Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Magic of Writing

Elizabeth Zelvin

I want to write about the magic of writing because it’s something I always forget. When I don’t have a single idea in my head and I’d do anything but sit down and write, because I’m sure that I can’t do it again, no matter how many times I’ve done it before; when I’m crawling through a first draft that doesn’t want to come to life, and it’s pure torture to put even a few hundred new words on the page; when I reread what I’ve written and think it’s pure dreck, not a publishable sentence in it; when I’ve finished a project and think, no matter how good the manuscript is, “Thank goodness! It’s done! I don’t have to do that any more!”—those are the times when I need to remember what magic there is in writing and how absolutely wonderful it feels when it’s going well.

I am not alone in this. I’ve heard many writers admit to going through all of this, whether they’re trying to break in or have a long string of bestsellers behind them: the “I can’t,” the “this is torture,” the “this is dreck,” the “thank goodness it’s over”—almost every writer has been there at some time, if not perennially.

But I also know that other writers hear a character’s distinctive voice in their heads, saying things that are unexpected and far more clever or moving than the author had imagined. They know that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night—or lying in bed before or after sleeping—with an idea knocking on their brain so insistently that they must get up and write it down. I’ve had it happen while driving, swimming in the ocean, running, in the shower, and in this too, I’m not alone. And most of all, we writers experience the joy of those moments when it comes pouring out of us, so that our fingers race across the keyboard and we forget to get up and stretch or eat a meal, order our loved ones to go away, and marvel, when we read over the day’s work, at the miracle of what we have created, breathing such life into our imaginings that others will experience them as real.

All writers have some aspect of the creative process that we never stop struggling with. And we get to know our strengths as well. Here’s what I’m proud of. It seems like magic that I have somehow created characters who have taken on a life of their own. Each has his or her own distinctive voice. They have authentic feelings, connect profoundly with each other, and make readers laugh and cry. So far, I’ve brought half a dozen of them to life: Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy in my Death Will series; Diego, the young marrano sailor with Columbus in my stories “The Green Cross” and “Navidad”; and two readers haven’t met yet. One of these is Diego’s sister Rachel, with whom I’ve fallen in love myself, she’s so full of enthusiasm, wit, and passion. The other is Amy Greenstein, aka Emerald Love, a nice Jewish girl who’s a rising country music star and a shapeshifter. Actually, I love all these characters, and when I contemplate how very real they are, I realize I’ve been given the gift of writer’s magic.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What makes a great beginning?

Sandra Parshall

You have to hook the reader with the opening lines.

Writers hear that so often it’s a wonder any of us makes it past the first sentences of a book. As it is, most authors probably revisit those first lines more times than we’d care to admit before we declare a book finished. Wouldn’t we all love to come up with something that would lift our openings into “Call me Ishmael” territory? An opening that would let no reader put down the book, that any sentient being would find compelling, intriguing, unforgettable?

Yeah, well. We try.

The opening lines of a book have to carry a heavy burden. They must tell the reader what kind of book this is, they must set the mood and/or the scene. They must intrigue. They must make people believe that reading this book will be a worthwhile investment of a few hours out of their lives.

Will I give up on a book if the first line doesn’t sing? Not necessarily. Some of my favorite writers have committed dull openings. But I trust them enough to hang in there. Because I know the caliber of the writer, I am confident the book will rise above its weak opening. Usually it does. Sometimes the reverse happens: the beginning shines but the book as a whole disappoints. A terrific opening followed by a terrific story – that’s what writers aim for and readers demand. 

Looking around the room I’m sitting in and grabbing books at random, I came up with these openings that I like a lot. Can you tell what kind of books they are just from the first lines?

From Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, my very favorite book of 2010:
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."

Lies of the Heart by Michelle Boyajian (2010):
"It’s one of those surreal moments in life, sitting there in the courtroom and staring into the eyes of her husband’s killer."

Fourth Day by Zoe Sharp (2011):
"Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.
Which was, of course, precisely why they’d done it."

A Hard Day’s Fright by Casey Daniels (2011):
"Here’s the thing people didn’t get about Lucy Pasternak, I mean people who never met her: Lucy sparkled."

If Books Could Kill by Kate Carlisle (2010):
"If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do."

Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook (1995), one of my all-time favorite novels:
"This is the darkest story that I ever heard, and all my life I have labored not to tell it."

Hearts and Bones by Margaret Lawrence (1996), another lasting favorite:
"Whatever they thought when they found her was bound to be wrong."

What first lines have you come across lately that instantly caught your interest? Quote them in the comments section, with the book titles and authors’ names so others will know what to look for if they’re also intrigued.

For those of you who are writers: Please feel free to show off the opening lines of your latest books! And tell us how much time and thought went into crafting them. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rare Birds

Sharon Wildwind

It’s incredibly difficult to be next in line the day after what Julia’s posted yesterday.

I was casting around for a lead into this week’s blog and remembered a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a middle-aged woman in England during World War II. The woman volunteered at a military convalescent hospital. She had been assigned to the patients’ library with the task of gluing cardboard covers onto paperback books to make them last longer.

A British general came around to jolly along the patients and staff. When he and the hospital commandant reached the library, the general commended the woman for how straight she was gluing on the covers and said jovially, “Maybe one day you’ll write a book yourself, eh what?”

“Maybe one day I will,” the woman replied.

In the background, the hospital commandant was close to apoplexy. You’re probably ahead of me on this. The woman was, of course, Agatha Christie.

I’m sure soldiers in that hospital appreciated the sturdy book covers. They might even have noticed that they were glued on straight. But I also know that the books Christie wrote have comforted a lot more people in a lot more difficult situations. There is a statistical probability that someone in a Fukushima Prefecture shelter is reading one of her books right now.

We forget sometimes what wonderful rare birds we are as authors. Meaning no disrespect to anyone who hasn’t crossed the line yet, we also forget that we are more wonderful and rarer as published authors. We lose sight of that because we live shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers.

Public use photo from the Tazzone.

Pick your favorite public venue. I’ve chosen the Scotiabank Saddledome. Scotiabank is obviously a bank and the Saddledome is where the Calgary Flames play hockey. Imagine the Saddledome tomorrow night, 7:30 PM. Flames versus the Anaheim Ducks. Seating capacity, a little over 19,000, and since it’s near the end of the season, most of those seats will be filled. The majority of those 19,000 people not only don’t know anyone who has written and published a book, but never in their lives have known a published author, and never expect to.

There is more relief needed in the world all the time and I fear it’s going to get worse. Whatever else we choose to do in our other life: contributing to charities; doing volunteer work; working for peace, social, economic or ecological justice, the most important thing we can do every day is to sit down and write.

Lots of people can do rescue work. Lots of people can staff shelters. Lots of people can clean up gosh-awful messes. But writers are among the few who can tell stories that mobilize, that entertain, and that comfort. We may not think about it very often, but writers are those rare birds in the business of hope.

Goodness knows that the world needs more of that.

Quote for the week:

There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.
~Dame Agatha Christie, DBE (1890 – 1976)

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Japanese Girl Speaks

by Julia Buckley

Last year we had a foreign exchange student at my school named Maki Kishimoto. She was from Kanagawa, Japan.

We keep in touch with Maki via Facebook and her website, and she has had a lot to tell us about the Japan disaster.

Here, she translates a blog from a girl who lives in Fukushima Prefecture, where they are still reeling not just from the quake and tsunami, but from the growing dangers of radiation poisoning.

