Monday, April 30, 2012

"Stuff" and the Reality of Hoarding

by Julia Buckley
Today my husband and sons went out to tackle a job I've long been requesting: to clean out our garage.  We have never parked a car in our garage because we have a very handy driveway right next to our side door.  It is far easier (and safer) to park next to the door than to get in and out of the car to open the garage door, then exit the car in a dark garage where predators can (and have, in my neighborhood) accost a person who emerges.

But the more pressing reason that we don't park in the garage is that the garage has a lot of stuff in it, as does our basement.  We have no real memory of putting this stuff in there, and when we encounter it we feel like archeologists who are dealing with the possessions of another civilization.

We do not fit the definition of hoarding; the upstairs of my house is fairly clean and neat, and I give away bags of clothing and household items every month in an attempt to pare down any growing clutter.  However, I've seen hoarding, both in family members and in colleagues at work (ever seen a hoarder with his or her own classroom)? and it's sad to see people, perhaps like all of us, who are very attached to their stuff, but that they do not seem able to filter their level of personal attachment to an object because somehow EVERY object becomes something of value, something that cannot be let go.

Recent television shows about hoarding have put a spotlight on this psychological phenomenon, but not in a truly constructive way. In a post on EveryDay Health, psychologist Debbie Stanley refers to this as "exploitainment" because "the shows reinforce the perception of people who hoard as societal outsiders, which interferes with the viewer's potential for empathy and leads to further marginalizing and hiding of hoarding behavior. The shows also do a disservice in their portrayal of treatment. It is ineffective to "clean out" a hoarded home in a weekend, through pressure or coercion, or at a pace faster than the client can tolerate. Stripping away a person's coping mechanism before a better one has been gradually established is cruel and unethical, and usually results in more severe hoarding."

Hoarding itself as an obsessive behavior, and can have any number of anxieties at its root, including fear of letting go or the terror of losing control, as well as a need for control or perfection (i.e. "Once I throw this away it will be in someone else's hands, and I will no longer have control over the situation).

In the case of my hoarding relative, she recognized her desire for things, but never acknowledged that it was out of control.  She attributed it to her childhood of poverty (she was born during the Depression) and the fact that, as she remembered it, she had very little as a girl and always felt want.  As an adult who eventually had access to money, she began manipulating her finances--using credit cards, cashing   her children's savings bonds, getting into debt--so that she could buy things.  Every day packages came to the house, usually with clothing or jewelry, and generally when she bought things she wanted to buy two or more so that she would not "run out" and then one day need that particular item.  Rooms of her house were off limits because of the large piles of clothing within, and her back porch was not opened for years because boxes were stacked all the way to the door.  This meant that no one had access to anything IN the boxes, nor could they get into the attic, but she was content to leave it out there, untouched, limiting the way that she lived.

Perhaps because of my rational response to her irrational behaviors, I have never wanted to let much accumulate in my house, and my psychological reward comes from the relief I feel from paring down, giving away.  Yet even with this mindset, I see things accumulating.  Our house is very small, and so when we transition from one phase to another (babyhood to childhood, childhood to teen years) everything from the previous era migrates downward.  We have almost no closets, which makes storage even more difficult.  Yet I want to maintain order in my home, among my possessions, because they reflect my attitude toward the world.  

But we might all, as indulgent Americans, have hoarding tendencies. Remember George Carlin's routine about "Stuff?"  (Here's a youtube clip).  I am a rather control-oriented person, and so when the definition of hoarding includes reasons like  "Because of the fear of forgetting and the inability to accept that we can't be in total control, items will be kept so that with written/printed material for instance, it can be re- read at all times."   

Then I think, “Uh-oh.”  I keep all sorts of documents (and not always in the most organized way) because I wonder if (or fear that?) they will be needed again—that I’ll need to provide some sort of evidence in the way of a number, a figure, a paragraph.

Usually I never seek these things again—but do any of you have piles of cancelled checks from days gone by?  Old tax envelopes from before you did things online?  Stacks and stacks of old photographs that never made it into albums?

Still, today we are working toward eliminating accumulated STUFF.  Sure, I’ll be contributing to the growing garbage landfills, but I’ll have to worry about that one tomorrow.  J

(Sources: EveryDay Health and Tripod OCD's "Understanding Hoarding.")
(Image from Google Images/STL Today).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Are You Ready To Be Published?

When I spent my years writing novels that ended in the slushpile, I also spent a lot of time planning what would happen when one finally was published. And part of that planning was, of course, the nuts and bolts of completing a manuscript. Not only do you need to have it finished, but once it is, you need to sit down and complete the business of writing, that is, you need to write a synopsis. Not just the full synopsis for the benefit of your agent or for getting an agent, but you’ll need the 25 word pitch, the paragraph, the one page, and then the full. All of these are handy to have. The pitch is for queries and for networking when you answer that inevitable question, “What’s your book about?” Know it. Memorize it. Use it. The others are handy for query letters to agents. I also found the 25 word pitch useful in conjunction with the synopsis as a sort of introduction. I still use it on my outlines that get pitched to my editor. My agent loves them.

So you need all that to get an agent and for the agent to use to send to an editor. Given. But once that’s all done it’s time to think beyond the writing stage and start thinking about the marketing stage. When you sign a contract these days, very often the publisher wants to see a marketing plan from you.

Marketing plan, you say? Didn’t I already do the hard part and write the bloody novel? These days, that is only the beginning.

Part of that marketing plan is, of course, your online presence. Do you have a blog? Do you have a website? Are you on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads? Are you keeping up with the ever-changing industry?

