Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Mushrooms

by Sheila Connolly

Sorry, it's just me, although I'm honored to be following in the footsteps of some pretty heavy-duty writers this week.

Tonight is New Year's Eve, and in my household that means . . . not much. We'll drag out a favorite DVD (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to be precise), open a bottle of champagne and watch the ball in Times Square drop at midnight. If we're lucky we'll still be awake at 12:05.

Gone are the days of wild New Year's parties. Not much of a loss, because I can't recall more than two or three, and those were a long time ago. Heck, the annual fundraising dance for our local organic farm, music provided by Dale and the Duds, is livelier than most of the New Year's events I've attended. I guess I'm just not much of a party person.

But I will admit that I try to make a resolution or two each year. Or at least I think about it. Committing to a resolution and then blowing it just sets you up for frustration, and a writer faces plenty of that without asking for it.

What would I like to do better next year? Get organized! My family has gotten good at tiptoeing through the boxes of books and research files and promotional materials in order to navigate our second floor, and all that stuff is piled on top of the boxes of genealogy files. Then there are all those books I really do plan to read, stacked three deep on every available shelf, with teetering piles of more books in between. Who knew that writing would take up so much space?

So as soon as I meet the looming deadlines (yes, plural) and overhaul my website, I'm going to have to take a hard look at all those stacks and piles and boxes and figure out a better way to manage all that paper. Maybe there's a shredder in my future. I've read that I can raise mushrooms on shredded paper, so if the writing thing doesn't work out, I'm ready to start a mushroom farm. Sounds like a plan!



What's your Number One resolution for 2011?


Thursday, December 30, 2010

UNDER SIEGE: 20 years later


by Stephen Coonts

Stephen Coonts is the bestselling author of 28 thriller, suspense, and nonfiction titles. A former Navy pilot and Vietnam War veteran, he worked as a taxi driver and a police officer before attending law school at the University of Colorado and embarking on a legal career. He published The Flight of the Intruder, his first novel–and first bestsellerin 1986. As he explains in the video interview below, he has drawn on his personal experiences in many of his books. Today he writes about a 1990 novel that remains as relevant now as it was when first published.

Columbian Narco-terror was the inspiration for Under Siege (1990).  Unfortunately, the narco-wars being waged in Mexico today give the novel an immediacy that I certainly didn’t intend.

The sad fact is that the United States’ inability to stop the use of illegal narcotics by its citizen means that foreign suppliers can make obscene fortunes supplying American addicts and recreational users. This problem will not go way by being ignored. The narcotics industry has destabilized the governments of Latin American and Mexico and resulted in the murders of thousands – nay, tens of thousands – of police, soldiers and innocent bystanders. This despite the fact that the U.S. has spent over $50 Billion in the war on drugs, which is an abysmal failure.

 
We have packed our prisons with users and dealers, addicts are among us in every walk of life, and our hospitals are packed with people who have poisoned themselves with heroin, cocaine, meth, and abused legal painkillers.

 
As the headlines prove, the criminals making these profits are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their income.  They will bribe, murder, extort, kidnap and destroy representative government without sorrow or remorse. 


Under Seige is still as timely as when it was written.  I wish it weren’t, but it is.

For more information, visit http://www.coonts.com and http://openroadmedia.com/author_coonts.html.



   

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Introducing Chip Harrison


by Lawrence Block

No Score is the first of four novels featuring Chip Harrison, and they all bore the lead character’s byline when they first appeared as paperbacks from Gold Medal Books. The working title of No Score was The Lecher in the Rye, which sums it up well enough; it’s a picaresque account of a young man’s desperate attempt to become sexually experienced.

Gold Medal did very well with the book, and a couple of years later I wrote a sequel. And, because I liked the voice, I wanted to write a third book, but how many times could one lad lose his virginity? So in the third book I put him to work for a private detective, and books three and four are mysteries and could be called Nero Wolfe pastiches.

In 1984 The Countryman Press reprinted No Score and Chip Harrison Scores Again in a double volume and asked the ideal person to write an afterword:

Some Afterthoughts
by Hilton Crofield

     I don’t know why they asked me to write this. Somebody’s original brilliant idea was for me to write an introduction to the new edition of No Score and Chip Harrison Scores Again, and I said OK. Don’t ask me why. Then somebody else got the bright idea of calling the double volume Introducing Chip Harrison, which meant that I would be saddled with the job of introducing Introducing Chip Harrison, and I said that, if you really want to know, I’d rather go into the bathroom and squeeze a pimple. So they said OK, we’ll make it an afterword, and I said OK again. Don’t ask me why. It’s not as if I was getting paid for this.

     Chip Harrison needs no introduction, and I don’t suppose he needs an afterword either, so you can stop reading right now . . . If you’re still with me, I just want to tell you that these are my kind of books. Chip Harrison is a sort of a lecher on the wry side. More than that, when you finish the book you want to call him up and talk about it.

     Listen, I’ve got a tip for you. Don’t do it. Years ago I wrote a book and said how sometimes I wanted to call the author in the middle of the night, and this guy named Ottinger had his name down as author and so many weird kids called him up in the middle of the night that the poor guy lost it. He went up to Maine or Vermont and quit writing and only leaves his house once a year. He always sees his shadow, and it's always six more weeks of winter.

     I wouldn't want that to happen to Chip Harrison. I've already read the rest of the books, and I know that Chip went to work for Leo Haig and takes care of tropical fish when he’s not helping Haig solve crimes. If you haven’t read those books, go out and get them right now instead of wasting your time reading this crap I have to write.

     Anyway, I like old Chip. I think Phoebe would like him, too. And I hope you liked him, but if you didn’t, well, tough. What do you expect me to do about it, anyway?

     Oh, yeah. The business about the name. Lawrence Block is now listed as the author of the Chip Harrison books. They had Chip’s name as author originally, but now they’re supposed to be by this Lawrence Block. Same as my book is supposed to be by old Ottinger.

     Well, I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. And neither do you.
(Hilton Crofield, “Some Afterthoughts,” afterword to Introducing Chip Harrison, by Lawrence Block, The Countrymen Press, 1984)

That’s what Hilton Crofield has to say, and I wouldn’t attempt to improve on it. If you’ve enjoyed No Score, you’ll very likely have a good time with Chip Harrison Scores Again, and may then wend your way through Make Out with Murder and The Topless Tulip Caper. If you didn’t much care for No Score, well, you probably won’t like the others, either. But I don’t want to talk you out of anything. Best to buy them anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Lawrence Block has published more than 100 books, including four bestselling series, as well as dozens of short stories, articles, and books on writing. He has received many awards in the U.S. and abroad and was named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America. For more information visit his website. He welcomes e-mails at lawbloc@gmail.com.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Five Questions for Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 60 thrillers, including The Eagle Has Landed and The Wolf at the Door. His books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. Born Harry Patterson, he grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The political and religious turmoil in Northern Ireland became a significant influence in his books, many of which prominently feature the Irish Republican Army. Before becoming a full-time writer, he had a career as an academic. He now lives in the Channel Islands.
   
