (dressed in costume) to finish their practice time.

Fantasy writers? See all of the above. Most likely the planetarium would be your best bet. Or joining a fantasy writer’s group on the Internet. A search will give you options.

Want to write about golf, bowling, baseball, or other sports? Great time to take lessons. Want to write about a new hobby or craft? Now’s your chance. Thinking about changing jobs (and have the wherewithal to do it?) Maybe the job your hero does is the job you’d love to try?

All the other research methods I’m giving you are great, but hands-on is the very best way I know to get a true feel for your character(s) your setting, and your story. Okay, maybe you already are a lawyer, writing a novel about lawyers. So you know the drill. Great. But ALL of your characters can’t be lawyers or the book is going to be a bit boring. You need some diversity. If you already know all you need to about your hero, pick another character to do hands-on research about.

And if you’re REALLY brave, give some thought to trying something you’re too chicken to do, but one of your characters isn’t. Sky diving, anyone?

SUGGESTION: Choose something you’d like to research hands-on, not just on the Internet or in the newspaper. I realize you may not be able to actually do it right now, but make the commitment. Call and get information, leave your name and contact information, have flyers sent to you, or make some other kind of preparation.

The best part of the Citizens’ Police Academy was the ride-along. I’m still telling stories about that one. Trust me, watching Cops on television doesn’t come close to riding beside a real cop as he shoots down a main thoroughfare at eighty plus in the middle of the night. Loved it!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hearing A Music Legend

Elizabeth Zelvin

One reason I love living in New York is that, even if I usually spend my days glued to the computer and my evenings as a couch potato, an infinite smorgasbord of activities—no, whole worlds—are there for the taking any time I want to get off my duff and join in. The other night, I hopped on the subway down to Times Square to hear legendary bluegrass banjo picker Earl Scruggs at B.B. King’s Blues Club. I hadn’t even known he was still alive till I spotted the show advertised at a great price on TDF. Scruggs, who invented the three-finger picking style of banjo playing, is going on 84. He appeared with
“family and friends” including his sons Gary and Randy, the latter a virtuoso git-tar picker in his own right, equally brilliant guitarists Jon Randall and Bryan Sutton, Grand Old Opry fiddle player Hoot Hester, and 23-year-old miniskirted Kentucky “Dobro Gal” Jennifer Kennedy Meredith, who kept right up with these world-class musicians on a notoriously challenging instrument.

It was quite a trip, not only back into the world of traditional music, which I rotated to the back burner five years ago when I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober and plunged into the world of mystery writers and readers, but back in time to my high school days, when my friend Judy and I and a coupla guys got up on stage—at a talent show? almost half a century later, I can’t remember—and belted out a near-high-lonesome version of the wailer “Darlin’ Corey,” popularized by the Weavers, who were at their peak at the time. Judy was happy to come with me to hear Earl Scruggs, along with my grumbling hubby, who tends to be short on enthusiasm on a weeknight. Back in the day (when did “old days” become “day”?), we adored bluegrass, though most of us strummed rather than picked the guitars we carried with us everywhere, and I don’t remember anybody who could actually play the banjo.

Scruggs and Flatt, with their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, were (to use two comparisons I found on Google without even trying) the Paganini and Babe Ruth of their respective instruments, known not only among traditional music lovers but generally for the theme of The Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtrack for Bonnie and Clyde. Flatt died in 1979, but there was Scruggs, recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for such instrumentals as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” natty in a dark suit and tie. The banjo is out of fashion nowadays. It’s largely absent from the New Country, except for the Dixie Chicks, now divorced from the country genre. But I've always found it a joyous and exhilarating instrument, and I was thrilled to hear a master—THE master—play it. The music had me from the high-energy opening bars of "Salty Dog." Scruggs didn’t say a word the whole time he was onstage—son Gary did the talking—but his fingers still can fly.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The USDA and Papa's Pussycats

Sandra Parshall

(Photo by Amy Brigham)

Living in the Washington, DC area is a lot like residing at Comedy Central.

Local and state governments are capable of stunning acts of idiocy, but for pure surreal absurdity, you gotta go to the feds. Perfect illustration: the USDA’s enduring obsession with the Hemingway cats.

That’s “USDA” as in US Department of AGRICULTURE. The agency’s name conjures visions of pigs and cows and fields of grain. So... Hemingway’s cats?

The felines in question are descendants of the furry muses who served Ernest Hemingway when he lived on the Florida island of Key West. The writer’s property is now a privately owned museum, and the cats have the run of the place. They number in the dozens, about half are polydactyl – they have extra toes, as you can see in Amy's photo of one of them above – and they are fussed over by museum staff, volunteers and visitors. Five years ago, a volunteer (who probably wishes now that she’d kept quiet) complained about the cats being allowed to roam free in the surrounding neighborhood. This is not illegal on Key West, and the neighbors hadn’t complained. Yet somehow – I wonder if anyone remembers exactly why – the federal government became involved. The USDA was deemed responsible for overseeing the lives of a bunch of privately owned housecats.

I’ve been reading and hearing about this off and on for years, and each time the subject pops up I’m astonished that the controversy is still raging. The latest update aired on CBS Evening News. Reporters turn silly when they do stories involving animals, and the CBS reporter showed no restraint. She “scratched out” the facts by “sifting through the litter.” So far, she said, the federal government has invested more than 270 work hours in its investigation of the Hemingway cats’ circumstances, and used the services of three government lawyers, four inspectors, and six veterinarians. USDA agents have made at least 14 field trips to Key West – which has to be more fun than visiting a hog farm in Iowa – and have even gone undercover to make sure they don’t miss any abuse. The USDA’s own “cat expert” has described the animals as “well cared for, healthy and content.” But the investigation trudges on, funded by the taxpayers’ dollars. The cats have their own lawyer to fight the incessant orders and demands of the USDA.

