Monday, June 30, 2008

The Fun of Lists, The Joy of Books

by Julia Buckley

This week Entertainment Weekly Magazine released several lists of what they called "The New Classics" in books, movies, music, etc. They were drawing their material from works produced in the last twenty-five years. I've already heard some complaints about what was left off of the list (which can be read here)
both because of things that were put on or things that were left off. Still, I like reading lists, because they give me a gauge for my own reading. I check how many of the books I've read, and I get a sense of how many of them I'd like to read.

To compare, here's a similar list of great books since 1923 that TIME Magazine compiled in 2005.

There are some books that the two lists have in common. In any case, I didn't fare so well on either list. On the first list, I've read 17 of the 100 books. On the second, I've read 12. Naturally, this makes me wonder which of those other 171 books I should read if I don't want to miss something really amazing. I will say that all of the books I read from the lists WERE most excellent books, so I'm assuming that some care was taken in the choosing of these novels.

The enjoyment of books is a subjective thing, though, and no one will ever agree entirely with anyone else's list.

But here's my question: where are all the mysteries? This seems to be such an ignored genre when people are composing their "great" lists--although I was pleased when Mayor Daley chose THE LONG GOODBYE for this year's One Book, One Chicago program.

But in general, mysteries seem to be overlooked as great fiction. In the EW list there are only two that are sort of mysteries--THE LOVELY BONES, which is about a murder, and narrated by the victim from heaven, and THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which is about an autistic boy who tries to solve the murder of a dog. Did I miss any? Did you see any other mysteries on those lists? And how many of the books have you read?

I realize I'm probably being most prosaic in counting my accomplishments (especially when they're not that impressive) but I find it fun, anyway. Share yours with us, as well!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sex Sells...or Does It?

L. J. Sellers

Sex sells. That’s what marketers always say. And it seems to be true for tight-fitting jeans and toothpaste. But it is true in crime fiction? In my experience—not necessarily.

Some of the best reviews I received for my novel, The Sex Club, started out with a disclaimer like this: “I didn’t think I would like this book, but . . .” The readers/reviewers went on to say that the title (and sometimes the cover) had turned them away from the book and that they’d read it reluctantly because another reader raved about it. They ended up loving the story, but still, their initial aversion concerned me.

After seeing the pattern, I asked members of Dorothly L (a reader/writer discussion forum) what they thought about the title. Many said they would never pick up the novel in a bookstore or library because of the title. So then I wondered: How many bookstores and libraries had decided not to stock the novel because of the title? From the comments of a few, I believe there might be many. After realizing this painful reality, I started adding this footnote to all my communications about the novel: “Despite the title, the story isn’t X-rated.” It is not a good sign when you have to explain or make excuses for your title.

On the other hand, many writers on the CrimeSpace and Facebook networking sites have posted great comments about The Sex Club’s cover and title. One writer posted, “Judging by the title, that’s a book I have to read right now.” Many others have simply said, “Love the cover!” and “I love the title!” Some even commented that they liked the book’s short pitch on Amazon: A dead girl, a ticking bomb, a Bible study that’s not what it appears to be, and a detective who won’t give up.

But when I started a discussion specifically asking how they felt about the word sex in a crime fiction title, the reaction was mixed. One writer said, “If sex is in the title, isn’t that a lot of emphasis, leading the buyer to think the book might be in the wrong section of the bookstore?” Another commented, “For me, the word sex would have to be relevant to the plot. I hate titles that just try to get people to buy even when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.”

The most interesting response was, “I just read an interview with the author of The Jane Austen Book Club and she said that everyone thought the words Jane Austen on the cover would be what sold the book, but in fact it was the words Book Club. It’s the same thing here, it’s the word club together with sex that’s interesting.”
In a similar online discussion, many people (mostly women) said they simply skip sex scenes when they come across them in mystery/suspense stories. I also feel that they drag down a fast-paced story, which is why I didn’t write any such scenes in the novel.

My publicist, who came on board after the book had been printed, felt very strongly that the title was a mistake and made both of our jobs a lot harder than they need to be. She thought that not only was I turning off mystery readers but also alienating other readers who were attracted to the title, then disappointed to find out the book didn’t have much sex in it.

I’ve come to believe she’s right. A quick search of Amazon brought up only one other mystery title with the word sex—Sex and Murder (A Paul Turner Mystery). But at least that author was smart enough to get the word murder in the title too. (Mystery readers love a good murder!) I’m sure there may be others, but after months of perusing thousands of reader postings on multiple list servs, I’ve yet to see another mystery title mention sex.

I debated the name, The Sex Club, for months, and finally went with it because it seemed perfect for the story. And, to be honest, I thought it might get media attention. But in retrospect, if I had it to do all over again, I’d change it. My conclusions: 1) Bookstores and libraries are critical to sales, and authors can’t afford to alienate them or their patrons, 2) Mystery readers prefer dead bodies to warm ones.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and occasional standup comic, based in Eugene, Oregon. She is currently writing a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For.

Friday, June 27, 2008

What Aunt Ruby said happened that day was like this . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Back in the day, my husband's grandparents, Dave and Mattie Cruse, lived and worked on a farm, along with their seven children. One night the family was startled to hear someone banging on their front door, yelling for help. They discovered Dave's step-brother, Jim, standing on the porch, gripping his overalls tightly and holding them away from his body as far as he could manage. Dave had walked home across the fields, crossing a fence or two, and somewhere along the way he picked up an unwanted hitchhiker . . . a snake. The snake was quickly disposed of, and Jim survived.

This event took place long before hubby or I were born. It's one of the family stories handed down to us through his Aunt Ruby. Aunt Ruby married one of Dave and Mattie's sons. The cousins, her nieces and nephews, gather at least a couple of times a year for a pot-luck chat session, and one of our favorite activities is to listen to her stories about the family and ask questions.

My father-in-law, may he rest in peace, could talk the ears off a donkey, repeating over and over stories about the family that took place usually before I was born. Like many older folks, he couldn't remember where he'd put down his last cigarette or what he'd had for breakfast, but he could quote in great detail things he did or his children did decades before. My lovely mother-in-law once asked me if I didn't get tired of hearing the same stories over and over. I assured her I enjoyed hearing them and was even jotting them down in a journal for my sons. My oldest son loves to read that journal.

Is there a family historian you enjoy hearing tell about the past? If so, I hope you are jotting down the stories now . . . while you still have time and opportunity. Once the family historians are gone, you'll wish you had done that. And your children will thank you for preserving whatever stories you can about grandparents or great-grandparents they didn't have a chance to meet. Dave and Mattie Cruse and their seven children, along with spouses of those who married, are all long gone. Aunt Ruby is the last survivor of that generation. Our last link to the family's past.

One more tip. Don't forget to write on the back of your pictures and get older relatives to help you do the same to pictures that might be left to you one day. This is one of my hubby's biggest complaints, un-labled pictures. Years ago I received a couple of albums that belonged to my mother, and many of them include people important to her, but I have no clue who they are. My oldest sister was able to fill in some of the gaps, and I'm thankful for that.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could invent a machine that would allow us to step into an old photograph and become part of the scene for a short time? I've always thought that would make a great science fiction short story or novel. Haven't gotten around to writting it, so feel free to steal my idea.

You may not be a writer, but writing down your family history is something the rest of your famiy will appreciate and you will be thankful you did when you had the chance. While the historians born before you are still around to fill in the gaps.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Salman Rushdie and Me

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the great pleasures of touring to promote Death Will Get You Sober has been the opportunity for face to face contact with other writers across the country. Fellow Guppies from Sisters in Crime—serious writers committed to achieving publication and quite a few who already have—have come through for me everywhere: driving considerable distances to my signings, buying my books, taking me out for lunch and dinner, driving me to and from book events, and putting me up in their homes.

The other day, sixteen Sisters in Crime from the Sacramento Capitol Crimes chapter turned out in 108 degree heat to give me lunch and hear me talk about Death Will Get You Sober, my work habits as a writer, and my journey to publication and beyond. The old friend who’s been escorting me around Northern California—not a writer, but an avid reader and retired high school English teacher who appears in my Acknowledgments as the first reader of the first draft—had heard my shtik at least twice before. She was fascinated by the difference in content and tone that an audience of fellow writers elicited, even though I told many of the same stories.

“Did you see them nodding their heads?” she asked. Indeed I had. They understood perfectly when I talked about both the craft and the business of becoming a publishable and eventually published writer. What evoked those nods? Among others, these observations:

. That it took years to become willing to “kill my darlings” by editing out treasured passages, because for a long time I was afraid the well would run dry.

. That I was relieved to find that many other writers had characters who, like mine, came to life, talked in their heads, took the story in directions they hadn’t intended, and laid down the law about what they would or would not do or say.

. That a fellow writer illuminated a piece of the process when he told me he found passages that came easily and those he had to grind out word by word appeared to be of exactly the same quality on rereading.