What author has influenced you most?

I could read by age three and read most of the greats by ten. I always scribbled but The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald totally inspired me. It’s still my favorite novel.

What historical events do you draw on when writing?

As an academic with a doctorate, research is second nature to me, but my early life in Belfast was one of perpetual violence.  Shooting and bombs were common.  I’ve written about the IRA more than any other modern author.

What is your method of researching events/details in your books?

It’s simple these days, put the right names into the computer and the information is there for you.

What news sources do you turn to for current events? 

BBC News is tops in my opinion, but I keep up with American TV, too.  

Other than The Great Gatsby, which books inspire you?

The Count of Monte Cristo—Alexandre Dumas 
One of the greatest swashbuckling stories of all time. This story of a man wrongly imprisoned who escapes, finds the treasure and becomes the mysterious count hell bent on revenge has been filmed many times.
   
The Day of the Jackal—Frederick Forsyth
The turning point in the modern thriller, almost thirty years ago it was a world sensation with its description of the attempted assassination of General De Gaulle. The combination of genuine historical figures and fiction opened up a whole new world.
   
A Christmas Carol—Charles Dickens
The greatest novel about Christmas ever written. I read it myself every year as part of the festivities.
   
For more information, visit http://openroadmedia.com/author_higgins.html.

     

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Story Behind the Novel

by Jonathon King

Jonathan King is a former police and court reporter who draws on his journalism experience in writing the Max Freeman crime novels set in southern Florida. The Blue Edge of Midnight, first in the series, won the 2002 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. His most recent novel, Midnight Guardians, continues the Freeman series and is set in the Everglades, where the author enjoys canoeing and airboating. Here he talks about the events that drove him to write his first book.  


If you lived in Florida in the mid 1980s like I did, you know the name Adam Walsh. Yes, the Adam Walsh who was abducted from a local mall and whose subsequent death has been told over and over and spurred his father, John Walsh, to create television’s  America’s Most Wanted and led to legislation to protect abducted children. Adam’s death raised the consciousness of the media, and I was a member of that media.

Part of The Blue Edge of Midnight comes from that seminal event. As a South Florida police reporter I covered several incidents of missing children. I was actually in the home of a missing child in 1990 with helicopters in the air, leaflets being handed out and police dogs on the sniff when the missing child began to whimper from behind a couch where she’d fallen asleep only steps away from where I was interviewing the distraught mother.

The other impetus behind that book comes from Florida’s century long conflict with the Everglades, a pristine ecosystem that has been encroached on for over a hundred years. The battle between Florida real estate expansion and the Everglades is epic. I dovetailed that struggle by creating a character in The Blue Edge of Midnight who believes - as a denizen of the Glades who knows animal instincts - that no animal will try to raise its young in a place where it is threatened. In his warped vision, be believes that if he threatens the young of the suburbanites moving into the Glades by kidnapping their children and killing them, he can dissuade the encroaching hoards from moving into his world. 

When my protagonist, Max Freeman, gets caught up in the villain’s plan by being the first to discover the body of the latest child killing and becomes a suspect, he has to clear himself by finding the real killer.

It may sound simple, but every story has its twists and turns. I am a firm believer that the truth is rarely black and white. The ways of human beings are almost always convoluted and real stories, based on reality, are the ones that teach and yes, entertain us.
Visit the author's website at http://www.jonathonking.com/.

 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Out With The Old, In With The New . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to one and all!

WHERE does the time go??? Just last year many people were worried about Y2K, some people preparing by storing food and water, etc. I'm not still not sure exactly what they were afraid of, except computer meltdowns which would have shut down stores and kept us from buying food and other necessities. Well, we in southern Illinois deal with that from time to time, way out here in the boondocks, when an ice storm hits and we live without power and other modern amenities for days on end. Sigh. Where was I? Y2K. As you have already no doubt figured out, that really wasn't LAST year, it was TEN years ago and where DID that entire decade go?

Life has a way of sliding quickly by us, whether we are actively living it, or simply watching from the sidelines. A couple of decades ago I was involved in a job I wasn't totally crazy about. It was physically and mentally difficult for me. I'd often heard that we should stop and reflect every now and then about what we are doing with our lives. Are we happy where we are? Do we still want to be there in five years? Or not? My answer was NOT, so I quit and went back to college (in my mid-fifties, mind you) so I could go in a different direction with my life. With my career. That decision led to a new, better job, but it also led me to be able to become a published author, something I'd only dreamed about until then, not even daring to dream that it could actually happen.

So, dear reader, are you happy where you are? Do you still want to be there next year? In five years? At the end of another decade (2020, which sounds far away but will be here before we can blink twice!)

Where do I want to be next year, the next five years, the next decade, assuming I'm still here? Pretty much where I am now, except I need to exercise and work out more in order to maintain my current physical strength. ( I've discovered that we "seniors" lose a lot each decade, no matter how much we work out to maintain.) I want to stay published, particularly in non-fiction. I want to teach/encourage other women. I want to grow as a person. And I want to smell the roses along the way because IF time flies when you're having fun, I must be having a REAAAALLLLYYY good time!

So I repeat, Happy New Year to one and all. May it be our best year ever. And I wish us all 365 days of noooo power outages. Sigh.

PS: Just signed a contract with Harlequin to bring my latest book, FIFTY-SEVEN TRAVELING out in paperback sometime in 2011. It came out in hardback this past July.

And author Patrick Miller did a terrific article about my new book because it's set in a tourist area (Smoky Mountains) so IF you are an author with a book set in a tourist area, you might want to contact Miller to see if he is interested in doing an article about it. The link to the article is here: http://southeasternliterarytourisminitiative.blogspot.com/2010/12/murder-in-dollywood-country.tymlhttp://

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's a Holiday

by Sheila Connolly

(Hey, you're supposed to be having a lovely time celebrating with family and friends–what are you doing here? But thanks for stopping by.)