Personally, I think some of the Hemingway cats should be adopted out to
struggling writers in need of inspiration. They would be putting their inherited muse genes to work and joining a long list of feline companions to the literary set. Aldous Huxley once told an aspiring author, “If you want to write, keep cats.” A multitude of prominent writers have shared his opinion. Henry James wrote with a cat on his shoulders. Dickens worked with his cat sprawled across his writing table (when she tired of muse duties, she snuffed out his candle with her paw). Samuel Johnson searched the street markets of London for oysters that would please his cat. Mark Twain wrote about cats and was often pictured with them. Colette wrote, “Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

Those four feet aren’t always feline, of course. Many an author has been photographed for a book jacket with a loyal dog by his side. Some of these canine muses will be celebrated in New York tonight at a Writers and Their Dogs event at Symphony Space in Manhattan. The writers’ dogs will appear onstage alongside their owners. The very idea of such an event would baffle a cat. No
self-respecting feline would slavishly trail along behind its human and sit silently by while that human does all the talking and receives all the applause. Unlike dogs, cats know their worth. When a cat deigns to lend its talent as a muse, the wise writer responds with lavish appreciation, a soft pad under a lamp on the desk, and, if desired, the occasional oyster.

My own perfect companions (Emma, above, and Gabriel, below) are never far away when I’m writing. They haven’t quite made up for the loss of my beloved Simon, who died last year after 17 years of faithful service, but they’re doing their best.

The Hemingway cats could launch many new careers if they were carefully paired with needy writers, and the USDA would no
longer have to worry about their welfare. The chances are, though, that the cats would object to the move and go on strike. So perhaps they should be left in peace to enjoy their lives. And perhaps the USDA should find a better way to spend our taxes.

Now, what you've been waiting for: Tell us about your cat!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ramp It Up

Sharon Wildwind

Recently one of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing. About how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching hault. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.

Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing stone-still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.

One thing I found helps is to set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, you’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince yourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.

Gather your favorite writing tools. Even treat yourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether you work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort your buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google your five best friends from high school to see if you can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with your eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there is a writing fairy calling to you, but you must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.

When you feel like it, pick up your pen or pencil or rest your fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.” Just write, one word after another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All you’re doing here is practicing putting one word after the other. You’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.

Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.

It’s okay if you go through the entire week without writing a single word. By day seven, if you’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, you can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in your life to be putting words on paper. If this happens, give yourself permission to not be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory from the simplest airs to laments and piobrachs. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.
Writing quote for the week:

I don't believe in inspiration. I was educated by the nuns. They are a lot tougher than any muse.
~Nora Roberts, romance writer

Monday, October 22, 2007

What's Your Favorite Today?

by Julia Buckley

Everyone loves mysteries. At least this was my assumption when I did a little informal poll with the query “What’s your favorite mystery?” These are results from real people who also happen to be related to me.

My twelve-year-old son said he enjoyed the Chet Gecko series of mysteries by Bruce Hale, with titles like The Big Nap and The Malted Falcon. (Both of my boys got to meet Hale last year, as pictured above. Note the cool Gecko pin on Hale's lapel.)

My nine-year-old son chose the Nate the Great series by Marjorie Sharmat; in honor of the season he chose Nate the Great and the Halloween Hunt.

My husband loves The Judas Goat by Robert B. Parker.

I, as ever, would choose a title by Mary Stewart, as would my mom. She is currently reading Nine Coaches Waiting.

But beyond my family, I wanted to open this up to the Deadly Daughters and to mystery fans. Granted, your answer may change from day to day, so I’ll ask it this way: What’s your favorite mystery TODAY?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Canada Calling: Anne Emery

Anne Emery is a Canadian author. A graduate of St. F.X. University and Dalhousie Law School, she has worked as a lawyer, legal affairs reporter, and researcher. Apart from reading and writing, her interests include music, philosophy, architecture, travel and Irish history. She lives in Halifax with her husband and daughter.

Sign of the Cross. Toronto: ECW Press, 2006 (winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, 2007)
Obit. Toronto: ECW Press, 2007

Writers argue among themselves about can a woman write a male character well? You've chosen not only male protagonists, but that exclusively male prerogative, the Roman Catholic priesthood. What were some the techniques you used to create such strong male characters?

I don’t know quite how to answer that, except to say I must have been paying close attention all these years, without always realizing it, to the men around me!

What's the response been in the law community been to having a blues-playing, hard-living, hard-drinking, poker-player lawyer as one of your protagonists?

Lawyers have been very enthusiastic. Maybe because Monty Collins is not so different from many of them. There are a number of lawyers I know who are also musicians. There are some who, I suspect, could be called hard-living and hard-drinking, as well. Poker players, too, some of them. Many aren’t, of course, but if they’re too pure it’s no fun writing about them!

All of your characters are ambiguous: neither all bad nor all good. They often leave the reader with conflicted emotions about whether to like them. Was that an intentional choice from the beginning, or did it grow out of the way the book developed?

It probably was my intention to write about people who are a mix of good and bad, or who are basically good but flawed. They are flawed in a way I can understand; I can sympathize with them. Occasionally, people reading a draft or the finished book will be quite vocal with me about the behaviour of a character they like; they feel very strongly that he or she should not have behaved in a certain way. I take this as a compliment in a backhanded sort of way; I feel I have created a character people care about. As long as the behaviour is “in character”, so to speak, I feel it’s defensible: “Yes, I wish he hadn’t done it, but that’s exactly what he would have done in that situation.” Much of what the characters do has grown out of the developments in the book, and out of my own growing knowledge of the characters themselves. I used to hear writers say that characters sometimes go off in directions the writer didn’t intend, directions the writer didn’t even want them to go in. Now I know what they mean. There are certain things I wanted to happen, but I came to realize “he wouldn’t do that” or “he’s more interested in this other person than in the one I had lined up for him”! I love that, though, when they kind of take over, and do what comes naturally to them.

