Saturday, February 27, 2010


I didn't originally plan to write about Amy Bishop, the Alabama professor who (allegedly) shot six people, but the unfolding story has been too good to ignore. Since Amy spent quite a few years living and attending college in Massachusetts (where I live), the papers and the local news stations have been filled with background details, photographs, and anything else they could dig up–a few years too late.

For those of you who have remained happily oblivious of all this, here's a quick review of the facts. Amy Bishop was a high school student who looked like someone we all knew back then. She went to college and graduated cum laude. A year later she married. She obtained a Ph.D. from Harvard and held several post-doctoral research fellowship, a fairly normal career path. Finally in 2003 she obtained a faculty position as an assistant professor of biology in Alabama. Along the way she and her husband had four children. A normal life, and one that would be called successful by most popular standards.

This month that nice, normal woman shot six people; three of them died. And if you turn over that shiny resume and look at the dark side of Amy Bishop's history, the warning signs were always there.

1986: the peculiar death of Amy's younger brother, from a shotgun blast–a shotgun she admitted to holding when it went off. After the shooting she fled the scene and tried to take a car from a nearby auto dealership–still carrying the same gun.

Amy's mother said the shooting was an accident. That was the end of the investigation. The procedural issues are at best troubling:

–Amy and her mother, the only witnesses, were not questioned until 11 days after the event–Amy's story and that of her mother differed in significant details. –The attempted car theft was never investigated by police, nor the fact that Amy was wandering around threatening people with a loaded gun.

Now, of course, everybody who was involved–local police, state police, and the county district attorney–are pointing fingers at each other and whining, "but you never told us!" It was a paperwork problem?

1993: Amy and her husband were considered suspects in the mailing of two pipe bombs to one of Amy's then-supervisors, with whom she had argued. It was investigated, but no charges were filed. But why was she a person of interest?

1999-2003: Amy and her husband made frequent complaints about noisy neighbors and children playing, and were well known to the local police.

2002: Amy burst into a shrieking and profane rage and hit a woman at an IHOP because the woman would not give up the last infant seat. Amy was given probation and told to seek anger management counseling. There's no record that she did.

2010: Professor Amy Bishop "allegedly" opens fire at a faculty meeting at the Alabama college where she is employed, killing three and wounding three others. Her husband suggests that perhaps the fact that she had recently been denied tenure might have been a factor. It was reported that when she was arrested and escorted to a police car, she was overheard saying, "it didn't happen."

A twenty-year history of irrational and angry acts, sprinkled through a normal life: she completed a degree at Harvard, obtained and held jobs (although she fudged her resume a bit), married, had children. Her husband claims to be baffled by the most recent turn of events. This is a man who has been living with her for over twenty years. He didn't know she was capable of that kind of violence?

But you have to wonder, how does anyone maintain the facade of normalcy with that kind of anger bottled up? How did Amy hold it all together for long stretches of time, and fool so many people for so long? How do you go from being wife/mom/working woman to killer overnight? What did authorities–and her husband–miss?

I will admit when I first heard this mentioned in the news, I was incredulous. Who would believe a story like this? Then I started thinking as a writer. Okay, maybe the pacing is a bit slow, with events spread out over twenty years. But scattered along the way were clues–brief, startling glimpses of that rage, that disappeared as quickly as they had come. Maybe they looked harmless until you put them all together. As writers, we'd provide a few hints into why she was so angry, and had so few channels for expressing it, short of extreme violence. But as the reality has shown us, it was possible for everyone–authorities and family–to ignore this problem for years, until the most recent turn of events.

In a final, perverse twist, it turns out that Amy has (in her spare time?) been working on a novel–a thriller titled Amazon Fever, in which she describes a woman struggling to save her failing career while in the midst of a global pandemic. She belonged to a writing group and hoped to get it published.

I'm wondering if the publishers be fighting to print it now. What a way to make a sale.

PS. I should add that the story is nowhere near over yet. Just this morning the local paper reported a curious CSI-like twist: investigators found another clue when they enlarged a photo from the original shooting of Amy's brother, and found they could read a newspaper clipping that suggested...well, you'll just have to keep reading.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Scary is as scary does? Part Two of Sleeping With The Lights On

By Lonnie Cruse

When I worked as a substitute teacher's aide a few years back, I often subbed in the various school libraries. On Fridays, after they turned in their checked-out books, the students in one elementary school were allowed to watch a movie. They always chose a Goosebumps movie from the books written by R. L. Stine. I gotta say, the movies always scared me far more than they scared the kids. Whew. One of my grandsons is now reading that set of books, and he loves them.

The newest rage seems to be the Twilight Saga series by Stephenie Meyer. Teenager readers are devouring the books, but so are adults. I've watched the movie based on the first book, but haven't had a chance to read the series yet. Those who have read the books love them. I'm fond of vampires, particularly Bella Lugosi, so I obviously need to read the books.

My point here is that though these books are scary, they are getting young people to READ! That is always a plus. And if older readers love them as well, that's another plus!

Writers and publishers have been mourning the loss of the reading public for a long time. If vampires bring readers back to books, then that's a great thing!

Reading has been one of the biggest pleasures of my life for as long as I can remember. I can't even remember not reading. I do know that my step-mom, the teacher, got me interested in reading. I bless her memory for that. Reading takes me away to another world, particularly when I'm stressed. Reading helps relax me so I can fall asleep. Maybe that's one of the reasons I can't read really graphic books or watch really gory movies. Life is often tough enough without adding darkness to it through my reading. That's just me.

How important is reading to you? Do you share your love of reading with others by buying them books or at least gift certificates from book stores? Do you encourage your loved ones to read? Do they see you reading? Just some thoughts and suggestions from me.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

If books go paperless

Elizabeth Zelvin

Remember the vision of the paperless office? When personal computers first took off, it was predicted that the mounds of space-eating paper that any kind of business (including a writer’s personal business of writing) demands would become obsolete, as everything from corporate contracts to canceled checks was stored electronically. It didn’t happen, and not because text and images couldn’t be reproduced in electronic form. The problem was, and still is, that as the computer industry has gotten further and further entrenched in its model of competitive operating systems and rapid obsolescence, it has become impossible to count on access over time to material stored even a few years in the past.

Besides being a mystery writer, I’m a therapist who’s been seeing clients online for the past ten years. Both confidentiality and documentation are important to mental health professionals, however they work. I see clients in a secure chat room that makes transcripts accessible online only to me—and deletes them after 18 months. I recently heard from a former client who wanted me to write a letter attesting to something we’d discussed in 2007. I reviewed the entire record of his treatment so I could respond appropriately. It was available only because I’d printed out transcripts of every session at the time and kept them all in a paper file in the same kind of file cabinet I used to use in office practice.

So how about my writing records? I have manuscripts I stored up to ten years ago on floppy disks. I can read them only because my seven-year-old computer still has a floppy disk drive. Even so, some of the old disks can become corrupted, and I can’t access that material at all.

Archivists and historians are currently mourning the decline of the personal letter, which in the past has provided a huge body of source material. People don’t write letters any more. They send emails—which may be deleted on the spot by the recipient or lost when the sender changes his or her email software or simply upgrades to the next version.

The Kindle and other e-readers are evidently here to stay. Everyone who has one seems to love it. Royalties on Kindle editions seem to be competitive. And authors are enthusiastic about using it to keep their backlists available. This makes them good for both authors and readers, especially series-loving mystery readers.

So what’s the catch? Books bought in Kindle or another electronic format are accessible only as long as the device they’re stored on doesn’t become obsolete. And new versions, not to mention competing devices, are already proliferating. The computer industry has given us no reason to believe they’ll make sure books we bought for the Kindle of 2010 will be readable on the Kindle of 2015. So readers who loaded up on the complete works of Shakespeare and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone from A to U this year may have to buy these books again.