. That it’s probably impossible to avoid all of the potential pitfalls in the quest for an agent, no matter how careful we are.

. That persistence is essential, but we can’t do anything about luck except keep persisting until it comes along.

. That we (in this case, Sisters in Crime; in my case, Mystery Writers of America and online communities including DorothyL, Murder Must Advertise, and Crimespace as well) are incredibly lucky to have each other, because tilting at the windmill of publishing novels in the 21st century would be a nightmare if we had to do it alone.

So what does this have to do with Salman Rushdie? Mr. Rushdie is not a mystery writer, though his new book, The Enchantress of Florence, seems to be a historical fantasy. But he became a hero to most writers in 1989 when he continued to write after being condemned to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini for publishing The Satanic Verses. V.S. Naipaul called the terrorist threat, which has colored Mr. Rushdie’s life for the past twenty years, “an extreme form of literary criticism.” As we say in New York, oy vey!

Anyhow, a few weeks after getting confirmation of a coveted booking at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, I learned that the great bookstore had had to schedule Mr. Rushdie’s appearance for the same date and time as mine. This was the only time slot he had. What did I want to do? they asked apologetically. Cancel? Certainly not. Would I accept another date? Unfortunately, we couldn’t find another slot when the store was available and I was still in the area. So it was Salman Rushdie and me: he in the big event room, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, and me giving my talk to an audience of eight (a respectable crowd in my debut-novelist’s experience) in the Mystery Nook next door.

“Can I have a photo op with Mr. Rushdie?” I asked. I was half kidding, but shortly before our talks were scheduled to begin, they trotted him over to the next building so I could shake his hand and get someone to snap our picture together. He posed graciously and patiently as the impromptu photographer figured out my camera. I couldn’t think of anything memorable to say, but I was delighted to shake his hand and tell him what an honor it was to meet him. And it was. If Salman Rushdie can write twelve books with a death threat hanging over his head, who am I to quit trying?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Interview with Anthony Flacco

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Anthony Flacco’s first historical suspense novel, The Last Nightingale (2007), featuring San Francisco detective Randall Blackburn, has been nominated for a Thriller Award by International Thriller Writers. The sequel, The Hidden Man, was released this week. Anthony is an award-winning screenwriter and the author of two nonfiction books, A Checklist for Murder and Tiny Dancer. He has also worked as an acquisitions editor for a literary agency and is creator and former director of the AFI Alumni Networking Workshop.

Q. Would you give us a brief description of The Hidden Man?

A. It is early in the year of 1915 in the city of San Francisco, and the environment is permeated with falsehood. The city leaders are desperate to succeed with their ten-month Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in order to re-attract the business base that dried up after the Great Earthquake of 1906. The backroom powers that be operate far outside the law to prevent their desperate ploy from failing. They draw Randall Blackburn into their snare and present him with the worst moral dilemma he has ever faced. It tears at his very definition of himself.

Against all of that falsehood, Shane Nightingale and Vignette Nightingale are pulled into the story because they both still live at home. The story opens with their family unit under a sustained assault from a crooked police captain who wants to drive them apart. But after nine years together as a family, this unit that they have created with nothing more than their mutually sustained love and caring turns out to be something that not one of them is willing to live without.

Q. The Hidden Man features the same trio of protagonists as The Last Nightingale, but it takes place nine years after the events of the first book. Why did you decide to skip those years in the characters’ lives?

A. It allowed me to advance the ages of Shane and Vignette, who are twelve and nine, respectively, in The Last Nightingale, to that of a twenty-one year old young man and a young woman of nineteen for The Hidden Man. This gave each of them substantially more ability to affect the story with their actions. The nine year leap ahead in time also placed the setting at the beginning of San Francisco’s glorious coming-out party after the decimation of the 1906 quake. That all made for a grand story backdrop.

Q. Is your mesmerist/showman, James Duncan, based on a real historical figure?

A. No, Duncan is a bit of faded glory, a celebrity desperately hanging onto his public persona, still physically vital but mentally failing. He lives in a time when there is no social knowledge about Alzheimer’s Disease, only the label of “senile,” a single word that would kill his career. He is addicted to a brand new drug which helps to clear his mind, but thus demands his continuous use of a substance whose addictive power is eventually too much even for his lifelong self-discipline. It does not matter how determined he might be to avoid addiction because he has to use the drug to be able to perform. The drug is brand new and unheard of in America, at that time. Today meth, or methamphetamine, is commonly known by any one of a list of street names.

Within the chaos of all that dysfunction, my goal was to consider the plight of such a man when his heart and soul are good, and when he is experiencing great moral torment over finding the right course of action for himself – even as he balances the ego of a longtime showman with the needs of a secret drug addict.

Q. I was fascinated by the references in The Hidden Man to Dr. Alois Alzheimer and his use of stimulants to treat the brain disease we now call Alzheimer’s. Did that information inspire the story of Duncan, or did you come across it in your research and decide to fit it in?

A. I had already decided that Duncan needed to be battling cognitive degeneration, in order to raise the stakes on his internal conflict. In the research, I was happily surprised by the coincidence of Dr. Alzheimer’s groundbreaking work in Germany in the immediately preceding years, and also by the invention in 1913 of methylenedioxymethamphetimine – “meth” – also in Germany, by a company that is still known today as Merck.

Since Duncan is an international showman, it is no great leap to place him in
Europe on tour a couple of years earlier, where his initial symptoms are diagnosed by Dr. Alzheimer, who then refers Duncan to a Merck scientist in order to get him a supply of one of the only drugs then available for clearing the mind. He therefore has all that he needs, so the issue of supply is not a problem. Instead he is afflicted with the clawing urges of an addiction that produces effects in him which nobody of the era understands.

Q. You’ve obviously done exhaustive research into San Francisco’s history. Here’s another chicken-or-egg question: Did your interest in the city inspire your novels, or did you first decide to set a book during the 1906 earthquake and fire, then embark on your research?

A. My initial idea was to write a “gaslight thriller,” meaning a murder mystery set in the era of gaslight street lamps, just prior to the widespread availability of
electricity. The sweeping changes that technology was just about to unleash upon America at that time remind me of the digital electronic revolution that has utterly transformed our own landscape over the last twenty years.

I am fascinated by the pressures that these larger forces place upon the individual moral character of the people affected by them. The Last Nightingale takes place where the citizens have been betrayed by the very ground beneath their feet, and there is talk everywhere that they may have brought about the city’s demise with their own wickedness. Religious leaders are warning of the impending end.

And so the more things change, the more they don’t. The situation is little
different in 1906 or nine years later in 1915, while the Great War raging in Europe has not yet ensnared America. And so there are wars and rumors of wars. It is clear to those people that the world is perched at the brink of Biblical destruction… Through those bygone events, we may hope to look at ourselves, sometimes with greater clarity, using the emotional advantage of that illusion of distance.

Q. In the back of The Hidden Man, you have a wonderful essay about the attractions of historical fiction and the role of family in the lives of real and fictional people. I know it’s not fair to ask you to boil your thoughts down to a couple of paragraphs, but since the alternative is to print the entire essay here, I’m going to ask you to do just that. Why do you think people are drawn to historical novels, and what do the readers demand from these stories? Why do you believe it’s essential for a character to have some kind of family structure in his life?

A. The Hollywood-ization of character has permeated the Western world’s storytelling process with so much two-dimensional characterization that it is practically expected in many quarters and tolerated by many more. It’s not that anybody is guilty of anything, here – rather it is the natural and understandable result of a film’s need to get through the visually uninteresting character development scenes so that they can utilize the more visually stimulating shots that are loved and embraced by millions of film goers. The phenomenon has bled over into the writing of narrative novels as well, of course, because the effects of major Hollywood movies are cultural in scope. Nevertheless, writers who capture my attention and enthusiasm tend to create characters who are so well rounded that they seem as if they could get up off of the page or step off of the screen to greet you.

As for the larger issues of your question, I love the fact that you raise them, but I can’t do better than that “dossier” piece without using up about as much text space. I am very glad that you found it worthy of interest and invite the readers not to miss it, since it’s tucked away at the back of The Hidden Man.

Q. You’ve written screenplays and published two nonfiction books. Why crime fiction? Why now? Has this been a long-time ambition for you or a more recent interest?

A. I ricocheted into this subject matter off of the historical fiction of another novel, a book that I began before these two, but which I have only recently completed. That story takes place in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, and then in New York City from 1900 through 1946. I loved the research work, and the more I thought about the story that eventually came from it, the more it became apparent that the surface differences of any historical era do little to disguise the familiarity of human nature within the situation. The cosmetic differences, however, do impart to the writer a greater freedom to explore perennial issues of human nature without getting caught up in the political and social winds of the day. Within the time frame of that other book’s story, I felt attracted to the gaslight era, and began to think about doing a story or series of stories revolving around a small set of disparate characters who live in that time.
That was the beginning for The Last Nightingale.

