Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Pebble in My Shoe

by guest Camille Minichino

I can't be sure what Edgar Allan Poe meant by this quote: "The past is a pebble in my shoe," but the sentiment fits me, too.

Maybe it's because my high school history teacher's primary duty was to coach the football team to victory. (He failed at that, too.)

But I can't blame Mr. T. forever. I've had ample time to visit the past in a meaningful way, to learn the details of wars, to imagine lunch with the greats of bygone ages.

In his latest movie, "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen takes us on a trip to the past, giving a contemporary screenwriter a chance to cavort with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others from the surveys of English literature even physics majors were required to take.

We see this “poll question” all the time: if you could visit the past, whom would you have lunch with?

Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind. I might ask him if he could sleep at night after writing the "The Tell-Tale Heart." I couldn't, after reading, the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. The same with "The Cask of Amontillado." I was young enough to worry myself sick that I'd hurt someone enough for him to take that level of revenge.

But if I ever did have a chance to time travel, I'd go forward, not back.

I don't want to revisit the time when some women had their lower ribs surgically removed to achieve a more pleasing (to whom?) waistline. And I already know all I want to about the days before plumbing and the zipper and all the iStuff.

I'd like to know what becomes of the Kindle.

It's fun to have my slide rule hanging in my office, as a reminder of earlier times, but I wouldn't want to give up my new 27-inch iMac!

I'd love to go away for a while and rest, and then come back and talk to my grandchildren’s grandchildren. That would put us at around 2060.

Some questions for them:

1. Has there been a First Gentleman in the White House yet?

2. What did Sue Grafton do after Z and how many Reacher novels were there in all?

3. What became of all the little kids at the mall whose mommies told them "Good job!" just for grabbing the sippy cup?

4. Did Keira Knightley’s face ever wrinkle?

5. What’s the official language of the United States?

. . .  and more.

Of course I could read sci fi and get someone's idea of the future, or I could write it and make my own predictions.

But I want to know what actually happens, whether there'll be paper books in the year 2100, and did we ever give peace a chance?

What would you want to know?

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer, the author of The Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of 'The Square Root of Murder," debuting July 2011, is on her website:

Friday, July 29, 2011

Anti-Social Networking

by Sheila Connolly

Conventional wisdom these days would have us believe that writers must establish and maintain a presence on a variety of social networks, in order to attract fans and readers.  I'll be happy to admit that it's a good way of connecting with people you don't know (those of us who do know each other spend a lot of time communicating with each other already).  At the same time, maintaining that visibility takes time and persistence.

I try to pop in on Facebook fairly consistently, if not often.  That other big one that starts with a T?  It had been months since I visited, and when I tried this month, I found it didn't like me any more.

I've had an account for a while, and I've been meaning to study all the simplified guides for dummies that helpful friends have provided and learn to use it effectively, but I haven't had the time (I thought overhauling my website, which I hadn't updated in a shamefully long time, was more important).  When I finally took a look at the T-place (I'm trying not to attract their attention, since we have a rather odd dialogue going now, of which more to come), I found that the last comment there was from a source which has been identified (heck, has identified itself, and proudly) as a mega-hacker.  Maybe I should feel honored to be a target, but the net result was that my account no longer recognizes me.  (No, I haven't changed my email; yes, for those of you who are concerned, I changed my password on my other unrelated accounts.)

So I entered into a conversation with the Help people (at least I think they're people--these days, who knows?) at T.  To their credit, they have responded, more than once.  To their shame, they keep giving me the same instructions to change my password, which I have now done four times.  It does not solve the problem.  I tell them that, and they tell me they can't reconstruct my problem--everything looks fine to them (those hackers must be good!).  I even enlisted a friend with a functioning account to intercede on my behalf, and they still came back with the same non-solution.  Stay tuned for further developments--it's an ongoing dialogue.

Anyway, it's clear to me that this hacking has made my email available to an interesting assortment of outside parties, who have chosen to use it to reach out to me.  I wish I had been keeping a list of their tag lines (no, I have not opened anything that I don't recognize!  And most of these are easy to identify as bogus.).  What is intriguing is the stated purpose of all these emails.

For a change, they aren't offering me sexual aids (that's a different hacker, who I think has finally given up on me, although I kind of miss the creative taglines hinting at certain body parts and physical acts).  Most of the current crop wants to give me money.  And not just modest money, but millions.  It's sitting in accounts somewhere else in the world, just waiting for me to claim it, if only I give the sender all my financial data and my Social Security number.  Wouldn't it be grand if I had won all the things they tell me I have?  I could retire to an island in the sun.  Heck, I could buy an island in the sun.  Today's entry was: CAN YOU PARTNER WITH ME ON THIS TRANSFER OF $23.5 MILLION.  Why do they think I could help?

What strikes me as more curious is how badly written these taglines are.  They are rife with misspellings and grammatic flaws.  They are often written in ALL CAPS.  They are functionally illiterate.  Which seems odd, since if they are writing me, they know that I have a computer and an email account, so I must have some modest intelligence.  Why couldn't a scammer find someone (who speaks English) to spell-check his or her work?  It's like they don't want people to open their clearly fraudulent emails.

So who, in this phobic world, actually opens these things?  Are there enough gullible people to make it worth the while of those hopeful scammers out there?  Sure, it doesn't cost them much to push out a mass email from pilfered lists, but they must assume there is some promise of success in luring in clueless wishful thinkers.

As far as I can tell, the best solution is to scrub the T account I have (if it will recognize me well enough to allow me to do that) and start all over again.  Which means losing whatever friends I have accumulated--which probably includes a lot of people wanting to sell me something, including their bodies.

Tell me again why I want to be part of this?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Keeping Pace with Technology

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I wrote the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober back in 2002, my techie character, Jimmy, had to show his girlfriend, Barbara, how to look something up on Google. By the time the book was published in 2008, “google” had become a verb and an activity in which a savvy New York professional woman would certainly need no instruction.

In the first draft of Death Will Extend Your Vacation, written in the summer of 2007 and set in the Hamptons, Jimmy was considered an eccentric for insisting on taking his computer to the beach. I thought it was rather daring of him to insist on lugging his computer out to the East End of Long Island and setting it up in a tangle of cables and peripherals. At some point what I originally envisioned as a desktop became a much more portable laptop. However, neither Jimmy nor I wanted to risk getting sand into the laptop, so when Barbara dragged him to the beach, he took a PDA (personal digital assistant, if you’ve always wondered) along. It wasn’t clear whether he could access the Internet on it, but at least he could function, tapping happily away while Barbara and my protagonist, Bruce, swam and schmoozed with the gang of recovering alcoholics, codependents, and other members of twelve-step programs I created to serve as victims and suspects.

Death Will Extend Your Vacation was accepted for publication early in 2011 and is slated to appear in April 2012. While the manuscript was being edited, it occurred to me that nobody talks about PDAs any more, so I upgraded Jimmy to a netbook, one of the pint-size laptops that first came on the market in the fall of 2008 and soon appeared all over. They were especially popular with the write-in-Starbucks crowd. I got mine in 2009, a classy little dark-red Acer that I assumed would be the latest big thing for a while. Wrong!