First, let’s talk blog and website. But you aren’t published, you say. What would I have to put up on a website or a blog? True, a website won’t have much more than your bio, maybe some short stories you wrote, and perhaps a few awards. But even if all you have is a bio, it’s a good idea to nail it down and to get that all important domain name (places like can help you with that). As for content, tell us about your series. Give us an excerpt of the first chapter. It’s a chance to hone your skills, to create your public persona. Are you going to be outgoing and open? Funny? Mysteriously aloof? Once the book is published it’s almost too late to get that presence on the internet, so start getting that presence well before you even finish the manuscript.

Once the manuscript is done, it will be helpful to upload a discussion guide right onto your website. A book club I visited once said that readers want as much information as they can get on a book as well as about the author when they decide on a book for their group. And providing a discussion guide is one more step in offering added value about you and your novel. In fact, my publisher picked up my discussion guide right off of my website and put it in the paperback edition, and I have done subsequent discussion guides for each of my books ever since.

Same with the blog. Please don’t give us another newbie blog on “how I’m working hard to get published” with stories about your cat and your Aunt Sadie. Unless your Aunt Sadie is a famous actress or explorer, leave her out of it. In fact, get used to being a professional. Lose the personal Facebook page or blog. Do you really want your family, your kids splashed all over the internet? Frame your blog on your book series. Is it about a detective who quilts? Then let it be about quilts. Is it a thriller set in L.A.? Then become the expert on the down and dirty of Los Angeles. You are the expert on whatever it is you write about.

And speaking of being an expert, you will want to get yourself speaking engagements at your local and not-so-local libraries, at professional organization luncheons, at any place they want to have you. And so you need to prepare some presentations, something that says a little about you and a little about your books. You can’t always do a reading of your book and, let’s face it, a lot of authors are pants at reading aloud. Have something interesting to offer by way of a presentation. I talk about medieval history and the myths people have about the era. And I bring props, my medieval weaponry. You can bet that gets an audience’s attention. Word gets out that your talk is interesting and fun. You will get asked to a lot of places. Again, remember you are the expert in whatever it is you are writing about. If you are writing a cooking mystery, then get ready with that hot plate and start talking...and cooking.

Just as you’ll need several lengths of pitches, so, too, will you need several versions of your talk. Depending on the venue, you might need a fifteen minute talk, half an hour, or full hour. Be ready and flexible to talk about you and your book in any version. But don’t hard sell it. You’re selling you as much as the book itself.

Is all this part of your marketing plan? Yes, it is! Include your marketing strategy all the places you plan to go to talk about your book and what that presentation will be. Do you have an email list to announce about your book release? You should be working on amassing that. Goodreads friends? Friends on Facebook? Do you Tweet? Do you have followers? These are the things to start on now before the book is in print.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it rewarding to have your book on bookshelves and in people’s hands, in audiences that have come to hear you talk? You bet it is. But it happens because you are prepared. Prepared to hit the ground running.

Friday, April 27, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

Recently I wrote about what my daughter left behind. It should be no surprise that the stuff hasn't moved after a few weeks, and probably will be sitting there for a while, due to the peculiar storage configurations of our house. That made me start thinking about where people have put their stuff in the past and what that tells us about how they lived.

I live in a Victorian house built around 1870 that would probably be considered large by anyone's standards, especially if only two people (and three cats) are living in it (according to the 1910 census there were eight people living in the house, including several boarders). It has four rooms on the second floor that can be used as bedrooms (although one may have been an upstairs sitting room), plus an unheated but plastered room in the attic for the hired help.

Built-in storage on the first floor is more than adequate, even by the standards of the Victorian era. While the kitchen had few cabinets (mainly a sink with flanking counters), there were two full closets for food products and/or china and glassware. But wait! There's more!

I love this picture, taken when we were remodeling
the kitchen, because you can see three profiles
of past sink and cabinets, each one just a bit
bigger than the last

There is a full walk-through pantry, running from the kitchen to the dining room, with shelves lining one wall and an additional shelf above head height on the opposite wall. Plus, there is a short (5') but deep closet for more china, etc. And if that's not enough, there is a full-size glass-fronted closet in the dining room, no doubt to display the "good" china.

However, there is no coat closet. Instead, there are two rows of antique hooks near the back door. I guess you were supposed to shut the door to the dining room unless you wanted to look at hanging coats.

Upstairs there are four closets, total. The front bedroom has none. The master bedroom has one, plus a built-in set of drawers (underneath a mysterious concealed cistern), flanked by low cabinets that can be accessed by only one door (great place for a small child to hide). The bed/sitting room has one, somewhat larger closet. All these closets are less than a modern hanger's width deep; both are lined with Victorian hooks.

The back bedroom, which I think is a slightly later addition, has two closets, one of which is the linen closet.

In the basement there was what we guess was a walk-in pantry that could be locked, lest anyone make off with the preserves stored on shelves there. It was more or less falling apart when we arrived, and is now gone. And there is a full attic, although there's no heat or insulation up there, and it's possible to stand upright only in the middle.

Based on this evidence I infer:

--China was more important than clothing, and was allotted more space. You could wear the same dress all week, but heaven forbid you don't use the "good" china in the dining room.

--and a corollary: good china should be seen, while everyday china could be hidden.

--You shouldn't have too many clothes, and you shouldn't fuss over them—just throw them on a hook and be done with them.

You may have noticed I didn't mention a single bookshelf in the house (until we built our own). Maybe there were free-standing book cases, but we'll never know.

To broaden the observations, I think I can say:

--The builders here put their money where it showed. Moldings in the front of the house downstairs are deep and thickly carved; in the back, not so much.

--Upstairs only one of the bedrooms has a finished (in this case, oak) floor, probably a later addition; the other rooms have rough painted boards. No one (of importance) was expected to visit the upstairs rooms, so why waste the money?