You use song quotes, from a wide range of musical traditions, at the beginning of each chapter. Both of your main characters are intimately connected with music. How does music influence your writing?

Music has been an enormous influence on my life and on my writing. Some plot ideas have even been suggested by particular pieces of music. I usually get my ideas while listening to music, even if the effect is not always direct. I’ve seen a number of quotations that say music is the language of the soul. Music can open you up to your creative side, there is no question.

In Sign of the Cross, Ireland—more specifically Ireland as viewed by the immigrant North American---is always in the background. Your second book, Obit, deals even more closely with Irish connections. You have a strong interest in Irish history. What are your thoughts about the "auld sod" as viewed from America?

I come from an Irish Catholic background, and I’ve been surprised at times just how strong an influence all of that—family, school, church—has had on me, or how it has reasserted itself in my adult life. I have only vague memories of my father talking about arguments in his home about Irish politics, or clandestine baptisms — there was Orange and Green on both sides of my family, with Green being the dominant gene. Now it’s too late to follow up on the stories I should have pursued at the time, so I’m making up my own! I’ve been over there a few times, spent last summer in Dublin. And I do a lot of reading on the subject of Irish history. Many of the events and the people are as real and immediate to me as if they were here in Halifax right now.

What are your plans for Father Brennan and Monty?

They’re with me for the long haul, along with their extended families, who will appear from time to time. I hope to continue the series well into the future. They’ll have their ups and downs, and their conflicts with each other, but there is a strong bond between them, and I intend to see them through a number of adventures together. I never thought of it this way until now, but each of them has something the other needs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 5

How can I meet contacts who fill in my research gaps? (Cops, coroners, marriage counselors, history buffs, etc.)

The way companies operate, how various jobs are done, how people live, how dialects or accents are spoken locally, laws, procedures, etc, all differ from state to state, and decade to decade, so it’s a good idea to get one-on-one expert advice now and then about what we’re writing. But how do we get it? And how do we meet these experts?

Believe it or not, I used to be shy of accosting strangers to get information for my books. I’ve, umm, overcome that. A lot. People in all walks of life enjoy discussing what they do and how they do it. We writers can’t afford to be shy about asking questions.

I write a procedural series, (meaning my characters are law enforcement officials, not amateur detectives) and I set the series in Massac County, Illinois where I live. I began the first in the series with zero knowledge of how the Massac County sheriff does his job. But I was lucky. We’d lived next door to a deputy sheriff who’d served as jailor. My first novel was still in the planning stages (in other words, still in my head) when we happened to run into him one night at a local greasy spoon. We bought his dinner, and I plied him with questions. By the time dessert arrived, I had enough information to commit my idea to paper.

Even if we aren’t personally acquainted with an expert in the field we need help with, quite possibly we know someone else who is. I wanted to interview the sheriff, but I’d never even laid eyes on him, and the detention center is a rather imposing building. Somehow I simply could not work up the nerve to call. A friend who works for the state’s attorney set up the appointment for me. The man in charge of public relations gave me a tour through the detention center, (including where the inmates are housed, and we had to be locked in and out of each area of the facility) and then I spoke with the sheriff. I took notes, and that one tour/interview helped me write the next three books.

After my first book came out in print, a Metropolis police officer, Sgt. Carl Manley contacted me via email to say how much he enjoyed my book, and he appreciated that I hadn’t portrayed local law enforcement officials as Keystone Cops. I later met Sgt. Manley at the annual Superman Celebration, and he has since become a fount of information. Any time I have a question, like how local officials locate drowning victims in the Ohio River, he helps me out. And his answer on that one totally surprised me. Local officials don’t just sit around and wait for drowning victims to float to the surface. They ask area tow boat operators to keep a lookout because their large propellers stir the waters and often bring bodies to the surface. Who knew?

As a “thank you” to this great cop, whenever I need a police officer to help my fictional sheriff and his deputies out, Sgt. Carl Manley shows up in my scene. He loves that.

A great way for us to get expert help is to pay close attention to people’s jobs when we first meet them. If their job (or hobby) sounds like something we might need information on for our writing at some point, we can file their business card in our card file. (You all do have a business card file, right? If not, now is a great time to start one.)

And here’s a tip I learned from author Mindy Starns Clark who wrote THE TROUBLE WITH TULIP. ALWAYS jot a note on the back of the business card about where I met the person or why I’ve kept their card on file. I can’t tell you how many cards I’ve found in my file and wondered who in the world gave them to me. And why I’ve kept them. No telling how many opportunities I’ve missed to sell another book or have another question answered because I didn’t make notes on the back of that card. Sigh.

Writer’s conventions and conferences will introduce us to more experts than we can shake a stick at, and information about conferences for every genre can be found online. The Fiction and Firearms Seminar held in Las Vegas every November introduces mystery writers to some of the best weapons experts in the world. While attending in 2002, I got answers to questions about my murder weapon for my second book. And pictures. And the expert, Captain Massad Ayoob, later blurbed the book for me. Mention Ayoob’s name to just about any cop in America and he will drool over the prospect of spending a day on the shooting range with Ayoob, learning about various firearms. The seminar provided that opportunity for me. There are huge conferences for romance writers and science fiction writers as well.