Mystery readers in particular are great re-readers. I love to take out a cherished volume in battered paperback—Gaudy Night or Brat Farrar, for example. I have a trade paper copy of Pride and Prejudice that I acquired in college fifty years ago and still dip into occasionally. I have a complete set of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances that I inherited from my Aunt Anna, who died at 96, leaving towering piles of mysteries and Harlequins. Heyer is still a favorite comfort read. I read with a bandanna spread out on my lap to catch the flakes that crumble from the brittle pages and use a rubber band to hold them together, since all the glue has vanished from the spine. But I don’t have to buy another copy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Mr. Piggles Rewrote My Book

Sandra Parshall

I thought donating naming rights for animals in one of my novels would be an easy way to contribute to charity auctions at mystery conventions and wouldn’t have any effect on the book. Because my protagonist, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian, I’ll always have animals in my books and will always be in need of names for them. I’ll just stick in the “purchased” names without changing anything, right?

To my surprise, those animal names led to some major revisions in Broken Places–all of which strengthened the story.

I first sold naming rights at Bouchercon in Baltimore in 2008. I offered to let someone name a dog. Bidding was going well enough, but it could have been better, so I spoke up and offered to throw in a cat too. This, predictably, led auctioneer Chris Grabenstein to comment on the perils of throwing a cat, but it also inspired Meg Born to raise her hand and say that if I added a guinea pig, she would pay handsomely. Sold! I did, and Meg did.

Then I thought, “Guinea pig? I don’t even have a guinea pig in the story!”

Back at home, I had to do some research about guinea pigs because I've never kept one. Unless you're a guinea pig aficionado, you would not believe how many books about these animals are in print. You would think every home in the nation harbored the cute little rodents. Anyway, after I learned a bit about the species, I realized I had
a perfect place for Mr. Piggles, Meg’s guinea pig. My hero Tom Bridger has a seven-year-old nephew, Simon, who plays a role in Broken Places. Giving Mr. Piggles to Simon allowed me to write a short scene where I could show the bond between Simon and my heroine, Rachel, as well as cast suspicion on another character. To bring Mr. Piggles to life, I used what Meg had told me about his habit of soliciting treats by lifting a tiny, empty bowl in his teeth and squeaking.

As it turned out, Meg didn’t have a cat’s name in mind, so she named two dogs instead. Again, I added animal characters I hadn’t planned for. A crusty old geezer who lives next door to two murder victims comes off as completely unsympathetic, not to mention suspicious, when he’s introduced in a scene with Tom Bridger. I didn’t want readers to make up their minds about him immediately, though. He acquired Maggie and Lisa, the dogs named by Meg. His late wife had doted on the dogs, and since her death he has pampered them out of love for her. Who could hate a guy like that?

Still working on Broken Places, I offered animal naming rights at the Malice Domestic charity auction in spring of 2009. When Marisa Young bought this auction “item” neither of us knew that she would help me make a breakthrough in a vital section of the book. The dog name Marisa donated was Cricket. I don’t want to give away too much by revealing how Cricket changed my story, but
when I was looking for a place to put her, I realized what was missing from a certain part of the book and how I could fix it. Thank you, Marisa and Cricket!

Of course, not all the animals in Broken Places were named by other people. Rachel’s African gray parrot, Cicero, and her cat Frank (who has one and a half ears) carried over from the previous book, Disturbing the Dead. Cicero was inspired by our veterinarian’s green parrot and shares a bad habit with him–a habit that saves Rachel’s life. Frank is a replica of a cat we adopted many years ago when he was a starving, beat-up stray.

Rachel’s friend Ben Hern—a murder suspect in Broken Places—is a popular cartoonist who uses his cat Hamilton and his dachshund Sebastian in his comic strip, Furballs. Hamilton is named for the handsome cat (pictured) who lived in Lelia Taylor’s Creatures ‘n’ Crooks Bookshoppe. (Hamilton is now retired from bookselling and leads a life of feline leisure.) Sebastian has a name that I just happen to like.

I may be finished with naming my own animal characters, though. The names that came to me through auctions worked minor miracles on the manuscript of Broken Places. Maybe the names I auctioned at Bouchercon in Indianapolis will work the same magic on my current project. If I’m still in need of inspiration, the next Malice Domestic auction is coming right up.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Things We Do For Love

Sharon Wildwind

Today is the big day. I’ve been asked to speak about mysteries at a library. Because the library is a bit of a drive from home, I told the program coordinator that I would speak twice, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. Then I jumped in with both feet and said that between the two sessions I’d have a mystery recommendation table.

The way I usually do this is, when someone stops by my table, I ask, “Who have you read lately that you enjoyed?” At this point I have to prepare myself not to cringe when I hear the answer because it’s likely to be, “Plain oatmeal.”

No, there isn’t a mystery author out there who, like a rap star, has renamed herself “plain oatmeal.” That’s my version of the mega-writers who are in every bookstore, have the huge end-cap displays, and show up on tons of selling-like-hotcakes lists. You can probably name a few yourself.

I have nothing against these authors, but I think it’s sad when they are the only people that a person has read. I’m reminded of a Peanut’s cartoon from decades ago. Peppermint Patty and Marcie watched the evening news. The sportscaster finished with, “. . .and that’s the sports news for tonight.” Peppermint Patty yelled at the screen, “That’s it? What about . . .” and rattled off three full panels of women athletes who had apparently not been included in the sportscaster’s report.

When I booked this gig about six months ago, I immediately got nervous. What if someone told me what they liked in a book and I couldn’t think of a single author who wrote books like that. I began compiling my lists.

First to the data base I keep for the authors I read. It’s a simple affair: author, title, protagonist, is it a series, and a star rating. I award one to five stars and, for events like this, any author who rated three stars or higher gets on the list. That gave me 4 pages of names.

Then I started my squirrel behavior, collecting lists from other people. I found Kevin Burton Smith’s list of the 100 best PIs from Mystery Scene Magazine. Good for 11 pages. Jason Pinter’s list of the 100 best mystery and crime writers from the 2009 November 4 Huffington Post produced another 4 pages. I don’t have to agree with these lists, I just have to recognize that a name on the list is a mystery author.

Then I went to the web sites for several mystery conventions, the ones that list authors who will be attending or did attend. Copy-and-paste is a great invention. In the space of a an hour I copied bunches of lists, sorted them alphabetically, deleted the duplicates and sorted again into three columns: authors I recognized, authors I vaguely recognized, and authors I’d never heard of. It constantly amazes me that the last column is always the longest. No matter how hard I try to keep up, people are getting published faster than I can keep up with them.

Now comes the mind-numbing part. Copy an author’s name I don't recognize into Google. Hope to goodness they have an easily-found web site. Tip #1: If you’re going to do have an elaborate all-singing, all-dancing entry screen, at least give me an escape button. On this pass I’m not interested in a six-minute intro, no matter how wonderful it is. Oh, yeah, turn the sound down on that intro music. I swear the music on one site could have brought down low-flying aircraft.

On each site, I try to answer these questions:

What was the first book they published?
What’s the most recent book they published?
How many books have they published?
Are they writing stand-alones or series, and if series, who is their protagonist(s)?
What location(s) are the books set in?
What the heck are they writing?

Tip #2: Is it too much to ask that the protagonist’s name and book location be in the summary?

A big-city hospital, a tortured surgeon, a medical thriller that rips the heart of out of medical ethics does not do it for me. It also makes me wonder what a doctor is doing ripping the heart out of anything.

Jot some quick notes. Move on to the next name.

I do get a couple of perks while doing this. First, I get to see a lot of web sites, and I get a good feel for what makes navigation easy. Tip #3: do not nest the list of your books inside three other folders. I only found that one by sheer persistence; I refused to believe the author would have that elaborate a web site and not list his books.