Obviously the Victorians (at least in this small Massachusetts town) were a mass of contradictions, but the main message I get is: put your money where it shows, and skimp on the rest. (By the way, the person who first owned this house was a grocery clerk, which may explain the boarders in the early years.)

One last observation: whoever designed this place was obsessed with doors. The kitchen has five (plus three windows). The back parlor has a mere three, but one is a sliding double door. The dining room has five, if you include the china closet, plus three windows. Sometimes there are doors next to doors, going different places. And there are plenty of very large windows, which speaks of a time when either fuel was plentiful or people were used to being cold. Maybe all those doors were supposed to help regulate the flow of precious warm air?

I call this domestic archeology.  Have you made any interesting finds in your house?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Latest Crop of Aspiring Mystery Writers

Elizabeth Zelvin

In spite of the radical paradigm shift that has led many in the book business from authors to booksellers and librarians to wonder if books or even reading will survive—and fewer and fewer of those in the business making even a marginal living—plenty of people still want to write mysteries. Mystery Writers of America has launched its low-cost MWA University, bringing established writers with academic credentials and college-level teaching experience to cities around the country to teach aspects of their craft. Sisters in Crime’s online Guppies chapter, first established for the Great UnPublished, has a membership of more than 500 and acquires new members every month, with more and more publications (some self-published but the great majority still traditionally published) and award nominations every year.

I always enjoy reading the Fresh Blood column in MWA’s national newsletter, The Third Degree, which lists those who have joined the organization every month. The Affiliate Members section lists those who have not yet published a book according to MWA’s standards: an advance, royalties, a certain print run, and publishers who offer an editorial process and don’t limit themselves to writers who are members of their own family. I get a big kick over the wide variety of backgrounds from which the new affiliate members come to mystery writing.

Some professions recur frequently. There’s always another retired or recovering attorney to write a legal thriller, doctor cooking up a medical thriller, mental health professional working on anything from psychological suspense to suburban cozy, and cop planning a police procedural. Editors, technical writers, and nonfiction writers are no surprise either. But there’s always a sprinkling of professions that suggest that everyone wants to write a mystery. A sampling of recent new MWA affiliates includes the following vocations and day jobs: social media marketer, antiques dealer, headhunter, retired federal prosecutor, race car driver, US Army (retired), webmaster, seamstress,and, my favorite until I found out what it meant, “Oracle/DBA.” I imagined something arcane and sibylline. But when I consulted Google, this job title turned out to mean, disappointingly, the database administrator of an Oracle server.

What are these aspiring writers thinking? Are their dreams and expectations any different from those of us who started “wanting to be a writer” between ten and fifty years ago? Do they dream of getting reviewed in the NY Times and making money? Or do they expect to distribute their novels on the Internet? Do they know how much promotion they’ll have to do either way? Are they willing to revise and seek critique? Are they willing to keep going through rejection after rejection? Do they understand that the fact that some bestselling authors break a lot of rules and that not every popular book is well written have nothing to do with their chances of breaking in?

If they’re starting out by joining MWA or Sisters in Crime, at least they're making a good start, because becoming a published writer is almost impossible to do alone. Mystery writers have an advantage in that our community is rightly known for being particularly generous and helpful to each other and welcoming to beginners who are willing to do the work. Their dreams may even come true, if they can believe the simple precepts they’ll hear from more experienced authors. The three most important of these, in my opinion:

Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
Learn to kill your darlings.
Don’t quit your day job.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Mystery of Symbolism

by Sandra Parshall

I’ll tell you a secret about symbolism in fiction: Most of the time writers don’t realize they’re using it.

If a symbol seems heavy-handed and obvious, the author probably used it deliberately. If the symbolism is more subtle, adding depth and texture to the story without hitting the reader in the face, it probably sprang from the writer’s subconscious and made its way to the page without examination. The writer might not recognize its meaning until an editor or reader points it out.

By now I’ve talked about my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, with a lot of people, but I’m still fascinated by readers’ insights and the layers of meaning they find in the characters, their relationships, and even the objects surrounding them. Last week I attended a book group discussion that left me feeling the 22 members knew my book better than I did.
The group leader, Polly, is a retired teacher who makes the kind of charts that most of us remember from high school English classes. I was so impressed that at the end of the meeting I asked if I could have the big sheets of paper she’d used to note important points made during the group’s discussion of my book. I’m referring to them as I write this.

Polly described The Heat of the Moon as “Rachel’s Journey of Self-discovery” and noted the themes of identity, mother-daughter conflicts, motherhood, and the meaning of family. Of course, I was well aware of these elements when I wrote the book and couldn’t have written it otherwise.

When the group moved on to symbolism, though, I was astonished at how much meaning they found in every aspect of the story. Here are a few things they picked up on:

The wounded wildlife Rachel is rehabbing – animals that are kept in cages. The readers saw a parallel with Rachel’s psychic wounds and the cage – Judith’s (Mother’s) house – she lives in.

The weeping cherry (a gift from Judith to Rachel), the tall yews (poisonous plants) that hide Judith’s house from onlookers, Judith’s perfect garden (which Rachel eventually tries to destroy), the flower arrangements that must be just right, the sycamores whose white trunks glow like ghosts in the late-day sun. The readers felt all of these contributed to the menacing  atmosphere of the book and represented the destructive nature of the mother/daughter relationship.

The house itself, with its locked and/or forbidden rooms, its secret files and hidden boxes filled with old photos and records. This is Judith’s fortress, the setting of her contrived dream life for the dream family she has stolen from someone else. The dream crumbles when Rachel begins opening doors and venturing into forbidden spaces.

I don’t think the readers got anything wrong, and it was an extraordinary experience to hear a large group discuss The Heat of the Moon with such deep understanding and appreciation. I loved it, and I learned a few things about myself as a writer. I may reread The Heat of the Moon in light of this discussion.