Amazon’s Kindle first appeared in 2007, changing the face of publishing and reading itself forever. I remember this, no matter how my aging memory deteriorates, because when I signed the contract for Death Will Get You Sober, the electronic rights were not considered very important, and by the time I signed the contract for Death Will Help You Leave Him, they were. Kindle and its competitors affected us primarily as readers—and as authors who wanted readers to buy our books. But once the e-readers started busting out all over like the proverbial June, could the iPad and its ilk—featherweight tablets that functioned as both e-readers and computers—be far behind?

I had almost completed my response to the copy editor’s queries on Death Will Extend Your Vacation—my last chance to make changes before the manuscript is set in type (an archaic phrase in itself)—when I realized that if Jimmy is really a computer buff (much less a computer genius, which I kind of regret labeling him way back when), he wouldn’t be caught dead on the beach in 2012 (“now” for people who will read the book when it comes out) with anything less than an iPad. It’s too late to do anything about the fact that the sunbathers all around him should be thumbing away on their smartphones. Oh, well. Once print books become extinct, authors will be able to make these changes even after publication by accessing and editing their e-books.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's ahead for mass market paperbacks?

Sandra Parshall

Is the mass market paperback going the way of the dodo?

A lot of people think so, and sales data appear to support those negative predictions. Mass market sales plunged 26.6% in the first half of 2011 in outlets monitored by Nielsen BookScan. Any format that loses more than a quarter of its market in six months is in trouble. By contrast, hardcover sales dropped 9.5% and trade paperbacks fell 6.8%.

Evidence of weakness also showed up in the bestseller reports for 2010. According to Publishers Weekly, mass market peaked in 2005, when 131 titles sold over 500,000 copies each and 39 titles sold more than a million copies. In 2010, only 58 titles passed the 500,000-copy mark and six sold more than a million. Two of those six were Stieg Larsson books. The others were authored by Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, and Janet Evanovich. The Larsson books were also available in trade paperback – and sold better in that format than in mass market.

Paperback books have been around in various forms since the 19th century, and the modern mass market paperback has been part of our world since British publisher Allen Lane launched Penguin Books in 1935. The 1938 Pocket Books proof-of-concept edition of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck was the first paperback book printed in the United States. In 1950 Gold Medal Books became the first imprint to publish original works in paperback.

Today some imprints, such as Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian, produce more paperback originals (pbo) than hardcovers. Because the price is low, publishers and authors have to sell a lot of copies to make much money. Author royalties on paperbacks are as low as 6 to 8%, compared to 10 to 15% on hardcovers.

Why are readers abandoning inexpensive paperbacks? It’s not always about money. E-books have had a major impact, even though the big publishers may charge as much for a download of a new book as for the print version. Trade paperbacks are also stealing readers away from the cheaper mass market. Readers cite the awkward shape of mmpb, the small print, the general flimsiness of the books, the tendency of some publishers to run the type into the gutter between pages, forcing readers to break a book’s spine to see all the words. They prefer the larger size of trade paperback, although trade costs more.

By now we’re so used to hearing about turmoil in publishing that every prediction of disaster provokes a yawn, and when the change actually comes about we’re already looking ahead to the next big upheaval. Nobody believes print books will totally disappear. But certain formats may fall by the wayside, and mass market paperback looks more and more like the first victim.

What do you think? Five years from now, will publishers still be producing millions of copies of pocket-sized books with small type that runs into the gutter? If mass market paperbacks vanish, will you miss them? Will you buy  your favorite pbo writers’ novels in trade, hardcover, or e-book format?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Scratching the Creative Itch

Sharon Wildwind

This week I’m leading off with the weekly quote:

That inner itch to just do it is the artist’s compass. Art is not linear, and neither is the artist’s life. There are no certain routes. You do not become a novelist by moving from A to B to C.
~Julia Cameron, writer, playwright, musical composer; Walking in This World

How old you were the first time you scratched that creative inner itch?

I was about nine. I rewrote the ending of one of the sub-plots in South Pacific so that Lt. Cable didn’t die on the spying mission, but lived to marry Liat, and they lived happily ever after.

I’m a little hazy on why a nine-year old child was taken to see South Pacific. The best I can come up with—and this may be scratching that itch again—was that my mother had acted in little theater before she got married. She wanted a night out with the girls, AKA her friends from the theater company. One of their number had the lead role of Nellie Forbush, so naturally they wanted to see the play.

The only other play I’d seen was the school Christmas pageant. It’s hard to appreciate the nuances of drama from the stage, especially while worrying if my tissue paper-and-coat-hanger angel wings were going to remain in place until the Wise Men arrived. I was eager to see a real play. Plus, we went to dinner with my mother’s friends, and I knew we weren’t going to get home until way past my bedtime. This seemed like a good deal all around.

Before the curtain rose, my mother warned me that this wasn’t like television. If I got bored, there was no way to change channels. I’d have to sit quietly until the end because it was impolite to leave in the middle of a performance. She promised that if I behaved, she’d take me back stage afterwards to meet the woman who played Nellie. She also warned me that there would be some loud gunfire, but that it was fake guns, like my cap pistol, and if the sound bothered me, I could cover my ears.

From the moment the curtain went up, I was in heaven. A play was so much more interesting than television. The costumes were like adults playing dress-up. There were actors a few away from my seat, saying and doing things to make the story happen. Nellie washed her hair, right on stage, with real soap and water. When Emile and Lieutenant Cable went off to spy on the Japanese ship movements, the actors performed behind a gauze curtain set up on one side of the stage. I figured out that was supposed to show that they were in another place, which I thought was very clever.

There was the predicted gunfire. Emile sent a radio message that Lt. Cable had been killed, and my heart broke. I told myself that he wasn’t really dead and that he would show up before the play ended. I waited, and waited, and waited, but he never showed up. The curtain came down and I realized he was going to stay dead.

That was so unfair. He and Liat had been in love with each other and they should have been allowed to get married.

When my mother took me back stage to meet her friend, I looked all around for the actor who had played Lieutenant Cable. Perhaps if I had seen him, I’d have made the connection that his death, like the gunfire, was fake. But when we left the theater without seeing him, it seemed as if he were really dead.

I didn’t like that idea at all.

When we got home, it was way past my bedtime, but instead of going to sleep, I took a notebook, ball point pen, and flashlight to bed with me and wrote and wrote until I’d manage to not only resurrect Lt. Cable, but to make him a hero who won a medal, and he and Liat got married, had lots of children, and lived long, happy lives.

Fortunately, I was blissfully unaware that the Civil Rights movement was about to explode around us, and that sub-plots featuring interracial love were so controversial that the state of Georgia had introduced legislation describing South Pacific as subversive and communist, thus preventing its production in that state.

I knew what the story should be, and I also realized it was within my power to write it a different way if I wanted to do that. All I had to do was just do it. That was a mighty powerful itch that got scratched that night.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Days of Louise Brown

by Julia Buckley
Many blog readers might recall this significant anniversary: 33 years ago today, Louise Brown became the world's first "test-tube baby." Back then the term alone was enough to send some people into a panic, wondering how a baby could be grown in a test tube. But of course we know it now as in-vitro fertilization, and Louise was the first successful birth, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Robert Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe, who teamed up in the seventies in an effort to successfully achieve the fertilization of an egg in a laboratory.