Her words are more poignant than mine could be:


I am a high schooler, lives in Fukushima.
As you know, my town is a horrible after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant.
Everyone lost their family, friends, and home.

But we are trying to live, for those who are died.

And everyone says,
"This is not the worst."

I'm sure, some of you guys are not sure what you can do for us.
Me too.

We had a thousands of sad news,
but i am not giving up, yet.

We are going to have a life again
In the same town
With the same smile,
With everyone.

This is my only wish.

I believe,
those who are missing is coming back.

So you guys,
I know something will change if you all would pray.
I really really believe this.
The important thing is not the donation
But it is in your heart.

So please pray for us.

We are waiting here.

Maki writes about this at Voice to Japan on Facebook (look under Events, if you're seeking the page) and invites anyone to visit and express their support; she in turn will translate it for her Japanese readers.

BBC photo link here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Writer Writing as a Reader, Giving Advice to Other Writers . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I read a lot more than I write, so this post comes from the POV of a reader who also knows how to be a writer, and therefore knows a bit about both. Did that make any sense? Great, moving on.

I used to belong to DorothyL, an e-mail discussion list for readers/writers/lovers of mystery. One thing I learned from the members there is that it's okay NOT to finish reading a book, whether or not you paid for it, borrowed it, whatever. (It's also okay not to clean your plate either, despite what your mother said, and I figured that one out all on my own. Where was I? Dumping a book.)

A surprising number of readers go with the Fifty Page Rule. Meaning: Capture my attention within the first fifty pages of your book or I'm outta there. Game over. Book closed. I sorta follow that rule, but I confess, IF I'm giving up on a book, (which I've started doing the last decade or so because of the Number One Reader's Rule: "So many books, so little time") I'm very likely to peek at the last chapter or so to see whodunit. After all, I've paid for the book. But I will no longer force myself to read a lousy book all the way through. So the beginning of a book has to be good and most, if not all, writers are aware of that. There needs to be a hook, to grab the reader and carry her/him through. And most writers do their very best to create that hook. Which brings me to the other problem. A problem that makes me grind my teeth even more than a slow beginning. Creating a satisfying end to the book BEFORE typing the words: THE END.

I hate having to give up on a book because it hasn't captured my interest in the first few chapters. I hate even worse falling in love with a book and the characters in the story, knowing the author has more in the series that are bound to be good too, then reaching the end of that first book and it falls flat. But the book started out soooo well! What happened?

Having written those favorite words of any author: THE END, I think I know what sometimes happens to ruin a book right at the end. Mysteries need to have a satisfying wrap-up. The protagonist must solve the mystery, the antagonist must be somehow brought to justice (by a trial, or killed off, or suicide, or whatever) and most of the loose ends should be tied up. It's okay to leave a few things to carry over to the next book, such as: Will the protag and any significant others continue their new relationship? What will be the new mystery in the next book? Etc. What usually drives readers like me nuts is when a HUGE cliff-hanger is left at the end. Example, the protag is seriously injured in pursuit of the antag. Will he/she survive into the next book? We have to somehow acquire that book to find out. Or the antagonist totally gets away with the crime. Will he/she ever be caught in future books? Will there ever be justice for the characters in book one? You get the picture. Those kinds of very large cliff-hangers are likely to turn a reader off for future books, and the author loses sales.

And here's the biggest problem for the reader in me. Because of the mystery solved/loose-ends-wrapped-up thingy, there is, of necessity, more tension at the end of any book than at the beginning, and I think THIS is where the major problem for the author arises. Whether a super-cozy book with little tension, blood, or gore, or a real shock-a-minute thriller, there MUST be the highest level of tension at the end, when the "wrapping up" takes place. And when writing said tension, the writer can get caught up in it, losing focus on reality, or real life, if you will. Brain flies ahead of fingers while fingers race to keep up. Like being on a roller coaster. The writer is excited, picturing the action, and knowing the reader will be excited too. And this is where writers often lose me. How?

By writing a character who has behaved in a perfectly sensible manner for the last few hundred pages who now suddenly dashes into a dangerous situation with no back-up, no cell phone, no flashlight (if it's dark, and isn't it always?) and NO weapon. If the character is a law enforcement officer, he/she knows better but might have to act quickly if lives are in danger. That I can live with. It's their job. What I can't stomach is characters who decide that the police aren't interested, don't know their job, etc. so he/she must dash in where angels fear to tread and confront the bad guys. Alone. And do something too stupid to believe. Like going without the aforementioned weapon, cell phone, back up, flashlight, etc. Sigh. And without telling anyone what their plan is beforehand. Grrrr.

What brought me to this rant was recently reading a book I really liked where a character I really liked gets caught sneaking up on/investigating the bad guys, alone in the dark, in their territory, without first alerting anyone who could have helped. The character winds up being chased by two larger, meaner baddies. There is a lot of noise and the chase suddenly screams to a halt. Said protag accidentally discovers that one of the baddies has fallen, is injured, and unconscious. Okay, author, I'm still with you. Protag finds phone, calls for help. Still with you. Protag goes back to injured bad guy, finds same still out of commission. Not a great idea, shoulda stayed safe by the phone until help arrived, because what if he's come to by now, but I'm still with you. THEN the protag (safely hidden for the moment from the other bad guy, still in the dark, but with help on the way) calls out the name of the other baddie to see where he is. Say what???

This character's life has been threatened. These people want him/her dead, now. One of THEM is down. IF the other is still mobile, he wants this character dead more than ever so he can either take off or face it out with the cops and deny any involvement. He's not going to come out of hiding, hands raised, like the loser in a game of hide-and-seek, and give up. No sane person would go looking for the other bad guy at that moment, much less call out and give away their own location. A sane person would stay hidden until the folks alerted by the 9-1-1 call arrived. I doubt I will read the rest of this series, because of Reader Rule #1, listed above.

So, here is my plea, from reader to writer. When you get to the last chapter, to the reveal, to the wrap-up, to bringing justice to the bad guys and rewards to your protag, PLEASE think it through. Sloooow down. Re-read that ending several times when you're done writing it. Have someone else read it for you. Ask yourself and have them ask, is this what a sane person would do if faced with this dangerous situation? Would I do that? (Yes, you'd be scared and not thinking straight. But wouldn't self-preservation kick in before now? The author gave me the idea that the protagonist was "concerned" for the well-being of the second bad guy because the first one was hurt. Huh? Huh uh. Stay down, stay safe, let the authorities see if he's okay or not.)

End rant. Anyone else want to jump into this discussion? What makes you give up on a book or a series, either at the beginning or the end?

Friday, March 25, 2011

What Keeps You Warm?

by Sheila Connolly

Couch-bound as I am with this broken ankle, I’ve been watching a lot of news reports about the cascading crises in Japan and Libya. It’s almost as though the universe has arranged entertainment for me, and I'll even admit to having become a bit ghoulish about it, keeping CNN on in the background constantly, waiting for the next piece of bad news. There have been plenty.

When I was in Ireland, I spent a couple of weeks watching BBC broadcasts (and the occasional RTE Irish broadcast), and I was struck by how sensation-driven American news is in contrast. Here we seem to think that all headlines or leads must end with an exclamation mark. Everything must be the biggest and most horrific example possible--or at least in the last few days. Sad to say, a lot of recent events have met that criterion, to the point that we risk becoming jaded by the constant barrage. No longer are we satisfied by one death, or even ten; now we want thousands, with pictures and human interest stories to follow.

