Monday, November 30, 2009

Twain, The Comet, and Mystery

by Julia Buckley
I once blogged here about Mark Twain and his relationship to the mystery novel. Twain is on my mind again, because he was born on this day in 1835. His birth coincided with the appearance of Halley's Comet in the night sky, and Twain always predicted that, because he "came in with the comet," he would go out with the comet, as well. That prediction came true in April of 1910. So, to his own satisfaction, he arrived and departed with the comet. As Twain put it, both he and the celestial event were "unaccountable freaks."

It makes one wonder if Twain was a bit of a mystic, along with his many other talents.

In any case, because I am buried under a mound of research papers, I will share with you some of the information on that long-distant Twain blog. Hopefully it will be new to you! Perhaps his prediction may have been fed by Twain's love of the mysterious, which was well known to his intimates. He was offended, though, by some of the fictional detectives of his time and their pompous natures. He once wrote: "What a curious thing a ‘detective’ story is. And was there ever one that the author needn’t be ashamed of, except ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’"*

Twain once wrote a satire of the Sherlock Holmes stories called "A Double-Barrelled Detective Story." The story begins this way:

"It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of unnumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God."

This paragraph makes me laugh because it so highlights Twain's gift for parody and exaggeration. A side note is that the "solitary oesophagus" is a bird of Twain's own creation, and he was surprised that few readers ever asked him about the fictional creature.

In any case, many of Twain's works reference mystery or contain a mysterious element. One of my favorites is Huckleberry Finn's "murder," which he fakes for himself in order to escape detection from his father, The Widow Douglas, and pretty much anyone else who might come looking for him. Huck makes it look as though he's been horribly murdered with an axe, remembering to pull out some of his hairs and place them in the pig's blood that is carefully smeared on the weapon. Those are details painstakingly noted by a man who enjoyed a good crime story.

Twain's death was a sad loss to the world of literature. He penned his thoughts on the notion of passing while lying on his deathbed: "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all--the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved."

*Notebook 30, TS, p. 32, quoted by F. R. Rogers, Simon Wheeler, Detective (New York: New York Public Library, 1963--qtd in Howard G. Baetzhold's Of Detectives and Their Derring-Do: The Genesis of Mark Twain's 'The Stolen White Elephant.')

* Hendrickson, Robert. American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Penguin, 1990.]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Going to Carolina in My Mind

Eileen L. McGrath oversees a marvelous collection of books at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A colleague of hers started Read North Carolina Novels as a website in about 2004. He envisioned the site serving as a place where readers could find out about novels set in North Carolina that were readily available—the kind of novels that would be in any airport bookstore.

From there, Eileen picks up the story:

When I assumed responsibility for the site in 2008, I had a different vision. I wanted a site that would be more inclusive—not just the widely distributed books, but novels that might be just as good but that had fewer publisher resources supporting them. I also wanted to showcase our collection by adding older novels in addition to just-published titles. It seemed like a good idea to make the site more interactive, so a blog seemed the way to go. Jenny McElroy, a talented graduated student here at UNC, converted the website to a blog. Jenny also wrote a lot of the reviews in 2008 and 2009.

We've been building the new Read North Carolina Novels site for about a year. As of the beginning of 2009 November, the blog has write ups for about 500 books. This is a fraction of the number of novels in the North Carolina Collection. I don't have an exact count on the number of novels that we have here (we've been in business since the 19th century), but it's in the range of 3,500-5,000 titles.We have almost all the novels set in North Carolina, but I would guess that there are hundreds that we've missed.

The criteria for being included in the collection is that it is a work of fiction, set in North Carolina, no matter where the author may be from or now resides.

We’re still finding our way through the process for adding new books to the collection. I try to post at least twice a week, two novels each, for a total of four novels a week. That would be about 200 books a year added to the list. That's a minimum, and that won't keep up with the need. Right now I have 20 novels in my office waiting to be written up.

In addition to the on-line information, the collection forms a reference library. We also lend books out of the collection. In general, we'll have circulating copies of newer novels, those published in 2000 or afterwards. For older novels, it's hit or miss if we'll have an extra copy to circulate. If someone is interested in a particular book and thinks it might be in our collection, she or he can certainly contact us.

We’ve learned several things from managing this collection.

First, North Carolina is an attractive setting for certain genres, particularly mystery and romance. A woman on the run often lands up in the North Carolina mountains or on our coast.