The second perk I get is to create a side-bar of authors who peak my curiosity. I’ll go back and look at them more closely later. Many of them end up on my to-be-read list.

So when I finished with this exercise, I had another 8 pages. Now that’s 4+4 +11+8 = 27 pages of author names. I’m good to go. One more quick pass. Add The Guardian’s list of the 250 books most checked out of United Kingdom libraries in 2009. Seventy-one of the books listed were by mystery or thriller writers. That adds 2 pages, for a grand total of 29.

My best finds:
Maiku Hama (Japan) by Kaizo Hayasi and Daisuke Tengan. A Japanese detective thinks he’s Mike Hammer. This is really funny if you say his name out loud.

A 1998 movie called Zero Effect, staring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller, that goes on my must-see list.

That S. J. Rosen has a new Lydia Chin and Bill Smith book out. Yes!

That C. J. Box is not a woman. I suspect that his name is not Carolyn Jane Box as I have always thought it was. I have no idea where I got that name.
Quote for the week:

Rex Stout (1886 to 1975) wrote 47 novels, 40 novellas, 5 related books, 35 short stories, and 3 edited collections featuring Nero Wolfe; 3 Tecumseh Fox books; 4 stand-alone paperback novels; and 9 stand-alone hardback novels. He edited multiple omnibuses and collections.

[What I want to know is did he sleep?]
Images used in the poster are public domain clip art.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Elephants: Writers And Good Luck Charms

by Julia Buckley
Somehow a herd of elephants has gathered on the top of my computer monitor. I did not really seek them out, but one by one they appeared there, most likely because I read that elephants, as superstition would have it, are lucky. The fellow pictured here is a remnant from a toy circus train that belonged to my sons. I'm not normally sentimental about toys, and vast quantities of them have been sent out in bags and boxes to please children elsewhere. But this elephant stayed, because he has an important feature: a raised trunk. According to this website, the elephant is one of many popular good luck charms which transcend time and culture. The elephant's connection to good luck goes back to the Hindu god Ganesha, who is called The Remover of Obstacles. The elephant as a good luck symbol has become popular in North America and Europe.

According to legend, it is only the elephant with the raised trunk who is lucky. I didn't know that when I bought this big-eared fellow at a toy store. I find him lucky anyway. His tiny friend was supposed to be a good luck charm for my son on his first day of school; I learned instead that my son is neither superstitious nor sentimental. I reclaimed the tiny elephant from the floor where it ended up, and on the computer it went. :)

The purple elephant is a souvenir of my first and only Bouchercon; Jess Lourey and I were strolling the street bazaar in Madison, Wisconsin, and we came across these whimsical little creatures. I purchased one for me and one for her--do you still have your elephant, Jess?

I'm fairly certain, though, that it is not only I who indulges in good luck charms; ever since I found a four-leaf clover in the grass of my back yard as a little girl, I've connected the notion of the charm to the idea of fate. My friend Kathi, a YA writer, lights candles before she writes and says a prayer to the goddess of creativity. Certain trinkets in her office are symbolic of fruitfulness and success. Without her symbols and her ritual, she feels she would be less in tune with her creative self. (Her first novel, Shattered, came out last year).

There are many talented writers out there who still believe, I am convinced, that a little bit of luck is all they need to get that talent noticed by the right people. So my question to our audience of writers and readers is--what are your good luck charms? And on what do you rely to channel the creative spirit?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Canada Calling: Linda Kupecek

Linda Kupecek is a Canadian writer who started her career as an actor, and eventually shifted into writing. She is a produced playwright, an award winning screenwriter, and the author of four books, the first of which, Rebel Women: Achievements Beyond the Ordinary (Heritage House, 2003) is a Canadian bestseller.

So how was the launch?

A huge success! The store ran out of books and had to take orders. A jazz musician showed up with his trombone and played while I signed! It was fabulous! I would say it was one of the happiest nights of my entire life.

Congratulations. As a brand-new mystery novelist, what's most on your mind right now about writing?

Deadlines. Word count. Promotion of Deadly Dues. Excitement over opportunity.

I am at a very colourful moment in my life, where everything is vivid and alive. I am excited about the release of Deadly Dues, hopeful that more than three people buy it (this is likely, as I have at least five cousins). I am working on the next book in the Lulu Malone mystery series, Trashing the Trailer.

Honestly, I never dreamed would end up writing a mystery series. Many people who knew me in my youth probably would have seen me as writing deep, profound stuff (and who knows, some day lightning might strike and I will) but now I realize I prefer a banana peel to a bed of nails. I am just not into gore, torture and suffering. I love to laugh, and I love to make other people laugh.

I started out as an actor, and one of my most satisfying gigs ever was in a dinner theatre production of The Female Odd Couple, where I played one of the scrabble players. Doesn't sound like much, but I still smile at the memory of the waves of laughter from the audience at some of my antics. Of course, I have done more serious work as an actor, including a supporting role in the Robert Altman revisionist western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I am having a lot of fun writing, riffing on Lulu's antics in the style of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (a book I highly recommend) and then pulling back and working that into the structure of the plot.

For Deadly Dues, I didn't storyboard until the final stages, when my wonderful editor Frances Thorsen (who owns Chronicles of Crime bookstore in Victoria, B.C.) and I figured out the days and timelines. This time, I have started the storyboarding much earlier. For me, it helps. It's the difference between staring at the ceiling with a bunch of cinnamon almonds in my mouth, pinkies over the keyboard like claws, trying to remember just what has already happened, and being able to look at a mini-storyboard beside me and find my place. I balance it on a music stand, because I have a tendency to ilio tibial band syndrom, never having the presence of mind to stand up and walk around the room every twenty minutes while I am writing.

Do you have any obsessions?

I fret over details. I am generally terrified of technology, even though I have the requisite number of electronic gadgets, some of which I know I’m not helping achieve their potential. I hate having to look up instructions for simple things, like changing an ink cartridge (and they will run out, won't they?)

I dream about the clutter in my office, worrying that I am turning into one of the cases in Hoarders, yet don't do anything about it. Because I am too busy writing, right? I have over 7000 emails in my Inbox, some since 2005, and don't know what to do with them. On the plus side, I recently had to find an email so that I could address the work I need to do on an expanded version of my first non-fiction book, Rebel Women: Achievements Beyond the Ordinary, and was Very Glad Indeed that I was such a pack rat that I found what I needed. So every foible has a silver lining. Or so I hope.

Do you have any outside interests that tie into what you're writing?

I am a collector of vintage buttons, costume jewellery, compacts, perfume bottles, and golden age holiday postcards. I hope to write a mystery utilizing that knowledge some day. In Deadly Dues, Lulu is a casual collector, with a condo-full of great vintage finds. I have written a non-fiction manuscript on collecting things Canadian, which has yet to find a publisher.

I studied classical piano when I was a teenager, and sometimes muse that I could turn that experience into something entertaining. I have served on many regional and national boards and executives, and this gave me an opportunity to see the worst and best of people from diverse backgrounds.

And I love junking. There is a great book, called American Junk, [PDD note: the author of American Junk seems to be away junking right now, but we've included a link anyway.] which inspires one to get out there to the thrift stores and flea markets, and have fun!

And really, that is what I want to do, in my writing and my life - have fun!

To learn more about Linda and her books, visit her brand new site or Lulu Malone’s site. And check out the sultry trailer for Deadly Dues, which will be on YouTube within the next week. Radio fans can listen to the upcoming interview on CKUA radio Sunday Feb. 21st, at 12:30 MST or check out the Bookmark archives.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Four and Twenty Blackbirds? Sleeping With The Lights On, Part One

By Lonnie Cruse

On a recent cold winter morning here in Southern Illinois our front yard was covered with large black dots. Blackbirds to be exact. Zillions of them. This happens now and then. The birds are hunting for food. They usually appear like this when a storm is predicted, though one is not predicted for this week. Still, the birds usually know more than the weatherman so I'm keeping an eye on the sky.