It was my unscientific observation that the US is rarely mentioned on the BBC News abroad. Apparently other countries have different priorities, and are not quite so concerned with Big Events and Breaking News. I will admit I found it refreshing, and it’s appropriately humbling to see that the US is not The Center of The World (and I’m also ashamed of how poorly the US covers events in other countries).

What has been happening in Japan has been horrifying from anyone's perspective. The sequence of events has been disastrous beyond the comprehension of most of us, so much so that our own newscasters seem to dole out updates in an almost deliberate way, as though we can’t handle more than a little at a time. They kindly allowed us time to absorb the staggering details of death and destruction and imminent peril, and only then do they start slipping in longer-range issues. How does a country recover from such widespread destruction? (Irreverently, I always wonder where they dump all the rubble.) How do the morgues handle an influx of bodies beyond anyone's best-laid plans? How do you manage to transport food, water and fuel to more remote areas when the roads are destroyed or blocked? The mechanics of the process, on such a scale, are daunting.

And then there are bigger issues: what is the impact of the stunning paralysis of the world's third-largest economy on other countries? We can't just say "it's Japan's problem," because these days we have a global economy--we're all connected.

It can't happen here, right? Well... Some of us grew up in an era when "nuclear" was a dirty word. Somehow we got past that and began to build nuclear power plants, and now we rely on them for something like 20% of our nation's electric power. Of course, in the face of the structural problems that the Japanese plants have revealed, there are those here who are calling for the reduction or elimination of nuclear power in the US. Note that they don't make it clear how we will replace that power.

I live less than 20 miles from a nuclear power plant in Plymouth, MA--a fact that I conveniently ignore. The main components of the plant were made by General Electric, and it’s the same model and the same age as that failing Japanese plant. Not reassuring, is it? But try to implement an alternative? There’s a plan to install more than a hundred windmills off Cape Cod that’s been fighting an uphill battle through the regulatory agencies in Massachusetts for over a decade now, and it’s been stalled because Cape Cod residents don’t want their pristine seascape views marred.

When I was in Ireland, staying in a cottage high on a hill, surrounded by rolling green fields, I could believe I had stepped back in time—except for the three wind farms I could see from my windows. I’ll admit that selfishly I was troubled by the intrusion, but you have to give the Irish credit: a decade ago they decided to make a major national effort to increase their use of wind energy, and now it accounts for almost 40% at peak times. I salute the effort.

Pretty views don’t keep us warm. But what would you want in your back yard? A wind farm? A nuclear reactor? How close is too close?

Look closely, just left of center:  windmills

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A writer/reader’s take on mystery series

Elizabeth Zelvin

Most mystery readers of a certain age first discovered the genre through series, whether they cut their eyeteeth on Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew or Erle Stanley Gardner. In these early series, the protagonist never changed: Holmes always smoked his pipe and played his violin, Poirot applied his little gray cells to every problem, Miss Marple found a parallel to every evil in the world in the village life of St. Mary Mead. When Nancy got into trouble, she always had the perfect tools for the emergency about her person. Perry Mason always stood up in court to object and grandstanded a confession out of the true villain. (I’ve heard that counsel used to say, “I object!” during a trial, and that “Objection!” originated with Perry Mason. Anyone know if it’s true?)

Then, in the Golden Age of mysteries, when the airtight, fair play puzzle was at its height, Dorothy L. Sayers changed the rules by developing Lord Peter Wimsey from a Bertie Wooster-like flat character into a complex and very human being over the course of the series. And mystery reading got a lot more interesting to readers like me, who want to fall in love with their characters, root for them in adversity, and cheer when they triumph, not only by solving the murder but by resolving some genuine personal dilemma. My favorite characters feel real to me. I’ve said before that I’d like to play my guitar and sing with Judge Deborah Knott’s family and have dinner with the Vorkosigans.

What we read has changed precisely because the fashion in what we write has changed. For example, Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who appeared in dozens of mysteries in the 1940s and 1950s, was always described in exactly the same words, as was her home. Encountering the familiar phrases was part of the pleasure of reading the series, which is still on my list of comfort reads. Now, we wouldn’t dare repeat even the most clever way of describing a protagonist that we’ve already used. Today’s writers are exhorted to kill our darlings, not repeat them in book after book.

No longer does every mystery series, even a successful and popular one, go on ad infinitum. Part of this is due to the changing face—and economics—of publishing. In the paperback cozy world, an author may get a three-book contract. She brings her protagonist and setting to life, thousands of readers eagerly anticipate Book Four—and the publisher decides they’re not satisfied with sales and drops the series, perhaps inviting the author to start a new series under a pseudonym. In the world of hardcover mysteries, a debut author is typically offered a contract for one book or two—and the publisher’s decision not to let the series go on may be based on sales before publication of the first or second book or as little as a month after it comes out. It is notoriously hard to get another publisher to pick up a dropped series—again, for business reasons—so readers who have become attached to a series protagonist and his or her world are left disappointed and dissatisfied.

Perhaps as a result of the precarious nature of series today, many mystery writers have adopted a pattern in which, once the series gets going, they try their hand at a standalone. Until recently, I would have said that I never liked an author’s standalones as much as her series, because my love of and loyalty to the series was based on the development of the series protagonist and the family, friends, and colleagues who had sprung to life around her. Writers with successful series have written some fine standalones—and maybe I’m also getting used to the new fashion. Some standalones by accomplished series writers that I’ve loved in the past few years include Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, Earlene Fowler’s The Saddlemaker’s Wife, the late Ariana Franklin’s City of Shadows, and Laurie R. King's Touchstone.

Another consequence of how things have changed is that writers may now conceive their series as having a limited story arc, rather than going on indefinitely. Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly series comes to mind. When the unresolved personal dilemma that underlies all Harper’s professional dilemmas gets resolved in Book Five, the series comes to a satisfying conclusion. With two other series behind her and the Sookie Stackhouse series going on and on, thanks to the success of the TV adaptation, True Blood, it makes sense for Charlaine to move on. And now it seems that Harper Connelly is coming to TV, so her story may continue after all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If it ain't broke...

Sandra Parshall


The word looks so innocent sitting there, doesn’t it? Friendly. Downright perky. Update! It promises something new and fun.

And it strikes terror into the hearts of everyone who has a Facebook account, with the possible exception of Beast (public figure), Mark Zuckerberg’s dog. I’ve been on Facebook a little over a year, and I’m still learning how to use it because they keep updating it.

I started out with my identity stated clearly on my Facebook page: Author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries (titles following). In the latest update, my identity vanished. I was able to dig down a couple of layers and add it again, but how many readers will go searching for it? Most authors on FB are there not because they have loads of free time to play online [pause while every working writer reading this rolls on the floor laughing/crying hysterically] but because it’s one more way to promote themselves and their work. Facebook’s update made it harder for anyone to learn that a particular person is a writer, and what kind of books he/she writes, and what the titles are. We’re spending a lot of our time there trying to figure out how to use new features and where to find material that suddenly disappeared in the latest update.

