Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Death of Posthumous Fame

Elizabeth Zelvin

I suspect that more and more libraries will refuse donations of papers, especially if the writer isn't unassailably famous. My guess is that thanks to the information explosion in the Internet age (not to mention the fact that more and more documents are electronic rather than actual paper), it will become uncreasingly unlikely for even the most talented and successful writer's reputation to outlive him or her. Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 (63 years), Hemingway in 1961 (50 years), Steinbeck in 1968 (44 years), Truman Capote in 1984 (27 years). What author under 50, if any, do you think will still be a household word, at least among the educated, that long after his or her death?

How much even of these memorable authors’ lasting fame is due not to their books, but to the movies made of their work? I know Gone with the Wind was based on Margaret Mitchell’s book and The Wizard of Oz on L. Frank Baum’s, To Kill A Mockingbird from Harper Lee’s, and The Help from Kathryn Stockett’s. How many movie adaptations of novels have you seen in the last twenty years for which you can name the novelist? How many of these will you be able to name twenty years from now? How many do your children know?

The first voluminous volume (760 pages) of Mark Twain’s autobiography came out in 2010. An author whose reputation has proven extremely durable, he deliberately stipulated that it would not be published until a hundred years after his death. so that he would be free to write whatever he wanted without fear of reproach or litigation. Having a sneaky taste for gossip served up cold, I went out and bought the book, making it a birthday present for my husband as a good excuse. Although the prose and some of the anecdotes were delightful, the hundred-years-cold tittle-tattle had gone tepid and congealed.

It’s not that Samuel Clemens did not have an interesting life. According to, “When he was 9 years old he saw a local man murder a cattle rancher, and at 10 he watched a slave die after a white overseer struck him with a piece of iron.” He worked as a printer, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and a prospector for gold and silver, the latter endeavor leaving him flat broke. So he became a writer—some things never change! He was a celebrated public speaker and humorist as well as an author for much of his career.

Twain chose to avoid the tedium of a chronological record (“Chapter One: I was born...”) and jumped in wherever his fancy took him. His style, both literate and anecdotal, is so good that I was moved to read some delicious passages out loud. But what even an iconoclast like Twain found shocking a hundred years ago produces no more than a yawn from today’s reader. It’s not a matter of sex or obscenity, with which it’s getting harder and harder to shock the 21st-century reader. It’s not even overt atheism. (You can find some lively debate by googling, “Was Mark Twain an atheist?”) Most of the so-called scandal consisted of his exercising his satiric wit on various popular preachers of the day whose names are otherwise long forgotten.

My prediction: In 2112, no one will remember a single writer who’s alive today. Will people still read? It’s anybody’s guess. Americans will be lucky if reality TV has not driven life to imitate the art of The Hunger Games and if entertainment doesn’t consist of teenagers fighting to the death on the 22nd-century equivalent of public television.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


by Sandra Parshall

Why are we so obsessed with the intimate details of celebrities’ lives? And why do so many people want to be celebrities?

I shudder at the thought of being trailed in the streets by paparazzi and having gossip “journalists” combing through my everyday life for juicy tidbits. (They wouldn’t find any, so they would make up some.) And although I hope my readers will enjoy my books, I don’t long to have an unruly mob of adoring fans surrounding me everywhere I go.

I think about this every time I see a photo or video of some actor trying to push through a crowd of paparazzi or fans. I think about it when I see tabloids in the grocery store (JEN IS PREGNANT WITH BRAD’S BABY!), and when I see “news” stories like the piece of guesswork the New York Times ran a few days ago about Mark Zuckerberg and his new wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. The story – yes, I read it, but I felt like I was invading their privacy – concerned the possibility that the couple had signed a pre-nuptial agreement. The writer speculated about the various provisions it might contain. This reporter doesn’t even know whether they have a pre-nup, yet he felt free to take a guess at how much money Dr. Chan will get if the marriage ends in divorce. They just got married, for pity’s sake. Do we have to start talking this early about their divorce?

Zuckerberg is a celebrity only because he created Facebook and is a billionaire many times over. Dr. Chan is a celebrity only because she married him. Both seem like nice but ordinary people. I find their dog, Beast the Puli, more interesting than either of them. But they’re famous, so the press wants to feed the public every tidbit it can dig up – or make up – about them.