The sight of the birds reminded me of the movie, THE BIRDS. If you saw it, you know how scary it is. The Hitchcock version, of course. Nobody does it like Hitch. Then there is the Agatha Christie mystery, POCKET FULL OF RYE. It features blackbirds in part of the mystery. This got me thinking about master writers and movie makers. They can take simple things in life, like Blackbirds, and turn them into something that makes us sleep with the lights on for several days. Murder weapons you and I probably would never think of.

Don't know about you, but I check out binoculars very carefully before I look through them ever since I saw a movie where binoculars were used in a particularly nasty way to murder a woman. You know the one I mean? Came out in the fifties, still scares the daylights out of me to think of it. Ewwww!

How about the frozen roast used in a Roald Dahl story to kill someone, then baked and turned into dinner and served to the investigating officers? That has to be one of the best unusual weapons ever to appear in fiction. Sigh.

My point here is that some authors don't have to use guns or knives or ropes or poison to kill off a character. They use everyday items to do the job. Items that are generally thought to be safe. Birds or binoculars or things like that.

What's the most unusual murder weapon used in a book or movie that you can think of? Care to share? Do authors even use unusual weapons in today's mysteries?

Most important, will I have to sleep with the lights on tonight? Sleeping with the lights on, part two, next Friday. See you then!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Horses Don’t Need Words, Do They?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that horses can count, right? At least some of them, those who are trained to do so. I had a revelation one day while doing reps on my exercise ball about how horses can count without having language for the numbers. In my advancing age, I get hit with occasional aphasia. But I've noticed that I can keep track of the count even when I temporarily can't remember "thirty-five, thirty-six" etc. If you want to experience the way horses count (or rather the way I think they do), try counting in groups of three, then groups of four, then groups of five, using only grunts and nodding your head if you like. It seems to help the horses:
uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh
uh-uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh-uh
uh-uh-uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh-uh-uh

People, however, unless counting in groups, do need words to express the complexities of the human condition. I always get a kick out of hearing a parent try to help a screaming toddler regain control by saying, “Use your words.” It’s one of those concepts, like “time out,” that hadn’t yet become part of the parenting repertoire when I was a kid. But it makes perfect sense. In fact, I haven’t minded hearing a very young child scream, or not as much as I used to, since I truly got it that the screams express frustration that the child would be able to articulate if only his or her language skills were up to the task—as they soon will be in most cases.

Having honed my ability to express myself in words over a period of more than sixty years, I am appalled and furious that some of those words are starting to slip away. It seems to be a combination of dementia and aphasia—memory loss and loss of actual words—as I pass through my sixties. I hate the fact that it’s happening and fear it getting worse, especially if I live into my nineties, like my parents and aunts on both sides.

Nothing makes me madder than some “expert” claiming that my generation’s memory loss is reversible, if we’ll only keep our minds active and reduce the stress in our lives. In the past ten years I’ve learned to use a computer with enough skill to make my living on it in two different careers (therapist and writer); honed and expanded my clinical skills, which I didn’t start acquiring till age forty; written four novels and eight short stories and learned the craft of editing fiction with increasing sophistication; learned and applied another body of new skills, those of book promotion; and used words to treat clients, maintain friendships, and keep up meaningful connections with a vast network of people all over the world. Is my brain active? You bet.

As for stress, I’m already doing all I can. I do my best to live one day at a time, without futile obsessing about the past or the future. I run or exercise daily. I meditate. I’m keenly aware that self-care must come before helping others—though I do a lot of helping others both professionally and personally—because if I’m running on empty, I’m no use to anyone. And as best I can, I avoid toxic people and situations. But hey, I live in New York City in the 21st century. Stress is endemic.

Yet at sixty-five, I can’t deny that aphasia is setting in. Some of it is a matter of slow retrieval, as if my hard drive is wearing out. I come up with the word I need—two days after the conversation in which I needed it. Some of it, as a friend pointed out recently, may be because my hard drive is getting full. I certainly have uploaded a lot of information to my poor old brain by this stage of my life.

One way people differ from computers is that for us, the older data is more accessible, not less. I recently had to relearn from scratch the lyrics of two dozen songs I wrote myself, most of them in the 1990s or later. Yet I can still remember every word of Tom Lehrer’s lyrics (along with quite a few members of DorothyL who have also been around since he recorded them) and the songs I sang in Girl Scout camp.

So what can I do about it? Use my words as much as I can to keep them sharp and polished. Go on exercising and meditating and remember not to volunteer for any committees. Take my vitamins and supplements (though it’s getting harder to remember on a daily basis if I did or not). And if all else fails, count like a horse.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Everyday Miracle of Language

Sandra Parshall

If you’re reading a writer’s blog, reading is probably an important part of your life. Maybe you’re like me – you’re compelled to fill idle moments with words, and your eyes seek out print wherever you are. If you forget to take a book to the doctor’s office, you’ll read six-month-old issues of People and Sports Illustrated in the waiting room. Anything will do, as long as you can read.

Writing and reading are uniquely human activities, unlike language itself. Most animals have some sort of language, a way of communicating with others of their species. Dogs bark, cats meow, monkeys screech to alert others to danger, birds
sing or call to attract mates, claim territory, sound alarms. Honey bees “talk” to each other with dance-like movements that identify the locations of good foraging spots. One way or another, animals communicate with other animals.

Humans, however, are the only animals that can write and read our languages. How did our species develop the ability to preserve and pass on information by using marks on a page? What goes on inside our brains when we read those little marks? And what do tree branches have to do with reading?

You won’t be surprised to learn that this subject has been studied in depth – we’re also the only animals who examine their own behavior to find out what makes themselves tick.

French cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dahaene, author of Reading in the Brain,
is one of the most prominent researchers into the neuroscience of reading. He talks about his discoveries and observations in an interview in the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind. When we read, regardless of the language, we all use a region of the brain in the left hemisphere that Dahaene has nicknamed “the letterbox” – the visual word-form area. The “letterbox” is part of a larger brain area that helps us recognize objects, faces, and scenes and is especially attuned to natural shapes in the world around us. When humans began writing their languages, they created symbols – letters – using shapes the brain already knew.

Every written language on earth uses the same basic shapes drawn from nature. For example, if you look up at a tree, you’ll see the “Y” shape over and over. Keep looking and you’ll see all the angles, curves, and circles that people have woven into their written languages.

The marks we call letters have no inherent meaning, either alone or combined with other marks to form what we call words. They mean whatever we say they do. When children learn to read, they’re actually learning to decipher a form of code – grasping the idea that each “word” represents an object or an abstract concept – and learning to do it so rapidly that it becomes automatic. That’s a monumental achievement for a little kid, don’t you think? And yet the vast majority of children are able to do it early in life.

The next time you see a kid reading something, whether it’s a novel or a comic book or a web page, take a minute to appreciate this everyday miracle and to remember, if you can, the excitement you felt when learning to read opened up the whole world of written language for you.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Sharon Wildwind

My brother started this by e-mailing me that Pernell Roberts, the actor who played Adam Cartwright on the TV show, Bonanza, had passed away.

Then my husband found a recording of Lorne Greene, Pa Cartwright himself, singing the words to the Bonanza theme. Apparently this version was used only in the first episode, then they decided to use an instrumental version.

This was a totally new set of words for me, familiar as I was with the Johnny Cash version. I always loved that twangy guitar introduction and bridge.

A little time on YouTube this morning—okay, far too much time on YouTube—unearthed this German version. Not speaking German, I have no clue what the words are in this one, but my brother and I agree that this one captures the Bonanza spirit we remember. Apparently, Bonanza was and is hugely popular in Germany.