Second, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when an out-of-state novelist used North Carolina as a setting, the "local color" elements could be a bit too generic. Writers today seem better at getting the details right. I think a lot of authors, if they don’t live in North Carolina already, come here to do research before they write their books. Who could blame them; it’s a great place to visit.

Third, the past is an attractive setting for many authors. The Civil War era is still number one as an historic time period, but we get in a steady trickle of novels set in the colonial period. Just this year we've gotten in a couple of books that are set in the early 20th century and present that as an historic period. This last development would be a shock to my mother-in-law and others of her generation.

Finally, we have a strong literary tradition in North Carolina. We've always had a lot of authors relative to the size of the population. Also, as a state we're getting larger—we're now the 10th most populous state. So, we're an attractive setting to outsiders and we've got a large, active resident writing community.

Some, but not many, university libraries have state-focused collections. University collections tend to focus on faculty authors and authors whose works are taught in classes rather than casting a wider net that covers the whole state. Large public libraries often do lists like this, and almost every public library has a section for local authors or books with local settings. This website has a nice listing of sites.

Eileen’s contact information:

Eileen L. McGrath, Assistant Curator

North Carolina Collection

Campus Box 3930

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, NC 27514-8890

The North Carolina Collection houses a huge amount of research and information about the state. To find the book list, go to the above link and click on Find a North Carolina Novel to read.


We must remember that North Carolina is more than a collection of regions and people. We are one state, one people, one family, bound by a common concern for each other.

~Michael F. Easley, Governor of North Carolina, 2001-2009

Friday, November 27, 2009

So you think you can't write?

By Lonnie Cruse

Recently at lunch with a large group of women I was stopped in mid-bite by a lady who was asked a question about the many places she'd lived outside of the U.S. She began describing her life style while she lived in those various places. I was fascinated.

After she'd told us several interesting anecdotes about living overseas and raising a family while so far away from home, I suggested she write a book about it. If nothing else, for her four children, some of whom were too young to form memories of their own during the experiences. She said she wouldn't know where to begin. I told her to begin at the beginning, at the first paragraph. It might sound simplistic or smart-aleky, but I meant it, and someone else seconded my suggestion.

That's what it takes to write a book, simply beginning at the beginning. And that's true whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction. Get the idea in your head and start writing it down. Of course, using a computer is MUCH easier than using a pen or pencil. With the computer you can buzz along, and if you think of something you should have put between chapter three and chapter four, you simply go there and begin, or copy and paste if necessary. You can move whole paragraphs or entire chapters, if need be. Where was I? Yeah, beginning at the beginning.

Sometimes we have so many ideas in our heads, we don't know how we'll get them all down. So we panic. Other times we have the beginning of an idea and if we're lucky, the ending, but no clue how we'll fill the two to three hundred empty pages in between. So we panic. The trick is to just start writing. If you are afraid of forgetting something important, jot down some reminder words on a paper and keep the paper in a safe place. Then continue writing until you get to the point where you need those reminders. If you are afraid of running out of ideas, just start writing. Chances are good the rest of the story is hidden somewhere up high in your brain, just out of reach, like a high shelf. Or like the liquid in a funnel, unable to move down through the spout until the whatever is filling said spout drops out and the stuff on top can move down. You'll be amazed at how that happens.

You've gotten a good start, ideas are falling onto the page, now what? If you need help, line up your reminder words in order to see if that brings out more. Ask yourself questions. What really happened next, if you are writing non-fiction about your own or someone else's life. If you're writing fiction, what should happen to your characters next, logically? Then write it. And keep on writing it.

What about all those mistakes you'll make? Spelling, punctuation, typos, etc? AFTER you've finished the first draft, get someone who is also a writer or who understands the basics of writing to read it for you. Someone to help catch errors, ask questions if you've left gaps, or to get you to explain/clarify a cloudy issue. Then fix the errors, fill the gaps, and clarify any cloudy areas, because your readers WILL catch any unfixed errors, won't be able to fill in gaps for themselves, and won't be able to ask you any unanswered questions, and you don't want to leave them wondering. Just don't let your critiquer talk you into changing your style of writing to her style of writing or make you change your dream. This your story, fiction or non, tell it your way, within reason.

Once it's written, make it available to your target audience either by handing it over to the family if it's just for them, or submitting it to agents and/or publishers if you want the world to read it.

Don't tell yourself you can't write. You can write. Or you can learn how. There are tons of classes, locally and online available to you. Tell your story. The world wants to read good stories. Really.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What does Thanksgiving mean to you?