And the look of the site. Oy. Can we all spell u-g-l-y? I’m not sure FB’s operators can, or that they can define it. Customization is virtually impossible to achieve on FB. (Yes, I meant to use the word virtually.) Everybody’s page is just as clunky and utilitarian as everybody else’s. This, I suppose, is fair. It’s also annoying. What would be wrong with a little individuality? Would it make the server crash if half a billion people tried to tart up their pages at the same time? Probably. But a choice of templates, perhaps – would that be so much to ask? Maybe, considering that FB is free to users in exchange for being bombarded in subtle and not so subtle ways by ads. Free or not, though, we think of our Facebook pages as ours.

There’s the source of the problem: We get a lot of free space online, we use it every day, and we start feeling we should have some say in how it looks and works. We don’t. The owners have a right to “update” their sites and we retain only the privilege of saying Enough! I’m outta here.

Blogger, where Poe’s Deadly Daughters is published, has also been on an update kick over the past year or so. I like some of the changes, especially the Preview function – when it works. The new picture uploader, not so much. And I hate it when I hit the Enter key and suddenly find myself at the bottom of the blog post I’m trying to edit.

While I’m on the topic of updates, have you tried yet to use Microsoft Word 2010? If you’ve figured it out, please share your wisdom with me. I love Windows 7 – that was an update worth making and worth using – but Word is hostile territory to someone with my limited word processing needs. Ribbons within ribbons within ribbons. Hidden menus. Features that nobody knows about until they accidentally enable one and chaos breaks out in a data file.

Deliver me from the relentless stream of updates. Please. Or at least tell me where to get a brain update with an enhanced patience component.

What “update” has made your life more difficult lately? Which one has turned out to be an improvement? 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rotten Mood

Sharon Wildwind

I am in a Rotten Mood. Yes, capital rotten, capital mood.

Too many disasters in the world? Daylight savings time starting far too early? Familial responsibilities piling up like a derailed freight train? A tragedy happening to a co-worker over the weekend? Frigging snow predicted for the next three days?

I think the bottom line is cabin fever.

If you’re not familiar with the late Stan Roger’s take on Canadian cabin fever, I recommend this YouTube version of his song, Canol Road. It’s thin on visual excitement, but Stan’s voice comes across the way we remember him.

Or try Stan’s son, Nathan, singing the same song. His voice is such a ringer for his dad that it’s downright spooky.

“He’s a bear in a blood-red mackinaw, with hungry dogs at bay, and springtime thunder in his sudden roar.”

That’s what I feel like, except that I have a gray parka instead of a red mackinaw and the bear I most resemble is Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie and I wouldn’t last three seconds in a Yukon bar brawl. Except maybe in my imagination. I figured the best solution to cabin fever was to take my imagination out for a run.

About three years ago I mentioned my all-time favorite role playing game: Frank Chadwick’s Space 1889™. It came out long before steam punk was on the horizon. One of the things I liked about it was that the characters were quick to roll up. All you needed was two previous careers, three physical characteristics (strength, agility, and endurance) and three psychological characteristics (intellect, charisma, and social level) and Bob’s your uncle.

The career choice possibilities made for some odd combinations like missionary-telegrapher or foreign office-inventor (sounds like the prototype for James Bond’s “Q.”) My favorite two-career combination was always dilettante plus adventuress.

Dilettante meant I could muck about in anything I felt like and adventuress meant I certainly wasn’t the kind of woman you’d take home to mother. Both left a lot of room for imagination.

When I realized that cabin fever had truly set in I knew the possibility of producing any sensible writing for the next couple of weeks was zilch and since I didn’t want to stop writing, I decided to play a game. It needed a Victorian name and after a couple of days I came up with Cloud Captains of Endeavour. It didn’t have to make sense, it just had to sound Victorian.

My protagonist is a woman who is between careers. She’s already a dilettante and is going to become an adventuress.

Here are the rules I set for playing the game:

1. The story takes place in October 1889. I picked October because the first sentence that came to mind was, “Rain and sleet pelted London throughout October.”

2. My protagonist had to start in London and end up in Scotland. She had to be forced to make the journey so that going to Scotland was the only option left to her.

3. Every Victorian detail I used had to be substantiated by at least one reliable on-line reference.

I figured I’d knock out a couple of thousand words and get the game out of my system. Well, I’m up to the beginning of Chapter 5 and she doesn’t have a clue yet that she’s going to Scotland. This may take longer than I thought, but I’m having a great time and at least I have some diversion until the cabin fever breaks.

I completely recommend this kind of writing play. Pick the most absurd protagonist you can imagine, someone you can have fun with. Put her in an impossible situation. Make the goal another impossible situation and write until you’ve moved her from point A to point B. This is writing just for the sheer pleasure of it. We all deserve to do that once in a while.
Quote for the week:
People say I live in my own little world, but that’s okay. They know me here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Break Beckons

by Julia Buckley

This year, as luck would have it, all four members of my immediate family will have the same spring break. I have never been a good enough manager to save the funds for an entire weeks' getaway, so our tradition is to take a mini-break--three days and two nights--somewhere within driving distance.

So we're preparing. My dog, who will go on a "playdate" with my parents, has had his bath, and we have an appointment to cut his toenails. :)

Our cats, who are fairly easy to care for but tend to resent a lack of attention, will be attended by our cat-loving neighbor.

This is Mr. Mulliner.

My sons and I have gotten fresh new haircuts.

The car, which is covered with a layer of dirt and filled with the detritus of daily rides back and forth, will be cleaned inside and out.

We have checked the extended weather forecast of our destination (which doesn't look that promising--one day it is expected to snow) and are preparing the appropriate wardrobe. Since we'll have our own little isolated beach overlooking Lake Michigan, I intend to take extensive lake pictures no matter what the weather.

We'll be packing the camera for that all-important family photo. Here's one from two spring breaks ago:

We have consulted Mapquest to make sure we know our route. Last year we got a late start, then took a wrong turn; the owner of our cabin was quite put out when we arrived hours later than intended. We eventually won her over with our heartfelt sincerity. :)

We're planning to RELAX, even if it's only for a couple of days. Who knows how many years of our lives that relaxation is helping to preserve?

Considering some of the serene moments of vacations past, I'm anticipating some soul-healing communion with nature.

Here are some memories of last year:

Thanks to digital cameras, our memories of past years (and this year) will be there for the clicking.

Happy spring!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Canada Calling: Young Adult Mystery Lovers

Recent books by Canadian authors for young adult readers. Links are listed in place of just showing you the covers because
A) covers are copyrighted
B) You’ll learn lots more about the books, and their authors by visiting the sites, and
C) the sites have Facebook and Twitter links.

A dozen cool Canadian authors for your summer reading list. Yes, I know it's only March, but since these are Canadian authors it may take a little while for you to get the books. If you get them early, you have my permission to read them before school lets out for the summer.

Kelley Armstrong, The Reckoning, Doubleday Canada
Third book in a trilogy. Lots of other-world stuff happening. Ties in to just about every para-normal genre going.

Marty Chan, Mystery of the Cyber Bully, Thistledown Press
Also third in a series. Three kids pay a price when they take on a cyber bully.

Lisa Harrington, Rattled, Nimbus Publishing
Debut novel. New neighbors move in across the street from a fifteen-year-old girl, but they aren’t as nice as they appear.

Y S Lee, The Agency: A Spy in the House and The Agency: The Body in the Tower, Candlewick Press, Random House of Canada
Books 1 and 2 in the series. Victorian London, a reformed girl, and a group of young female private enquiry agents.