From time-to-time on this blog, I’ve confessed to being enamored of various television characters. I have to admit that Adam (played by Pernell Roberts) was my favorite Cartwright son. By the time Roberts left the show in 1965, I was old enough to understand what a contract dispute was, but I was also completely willing to accept Adam going east to college. I thought he’d make a fine engineer and architect. I imagined a full, interesting life for him, traveling around the world on engineering projects.

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

The plots on Bonanza were—let’s be kind—often not up to the rigorous discipline I aspire to in my own writing. It was a foregone conclusion that any woman who became involved with Cartwright pére or fils would, by the end of the show, either be dead or have urgent business on the other side of the world. While they did make a token attempt to present conflicts based on racial intolerance, the resolutions always rested too much on the come join our melting-pot and be just like the rest of us for my liking. I was glad that the family had prospered and accepted that they’d worked hard for what they had, that did not give them, in the words of one version of the theme song “the right to pick a little fight.” Might didn’t make right, even on the Ponderosa.

And yet, I get nostalgic for life on the ranch. Perhaps it was the gorgeous scenery. Or maybe the equally gorgeous scenery of sweaty men and horses. Or that comforting myth that no matter what happens in the rest of the world, family will always comfort you, and there will always be food on the table.

I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately. About how we need that golden revery for things that we know darn well were made of baser materials. About how we get stuck in one time, in one place. There’s even a term for it, immobility of fragmentation. It means that when we move away from a place, what we expect to find when we return is that that place is just as it was when we left.

Is nostalgia a trap? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea to play with. I’m keen to write a mystery where nostalgia is the motive for murder. Maybe I’ll even find room in the story for a character name Adam. For old times sake.

Quotes for the week
Fortune smiled the day we filed the Ponderosa claim.
~Bonanza theme song, sung by Lorne Green

Our birthright is this Cartwright.
~Bonanza theme song, sung by Johnny Cash

Canada Calling: Barbara Fradkin

This blog is being reposted because trying to correct a technical glitch erased it from the memory banks. My apologies to Barbara for deleting her. This blog first appeared on December 27, 2007.

Barbara Fradkin is a Canadian author whose work as a child psychologist provides plenty of inspiration for murder. She has a fascination for how we turn bad. Although she has had two dozen short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, she is best known for her two-time Arthur Ellis awarding-winning series featuring impetuous, quixotic Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green, whose passion for justice and love of the hunt often interfere with family, friends and police protocol.

PDD: You say right up front on your web site that you have an affinity for the dark side, and your books certainly reflect dark issues: Holocaust survivors, child molestation, families that come apart, young athletes and drugs. Your books are moving and thoughtful, without being wrist-slittingly depressive. How do you manage that balance of tacking serious subjects without overwhelming a good story?

One of the reasons I write mysteries is that I love to explore the complex stories of real people’s lives. People are messy, multi-layered and contradictory, and the deeper you delve, the less clear the judgment of right and wrong, good and bad. So in the midst of tragedy there is inspiration and hope. I’m a naturally upbeat and hopeful person; without that optimism you’d be of no use in the helping profession.

At the same time, I realize that writing is a catharsis for me. I write about issues that trouble me, about people whose dark stories need to be told. Writing allows me to turn a spotlight on those issues from all sides, and even though there are no “happily ever after” endings or neat solutions to the complexities, I do get to play God just a little and find the best possible solution under the circumstances.

I also know that my first job as a mystery writer is to create vivid characters and spin a good story. Chapter after chapter of wrist-slitting depression will not keep people turning the pages. In fact, it wouldn’t keep me writing the pages; it would drive me to drink! It also helps that I created a sleuth who’s easy to spend time with. Inspector Green is like me, a bit jaded and cynical after all he’s seen, but still optimistic he can make a difference. Green is a restless, rebellious rogue struggling to have a normal home life. He has humor and passion. It’s hard to stay depressed when he’s nattering at you all day.

PDD: The importance of "wilderness" in Canadian books has been debated for centuries. Michael Green, your detective, is unapologetically "city." He was born and raised in Ottawa and he gets a little nervy when he has to move to the suburbs. What part does the city of Ottawa play in your books and short stories?

Canada is like the quiet guy in the corner whom everyone judges on the surface but who has hidden marvels once you look beyond the stereotypes. It’s true that Canada’s wilderness – and our weather! – are the first thing people think of, but most of Canada is urban and cosmopolitan. But even our cities suffer from stereotypes. Montreal is exotic, Toronto is diverse, and Ottawa… well, that’s the land of gray suits and taxes. I’m a Montrealer born and raised and have also lived in Toronto, but I’ve come to know and love all the back streets and neighborhoods of Ottawa through my years as an itinerant school psychologist. It’s well worth a deeper look.

My short stories are set all over the place but my Green novels are all set in contemporary Ottawa. It’s a perfect mystery setting – big enough to have wealth and poverty, biker gangs, homelessness, diverse immigrant groups, and a lively cultural scene, yet small enough that all the homicides would be handled by the same close-knit detective squad and Green could be reasonably expected to know the details of every ongoing case. Within Ottawa’s jurisdiction there are crumbling highrises, parliament buildings, exclusive enclaves, country villages and rural farms, all of which provide enough diversity for endless stories. Plus the geography is spectacular. Three rivers, a lake and a canal to drown people in, bridges and cliffs to throw them off, and an intricate maze of naturalist parks woven throughout the city where a body could be stashed for days. My latest book, Dream Chasers, starts on the cliffs of Hog’s Back Falls, virtually in the middle of the city but as wild and dangerous as any wilderness setting.

PDD: Tell me about your historical short stories, featuring an Ottawa doctor modeled on your great-grandfather.

There are six so far, published in various magazines and anthologies and featuring a newly minted family physician named Dr. David Browne. Some would be hard to find now, but I hope to publish them as a collection when I have enough. The first was set in Montreal, where David Browne grew up, but he had to leave there after alienating the establishment, and he moved up to Ottawa. The timeframe is the 1870’s just after Confederation, when Ottawa was trying to transform itself from a brawling lumber town to a civilized seat of national government. It was a dramatic time, with rapid changes in social structures, medicine, industry and technology which in some ways mirror today. Each story deals with a different social theme which would have been prominent at the time, and I research the period carefully in an attempt to be accurate. I find it fascinating to write about social issues such as ethnic hatreds and the treatment of the mentally ill, which although vastly different back then, still grapple with the same basic questions we do today.

My great-grandfather, Dr. Fraser Gurd, was a legend in the family, who lived into his 90’s and helped implement enormous changes to medical practice in Montreal, yet stayed true to his simple immigrant roots and never turned a patient away. I have a photo of him in his horse-drawn sleigh, covered in a buffalo robe as he made his house calls. I thought he was the kind of hero worth writing about; hence Dr. David Browne was born. Like my great-grandfather, he was a child of Irish peasants who fled the potato famine in Ireland and landed in Montreal to face disease and death, abject poverty and rampant prejudice. Both Browne and my great-grandfather had fathers who were haunted by the traumas they’d endured and who drowned their pain in alcohol, and both were supported through medical school by older brothers who made money as entrepreneurs during the industrial boom. In my latest story, called “Roads to Redemption” in Sue Pike’s anthology Locked Up, Dr. Browne and his father finally reconcile. Dr. Browne is not a crusader or a social activist; he is a gentle, unassuming young man with a strong sense of obligation to his patients. That, together with his determination and sense of fair play, embroils him in numerous cases where social justice – and the mores of the time - are found lacking.

PDD: You're a member of the infamous Ottawa Ladies Killing Circle. Can you talk a little about how they got started, and what they are up to now?

Infamous, are we? Chico’s and outlet malls beware! The group actually started about fifteen years ago when some local romance writers decided they were much preferred murder to romance. They invited a couple more writers to form a critiquing group. The original six members were Sue Pike, Linda Wiken, Vicki Cameron, Joan Boswell, Mary Jane Maffini and Audrey Jessup. When Audrey died a few years ago, I was invited to join.