Most writer’s conventions and conferences invite well-known experts for that genre who are willing and able to answer any questions we might have now or in the future. And the conferences/conventions give us a chance to network with agents and publishers while meeting with the experts who become our informational lifelines throughout our writing careers.

SUGGESTION: Choose an “expert” in your genre, contact him/her and ask at least one question to gain information for your research file.

After the rough draft of my first novel was done, and I was busy revising and polishing, I interviewed the local coroner who also owns the funeral home. Lovely man, but I now know not to eat lunch right before we chat. I had a question about blood pooling, and he’s big into blood splatter patterns. Or is it spatter? Time for another visit with the coroner.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mysteries and the Social Order

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been reading my way through as many of Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse medieval mysteries as I can get my hands on, and it’s gotten me thinking about the social order as depicted in the microcosm of mysteries. Frazer’s work is based on sound research and a fine empathic imagination. Her characters are very much rooted in their 15th century English world. Dame Frevisse, for example, having embraced the life of a cloistered Benedictine nun from a desire to spend her time with God, is not thrilled when she’s sent out into the world on some errand or another—in the course of which she inevitably solves a murder—but unhappy with the interruption of the cloister’s orderly schedule of prayer and downright irritated at being surrounded by so many people talking. A lesser writer would make her take more pleasure in the temporary freedom.

From the Middle Ages, my mind leaped to the Golden Age of mystery. In the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, class is innate and unchanging. A lord is a lord and a servant is a servant. Bunter and Lugg are happy to spend their lives serving Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion respectively. The police talk very differently to the housemaid than they do to the lady of the manor. In the work of Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth, who were writing through the 1950s, the social order remains more or less inviolate. Almost every character’s intelligence matches his or her social class. Wentworth’s Miss Silver books are the coziest of cozies, but they don’t lack for emotional depth and character development—within limits. Even Miss Silver talks differently to the housemaid, who never surprises her by being unexpectedly intuitive or well-read. In Wentworth’s world, young women are invariably either good girls, bad girls, or silly girls. A decade later, Patricia Moyes’s Henry and Emmy Tibbett are solidly middle class and anti-snob. After all, they live in Chelsea. But the English village is still a village, where the Chief Constable dines with the titled and landowning families, the doctor dines with the vicar, and the housemaid is still not too bright.

Growing up on English novels, I suspended disbelief about this perfectly ordered world over many years of reading. Now, when I reread old favorites as I love to do—most recently, Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables and Moyes’s Murder Fantastical—I have to work at not being distracted by the complacent snobbery woven into the fabric of these otherwise delightful reads. Some classic American mysteries resemble English novels in this respect. Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge books come to mind. Gamadge is undeniably a gentleman, and he inhabits a New York in which the Social Register matters, however impoverished and dysfunctional the old families may be. But America is at heart egalitarian. I suspect it was a lot easier for American writers to give up a world in which everyone knew his or her place.

The archetypal value of manners in the broadest sense, manners as essential to culture—the subtext of the sociological assumptions of the kind of fiction I’m talking about—seems to be that what separates the high from the low is whether the person in question knows which fork to use when at a formal dinner. It’s a persistent belief that this is important. I seem to remember that in the movie Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts as the Cinderella-like prostitute was embarrassed over the matter of forks. What I’m embarrassed about is how many years it took before it occurred to me to wonder who could possibly respect or care about a bunch of people who judge others by how they use their forks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A New Voice: Gabriella Herkert

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Romance, murder, a witty heroine, and a filthy rich cat -- what more can you ask for in a humorous mystery? In Gabriella Herkert's first novel, Catnapped, Seattle attorney Sara Townley is at the bottom of the legal food chain, and when a cat worth millions disappears Sara is ordered to find him. The missing feline, whose owner left him a massive estate managed by the law firm Sara works for, leads her straight to a dead body. At the same time, the Navy man Sara married in Vegas after a (very) brief acq
uaintance returns from sea duty and informs Sara he wants a real marriage, not an annulment. The author of Catnapped describes herself as "an evil corporate lawyer working in-house for a high-tech firm near Seattle" and assures me that this drawing is an excellent likeness of her.

When most people think of lawyers writing crime novels, they think of authors like Grisham and Fairstein. Did you ever
consider writing a legal thriller?

I've written a series of short stories (as yet unpublished) that include a character named Michael Morrow. They fall more into the thriller category in that they involved darker themes and are more plot dependent, although I think Michael makes a great character, too.

What inspired you to write a humorous animal-themed series?

I admit I'm bent. The smart-aleck part of the book is in my genes and since that is the case, I wanted to make my parents laugh out loud. As for the animal theme, Catnapped is based on an actual case that included a cat. Since I'd grown up with animals, I just let the cat in the story take on the personality of my cat, Flash. That feline always cracked me up.

Have you always wanted to write, or is this a recent interest? Why did you choose the mystery genre?

I've been writing, one way or another, since I was eight. It was a natural outgrowth of loving to read. I didn't choose mystery so much as it chose me. I write what I enjoy and I've loved mysteries since Nancy Drew.

How long did it take you to write the first book? How did you fit writing in with your day job?

The first book took a long time. I had written the first fifty pages of Catnapped and submitted it to the Maui Writers' Conference contest. When it won a Rupert Hughes award, I thought I could go home and use that energy to power through the rest of the book. Flying home from Maui, I couldn't wait. It was September 9, 2001. I didn't feel funny for a year. I wrote a lot and that was okay, too, but I didn't make progress on the book. I finally finished the first draft in late 2003. I polished for a year and it took another year to get my first agent.