Once upon a time, Christmas was a religious holiday. That didn't mean a lot to me when I was growing up. I had a rather sketchy religious upbringing: my father was Catholic, my mother a nominal Episcopalian, and nobody attended any services (they were married in both churches, to keep his parents happy). Neither was very concerned about passing on their convictions, such as they were, to my sister and me. In my formative early years, I attended a Quaker school, which muddled things even more. So I never had the Sunday school, drag-to-early-service experience.




Which makes it all the more odd that in graduate school I found myself studying medieval art history, and that meant churches. Not just any churches, but the grand cathedrals of Europe, where the builders strove to reach the sky, dissolve the walls, and fill the soaring space with literal and figurative light. Or if you want to take an opposing view, the rich patrons sought to erect large and ostentatious monuments in order to impress their friends and foes and buy their way into heaven. Whatever the impetus, the results are undeniably magnificent.


In any case, I have probably been in more Catholic churches in my life than most Catholics, from St. Peter's in Rome on down to the tiny "chapel of ease" where my Irish great-grandparents worshipped.


Obviously for me Christmas was a largely secular holiday, distinguished by presents and food. My parents and my grandmother were indulgent, so there were many presents. There was also much food, as my grandmother would arrive from New York bearing baskets of absurdly large fruits, bags of nuts in the shell, packages of dried dates, and of course, cookies and candies. It seems quaint now, when foods from all over the globe are available in local supermarkets, but back then it was a big deal.


For my husband and me, most of our families are gone now, and our siblings live in states sufficiently distant that it's not easy to get together. Every year I honor my own family holiday history by retrieving the tarnished blown-glass ornaments from the attic and hanging them on the tree, reminding myself of where they came from and when I first remember them. My husband brought none with him to the marriage, and can't even remember any family tree traditions, although of course we've added plenty since we've been together. I even cherish the plastic Joe Montana that my sister sent me one year (we lived in the Bay Area during the 49ers' glory years).


Even though I may not call myself religious, I still feel a compulsion to celebrate something at this time of year. Whatever organized religion may tell us, December is still the time of the solstice, when the days begin, imperceptibly, to grow longer again. I've been lucky to visit Stonehenge and a number of other stone circles, large and small, and it's humbling that those ancient, pre-literate cultures knew that there was something magical about the solstice, and built their own monuments to celebrate it. Organized religion just borrowed from them.


We believe that the sun will return, crops will grow, and life will go on. That's worth celebrating no matter what you label it. Happy holidays, whatever you choose to call them!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Guppies Revisited

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently had the pleasure of compiling a list of 2010 publications—novels and short stories—by members of Sisters in Crime’s online Guppies chapter. I joined Guppies in 2002, shortly after becoming a member of Sisters in Crime’s national, or rather international, organization in support of women mystery and what we’d now call crime fiction writers. At the time, Guppies was a small interest group rather than a full fledged chapter devoted to the Great UnPublished, hence the name. Without naming names, let’s look at the stats. When I joined, only one Guppy had a book, a woman whose novel had been published by a small press in 2000. Another woman, whom I met in my local SinC meeting in New York, had left the Guppies when her first mystery came out in 2000 and gone on to write several more books in the series.

In 2003, three Guppies I knew got published, two with a small press that later folded, a victim of its own expansion, the other with a venerable house that decided a couple of years later to abolish its mystery line. Two of the three left Guppies on achieving publication, the third chose to stay. In 2004, a Guppy who had failed to find an agent published the first of a series with a prestigious small press. She left. In 2005 and 2006, two Guppies who had been active on the group’s e-list published their first novels. They decided that the group was so supportive and such a good resource that they didn’t want to let it go. They stayed, and I believe this was the turning point.

Today, Guppies serves five hundred hundred writers, both Sisters in Crime and what I’ve heard called Mister Sisters, who are seriously seeking publication, emerging writers trying to develop their careers past the first novel or short story, and established writers who have observed the camaraderie among us at conferences and heard that as a group, we have abundant information to share about the rapidly changing and often chaotic course of publishing in our genre. After wondering why it took me fifty years of dreaming of being a writer to publish my first novel, I realized the simple answer was that I’d tried for far too long to do it alone. Guppies help each other critique their manuscripts, write query letters and synopses, seek agents, deal with rejection, start the next manuscript while the last one is making the rounds, and rejoice at each other’s successes, whether it’s a rave rejection, an offer of representation from an agent, a book deal, or a good review.

In 2009, Guppies published a total of four first novels, fourteen additional novels, and sixteen short stories. In 2010, Guppies published ninety-five novels and short stories, including more than a dozen first novels, an impressive tally indeed, especially compared to none in 2001 and 2002, less than a decade ago.

No author, aspiring, emerging, or established but not immune to setbacks, can afford to take today’s crazy publishing climate personally. Guppies avoid this particular trap by schooling. We keep swimming along together through disappointments and rejections and the occasional triumph, and when we voice our hopes and fears, we hear all around us a chorus of, “Me too.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why go it alone?

 Sandra Parshall

This post originally appeared on the 1st Turning Point blog

Fifteen years ago, I was unpublished, isolated, and miserable. I wasn’t a hermit – I was involved with an environmental group, doing work that mattered to me – but I thought of myself first as a writer, and I didn’t know a single other writer I could look to for advice and support. I had snagged an agent, who put my work in the hands of the right editors but couldn’t sell it. When she left the business, I felt adrift and almost called it quits.

Then I joined Compuserve, which in those pre-Google days was a robust subscription service with more than 400 forums. I gravitated toward the thriving collection of writing forums, of course, and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. I was part of a community of people dedicated to writing. I joined an online critique group—the first time I’d ever swapped work with other writers—and I soaked up the wisdom of published authors, including Diana Gabaldon, a Compuserve regular. A few more years would pass before I sold my first published book, The Heat of the Moon, but I wrote it with encouragement from critique partners and other friends on Compuserve.

Cserve began falling apart after AOL purchased it, but by then I was committed to writing mystery/suspense and I had found a new source of comradeship in Sisters in Crime, which I discovered through its Cserve chapter. If the writing forums changed my life for the better, Sisters in Crime transformed it. I doubt I would ever have submitted The Heat of the Moon to Poisoned Pen Press after New York publishers rejected it if not for the urging of friends I made through SinC. That book and its follow-ups would still be unpublished and I might have given up writing altogether.

When I started attending mystery conferences, I had enough friends from SinC present to keep me from feeling like an outsider. When I appeared on my first Malice Domestic and Bouchercon panels, after The Heat of the Moon was published in 2006, I looked down from the terrifying height of the stage and saw friends smiling back from the audience, silently cheering me on. I was nervous, but I wasn’t alone.