Early on, the group discovered there were few markets for the mystery short stories they were writing, so they decided to put together their own anthology and find a publisher. I was invited to contribute, and when the anthology, The Ladies Killing Circle, came out in 1995, I had two stories in it – my very first publications ever! The publisher was so pleased with the result that he asked for another, this time with a theme. Now, twelve years later, there have been six anthologies, each with a different theme, and they have become one of the most important short story markets for Canadian female mystery writers. As well, they have been instrumental in launching the writing careers of several authors, including the LKC members themselves.

Now, the Ladies Killing Circle is much more of a friendship circle than a mere critiquing group, and when we travel together, we share lots of laughs, wine and good food along with shopping advice, wanted or otherwise. We have just put the finishing touches on the next anthology entitled Going out with a Bang, which is now in the hands of the editors and should hit the shelves in the Fall of 2008. After that, who knows?

Visit Barbara and her books at

Canda Calling returns next year, with a new line up from sea to sea to sea.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Men Pack Light

by Julia Buckley

When my younger son Graham was four, he would often get fed up with our rules and decide to leave home. This involved some dramatic (and cute) posturing and a stomping trip to his room, where he would pack in about five seconds and come out with his little bag, ready to face the world alone. Generally the bag consisted of all of the underwear in his top drawer and one stuffed animal. I would ask him how he would get along with just underwear, and he would wave my ridiculous question aside.

Then I would wish him well and let him go.

His older brother Ian, a sensitive child of six or seven, never could accept the fact that Graham was just blowing off steam; that he would merely go down about two houses and then end up in our back yard sandbox. Ian would chase after Graham, tears flowing down his face, begging his little brother not to go.

This fed into Graham’s sense of power and drama, and he would go even farther down the block with his built-in brother safety net.

These occasions are ironic now in many respects. First, my sensitive Ian is now a callous youth who would be the first to suggest that his younger sibling should leave and not return. Second, the packing skills of my sons have changed not at all.

The two of them went on an overnight to their cousin’s house this weekend. I reminded my older son several times to pack. “We’re leaving soon,” I told him.

“Okay. One second,” Ian said, examining his phone or laptop or whatever else absorbs his attention these days. “One second” in boy language means “Stop bothering me.”

“Ian! You need to pack. You’re running out of time.”

With a sigh, my fifteen-year-old stood and glided into his room. He emerged thirty seconds later with a bag. “Done,” he said.

“You are not. You could not possibly be finished,” I told him in disbelief.

His little brother appeared with a similar bag. “Finished packing,” he said brightly.

“Let me see.”

The contents of a boy’s bag are a minimalist’s dream: pants, shirt, socks, underwear.

“Did you remember your toothbrush?” I asked suspiciously.


“What about pajamas?”

“Gonna wear this as pajamas.” He gestured to his sweats and T-shirt.

“Well, okay. If you think that’s all you need.” I remembered packing for them when they were little. It took me forever. Making lists, checking off items, double-checking to make sure no scenario went unconsidered: rain, snow, heat, cold. Different shoes, spare socks, light jacket, warm coat.

Now the boys had streamlined the process to a sort of shipwrecked mentality–what they had on their backs, and the first few things they could grab.

When they got home, their clothes soaking wet from a recent snowball fight, I tried to prove that this method wasn’t workable. I asked my youngest, “When you got there, was there something you didn’t have that you wished you’d packed?”

“Yeah,” he said after a moment of thought. “Something I wanted, but didn’t really need.”

“What was that?”

“My fake tattoos.”

My husband assures me that men pack light; that they streamline their lives to minimize stress.

I think I might have to try it, rather than to continue despairing over endless details. Grocery list? Who needs one? I’ll just get what’s on my mind at the moment: chocolate and a scented candle. :)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guest Blogger Kaye Barley sends Valentine wishes . . .

By Kaye Barley

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I love email.

I love the internet.

I love Facebook and blogs and DorothyL.

Staying in touch with friends has always been important to me, but I’m probably one of those really annoying people who takes it all a step too far by constantly sending everyone “stuff” I think they really need to see. Snippets of information, pictures, or those funny captioned dogs and cats from I can has cheezburger? or I has a hotdog (I love those!).

I do not like email chain letters. When they first started hitting my computer, I continually fell for the line that said “If you send this to 300,000 people you’ll get a surprise on your screen.” I never ever did see that surprise. Did you? Did anyone?! What WAS it??!

And while I love all the immediate gratification of instant communication, I miss long newsy letters showing up in my mailbox. My “real” mailbox. The one the snowplow knocks over at least once a year.

And I miss those silly little valentine cards.

Remember when you were in school and would exchange valentines with your classmates?

Weren’t they the cutest?!

And there was always a special one for the boy you “liked.”

They didn’t always make any sense . . . .

And, like a lot of things back then, they weren’t always politically correct (but they certainly never hurt anyone) . . .

They were just fun

UNLESS – you didn’t get a valentine back from that boy you liked.

You either love or hate Valentine’s Day. There are the romantics who love it, and there are those who are of a mind that Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays made up by florists and greeting card manufacturers to take their money.

I love it.

I don’t expect presents on Valentine’s Day. Don’t have to have candy or flowers. But ohhhhhh – if there’s not a valentine card somewhere around the house with my name on it, I am going to be one very unhappy woman.

I’ll be tickled pink if I receive all the valentines imaginable over the internet from friends. My girlfriends are always able to come up with funny and clever things that do make me laugh, or smile, or even cry, and I love that.


Donald Scott Barley better never ever never send me a virtual valentine in lieu of the real thing. Nuh uh. And if it happens, well – y’all will hear about it. For real.

As silly as it may be, I would be crushed.

You knew that, didn’t you?

How about you guys? Do you love Valentine’s Day or hate it? Not give it a thought? Do you expect candy, flowers and a card? All of the above? None of the above? Will you, like me, pitch a hissy if you don’t receive a Valentine Card?

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Thanks to the wonderful women at Poe’s Deadly Daughters for having me here!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reading habits, a few nosy questions from me . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

How many books did you read last year? Did you keep count? Keep a list?

MY ANSWERS: I USED to keep a list but didn't this year. It's pretty easy to check what I read on my Kindle because Amazon keeps a list of books I download. Don't know how many paperback or hardback books I read. I know I read a lot. Hope to read more this year.

What are your answers?

What was your fave new read for 2009? Did you pick up any new books by the same author based on that experience?

MY ANSWERS: My fave was PRAYERS FOR SALE By Sandra Dallas. Yes, I picked up her entire set of books (I say "set" not "series" because each of her books stands alone, she doesn't repeat characters or settings) because I love her writing. She's not a mystery author, however.

In the mystery genre, my fave was anything by Donna Andrews, particularly the two I read in '09 that I hadn't collected before, I have a third on my TBR pile, and I'm nagging her on the Internet to write faster. She actually wrote an e-mail response to me saying she's typing as fast as she can. Gotta love that woman.

Did you re-read any books last year? Will you do any re-reads this year?

MY ANSWER: Yes, I re-read some Agatha Christies. They are my comfort read and while I have them all in an air-tight box in the shed (yes, I know I should be ashamed to leave her in the shed) I'm also downloading them to my Kindle from Amazon because they are cheap and I love re-reading Christie. I also re-read WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson (for the third time!) I'm not much into re-reading because I have soooo many interesting looking books in the house, on shelves and downloaded to my Kindle, that I can not possibly live long enough to read them all. I gotta keep plugging away on that TBR pile. But every now and then I need to re-visit an old fave.

What are your answers?

If you hope to read more this year than you did last year, given that you'll have the same amount of days, hours, and minutes as you had then, how will you pull it off?