You went the contest route – Catnapped was short-listed for the Debut Dagger Award, the St. Martin’s/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel Award, the Kiss of Death and Maui Writer's Conference awards, and it won honorable mention in the Writer's Digest contest. How did these competitions benefit you? Would you recommend that aspiring writers enter contests?

The contests were great. Not only did I get great support and feedback from people who had a lot of experience in the field, I met several great people who continue to form the basis for my "community" of writers. I would recommend that aspiring writers take every opportunity to get read. Share with family and friends. Enter the contests. Dare your writer friends to enter, too. Blog. Whatever. Every experience encourages and keeps you on the path to putting pen to paper. The big bonus is every day you write, five more stories will be waiting for their turn.

Tell us about your path to publication. Was it easy or difficult to find an agent? To find a publisher?

Because I'd had success in the contests, I thought getting an agent would come easier than it did. I had very specific criteria for the agent I wanted and that made it harder. My short list was very short indeed. Then again, the positive results I'd had helped me stay confident that my work would find a home -- a great home with an agent and a publisher who really believed in me and my writing. Having said that, I am working with my second agent now. The relationships are evolutionary and it's helped me to keep an open mind.

Did anything about the publishing process surprise you, or did things happen pretty much as you expected?

The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend on getting the word out myself. Even with a big house and a supportive publisher, most of this still falls on the author. These are time pressures on top of meeting deadlines and the day job, friends, family etc. I am so lucky my "peeps" understand.

How have your colleagues in the legal profession reacted to news of your second career?

My boss has been incredibly supportive as have my colleagues in the legal group. Of course, they look at me funny when I ask if they've ever been stuck in the trunk of a car. Naturally, every "ex" thinks he's the hero and every family member thinks I've turned them into a killer. As for the people I am negotiating deals with, it works for me that they know I know where to dispose of a dead body.

Do you have a critique group or individuals who read your work before your agent and editor see it? What aspects of writing have they helped you with most?

I couldn't have finished without my critique group. If nothing else, these are the people who will kick you in the butt if you haven't written anything to bring to group. They'll tell you the sex isn't sexy and the jokes aren't funny. I am better because of them. And they still showed up at the first signing.

How much promotion do you have planned for Catnapped? Which conferences will you be attending?

I just came back from Bouchercon in Anchorage. There's nothing like the conferences to motivate and encourage finishing the next book. It's not just the big name authors I'm thrilled to meet, either. The biggest push comes from the readers who come to share their own stories and tell me how Sara or Russ or one of my other characters reminds them of their crazy cousin Lucy or hilarious next door neighbor. It's the biggest high there is for a writer. I'm doing some more local signings in and around Seattle. I've got a library reading coming up next week at my local library I'm really looking forward to and several more conferences on the schedule: Left Coast Crime in Denver in March, Malice Domestic in Virginia in April, Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, and Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis as well as several romance writers conferences. My schedule is listed on my website at I'd also love to talk to any book clubs who want to talk with me. Send an email to and we can set something up.

What’s next for Sara Townley?

Let's just say that marriage and mayhem will plague Sara for some time to come. She's also got to learn to speak 'Connor' and deal with his less-than-predictable family. Catnapped: An Animal Instinct Mystery is available now. Doggone! comes out in September 2008. An as-yet-untitled book 3 is scheduled for 2009. I expect Sara's quick wit will carry her into even worse trouble than a bigamy rumor. I can't wait!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Muddled, Mushy, Marvelous Middle

Here I am at book #3 in my Vietnam veterans mystery series. Soldier on the Porch hits the ground running tomorrow. At least it hits the library mailing lists. My publisher, Five Star, vends primarily to libraries, so they devote the first three to four weeks after the release date to mailing copies to libraries that have already ordered the book.

But I already have had the Advanced Reading Copies—the ARCs—in my hot little hand, so it seems like a real book to me. How it feels to be in the middle of a series?

Muddled, for a start. Not the writing itself; there I see an improvement in each book. It’s the muddle-headedness of publishing and marketing in general. About five years ago, another writer commented that those of us who would publishing between 2000 and 2025 would be the vanguard for a new way of thinking about books; that we might be the last generation of writers who distributed and marketed books in the traditional way.

As it’s played out so far, authors are far outstripping publishing and distribution in leaving the old ways behind. Web sites are passe (but you still need one), blogs are overloaded (but you still need one), and authors have moved into podcasts and video book trailers as a matter of course. Unfortunately, distributions systems are still stuck in the early 20th century. We can get the word out about our books, but we can’t get the books themselves out. The old systems are crashing and the new systems are not in place to replace them.

Next I feel mushy. Contrary to common belief, selling your first book isn’t the key point in a writer’s career. It’s selling the fourth book, and so far, book #4 in my series has not sold. In mysteries, the series has been the absolute king for years. Cracks are appearing. Many writers—including me—are intentionally limiting their series. For example, I knew going into it, that it would be five books in total. One very successful writer recently said in an essay on publishing that well-established mystery writers are beginning to go for stand-alones because one book is all they can expect to place with any publisher.

Even though #4 hasn’t sold, I decided to write it anyway. I need to finish this series and have it on the shelf. And, I have a stand-alone in the planning stage, just to cover all my bets.