Q. Has writing crime fiction presented any difficulties you didn’t anticipate? Which aspects of it have given you the most pleasure?

A. The only challenges that I encounter in writing narrative fiction are the recurring issues of free imagination versus coherent structure, ease of narrative versus disciplined polish, and the constant questions of how best to create compelling characters and evocative dialogue. All of which are challenges that I heartily embrace. There is nothing about the writer’s life that I don’t love, and I am grateful to have it. My readers are my heroes because they let me know that what I am doing matters to them, and I am thankful for that beyond measure.

Q. In your work as a freelance editor and an acquisitions editor for a literary agency, what are some common flaws you’ve seen in manuscripts?

A. I am continually astonished by the number of people who strive for mainstream publication by sending out unfinished or unpolished work. Don’t such writers ever go to a bookstore and look at the shelves? How about a library? Because that’s all you need to do to get a picture of the competition. I am also surprised by how commonly writers try to add their own personal stories of great illness or personal trauma to a submission of their work, as if to further convince the reader to their cause. This places the reader in a bizarre and most unwelcome position, and oddly enough, signals the writer’s essential lack of faith in the strength of the work itself.

Q. Who are your favorite crime fiction and true crime writers – authors whose work you’ve learned from?

A. I look to the basics in contemporary American crime writing: Truman Capote for In Cold Blood and Joe McGinniss for Fatal Vision. Of course there are many fine male and female writers of crime fiction today and we don’t need to look backward to find excellence. However, these two in particular can show a writer everything that they need to know about true crime writing, if that writer studies the way that both books balance a well-structured story with deeply developed character portrayals of the real-life counterparts, and above all, an abiding respect for the powerful use of polished language.

Q. Aside from Thrillerfest, will you be attending any mystery conventions this year where fans can meet you?

A. I certainly hope to. We are just now beginning to process of putting together my summer and fall schedule in light of the fact that I am moving my literary bunker and all of my Graduate Interns up to the Seattle area just before The Hidden Man is released in June. I love to speak or give seminars at writers conventions and it’s always a pleasure to meet an enthusiastic reader.

Q. In parting, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Out-work your competition! Out-work your competition! Out-work your competition! Put in more head-work prior to sketching out your story. Do more research than most would do on the background of your story and characters. Before you send out your work, spend more time than most other writers are willing to spend in polishing it. The foolish greed of writers who undertake the writing of a book as a get-rich-quick scheme is only exceeded by the carelessness of preparation that they inevitably display in their hurried and impatient work.

It doesn’t matter if they have more talent than you do. It doesn’t matter if they are smarter than you are. It doesn’t even matter if they are somehow more deserving of success than you may be.

YOU can still join the winners on the strength of your own sustained determination.

Visit the author’s web site:
See a trailer for The Hidden Man here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An Odd Little Theory

Sharon Wildwind

Three Rings for the Elven-kings . . .
Seven for the Dwarf-lords . . .
Nine for Mortal Men . . .
One Ring to rule them all . . .
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Ever wonder why cats have 9 lives? Or bad things come in 3s? Or why The Coasters sung about Charlie Brown on his knees, “yellin’ 7 come 11 down in the boys’ gym?”

In almost every culture odd numbers, particularly those between 1 and 13, are thought to have magical powers.

A couple of decades ago, when I began seriously studying creative writing, my advisor said, “Never stop with an even-numbered draft. Your second draft will be crap, and your fourth draft will have the life polished out of it. It you get as far as draft six, either you don’t have a good handle on your story or you’re telling the wrong story.”

At the time, I thought he was crazy. Why wouldn’t draft 2 be just as strong as 1? Or 4 just as enticing as 3? It was my story, and if I wanted to work it not just 6 times, but 8 or 14 or 22, what was the harm in that? But he was my advisor, and I did want to graduate, so I nodded, wrote what he said in my notebook, and got on with life.

Some twenty-eight years later, I’ll be doggoned if he wasn’t right.

For me, a “draft” is a completed story, from, “It was hot in Los Angeles. I was working the day watch out of robbery. The boss is Captain Gannon . . .” to “On September 15, a trial was held in Superior Court in the State of California . . .” Writers have a multitude of ways of getting through the first draft. Some breeze straight ahead, building a skeleton from which they will hang the story in subsequent drafts. Some dog-paddle in circles through the chapters, returning to revise earlier material as they get a better grip on the tale by working through it. But there comes a day when that first daft is finished.

Why the second draft is crap:

The second draft is where I have to get over myself as a writer. Oh, my gosh, I’ve written an entire book! I hear Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality running through my head. This is going to be my break-out book, the Great Canadian Novel, the book where the world realizes my true worth as one of the literary giants of the age.

Eventually, common sense sets in and a book becomes just a book again. That’s called draft three. If draft 1 runs on pure creative energy, draft 3 gets it’s power from a kind of rhythm I hear in my head, a feeling akin to “being in the zone.” It’s where the music of the story flows.

Why the fourth draft is lifeless:

The fourth draft is when I am bone weary of this stupid story. I’ve been working on it far too long. The characters are cardboard. The dialog is flat. The story makes no sense. It’s all been done before by writers far, far more talented than I will ever be. This is where my husband looks at his watch and says, “Yep, the melt down is happening right on time.”

Most times, for me, the fifth draft is the magical one. I’ve achieved as good a balance as I can between all the disparate elements. The characters are moving, talking, and acting like real people. The plot may actually hold one or two clever bits, and the story, as a whole, hangs together. I control the language, have sorted out the grammar and may have figured out where those pesky commas belong, though some commas are always a toss-up. Sigh.

If I’m not there by draft 5, there is something radically wrong with the story. Usually, what’s wrong is that I’m not risking enough. The stakes need to be higher, and the characters need to risk more. It’s time to seriously look at if this is a story I should be telling, and if it is, to cycle it back to draft #1 of a greatly revised story.

It's almost enough to make me believe in the power of numbers.

Writing quote for the week:

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectural one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.
~Walter Benjamin, critic and philosopher (1982-1940)

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events

by Julia Buckley
The youngsters enjoying nature in a less frightening context

I don't mean to steal my title from Lemony Snicket, but this was the best way to describe our Friday and Saturday. I am now in a philosophical, contemplative state, reflecting back on the domino effect that altered our weekend and now has me shaking my head at Fate's power to continually surprise, and occasionally horrify, us.

It began with a walk my nine-year-old son and I decided to take together. We put the Beagle on a leash and meandered down our alley. Someone had a left a big cardboard box near a telephone pole right behind our garage, so I asked my son if he'd peek into it and see if it belonged to the telephone men, or if we should just recycle it.

He obligingly went to the box and then stared into it for many seconds.

"What is it?" I asked impatiently.

"It's a bunch of dead birds." My son looked particularly outraged.

I couldn't conceive of a reason why a box of dead birds would be in my alley, so I marched up to it and looked in. What I found, to my sadness, was the remnants of a nest. Straw and twigs were scattered everywhere, as well as many gray feathers that suggested the mother bird had fought to protect her young. Those young were in one corner of the box, in a sad heap, dead long before they could even grow their feathers.

"What happened?" asked my son.

"I don't know. Someone got to this nest. See how the mother fought?" Later my husband told me that repairmen had been there that morning working at the pole, and perhaps they had found the nest and put it into the box. Why they had left it, I'm not sure.

In any case, Graham and I decided we would bury the baby birds after our walk, and we went on, now in a grim mood. Halfway through the walk Graham tripped (he had borrowed his brother's ill-fitting sandals) and landed on his knee, which began to bleed copiously. "Can you make it home?" I asked nervously, not sure that I could pick up my sturdy boy even for a few steps.

Like a resourceful soldier, he was trying to wrap an unused bag (the ones we reserve for doggie creations) around his leg. A woman spied us through her window and came running out of her house to my son's aid: she had a damp paper towel, anti-bacterial ointment, gauze and bandages. "Are you a nurse?" I asked in wonder.

She laughed. "No, but I work at a grade school."

Properly bandaged, Graham felt much better about walking home. We thanked her many times over and then headed back to our sad task.

Whoever said that bad things happen in threes?

When we returned my oldest son wasn't home. We called him to no avail; finally he came walking in the front door and said, "The cat got out."

This is never a good thing. Our oldest cat, Pibby Tails, is not the cute purry thing that his name might imply (a toddler picked the moniker); he is instead a fierce warrior of a cat, and we had to curtail his outdoor privileges because of his tendency to pick fights (and rack up vet bills). Since then he has tried everything to get outdoors, and sometimes he still achieves that goal.
Here he is, the giant on the right, with his smaller feline sister, Rose.

Ian looked for him for about half an hour and then, to our surprise, found him sitting on the back porch, as though ready to come in. I didn't think that was a good sign--usually we had to haul him home and he yowled at us the whole time. This time Ian brought him inside without the traditional fuss. Pibby ate some food and then disappeared.

"Did you check him to make sure he didn't fight?" I asked.