For a bit I was concerned that thinking too much about symbolism in one book would make me self-conscious of any symbols that crop up in future work, but I know my mind well enough to realize that won’t happen. The area of my brain where such things percolate isn’t easy to access directly. It’s going to do its thing the way it always has, regardless of what I’m thinking on the surface level. Later, when the book is published, readers will tell me what it all means.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Being Busy Not Writing

Sharon Wildwind

This blog has very little to do with writing. Sometimes putting aside the journal and ignoring the keyboard for a bit of play does wonders for creativity.

Next weekend Calgary hosts the Comic and Entertainment Expo. This event started many years ago as a small, geeky celebration of comics and graphic novels and has exploded into a gargantuan event. The big auditorium at the event holds 5,000 people and since the headliners are the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’m not sure 5,000 seats will be nearly enough.

While I’m a great fan of ST:TNG, the person I’m drooling to see is Stan Lee, the who with Steve Ditko created Spiderman and with Jack Kirby created Thor, Iron Man, X-Men and The Fantastic Four. This was my illicit childhood reading list, courtesy of Nancy, my neighbor two houses away, whose mother let her buy that kind of reading material. Nancy and I spent a lot of Saturday afternoons slouching against bean bag chairs in her bedroom closet.

I said that this blog had very little to do with writing, but what I learned from Stan Lee’s characters was that saving the world had a price. Not a bad thing for a writer to know.

Being a cog (member) of the local Steampunk Assemblage, my arm was twisted to contribute to our booth at the Expo. Sure, I’ll make a couple of dozen pieces of steam punk jewelry. Remember me? I’m the cloth artist. I don’t do metal, but what the heck. How hard can it be?

The first thing that was required was a visit to a local warehouse. The guy who owns it buys case lots of interesting things. Weird things. It’s sort of if you can figure out what an item is, he’ll sell it to you at a great price. Like twenty-five cents for wonderful black thingys that my husband told me were Canadian Forces Web Equipment Buckles.

Since the buckles were black and grubby, I soaked them overnight in vinegar. The next day when I scrubbed the vinegar off, lo and behold, they were solid brass.

Now I was pumped. I may not have made jewelry before, but I’m an old hand at making jambalaya, which, between you and me, is a dish designed to use up leftovers in the refrigerator. A little of this, a little of that, mix the flavors, and never expect it to turn out the same way twice.

I had solid brass bases. What little of this and that did I have with a steam punk flavor? Scraps of red leather, wire, glass marbles, washers, alcohol ink, grommets, beads, and a few clock parts.

I discovered that wiring red leather to brass bases is actually dead boring. I spent an entire day last week doing just that, while also watching seven episodes of Star Trek Voyageur back to back. Come on, I had to have something to focus on. Truthfully, I got so involved in the wiring that after I finished fifteen brass hangers, just for fun, I also wired three clock parts, a door hinge, and two door stoppers.

Remember that this blog isn’t about writing? The problem was that more I wired and, later, the more I embellished, the pieces started to tell their own stories. Before I finished making the jewelry, I had a whole raft of stories about how individual pieces came to be.

The two door stoppers became crystal-powered communication devices, you know, like when Captain Picard slaps his chest and says, “Make it so.” Only since these work in the Steampunk world, you have to slide the central knobs down half-way to turn them on. Of course, the communicators work only in the Martian atmosphere, but I’m hoping for a buyer who is imminently leaving for Mars, and who won’t ask too many questions about why I happen to have classified British naval technology for sale. The answer is probably a long story, but I haven’t written it yet.

Hook pins were the most common type of pin made by British sailors in the Ether Flyer Fleet. The base was often a brass hook, found in abundance on straps used to secure cargo, but all types and shapes of brass pieces were used as bases.

Pin design and materials used created intense competitions among crew members and ships, with each ship and sometimes individual sailors developing a personal wire wrapping style of wrapping and combination of materials used for embellishment.

Two elements were almost universal. Each pin had to contain crystal elements and a miniature ether flyer propeller. The propellor signified the hope that the ship and its crew would reach home safely.

Crystal was a charm to invoke clear sailing. Superstitious seamen used two crystal shapes on the same pin for increased luck. The crystal was in the form of beads, a square or rectangular glass piece from an old lift engine housing, or a crystal sphere. All sailors could use clear or white crystal elements; men who had served in the skies above Mars were allowed to use red or pink.

Hook pins with the crystal on the left and the propellor on the right were for sailors. If a non-crystal element was on the right and a love token or heart used in place of the propellor, the pin had been made for a wife, mother, or sweetheart. Again, men who had served on Mars could add red or pink beads to those pins.

Sailors being sailors no doubt they would have created special pins to present to beloved officers.

Beloved officers were presented with a pin made by their men on the occasion of their retirement or leaving the service. Instead of being made from hook brass, these presentation pins were made from a metal plate cut from the ship. They had the word Time on them, a remembrance of the time spent together. They always contain a crystal element for luck, and the hole where the propellor was attached was left empty, as the man was considered already safely home. Receiving such a pin was a great honor.

Of course, a well-respected retiring Captain would be given the most elaborate pin of all.

So that’s my story on how I spent last week not writing, but how writing crept in nevertheless.

You can still catch a plane to Calgary for next weekend and attend the Expo. Stan Lee signs autographs at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. See you there.

Monday, April 23, 2012

At Last! My Worrying Has Found Validation

by Julia Buckley

I have always been a worrier; since I was tiny I have found things to dread, and my mind works them over as a cow chews cud.  As an adult, this worry has gone beyond just thinking to the occasional full-blown panic attack and fairly regular obsessive-compulsive behaviors.  It was especially bad when my children were little and I would worry over everything: Did they remember their lunches?  Were they doing all right in school?  Were they being safe?  Were they afraid of anything?