Paul Marlowe, Sporeville and Knights of the Sea, Sybertooth Inc.
Late 1800s in a boring Cape Breton, Nova Scotia fishing village. Or is it all that boring? The mushrooms don’t seem to think so. Spooky, quirky, strange, and very funny.

Norah McClintock, In Too Deep and Something to Prove (Robyn Hunter Mysteries), Scholastic
She’s bringing her nine-book series to a close with these two. I recommend starting at the beginning with Last Chance. Robyn is a teenage girl confronting the harder issues of the adult world. (homelessness, smuggling immigrants, suicide, etc.)

Shane Peacock, Eye of the Crow, Death in the Air, Vanishing Girl, and The Secret Fiend; Tundra Books Canada
Sherlock Holmes solving crimes as a young boy.

Yvonne Prinz, The Vinyl Princess, HarperCollins Publishers
A teen-ager, a set of headphones, and a vinyl record collection. A combination that turns out to be not your average summer job.

Shirlee Smith Matheson, Jailbird Kid, Dundurn
Think your family doesn’t understand you? Try having an ex-con for a father and an uncle in the “business."

Allan Stratton, Borderline, HarperCollins Publishers
Sami Sabiri is the only Muslim kid in his school. His father is lying to him. The FBI is investigating his family’s terrorist contacts. Sami is determined to save his father, his family, and life.

Barrie Summy, I So Don’t Do … Mysteries, Spooky, Makup, Famous (Four books in the Sherry Holmes Baldwin! series);Delacorte Press Random House of Canada
Sherry has a ghost for a mother, a step-mother for The Ruler, a cute boyfriend, a gaggle of girl friends and mysteries to solve. Personally, she’d rather drop the mysteries and spend more time with the cute boyfriend, but then whoever gets what she wants?

JoAnn Yhard, The Fossil Hunters of Sydney Mines, Nimbus Publishing
A thirteen year-old and her friends believe that an accident was something more.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Writer's Mind

by Sheila Connolly

Several years ago my daughter and I saw the play QED, a play by Peter Parnell, Richard Phillips Feynman and Ralph Leighton, at a theater in New York (it was our "thumb our nose at terrorists" gesture, since we'd never been to New York together before 9/11).  It's essentially a one-man play about Richard Feynman, a brilliant and eccentric scientist who throughout the play battles health problems that will eventually kill him.  I have always remembered a line near the end of the play, when the Feynman character says, "Because I want to see what it's like to die.... If I'm going to die, I want to be there when I do!"

This came home to me once again when I damaged my ankle in Ireland (I promise I will stop dithering on about this, but at the moment the ankle and the cast and the whole collection of paraphernalia for getting around are dominating my life):  there was a distinct moment, after the snap-crunch-pop part, when I took a look at the situation (not pretty) and my writer's brain kicked in.  Okay, this is lousy, but...isn't it interesting?  I almost feel as though I should apologize for not being in dire pain.  I did ask more than one health care professional whether the absence of pain was unusual--and whether I should be send prayers to some guardian angel for sparing me.  But for whatever reason, medical or mystical, the blasted thing didn't hurt, so I could manage to be objective.  At least, as objective as one can be while contemplating a body part that has assumed a contrary life of its own.

Point one:  the aforesaid body part is not supposed to be pointing in that direction (that's as much "ick" as I'll give you).  Therefore I deduce that the solution will require more than a band-aid and an aspirin.

Point two:  I am woefully underequipped with emergency contact numbers and knowledge of official procedures for foreign nationals dealing with medical issues in a non-home country.  Point two sub one:  I have a working cell phone, credit cards, and (ta-da!) my health insurance card (which is more than my husband had), so I had the raw materials to proceed.  And, hey, they speak English in Ireland!

Thus began the Great Adventure, with the Writer's Mind clicking away at a high rate.  Maybe to some people it would seem cold, but I have to say, it's a great way to distance yourself from the crisis, which makes it much easier to deal with.

Somewhere there are people who would collapse into a gooey pile of misery and rant against the unfairness of the universe.  Why me?  they wail.  I have no answer to that, but I am not one of them.  It's useful to know that I don't fall apart in a crisis (aha, more good writing fodder).  Instead I set about solving the problems as they arose.  First, how to get up the stairs and into the car so I can get to the clinic?  Easy:  Husband, drive you the car as close to the door as possible, and I'll slide on my well-padded derriere (okay, lost a little dignity there, but there was no one around to see).  Where to find help?  Husband, I saw a pharmacy at the head of the main square:  go you there and ask for assistance.  And so on.

Like writing a book, scene by scene.  Break down the problem into manageable pieces, and work through them one at a time.  Forget what you think should happen, or the way it would be back home; deal with what comes.  Pay attention to details, not because they're necessarily important, but because they're a useful distraction, and they can fill much of the endless time you spend waiting for the next step to occur.  What do the nurses wear different colored scrubs?  What kind of x-ray equipment do they use?  Ooh, I like those upside-down watches the nurses had pinned to their tops, where they were easy to see and didn't get lost or tangled up in something else. 

The Writer Brain listened to fragments of conversation around me.  The young woman who had been assaulted the night before, and was there with her mother and additional relatives to have a broken finger looked at.  The many victims of sports injuries (have you ever watched a rugby match?  Brutal!), including one who was clearly in shock even to my uneducated eye, and it was no surprise that the triage nurse moved him to the front of the queue.  The older people, brought in by their children, who clearly didn't understand what was happening, couldn't remember the last meds they'd taken, or even the day of the week.  All real and true--and all material for something, sometime.

After we came back home, I told my husband about the Feynman quote, but he didn't get it (and he's a scientist).  But for me it spoke volumes about a deep curiosity about all things.  If you have to die, don't you want to know what it's like?  Would you want to miss the last great act of your life?  If you're a writer, I doubt it.  I know it helped me manage the situation.

You've been very patient, so I'll leave you with a happy picture (while I had two working feet!) from Dublin.  That's me with Molly Malone, aka The Tart with the Cart.

I promise that next week I'll talk about something else, like natural catastrophes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Lesson in Rejection

Elizabeth Zelvin

Every piece of work that’s been rejected is one I’ve eventually come to see was not publishable in that form. I’m not saying that every novel or story that gets published is what I’d call publishable. There’s a lot of bad writing out there, along with a lot of good writing. And my work has been rejected numerous times for reasons unconnected to its quality: it didn’t fit the publisher’s list, the topic was distasteful to the editor, it lost out to other worthy work for a highly competitive place in an anthology. But again and again, I’ve been heartbroken or indignant when a manuscript was turned down, only to think, on reading it over a year later, “I’m so glad this didn’t appear in print!”

I was inspired to write about this now by a recent reclamation project. Those who know my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, know that the first book is Death Will Get You Sober and the second, Death Will Help You Leave Him. Well, there was supposed to be a book in between the two: Death Will Improve Your Relationship. But my editor, oh, why not, I’ll tell you, the late, great Ruth Cavin, read the manuscript and didn’t like it. Now, Ruth was about 90 at the time, and she couldn’t relate to my setting, a New Age intentional community of which Bruce says, “Anyone who’d heard of Esalen and Sedona but wouldn’t be caught dead going there called it Woo-Woo Farm.” Jimmy calls it “a dude ranch for space cadets.” I suspect that Ruth had no idea what goes on in such a place, and she didn’t believe in my space cadets, who I thought were pretty funny. Luckily, I had completed the next manuscript, which she did like, and all was well.