"Yeah. I just saw some scratches, no bites."

And yet I felt something was wrong; I even dreamed about the cat that night, and the next morning, Saturday, I felt I had to do something. I called the vet, snared an appointment, and went about trying to capture the cat.

The boys chased him down from the attic, where he was hiding under my bed, and I grabbed him; I didn't realize until later I had picked the most painful spot on which to touch him. He turned and bit me, trying to get away.

I held on and got him into the carrier, and to the vet we went. There we learned that not only had our cat been attacked, but this had been no cat fight. Something, the vet said, had picked him up in its teeth and shaken him. He had lacerations on his back, his legs, his side. His spinal area was bruised. That was where I had grabbed him, and that was why he bit me, I explained to the vet.

She stiffened. "He bit you? Did it break the skin?"

I showed her my little cut.

"Come in the back right now," she said. I was led into the inner sanctum, along with my son, where we saw an anesthetized cat laid out on a table like a stuffed animal while four white-coated people performed a procedure.

"Scrub at the sink there, as hard as you can," she said. She wasn't kidding. "You're going to need a tetanus shot and antibiotics," she told me. "Get to an urgent care center as soon as you're finished here."

It turns out that a cat bite can be the most lethal of bites, even if just one tooth pierces the skin, as my cat's did. Their saliva is so full of germs that to ignore the bite could mean something as severe as losing one's hand (where my bite was) to prevent infection, or even worse.

So we sent the cat off to anasthesia and stitching. He has to wear a protective cone, take daily painkillers and antibiotics. I received my tetanus shot (after hours of waiting and wishing I had brought my assigned college reading along), and three other prescriptions to ward off whatever terrible thing that cat bite might cause. Between the cat's injuries and mine, we had to pay almost one thousand dollars that we didn't really have.

Now, after all of the action, I am in a Zen-like state and contemplating the irony: my cat made one decision and it changed all of our lives.

Of course I don't blame my cat for biting me, nor do I blame the creature that mauled my cat. They both acted according to their natures, and to be angry with them would be like Ahab hating the whale, and we know how that turned out.

So it was an unfortunate weekend; I had hoped to use Saturday to get all of my homework done, and instead I spent it going from vet to doctor, back to vet and back to doctor again, then contemplating my gradually swelling hand and hoping the medicine would begin to heal from within.

On the other hand, we're counting our blessings that it wasn't one of our children who encountered a lurking beast, and that we have all been offered the chance of recovery.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Canada Calling: Theresa Greenwood

Therese Greenwood is a Canadian author who grew up on Wolfe Island, Ont., the largest of the Thousands Islands, where her family has lived since 1812. The region forms the backdrop for her historical crime fiction, which has twice been short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award, Canada’s top mystery-writing award. She is co-editor of two mystery anthologies as well as the annual Osprey Summer Mystery Series carried in 23 daily newspapers across Ontario. The 2008 series launches on the first weekend in July. For more information, visit

PDD: Historical crime fiction is really hot right now and you have a natural tie-in having grown up on Wolfe Island, Ontario. Tell us a little about how the Island influenced your writing.

When I was a kid on Wolfe Island everyone told stories, always about “The Island,” as if it had capital letters.

It was the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but The Island was still very much an old-fashioned farming community. On the weekends the families would turn off the televisions and go to the church hall to pay euchre, or to the neighbours for a sing-along, or to your grandparents after Sunday church. My grandfather, who lived to almost 100, would tell stories that went back into the late 1800s -- how he helped his father haul rock to build the church, the first time he heard a Victrola, how the post mistress ran the town.

There were scary stories too, about people who drowned when their boat capsized, or froze to death when they got lost on the ice, or died of infection after they were gored by a bull. They were true stories, too, because we could see their headstones in the graveyard.

There were restless ghosts on Spook Hill who made the wagon wheels turn backwards if you drove past alone. A red-headed school teacher always gave the strap. Tricky Dickey’s amazing horse Minnie could find her way home across the winter ice in the worst snowstorm. Dr. Spankie became the local Member of Parliament so he could bring electricity to The Island. And there was the time they had to shoot the bull, the time the colt ran through the village and upset the milk wagon, the time a little girl no bigger than me caught the giant muskie.

It sounds tame now, in a universe of 500 channels and frenzied video games, but my three younger sisters and I loved it. My sister Cathy still reminds me of how the four of us, who shared one room, would lie in bed and tell stories about rabbits and chicken coops and talking cats. My niece Emily thinks this sounds cool and remarkable and she’s right, I suppose, it was.

Those early stories certainly influenced me -- that must be why it seems so natural to set a story in the past. It’s not a legitimate story if it happened only last week – that’s just gossip.

Tell us about Wolfe Island’s honored son, Grant Allen, a prominent figure in the Canadian crime writing scene.

One of the stories they still tell on The Island is how “The Castle” burned down in the 1920s and they never caught who did it. Of course, everyone says they know who did it but they can’t tell because the family still lives on the Island. That doesn’t narrow it down. (I have first cousins from five different families that have all been on The Island for six or seven generations – and I am certain none of those families were involved.)

One family that did leave The Island is the one that owned the Castle, the Allen-Longueuil family, whose most famous son is the crime writer Grant Allen.

Allen was born on Wolfe Island on Feb. 24, 1848, at his family home Ardath Chateau –"the Castle." The family's Wolfe Island connection dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Allen's great-grandfather, David Alexander Grant, bought a large chunk of The Island. Grant's wife -- who had the impressive handle of Marie Charles Joseph Le Moyne de Longueuil, Baroness de Longueuil -- belonged to a family that historians consider one of “the most truly eminent in Canada.”

Grant Allen was the second son of Wolfe Island's first Anglican minister, the Rev. Joseph Antisell Allen, who married into the eminent family. The Reverend Allen's wife Catharine Ann Grant was the only daughter of the fifth Baron de Longueuil, and the Island's Trinity Anglican Church was built in 1845 on land granted by the Longueuil family in a rather obvious bit of nepotism. It is a lovely little church surrounded by beautiful trees and well worth a visit. It is also home to some of the events at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival, which some friends and I founded to honour both Allen and his early connection to The Island.

As its fortunes waned, the Allen family moved away from the Island, with Grant Allen ultimately settling in England to become one of the most prolific authors of the Victorian age. He was the Danielle Steele of his day -- but he is now best known for being Arthur Conan Doyle’s neighbour and good pal.

I just finished re-reading Allen’s short story collection, An African Millionaire, probably his best-known work, and it stands the test of time. The format he uses, of successive short stories that move the overall plot along bit by bit, is still in use (see Rumpole of the Bailey.) The concept, that the thief is actually a better man than the narrator and the victim, is still an interesting one, and the writing is crisp and tight. You can find out more about Allen and the Scene of the Crime Festival at – check it out. Check out The Island, too, the free ferry ride alone is worth the trip.

You are involved in the Osprey Summer Mystery Series, which involves getting short stories, written by crime writers, into many Ontario newspapers. How did you make a connection with so many papers? What's been the response to this festival?

I have a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario and I’ve always worked in the media. When a former colleague, Noreen Rashbach, was managing editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard she asked me to write some Christmas stories and one of them, A Christmas Bauble, was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award.

In 2003, I met up with another newspaper colleague, Jake Doherty, who turned his pen to mystery writing after his retirement. He and I got to talking about how it would be fun to do a newspaper short story series and what a great way that would be way to showcase Ontario talent and locations. I like to joke that Jake has a magic Rolodex but it isn’t really a joke, because he made a call to his friend, Lou Clancy, who was then Vice-President of News at the Osprey Media chain, and the idea took off.

We think it’s a first for Canada, an Ontario newspaper group treating its readers with a series of specially commissioned mystery stories that showcase the province's quirky personality in tight writing, twisty plots and colourful characters. Some of the country’s best crime writers live in Ontario, too, so we had all the ingredients.

Just last month one of the Opsrey writers, Leslie Watts, won the Arthur Ellis Award for her 2007 Osprey story, “Turners,” so now we are among the top short story markets in Canada. Also, the Osprey chain is now part of the Sun Media newspaper group, so we’re expanding into other markets like Ottawa and Stratford, where we weren’t before, so our readership is growing, too. We have the potential to reach almost a half million readers – a pretty big audience for a short story. Some of the stories may also be appearing on Sun Media websites, so readers should keep an eye out . This year’s line-up includes award-winning writers Rick Mofina of Ottawa, Peter Sellers of Toronto and Sarah Withrow of Kingston, Ont., as well as Jake and me.

We also collected the stories from our first three years into an anthology, Mystery Ink, which we released last year, and we got some good national reviews. It was published by the Ginger Press, and there’s more information and links to author pages at Jake and I are talking about another anthology now that we have some more great stories coming in.