The winner of a free copy of Mr. Monk in Trouble is Abigail Beal.

Four of Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrate Thanksgiving or, as some call it, Turkey Day today in the United States; the fifth had a Canadian Thanksgiving in October. This holiday means different things to different people. Is it about the food? Or gratitude? A joyous family reunion? A nightmare dysfunctional family reunion? Is it a harvest festival? A political sore spot in the history of Native American/white relations? We’re sharing our perspectives, and we hope you’ll tell us yours.

Elizabeth Zelvin
As I grow older and I hope a little wiser, Thanksgiving is less about the food (though I do enjoy it, especially the season’s orange foods, like sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie) and more about being thankful. Among my many blessings, I can count the ones I cherish most on one hand: my two granddaughters and my two published mystery novels make four, and, hmm, my health? my happy marriage? the fact that my beloved New York City is still standing in this precarious world? the abundance in my life in spite of the lousy economy? my friends?

Okay, so one hand won’t do it. I’m thankful for the English language, its expressiveness and flexibility. I’m thankful I learned to touch type, even though in my day girls feared that typing would doom them to a lifetime of secretarial work. I’m thankful my parents encouraged me to read—and glad I had the guts to leave literary fiction and the New York Times behind and strike out for the wilder shores of genre fiction. I’m thankful for librarians and indie booksellers and readers—and for the Internet that keeps me connected with all of them as well as fellow writers. And I’m thankful for the warmth and generosity of the mystery community, with whom I sit around the virtual table to celebrate this day.

Lonnie Cruse

What does Thanksgiving mean to me? A time with family and a time to be thankful to have them with us. Two members of our family have birthdays in late November, so we celebrate those and we generally celebrate the Saturday BEFORE Thanksgiving. You know what? It always seems like Thanksgiving because of the wonderful smells wafting out of the kitchen, no matter whose house we celebrate at. On the actual Thanksgiving day, we often go to our oldest son's house for lasagna and a hot set of card games. They celebrate with his wife's family on a different day as well, depending on work schedules. Both days are special. Our lovely daughter-in-law says her friends are always amazed that her folks and his folks enjoy getting together to play cards . . . meaning that both families get along so well.

Besides family and friends, I'm thankful to live in a country where my dream of becoming a writer could come true. Where most everyone's dreams can still come true, if we try hard enough! I'm thankful for the many freedoms we still have. I'm thankful for good books to read, for a sun porch to sit on and watch the birds, and for the many other blessings my family and I enjoy.

Sharon Wildwind
I get the best of both worlds: two turkey days. Some of our stuffed animal collections is Canadian, and some American, and woe be it to us to not celebrate twice, least—horrors of horrors—the miss a day off to which some of them are entitled.

I don't usually say things like this in public, but here goes. Among many things for which I'm thankful is that no one is shooting at me. It's a hold-over from Vietnam. You can't imagine how wonderful a silence is that doesn't contain the sound of an AK-47 or the double thunk of an incoming mortar round being launched. I am grateful for every day of peace and wish that feeling could be extended around the world.

Sandra Parshall
I have to admit that it's difficult to find much to be thankful for these days, with our country still bogged down in war and so many people here at home struggling to survive economically. I can't help thinking of the families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the parents who have lost their jobs and can't provide the necessities for their children, much less a festive holiday celebration. I'm thankful that my husband and I are not suffering financially or lacking health care coverage, but I can't forget the many who are not so fortunate. I hope all the PDD readers are with loved ones today, safe and secure and counting your many blessings.

Julia Buckley
On Tuesday, November 17th, my older son was struck by a car while crossing a street on the way home from school. He ended up with cuts and bruises, and he's still emotionally shaken from the whole experience, but obviously it could have been much, much worse. I can't even express how an event like this puts things right into perspective. I really don't have any big plans for Thanksgiving, other than to spend it with my husband and children and to enjoy their physical presence. When I went to the scene of my son's accident, I had to knock on the door of an ambulance and wait to be admitted. (There was another boy in there, too--my son's friend who had been crossing with him. He too escaped with minor injuries). I stood outside that vehicle fearing the worst, and when they let me see Ian he was a bloodied version of himself, with only one shoe (they never found the other) and soaked clothing. But he was sitting up and looking at me, and my relief was so great that I couldn't stop touching him that day--his arm, his hair, his back. He even let us hug him: first me, and later, his father.