MY ANSWER: I plan to MAKE the time. I've learned that if I leave anything until I "have" the time, it never happens. I have to MAKE the time, time for family, time for friends, time for writing, time for researching, time for crafts, and time for reading. Using my Kindle, carrying a book with me, reading before I go to sleep, taking time to slip off to the sun porch and stretch out and read . . . those are all part of the plan.

What are your answers?

I hope that all of us find more time to read more books this year, and better books than ever before. I hope libraries find funding to stay alive and provide all of us with much needed services, and I hope all of us remember to support our local libraries. I hope the publishing industry comes to grips with some of the outdated practices of printing and publishing books and embraces instead some newer ways of publishing that save paper (think trees) and costs less. I hope that more and more publishers convert their books to e-books at cheaper prices so Kindle owners (and owners of other e-readers) can afford them. I hope that more new writers find their way into print and that my favorite authors STAY in print, with new books for me to devour. Last of all, I hope your reading experience is even better and more fulfilling for you than any year in the past. And I hope that you will keep reading PDD and sharing your thoughts with us.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Elizabeth Zelvin

Although they called it a classic nor’easter, New York City was undeterred by yesterday's dramatically anticipated snow. Leonardo the plasterer (yep, that’s his name, and the super says he’s a Leonardo of plastering) arrived on time from his home in the Bronx to fix the ceiling of my shower, which had been shedding plaster dust on my head, if not accumulating in drifts, every time I took a shower. Traffic was moving outside my window (and seven stories down) on my street on the Upper West Side. Dogs and pedestrians were out and about. I was a little disappointed.

Last week, when areas further south and west got buried, we got no snow at all. This time, it started to fall later than expected. That’s why the city didn’t get anywhere near immobilized.
The predicted time was midnight, when very little is moving and the snow accumulates on the street as well as the sidewalk with only a few buses and taxis to tamp it down as it falls. If that had happened, we would have woken to a winter wonderland, even if it didn’t last all day.

The large institution where my husband works, a thirty-block walk for him and inaccessible to his co-workers when transportation from the suburbs and the outer boroughs becomes a problem, made the decision to be closed on Wednesday in advance, to his relief. More often, he has to trudge to work at the beginning of a blizzard and then fight his way back when it gets worse and they send everybody home. We could have celebrated the snow day by sleeping late—if the plasterer hadn’t arrived bright and early.
We could have spent the day in our cozy apartment staying warm and dry—if my printer hadn’t decided this Tuesday was a good day to die. So we bundled up and trekked the half mile to Staples (remember that shopping in Manhattan does not involve a car), got immediate service, and staggered back home with a spiffy new all-in-one. We even managed to install it and get it to work wirelessly.

By four in the afternoon, the storm was still raging, the snow was piled higher on the parked cars along our street,
the rooftops, and the trees in the hidden gardens tucked away behind the brownstones and apartment buildings of New York.

Today, the sun is shining. I may put on my boots and take a walk in Central Park, where the snow will be pristine—for about five minutes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fingers That Don't Leave Prints

Sandra Parshall

Did you know that your job, your medication, or simply growing older could cause you to lose your fingerprints?

I thought (as most people do, probably) that fingerprints were forever, unless they were cut off or removed with acid, but an article in the February issue of Scientific American points out various commonplace circumstances that can alter or eradicate prints. Science writer Katherine Harmon gathered the information from experts in the field.

I am, of course, interested in this topic only as an author writing about crime. If I want to write about a character whose fingers leave no prints, how can I make it believable?

Harmon reports in her article that it’s not unusual for bricklayers to wear away their prints if they routinely handle rough materials without gloves. Handling lime can burn away prints. The most startling news is that secretaries can lose their prints by handling paper all day. This makes sense, though: paper, after all, is made from wood, and it’s not as smooth as it looks. It produces enough friction, over time, to wear down the ridges on fingertips.

If I don’t want my character to be a bricklayer or a secretary, I can give him or her a bad case of poison ivy on the hands. Rashes can remove prints – temporarily. If only the surface layer of skin is affected, it will regenerate quickly, complete with prints.

I could give my character a history of cancer treatment. Some cancer drugs can cause chemotherapy-induced acral erythema – swelling, pain and peeling of skin from the hands and the soles of the patient’s feet. Fingerprints will peel off. Annals of Oncology reported in May 2009 that a man from Singapore who had undergone chemotherapy was detained briefly on a trip to the U.S. after a routine security scan showed that he had no fingerprints.

Making the character a person of a certain age might also work. Growing old may not obliterate prints, but it can make them difficult to capture. As skin ages, the ridges on the fingertips become less prominent and the furrows become narrower, so prints will be less distinctive.

Forget about mutilation with acid or a knife – the prints might be gone, but the unique scars left behind will be every bit as incriminating.

My internet research into the possibility of changing or removing one’s fingerprints turned up a lot of sites that suggested sanding them off. But if mutilation, illness, occupation and age don’t fit the story, the simplest approach may be having the character cover his or her prints by applying a polyurethane glue such as Elmer's Ultimate. It may be uncomfortable after it dries, though, and no solvent will remove the stuff. Sooner or later it will wear off. The big advantage is that the glue is invisible and the fingers will look normal. No one will suspect a thing.

Good to know.

You can read Katherine Harmon’s article here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Signed and Delivered

Sharon Wildwind

I found out recently that book signings are a recent innovation. Their heyday began after World War II when a combination of cheap railroad fares and a plethora of newspapers meant that publishers could send their authors touring around the country, making be interviewed-sign books-get on the train whistle stops.

Signings were not popular with readers. There are stories of lines of book buyers forming across the street from a bookstore where the author was scheduled to appear. From time to time they sent one of their number into the bookstore to see if the author had left the building so they could come in and purchase books unimpeded by the prospect of actually having to meet the author.

Times change.

Last week I was in a sewing store. A couple came in to sign up for classes. The owner introduced us and said, “Sharon is an author.” “Oh, what do you write?” “Mysteries.” “We love mysteries. Can we have your autograph?”

Since they didn’t look the type to sell my signature on-line or riffle my bank account, I took out one of the postcards for my latest book, wrote a short message, signed it, and handed it to them. “This is so exciting,” the woman said, clutching the card to her chest. “We’ve never met an author before.”

A friend of mine received an e-mail from a widow, who wrote that her health and reduced circumstances prevented her from having many treats, but that she so enjoyed reading every one of my friend’s books, which she borrowed from her local library. If my friend would only send her an autographed photo, she would treasure it forever.

The message arrived on a bad day—or a good day, depending on your sense of humor. My friend wrote back that she was thrilled to hear from one of her fans, and that since she hadn’t actually had a book published yet, she was delighted to know that some would be and that time travel, at least for e-mails, had been perfected. In exchange for the photo, would the woman please send back a list of all of her published works, and the dates of publication, so that she could share the joyous news with her agent? End of messages.

The most helpful piece of advice I’ve received about signings is to
1. Ask the person to spell their name. (How do you spell Marie?)
2. Confirm the spelling. (That’s M-A-R-I-E, right?)
3. Ask them if they want the book signed to them, at which point they will likely respond, “Oh, no, this is for Uncle Harold.” At which point you go back to step one. (How does Uncle Harold spell his name?”)

At a successful book signing, you can while away an afternoon doing this.

Here are other pieces of advice I’ve received from various sources:
1. Never sign your first name.
2. Never sign your last name.
3. Never sign anything but your full name. Collectors don’t want anything else.
4. Signature only, never a personalized message.
5. Always include a personalized message.
6. Always sign the fly leaf.
7. Never sign the fly leaf.
8. Develop a special penmanship to use for signatures. Never use the same signature you use on your legal documents.
9. Make your signature such a scrawl that no one can read it.
10. Always sign every copy in the store because a signed book can’t be returned as a remainder. (Yes, it can.)

You get the drift.