Louise's parents had tried for nine years to conceive a child; they had a second daughter after Louise who was also conceived through IVF.

When Louise was conceived, there was much debate about the morality of the procedure which had produced her, and fear mongers suggested that this was the beginning of a slippery moral slope which boded ill for the future of mankind.

When Louise was born, however, she was just as adorable as any other baby, and nothing about her looked amiss. Around the world, people who had been told they could not conceive a child were suddenly given new hope. According to an IVF website:

"In June 1980, an Australian team led by Alan Trounson, produced that country’s first (and the world’s third) IVF baby. In the United States, Howard and Georgianna Jones’ IVF program in Norfolk, VA produced this country’s first IVF baby, born December 28, 1981. This also marked the return of injectable fertility drug to help stimulate an IVF pregnancy. Since the introduction of IVF, it is estimated that there have been millions IVF babies born worldwide. IVF babies now make up a measurable percentage of the total births in developed countries. Some of these children, now grown to adulthood, have begun to have their own children, IVF's second generation."

Louise Brown's own son, Cameron, was conceived without any fertility treatments at all; he was born in 2006.

She spoke about him in a BBC interview when she turned 30. You can view the video here:

Elizabeth Jordan Carr was the first American IVF baby; she was born on December 28, 1981. She was the world's fifteenth baby born through in vitro fertilization. Carr also has one son, Trevor James, and he too was conceived naturally.

So which of you remember the days of Louise Brown mania?

(Photo link here).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Being a Working Writer

Jeri Westerson

I’m feeling like a full time writer at last! I edited one manuscript and sent it off to my agent. And then I finished up the writing of another manuscript in another series I write under a different name, and sent that off to my editor. While waiting for the agent comments, I received notes back from the editor of the other. And when that’s done and sent, I will start the rewriting of yet a third series I hope to send off to St. Martin’s, the first of which is called OSWALD THE THIEF, a funny and fast-paced caper series about thieves and con men, a sort of Ocean’s 11 in the Middle Ages. And then, I’m still trying to get ideas for some short stories I can send to magazines or compile into my own anthology to self-publish. And during all that, I still have a slew of public appearances to make in and around southern California.


It’s good to be busy. And really, I am enjoying it, even through the grumbling. It’s been a long time since I had a career I enjoyed and not just a job. How do I do it? Well, by treating it like a career.

When I get up in the morning before the coffee is done brewing, I start in on emails. Good to correspond early with those on the east coast since they’re already at work. Then there’s hitting Facebook (both pages, one for Crispin and one for my gay mystery series) to see what’s going on there, and then perhaps checking in on my other blogs and putting up a post or two.

Once hubby is out of the shower and off to work, it’s my turn to get cleaned up. By then, it’s about nine and I can sit down to write. If I’ve got a new project before me, I begin outlining. With at least three series on the table (that’s three books a year), I have to be organized. I’ll never make my deadlines if I’m not. That means, for me, having an outline. Not a particularly detailed one, but I take the one that I wrote for my publisher and expand on it, dividing it into chapters, adding details and other plot twists as they occur to me. And once that is down, I see the areas I need to research. I map those out and if I can’t utilize the books I already have at home—and I have many, believe me—I get on the internet and scope out the titles I need to find. To get those, I sometimes go to my historical lifeline, a medieval listserv of medievalists—scholars, professors, historians from around the world—who communicate and share ideas. I might ask the list what is the best secondary source to get the info I need and they will chime in with recommended texts. I check my local university library online to see if they have it in their stacks and then head out. Sometimes I’m lucky, and the source I want is out of copyright. If that’s the case, then Google Books has it and I can download a pdf right to my very own computer. And if it’s not out of copyright, I can sometimes still find it on Google Books and get to read just the pages I am after (since they blank out every few pages or so).

The research part might take a few weeks to get the info and get it organized. But I can’t delay. I’ve got to get cracking on the manuscript. I set myself the goal of a minimum of ten pages a day. If I meet that goal—which I usually do around three o’clock, I can quit for the day or, if I’m not mentally exhausted and I’m on a roll, I can keep going. Sometimes I don’t quite meet that goal, but it all seems to work out. In about two to three months I have a working draft (since I rewrite and continue to research while I write. I lose days to promotion when I have a lot of driving to do, but as I’m only aiming for a 300 page manuscript, it works out to about two to three months).

In between all of that are public appearances. I do a lot of library and literary luncheon appearances to get my name out there (just take a peek here to see if I’ll be in your area). That’s not the book tour for the newest release. That’s just the everyday appearance schedule. The book tour for TROUBLED BONES begins with a big party or book launch at my favorite indie in Pasadena, Vroman’s, complete with dueling knights and free-flowing mead. After that I’ll be either driving to my next venue or hopping onto planes every weekend in October and some in November. Does the publisher pay for this? Nope.

It’s all part of the game of writing and staying published. It’s part of the job. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sound of the Past

by Sheila Connolly

Recently, in my quest to find air-conditioned places to hang out (my house isn't), I wandered into our local Antiques Emporium, in the middle of our small town.  That's a rather grand term for a collection of assorted stuff (everything from clothes to china to street signs to stuffed bears), managed by a scruffy bunch of guys with grizzled ponytails who I suspect are bikers in their off hours.  It's housed in what I think was once a grocery store, and it's big.  And cluttered.  And a great place to waste an hour or two.

One of my finds--I used them as Lula
and Nettie, the last Warrens to live
in my heroine's inherited house
I go in usually to look for "faces":  old photographs of unidentified people who interest me, and who I use for inspiration for my characters.  It's an inexpensive indulgence (and this time I also found a 1910 postcard of the town where I live--amazing how little it has changed in a century).  I've been known to buy cookware--for example, a giant baking pan for Emily Dickinson's Black Cake recipe, which will serve an army.

But this time I found something new:  music boxes.  I don't mean those cute little hand-held devices with a cylinder with spikes, although we probably all have one or more lurking somewhere in our own homes.  Nor do I mean the classic pink jewelry box with the twirling ballerina.  I'm talking big, industrial size music boxes, with interchangeable disks over a foot wide.  Serious stuff.

I didn't notice them at first, because there were so many other distractions in the store.  It was only when I was on my way out (clutching my new photo treasures) that I stopped and realized how many of them there were, lining the main path into the store.  I stopped and stared.  The sole guy on desk duty that day must have noticed my interest and we started talking.  Turns out he's a serious music box collector, and his partner at home (I didn't ask for details) had drawn the line and said "no more!"  I don't think he even wanted to sell them, but he wanted to be able to see and enjoy them.

And then I asked, "could you play one?"  He did, and I was transfixed.  The sound is nothing short of gorgeous.  So we talked some more, and he was explaining the prize of his collection:  a seven-foot-tall model in an ornate wooden case (we're talking spindles and carvings and gewgaws, oh my)--with a slot on the side for coins.  Yes, this was a pay-per-play model; the slot was labeled "2 pfennig."  According to the avid collector, this was the jukebox of its day.  Two pfennig would buy you about five minutes of play.