Now things are almost normal again, except that it doesn't faze me as much if he fights with his brother or if he complains that reading The Odyssey is as "boring as balls."

The fact is that I was taking my family for granted, and I am not doing so now. I am thankful, thankful, for my son and for everyone else in my life, and this Thanksgiving I will remain in a state of grace.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mr. Monk Wraps It Up

Sandra Parshall

Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Mr. Monk in Trouble by Lee Goldberg.

Two more episodes, and Monk will be TV history. On December 4 we’ll say goodbye to this most unlikely of heroes, a phobic, obsessive-compulsive, self-absorbed, grief-wracked detective who somehow manages to be both lovable and admirable.

When the series started eight years ago, I didn’t think it would last long. Who could bond with a character like Adrian Monk? Who would want to watch him struggle with his demons week after week? I could and would, as it turned out, along with plenty of other people. Tony Shaloub’s unique creation has fascinated, exasperated, amused, and charmed us. The show’s web site caters to a legion of fans with Monk games, an interactive section for those who
want to try solving the murder of Monk’s wife, a Monk-fan-of-all-time contest, a Monk lookalike contest, quizzes to test your knowledge of the show, an Ask Randy Disher blog, and products such as videos, books, mugs, tee shirts, and hats.

As the show winds down, questions that have tantalized us for eight years are being answered. Last Friday’s episode, in which Monk’s desperate wish to return to the San Francisco Police Department was granted, ended exactly as I knew it would, with Monk realizing that he prefers to work freelance, with Nata
lie by his side. (Frankly, I’ve always wondered how he made it onto the police force in the first place. I can’t picture him, with his lifelong tics and phobias, getting through police academy training.) The final two episodes will settle the mystery of who killed Trudy. Then it will be over, leaving us with reruns and fond memories.

The episodes that stand out for me are the most poignant, when Monk had to cope with the death of the psychiatrist he relied on and when a Trudy look-alike surfaced to break his heart all over again. I loved those mome
nts when Monk confronted criminals and displayed the tough, resolute cop side we seldom saw. He could subdue a suspect and use a gun when he had to. It was a kick to see Monk go undercover as a surly mob boss. The appearance of John Turturro as Monk’s brother was brilliant. An agoraphobic trapped in his own house with mountains of old newspapers, he made Monk seem well-adjusted by comparison.

I never liked his first assistant, Sharona (Bitty Schram), because I thought she bossed Monk around too much. I’m a big fan of Traylor Howard as Natalie, and now I get irritated with Monk when he mistreats her. Ted Levine as Captain Stottlemeyer is always pitch-perfect, and Jason Gray-Stanford as Lt. Randy Disher is a treat to watch, even when Disher is singing his dreadful songs.

I have a feeling these characters will stay with me. I’m always going to wonder what’s become of them, what they’re doing now. Will Monk’s life change after he solves Trudy’s murder? Will he ever find another love? Will Natalie fall in love, marry, and leave Monk? Will Randy ever get a recording contract? Will Stottlemeyer’s new marriage survive his bride’s fears about his work?

Lee Goldberg, who writes a series of books based on the show, will keep fans going for a while. Lee tells me that after Mr. Monk in Trouble, out in December, at least two additional Monk novels will be published. “I hope there will be more,” Lee says, “because I want to write them.” If you need more Monk after the final show, leave a comment today and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Mr. Monk in Trouble.

What were your favorite Monk moments? Why does Monk appeal to you? Are you surprised the character became so popular and the show lasted so long? And – the burning question – do you prefer Sharona or Natalie?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Fine Art of Paper Crafting

Sharon Wildwind

Every manuscript reaches a point where it must be printed and read aloud. Every time I get to that point in a book, I try to cheat because printing over 300 pages, even economy setting, double-sided, and laboring over each sentence, looms as a horrendous task.

Alas, cheating never works. Eventually, exasperated, I print out the whole thing and devote about a month to reading the entire book, one sentence at a time.

Here’s what I gain from the experience.

I find niggling errors, such as leaving out tiny words:

He really, really had intended to meet his family. No, he already knows his family. He really, really had intended for her to meet his family. That makes more sense.

Or substituting a correctly-spelled incorrect word:

It took her fifteen minutes to locate the car in the back of a kitchen cupboard. Unless she’s looking for a tiny toy car, this sentence should say, It took her fifteen minutes to locate the cat in the back of a kitchen cupboard.