If I was going to be delayed (I had no cell phone), I worried that they would worry.  Would they know I was coming soon?  Would they be the last children left waiting?  Would this affect their feelings of security, of confidence?  Would this make them cry?  My relentless brain turned thoughts over and over like clothes in a washing machine, and it created a sort of misery.

There is no doubt that this behavior is inherited; my mother was much the same way, and it began too early in my life for it to be a learned trait.  In addition, I saw the same patterns emerging in my older son (but not my younger) even in babyhood.

But now scientists have suggested that worry, despite the anguish it may seem to cause, is a positive thing that evolved along with human intelligence.  According to Dr. Jeremy Coplan, head of this study, ""While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be," said Dr. Coplan. "In essence, worry may make people 'take no chances,' and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species."

In addition, studies showed that, among people with General Anxiety Disorder, there was a high correlation between those with greater degree of worry and those of higher intelligence.

There is no doubt that my worry, especially as the mother of teenage boys, often takes the form of trying to avoid dangerous situations--especially those that might endanger my children.  In the process, I have been accused of being unfun in various situations; but for each weird choice I make, I can provide them with data about someone who did the thing they want to do and was harmed (yes, this is the endless song of the worried mother).  But I like to think that science is backing me up here, and that my brain is wired to make decisions in protective mode.

Critics of worriers (and there are many) say that we allow worry to affect the quality of our lives, and that we don't live to the fullest.  However, science may suggest that while I might never encourage my children to take huge risks for the sake of potentially enjoyable rewards, I may also be helping to assure that they are on the earth longer, and that they can find their bliss via the safe route.  :)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Canada Calling: Arthur Ellis Shortlists Announced

It’s springtime in Canada and you know what that means. Maple syrup. Hockey playoffs. And the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis shortlist, which was announced on Thursday.

Winners will be announced on May 31, in Toronto. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Crime Writers of Canada, so it will be especially sweet.

Check out the CWC site for more information on the May 31 event and the books on the shortlist.

Here’s your chance to get started on reading some great Canadian crime books. Except for the Unhanged Novels, which are, so far, unpublished. Chances are that will change soon.

The shortlists are

Best Crime Novel
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny, St. Martin’s Press
Before the Poison by Peter Robinson, McClelland and Stewart
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley, Doubleday Canada
I'll See you in My Dreams by William Deverell, McClelland and Stewart
The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg, Simon&Schuster

Best First Novel
The Man Who Killed by Fraser Nixon, Douglas & McIntrye
The Survivor by Sean Slater, Simon&Schuster
The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton, House of Anansi Press Inc.
Tight Corner by Roger White, BPS Books
Watching Jeopardy by Norm Foster, XLibris

Best Crime Book in French
La chorale du diable by Martin Michaud, Les Editions Guélette
Pour Ne Pas Mourir ce soir by Guillaume Lapierre-Desnoyers, Lévesque Éditeur
Pwazon by Diane Vincent, Editors Triptyque

Best Juvenile or Young Adult Crime Book
Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones, Candlewick Press
Charlie's Key by Rob Mills, Orca Book Publishers
Empire of Ruins by Arthur Slade, HarperCollins Publishers
Held by Edeet Ravel, Annick Press
Missing by Becky Citra, Orca Book Publishers

Best Crime Nonfiction
A Season in Hell by Robert Fowler, Harper Collins
Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art by Joshua Knelman, Douglas& McIntyre
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Steven Laffoley, Pottersfield
The Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahader, Harper Collins
The Weasel: A Double Life in the Mob by Adrian Humphreys, Wiley

Best Crime Short Story
A New Pair of Pants by Jas. R. Petrin, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
Beer Money by Shane Nelson, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
The Girl with the Golden Hair by Scott Mackay, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
The Perfect Mark by Melodie Campbell, Flash Fiction Magazine
What Kelly Did by Catherine Astolfo, North Word Magazine

Best Unpublished First Novel - “Unhanged Arthur”
Gunning for Bear by Madeleine Harris-Callway
Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe
Snake in the Snow by William Bonnell
The Rhymester by Valerie A. Drego
Too Far to Fall by Shane Sawyer

Friday, April 20, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

Everyone has moments when they know that they're about to make a decision that will change their life and their future history. It may be momentous, like accepting a marriage proposal, or it may be as trivial as buying one kind of cereal rather than another (and you find a dead rodent in the box and you sue the maker and become rich and buy your own island).

I've had a few. One was the first time I saw Wellesley College on a college tour. I took the tour (something like the eighth college I'd looked at, in the company of my mother and grandmother), and I knew that was It, settled, done. I even said so in my diary.

That's my daughter, not me, but the
view hasn't changed

Another was when I was looking for places to stay when my husband and I were taking our daughter on her college tour, and I clicked on a link for a bed and breakfast in western Massachusetts and found Muddybrook Farm, and said, "wait—I know who built that!" We stayed there, and it formed the heart of what is now the Orchard Mystery series, for which the sixth book comes out this summer. One fortuitous click, and a series was born.

Another occurred when I was applying for jobs not long after that, and my finger hovered over the "Send" button, and I thought, "this could be important." It was, although not in the way I had anticipated: I was fired after six months. But that was what gave me the time and opportunity and even the compulsion to try writing full time. If life hands you lemons—write a book!

And another happened this past weekend, when I attended a full-day seminar given by agent/writer Donald Maass, sponsored by Sisters in Crime New England. (I'd include pictures of the event, but most of us were too busy taking notes to use a camera!)