On the Hollywood front, I’m amazed by the sheer staying power of the Brad-Angelina-Jennifer thing. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have been divorced for how many years? He and Angelina Jolie have a houseful of kids now, and apparently they’re finally planning to get married. Yet the possibility that Brad will leave Angie and go back to poor Jen remains one of the tabloids’ most frequent topics. I have to ask: WHO THE HECK CARES?

I’m also baffled by the “celebrity” of people who appear on reality shows, allowing cameras to record their daily lives. I think I’m pretty safe in saying that the great majority of us can find equally volatile, shrill, silly, stupid folks in our own families. Why aren’t we obsessed with them? Because they're not on TV? Do boring people automatically become fascinating when they do boring things in front a camera?

Fortunately, writers seldom have to deal with the insatiable curiosity of fans about our personal lives, and even the worldwide bestselling authors can walk the streets unmolested by fan mobs or hordes of photographers. We should be grateful. Margaret Mitchell was one writer who inspired that sort of adulation, and it didn’t make her happy. Fans of Gone with the Wind collected outside Mitchell’s house, peering through the windows and waiting for her to emerge. She received so much fan mail that it was delivered in huge bags. (She spent much of her time trying to answer all those letters.) You may have noticed that she never published another book.

Personally, I love being approached at conferences and other events by readers who want to tell me they enjoy my writing. But would I want those readers camping outside my house? Being close to zero on the celebrity scale has definite advantages.

Do you read/listen to celebrity gossip? Do you want Brad to go back to Jen? Have you ever, for even a moment, wished you could be a celebrity?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chipmunk Chronicles

Sharon Wildwind

Even with the smoke-free legislation removing their killing ambiance, I’m not a big casino fan. The week I was in Las Vegas I didn’t play a single slot machine, my one gambling weakness.

In a recent moment of inattention, I offered to work a casino shift for a local arts group.

In Alberta, the Gaming and Liquor Commission, part of the Provincial Government, uses gambling profits to support twenty-five types of groups, ranging from agricultural fairs to youth groups. Non-profit arts groups (visual, literary, media, and performing arts) that are actively involved in encouraging public participation in the arts or who operate public facilities, such as theatres, can apply for gambling proceeds to support their organization.

In other words, the provincial government relies on gambling to help them fund activities that they are mandated by law to support.

Some proceeds come from group-sponsored activities such as bingo nights or raffles, but the biggest money-maker is casino nights. The two largest cities—Edmonton and Calgary—and some of the smaller cities have licensed casinos. In Calgary, there are seven. In exchange for supplying volunteer labor to work backstage, as it were, at one of these seven casinos, the non-profit group gets a share of the money, not just for the night they work, but for the entire quarter in which they volunteered.

We’re talking big bucks here.

Volunteers can act as general manages, bankers, cashiers, count room supervisors and staff, and chip runners. That’s me, #1 chip runner, or as I preferred to call myself for the one night, the #1 Chipmunk.

When I said I’d do this, I had a vague notion that I’d be in a bingo hall somewhere, but it turned out to be much, much more complicated.

First of all, there was a dress code: casual, but no torn or immodest apparel. Name tag must be worn at all times, and photo ID must be presented upon request. I opted for black pants, white T-shirt and quilted African-fabric vest.

Then there were the roles and rules. I was, you might say, in the chips. My roles were to help open and close the tables, transfer chips from the banker to the games table and credits from the game tables to the banker, verify the accuracy of the transactions, witness chip counts, and assist the general manager during the pull of drop boxes.

The rules?
Arrive on time.
Work only my assigned position.
No gambling at the site on the day of the event.
No liquor or illicit substances during the event.
Don’t have any gaming chips in your possession.

The perks? Access to a hospitality room equipped with a TV, microwave, and fridge. Access to a private washroom. Free food and coffee.

The warnings from people who had done this before? Wear comfortable shoes. Bring a book, because you are going to be oh, so bored for at least part of the time. Oh, yes, be prepared to stay until 3:00 AM. On what planet does it make sense to gamble until 3:00 AM?

Boy, were those people right. Me and #2 Chipmunk spent most of the evening and early morning sitting in the hospitality room, waiting for the phone to ring. He read a book and played with his cell phone. I watched a lot of TV with the sound off, so as not to disturb him. I wish I’d brought my knitting.