Finally, I feel marvelous. I’m really, really doing this. Maybe not as well as I’d hoped, but as well as I can, and I’m having a great time. I’ve made tons of acquaintances in the mystery community. I’m a part of critique groups. I know far more about the business end than I want to, or than anyone sane person should have to contend with, but basically, being in the middle is a great place to be.
Writing quote for the week (and blatant self-promotion to boot):

First, the book Soldier on the Porch by Sharon Wildwind was great!! I got nothing done around the house because I didn't want to put the book down. This is the third in the Elizabeth Pepperhawk (Pepper) series. Pepper was a nurse in Vietnam (and so was Sharon) and the series is set after she returns to civilian life. You can check out the books and more about Sharon at For those of us who were adults during the Vietnam War, the books bring back a lot of memories -- and remind us that once the war is over, there is more work to be done in bringing those who were part of the fighting back into families and friendships with the understanding that we can never know what they went through. I would assume that many of the returnees from Iraq will have the same issues. Hopefully books like this can help us understand just a little. But please don't get the idea that this is a book only filled with angst -- it's not. There are flashes of humor and the mystery is excellent. I thought I had the thing figured out -- no way. There are two prior books in the series
Some Welcome Home and First Murder in Advent.

~Deborah Andolino, Aliens & Alibis Books, Columbia, SC

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Value of the Writing Group

by Julia Buckley

I doubt I would ever have been published if it weren't for my writing group. We met in a writing class--several women who were serious about writing for publication. We were led by a professor of writing from Columbia University in Chicago. After that we kept meeting in members' homes to critique one another's work and to discuss the craft of writing. We've been together since 2000, although the group's numbers have ebbed and flowed with the various commitments of its members.

I joined the group because, although I was entirely willing to revise, I wasn't always certain what TO revise, and this, I felt, was a significant flaw. My fellow writers quickly made me aware that there are always things to tighten, to eliminate, to say more concisely or, sometimes, in more detail. The great thing about working with a group is that I have started to know, as I write, what the individual group members will say. "Martha will think this is too sentimental," I think as I write something. I realize that she would be right, and I take it out. Another time I'll think, "Cynthia will think my character is too self-aware, that she is showing off." So I'll tone the character's dialogue down. "Elizabeth will say this line is melodramatic, and that it interrupts the pacing of the story." Usually she's right, too.

The value of the group, aside from the friendships that have been a byproduct of our monthly meetings, is that I have now started to revise my work before the group even sees it. They've given me a valuable assessment tool that isn't only my interior monologue--which ceases to be reliable once I've read a book ten times and can no longer be objective--it's the voices of several experienced critics who stay with me and shape my decisions.

As a result of the group meetings, I feel more confident about my own writing, especially because my fellow writers can trace its growth. "Your writing is so much more assured now," Cynthia wrote on a recent manuscript.

This Friday I must face the group with a brand new manuscript. While I can sometimes predict their comments about details or style, I am never quite sure what they'll think of the overall product. I've been pleasantly surprised in some cases, bitterly disappointed in others. The disappointments are better learning opportunities, however. I'd much rather have the book torn to shreds by the group than have it rejected by a publisher, especially if there's a problem that is easily fixed.

The manuscripts have been delivered for reading, so there's no going back now. I await their critiques, and I am grateful for them.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Write, write, write...and smell the roses

Valerie Wolzien (Guest Blogger)

The best advice you can give a writer is write every day. It’s great advice, but sometimes, I think, you need to stop and smell the roses…

Somewhere out there are writers who, when they sit down to type page one, already know what will be on the final page of their manuscript. Many spend months making detailed plot outlines. They have notebooks (or computer files) crammed with descriptions of characters: everything from age and hair color to preferred breakfast food. They research locations and topics before they start writing and they don’t lose their notes only to discover them long after the complete manuscript is safely in their publisher’s hands. These paragons may work in the modern day equivalent of an ivory tower: a table at Starbucks, a private corner in the local library, or just a room of their own where they can close the door, positive no one will interrupt. Many claim that they write every day and they never, ever get up from their desk without completing a few thousand words.

Not me. I think of myself as a seat of my pants sort of writer. When the only thing on the page – or screen – is Chapter One, I rarely know more than who my main characters are (when you write series mysteries, that’s one thing you always know), who will die, and what the setting/season/situation will be.
And it’s fun to write the way I do. Since I don’t know how my characters will develop they frequently surprise me. Since I don’t know what I’m going to need to know when I begin, I can justify taking off to do a little research from time to time. I stay interested in my plot and I hope that means future readers will as well.

On the other hand… characters sometimes develop in directions that don’t fit in with the plot. I pick a murderer and then discover half way through the manuscript that I like him or her too much to make that character the killer. And sometimes I get stuck. Really stuck.

And if that happens to you, I’m going to suggest something slightly radical. Stop writing. Get up and go smell the roses. Or do whatever smelling the roses is in your life. Bake a cake. Take the dog for a long walk in the woods. Pull out those weeds strangling your impatients. Soak in a warm bubble bath. Get a pedicure. Find a road you don’t know well and go for a drive. But whatever you do, do it alone. This is not the time to call a friend and hit the mall. You need to clear your mind, not provide a social distraction. Your writing may be important to your family, but don’t ask them for tea and sympathy. This is time for you and you alone – time to let your subconscious do a bit of the work.

And sometime you’ll have an “ah ha” moment. The answer to your problem will appear almost miraculously. Sometimes. And it if doesn’t?

Sit back down in that chair and write, write, write.

Valerie Wolzien is author of the Susan Henshaw mysteries and the Josie Pigeon series.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 4

What can I learn from strangers who cross my path?

By Lonnie Cruse

Art generally imitates life rather than the other way around. It’s difficult to make up stories that are stranger than what actually happens to people . . . or what they make happen to themselves. So it’s a good idea for a writer to be a “people watcher.” I was delighted to read an article online in The Motivated Writer by author Carl Brookins where he said: “Driving down the street, I see a man walking. Where is he going? Where has he been? Who was he just with? What did he just do, or decide not to do? I play "what if" incessantly.”

I do the same thing, but I thought I was weird. Well, okay, the fact that Carl Brookins does it as well doesn’t make me any less weird, it just means there are two of us. But speculating about people we see on the street and asking “What if?” can lead to creating a great story, or characters for same.