Normally I avoid "how to write" events and books, not because I'm arrogant enough to think there's nothing I need to learn, but because there are a lot of good ideas out there and there's no way to read them all, much less implement them all. But I've been hearing about Maass from a lot of sources for a long time, so I went.

I won't go into details (take the seminar yourself!), but about six hours into it, with 30+ pages of detailed notes, a cramped hand and a whirling head, I realized what was wrong with my protagonists: they were wimps.

When we (as women) write female characters (targeted at our largely female audience), we want them to be people that our readers can identify with. They should be imperfect, struggling, but ultimately triumphant, and above all, it's drummed into us that THEY MUST BE LIKABLE!

How do you make a central character likable? You give her a few modest flaws, some distinctive talents, a dash of vulnerability, and an innate sense of honesty and justice. And don't forget loyalty. Sound like someone you'd like to hang out with?

Sure, but remember, this isn't literary fiction, this is mystery, and after you've subjected your protagonist to a few murders, up close and personal, maybe even some direct threats by a crazed killer, don't you wonder how the heck she forges on, still cheery and perky and just plain nice?

One challenge to writing a series is to give the characters room to grow. I usually take my protagonist at the beginning and dump her into a difficult, hazardous, stressful situation—with a body—and see what she does. Of course she solves the crime by the end of the story. But wouldn't you like to see her learn a little something from her experience? (Apart from, "try to stay away from dead bodies and killers.") If she is static, she becomes boring and predictable.

To make matters worse, I've made a couple of my protagonists professional women. They're supposed to be smart and maybe even managerial. So why are they taking 288 pages to solve a murder, and wringing their hands and complaining "why me?" all along the way to the Trusty Sidekick and the Potential Love Interest?

Listening to Donald Maass, I realized that this had become a problem for me. My protagonists were being buffeted by outrageous fortune, and they were sitting back and taking it. And I decided I'd had enough. Ladies, your trial period is over; you've earned your stripes in crime solving; now please, please take charge of your life. If you're in a new profession or position—make it your own. If you've been waffling about that hunky guy who's hanging around, take the initiative and tell him how you feel. Or cut him loose. But make some decision!

Will it be the right move? Time (or my readers) will tell. Is this epiphany due to the wise words of one speaker? Not altogether, although it was his lecture that jumpstarted the process. (Of course, another one of my marginal comments during the lecture was "there are mice!" So maybe not all insights are useful or usable.)

What does it take to spur an "aha!" moment for you?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Durable Literature: The Great American Novel

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was a kid, boys (not girls, in those prehistoric times) dreamed of being the first man on the moon. Once Neil Armstrong took that one small step in 1969, the dream became superfluous. Boys, again, used to talk about growing up to be President of the United States. That’s a dream that’s still available but has surely lost a great deal of its luster. With the paradigm shift in the book industry and the proliferation of electronic words, I doubt that young writers are dreaming about writing the Great American Novel. Besides, it’s already been written—more than once.

According to Wikipedia, “the phrase [Great American Novel] derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War novelist John William DeForest, published in The Nation on January 9, 1868.” As an old English major, I know that much of American literature, even in the early 20th century, looked to English literature for its role models and heroes. Henry James is probably the best example of an American novelist inspired by Europe. His settings, his vision of society, and his leisurely, tortuous sentences evoked the Old World, not the vigorous frontier.

The Great American Novel had to be set in America as seen by Americans, not through the filter of British or European attitudes. Its American characters had to demonstrate American values: individualism, social and economic mobility, a robust egalitarianism. They had to tell stories that could only happen in America in some version of the American language.

Here’s my list of the novels I think deserve the title:

1. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The least debatable and still delightfully readable Great American Novel. Set in the heartland, with the Mississippi River as its central metaphor, it’s a great example of the always popular coming of age novel. It tackles the core American issues of freedom vs slavery and independence vs conformity. Furthermore, Mark Twain made brilliant use of the American language—more than most modern readers realize—by rendering the subtleties of local dialect at each point along the river as Huck’s raft floated down it. I read the book aloud to my son when he was 8, and it held up marvelously as a masterpiece of storytelling with suspense, compassion, and humor.

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The unreadable Great American Novel. It’s the mighty story of man against whale, in a ponderous poetry that some people might still tackle for pleasure, but tough going for most modern readers. I had to laugh when someone on DorothyL complained about mysteries that bore us by telling more than we want to know about fishing. Melville devoted hundreds of pages to how to catch, cut up, and cook the whale. He also gave us the ultimate vision of the New England whaler.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The 20th century Great American Novel. It’s about secrets and justice and childhood (a girl’s, this time, though a sturdy tomboy of a girl) and race relations and small town life—American as apple pie.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The unsung Great American Novel, my personal pick and the only one on my list that Wikipedia doesn’t mention in its article on the topic. I believe it’s disregarded because it’s for and about and read by girls and women. Yet the language is as fresh and everyday today as it was in 1868. It’s probably never been out of print, it’s been adapted many times for stage and screen, and I’m one of many thousands, perhaps millions, of women who know this beloved book practically by heart, who return to it time and again for another visit with the March girls, who still cry when Beth dies, and whom Jo inspired to become writers.

It’s probably a shame that there will be no more Great American Novels. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help would be a grand contender, but who can tell if people will still be reading it even half a century from now? And what about graphic novels? Are they meant to be cherished and reread or scrolled through and deleted? Would the first Superman comic book or the first Spiderman be a candidate for Great American Graphic Novel?

True confession: I was crying over one of Louisa May Alcott’s books on my Kindle in the subway the other day. (Okay, I’ll tell you which one: Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins. When I was a kid, we used to call it “the Jewish Alcott book.” Rosenblum—get it?) When I reached my stop, I sat down on one of the benches in the station to finish the chapter (which I’d read umpteen times before) before I went out into the sunshine and had to put away the Kindle. I bet some women readers can guess which chapter, too. Now, that’s what I call durable literature!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Just like me...?