Ever wonder why we miss those errors even after multiple computer readings? I thought it was my inattention to detail, or perhaps leprechauns came in the night to delete and rearrange letters. In fact, it has to do with the differences in how the human eye sees words on a computer screen versus on a page.

This is why engraved invitations are considered elegant. Engraving enhances the letters the on-the-page effect and makes the text look richer. So reading from a printed page brings out subtle differences in word shape, emphasizing that car is a different shape from cat. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “As soon as I looked at the printed copy, the mistakes jumped out at me,” they’re not making that up. That’s what happens.

Printing picks up only part of the errors; finding the rest requires reading aloud. No, having the computer read it to you isn’t good enough. Computer-generated vocalization was developed to make technology more accessible to the visually-challenged, not to turn written into oral prose. The Voice—known fondly around our house as Majel Barrett—doesn’t reflect the innate rhythm of well-spoken English.

Every language has its own rhythm. A long time ago—likely fifteen minutes before I walked into the last English test I ever took—I could name the parts of that innate rhythm and tell you how many accented and unaccented beats came on either side of the internal pause. All I remember today is that there are some accented and unaccented beats before and after a central pause. The pause was so the speaker could take a breath.

In Old English it looked like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Which is the beginning of the prolog in Beowulf. (The poem, not the movie.)

A good modern translation preserves the rhythm, and the breath points:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings

of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

Both quotes from a web site provided by the Faculty of Humanities; McMasters’ University; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Good prose like good epic sagas, needs rhythm, and breath points in the right places. The only way to check both is to reading out loud. A good reader—think of your favorite actress or actor—can use flow and emphasis to make even lousy dialog sound somewhere between adequate and terrific.

A good author knows her characters and situations so well that she automatically does the same thing. When I do a reading, I add lots of emphasis in all the right places so that the printed word sparkles.

The problem is that the story is going out into the world on paper, not (at least initially) as an audio book. If the written word makes more sense, or is more vibrant when read aloud than it does or is when it’s read silently, it’s time for revisions. The real trick is to come to that point of perfect synthesis of well-written and well-spoken language. This is one place that the computer can't do it for you.


Quote for the week:

To pay attention to craft is to learn from materials and process, to find joy in the utilitarian and the commonplace, and to realize that powerful ideas are made manifest through the works of the hands.

~Jean W. McLaunglin, Director of Penland School of Crafts; Penland, North Carolina

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wandering Through Online Mysteries

by Julia Buckley

Mystery lovers could waste an awful lot of time wandering through clips on You Tube. Just as film can forever preserve the images suggested by our favorite detective novels, so can You Tube forever preserve some of those wonderful movies and shows.

For example, look at this classic clip with Humphrey Bogart in a film version of Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP. Bogie is charming as ever as a surprisingly slight-looking Marlowe (I picture him tougher, more muscular) who engages in mild flirtation while keeping surveillance on a tough across the street.

And long before David Suchet played Christie's Poirot, Peter Ustinov did so. Here, in EVIL UNDER THE SUN, he indulges in one of Poirot's favorite things: bringing together the suspects for a revelation. SPOILER ALERT: don't watch this one if you don't know, or want to know, the ending of EVIL UNDER THE SUN!

British actor Ian Carmichael did a creditable job bringing the difficult character of Lord Peter Wimsey to life onscreen. I think Dorothy Sayers would have enjoyed his take on the character--especially those penetrating blue eyes!

Speaking of handsome detectives, I've always loved Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy mysteries, and only the devilishly attractive Ian MacShane has ever portrayed him onscreen. In this clip Lovejoy is caught in a bog.

Many an actor has tried his hand at capturing the personality of Conan-Doyle's great Sherlock Holmes. One of the most admirable attempts was by Jeremy Brett (I'm not sure I'll be able to say the same of Robert Downey, Jr. in the upcoming Holmes flick!)

Who are your favorite detectives captured on film?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Canada Calling: Phyllis Smallman

Phyllis Smallman’s first mystery, Margarita Nights, won the 2007 Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur award for best unpublished novel. Margarita Nights was also short listed by the CWC for Best First Novel of 2008. The second book in the Sherri Travis series, Sex in a Sidecar, came out in 2009. Two more books, A Brewski for the Old Man and Champagne for Buzzards, are waiting in the wings.

PDD: Tell us a little about how you started writing.