And overhearing conversations in public (discreetly, of course, not leaning over to the point of being off-balance and falling out of our chairs) is another great way to get inspiration. I was doing a book signing at a local mall with several other authors last year. The mall personnel set up our tables between the kiosks in the middle of the mall, and most of us sat alone at our tables, watching traffic pass by, poised like cocker spaniels hoping for a treat. My ears perked up when I heard a voice behind me say: “I’m so tired of this, would you please shut up?” My jaw dropped and I carefully turned my head to catch a glimpse of the guy who could be so outspoken in such a public place. The lady with him kept walking and didn’t say a word. (I’d a let him have it, but that’s just me. My guess is she probably did, on the way home. In private.) I wondered if he didn’t realize how easily he could be overheard or if he just didn’t care. It led me into the “What if?” question, and to speculating about the things we say and do in public.

A couple of days ago I was downtown and as I passed a group of people standing on the sidewalk, talking, one person said: “I didn’t take the baby away because _____’s always been so good to her.” That’s the only phrase I heard as the speaker stopped talking in order to take a puff of cigarette and the listeners were silent. Okay. So, who is _____? Guy? Gal? Is it his/her baby or is this a step-parent, in-law, other relative, friend, lover, babysitter? Why would the speaker even THINK of taking the baby away in the first place? Away where? For how long? See where “What if” takes you (or in this case took me?)

How are the teenagers in your mall dressed? Are any of them actually shopping or are they all just “hanging out?” Is that elderly gentleman waiting for his wife? Or is he putting off going home to an empty house. Is that a bored hubby sitting on that bench eating ice cream, or is it a detective following a cheating wife? That lady attempting to corral four or five boisterous kids of different ethnic backgrounds, is she their mother, teacher, foster mom, kidnapper? If it’s the latter, someone better call the cops to come rescue HER. And even if you never find out what these people are doing or where they are going, you can make notes about their dress, mannerisms, the words you DO hear, etc, and take off with your story from there.

I pre-date (by quite a few years) the cell phone phenomenon, so seeing people chatting away in Wal-Mart or Kroger always makes me snicker, but I confess, I do it myself. If my friend Debby and I are shopping together, that’s how we keep from losing each other. But many people who were used to talking on the phone only in the privacy of their homes or offices are now likely to say just about anything on a cell phone in public. Great fodder for stories.

Bottom line, be aware in public, head’s up, eyes forward, ears perked. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. How did your waiter behave? Was the clerk in the department store having a tough day or is he/she always that rude? What did that woman say to her sister/daughter/friend, and how did the listener react to it? Not only will you get great story ideas, but you will be able to polish your characters, make them more real to your readers who will nod their heads and agree that they know people just like those in your stories.

What most amazes you about people in public? Or disgusts, surprises, turns you off, etc? Keep your notebook handy and your brain on alert. And have fun. Just don’t be obvious about observing or listening in. No need to get a punch in the nose for the sake of your art.

SUGGESTION: Sometime this week, when you find yourself in a public place, choose a stranger to observe and make notes about what he/she says or does. Or if you can only see them from your car as they enter a restaurant or other public building, play “What if?”

In my new series I have a scene where three of my characters are eating lunch at their favorite restaurant and the guy at the next table is talking on his cell phone, giving out information most people used to guard with their lives. In this day of identity theft my characters are amazed at his stupidity. But as they go shopping, the lead character’s purse is stolen and she now has to deal with protecting herself from identity theft. I got the idea from seeing and hearing the way people use cell phones.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Remembering Anne Frank

Elizabeth Zelvin

Is there anybody who doesn’t know who Anne Frank was? A young German Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during World War II whose family was forced into hiding for two years before they were betrayed to the Nazis, Anne became a heroine and an archetypal figure when her diary was found and published after the war. If she had been Catholic instead of Jewish, she might have been considered a saint. What I think inspires us about Anne and endears her to us more than sixty years after her death in a concentration camp at the age of 15 is not her suffering but the survival of the unquenchable spirit her diary revealed.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl at the age of 11, not long after it was first published in English. I consider it one of the books that made me a writer. I started a diary of my own modeled on hers, learning from Anne to examine and reveal my emotions and to observe and record the nuances of relationships—my own and those around me—to the best of my ability. Like Anne, I was a Jewish girl living a secular life in the diverse society of a big, modern city. It would have been unimaginably shocking to me, as it was to her, to find myself singled out, forbidden such everyday privileges as going to a public swimming pool, shunned by friends and neighbors, and finally in danger of my life. Her unfolding sexuality made me more aware of my own. Her quarrels with her older sister didn’t seem so different from mine. Yet Anne had to paint her emotional life from such a limited palette, within the confines of such a small frame, and with an underlayer of constant fear.

I’d like to say that at 11 or 12, reading about Anne made me realize how lucky I was, but if I had that much depth in early adolescence, I certainly don’t remember it. I do know that Anne felt very real to me. I was a constant reader at that age, and the people I found in books, especially other girls, felt real to me too: Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jo March and her sisters and all of Louisa May Alcott’s other girls. The shocker was that Anne Frank was not a work of fiction. She really did live and die.

The house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Amsterdam. I made my own reluctant pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House in the spring of 2003. My husband and I spent several days in Amsterdam, but I avoided going until the last moment. As an American Jew who had not experienced the full horror of the Holocaust, I didn’t know how I’d feel. My parents, who had both been in America for almost forty years by the time of World War II but certainly knew people who were lost, tried to instill in me a sense of how fragile and terrifying being Jewish could be. It's hard to pass fear and horror on from one generation to the next, especially when a child experiences so many other cultural influences. I tend to avoid the most graphic depictions of the Holocaust. On the one hand, I was afraid I’d find Anne’s Secret Annex too upsetting. And on the other, I feared I might not feel enough.