Sandra Parshall

I always feel a certain amount of quiet glee when I listen to world-famous writers talk about their years of rejection, their tendency to procrastinate before starting work each day, the “What if I can’t do it again?” fear they sometimes feel when they finish a novel.

Ah, I think. They’re just like me!

Well, except for the world-famous part. And the top-10 bestseller part. And then there’s the million-dollar advance part.

But beyond those frivolous aspects of their lives, they are simply writers who have to sit down alone at their keyboards and somehow produce made-up stories that people will pay to read. That isn’t easy for anybody, unless they happen to be James Patterson or Nora Roberts (who recently published her 200th novel, is only 61, and will probably continue writing several books a year for the next 40 years).

At the recent Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesvile, I heard three superstars of mystery/suspense talk about all the things that make them just like the rest of us humble wordsmiths. 

Jeffery Deaver, who writes the Lincoln Rhyme mysteries, spoke at the Crime Wave lunch and kept everyone laughing with his tale of false starts and rejections before he settled on the kind of books he should be writing and learned enough about the craft to make them publishable. Deaver’s hero is a prime example of what mystery editors mean when they say they want something fresh and different. Rhyme is a former detective, a genius at crime scene examination – and a quadraplegic. He still uses his brilliant mind to solve crimes, and anybody who dares to pity him risks being turned to stone by his glare or a sharp rebuke. Once Deaver had the character, he started selling.

Ellen Crosby, author of the Virginia Wine Country Mysteries, did a great job of interviewing Steve Berry and Lisa Gardner on Friday night at the festival and coaxing them to reveal their work habits, good and bad. I interviewed Berry, author of the Cotton Malone novels, last year for the International Thriller Writers newsletter, so I already knew a good part of his story. But that interview was conducted via e-mail, and his charming southern accent came as a surprise when I heard him speak. Berry wrote for 12 years, accumulated 85 rejections, and quit three times before he sold his first novel. Like Deaver, he took awhile to discover his genre. Reading The Da Vinci Code sparked the revelation he needed. Since then he’s written more than a dozen bestsellers with sweeping international plots that dip into history. (Dan Brown is now a personal friend.)

Lisa Gardner, author of the D.D. Warren novels, the Pierce Quincy/Rainie Connor series, and other suspense titles, is one of my favorites. She is so personable and funny that I couldn’t hate her when she said she sold the first book she wrote and has never endured rejection. She endeared herself to me by confessing that “I procrastinate in every possible way” before beginning a day’s writing. She is “totally addicted to computer games” like solitaire. On some days, she’s capable of wasting virtually all of her writing time. Then around 2:30 in the afternoon she realizes her kids will be home from school in half an hour, and “in the next twenty-nine minutes, I can be amazingly productive.”

Berry has a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. He swears that when he’s out on the golf course he’s plotting in his head, not procrastinating. He did his early writing in “the total chaos of a law office” and still finds writing in a silent house difficult at times. He’s been known to seek out his wife, Elizabeth, and “aggravate her” into a squabble just to bring a little tension into his writing atmosphere. 

Gardner finds the first 100 pages of a new book the hardest to write, and during this period research serves as a fine form of procrastination. Because Berry’s books rely heavily on history, he can justify traveling all over the world to gather material before he dives into a new book. Gardner writes plot points on index cards and spreads them on the floor and scrambles them to find the best sequence of events. Berry also uses index cards to keep track of his plot, but his cards are in a computer file.

Both Gardner and Berry have written their share of violent scenes, but Berry says he gets the most complaints from readers when he deals with religion. He recalls “a woman screaming at me at an event” because she felt he had harmed the Catholic Church. It’s only fiction, he pointed out. The Catholic Church will not live or die because of something he writes in a thriller. He also heard complaints from readers when a dog was sacrificed in one of his books. Three human beings died in the same chapter, but nobody complained about that. Now, he says, he won’t kill an animal or a child in a book.

Her readers, Gardner said, seem to be tolerant when she takes them to “bad places” as long as she brings them back and leaves them in a good place with a satisfying and hopeful resolution. She doesn’t write noir, in which the situation is often worse at the end than at the beginning.

I enjoyed being on a panel and seeing friends in Charlottesville, but the highlights were Deaver’s talk on Saturday and Ellen’s interview of Lisa Gardner and Steve Berry on Friday evening. For a little while, at least, I could feel a kinship with these superstars of crime fiction and think, They’re just like me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kitchen, May I?

Sharon Wildwind

I barely beat the lunch crowd Sunday, getting the last counter seat in a family restaurant. Five minutes later people were lined up in a hopeful, snaky line out the door.

The place was packed, the noise level was rising, and it could have been chaos. It wasn’t.

Near as I could tell there were three managers: one working with the seating staff, one front of house, and one who checked the orders as they came out of the kitchen. I was sitting right behind the one checking the orders, so I had plenty of opportunity to watch her work.

When an order didn’t look right, she didn’t say, “This is wrong.” or “The side on this order should be sausage, not bacon.” She asked, “Kitchen, may I?”

The first time she said it, I thought I’d misheard. The second time, I knew I’d heard right, but I had no idea what was happening. The third time, I realized I should pay attention because something interesting was going on. Writers love to collect interesting things.

What the woman was doing was asking the cook if it was a convenient time to ask a question. Only when the cook replied, “You may,” was the question forthcoming. The woman was on one side of that long, narrow window that often separates the kitchen from the restaurant; the cook was on the other side. When the cook said, “You may,” he or she stopped doing anything else and the two people looked eye-to-eye while they talked. Voices were never raised and they resolved each issue in about ten seconds.