Picture, if you will, a German brewhouse (or whatever the German equivalent of a pub or bar was circa 1900).  This elegant machine provided the musical backdrop.  Now think of our modern version, with its discreet CD player--which more often than not blasts loud rock, amping up the noise in the place (I may be wrong:  I don't hang out in a lot of bars).  Compare that to the rich and resonant sound of the elderly disk player.

And, funnily enough, the songs were much happier than modern ones.  No dark, draggy tunes, but upbeat cheerful ones (to encourage more beer drinking?).  And as I stood there in the cluttered, messy, chaotic antique store, I felt as though I was hearing a tiny piece of a lost world.  How rare is that? 

We as writers are always collecting bits and pieces like this, because it is the details that make a story come alive.  In One Bad Apple I wrote about a local historical society that was crammed with somebody's donated collection of stuffed creatures, large and small, stuck anywhere there was room.  It's real--I couldn't make up something like that.  It takes up maybe two lines of the book, but it's a vivid image--all those beady glass eyes watching anybody who enters the building.  We need to use all our senses--vision, smell, hearing--to make a description resonate.  And you never know where you'll find inspiration.

What single brief image from a book stands out in your memory, long after you've read the book?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Too old is ten years more than me!

Elizabeth Zelvin

The expression as I first heard it was “middle age is ten years more than me.” I used it as the punch line of a very clever song, “Middle Age,” that I wrote at the age of forty-five. Over the years, I’ve revised the song several times, adding verses as things got more difficult or impossible, creaked, ached, fell out or off, and popped up on my body and into my mind. The current version, which will appear on my album Outrageous Older Woman, is retitled “Creeping Age,” and the punch line is: “Too damn old is ten years more than me!”

The above is an explanatory preface to my justifiable rant about mysteries in which the protagonist, or perhaps a sidekick or quirky relative, is described as elderly, or alternatively, spry or feisty and resentful about being perceived as elderly—and then revealed as being in her sixties. It’s usually “her,” and the offending books are usually cozies, most often those their authors or publishers label humorous. I love my cozy writer friends, but if a book is really funny, it doesn’t need a label. Readers will figure it out when it makes them laugh. The term “humorous” is as unnecessary and irritating to some of us as the laugh track on a TV sitcom. For me, I’m less likely to find something funny if I’m coached to do so.

Oddly, the same writers who clearly consider their characters in their sixties over the hill sometimes make the currently fashionable comment that “sixty is the new thirty,” or as I recently read in one such work, “sixty is the new forty.” If they really believe the latter, the words elderly, spry, and feisty are out of place. Forty-year-olds have careers. They are sexually active without having to giggle about it. They acquire new knowledge and continue to develop emotionally. The same can be said of the women I know, including myself, who are eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

In the revered Nero Wolfe books, published between 1934 and 1974, Archie Goodwin has a way of referring to an older woman as “on the shady side of thirty.” When such a woman is attractive, he remarks on it with surprise. If you think about it, the fact that this sounds fairly absurd today (unless, perhaps, you’re a nineteen-year-old boy) illuminates the way in which sixty really has become the new thirty in our day. I’m not denying that some things, including my memory and my joints, don’t work as well at sixty-seven as they did when I was younger. But for heaven’s sake, write—and treat—women my age as grownups, not little old ladies.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Avoiding Mistakes in Private Eye Fiction

by Colleen Collins & Shaun Kaufman
Authors of How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths 

As private investigators, we both live the investigative life and love to read stories about it, too. The problem with being PIs is that we’re predisposed to catching investigative bloopers in stories, from the blatantly illegal to the curiously illogical.  We thought it’d be helpful to shed light on a few of these gaffes.

Below are five mistakes we’ve recently read in crime stories. We’ve also offered ideas for fixes, too.

Mistake #1: Successfully following a vehicle for hours, or an entire day, especially in a car the subject has seen and suspects might be following him. Mobile or rolling surveillances (surveillances conducted in vehicles) are difficult – not only does the investigator not know the subject’s destination, there are diverse traffic conditions, missed stop lights, unexpected turns, varying driving speeds and other factors. How to fix? 

Here’s a few ideas:

Have plausible reasons the sleuth successfully tracks a vehicle for long periods. (Maybe the sleuth has an idea of the subject’s routine or hangouts?)

The surveillance is conducted over a reasonable amount of time, not hours and hours.

Maybe the investigator asks a pal to help out – the success rate for a mobile surveillance increases significantly when there are two investigators, two vehicles.  Even an extra person in one vehicle is helpful – the second person can check online maps and directions, be watching traffic and other activities, operate cameras, even jump out of the vehicle and conduct foot surveillance if necessary.

Our book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths has sections on both stationary and mobile surveillances with techniques for conducting both. also has books on a wide variety of investigative topics, including surveillances.

Mistake #2: If a character states a legality, make sure it’s really a legality. One of us just read a story where a lead character claimed a restraining order didn’t take effect until after the petitioner and respondent left the courtroom. Actually, a temporary retraining order is already in effect when the parties enter the courtroom for the final restraining order hearing. 

A writer can check a legality by asking a lawyer, paralegal or a reference librarian at a public or law library.

Mistake #3: Impossible investigative feat. In a recent story, a critical clue was provided by a man using a walker who was forced to jump out of the way of a speeding car (which was making a turn) on a dark street in the middle of the night. While jumping and dealing with the walker, he also managed to memorize the license plate number of the speeding car making the turn. It didn’t feel real, it felt convenient.

We’ve used binoculars in the middle of the night on surveillance and still not been able to document license plate numbers, especially from a speeding car making a turn. How to fix? It’d be helpful for a writer to re-enact a scenario, see the inherent difficulties in a situation and develop plausible actions.

Mistake #4: Caller IDs can lie. These days, “faking” a caller ID (also called “spoofing”) is a service offered by numerous Internet sites – for example,, and In a recent story we read, a seasoned private investigator received a threatening call from a stranger. The PI read the number on his caller ID, recognized it as being a close friend’s number, and wondered how the caller had obtained his friend’s cell phone. Considering how prevalent spoofing is, it surprised us this experienced PI didn’t immediately guess the number had been spoofed – and that maybe the caller had spoofed the PI’s friend’s number to encourage the PI to answer the phone.  Which, after reading further, was exactly what had happened.

The only “fix” for this is for writers to better understand the world of spoofing. It doesn’t cost much to sign up for a spoofing service – a writer can experiment with it, see how it works and apply the technique in the story.

Mistake #5: Trash is ripe with clues. Sometimes we wonder why we don’t read about more fictional sleuths rummaging in trash for clues – and then sometimes we wonder why a savvy sleuth has so blithely ignored a significant whiff of the truth.

For example, in a recent story a PI, hot on the trail of a crime, noticed a small bag of garbage lying on her front porch and wondered if that was accidental or if it meant something.  Hello?  A gift of garbage and she wonders if it’s significant? The PI carried the trash around for several hours until someone else (a non-PI) said, “Hey, there might be a clue in that trash!”  Guess what?  There was!