I needn’t have worried about feeling nothing. Tears streamed down my face for the whole hour or so we were there. The Secret Annex was bigger than I expected. I had pictured a tiny space like a 17th century priest hole. In fact, it was more like a New York apartment—except that two families shared it and they could never go out or even be seen at the windows. The horror was not in the confinement, but in how vividly being there brought Anne’s reality home to me—not real like a beloved character in fiction, but real like me.

Dramatizations of Anne’s story tend to end on the high note epitomized by the best known line from her diary: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” We would like to believe that Anne was able to hold onto that belief in the nightmare of Bergen-Belsen. What has haunted me most since my visit to Amsterdam is a glimpse of the terrible reality through a recording in the voice of a non-Jewish friend of Anne’s (in Dutch, with a projected translation into English). She recounts how she made her way to the camp and talked to Anne through the wall, though they couldn’t see each other. Anne was starving. The friend threw a loaf of bread over the wall to her. But a woman snatched the bread and ran away. The friend tells us she could hear Anne crying behind the wall.

That’s what really happened to this lovely teenage girl. It's hard to find a perspective on it that offers any comfort. Anne died of typhus a month before the liberation of the Nazi death camps. But 31 million copies of her diary have been sold, and almost a million visitors a year make a pilgrimage to the Secret Annex to bear witness to her story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Sandra Parshall

My name is Sandy, and I am an addict.

I don’t have the slightest desire to drink or shoot up or snort cocaine or throw away money at a casino. But don’t ask me to live without the internet.

I didn’t realize the depth of my dependency until my last computer began its agonizing limp toward the recycling bin.

Motherboard. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Comforting, trust-inspiring – until you discover that your computer has the Joan Crawford version.

My computer was “only” two years old – any geek would say it was old as dirt, but to me it still had the blush of youth – when it suddenly began losing its memory. One day it informed me that I had no keyboard attached. I assumed the keyboard was at fault. After all, the thing had enough cat hair buildup to stop any electronic device in its tracks. Three keyboards (serial and USB) later, the computer was still reluctant to acknowledge that one was attached, and it had also started rejecting my trackball and randomly crashing applications. A long telephone conference with a nice young man named Gary, who for some reason spoke with an Indian accent, ruled out all possible problems except the very worst: the motherboard was dying.

I ordered a new computer and frantically began saving files to an external disk during the old computer’s rare functional moments. I couldn’t write, and even worse, I couldn’t get on the internet. Withdrawal set in. I cast covetous glances in the direction of my husband’s computer. I needed my e-mail. I needed DorothyL and the Guppies. I needed my panda groups.

Writers still talk about the loneliness of the writing life -- the wordsmith sitting in solitude day after day, cut off from the world, living in his or her head. But such laments don’t ring true when they appear on chat lists with hundreds, even thousands of members. Company is as close as a click away. Online companions are so numerous, so talkative, so much fun that no writer should have trouble coming up with ways to avoid actually writing.

In addition to being a boon to lonely, procrastinating authors, the internet is an agoraphobic’s dream. You can order anything from books to pizza to cat litter online without ever having to leave the house. You can even get your head examined online, as my blog sister Elizabeth Zelvin, an online therapist, can tell you.

Shy people can become social butterflies, experiencing the intimacy of friendship without having to put up with the friends’ physical presence. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and they don’t know you’re shy either. If you do meet your online friends in the flesh, you’ll be instantly comfortable because you already know them so well. And, of course, you can rush home afterward, go online and exchange dozens of e-mails about how wonderful it was to see each other f2f.

On a broader scale, the internet allows writers to spread the word about their books in a way that could not have been imagined 30 or even 20 years ago. The author who doesn’t have a web site is an oddity these days. Genre writers are all over the web, popping up on an ever-growing number of chat lists to talk to readers and other authors.

It’s fashionable to moan about the death of “real” letter-writing as e-mail takes over, but you’ll get no complaints from me. I’ve heard from many readers who might never have bothered to send fan letters if they’d had to write them on stationery, stick them in envelopes, and drop them in a mailbox. I’m a long way from bestseller status, but I don’t believe I would have achieved even a modest degree of success and fame without the internet. And I can go online and find cops and FBI agents and experts of every stripe to answer my research questions. What’s not to love about the internet?

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – there’s plenty not to love. Spam, ads on web sites, articles brimming with factual errors, idiots who start rabid flame wars in otherwise peaceful discussion groups (including – I kid you not – one group I’m in that’s devoted to giant pandas). But that’s life, the bad with the good.

The first online community I belonged to was Compuserve, back in the days when it was a members-only subscription service with an amazing 400 forums covering every subject imaginable. I was a sysop (unpaid staff member) on the writing forums, and that was where I first “met” real authors, including Diana Gabaldon and Jack Olsen, who didn’t mind talking with and advising the lowly unpublished. I still have friends I made on dear old Cserve. In time, AOL bought Compuserve and set about reducing it to a shadow of its grandest form, but by then I had a connection to the wondrous worldwide web, and I’ve never looked back. The internet has literally altered my existence, in only positive ways. So naturally, the first thing I did when I set up my new computer was connect it to our DSL and go online for a net fix.

My friends in the Guppies have been waxing nostalgic lately about the days of typewriters and carbon paper, but I haven’t heard anybody say they want to turn back the clock.

How about you? You’re reading this, so you must make a habit of going online. How has the internet made a difference in your life? Has it all been positive, or have you had some nasty www experiences?