My writing pals have become a second family to me. I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to go it alone instead of reaching out to those who share their passion for words and story, their disappointments, and their joys. Other writers will understand your highs and lows better than your real family can. They will commiserate when you’re rejected and celebrate with you when you succeed, even if the success seems minor to ordinary humans who live outside the bubble of writerdom. At conferences, you’ll always have someone to share meals with and hang out with. Conferences will begin to feel like family reunions, with hugs all around, instead of noisy mob scenes where nobody knows your name.

Whether you’re newly published or still working toward your first sale, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you join a group filled with writers who share your goals. For crime fiction authors, no organization is more welcoming than Sisters in Crime—it’s so inclusive that even men can be Sisters. If one of its 50 chapters is located in your area, join and attend meetings regularly, volunteer and make friends. The same goes for Mystery Writers of America, although MWA has fewer chapters. Both organizations are active online, and SinC has a wildly successful internet chapter called the Guppies that is dedicated to helping aspiring writers break into print. Whatever your genre, you can find a group where you’ll fit in. 

Writing can be a lonely business. We spend most of our time sitting at our computers, willing inspiration to come and despairing if it decides not to show up. But we don’t have to be alone. Don’t tell me you’re too shy to join a group, or too busy. I’m naturally shy too, and heaven knows I’m busier than any sane person would want to be, but my life has been immensely enriched by the connections I’ve made through writers’ groups, and I think yours will be too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pyramid Power

Sharon Wildwind

Normally I wait until January to stew over next year’s business plan, but considering the way my day job schedule falls out over the next two weeks, I decided to get this year’s angst out of the way early.

Question #1: Is it time to stop?

Am I making money? Not nearly enough. Am I having fun? Yes, most days. If I close the business, what would I do with almost 1,400 hours of free time next year? That's how much time I’ve spent on writing and running the business this year. Answering that question took a whole afternoon of thinking; the answer was I couldn't think of anything as much fun as a writing business on which to spend 1,400 hours. Besides, I have a play to finish and I’m closing in on conquering comma usage. I’d like to see how both of them turn out. So, I think I’ll go for another year.

Question #2: What am I going to do with next year?

Let’s keep it simple and go for pyramid power. No, I haven’t gotten all New Age. A couple of years ago I started basing my business plan on a simple diagram reflective of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Writing (the base) is seriously putting fingers to the computer keyboard. It includes fiction, non-fiction, plays, journaling, blogs, and book reviews. I want it to be 50% of what I do.

All of the other five sections in the pyramid make up the other 50%.

Adjusting the compass heading is like a ship tacking into the wind. Thanks mainly to my husband’s love of Patrick O’Brian’s novels I know a lot more about sailing ships than I once did. One of those things I learned is that ships can’t sail in a straight line. They have to go this way for a little while, change the orientation of the sails to the wind, and go that way a little while. Eventually they zig-zag their way into a safe harbor.

Goodness knows what with copyright changes, book digitalization, multi-media platforms, and all of the other changes writers and publishers have a gracious plenty of zigging and zagging. I’m sailing as hard and fast as I can to keep up with it.

Expanding the circle means honoring all of the other writers and readers I already know who are with me on crazy zig-zagging ship. It involves moving outside of my e-comfort zone and conquering the dreaded social media. It also means sharing critiques and that old-fashioned idea of keeping in touch with individuals.

Managing the business is marketing, branding, tracking stats, doing inventories, keeping the accounts up to date and the tax person happy. Occasionally it means making a little money, which is always something to look forward to.

Has anyone out there ever, for real, grabbed a brass ring on a carousel? I always thought it was the coolest idea, but none of the carousels I rode ever had a ring dispenser. Taking advantage of the brass ring means to take advantage of every unexpected opportunity that comes my way as a writer. It might be only 1% of the business plan, but it’s a heck of an important 1%.

You might have noticed I skipped a section: Read/keep current. My bugbear. Incidentally, I recently read that term had nothing do with creepy, crawly insects. Bug was the Celtic word for evil spirit. The bugbear was a creature that waited in the woods to scare children, a concept that does totally undesirable things to the lyrics of The Teddy Bears' Picnic.

Reading—Internet—Bugbear. Another triangular shape, only instead of helping me, this one drives me nuts. My name is Sharon and I am computer-literate. I’ve taken a long time to become that way and I’m not ashamed of it. That computer literacy lets me read an incredible variety of resources.

Remember that Send Me a Man Who Reads ad campaign sponsored by the International Paper Company back in the early 1960s? I loved that campaign and even if the title wasn't gender-inclusive it set me toward a love of reading at an early age.

Out of those 1,400 hours I mentioned before that I’ve spent on various parts of my business pyramid in 2010, I’ve spent roughly 270 hours reading about writing and the writing business (mostly on-line) and another 240 hours reading other mystery writers (mostly not on line). That a total of 1/3 (36%) of all of my time spent on business.

Okay, my reading addiction got out of hand for a couple of months. I was reading other authors far more than I was writing, and fortunately I was able to spot what I was doing and turn it around. Another of those zig-and-zag compass changes.

Even with all that reading, I am losing the “keep current” fight in a big way. There is too much out there to read and no real way to find the essential good stuff. I suspect there may not even be “essential good stuff.” I don’t have any answers for this, but if I discover any in 2011, you guys will be the first ones to know.

Hugs and holiday greetings all around. Pleasant journeys and safe harbors in the new year.
______
For out holiday special, there are two quotes this week.

Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.
~Barbara Johnson, scholar, teacher, translator and literary critic

I wish I had wisdom. I don’t have wisdom. All I have are processes.
~Catherine Weller, Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Christmas Card For You

by Julia Buckley

This was a busy weekend, since my oldest son turns sixteen in three days and we celebrated his birthday on Sunday. All of you who have thrown birthday parties know that this entailed me spending the week planning, shopping, cleaning, and preparing. Now I'm pooped.

Luckily, my birthday boy and my nephew Dan helped me to make a virtual Christmas card to share with all of you. The videographer is my son Graham, the guitarist is Ian, and Daniel is playing the Irish tin whistle.

So please enjoy this glimpse of Christmas, from my house to yours!

A Merry Christmas holiday to you all--may you read many books and enjoy a 2011 full of fine surprises.

video

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Canada Calling: Come On Up

You’re far too busy right now to read this blog. Bookmark it or print it and come back to it in the New Year. We’re inviting you to come on up to Canada for murder, mayhem, and mystery.

Come on up anytime
Visit Crime Writers of Canada totally revised web site.

Touch of a button access to featured Canadian authors, upcoming mystery events, an easily searchable list of Canadian authors and Cool Canadian Crime, a newsletter about what’s hot in Canadian crime fiction. And that’s just on the home screen.