But here’s the point: when I took out the rejected manuscript three years later and reread it, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t what I’d now call publishable. The problem wasn’t the setting or the characters. Nor was it the writing, at least not all of it. But in between the clever lines were (1) darlings crying out to be killed, otherwise known as overwriting, which my eye has since become keen enough to axe a lot more of in early revisions; and (2) the cardinal sin of those of us who write about social issues: preachiness. Since my series is about not only murder but also alcoholism, codependency, relationships, and personal growth, and since all my main characters are in twelve-step programs, I always have to be careful not to get didactic about these things. I always put too much information about AA and recovery in general in the first draft, and then I have to cut out anything that doesn’t advance the plot or illuminate character. But I didn’t realize how much my ability to do this has improved in the past three years until I took another look at work I had considered ready for submission at the time.

For my own edification, I took my virtual blue pencil, which experience keeps sharpening more and more, to Death Will Improve Your Relationship. I ended up with a delightful mystery of 43,000 words, too short for a novel and too long for a novella. Maybe I’ll put it out there as an e-book one of these days.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Turning a Love of Animals into Mystery

 by Linda O. Johnston, guest blogger

Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free signed copy of Beaglemania.

I love animals.

I love to write.

I love to write about animals!

For several years, I’ve been writing the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. This month, my Pet Rescue Mystery series debuts with Beaglemania. The new series is a spinoff from the Kendra series, although both can be read independently.

My new protagonist is Lauren Vancouver, the director of HotRescues, a no-kill animal shelter. She was introduced in How Deadly, the eighth Kendra mystery, and she also appeared in Feline Fatale, the ninth.

Now she has some stories of her own, starting with Beaglemania. Saving animals is her passion, and she’ll be involved with some rather difficult situations such as being there when puppies and their parents are saved from a puppy mill. The second Pet Rescue Mystery, The More the Terrier, starts off with Lauren learning that her mentor in pet rescue has turned into an animal hoarder, and Lauren has to help deal with that, too.

Because these are mysteries, they contain murders that must be solved – and Lauren gets involved with that as well. In the Pet Rescue Mysteries, “no-kill” means pets, not people! And who gets killed in Beaglemania? Someone involved with that terrible puppy mill, of course.

By the way, I even write about animals in my paranormal romance mini-series for Harlequin Nocturne, which features Alpha Force, a covert military unit of shapeshifters. They include canines, too--werewolves. Not to mention a shifting lynx and lady hawk!

That’s another thing that is fun about the stories I write. They’re fiction, so I can do what I want in them--to a point. They have to remain logical as well as enjoyable to readers.

One fairly fictional thing I can do is to make sure that HotRescues is adequately funded without a lot of stress on Lauren’s part.

Plus, no matter what else happens in these stories, the animals will come out of it all just fine. Too bad that isn’t always true in real life, but since I’ve started researching Lauren’s stories I’ve met with pet rescuers of many kinds who would love to make it so.

Pet rescue has drawn me in personally, too. I’ve begun volunteering at a private shelter, Pet Orphans of Southern California. I’m a dog adoption counselor there, which means I screen potential adopters and introduce them to dogs they might fall in love with. It’s such a thrill for me when I see that the people and pets I’ve introduced are now a family!

I’m also the Los Angeles Pet Rescue Examiner, for the website.
I’m even trying to combine as many of my booksignings as possible with pet adoption events.

I like my character Lauren. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing about her. I’m not sure what Lauren would think of me, though. She’s very dedicated and logical and in some ways single-minded about how animals should be treated. In my writing, I put animals into situations where they could be harmed, and she might not like that. On the other hand, I allow her to resolve those situations in ways that work well for those endangered animals, and Lauren would undoubtedly applaud that.

In any event, I definitely appreciate Lauren and all she does--both saving animals and solving murders. I hope you enjoy her, too.

Please come visit me at and at on Wednesdays. Friend me on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you think of pet rescue--and Beaglemania!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Suspicious of Sudoku

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve always been suspicious of Sudoku. It’s not that I don’t like math puzzles. I quite enjoy figuring out if I have a piece of fabric that is 22 inches by 8.5 inches, can I made a 1-inch zest strip for a quilt that is 36 inches on a side?

But I’m skeptical that filling numbers into squares will be the solution to all of mankind’s ills. Of course, I’m also skeptical that broccoli, flax, or Omega 3 oil will fix everything. Moderate amounts of consistent exercise is another matter. It just may be the solution to a lot that is wrong with the world—if we can get people to do it.

Anyway, back to the current belief that mind-training games can improve memory and prevent dementia and other mental declines. I felt vindicated last week when I read that it just ain’t so.

Fortunately the author of the article, Andrea Kuszewski — a behavior therapist, teacher, researcher, and graphic artist — had some ideas about what might work instead. You can read her Scientific American article here.

Fluid intelligence isn’t facts or data. It’s the ability to learn something new, and use that new knowledge to build on learning the next thing or solving the next problem. Ms. Kuszewski contends that improving and maintaining fluid intelligence depends on seeking novelty, challenging yourself, thinking creatively, doing things the hard way, and networking.

Man, it sounds like writers have a tremendous advantage here.

Seeking novelty does all sorts of good things to the brain: gears up brain chemicals, increases motivation, and causes the brain to build new neurons. Remember that the next time you’re up to your eyebrows in creating a new character, world building, or trying to come up with the strangest murder weapon ever. (My vote on this, so far, goes to Barbara d’Amato. I’ll give you a clue. It was in Hard Christmas.)

Here’s the two reasons that Sukodu and other brain games don’t work. First, they aren’t designed to increase fluid intelligence; they’re designed to teach you how to play the game. Yes, certain areas of the brain get bigger, faster, stronger, etc. while you are learning the game. But as soon as you do learn it—here comes the second problem— those areas shrink back to pre-game size, even if you continue to do the activity. What’s happened here is that as soon as the brain knows how to do something, it puts that something on a back burner in order to free up brain power for something more novel and, therefore, more interesting.

Forget thinking with the right side of your brain. True creativity involves switching back and forth between both sides of your brain and, in essence, getting the two sides to talk to one another. How do you do that? You think both creatively and practically about a problem. It’s what writers call plotting. Mystery writers are fortunate enough to get double and triple whammies because we have to be conscious of how clues, red herrings, forensics, and downright practicality fit together.

Technology is not our friend, particularly when it comes to spelling and grammar checkers and auto-correction programs. I realized this a few days ago when my computer at work was down because of a password problem. While I was waiting for IT to agree that, yes, my login really did exist and, yes, I really was entitled to a password, I had to write a report draft in long-hand. Guess what? There was no spell-checker built into my gel pen. Not only that, but there was no dictionary anywhere in the office.

I finally had to phone someone to verify how to spell several words. To my credit, I did the hard work first. I wrote down a few options for each word and picked the one I thought was most likely correct. I was right on two of them, but wrong on the third. Never could get those -able and -ible words straight.

The point is when you’re using a spell-checker or other technology, learn from your mistakes. Look at the way the word is correctly spelled. Mentally break it down into syllables. Figure out what part of the word you trip over the most. Come up with a mnemonic for how to spell it correctly the next time.

And finally on the how-to-really-develop-brain-power check list is that none of us can do it alone. Save the Internet for factoids that you need in a hurry, like exactly how far is your character going to have to drive to get from Bismarck, North Dakota to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho? (About 13 hours, according to Map Quest. I’ve always wondered if the allow for bathroom breaks when they calculate those times.) I also just learned that Bismarck is the capital of North, not South Dakota.