A bad case of insomnia led to my taking up writing. It was a time of big changes in my life. My kids were in university and, wide awake at three in the morning, I didn't want to think about what they were up to—ditto with the guy snoring beside me—and my own life was so boring there was nothing in it to think about, so I went back to a habit I had as a child, telling myself stories. When a friend asked what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I said, "I want to write." This was a long held dream and one I'd never spoken out loud before. My friend, bless her, thought writing was a perfectly normal thing to do. She even thought I might be capable of it.

PDD: It must be interesting to win an award before you’ve been published. You were short-listed for UK Debut Dagger in 2004 and won the Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur in 2007. How did those awards change your career?


What career? All I had was a drawer full of rejects—so many rejects I made a papier-mâché bowl out of them. Winning the Arthur Ellis award led directly to being published - as part of the Arthur Ellis award my manuscript was read by McArthur Publishing Company. It went to them in early June. In August I called to see if it had really arrived. “Oh, yes,” they assured me, “It’s in a box here somewhere. We’ll read it by September and get back to you.” In November I called again. “Oh, we’re going to publish it,” I was told. “It will be out in

the spring.” Welcome to the wonderful world of publishing. But I'm truly grateful to be published and grateful to the CWC for that award.

PDD: Publishing and marketing are changing so fast. What advice would you give a new author who is just starting out?


First let me say that I’m the wrong person to ask this question because my only view of publishing came from the movies and newspapers. I really knew nothing about the real publishing business and still don’t. For instance, I had no idea I would have to write my own blurbs for the books. I suppose I thought there was an editor somewhere responsible for bios and blurbs. I had about 24 hours to turn in my

first one and went totally blank so I called my friend who was my writing partner for Margarita Nights. In the middle of cooking his dinner he came up with most of that first blurb.

I think if new writers knew what awaits them many would drop out of the process. Only the truly perverse and committed would continue. Perhaps that’s true of all of the arts. I think of teenagers with garage bands. What are the chances of them making a decent living playing music? Or think of a teenage girl who wants to become an actress...too scary. Do it because you must, not because you want to have a career or make a living.

It's a huge ocean we are swimming in and right now I feel a little overwhelmed by it all so this is what I've decided works for me. I write for myself...well, and maybe the Vicar and the Duchess, two very odd friends, but mainly I write books that I would like to read. Marketing and publishing are outside my ability to control and it only gives me the heebie-jeebies when I try. Looking at sales numbers, praying for reviews and worrying about what others are doing adds nothing to the story between the covers.

I feel each new book is better than the last and that's where I want to spend my energy. I'm writing book number 6 now and have number 7 outlined. Will I see them published? I don't know. In that way I'm no different from any unpublished author. Should I stop writing because they might not be published? Not likely!

Today none of us know if our next book will make it into print. Best to just keep on writing, let the publishers do their jobs, the reviewers do their jobs and we’ll do ours. The rest is out of our control.

PDD: Tell us about your Sherri Travis series.


Sherri Travis is a bartender in an upscale beach bar in Jacaranda, Florida. Secrets have a way of unraveling over drinks and letting the truth seep out. Sherri pours the drinks and listens to the stories, trying to make sense of it ordinary person coping with what life sends through laughter and tears. A bar, a beach and murder, does life get any better?

For more about Phyllis and her books, visit her website.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Home Alone . . . but not like in the movie

The winner of yesterday’s drawing for a copy of THE GIFT OF MURDER is Frankenpsych. We need your name and address so we can send you the book. Please e-mail the information to

By Lonnie Cruse

Are you someone who doesn't like the sounds of silence? Someone who has to have people around or music blasting from the stereo or the television flashing picture after picture or whatever you use to keep you company?

Okay, I confess that after my last chick flew the nest, headed off to kindergarten lo those many years ago, I usually turned on Captain Kangaroo every morning . . . just for the noise, for the company. And for the memories. I eventually outgrew the Captain.

Today we live in a world of constant noise and activity. Sometimes we need a break. We need to be home . . . alone. Without people, without noise, without anything but ourselves and the sounds of silence. Time to think. Time to plan. Time to find out where we are. And more importantly, time to find out where we're going.

When we moved into the modern age with all the modern appliances, somewhere back in the thirties or forties, we lost our aloneness, maybe forever. Young people today probably don't even know what that is. We're constantly with others either in person, on the cell phone, or by watching/listening to the television/radio. We don't even seem to be able to shop at the local grocery store without chatting on the cell phone to someone. It's hard for us to to think, much less plan. Drivers who chat on cell phone are so numerous and so distracted from simply thinking, thus causing accidents, that states everywhere are passing laws against it. That should tell us something. We can't even tolerate being alone in the car.