Read more, read often, read Canadian.

Come on up to Victoria, British Columbia June 3 to 5, 2011

This year Bloody Words, Canada’s mystery convention goes west.
Guest of Honour ~ Michael Slade
International Guest of Honour ~ Tess Gerritsen
Local Guest of Honour ~ William Deverell

And as realtors say, location, location, location. Victoria is a gorgeous place to be in summer. There's a fantastic downtown waterfront (where the convention is located); afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel; and natural beauty all around.

Come on up to Wolfe Island, Ontario and visit the Scene of the Crime.

Each August the island hosts a one-day crime festival.

This is not your average hotel convention. To start with, the only way to get to or from the island is by ferry. The day starts with meeting the guest authors over muffins and coffee in a local coffee shop. Readings and panel discussions take place in local churches, with lunch and supper provided by church volunteers. The homemade pies are to die for.

There’s also a short story contest and a bookseller on hand, so you’ll have plenty of new books to lug back to the ferry.

If you plan to be out Ontario way in August, book your tickets early! This is a small event and it is always sold out.

Come on up and gain new writing skills

Simon Fraiser University, located in British Columbia, will host a number of writing workshops in 2011. The catalog will be on their web site in February 2011, and you can sign up now for their mailing list so you won’t miss any announcements.

Come on up and see a play

Make Calgary, Alberta your travel destination for a lot of reasons, including Calgary’s Vertigo Theater, which devotes itself completely to producing mystery and thriller plays. Their line-up for the first half of 2011 is

Nevermore: the imaginary life & mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe
Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke
A gothic tale told in song.
January 6 to February 6, 2010

And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie
People are disappearing all over Soldier Island. Soon no one will be left.
March 5 to April 3, 2011

Mr. Hyde
Jeffrey Hatcher
Evil lurks in the dark and dismal streets of London
April 30 to May 29, 2011

Vertigo will preview its 2011-2012 season in March 2011. Come back to this blog at the end of March for an updated list.

Best wishes for the holiday season from all of us fellow mystery-lovers north of the 49th parallel.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What a Doll

by Sheila Connolly


It seems that the gift-giving season is upon us, and there are American Girls everywhere. No, I don't mean humans—I mean the dolls. It's hard to turn around without finding yourself face to face with some, and that includes on the back page of the New York Times magazine. Actually that's not surprising, because that location probably best reaches the target purchasing audience: grandmothers.




I've always considered American Girl dolls "grandmother dolls," because they are the perfect gift to tell Grandma to give her little grand-darling (ideally, one single darling, and Grandma had better have done darn well during the market slump to afford this habit), and she can continue to add accessories and pets and furniture forever, or until the girl outgrows dolls. Which happens all too soon.


Don't get me wrongBI'm a big fan of the American Girl dolls. My daughter (now nearly 26) had two, who have been "asleep" in the attic for a while, until I let them out for their photo session. Meet Molly and Addie, circa mid 1990s. What they're waiting for, I don't know, but they, and their extended wardrobes, and their adorable trunk, are just too darn nice to throw away.


I admire the company's marketing. They started slowly and built carefully. They expanded into books to accompany their dolls, which I applaud (anything that gets kids reading is fine with me). Their community has grown to include almost every conceivable ethnic type, and the dolls span centuries, so you get a little history thrown in.


Recently I opened my local newspaper's magazine and was confronted by yet another full-page American Girl ad, suggesting that you (well, a child known to you the readerByou know, the one with the credit card) go online and create your own doll.


You can choose not only eye color, hair color and texture, skin color, but you can also decide whether your doll needs glasses, has braces, and wears earrings. You can give her a horse, and a t-shirt with a picture of the horse.


As a writer I looked at this and thought, what would a child want? Would she choose to recreate herself, or would she want to build an imaginary friend? And in a vague way the concept of choosing a kind of Mini-Me troubled me. It's like asking a child to build an alter ego, or to generate a split personality right before your eyes. I assume most children, at least the younger ones, talk to their dolls; would this then be like talking to themselves? Slightly older, and they will act out scenarios for the dolls, with or without companion dolls (note: they are no male American Girl dolls, so it's kind of a gender-biased little universe they've made). In that case, are you projecting yourself on your doll? Does she become the better, smarter, faster you?


Let's take the other choice: creating a doll to be your best friend. What do you choose? Do you model the doll on your flesh-and-blood best friend of the moment? If you're too young you may not realize that these intense relationships can quickly reverse themselves, and then you'd be stuck with a reminder of your lost BFF. Person with credit card, you may want to step in with some timely suggestions here.


Would a politically correct child choose a doll of different ethnicity? And don't forget--if your child has a disability, there's even a wheelchair available.


Are you wondering about price? The basic doll costs you $95. The glasses are $8, the pierced earrings another $14. Sorry, the braces were sold out (really?). My hypothetical doll is now up to $123, and I haven't even bought her furniture or a pony. Check out the pets: oops, dogs outnumber cats. Who decided that one? Anyway, if you want a calico kitten, it's another $20.


And if you like the cupcake slippers, they're $20. I'm trying to remember the last time I paid that much for slippers for me, and I'm much larger than an American Girl doll.


But back to the message...American Girl has done well in providing an array of choices in dolls for a generation now. They make a quality product, and the dolls have been popular. Design-your-own is a logical step in this computer-driven world. But it still comes down to a basic question: who are you and who do you want to be? Do you want a mirror or a friend? Maybe it's better than young girls face that with a safe doll before they have to confront it in the real world.


Maybe I'll go talk to Addie and Molly. It's nice to see them again.


I think Addie borrowed Molly's outfit.  That's what friends are for, right?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cellphonismo

Elizabeth Zelvin

This is not my first rant about the iniquities of cellphonistas, as I call those addicted to the narcissistic and compulsive use of cell phones in public, and it probably won’t be the last. But here’s the incident that set me off again.

I’m running along the road that winds through Central Park. One of the horse-drawn hansom cabs that only tourists ride in is clopping along beside me. Those tired old carriage horses clop faster than I run, but that’s another story. For the moment, I’m more or less keeping pace. In the cab is a tourist couple, and on the seats facing them are their daughters, or perhaps a daughter and a friend, girls of about thirteen.

“That’s Strawberry Fields on your right,” the driver says.