For the really juicy stuff, like what’s it’s like to work a graveyard shift in a big city police department or does a lawyer have any qualms about defending a person they suspect is guilty, go to the source. Network with real life human beings. Interestingly enough the more a person talks to people who are not like her, the more her brain grows. Get out of your comfort zone. If you want to make your brain think better, put the Sudoku down and go talk to someone who knows a lot about something that you know very little about.

Right now, I’m on my way to talk to someone at the fabric store. I need 222 square inches of fabric to make my zest strip and the piece I have on hand contains only 187 square inches.

For those of you who don’t quilt, a zest strip is a tiny (usually 1/2 to 1 inch) strip of cloth, in a contrasting color, that add “zest” or zing to the colors in the quilt. See you’re smarter already.
Quote for the week:

One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.
~Albert Einstein

Monday, March 14, 2011

Communities and Cooperation: Realities of the Human Brain

by Julia Buckley

In this delightful video from the show THE HUMAN SPARK, Alan Alda chats with scientists who study a human being's ability to form communities and to seek out those who will be cooperative.

As the video suggests, humans tend to have groups of about 150 people whom they actually know and who have some part in their immediate or extended community. (I suppose Facebook and other online connections complicate this, but I think for the purposes of the study, these are people one has met and interacted with).

So who makes up our individual communities, and why do we choose them? Obviously our families would be the starting points, but who else gets into that special list, and how often does the list change? For example, my son's community contains many school mates, but how many of those will remain on his permanent list? It seems that the community would be subject to endless flux.

On the other hand, some members would be permanently on the list.

More interesting to me, though, is that mysterious element that makes a person not right for one person's community, but very right for another's. What innate ability to we possess to winnow out the people that don't belong in our lives? How are we able to tell, sometimes after a very limited meeting, that someone is simply not eligible for our list?

At one point this would simply have been called the process of "making friends." But just as the scientists are able to discern the complicated ways that chimpanzees claim or reject their community members, so can they apply those ideas to the human world and realize that we act rather predictably in these situations.

Aside from your families, what are some of the groups that make up your community?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Whitewater Rafting with Beth

by Beth Groundwater

Everyone who leaves a comment for Beth will have a chance to win a copy of her March 8 release, Deadly Currents.

Mandy Tanner, the sleuth in my new mystery Deadly Currents, is a whitewater river ranger on the upper Arkansas River of Colorado, the most commercially rafted river in the U.S. The huge volume of commercial and private boaters keeps Mandy and her fellow river rangers busy performing rescues, checking licenses and safety procedures, clearing dangerous debris, etc. Mandy knows the rapids like the back of her hand because, like most of the seasonal river rangers who work for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), she used to be a rafting guide, taking tourists down the Arkansas on guided trips.

And I’m one of those tourists who love to ride the waves of Colorado’s whitewater rivers! Many people think the experience must be terrifying. But the risks can be managed so the danger is minimized and the fun is maximized. First, you must:
1. Be in good health (heart attacks are the most common cause of rafting deaths).
2. Know how to swim.

Additionally, you MUST share your medical conditions (such as diabetes or asthma) with your rafting guide and bring along any essential medications or equipment (such as an inhaler or epi-pen). One rafting guide I interviewed said his first customer death on the river was a man who suffered from emphysema, didn’t divulge that condition on his paperwork, then left his medications in his car. The man fell in the cold water, was pulled back into the raft, but couldn’t catch his breath. That guide is still haunted by the man’s death, even though he could do nothing to help him and it wasn’t his fault!

You should know your limits, based on physical condition and experience level. If you’re a first-time rafter, you should raft a river section that doesn’t have any rapids classified higher than Class III, Difficult. And if you do tackle Class III rapids, you should have a professional guide in your raft.

The International Scale of River Difficulty rates individual rapids and river sections on a six class scale. They range from Class I, Easy, with small waves with no obstacles, through Class II, Medium, up to Class V, Extremely Difficult, with long, violent rapids. The highest is Class VI, formerly classified as Unrunnable or Danger to Life or Limb, which are only attempted by expert kayakers after hours of scouting and with safety lines and rescuers standing by.

Family “float trips” usually stay in the Class I–III range, and the roller-coaster adventure trips that I and other whitewater adventurers take are usually in the Class III-V range. I have set my own upper limit at Class IV. You should always be prepared to swim any rapid your boat goes through, because the raft may flip or you may be tossed into the water. And I’ve decided that I don’t want to swim any rapid higher than IV, even though I’m a strong swimmer for my age.

The photo below was taken during a trip with my husband, my son and one of his friends, and our guide on the Blue River of Colorado last summer, which was a Class II-III run and lots of fun.

Everyone in the raft wore a helmet and a PFD (lifejacket). Even if you’re on an easy float trip, you should wear a helmet in case you end up in the water, to protect your head from hitting a rock or floating debris. If you take a commercial rafting trip, the guides will educate you on how to swim a rapid if you wind up in the water. You lie on your back with your feet pointed downstream, so you can use them to push yourself away from rocks. And, most importantly, you hold onto your paddle, for the same purpose, and so when someone pulls you back into the raft, you can still perform your paddling job.

Never, never, never stand up in whitewater higher than ankle deep! Why? Because the force of moving water is very powerful. If your foot gets trapped between a couple of rocks and you fall down, the moving water will flatten your body. You won’t be able to hold your head up or reach back and free your foot. People have drowned in a foot of whitewater this way. Instead, if you fall out of a raft, either try to stay with the raft and get back in, or swim to the side of the river into a quiet eddy where the current is still and stand up and climb to the river bank.

Commercial guides also train you in how to anchor yourself in a raft, how to pull yourself back in if you get thrown out, and how to pull a raftmate in. This instruction came in handy for me when I took a trip down the Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River last summer. I was seated in the back next to the guide and behind my daughter with my feet wedged under the tubes of the raft, as directed. We hit a huge wave that bounced me up into the air and off my seat. I wound up with my upper body in the river, but my foot was still wedged in the raft. I reached up (while still holding onto my paddle), and my daughter and the guide were able to easily pull me back in.

Below are some photos from that Class III-IV trip. Most of us wore wetsuits on this trip because the water was mostly snowmelt and very cold, so the suits would protect us from hypothermia if we had to swim any length of time in the river. This trip was an absolute blast—better than any rollercoaster ride I’ve been on!


If you’re safety-conscious, whitewater rafting can be a fun, exciting adventure. The safest way to try this adrenaline-pumping sport is by taking a commercial trip, so that you have a trained guide in the raft with you. If you follow your guide’s directions, the only deaths on the river you should experience are those that you’ll read about in Deadly Currents and future books in the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures mystery series.

Have you ever gone whitewater rafting? On what river? What was the experience like? If you haven’t gone, did this blog post make you more or less likely to want to go (I hope more!)? Remember, everyone who comments will be entered into a contest for a free copy of Deadly Currents.
Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series (A Real Basket Case, a 2007 Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, and To Hell in a Handbasket, 2009) as well as the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures mystery series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner. Beth lives in Colorado and enjoys its many outdoor activities. Please visit her blog and go to her website for a list of other stops are on her virtual book tour. You can order an autographed copy of Deadly Currents from Black Cat Books (

Friday, March 11, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

By now I should be v...e...r...y m...e...l...l...o...w.  After all, I've just come back from a wonderful vacation, touring the ruined homes of my Irish forefathers (and mothers), wallowing in views of field and sea, talking to various sheep (who delight in strolling across the lane in front of your rental car) and cattle.  Jet lag?  Piffle--we're too hung up on time anyway.