Women who stayed home back in the day had that alone time, at least when their children were in school. So did the men, if they worked on a farm or other outdoor jobs. We've lost a lot of that alone time with this brand new world. That's not always a good thing.

We need time to sit down and be with ourselves. By ourselves. Time to ask ourselves tough questions. Where am I going? What's next in my life? Where do I want to be in the next five years? In ten years? Because those days will be here before we know it, whether we plan for them or not.

And we need time to find ourselves. We can get swept up into the current of life and wind up in places we never wanted nor planned to be. And it happens if we don't take time alone.

Today's world is busier than ever. Noise and activity are a constant fact of life. When is the last time you took some time for yourself? It's not selfish. Really it isn't. It's necessary so you can focus, make some decisions, and ultimately wind up where you want to be, not just where life pushed you. The clock is ticking!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gift of Murder Makes A Great Present

The winner of yesterday’s drawing for a copy of THE GIFT OF MURDER is SignLady217. We need your name and address so we can send you the book. Please e-mail the information to Everyone else, please note that we’re giving away a second copy today! Leave a comment on Liz’s blog and you’ll be entered in the drawing.

Elizabeth Zelvin

If we weren’t all mystery lovers, you might think that I was offering to whack your wife for Chanukah. Off your ex for Xmas. Kill a cousin for Kwanzaa (preferably the rich old cousin who’s about to take you out of his will). Thin out your in-laws for a more cheerful and less contentious holiday season. But no, you’ve already figured it out: The Gift of Murder is a book, and not just any book. It’s this year’s holiday crime anthology from Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press, all profits to benefit a worthy charity, Toys for Tots. This is the fourth annual such anthology, and it’s proven popular with both mystery writers hungry for good markets for their stories and readers happy to plunk down $15 for the combination of a good cause and a satisfying read.

Toys for Tots is a charitable program of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve that collects new, unwrapped toys for needy children in communities throughout the country, backed by a not-for-profit foundation that channels monetary donations to support the local programs. At least one author in this year’s anthology is getting the local Marines involved in an event to publicize and sell the book. All the authors, including me, are looking for creative ways to get the anthology out there between now and the holidays. The project raised more than $6,600 for the Toys for Tots Foundation in its first three years, and Tony Burton is hoping to push the cumulative figure up over $10,000 with sales of The Gift of Murder. Last year’s anthology made the 2008 bestseller list of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA), and I, for one, would be thrilled if it happened again this year.

My story, “Death Will Trim Your Tree,” had already been written when the call for submissions went out. My series protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, does what he pleases in my head and tells me what to do about it. In this case, he ordered me to write about his first sober Christmas, which had its ups and downs. Bruce starts out sitting on his friends Barbara and Jimmy’s living room floor disentangling those pesky strands of Christmas lights and cursing, while Jimmy supervises from behind his computer and Barbara, who likes to mix her holidays, makes latkes. And that’s before the murder. In the first draft, I’m afraid Bruce was using the F word—justifiably, as anyone who’s had to get those strings of lights up will agree, I’m sure. But after reading the submission guidelines, I revised it for a family audience.

This year’s editor is John Floyd, a versatile and prolific writer with 300 published short stories in the fifteen years since he retired from his day job. And I’m in great company, with twenty-one authors including Austin Camacho, Bill Crider, Peg Herring, Anita Page, Kris Neri, Randy Rawls, Barb Goffman, Gail Farrelly, and Earl Staggs, among others.

You can buy the anthology directly from the publisher at, on Amazon, and wherever the individual authors have signings or can place it. Buy one for everybody on your holiday list: the ones you love, the ones who love reading, and the ones you’ve felt like killing at least once since last year or expect to feel like killing by the time the holidays are over.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Joy of Control

By Barb Goffman, guest blogger

Hi. My name is Barb, and I have control issues.

This might be a problem for some people, but I’ve found ways to turn it to my advantage. For instance, I’m now in my second year as program chair of Malice Domestic, one of the biggest annual conventions for fans of the traditional mystery. My job involves promoting the conference, enticing authors to attend, coming up with panel ideas, and doing all the scheduling.