No fix here except to recommend a writer understand that most PIs understand the value of trash hits. We discuss trash hits in detail in our book. Also, here’s a link to an article Colleen recently wrote about conducting trash hits:

Thank you to Sandra Parshall and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for hosting us today. Feel free to post a comment or ask a question – at the end of the day, we’ll pick a name at random from the comments and forward that person a Kindle version of How to Write a Dick. If you don’t have a Kindle device, there are free, easily downloadable Kindle apps for PCs and Macs.

Colleen Collins co-owns Highlands Investigations in Denver, Colorado. Her articles on private investigations have appeared in PI Magazine, Pursuit Magazine, and other publications. She's written 20 novels for Harlequin and Dorchester and has spoken at regional and national conferences about writing private eyes in fiction.

 Shaun Kaufman co-owns Highlands Investigations, and has worked in and around the criminal justice field for over 30 years as a former trial attorney and a current investigator. He's published articles in PI Magazine, the Denver Law Review and other publications, and has presented workshops on a wide variety of investigative topics, including crime scenes, how PIs effectively testify in trials and gang evidence.
How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths is available on:

Kindle: (shortened url: )
Nook: (shortened url:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Waiting for the Paint to Dry

Sharon Wildwind

[My apologies for the delay in posting. My service provider went down last night and no amount of cajoling, spells, or waiving my princess wand around could make any connection to the Internet until now.]

Writing is about grammar, spelling, and a flow of ideas, isn’t it?

Yes, in part, but it’s also about waiting for the paint to dry.

I am genetically-incapable of walking past a Wet Paint sign without touching the forbidden surface. When I pull away my paint-encrusted fingertip and say, “I guess it hasn’t dried yet,” my husband’s stock reply is, “Duh!”

William Perhudoff, a Canadian abstract painter is 93-years old and still painting. His vibrant, colorful works gained national attention in the 1970s. Even as his career flourished, Perhudoff continued to farm in Saskatchewan.

The reason for my life-long dedication to farming was that I had to do something while waiting for the paint to dry.
~William Perhudoff

Unfortunately, as writers we don’t have a tactile clue to tell us when our writing has “dried” or more likely “dried up.” Grammar, spelling, and idea flow aside, a lot of writing is about knowing when to start, knowing when to stop, and having enough productive and fun distractions to keep us from writing the life out of our work.

To be a good writer means developing habitual ways of getting our body in a chair, our fingers on a keyboard or wrapped around a pen, our head in a writing space, and leaving all three there long enough and often enough to do productive work.

I’m getting better at finding the Zen or going into the Zone. This morning I sat down to develop characters. Next thing I knew, it was noon. I swear it had been nine o’clock just a couple of minutes before, but since I had substantial work done on two characters, in all likelihood three hours had past.

I’m not so good yet at pulling the plug before I get tired and cranky. I suspect the underlying metabolism is akin to a runner’s euphoria, which marathon runners experience when they cross the finish line. When writing is going really, really well, I have this certainty that I can do anything, absolutely anything and everything, for ever and ever. About half an hour later I feel out-of-sorts, if not downright depressed, because glucose levels and other chemicals are bouncing around my brain like ping-pong balls.

What I need is an early-warning system, something like those pop-up indicators embedded in holiday turkeys. When the indicator pops up, the bird is done. I want an early warning pop-up that says, “Stop writing this instant. If you write one more sentence, you are going to be so out of sorts that you won’t have any fun the rest of the day.”

At least, like Perhudoff, I have quite a few fun things to occupy myself between the time I climb out of the writing chair and the time I climb back in again. None of which, I’m relieved to say, involve agricultural odors, John Deere tractors, or wheat futures. For which, all things considered, I am very grateful.

Quote for the week:

Writing is a marathon. Warm up, write, cool down. Eat right. Drink water. Exercise for stamina, balance, and staying power.
~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer, and sometimes artist waiting for the paint to dry

Monday, July 18, 2011

Secret Agent Man, Where Are You?

by Julia Buckley

This summer I've found myself longing for a really good suspense flick--a new Bourne movie or even something like Disturbia, which tries to capture the excitement of earlier suspense movies (in this case, Rear Window). But aside from a few superhero rehashes (the most promising of which, Captain America, opens next weekend), there's not much for mystery lovers to see on the big screen this summer.

Considering how well a great thriller usually does at the Box Office, why aren't they coming out all the time? Considering how many mystery writers have written amazing, edge-of-your-seat novels, why isn't Hollywood snapping them up by the dozen? Instead, I go to the movies and am treated to trailers for movies so insipid I can't believe they made it past the discussion phase--including a re-make of Footloose in which the plot seems to be that, after a terrible car crash in a small town, the town fathers have outlawed dancing. At least that's what the really long advertisement suggests.

Therefore I've had to turn to Netflix to rediscover some old movies in hopes of getting my suspense fix. Last night we saw The Notorious Landlady (Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, 1962) which, although it is really not at all suspenseful in the modern way, has some lovely photography and moody shots of foggy London that helped to create atmosphere in this funny mystery. Novak's acting is terrible and Lemmon does too many comical double-takes, jutting out his chin to defy the world that says his sexy landlady may have committed murder. The movie is slow to start, but it picks up steam along the way and becomes a visual feast by the end, in a wonderful scene set in Penzance, with a British band playing Gilbert and Sullivan as a built-in soundtrack to the action.

We've also discovered some lovely French suspense films, including Tell No One, which is so labrynthine that you really have to pay attention to the subtitles.

But today I'm pulling out my box set of Secret Agent Man, (aka Danger Man) the series starring my first fantasy boyfriend, Patrick McGoohan. These stylish episodes have titles like "The Room in the Basement" in which "Embassy walls and diplomatic immunity hide the kidnapped colleague of agent John Drake."

Ah. Should be fun, and a nice alternative to some of the ridiculous attempts at moneymaking that are now in theatres.

Oh, and those secret agent men above, who love a good espionage flick more than I do, are now tall and unwilling to pose for their mother in fake movie posters. But in the nostalgic '90s they made awfully cute Danger Men, especially because they're wearing those coats over their pajamas. :)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Canada Calling: Jayne Barnard

Jayne Barnard is a lifelong historical mystery reader and has recently begun to write in that genre. It is fitting that she lives almost in the shadow of the Military Museums in Calgary. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in Canadian magazines and anthologies since 1990 and she was shortlisted for the 2011 Unhanged Arthur, awarded by the Crime Writers of Canada every year for best unpublished mystery manuscript.

Jayne grew up on military bases in Canada, the USA and Europe, where visiting historical battlefields was a regular weekend activity. After visiting the site of the Battle of Waterloo, she read Georgette Heyer’s acclaimed account of the battle in An Infamous Army. Heyer’s work in that novel and in The Spanish Bride showed Jayne that it was possible to tell deeply personal stories in the midst of accurate military history. It has taken her twenty years of learning the craft of fiction to begin to tell such stories effectively.

She won the Bloody Words 2011 Bony Pete short-story contest, for her story Each Canadian Son. Bony Pete is held each year in connection with the Bloody Words Convention. The contest is open only to registered attendees and the convention’s host city—in this case, Victoria, British Columbia—must figure in the story somehow. Any time period is allowed.