Canada’s best-known lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, wrote the introduction for Mystery Ink. He really captured the sprit of the book and the series when he said: “The 18 stories in this collection mostly involve something criminal, but at the same time these are also stories that capture, in 18 different ways, various parts of Ontario. With the stories in this book, the fun begins with knowing they all take place in Ontario, and that we are that much closer to the intrigue and suspense.”

What attracts you about short stories? What can you do in a mystery short story that couldn't be done in a novel?

I like the challenge of crafting a short story, the discipline and the succinctness -- and I like the idea that almost half-million readers are seeing it.

But the odd thing is that, when you are a short story writer, someone who has written a perfectly atrocious novel will pat you sympathetically on the back and says, “Don’t worry, someday you will write a novel.” Well, I’m not worried. Too often people have a single idea that would make a fine short story and then make the mistake of stretching it out into a lame novel.

What advice would you have for writers who want to specialize in short stories?

Listen to some pre-1972 country music, especially the prison songs of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. It’s all there, authenticity, simplicity, action, character development and perspective. In Folsom Prison Blues and Mama Tried (two of my favourite songs), the narrator is already serving time in prison when the story starts -- talk about condensing the action.

Also, when you think you are finished a story, wait a few days and then go back and cut another 250 words. The Osprey series has been a great exercise because it has a very strict word limit of 3,000 words – ads must be sold around it, like all newspaper editorial. (“Advertising drives the bus,” they tell you in journalism school.) There is no wiggle room so every word counts. You write actively rather than passively, you keep descriptions to a minimum, you start in the middle of the action. Most of our writers have told me that it has been a good exercise in self editing. There’s no room for indulgence, even if you love a particularly clever turn of phrase, out it comes if it doesn’t move the story forward.

And speaking of brevity, I have been going on too long. But I couldn’t resist the chance to tell stories about Wolfe Island and the Osprey series. Thank you for asking me.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Superman Celebration 2008

By Lonnie Cruse

I don't imagine there are many small towns (less than 10,000 residents) where local residents observe various superheros wandering around downtown in full costume and think nothing of it. For Metropolis, Illinois, it's business as usual, particularly the second weekend of June. Left is a picture of the bike ramp with some brave soul about to jump it.

Last weekend was the 30th Superman Celebration in downtown Metropolis, Illinois. Hubby and I watched with interest as the tents went up on Market Street and carnival rides on Highway 45/Fifth Street. I had a tough time focusing on setting up my author table, with the smell of fried Polish sausage and onions mingling with the frying of funnel cakes, and the sound of ice cream (homemade by a guy using some sort of antique engine to churn/freeze it.) You name it, someone was cooking or mixing or selling it all up and down Market Street. Fried Oreo, anyone? Yes, they are yummy.

I generally set up my table out in front of Humma's Drug Store (local family business.) Gotta love those folks at Humma's, they stock and sell my books all year around and let me do signings under their awning every year at the Superman Celebration. Problem is, the hot sun usually runs me off by 3 P.M. OR a thunderstorm. I don't do lightning.

This year the Metropolis Chamber (I'm a member) invited me to set up a table indoors with other writers and artists. It was a tough decision. I gotta confess, I was a bit nervous about whether readers would find me there, since I'm known to hang out at Humma's. (The chamber also stocks and sells my books too. Local support, it keeps an author alive during lean months.) I shouldn't have worried. The crowd was large, as usual, and someone was showing movies in the same building, so traffic was steady for both days. To my surprise (not to mention pleasure) I sold double what I normally do at the Celebration. Ahhhh.

I had a great time schmoozing with faithful readers like Cookie and Brian and Helen, and I met lots of new readers, including the extremely good looking Joshua, the new Superman for the Celebration. Since we were situated at the far end of the activities, I missed the chance to chat with Noel Neill, Lois Lane in the television series. She is one lovely lady and I adore her. Maybe next year. She's been attending the Celebration for a very long time. The Chamber is working on erecting a statue of her as Lois Lane to compliment our huge Superman statue, situated at the courthouse. I bought one of the bricks that will help pay for Noel's statue, and it will be placed somewhere near hers, engraved with my grandsons' names.

The Superman Celebration brings superhero fans from all over the U.S. and other countries as well. And many people dress as their favorite superhero. I watched as "Robin" repaired one of his damaged boots at the booth next to mine.

There are lots of vendors selling memorabelia. Contests are held to choose the best Superman impersonater, Little Mr. Superman, Super Girl, Super baby, etc. One of my grandsons was Little Mr. Superman several years ago. Friday night we watched a friend participate in the Super Race at Massac Park. The year I participated, I took third place in my age devision. (That would be "older than dirt" if you're interested. But hey, a trophy is a trophy!)

It's surprising how many people are willing to travel great distances to celebrate a superhero. It's a fun weekend here in Metropolis, and I hope some of you will join us next year. I'll be the one in the Superman T-shirt, selling books. And eating fried Oreos.

We did get hit with an enormous thunderstorm Friday evening and the water backed up out of the gutters and onto the sidewalk. It slowed traffic for a bit, but it takes more than thunder and lightning to scare off your basic crowd of superheros. I waded in ankle deep water to get to my vehicle. Next day was sunny and calm. And a bit cooler for a change. Well, until Superman wandered by. Did I mention he's a hunk?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Selling Books: It’s A Lot Like Fishing

Elizabeth Zelvin

Authoring a book is a more complicated process than it was, say, fifty years ago. Then, you wrote your book, revised it once or twice, showed it to a couple of friends, and sent it to a publisher. If your work was good, the publisher, or perhaps the second or third publisher you tried, accepted it. I have a feeling lunch might have been involved. You answered a few editorial queries. You reviewed the proofs. And finally, you got to hold the finished product—a real book!—in your hands. And that was that, until the royalty statements started coming in.

The analogous process would be not fishing, but having fish for dinner. You go to the store, select your fish, take it home and unwrap it, brush a little oil and lemon on it, and pop it in the oven. Voilà! Fish for dinner.

The process of turning raw material in food used to take a lot longer. The most famous line in the classic 1861 Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, more accurately, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, is “First you catch your hare.” Nowadays, being a mystery author is more like that. Except that you have to catch your hare—as many hares as possible—after you write the book, get the agent and the publisher, and see the book through the production process. Debut authors especially must become publicists, travel agents, performers, and marketers, handselling the product one volume at a time, if they want their writing careers to outlast the first book.

I’m in the middle of my book tour now, and I’m having a lot of fun. It helps that I enjoy performing, seeing new places, and driving for extended periods. It’s a good thing that I don’t mind surprises and that I’ve outgrown my early tendency to shyness in the decades it’s taken to get published. The venues vary. In the mystery bookstores, I might have an audience of avid readers who’ve already heard of or even read the book who are eager to hear how I wrote it, why mystery, and what drew me to my characters and themes. Or I might have no audience and spend an hour or two schmoozing with a knowledgeable bookseller who understands all the nuances of both what I’ve written and what I’m up to—and up against.

In the chain bookstores, it’s another story. Sure, I can give a talk about myself and my book—if I have friends or relatives in the town who will turn out for me on the appointed date and time. Otherwise, the staff will set up a table with a display of my books—hopefully within view of the store’s front door. They’ll give me a chair, although I know better than to use it. And here’s where it gets like fishing.

You know how the fisherman (or woman) can sit and sit, hook baited, lure bobbing on the water, and for the longest time nothing happens? That’s how it can be when for endless minutes, nobody enters the store. Or the customers stride by with purpose, heading for the children’s books or glossy magazines or the café, oblivious if not deliberately avoiding eye contact. Then, when you’ve almost given up hope, there comes a tug on the line. Somebody meets your eyes. You smile. You wave invitingly the copy of your book that’s glued to your hand.

“Do you read mysteries?” you ask. And then you try to reel them in.

Sometimes people will conduct a lively conversation but have no intention of buying, like a wily old fish that’s been hooked many times but never landed. Sometimes you hardly have to play the line at all. You give your elevator pitch, and they say, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” That’s when you whip out your pen.

“Shall I sign it to you?” you ask, setting the hook. Once their name is inscribed, they really do have to buy the book.

At one store, the manager asked me to direct customers to the register with their books and say I’d sign after they’d paid.

“Books have a way of walking,” she explained. It sounded reasonable—until the first one got away. I had her firmly hooked. She took the book and went on browsing—and half an hour later I saw her wheel her toddler’s stroller back from the children’s books, to the café for a latte and a cookie, and out the door.

After that, I talked the manager into letting me have a stack of books at the table, so I could sign them at the moment of decision. It worked fine. I sold more than half a dozen books, not bad for a couple of hours for an unknown author with a relatively pricey hardcover. But you know what? I keep thinking about the one that got away. I told you it was just like fishing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

For the love of pandas

Sandra Parshall

For more than a month, my heart and thoughts have seldom left the misty mountains of central China, site of a devastating 7.9 earthquake on May 12 – and home to most of the world’s giant pandas.