I noticed a couple of other things. When the front of house manager came to speak to this woman, he asked, “Checker, may I?” She turned to face him, and said, “You may.” Again, they looked at each other while carrying on the conversation.

When orders were ready, there was no “Pick up table four,” or calling out the menu items ready for pickup. She called out a server’s name. “Mario.” “Lee.” “Karen.” When Mario, Lee, or Karen came, both the server and the checker looked at the tray together, and the woman said, “Two blueberry pancakes, one with bacon, one with sausage. One oatmeal with fruit cup. One kid’s special, scrambled, with toast and jam. Good to go?”

The waiter would reply, “Good to go,” as he or she took the tray.

I have no idea if this is the latest thing in restaurant management, or I stumbled on the nirvana of restaurants, but it was fascinating to watch. My food came in record time and the order was absolutely correct.

Even better was watching very busy people take the time to treat each other with respect.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Terror of Hiding

by Julia Buckley
We just took our yearly spring break to a lovely cottage in Fennville, Michigan.  The place was big and roomy, and our sons requested that we indulge in an old vacation tradition of playing Hide and Seek (always fun when visiting a new house).  Hide and Seek is a kid's game, but playing it as an adult, I found that nothing has changed in forty years.

First, it is still terrifying to hide in the dark.  The boys insisted that we turn out almost all the lights in the house, which in itself is sort of scary, but then I was forced to hide again and again--in a closet, in a shower stall, behind a door--and it tapped into some basic Freudian fears.  I did not like being in a close, dark space, and I was relieved to be found.

Second, there are some basic realities of Hide and Seek that are true at age four or forty: the minute you hide and hear someone counting in the distance, you immediately begin to itch in about twenty places, and you immediately have to go to the bathroom.  Happens EVERY time.

Third, there is a bizarre self-defeating psychology in this game. The goal is supposedly to keep silent and avoid detection, yet the moment the hunt began I got an overwhelming case of the giggles, which led to  some loud snorting attempts to suppress the giggles, and a subsequent burp (we were playing after dinner).

Fourth, there are a finite number of places to hide in a house, and it is actually to one's advantage to be among the first found, because the last person found has to kill a lot of time in an uncomfortable place (this was especially true in the closet).

Fifth, seeking is just as frightening as hiding, especially if you don't find people for a while and it starts to feel like a horror movie in which everyone has mysteriously disappeared.  And when they do appear in unexpected places (my son Graham's face looming out from under an entryway bench, for example), it can be terrifying.

All in all, I recommend the game as a form of nostalgia and as an interesting self-test in psychology--but maybe playing with the lights on would be a bit more appropriate for those without a child's hardy constitution.  :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Forgotten Arts

by Linda Rodriguez

In my mystery novel which will launch near the end of April, Every Last Secret, Skeet Bannion’s best friend owns a shop called Forgotten Arts, offering knitting, spinning, and weaving supplies. This shop is basically in the book because I love to knit, spin, and weave, and I’ve always had a little daydream of having just such a shop of my own.

It probably all began with my grandmothers. One of them was an excellent needlewoman who taught me to sew doll clothes and doll quilts, using the scraps from her many sewing and quilting projects. This grandmother even made spring corsages for each granddaughter from old nylon stockings, cut up and dyed into violets, iris, lilies, and roses. The other grandmother knit and crocheted afghans, sweaters, even golf-club covers. Neither of them knew how to spin or weave, as far as I know.
Both of my grandmothers were great “makers from scratch,” though, whether with food, such as bread, butter, cheeses, and such, or with household items, such as baskets, candles, lotions, soaps, washcloths, and dish towels. My Cherokee grandmother even made her own medicines with herbs from her garden and weeds growing in the wild. Most of these medicines, foods, and household items were more effective or better-tasting than the mass-produced versions available in stores and pharmacies.

Beginning as a childhood apprentice to these two grand old dames, I set off on a lifelong quest for the forgotten arts. I have a huge library, and one of the categories within it is that of how-to books. I have books on how to design and make furniture from cast-off materials, how to make braided rugs, how to make doll houses and furniture, how to make canned foods and jellies, how to make your own purses and shoes, and books on yogurt making and felt making—and I have made all of these things and more. I seek out books on forgotten arts, such as spinning, weaving, smocking, rug hooking, tatting, and bobbin-lace making. (I’ve done the first three, but haven’t tried the last three yet.) I even have books on how to build your own log cabin or barn from scratch, how to milk a goat, and how to grow and use your own natural-dye garden. If all these dystopian books come true and we have some kind of societal collapse, I’m the neighbor you want to have.

Of course, now that writing has taken over my life, my big floor loom in one end of the living room has become a cat gymnasium, my sewing machine sits permanently covered on a table where manuscripts have replaced fabric pieces, and gorgeous hand-knit projects languish neglected and unfinished in tote bags hanging from the doorknobs of my combination office and studio. I still believe these crafts have great value. I used to make time for them in a busy life, but I’ve lost that knack somewhere and need to recover it for a sense of balance. Meanwhile, I’ll write into my books a character who has that balance and that fiber craft store that I used to dream of owning.

In your own writing, what aspect of your life finds its way as a part of your story? Do you give a character some passion or aspect of your own personality? And when you’re reading, do you like to see these bits of the author’s personality embodied in the work?
Detail of one of Linda's quilts.

Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret, winner of the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Competition, will be published by Minotaur Books on April 24. Linda is the author of two award-winning books of poetry and a cookbook, and is the recipient of several writing awards. She swears she’ll shoo the cat off and warp the big loom just as soon as she finishes her book tour and the edits on her second novel in the Skeet Bannion series and the first draft of her third and…
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