Her winning story was published in Monday Magazine, a weekly Victoria, British Columbia arts and entertainment magazine. Read her story here.

For those not familiar with the Dunsmuir family, James Dunsmuir (1851 – 1920) was the heir to a wealthy coal family, and a strident anti-unionist. His businesses had a huge impact on the British Columbia economy. Eventually Premiere (highest elected provincial official) and later Lieutenant Governor (the King’s representative) of British Columbia, he eventually retired to his mansion, Hatley Castle, in Victoria. After his death, Hatley Castle was, for many years, the Canadian Royal Roads Military College, which trained officers for the Canadian Navy.

Jayne says about Each Canadian Son:
Military action does not occur in a vacuum; it is intrinsic to the society that bred the politicians, the soldiers, and the ordinary citizens who sacrifice their loved ones to the machine of war. Each Canadian Son is not primarily a story of the military, it examines some unintended consequences of the jingo-ism deliberately whipped up for World War One. The Lusitania riots were not confined to Victoria, BC. They occurred in other cities across Canada and in Britain, but not with the destructive force or resulting societal disruption of the Victoria riots where Canadian soldiers faced down other Canadian soldiers in a form of martial law that could, briefly, have resulted in a civil war, and where many German-Canadian families took tremendous financial losses when they left Victoria forever in the aftermath.

Making that wider story known through the very real, very personal experience of a great-grandfather on the Victoria Police Department is an undertaking Georgette Heyer might have approved.

For more information about Jayne, visit the Unhanged Arthur site.

Friday, July 15, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

As a mystery writer, I have to do a certain amount of research.  That's fine with me, because once I aspired to be an academic art historian, and that requires a lot of research (including taking those terrible trips to peculiar foreign countries and struggling through dusty old museums and crumbling cathedrals--poor me). I love learning new things, whether or not I ever use them in a book.

The Roman Forum

But how do you know how much you need to know?  How do you know when to stop?

Let me tell you a true story.  Many years ago (twenty-six, to be exact), when my husband and I lived in California, I was enrolled in a University of California evening MBA program.  I was also working full-time, and I was pregnant and then gave birth my daughter, when I took a generous (ha!) eight-week maternity leave.  Let me say that I missed only one class, and took the make-up exam a week later (bringing along my own pillow).

In any case, one of my classes required a research paper, and I had an infant at home and no babysitter.  (This was before the Internet, remember.) There was no way I was going to be able to get to a library to do the research I needed. But...this was California, and we were much into recycling even then, so I had a three-foot stack of newspapers in the garage waiting to be bundled up and disposed of responsibly.  And that's where I did my research.  In the garage.

As I dimly remember it, the paper involved analyzing the inconsistent public positions regarding federal strategies for the regulation of the oil industry, or something like that.  And I pulled enough information from articles in that stack of newspapers to write a paper that received an A+ (the only one in my long academic career) and  enthusiatic personal comments from the dean of the business school.

There's a lesson in here somewhere:  you need to know only enough to be able to discuss something intelligently,  and you need to know the expectations of your audience.  You do not have to become an instant expert about Chinese porcelains of the early 17th century (leave that kind of thing to the academics); you need to be able to say that the blue-and-white piece lying in shards around the murder victim was most likely old and Chinese in origin.

That's not to say that you should skimp on research, especially if you enjoy it.  Since firearms figure consistently in mysteries (although I've yet to shoot anyone in my books), I have taken a few classes in handling and shooting weapons.  I found that I liked it (what can I say?  I cut my teeth on TV Westerns, and had a cap gun at the age of four), and now I have a carry permit (more research--what are the firearms regulations in a variety of states?  Massachusetts:  strict; adjacent Vermont:  nil), although I haven't gone as far as purchasing a weapon (although my husband has a couple). 

In another case, in a book coming out next year (Fire Engine Dead), I needed information on the psychological profile of arsonists.  We probably all think we know something about firebugs (courtesy of television again), but I wanted to get more details and make sure that what I wrote was accurate.  I discovered that there is a forensic psychologist who specializes in arsonists--and she lives and works in Pennsylvania, only a few miles from where my fictional protagonist lives.  Serendipity, obviously!  I've talked with her, I've read her publications, and she will get credit in the book (and appear under a pseudonym).

I believe we have an unwritten contract with our readers.  They expect us to get the details right, so they can concentrate on trying to figure out whodunnit before we reveal it.  If we don't, they write to complain.  But if we get too absorbed in trying to get everything just right, the book will never get written.  We've got to find the happy middle ground.

Have you ever written to an author to complain about a mistake?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tips on interrogation from an NYPD pro

Elizabeth Zelvin

Joseph L. Giacalone of the NYPD enlivened a recent meeting of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime with a nuts-and-bolts talk about the art of interrogation. Joe is a supervisor whose varied positions over almost twenty years have included Commander of the Cold Case Homicide Squad. He has an MA in Criminal Justice and teaches investigations and interrogations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He’s also the author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators, a textbook meant for law enforcement students but also of interest to mystery writers.

Joe is an engaging speaker who can make an audience laugh while imparting a great deal of information about what to do and not to do in an interrogation (or fictional scene about an interrogation) and—as we have come to expect from law enforcement professionals—busting a number of myths that our whole culture has come to believe thanks to TV cop shows. Here’s some of what I learned.

The interrogation (not to be confused with interviews) is the last step of the investigation, after the investigator has gathered as much information and evidence as possible. It’s not a fishing expedition but the way to use the answers the investigator already has to get an admission or confession from the suspect.

One investigator asks all the questions, in order to gain maximum rapport with the suspect and keep things from getting confused. The other investigator takes notes and stays silent. No double-teaming. No good cop, bad cop. No yelling at or bullying the suspect. The purpose of good interrogative technique is to get the suspect as comfortable as possible and therefore ready to spill the beans.

Custody + Interrogation = Miranda. On TV, the cops pounce, snap the handcuffs on, and tell the suspect he or she has the right to remain silent, whether it’s on the street or in the suspect’s home. Not in real life. They may have the suspect in custody, but the interrogation is going to take place on police turf, in the “box,” the carefully prepared small, windowless room with the uncomfortable chair for the suspect. And that’s where the Miranda warning is issued.

Once the suspect demands a lawyer, the interrogation is over. That detail, used frequently in fiction, is true. Up to that point, the police are allowed to lie, mislead, and set traps for the suspect. But they cannot fabricate evidence. (Allowed: “We found your fingerprint at the scene.” Not allowed: “See this paper with your name and a fingerprint on it? That’s your fingerprint, found at the scene.”)

Joe talked about the difference between open-ended questions (“Do you know why you’re here?” “Why don’t you tell your side of the story?”), with which the interrogation opens, and questions meant to elicit facts (“At what time did you get home?” “Do you own a gun?”), which can then be used to trip up a suspect who’s been lying. He suggested a good way to get the suspect to contradict a lying narrative, eg a story about where he was and what he was doing on the day of the murder: ask him to tell it backwards. No leading questions—that one I knew—and no unclear or compound questions. (Not “Where did you go, and what did you do?” but “Where did you go then?” and wait for the answer before asking the next question.)