The loss of human life is heartbreaking – nearly 100,000 killed in the space of a few minutes – but I have to admit it was the death of a single panda named Mao Mao that moved me to tears. The discovery last week of her body buried under rubble at the Wolong Panda Center was a blow to Wolong staff and panda
conservation supporters everywhere who had believed all the captive bears survived the ruin of the breeding center.

Now it appears that damage to the bamboo forests beyond the center threatens the existence of 90 per cent of the 1,600 giant pandas in the wild. While moviegoers laugh at the adventures of a
lovable animated bear in Kung Fu Panda, the fate of China’s real pandas is uncertain.

The pandas I know best are Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their rambunctious cub Tai Shan, shown here in photos by my friend Roxanne. They belong to China and are part of the breeding program but live at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and are considered by many to be the real First Family. Also close to my heart are the pandas at Zoo Atlanta, the San Diego Zoo, and the Memphis Zoo. When I heard that an earthquake had struck Sichuan Province, my first thought was of Hua Mei and her younger brother Mei Sheng, who were born at the San Diego Zoo and were sent to Wolong for breeding. I’m happy to say that both are safe.

Maybe you think this is an either/or situation, that no one should worry about animals when so many human lives were lost and the survivors are homeless. But to the Chinese, pandas are revered national treasures -- and conservation and captive breeding programs give employment to thousands of Chinese citizens. When the Wolong Center was cut off by the earthquake, supplies brought in by military helicopters included tons of bamboo for the bears as well as food and tents for the staff.

Almost five millions acres of panda habitat were damaged, some of it totally destroyed, in the initial quake and aftershocks. Landslides sheared vegetation from mountainsides and buried it under boulders. No one knows how many wild pandas were killed, because scouting parties haven’t been able to explore the dangerous terrain. One thing is certain: any surviving bears will starve if they can’t find edible varieties of bamboo.

The goal of the breeding program at Wolong Center, at the smaller Chengdu Panda Base, and a number of worldwide zoos was to create a captive population of 300 genetically diverse pandas that could save the species if a disaster decimated the wild population. The earthquake of May 12 may have been that disaster. But even the captive pandas are imperiled by the shortage of bamboo. The accessible supply will run out in three to five months.

Chengdu Base came through the quake intact, but many buildings at the beautiful riverside Wolong Center were destroyed, and all the rest were damaged. The eight Wolong cubs that will greet Olympic visitors were rushed to the Beijing Zoo weeks ahead of schedule, and six other Wolong pandas were hastily sent to another reserve. Staff members sleep in tents and live amid rubble, and they spend their days trying to provide a normal routine for the traumatized pandas remaining at the center. Rebuilding on a new, safer site could take years. Meanwhile, the captive pandas that may be the future of their species need human help to survive.

The Colorado-based non-profit Pandas International, which has supported China’s captive breeding centers for almost a decade, was the first outside organization to send supplies – for both bears and humans – into Wolong. If you want to help, you can make an individual donation through PI’s web site or you can join with a group of friends to “adopt” a Wolong bear. The U.S. zoos that house pandas are also collecting funds for earthquake relief through their web sites.

I don’t want to imagine a world without these beautiful animals. It’s up to humans to make sure our planet doesn’t lose another irreplaceable species.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Internet Thinking

Sharon Wildwind

I found an interesting article by Nicholas Carr, published in the on-line edition of The Atlantic. The article is called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains”

Carr contends that he’s noticed a change in his own thought patterns. Time was he could easily get lost in a long book or complex article, but now he has trouble keeping his attention focused for a few pages. He attributes this to a decade of surfing the net: retrieving quick facts needed for a story, following hyperlinks, checking blogs, and constantly exposing himself to multi-media functions like podcasts and videos.

Carr’s quote that struck me particularly was, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr goes on for several pages, citing anecdotes from other friends in the same predicament, scientific studies being conducted in Britain and at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., and a fascinating story about the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) acquisition of his first typewriter, and how it changed his writing style.

The article made me think.

Once, in graduate school, I read every word of Julian Jaynes’, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If I remember correctly, I didn’t even understand the title until about page 80. When I finished the book, I felt as though I’d completed a performance worthy of Olympic gold. I was very proud of myself for tackling and conquering a new, complex concept.

If Nicholas Carr, his anecdotal friends, and neurological programming research are correct, I’m risking that ability to understand complexity by what I’m doing at this very minute. As an aside, I’ve kept track of the electronic side trips I’ve done so far to write this blog. I’ve left the actual writing 5 times to
--check where George Masion University is located
--verify the dates for Frederick Nietzsche’s life
--check the author and date published of “…Bicameral Mind”
--pull a writing quote from my electronic stash, and
--verify the identify of Rutherford D. Rodgers

So what’s the difference between I’ve just done and physically getting up from my computer to verify facts from leather-bound references books in my extensive library? One is speed: click-click-click-click. Safari-Google search-fact-back to blog. The other is sensory input. My Safari screen, the Google search screen, and the five different sites I visited all had a different look, in different colors, with different arrangements of the information on the screen, and were crammed not only with the fact I needed, but with advertisements, side-bars, other links, and much, much distraction. Yet, in each case, I was able to process the visual presentation in order to locate the fact I needed in less than 10 seconds.

At least we, as authors, have an advantage. We are forced routinely to confront the blank page, and to create there something devoid of blinking banner headlines, dancing hamsters, multi-hued type in six different fonts, and a side-bar asking us to take this quick quiz to see if we’re paying too much for auto insurance.

I don’t want to lose my ability to understand—in fact, to create—a complexity of ideas. If I do, my fiction is going to suffer. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure how to go about it because I’m not giving up the Internet. So, this morning, I’m opening up a new “note to self.” What kinds of things can I do to preserve the complexity of my thought processes?

Write in long-hand from time to time?
Listen to complex instrumental music? That doesn’t mean only classical music. Something like Phillip Glass or the Toronto-based percussion ensemble, Nexus, can be quite complex.
Read a tough book?
Cut out background noise, like a radio or TV playing while I’m working?

I know it’s a short-list and I’m looking for more ideas. Any thoughts on how to retain the ability to think in complex terms? Suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Writing quote for the week:

We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.
~Rutherford D. Rodgers, Yale librarian, commenting on the enormous number of books, periodicals, and other documents published each year.

This quote was made twenty-three years ago, in February 1985. Mr. Rodgers and the rest of us had hardly scratched the surface of the multi-media, information glut now available on the web.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Origins of the Great Detectives

by Julia Buckley
I once read a terrific book by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer called THE GREAT AMERICAN DETECTIVE. In the introduction to this book, which contained short stories by some of the American greats including Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald (Ross, that is), they spoke of the origin of the genre. Poe, of course, is credited with the creation of the archetype of the "classical" detective. But before the time that Sherlock Holmes was created in England (1887), Nick Carter had already appeared in American magazines, as early as 1886.

From this point on emerged two distinct genres, which Kittredge and Krauzer elaborate upon in a most interesting way. They also suggest the emergence of a third type: The Aggressor. This offshoot of the hard-boiled style tends to take the law into his own hands, often after a personal wrong has been done. In literature, an example might be Mack Bolan or Mike Hammer. In movies, think of Dirty Harry, or any number of Charles Bronson movies. But before the aggressor, there were two basic genres existing together and forming what we now know about the mystery story--and its detective. Those two, of course, were the Classical and the Hard-Boiled styles.

Kittredge and Krauzer broke it down like this:

Features of The Classical Detective:

* He (or she) is an amateur
* Even if he accepts a fee, he solves the crime for intellectual stimulation, not for cash.
* He is superior (sometimes arrogant).
* The mystery is removed from real life (cases are puzzles, not crimes)
* The cast of characters is small and inter-related.
* The setting of the Classical Mystery is usually isolated.
* The stories have a fairy-tale like quality.
(Today’s classical mysteries are sometimes referred to as “cozies.”)

Features of the Hard-Boiled Detective:

* A working man, self-employed in a small business.
* He is part of his environment (office downtown, lives in a large apartment house)
* He carries a gun (instinct for self-preservation)
* He does not seek violence, but it often finds him.
* He does have a conscience and a moral vision, BUT he might have to kill in the line of duty.
* He DOES solve mysteries and unmask criminals, but with persistence and legwork, not through a magical logical process.

It's interesting to apply these features to modern-day mysteries; some current fictional detectives fit quite obviously on one list or another, while some of them seem to be an interesting grafted version with elements from both the classical and the hard-boiled. A very successful blend of the two, of course, were the Nero Wolfe mysteries, in which Nero was the rather scornful intellect and Archie Goodwin was the leg man with a photographic memory, who could therefore guarantee that the story he brought back to Nero was identical to what he witnessed, dialogue and all.

The most famous examples of the Classical would be detectives like Holmes, Marple, Poirot, Wimsey, while hard-boiled greats are Spade, Archer, Marlowe, etc.

But looking at the list, who's your favorite classical or hard-boiled fictional sleuth in the modern era?