That was the way I opened the draft blog post I neatly scripted before I left.  Uh, small problem:  the mellow part didn't quite happen because I managed to trip over a step that I didn't see and broke my ankle in two places (all sympathy gratefully accepted, as well as instructions on how to use those bleeping crutches).  So I spent three days learning the intimate details of Irish health care.  To be fair, the hospital staff was delightful and supportive, the place was scrupulously clean.  The problem was:  too few hospitals (the one I was in serves a substantial portion of the southwest part of the country), and too few beds in those.  The largest bottleneck was waiting for a bed--any bed, anywhere--to open up so we could move forward with treatment.

But this was a working vacation, not a sightseeing jaunt, and nothing was wasted.  As I may have mentioned, I'll be writing a new Irish-based series, whose first book will appear in 2012. My reason for making this trip was to listen to people--both how they talk, and what they say.  I hadn't been here for over ten years--time for the Celtic Tiger to be born and die.  Over here (yes, I'm still here, for the next 36 hours or so), it's as though they took all the financial issues that have beset the US and compressed them into a much shorter time period, except the Irish banks wer in much worse shape.

So sitting in waiting rooms (note:  at least on a weekday, the emergency room was notably free of gore, violence and barfing), or parked on a gurney in the hallway, or in the six-person ward I finally ended up in, I could listen, and I could talk to people.  I met a nice couple who live in a Gaelteacht, where Irish is the predominant language; I listened to a lovely grandmother talk about her football favorites.  Once I broke out (basically I said, put a cast on it and I'll deal with it all later), I talked to people in pubs and restaurants--a cast (or "plaster" as they call it here) is a great conversation-starter.  It fascinated one small girl, who looked exactly like you'd want a small Irish girl to look, including the lovely red hair.  I was gifted with a free night at the wonderful cottage we rented, which sits high atop a hill with wonderful views on all sides--and the land on which it sits once belonged to a Connolly--and  iit was barely a mile from where my grandfather was born. 

No way was I going to let a little  thing like a broken ankle send me home.

Would my readers know if I never spent any time here? I hope so.  As a writer you're supposed to notice details--the ones that capture the spirit of a thing or a place, and let you communicate it with the fewest possible words and still snag the imagination of your reader. If I slapped together some stereotypes and called it "Irish," I'd be insulting the people here and shortchanging my readers.  This isn't Disneyworld East with shamrocks (although the Disney family did originate in Ireland), this is a place populated by real people, who happen to be very welcoming.  Plus you keep stumbling over Neolithic stone circles and ruined medieval castles. 
Don't worry--once I make it back I'll give you all the pretty pictures and such.  And I've already got in mind a short story set in the emergency room...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taking revision to the next level

Elizabeth Zelvin

I continue to be amazed and pleased that sixty years after I first said I wanted to be a writer and four years since my first mystery publication, the road to learning my craft, especially as a fiction writer, is still rolling out before me. I would much rather be a writer of whom readers say, “She gets better and better,” than one who “never lived up to the promise of her first book.” And while I’ll leave it to others to judge my published work, I’m proud to say that I’m getting better and better at revision.

I might never have understood that revision is an essential part of writing if I had never taken the risk of subjecting my work to critique. I can’t say this didn’t come up until I started writing fiction. Back in the 1970s, when I was actively writing poetry, I was part of a leaderless workshop group that met monthly to critique each other’s work. I remember the group’s very lively discussion of one of my poems. It was a divorce poem (murder mysteries aren’t the only way a writer can get revenge) that later appeared in my first book. The memorable part is that when the group got through with it, and I’d gone back and rewritten it incorporating their suggestions, it was exactly the same poem—except that all the words were different.

I did a lot of tinkering with my first mystery while it was making the rounds for four years, having made the mistake of sending out my first draft. But the big revision came when an editor with a major publisher told me one of my alternating co-protagonists was terrific, but the other would do much better as a sidekick. This opportunity was too good not to grab, especially as I’d had a lot of rejections by that time. I had to rethink half the chapters and decide in each of them whether to give the scene to the other protagonist, tell it from his point of view, or turn it into a close third-person scene for the sidekick. It made the manuscript much, much better, and another editor at the same house eventually took it. Although it was an enormous revision, I found it went a lot quicker than writing the first draft. I already knew the story—I just had to change the words.

My most recent major revision, of a novel about a young marrano sailor with Columbus, has proved a voyage of discovery far beyond my previous horizons. The first draft itself presented some challenges, as this is my first historical novel and meant for a YA (young adult) audience, though my protagonist originally appeared in two short stories for adults in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It can be categorized as suspense, so it’s the first novel I’ve written (out of eight, if you count the unpublished ones) that doesn’t rely on the structure of a mystery: crime, investigation, climax, and solution. On the other hand, because it’s based on history that is well documented in some respects that comes from a limited number of primary sources, I was putting flesh on the skeleton of what really happened to such and such real people on such and such dates, and, to change the metaphor, weaving into all that my fictional characters and their story.

I had my protagonist and his sister in my head for more than a year before I wrote the story. When they talked to me, I’d jot down whatever they said. And I was reading and rereading my sources and becoming familiar with the chronology of the historical events. I wrote the first draft easily—first time that’s ever happened—and gave it to four readers, all published writers, including two who’d written historical novels and one who was a high school English teacher and thus familiar with what teens or “young adults” like to read. I’d expected critique, but three of the four responded more as enthusiastic readers. The fourth thought the first half of the book needed work. That was just one person’s opinion—until my agent read it and agreed.

I rewrote. I tried to make the scenes more suspenseful. I added action, texture, and a character or two. I sent it to my agent, who said it still lacked adequate suspense. I had to think more about pace and action. I understood that giving the first half of the story as much momentum as the second was crucial. There’s consensus that I got the second half, the part in the Indies, right the first time. But to get there, I had to get the reader onto the NiƱa, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria (metaphorically only: the novel is about the second voyage) willing to hang on and cross that ocean. The most dramatic events in the Indies actually happened. But I had to engage readers and keep them turning pages as my fictional characters make their way across Spain, having fictional adventures.

First, I was afraid I couldn’t do it. (But then, like many writers, I always think I can’t.) Then I realized I had to start the story in a different place. I had to take sections—multi-part scenes—in which the narrative moved gently along and make something happen, something dramatic, conflictual, suspenseful. I started with a nice clean hard copy of my previous draft. But I soon discovered that I wasn’t editing. I had to retell these parts of the story from scratch, without referring to the old text. This time, revision meant rewriting. To my surprise, it went as smoothly as creating the first draft had. Although I was making up new incidents, I knew the characters and the story well enough to choose among various ways that I might tell it.

The biggest surprise is one I attribute to all the years of writing and revising and trying to be open to critique and hearing other writers talk about their craft leading up to this moment when I absolutely had to change what I’d written to something better. You know how writers struggle with the need to “kill their darlings”? We hate to relinquish the well-turned phrase, the sparkling line of dialogue, the oh-so-clever joke. My revelation: there were hardly any darlings at all that I couldn’t bear to let go. And that freed me to write the same story with not only different scenes and incidents, but different (and I hope better) words.