I’ve overheard many a hansom cab driver, and lately the muscular youths who pedal bicyclesque pedicabs too, give their spiels, and they almost never mention anyone but John Lennon—the Dakota, where he lived and in front of which he was shot to death, and Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden across the street in the park—and Simon and Garfunkel, whose concert on the Great Lawn drew half a million people. I was there, but to me, this is not history. I went to PS 164 in Queens with Simon and Garfunkel, and a high school classmate of mine was the lawyer who defended Lennon’s killer. Somebody had to do it, and it was a high profile case. But I digress.

Do today’s thirteen-year-olds know who Lennon and Simon and Garfunkel are? Or is that old-people stuff, like email? Anyhow, these two very young women didn’t even look up. Their heads were bent and their thumbs flying, texting their friends in Oshkosh or Peoria or wherever they were from.

I couldn’t stand it. I called out to the parents, who no doubt had paid a fortune in plane fare, hotel, restaurant meals, the carriage ride, and Broadway shows on this vacation for four, “You should have left the girls home! They’re on their cell phones!” Then I yelled to the girls, “Wake up! You’re in New York!” At that, they looked up, smiled vaguely—and hunched over their little screens again. If I had wanted to give them a real New York experience, I would have modified “cell phones” with the F word. But I refrained.

I know it’s an addiction. I’m a professional addiction specialist. I know addicts are in the grip of a compulsion and oblivious to the needs of others. But it still makes me nuts to see couples walking down the street, each relating to whoever’s talking in his or her ear rather than to each other. I’m still outraged when I see moms and dads ignoring their toddlers, even while they’re crossing the street, to text or take a call. And I’m always tempted to put my fingers in my ears and start singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” very loudly in the bus to drown out the intimate conversations these oblivious jerks make their fellow riders privy to: medical details, investment advice, marital breakdown. Cellphonistas have no boundaries.

I do have a modest proposal. It’s not quite up to the standard of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 suggestion that the impoverished Irish solve the dual problems of famine and excessive childbirth by eating their babies. But how about making the cellphonistas ride in the back of the bus?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

E-books: Are publishers keeping up?

Sandra Parshall

A New England prep school has replaced traditional books with a library of e-books and e-readers. The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library has removed all paper books and replaced them with a digital collection.

Anomalies or harbingers of a digital future? I lean toward the latter. Printed books may still be around for a long time to come, but only ostriches can deny that an e-book revolution is underway and picking up speed.

So how are traditional publishers coping with the flood of new e-readers and the consumer demand for new content? Are they shifting or expanding their focus to stay alive in a market where e-book sales may soon equal or surpass hard copy sales? Are they making money on e-books? Two surveys conducted by Aptara this year show how rapidly the market has grown in only a few months and indicate that publishers are racing – not always successfully – to catch up with demand and make their books available for numerous e-readers.

Aptara, a company that has converted millions of pages of content to digital form for the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Apple iPad and iPhone, questioned about 300 publishing professionals early in the year and did a second survey of more than 600 industry representatives during the summer. Results of the second survey were released last week. The biggest development between the first and second surveys was the release of the iPad, which provides a platform for illustrated books and educational materials that don’t translate well to text-only e-readers. Although the iPad wasn’t released until April, by summer 36% of all publishers (and 50% of trade publishers) were producing content for Apple’s tablet device.

In the space of a few months between Aptara’s two surveys, the overall percentage of publishers producing e-books jumped more than 10% and stood at 64% at the time of the second survey. The biggest increases occurred in trade publishing (the segment of interest to novelists), which saw a jump of 23%, and scientific/technical/medical publishing, which went up 24%. By summer, 74% of U.S. trade publishers were producing e-book versions of some of their products. Of those, 83% said e-publishing is an important element of their company strategy and growth plans. The new source of revenue and the chance to reach a new audience are the main reasons publishers give for making digital content available.

But are publishers making money on e-books? Only 15% of trade publishers say the return on e-books is better than that on printed books, about half say they don’t know yet, and 13% say they see a lower return of investment on digital than on print.

The Aptara report points to two possible reasons why publishers aren’t profiting as much as they could from e-books: they may not have shifted yet to streamlined procedures that would keep costs down; and no industry-wide format exists that will work with any e-reader. EPUB, the de facto standard, is accepted by almost all e-readers – but not Kindle, which has its own proprietary format (AZW). EPUB has some drawbacks, but a revised version expected next spring promises to increase function and reduce incompatibilities between e-books and e-readers.

The format of the source files can also create obstacles to fast and low-cost conversion of print to electronic form. The two most common source formats are PDF and Adobe Design, but the far more flexible XML is gaining ground. The Aptara survey points out that XML allows publishers to separate the text from its formatting, then easily and simultaneously generate e-books for a variety of e-reader formats.

Right now more than a quarter of publishers are taking a hybrid approach to producing e-books, doing part of the work in-house and farming some of it out to commercial services, while about the same number use outside conversion services exclusively.

Despite the rapid move to digitize backlists and offer e-book versions of new publications, publishers haven’t been as quick to produce enhanced and interactive e-books that would include videos and other material not available in print books. Nearly a third of publishers surveyed say they’re still investigating the possibilities, and 13% say they have no plans to provide enhanced e-books. Others say they’re holding off for various reasons.

Consumer demand for enhanced books is likely to grow, however, as more people buy devices capable of hosting them. Aptara predicts that multi-function tablets like the iPad will take over the e-book market in the next couple of years unless makers of single-function readers like the Kindle make their devices more versatile.

Will publishers ever make a profit on e-books? Yes, if they learn how to produce them economically and make their backlists available in digital form. Backlist e-books could be a saving source of income for traditional publishers. As the Aptara survey notes, “Backlists are critical assets with infinite resale value and significantly higher profit margins than front lists... Publishers are no longer dependent on one or two bestsellers to cover the cost of lesser-known authors.” 



A final note: More than one-third of the publishing representatives surveyed said they don't personally read e-books, but among those who do the iPad has rapidly eclipsed the Kindle as their favorite e-reader.

You can download the study free of charge here. You will be asked to provide a minimally invasive amount of information about yourself.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Writers Go Gray

Sharon Wildwind

I have a writing organization program that I love. It does everything except make tea. For all I know it can make tea if I find the right combination of keyboard shortcuts to push.

It does have one irritating feature. Let me say right off that I’m not blaming the programmers. My knowledge of what goes on inside my computer is so thin that it’s translucent, but it’s enough that I have a glimmer of why this particular thing happens, and I’m cool with it.

“Please keep in mind that if you reformat a template and then try to convert a document previously formatted with the the old template, you will lose all previous formatting. The document reverts to unformatted text.”

So says the program’s manual. The problem is that I read this paragraph after reformatting a template and importing into it a 45-page document.