Most people would run away screaming at the very proposition. I embraced it.
About a year ago, I was chatting on the phone about Malice Domestic with author Pari Noskin Taichert. The conference was four months away, and I think I heard her jaw actually drop onto the floor (bam!) when I told her that I was nearly done with the programming. When Pari finally wrapped her mind around my statement and reatt
ached her jaw, she said something profound along the lines of, “Huh?”

I smiled and shared my secret. I’m a control freak. I love coming up with panel ideas and figuring which authors will sit on which ones. “Donna Andrews, not only will you talk about how being pregnant affects a character’s ability to sleuth, but you’ll do it on a panel on Saturday at 2 p.m.” I have spoken!

This upcoming year at Malice Domestic will be even better. I’ll get to order around folks like our guest of honor, Parnell Hall, our toastmaster, Rhys Bowen, and our lifetime achievement award winner, Mary Higgins Clark. (Okay, fine, nobody orders Mary Higgins Clark around. Give me my little fantasy, will ya?) And we have a lot of other biggies in the traditional mystery community coming, too, including Margaret Maron, Dorothy Cannell, Charles Todd, Nancy Pickard, and Katherine Hall Page. And I have power over them all. Bwah hah hah!!!

Since becoming Malice program chair, I’ve learned that conferences s
ometimes have a hard time getting people to agree to do the programming, much less get it done early. (Or in my case, extra early.) I find this bizarre. All you conference organizers out there, you’re definitely not looking in the right place for your program chairs. Find your local meeting of Control Freaks Anonymous and go to town. (If you’re not sure if you’re in the right place, look for me. Believe me, I’ll be there. Taking attendance.)

Can’t find a meeting? Here’s another way to look for control freaks. In books. Sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight.

My most recent short story, “The Worst Noel,” provides a perfect example. In it a woman with an overbearing mother finally breaks and decides to get her revenge against her mom and her sister during Christmas Eve dinner. (Ah, yes, crime at the holidays. So festive!) Does the mother deserve it? Well, she does have massive control issues. Did I get those details right by accident? Nope. I wrote what I knew. (Some people wonder if the mother in the story is based on my mom; unfortunately, I think she’s in part based on me!) So if you read a spot-on story or novel involving a control freak, you might have to go no farther than the author’s page to find your next conference program chair.

Even as I type these words, I find it difficult to know that I have no control over you, dear reader. I can’t force you to attend Malice Domestic, even though I know you’d love it. (C’mon, you know it, too.) And I can’t force you to buy The Gift of Murder either—that’s the anthology in which my Christmas Eve-dinner story appears. (Go to The Gift of Murder to learn more.)

But, thankfully, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.

If you register for Malice at before January 1st, you’ll be eligible to nominate books and stories published in 2009 for the prestigious Agatha Award. (Everybody’s nominations are tallied by the Agatha Committee, and the top vote-getters become the official nominees, which are announced in February.) By registering early, you’ll also get a discount. And if you’re an author I know—or want to know— by registering early, you’ll save yourself from being hounded by me. Good, I see you registering right now.

And you, reluctant readers. You’re curious about my Christmas Eve story. I can feel it. But your pile of unread books is already teetering precariously, and you fear you can’t add one more book to the pile.


Especially with me telling you that all 19 short stories in The Gift of Murder are set at the holiday season, that all 19 authors donated their stories, and that the publisher, Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press, is donating all the profits to Toys for Tots. Crime stories that benefit needy children! Have I tugged enough at your heart yet? Excellent, excellent. I see you dialing up your favorite indie bookstore at this very moment. Some of you are downloading it onto your Kindle, too.

And if none of that has worked, here’s my secret weapon: You’re all invited to comment below, sharing either your favorite memory of attending Malice Domestic or your funniest holiday memory. Everyone who shares one or the other before midnight tonight will have their names thrown in a hat, and I’ll send a signed copy of The Gift of Murder to the person whose name I pull out. Who could resist that? No one, surely. So now I know you’ll do as I say. Ahh, the joy of control.

Barb Goffman is an Agatha Award-nominated author who toils as a lawyer by day to pay the vet bills at night for her miracle dog, Scout. (He had cancer three times, but now he’s cured!) She grew up on Long Island but figures she must have been Southern in another life because half the voices she hears in her head—oops, sorry, half the characters she creates—are Southern. In addition to the short story mentioned above, Barb has had stories published in the second and third volumes of the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, and she will have a new story coming out this spring in the fourth: Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, a wonderful book with twenty tales of murder and revenge. Barb’s website is