In the never ending discussion of electronic formats, the question comes up periodically, how do you sign an electronic reader, or a downloaded copy?

Since I’ve been playing around with the basics of book-binding recently, I’ve got an answer for this one. I can see a whole industry springing up to provide signature quartos for e-authors. A quarto is a large sheet of paper folded twice to make four pages. So the author would go to a signing with a stack of quartos made from elegant, hand-made papers, with a bit of text—maybe the first three paragraphs—printed on one of the pages, a artistic rendition of the cover, and perhaps the artist’s photo. When someone presents their e-reader to show that they’ve actually downloaded the book, they get a signed quarto.

Or for another electronic version, take a look at Long Pen and Margaret Atwood’s Unochit, which are not science fiction, but real machines in use today that permit an author to sign books in distant places, as long as both the author and the book purchaser have access to one of the machines.
Quote for the week:
Is signing a book for a reader the same as kissing? If so, don't the two people have to be in the same room? (A concern raised on a popular blog, by a cute-looking author.)

Margaret Atwood answers:
No, actually, book signing is not the same as kissing. In fact it's not remotely like it, though DNA and germs may be shared in both cases. Anyone who thinks these two things are the same is doing one of them improperly.

For such, professional help is available.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Legends of the Snow

by Julia Buckley
We all have our snow stories. My husband remembers the Great Chicago Blizzard of '67. He and his mother had to walk to the store to get supplies. On the walk back his feet were so frozen from stepping in high drifts that he got home and realized that, somewhere along the journey, he'd lost one of his boots.

According to John R. Schmidt's blog, there were 20,000 abandoned vehicles by the end of that blizzard because cars couldn't go anywhere.

Then there was the blizzard of 1999, which hit Chicago like a giant white blanket and caused some 400 million dollars in damages. I recall it well, since I had a year-old baby who didn't enjoy going out in his snowsuit and experiencing the alien snow. His older brother, however, would barely be pulled out of the high drifts and dried off before he wanted to go in again.

Well, I think my sister can top all of our blizzard memories. She lives in Virginia and she called me today to say that she'd spent four hours just digging out her parking space. I didn't really believe her--not until she e-mailed me these photos:

She was stuck in her apartment, because she feared that the space she'd spent hours clearing would quickly be claimed by another driver. So she hunkered down with her cats, and even this brave fellow wasn't interested in going farther out onto the balcony once he got a whiff of the cold wet air.
The tall pine tree outside her balcony window was entirely bowed down by the snow; she fears it will die now.

The biggest problem with shoveling out of a blizzard like this, she told me, is that there is nowhere to put the snow. One can't fling it out into the street to become a hazard to motorists, but there's so much of it accumulated in her parking lot that the only option a driver has is to stack the snow behind another car. Claudia chose the car of a woman she knows is out of town; but not everyone will have that option, and the shoveling itself becomes an almost political problem.
She will have difficulty walking through the snow--she's only five feet tall and the snow is getting close to her waist. Here's her self portrait of her leg while she was shoveling.
Our own Sandra Parshall is also in Virginia, and her house and yard have been inundated by the snow, as well. Look at her birdfeeder with its giant cap:

This, then, will be a memorable blizzard for the East Coast--the blizzard of '10.

One of the greatest conflicts in fiction is that of man versus nature; perhaps that's why we're so fascinated with surprising weather. It's a reminder to us that Nature can conquer, but also that we keep taking nature for granted.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

One girl to envy

(Guest blogger Pamela Ridley)

Pamela Ridley is an author who has published three novels: Between Tears, Lies Too Long, and Another Memory. Readers fall in love with the depth of characterization, the fast-paced writing style and the surprising plot twists entrenched in every story. Her body of work also includes short stories and flash fiction published through various e-zines.

Villains need camouflage in order to keep their nasty little secrets. The key question is what allows a villain to walk among regular folks largely unnoticed? The answer: aspects of their personalities that people find appealing or useful.

In 2005, The American Film Industry compiled a list of noteworthy villains. The top five? Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, and Nurse Ratchet.

This is not exactly a group to hide their light under a barrel. I took my own poll and asked people how those five characters managed to get away with so much before they were stopped. Here’s a sampling of what I got back:

Hannibal Lecter, like a cobra, is seductively and hypnotically brilliant.

Norman Bates may be a psychotic gynophobe, but he’s also a lost young man, who appears harmless. It probably helped that the Bates Motel wasn’t located on a major highway.

Darth Vader is power-hungry, and at the same time sympathetically dutiful.

The Wicked Witch of the West is grumpy, covetous and cruel. Not much camouflage there, but like Norman, the place she lives is hard to get to.

Nurse Ratched is a vengeful, repressed megalomaniac, but from the distant view of the hospital administrator’s office her ward looks well run. Even the most recalcitrant patient seems to “settle in” after a while.

Most villains have some redeemable traits or certainly they can have if a writer paints them with finesse; a stroke of this, a bit of stippling here, some blotting there. With the correct shading, texture, and perspective, our villains spring to life with a job in addition to murder in our fictional worlds.

A brilliant person with at least minimal social skills can develop multimillion dollar enterprises from scratch. Throw in seductive and hypnotic and all bets are off—whatever she/he undertakes is doable. This person can be an author, run a string of funeral homes, or create a one-of-a-kind legacy like Hannibal Lecter.

An overprotected and dominated character could also be a gentle, unassuming person, who smiles a lot while working at the tollbooth, as a CPA, or in the hospitality industry—until she/he snaps and turns into a Norman Bates. You just never know.

Someone who thinks a job title gives them power to execute directives, facts notwithstanding, could be a police officer, a CEO, or a Darth Vader.

A no-nonsense, tough-minded person who advocates the desired values of the day could be the go-to community organizer, the chairman of the chamber of commerce, or she could be The Wicked Witch.

Someone who recognizes her worth, refuses to be taken advantage of, and struggles to suffer people who continuously defy her wisdom could be a presidential candidate, the coach of the soccer team, or she could be a Nurse Ratchet.

I have a particular villain on my mind these days, and this is a spoiler alert. If you’ve got Lies Too Long on your To Be Read pile, or it’s likely to end up there shortly, and you hate knowing who the villain is, you might want to skip the rest of this blog, and go directly to checking out my books at my web site.

That villain on my mind is a manipulative, narcissistic control freak, but that just means she’s insightful, wants things done right and she needs to be seen in the best light while doing them. All the characteristics that make her a great car salesman also make her an awesome event planner. Her events always feature vengeance.

She is the type of person who clogs up a former boyfriend’s tail pipe and adds cream of tarter to a classmate’s dish during cooking class just to be the one who always comes out on top. And, oh yes, she has a personalized plate that says 1GRl2NV. (One girl to envy.)

How does she get away with all of this? She’s slender, light-skinned, and has long straight hair. Capitalizing on her looks and intelligence, she worked her way through college, got connected with the “right” boyfriends and the “right” social network and the “right’ job with the good income. She’s successful selling cars and she’s the president of her sorority – the post graduate chapter, and she's on the lookout for the "right' man. All she needs to complete the picture is a couple of “less than” underlings, women who are less than she is and will be certain to appreciate her.

She adapts (being the person others need her to be when it suits her purpose); she survives (refusing to take crap from anyone) and she takes matters into her own hands even when it means she has to do some remote control mischief, using other people to do evil deeds for her.

I think that, given the right set of circumstances, most people could commit evil. Can’t I perform “morally bad” things if I’m protecting my life, family, home or country? What if there is no other means for me to gain justice? My villains, in their minds, have a justification for what they do. Their rationales are outside of what the judicial system allows, but they are always heartfelt. Does their kind of thinking cross the line separating the sane from the insane? I don’t know.

It’s two sides of the same coin. The same negative aspects that make a villain memorable, also benefit her. Cloaked in a deceptively functional job, your villain can, literally, get away with murder.