What I am left with is one all-capital-letters paragraph a gazillion pages long. Okay, maybe not a gazillion but long enough that the draft of the first three chapters of my Work in Progress now resembles James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Yes, I worked on a copy, so I still have a file containing those useful things like lowercase letters, indents, and paragraph marks. The problem is that I spent a heck of a lot of time—about three days—getting the new template exactly the way that I wanted it and I really want to use it.

The program manual reassured me that I could still use the new template by reformatting the document one line at a time. I don’t know if that is good news or not, but I’ve spent four hours today doing just that.

It is mind-numbingly boring.
~Identify what looks like one sentence.
~Use a three-step keyboard shortcut process to convert the entire sentence to lowercase letters, and then reconvert the first letter in the sentence back into a capital letter.
~Scan the sentence for any other proper nouns that should be capitalized and manually convert them.

The one good thing is that because I have to pay attention to one line at a time, I’m doing a great edit. I just hadn’t planned on doing that this early in the manuscript.

Which got me thinking—I’ve had a lot of time to think this afternoon—about what are the most boring tasks writers confront. Strangely enough they all have to do with details. My list is

Recovering text. In other words, what I’ve been doing today.

Doing battle with a word processor’s grammar program. “Yes, stupid machine, that sentence does contain a verb.”

Proof-reading an Advanced Reading Copy. In addition to having read the thing so many times that I can’t see mistakes any more, Fear lurks behind my shoulder whispering in my ear that this is absolutely, positively my last chance to get it right.

Jamming square pegs in round holes. No matter how I twist it, turn it, or try to shave it down to size, I eventually have to admit to myself that this [character/scene/plot] isn’t going to work and it’s time to start over.

Isn’t it a good thing that the rest of writing is so much fun?

-----
Quote for the week
Beware of the person who can't be bothered by details.
William Feather (1889 - 1981), American publisher and author

Monday, December 13, 2010

Agents, Teachers, and the Age of Rude E-mails

by Julia Buckley
You know how literary agents are often forced to tell us, with gentle but firm reminders, how NOT to win their hearts? How we shouldn’t be rude, weird, inappropriate, etcetera? It’s sad that they have to tell us at all, but it is often a necessity.

How do I know, you may ask? I’m not a literary agent. No: but I am a teacher. And each day, in one way or another, I know just how those agents feel.

I recently read an article which suggested that teaching is harder than ever, due not only to the many challenges presented by students, but to the way that e-mail has empowered parents and guardians to be aggressive and even mean in a way they would not be in a face-to-face meeting.

I never experienced that phenomenon more than I have this year, during which I, as the professional, must consistently leave my busy workload and actual meetings with students to respond to the often unwarranted and almost always uninformed letters from angry parents.

Some recent examples include the father whose child’s B+ was so unacceptable to him that he wrote me a furious note, claiming that he wanted it “resolved” within the day, and if not he would meet with the principal and the president of the school.

Another parent wrote me a poorly constructed e-mail two days before an 8-week project was due, telling me that she was “perplexed” by all of my comments on the rough draft (I graded 52 of these, by the way), and that everyone she had showed it to was equally perplexed, and that “I hope you understand, Mrs. Buckley, that writing is very subjective.”

There are more and more of these notes, each week, piling up like letters to Santa. Parents who think I’m unfair. (I’m not, by any reasonable standard). Parents who are sarcastic because they don’t know how to deal with their teens and they latch onto a way to bond: we will hate the teacher together. Parents who blame me for their child's "unacceptable" grade. Parents who think their child should get a good grade even though he is missing twelve assignments.

The saddest recent example was from a parent whose child was failing because she had turned in absolutely nothing. Rather than address the real problem (and there is a real problem if a child cannot function within the school setting) the parent chose to blame me for the entire situation, saying that I “lacked compassion” when I contacted them with the news of imminent failure, and that teachers should take a child’s other stresses into account before labeling them with Fs.

There are several reasons why students earn failing grades.
1) They want them. Many a student who has sat before me is trying to send a message to a parent by refusing to do anything until his mother and father notice him, deal with him, love him.
2) They don’t think there will be consequences.
3) They intend to bring up their grades later. And then it's too late.

In the case of the first example, it is the student’s right to choose failure, and it rarely has anything to do with the things that happen in the classroom, all of which are peripheral to her problems.

In the case of the second example, I sometimes think the biggest favor a teacher can do a student is to let him earn the F and actually give it to him, ­despite the endless bullying from parents who think their child should not get the grade he has earned.

What would we be teaching children by giving in to unreasonable demands? What message do we send about the real world when we agree that it’s all right if young people don’t meet deadlines? What message does it send to the students who do consistently excellent work, who meet every requirement, when students who do nothing somehow slither into a passing grade?

Parents, wake up. In the modern teaching world, the hardest part of teaching . . . is you.

So agents, I feel your pain, in a slightly different context, every time I get a note that suggests I am missing a big truth, and the e-mailer will now educate me about that truth.

I had a teacher friend who once spoke of the scene in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE when Jimmy Stewart is pummeled by the husband of a teacher. Jimmy Stewart yells at this teacher over the phone, and later he meets her husband in a bar and the man punches him in the face.

When I was younger I always felt sorry for Jimmy Stewart in that scenario. But a teacher friend of mine changed my perspective. She said, “I’m glad that man punched George Bailey! Where did he get off making a teacher cry?”

And so I challenge all of you to a deed of Christmas kindness: write to that teacher you loved so well and tell her or him what a great job she/he did. If you have children, I encourage you to write to their teachers, as well, congratulating them for the work they do. More and more teachers , according to the article I read, are leaving their professions because they just can’t take all of the criticism they receive from all sides. It was once, they complain, just about the joy of teaching.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you might write to your agents, too. :)

(The letter pictured is not real, but it's darn close).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Greatest Adventure of All

by Mary Anna Evans, guest blogger

When my first book, Artifacts, came out, I was flummoxed by my response to hearing that people were actually reading it. Friends would say, “I’m halfway through it right now,” and I’d gulp, realizing that I no longer had control over the story. It was in print, immutable, and they were going to like it or not like it. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I guess I’d been completely focused on getting finished with the writing of it, then on finding a publisher willing to take a risk on it. I’d pictured the moment when I held it in my hands, but I’d never thought about what it would be like when lots of people I didn’t know were taking a tour of my imaginary world. Even scarier…some of those people would be reviewers.

Reviewers have generally been kind to my work, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’ve become particularly aware of the art of reviewing since the October release of my sixth book, Strangers, because I’ve found myself, time and again, thinking, “This person really understood what I was trying to do.”  Because any writer will tell you that there are times when you’re not sure that the reviewer read the same book you wrote—even when the review is good.