The investigator avoids words that will keep the suspect closed up and on the defensive, such as “murder,” “kill,” “rape,” or “dead.” Rather, there was “an incident” in which “something happened” or “someone got hurt.”

One detail that surprised me: only recently has the NYPD started recording interrogations, using video in a pilot program. On the other hand, the investigator will want to get a written statement from the suspect at the end of the interrogation (“Don’t you want to get your side of the story on paper?”)

Joe Giacalone is due to retire soon and thinking about what next—maybe even trying his hand at fiction. He told us that someone asked him if he thought he could sell cars. “Are you kidding?” Joe said. “I’ve been selling jail for the past twenty years!”

You can find more about Joe Giacalone on his website at

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Clues to the Inner Person

Sandra Parshall

Have you ever trusted somebody you shouldn’t have, and realized later that all the negative signs were there, if only you’d been willing to see them? It happens all the time in fiction, and it’s common in real life. Most of us probably think we’re good judges of people, and we know what kind of person we like and trust. Why, then, do so many become entangled in damaging relationships, and why do con artists never run out of pigeons?

Writers should probably be glad people misjudge each other so often – this means we’ll never run out of material for stories – but the inability to see others as they really are causes a lot of grief and nasty surprises in real life. Can we do anything to improve our odds of judging people correctly? A Psychology Today article by editor Hara Estroff Marano proposes that we can – if we pay attention to what we’re seeing and hearing.

In the article, Williams College psychologist Susan Engel says that six elements of character – intelligence, drive, sociability, capacity for intimacy, happiness, and goodness – are in place early in life and change little as people age. What you are as a child is basically what you’ll be as an adult, although people may give the impression of changing if they learn to express an element of character in a different way.

So what should you look for when trying to assess someone’s true nature?

Intelligence: This is probably the most highly valued attribute among humans. It’s easy to spot even in an infant. Intelligence shows up in a person’s ability to define problems, see the pros and cons of a dilemma, grasp complex situations, find new ways of looking at things, and set aside emotion when making decisions. Evolutionary psychologists believe a sense of humor is another sign of intelligence, because humor requires taking a novel perspective on information.

Drive: How can you tell whether a person has the drive to succeed in life? More is required than dogged determination. A person with genuine drive is motivated by passion and takes pleasure in work and achievement. She has faith in herself, trusts her decisions, and is optimistic about the outcome.

Sociability, the capacity for friendship: A person who is capable of friendship cares about people for their own sake, not for what they can do for her. She’s interested in their lives and cares about their feelings. She’s available emotionally when needed. Even an introvert who enjoys spending time alone can have a sociability isn’t whether a person has a huge number of friends, but whether he or she has any.

Capacity for intimacy: Today’s world is filled with false intimacy. We can turn on TV and hear strangers revealing the darkest secrets of their lives. True intimacy involves one-to-one trust. Psychologists agree that a child’s first caregiver sets the pattern for all future relationships. If that first relationship isn’t consistently loving, the child will have difficulty growing into an adult who can form intimate, trusting connections.

Happiness: We all joke about people who just aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy. The world is always plotting against them, somebody is always trying to bring them down – in their minds, anyway. They can rise to the top, lording it over others all the way, but it will never be enough. And boy, are they a pain to be around.

Goodness/morality: Empathy is the big factor here. If a person can’t empathize with others, he’s not going to care about their goals, welfare, and happiness. A moral person is also willing to help others, and can control negative emotions such as anger that could cause him to hurt others. These are also traits that show up early in life and seldom change.

Most of us lack one or more of these qualities. Ted Bundy, for example, was intelligent, but he wouldn’t get high marks for much else. An intelligent, “good” person might have lots of friends but lack the drive to succeed in a demanding career.

What kind of behavior in others sets off alarm bells in your head? Have you ever broken off a relationship in its early stages because you got a glimmer of what could be a very bad trait lurking beneath the other person’s surface? What kind of adult do you think your child or grandchild will be, based on the traits he displays now?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Postpone Writing

Sharon Wildwind

Ever get one of those months? Maybe the last month in graduate school or the first month after a new baby comes home?

With a writing deadline last week, sandwiched between two art deadlines; shift trades with my job-share partner; an on-again/off-again feeling that I’m coming down with a cold; and a raft of niggling appointments cutting into most days, I feel like Alice’s white rabbit. From the time I get up to the time I go to bed, my most compelling thought is I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.

I know that my two sets of characters — one in a play and one in a novel — are out there somewhere, though goodness knows what they are doing with their time. I’ve barely spoken to them in the past twelve days. Since they are all relatively new characters I haven’t yet introduced them to one another. At least my two older sets of characters knew one another intimately. When I hit a spell like this they amused themselves with tales of the gosh-awful things I’d asked them to do in their respective series.

Thank goodness I had a writing teacher who insisted that I learn how not to write. He warned me that there would be days, weeks, (hopefully not) months like this, and that it was as important to know how to retain a story in my head as it was to write a story.

Just in case you ever have days, weeks, (hopefully not) months like I’m having right now, here are some tips on how write while, at the same time, postpone writing.

Initially work with a time span of a few hours. Set yourself a task like, this morning instead of writing, I’m going to take a walk and think about writing. This afternoon I’ll write what I thought about. Gradually lengthen the time frame from a few hours to one day, to three days, to five days. That’s about the limit. Most people, even those who practice doing this a lot, start to lose details after several days.

Some people are detail magpies. They collect detail after detail, rearranging them until they built a big picture, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Other people like to look at the puzzle box first. They see that one small area contains a black-and-white floor and go looking for all the black-and-white pieces first. Then they look for the red pieces that make up the rose vase on the table, and so on. The first type of learner is specific-to-global and the second is global-to-specific.

Why does this matter? Because specific-to-global learners will remember details easier and global-to-specific learners, will have an easier time remembering overviews such as theme, stakes, and character impressions. So while you’re taking that walk, focus on the easier things to remember.

Since I’m a global-to-specific learner, I find it easier to think about the big picture. That doesn’t mean I won’t notice a perfect park bench for Jason and Tiffany to sit on while having their fight, or that I’ll ignore the juicy dialog I overhear in the coffee shop, but what I’ll try to keep in my head is the bigger picture of where the story is going.

Most of us use different learning techniques in different situations, but some generalizations can be made. In North America approximately 85% of people who have participated in learning-style studies are, like me, mixed visual/kinesthetic learners. That means I learn best through a combination of seeing something and doing something. If someone forced me to sit on my hands, close my eyes, and just listen, chances are I would remember very little. Only about 15% of those tested learned best by just listening.

You’re going to need a small, portable, dedicated place to make notes. If you’re a listening learners, get yourself a recorder. If you’re a see it/touch it learner, buy a small notebook. The key here is that word dedicated. This recorder/notebook is for remembering writing only. The more you dilute this tool with shopping lists, the address of your new dentist, or a note to call Sue, the less effective it will be to helping you remember the story.

For the listening learner, life is simple. Talk anything into the recorder: snippets, key words, lines of dialog, impressions, a description of a woman’s suit that would be ideal for your protagonist, and so on. Sing song snippets. Recite poetry. Create doggerel or limericks. When it comes time to write, sit down, close your eyes and just listen. The sounds should evoke material that can be translated to pen, typewriter, or computer.