(Kittredge, William, and Steven M. Krauzer. The Great American Detective. New York: Signet, 1978).

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Guest Blogger: Victoria Thompson

Victoria Thompson is a prolific romance and mystery writer who has published 20 romances, and 10 historical mysteries in her Gaslight series, set in New York City on the late 1800s. Fans of the series, who have long speculated on how and why Sarah Brandt’s husband died, will finally have the answer in the newest book, Murder on Bank Street, which has just been released.


Between 1985 and 1997, you published 20 romances, many of them related to Texas. Why Texas?

I always loved the Old West, having grown up watching cowboys on television. The cowboy is America's mythical hero, and part of our national romantic fantasy. I lived in Texas for seven years, so it seemed natural to write about a place I knew and loved.

You also have a strong romantic thread running through your Gaslight mystery series. You’re doing a great job of prolonging that thread through 10 books now. What are your thoughts about the place of romance in mysteries and what a writer can do to bring a relationship along through many books?

When I first started writing mysteries, I was warned repeatedly that mystery readers don't like romance in their books and I shouldn't even try to put it in. I couldn't keep Frank and Sarah from caring about each other, and every fan letter I get wants to know when Frank and Sarah will get together. So much for mystery readers not liking romance! The relationship makes the readers care about my protagonists and see them as real people, which keeps them coming back for the next book. The writer must be careful not to let the relationship overshadow the mysteries, but at the same time, she must keep it going book after book. I have created may obstacles to Frank and Sarah's romance, and they will not be overcome anytime soon, considering the world in which they live.

As a writer of historical mysteries, what was the most important research you did to be able to set your books in the late 1800s?

The 1890's is a fascinating era, and I have learned that many of the issues people were concerned with then are the same issues we're struggling with now: prejudice against immigrants, finding Mr. Right in a dangerous world, women making it in the workforce, a deep interest in alternative religions and spiritualism, alternative medicine, political corruption—I could go on and on. So even though my books have an historical setting, the topics are very contemporary and appeal to modern readers. I love doing the research for my books. Whenever I come across a fact that makes go, Wow!  I didn't know that!  That's what I put in the book.

I love the way you use New York City as a character, and set each of your Gaslight mysteries in a different part of the city. What makes New York, and especially Greenwich Village come alive for you?

Oddly enough, when I was approached about writing this series, my daughter was a freshman at NYU. We had visited her there and walked around Greenwich Village and even bought books on the history of the Village just because I was interested. It was like kismet when they asked me to do this series, because I was already preparing for it. New York is a place like no other on earth, and the city really does have a life of its own. You only need to walk the streets to realize it, to feel the beating heart of the city. I wouldn't want to live there, but it's a wonderful place to write about.

You have a link on your web site to the Ellis Island Foundation. Tell us a little about that foundation.

The Foundation helps people find their immigrant ancestors.  We found my grandparents who came over to the US from Italy in the early 1900's through the Foundation's records, and for the first time, I knew where they had been born. We immediately planned a trip and went over the visit the small town in Calabria. It was wonderful to be in a place where people knew my family name, which is rare even in Italy. As a result, I have also met many other Americans whose ancestors came from this town and become involved in a charity that raises money for the town.
You’ve assisted in founding two writers’ groups: Novelists, Inc. a national organization, and PENNWRITERS, a state organization in Pennsylvania. Since many writers now have access to one another through web sites, blogs, and on-line social networks, why is it important for writers to still come together in formal organizations on the state and national levels?

Actually, I also helped found New Jersey Romance Writers, too! It's true the internet has enabled writers to be in contact with other writers more easily and has greatly aided in the communication of information about the industry.  Sometimes bad information gets spread, but most of the time, it's a valuable tool.  Even still, it's impossible for individual writers to have any influence over the publishing industry, no matter how much they talk and blog online.  Griping to each other can't change anything. Writers' organizations are the only ones who can really work for change and stand up for writers' rights in an industry where writers are often treated as the least important part of the process.
To learn more about Victoria and her books, visit her web site, 

Friday, June 13, 2008

Reviews, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I've been following a debate on a discussion list or two about reviewing books. I'm going to try to boil the discussion down.

Some writers think only other writers should review books because they know the ins and outs, the difficulties of writing an entire manuscript and getting it published.

But, unfortunately, some writers confess to having a tough time giving negative reviews to other writers, even other writers they don't know, keeping in mind the advice nearly every mother gives her child: "If you can't say something nice . . . " Makes it a bit tough to get a balance in reviews if all of them are "nice."

Some readers think only readers should review a writer's work because they know good writing when they see it, have the ability to step back and see the trees apart from the forest, and whether they love or hate a book, they want to share their views either privately with friends or with a large unknown Internet audience. In other words, they're impartial.

Some readers and writers don't care WHO does the reviews or how nice/nasty the review is as long as the reviewer doesn't give away key plot points. Let's face it, anyone who gives away key plot points in a review should have to eat the entire book. Without condiments.

I've been an avid reader since childhood thanks to my step-mother, a teacher and an avid reader. I can remember riding in a car with her and jumping in my seat when she turned a sharp corner just as I reached an exciting point in the story. NO idea what book that was, but the memory tells me why I love books. Getting THAT lost in a story.

Before I became a writer I had no problem sharing my reviews of books I'd read with friends, and had I been on an Internet discussion list then, I'd have done the same. But now that I'm a writer, I find it very difficult to discard the "If you can't say something nice" rule and say what I really think about a book. I recently stopped listening to an audio book because the character did something so out of character for a law enforcement officer that I found myself shouting at my MP3 player, "Dial 911, Dummy." The comment wasn't meant for the MP3 player, of course, but for the character. And I was on the elliptical cycle at the time, and I'm not at my charming best when I'm exercising. Twenty minutes on that thing is more like two hours. Where was I? Am I going to post that particular review on the Internet or name the writer? Nope.

Here are my thoughts from a writer's perspective:

Once you learn the, ahem, "Rules of Writing" it is VERY difficult to read a book by another author and not find things that most readers would simply overlook in the enjoyment of the story. Repeat words, weed words (as Darlene posted about recently) shifting POV's, LY words, ING words, you name it and there is most likely a rule against it. So, if the story is compelling and the characters engaging, most readers who don't write will love it, and their eyes will slide right over such errors. Writers who have had the rules pounded into our heads will be stopped short. Reading for pleasure isn't as easy as it once was. But neither is reviewing.

Writers know how very important reviews are to a book's sales. And while we all reassure each other that even negative reviews sell books, we don't really buy that phrase when it comes to our own books. Not for a minute. So it's harder for a writer to post negative reviews of other writers.

It's nigh unto impossible for me to post a negative review of a book. However, I do read other people's (writers or readers) reviews because they keep me from wasting time and money on books I won't enjoy. I'd love to do that for the rest of you, but I just can't. Unless I love the book. Maybe. Could I possibly waffle a bit more on this subject? Let me get back to you on that.

The more you love to read, the more you want to share your opinions about the books you read. Nice or nasty. I think that's a good thing. The number of people reading for pleasure appears to be down in today's world, and I'm for anything we can do to encourage others to read. And word of mouth sells more books than just about any kind of advertising you can think of. Writers love that. I hope the rest of you will continue to read and to discuss with others the books you read. Me? I'll be waffling in the corner. And reading.

By the way, I'll be away from my computer most of today, selling and signing at the annual Superman Celebration in downtown Metropolis, IL. The celebration is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. TONS of vendors selling lots of interesting stuff. I'll be with the other writers and artists in the building next to Thor's Gym. Please drop by and say hi. Next week I hope to have pictures of the Celebration for you.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Characters We Love

Elizabeth Zelvin

I woke up this morning thinking about Brat Farrar: not just Josephine Tey’s 1949 mystery, but Brat himself, the horse-loving orphan who agrees to impersonate a lost heir and finds his “belonging-place.” Yep, I remember the dialogue as well as the characters, decades after I last reread the book. If that’s not a measure of the novelist’s art, I don’t know what is.

Nowadays we hear a lot about “crime fiction,” sometimes accompanied by a dismissal of the traditional mystery. For me, character is the heart of a good book, and my favorite traditional mysteries have it. No matter how long it’s been since I visited them, I’m not going to confuse Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane with anybody else or forget the important events in their lives. The same goes for Judge Deborah Knott, Sharon McCone, Mary Russell, Kate Shugak, Anna Pigeon, and Skip Langdon. All of these characters go through a process of growth and change in the course of a series arc.

One of my newer favorite authors is Charlaine Harris, not because her deft mixing of subgenres started a trend but because each of her protagonists is distinct and memorable. Lily Bard’s the one who survived a horrific abduction and rape, learned martial arts, cleans houses, and roams the streets at night. Sookie Stackhouse is the telepathic barmaid who dates vampires. Harper Connelly got struck by lightning at fifteen and now finds dead people, arousing suspicion and challenging disbelief with her knowledge of how they died. Nor are these details simply backstory stuck onto a generic protagonist figure. All these women have depth and complexity. All are endearing. After reading about them, I’m always eager to come back for more.