This time, though, I actually felt like those reviewers were explaining my work to me, which is passing strange. When I read this in Publishers Weekly— "Evans explores themes of protection, love, and loss in her absorbing sixth Faye Longchamp mystery,”—I thought, “Hey! That is what I was trying to do. I didn’t realize!” (Well, first I offered up a prayer of thanks for the good review, then I thought that.)

Faye is eight months pregnant for the entire duration of Strangers and the reviewer nailed the situation by focusing on the themes of protection, love, and loss, particularly the fear of loss. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book from the point-of-view of a protagonist on the verge of giving birth, and it was a fascinating exercise to write it. Since I’m serious about getting my facts right, I spent twenty-four months of my life pregnant, starting a quarter-century ago. (Okay, maybe I wasn’t really thinking about this book in 1985, but my own personal experience really did help move the plot along.)

What I learned during the writing of Strangers is that an eight-months-pregnant woman is truly the elephant in the room. (Or at least she feels like an elephant…) She cannot hide. All eyes are on her, even if she’s just lumbering to the bathroom. Again.

There’s no way for her to avoid the concern of everyone in that room. People urge her to sit down. They rush off to get her a glass of water. They stare at her as if she might have the baby, then and there. And, of course, she’s tired and sore and physically miserable.

It’s not hard to imagine the physical discomfort and self-consciousness and emotional fragility of being in that position, is it? Now layer fear on top of that, fear for the safety of a missing young woman. Layer over it the poignant regret of an archaeologist who unearths a shrine made of baby’s toys, buried for eighty years. Add a layer of sadness for a long-murdered woman who never got justice. And top of all that, pile a load of terror for a kidnapped best friend and her tiny daughter.

This is the frightening place where Faye lives for the entirety of Strangers. Is it any surprise that her scientist’s mind is shaken to the point that she is haunted by the ghosts of the unhappy people who have lived in the gloomy mansion where she’s working? Is it any wonder that the policeman who needs her help keeps asking himself whether he really wants to risk the safety of a pregnant woman? Is it any reason that Faye’s husband Joe is nearly out of his mind with worry?

I’ve chosen to age my characters in real time and to give them lives that grow and change. Faye is not the 34-year-old loner she was in Artifacts. She’s acquired an education. She’s had boyfriends who didn’t stick around. She’s married the love of her life.  She’s had death-defying adventures. She’s started a business. And now she’s about to be a 40-year-old mother. I think I’ve enjoyed writing the story of Faye’s life as much as I’ve enjoyed crafting the mystery at the heart of each book. So where is that life going now?

That’s an easy question to answer. Faye’s about to become a mother. And those of us who have been there know that this may be the greatest adventure of all.

Mary Anna Evans has degrees in physics and engineering, but her heart is in the past. Her series character, Faye Longchamp, lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. Her award-winning series includes Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, Floodgates and, new in October 2010, Strangers. They are available in print, audio, and ebook editions.  Wounded Earth, available as an ebook, is a suspense novel featuring environmental scientist Larabeth McLeod. For more information on Mary Anna’s work, go to www.maryannaevans.com.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Emily

 by Sheila Connolly

Today would have been Emily Dickinson's 180th birthday. I hadn't realized that the release of my most recent book, A Killer Crop, would coincide so neatly—but in case you don't know it, writers have little control over when their books come out. That's up to the publisher's schedule. So maybe this timing is a bit of serendipity, because Emily is a pivotal figure in my story. No, it's not a historical novel—it's very much contemporary. And so, apparently, is Emily Dickinson.

Last month I wrote here that I had been invited to appear as part of a panel at the Boston Public Library. That is one impressive place, in both architecture and status, and I was honored to be invited. I will admit I wondered if people would actually attend such an event on a chilly winter evening, especially since the lighting of the Christmas tree on the Boston Common was taking place at the same time, but a nice group did come (I'll bet we were the warmer choice).

So there we were, four poets, a college professor, and me, talking about Emily Dickinson. What did we find to talk about?

I was happily surprised by how cohesive the whole was. One theme, unscripted, was "looking inward, looking outward." The mythology holds that Emily Dickinson led a reclusive life. There are anecdotes about her reluctance to see people outside of her family, at least in the later years of her life. But she had seen more of the wider world—she had attended school for a year in South Hadley, and with her family she had traveled to Washington DC and Philadelphia. And she carried on an active correspondence with a wide range of people. She was by no means isolated.

Whatever the facts of her life, we know her best from the poems she left—and there were many. After her death there were some bitter arguments over what Emily had written—and Emily herself had asked that her sister Lavinia destroy her letters, which Lavinia did. For many years her poems (about which she left no instructions for Lavinia) did not see publication because of a bitter feud between Lavinia and her brother's mistress. Even when they were finally published, several people had engaged in some serious editing—passing judgment on the late poet.

But still Emily's voice comes through. She listened to herself, and herself alone, flouting the conventions of contemporary poetry—much of which has disappeared from view.

In doing research for A Killer Crop, and in the discussion at the library, I realized that there are many filters through which individuals and groups view Emily Dickinson: psychological (was she agoraphobic? Mentally ill?), physiological (did she suffer from epilepsy? Migraines? Was her handwriting so idiosyncratic, bearing little resemblance to the formal script that girls of her time and class would have been taught, because she had poor eyesight?), feminist, social, stylistic, sexual (was she a lesbian? Was she an overheated spinster penning near-erotic lines to unattainable and oblivious men?). Is any one of these a crucial factor in her poetry?

What is clear is that the body of work she left still resonates with readers. Why was our motley crew gathered in a room at the BPL to discuss her, more than a century after her death, and why did people come to listen and ask questions? Why does she continue to fascinate generation after generation? Why did her work stand above the endless lines of Victorian poetry that padded many newspapers of the day, and outlive them all?

If Emily was inward-looking, some of her peers were the opposite. Consider the chaotic literary ferment going on in Concord at the same time period. Picture if you will Ralph Waldo Emerson holding forth at the dinner table, where his guests included Louisa May Alcott (pining over Ralph), Henry David Thoreau (who strolled the short distance from Walden Pond), and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Imagine the conversations they may have shared! Then contrast that with the quiet of Emily's narrow, carefully constructed world across the state in Amherst. Both sides produced works that outlived them and are still widely read today.

Whether the fruit of inward reflection or outward observation, poetry still has the power to bring us together and to move us. That's why we still celebrate the life of Emily Dickinson.