For the see it/touch it learners, practice taking notes on the fly, a few key words — Jason-Tiffany-green bench-birch tree-hot day-big argument—will be enough to get the creative memories flowing. Take photos. These days few of us run around without a digital camera. Make small drawings and diagrams. You don’t have to be an artist. Who cares if your bench looks like it’s made from popsicle sticks? You’re going to know that it’s Jason and Tiffany’s bench and that they had a big argument there.

The big pay off in all of this is not only that these techniques come in handy during the months like my July, but that you start to take advantage of the gifts that come along every day, those perfect images, words, and connections you will want to use when you sit down to write.

Quote for the week:
Can anyone remember what we were working on three months ago?
~Hollywood writer, returning to work after the writers’ strike, February 2008

Monday, July 11, 2011

Rooted in The Group

by Julia Buckley

Since 2000 I have been a member of a very supportive and talented writing group. The members have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the group still exists, and the members have gradually become published, one by one.

Next week the group will meet in my back yard. My sons put up a new mini-gazebo (the last was destroyed by a storm) and re-did the Italian lights so that we can stay out there until dark. My husband has promised to make pina coladas, and we have set up the comfortable padded chairs.

Yes, ambiance helps. But once we gather around the table, it will be about the work. Usually we share our latest communications with agents. One of our members just received an offer of representation after many rejections, so this will be something to celebrate! But we will also offer condolences to those who received the all-too-familiar refrains:

--"interesting, but not for me."
--"I'm going to have to pass on this one."
--"An agent really has to fall in love with a work in order to represent it, and that didn't happen here."

That last one, despite its attempt to let one down easy, is particularly hurtful, we all agree.

We'll talk about other things, as well: First, about Kindle and the changing landscape of publishing; perhaps about conferences attended and the quality of information received; perhaps also about opportunities with small presses.

And then, finally, we'll look at the manuscripts in front of us. Next week we're looking at two: a literary mystery (not mine) and a young adult novel. We'll analyze content and react to voice and diction and deconstruct plot.

Like any good critique group, we ALWAYS start with what is good. We aren't afraid, however, to dig into what needs work, and often the second group of comments is far longer than the first. We all know that we can't succeed unless we work and re-work and then work again. One of the former members of our group revised her novel for ten years before she got it published. Once, in a graduate fiction-writing class, she was told to start again with the first sentence and throw everything else away. She did it. We learn these lessons from the members of our group; in some cases they save us the pain of going through something ourselves, and in other cases, it softens the blow to know that they have gone through it, too.

Sometimes we ask ourselves why we do it at all. The failures outweigh the successes, and even the successes have led to extremely hard work and occasional heartbreaks. So why, why, have we been meeting since 2000, and why do we all write?

The answer is--because we want to. We even like it. And when we're inside the writing, it's not about the eventual success or failure, but about the joy of creation. Together, we are able to share something that not everyone has experienced, and so we continue to do it.

Feel free to stop by and join us. We'll be under the shaded tent, bent over stacks of white paper, slightly tipsy from our icy drinks, but focused, focused as ever, on the goal.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Descendant of the Fire Goddess

By Jeanne Matthews 

“Pele” was all things volcanic to the ancient Hawaiians. She was the fire, the lava, the steam, the new-formed land, and a temperamental goddess – hard to predict and hard to appease.  Pele has spawned almost as many myths and legends as the volcanoes have spawned scientific studies. A superstitious belief in the powers of Pele has persisted in spite of the overwhelming dominance of Christianity, and not without some strong circumstantial evidence.

There are five volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. Two are extinct, one is dormant, and two are active.  A sixth “baby” volcano remains 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, but it’s growing by leaps and bounds. Volcanologists expect it to poke its head above sea level about a thousand centuries from now.  Mauna Kea is the tallest of the island’s volcanoes. If measured from the sea floor, it would be the tallest mountain in the world, taller than Mt. Everest. And Mauna Loa, which means Long Mountain in the Hawaiian language, dwarfs every other mountain on earth in terms of volume. It is sixty miles long and thirty miles wide and comprises fully half of the land area of the island. At 13, 679 feet, Mauna Loa doesn’t soar above the surrounding terrain like a conical volcano. Hawaiian volcanoes are broad and round like native shields. When they erupt, the lava flows in all directions.

In November of 1880, Mauna Loa burst open and began discharging lava.  There was no great concern during the winter, but over the spring the lava oozed closer and closer to Hilo.  The forests west of town glowed red and the air was thick and acrid with smoke.  By June, the fiery flow had reached the outskirts of town and real estate values plummeted.  On June 26 the flow coursed down from the stream beds above Hilo, gobbling as much as 500 feet of earth each day.  Methane explosions sounded like cannon fire and the heat and glare were intense.  

The Christian inhabitants closed their shops and businesses and thronged the churches to beg the intercession of Jehovah.  The Hawaiian inhabitants sent an urgent message to Princess Luka Ke'elikolani, a descendant of King Kamehameha I and an unreconstructed worshipper of Pele. Princess "Ruth" (as she had been re-christened by the Western missionaries) was 55 years old and tipped the scales at 450 pounds, give or take.  Her nose had been crushed in a pitched battle with her second husband and her voice boomed like thunder.  She wasn't one to be overawed by the U.S. government, or the white man's Jehovah, or Madame Pele's flare-ups.

When she came ashore in Hilo in July, Princess Ruth ordered a batch of red silk handkerchiefs, a large quantity of brandy, two roast pigs, and an unrolled taro leaf and commanded her underlings to conduct her royal personage to the edge of the flow.  The horse selected to pull her carriage wasn’t up to the task and a crew of prisoners had to be released from the Hilo jail to haul her to her destination.
When she was satisfied with her vantage point, she disembarked and directed that a luau be held on the spot. Then, chanting a sacred poem and swaying her imposing hips in a hula, she fed the taro leaf and the handkerchiefs into the flames.  When these had been consumed, she smashed a bottle of brandy against the hot lava, sending up a hair-singeing gust of fire.  The Princess and her party drank the rest of the brandy, ate the pigs, and slept all night in the path of Pele's progress.  By morning, the lava had cooled and the goddess had retired to her mountain.

In my new mystery Bet Your Bones, my series sleuth Dinah Pelerin meets a character much like Princess Ruth, a woman named Eleanor Kalolo who regards herself as a direct descendant of the fire goddess.  Eleanor remains a defiant pagan and a bitter critic of American policies that have trampled the rights of Native Hawaiians from the early nineteenth century to the present day.  She resents the annexation of Hawaii by American businessmen, the overthrow of the Hawaiian queen, and the subsequent degradation of Hawaii’s ancient culture and its language and customs.  Ultimately, it is the Hawaiian custom of ho’oponopono, the art of healing through confession of one’s own errors and the forgiveness of others’ mistakes, that becomes the saving grace of both Eleanor and Dinah.

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia.  She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism and has worked as a copywriter, a high school English and Drama teacher, and a paralegal.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and a West Highland terrier, who is a prima donna. Visit her website at