My favorite characters in other genres share this ability to leap off the page and into the reader’s heart: Jamie and Claire Fraser, Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Philippa. To me these are real people, whether they live in the past or in the future. In a weird way it doesn’t matter that they exist only on the page. Great characters forge a bond between the author’s imagination and the reader’s and create a small miracle every time we open a book.

Now I’ve got a book and characters of my own. I would be thrilled if they find their way into readers’ hearts like those I’ve mentioned. A few people are starting to talk about my protagonist Bruce and his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy as if they’re real, as if they have a past and a future outside the covers of Death Will Get You Sober. In fact, I know they do, because they talk to me in my head while I drive or take my daily run. They’re insistent, opinionated, and sometimes smarter and funnier than I am. For sure they’ve got fewer inhibitions about what they’ll say. Come to think of it, they’ve already found their way into at least one real-life person’s heart: my own.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What would make you kill?

Sandra Parshall

I’m baffled by people like Scott Peterson, who think murdering a spouse is the easiest way to end a marriage.

I always look for more, thinking the simple desire to get out of the marriage can’t be all there is to it. Surely some dark and twisted story remains to be told, surely secrets will emerge that might make the murder understandable, if not justifiable. But no. In many cases, the husband – or the wife – just wants to be free and doesn’t want to bother with a divorce.

I couldn’t write about such a killer, because the motive makes no sense to me. The person who kills in a fit of rage is easier to understand than these bland people who plot and carry out murder for the flimsiest of reasons. There’s simply nothing there to explore.

Equally off-putting are psychopathic serial killers. Judging by the popularity of this type of book, I’d say mental illness makes good drama for a lot of people, but I can only stay interested in a serial killer novel if the people investigating the crimes are compelling, with their own fascinating stories. A mentally ill murderer’s motive is imaginary, unconnected to the real world, and for that reason, it bores me.

Strange as it may seem, I need a killer I can identify with. Someone I can understand. And that forces me to ask: What is worth killing for? What could make me take another person’s life?

Not an easy question for someone who is basically a pacifist and a physical coward. I seldom see any justification for war. I might get mad enough to say, “I could strangle her!” but I’d never do it. As a kid on a farm, I was always horrified by the casual way adults wrung the necks of chickens. When I find bugs in the house, I usually pick them up and put them outside. But... I kill spiders. I leave them alone if they’re in the yard, but any spider that’s in the house or even hanging around outside a door or window will be mercilessly dispatched. And I’m sure that in some circumstances I could kill another human being.

Self-defense – most of us probably take it for granted that we would kill rather than be killed. Even if the thought of taking a life repulses us, we know the instinct for self-preservation would kick in.

I would kill to save a child, any child. Could I do it to save an adult? I have to admit I’m not sure. The most honest answer: Depends on who it is and what he or she means to me. But I wouldn’t hesitate to inflict grievous bodily harm, at the very least, to stop the torture of an animal.

To create a killer I can write about convincingly, I have to find that dark place where my own murderous impulses hide. I have to pull them into the light, examine the forces that created them, and weave my character’s heart and soul around them. I have to understand my killer’s behavior, and at some level I have to empathize with it. I hope I can also make the reader feel a spark of pity for this person who has been pushed by life into the role of killer.

Writing with these goals isn’t easy, and it makes for some treacherously complex plotting, but working with a simplistic killer would be so boring that I would probably give up long before I could finish the book. Same goes for reading about killers with motives that seem ridiculous to me. If a character is going to commit murder, he’d better have a darned good reason.

How do you feel about this? Do you want fictional killers to have understandable motives that arise from their unique situations? Do you ever feel empathy or pity for a killer?

And what would make you kill?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

If not now, when?

Sharon Wildwind

Every year, during the first week in June, the province of Alberta celebrates Seniors’ Week. Many cities have special events for older adults, and I was fortunate to attend a marvelous one last week. It was called Celebration of Creative Aging Symposium.
Here are some notes from material presented at that symposium by Susan Perlstein. She founded Elders Share the Arts in New York City, and is currently the Director of Education and Training at the National Centre for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C.

Creativity is scary as well as having a lot of positive values. The arts are deep play. Current brain research shows that as people age, both sides of the brain integrate. Younger people tend to be more right-brained or left-brained, but older people are whole-brained. One surprising thing that brain research has shown is that when the brain is stimulated with real creativity, brain tissue grows more dendrites, that is, the brain reserve gets larger. The immune system also grows stronger.

In North America, the shift from a negative, medical model of aging into what can older people offer has happened since 2000. Elders Share the Arts (New York City) started by collecting stories and transforming them into all art forms. This grew into the first landmark research on creativity and aging in the US. The research was carried out between 2001 and 2005.

What the results of the study showed was that the health of older people involved in creative artistic expression group improved significantly in all areas. They:
• lived longer
• visited the doctor less often
• took fewer medications
• incurred less health care costs
• had fewer falls
• increased their visual acuity, if they were engaged in visual arts
• had more friends and social contacts
• increased their sense of mastery and control over their lives, even in non-art areas
• had increased confidence
• increased their ability and willingness to problem-solve and locate and use resources
• experienced less depression
• appeared to have a deceased risk for entering long-term care

In addition to providing previously unavailable research data, another goal of the research was to prepare material to present at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging in order to influence the revision of the Older Americans’ Act. This included a 40-state grass roots movement to bring arts and artists to the conference. Both the research and the grass roots movement was successful and a statement that “Older people have the right to access the arts” became part of the Older Americans’ Act.

The National Centre for Creative Aging,, also came out of that research. They continue to promote art projects for older people, and in 2007 they developed a Creativity Matters Toolkit, which is available for purchase, as well as a free Internet newsletter, and training programs for artists to work with older people. Their goal is to pair as many senior’s programs as possible to arts organizations on the local, state, and national level.

Total respect for life experiences is the base and heart of artistic programs for seniors. These are not “keep busy” projects. We are talking professional art instruction, public performances and art exhibits, and social integration into a multi-generational group.

Stop thinking of arts for older people as follow-the-dot kits, sing-alongs, etc. where all the person has to do is slap on some paint or try to remember the words to old songs. Real creativity starts with the blank page, the lump of clay, a drum, or an empty stage.

Stop using bland, non-controversial subjects, such as having older people paint a bunch of flowers on a table. Tap into the individual and cultural heritage that every older person has and allow art to grow out of the richness of that heritage.

Real artists deserve real working space, and real display space. Stop thinking of art for older people in terms of “Art Corners” furnished with second-hand furniture and third-hand, close-out-sale art supplies, where finished projects are Scotch-taped or pinned to a bulletin board with thumbtacks. Get artists into real art studios, real performance spaces. Mount the pictures, frame them, and display them in galleries. Put actors, poets, musicians, and writers on stage. Make CDs. Do desk top publishing. Organize living history festivals and present them in real venues.

Think partnerships. It’s not a matter of corporations or governments making a donation and walking away. Close the circle by taking the art back to those same organizations in the form of art displays, performances, etc.

Train people already working with older adults in the arts; train artists in working with older people.

Form intergenerational liaisons and projects whenever possible. Connect to local school curricula and build artist/school links, such as linking a seniors’ centre and a school in the same neighborhood.

If you want a look at some older people totally immersed in their art, I recommend both of these films, which were shown as part of the Edmonton festival.

Do Not Go Gently: the power of imagination in aging
2007, 57 minutes, US production, narrated by Walter Cronkite.
Explores the thoughts of older artists and others involved in creative aging. How important is imagination to the experience of being human? What are the most inventive artists expressing at a very old age? And why? This is a very powerful film, featuring:
• Arlonzia Pettaway, 84, quilter from Gees Bend, Alabama.
• Frederick Franklin, 93 ballet artist, who’s still dancing and teaching younger dancers
• Leo Ornstein, over 100, musical composer and pianist
• Several groups around the US, which offer artistic programs for their senior members

Still Kicking
2006, 35 minutes, US production
Amy Gorman invited Frances Kandl to journey with her throughout the San Francisco Bay Area searching for female role models—very old women, still active artists, living with zest. While Amy chronicles their oral histories, Frances is inspired to compose songs for several of these women, many well past 90, culminating in concerts celebrating lives liberated by age. Artists featured:
• Frances Catlett, 95, painter
• Ann Davlin, 93, dance and piano teacher
• Madeline Mason, 101, doll maker
• Elsie Otaga, 91, ikebana artist
• Grace Gildersleeve, 95, rug weaver
• Lily Hearst, 108, pianist
Writing quote for the week:

If you don’t have a sense of wonder, you can’t create. Wonder begins when you ask a question to which there is no clear answer. The question and answer must flow through one another. The question must be the answer and the answer must be the next question.
~Ted Blodgett, City of Edmonton poet laureate