We each averaged about 1 run an hour, taking locked clear acrylic boxes containing chips to the tables. Each run involved verifying my ID tag; entering information on a hand-held scanner; carrying the box to the table while being escorted by security; handing over the box to the pit boss, who opened the box and added the chips to the table; verifying that the number and kind of chips I’d been given were exactly the same as what the pit boss received; clearing my hand-held scanner; and taking it back to the banker.

On one run I carried chips worth more than my entire salary last year.

Between 2 AM and 3 AM I accompanied the general manager as she pull metal boxes containing cash from half a dozen tables. The people in the counting room said it was a typically slow Monday night. The take was only in the low six figures. That’s one small night’s take for one of seven casinos. Do the math.

Which is why #2 Chipmunk and I had a discussion about means and ends. We agreed we’d prefer not to think about what was happening “out there.” About how many people had spent the entire evening sitting at a video lottery terminal or table. About how fast small bets build up. Did you know that if you bet a penny per line; played 150 lines at a time; and played for one hour, once a week, at the end of the year you would have bet roughly $4,212.00?

He countered with the thoughts that a percentage of the take from each casino goes into gambling treatment programs and that if gambling were illegal it would simply go underground so that the profits would end up going to groups more unsavoury than the arts community.

I wonder, does it come down to a reality that, in these economic times, gambling is the only way to fund arts organizations?

Quote for the week
If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.
~Chinese Proverb

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Forest or the Tree? And How it Affects your Writing.

by Julia Buckley

I once had the pleasure of hearing noted educator and psychologist JoAnn Deak speak about learning, especially the different ways that boys and girls learn.  In the process of her very interesting lecture, she noted that one is generally a Tree person or a Forest person.  (You know the old expression, "You can't see the forest for the trees?").  Deak suggested that Tree people saw the little details within the forest of life.  Tree learners focused on the minutiae and therefore could potentially obsess over them.  But tree learners also saw valuable details that others just didn't see.

Forest people, on the other hand, were "big picture" people.  They tended to think of big concepts and often genuinely didn't even notice small issues.  At one point in her life she was a school administrator, and she often had to work with parents and children.  She pointed out that it could be very difficult to work out issues between, say, a Tree mother and a Forest son.  The mother went crazy over all the details her son refused to acknowledge, and the son would be frustrated by the way his mother saw the world, which seemed too focused on random details.

I was thinking of this analogy the other day as I struggled over the writing of a paragraph.  I think that writers, too, might evaluate themselves as either Tree or Forest artists.  I think I might be a blend of the two, but I would have to say that I veer toward Forest.  For example, I have never wanted to lose myself in a long description.  In general I feel that no matter what I am describing, one or two sentences will cover it nicely.  And yet I enjoy losing myself in the very long descriptions written by other writers: beautiful, evocative descriptions of setting, or long, wordy, wonderful discussions of a character's appearance.  Fun to read, but never something I'm tempted to write.  The more I write, the more concise I find my writing becomes.  It's not really a conscious choice that I make; it's just the way I write.

If you buy into the Tree/Forest analogy--that is, that you are either a detail person or a big-picture person--which sort are you?  If you're a writer, do you see the influence of this on your writing?

And, last but not least, Happy Memorial Day!  Special good wishes to all veterans and families of veterans on this important day.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Was Peter Pan But Didn't Fly

Well, I was almost Peter Pan. This was way back in the day. The day that I was young, skinny, and hitting the boards as a would-be actor. I was still in college, still taking classes and working full time. I had great ambitions in those days, and a lot of drive. If you ever watched the TV show Glee, then think of the character Rachel Berry. That was me. All drive, all seriousness. When others fooled around backstage, it just put me on edge. Why aren't they taking this seriously? I griped.

But this wasn't to be their careers. They were just having fun. And I did, too. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie that develops in a cast. You work long hours together, emote together, and produce wonderful work together.

One of my last stints on the stage before I started going to real auditions and had my head handed to me, was a production of The Comedy of Errors at Cal State Dominguez Hills. I played Adriana and got to perform my two loves: Shakespeare and comedy. And I had the most gorgeous Italian Renaissance costume that I got to wear. We had a blast in the production. I got a boyfriend out of it, too...not the man I married, though...and the eye of the director for a particular role. His next production was to be the musical Peter Pan.

I loved that play, at least the non-musical one. I was a big fan of J. M. Barrie's work, including The Admirable Crichton and others. And I really wanted to play Peter. I was the tom boy who wouldn't grow up, so it was only fitting.

During The Comedy of Errors, the director told me of his plans to stage Peter Pan, and he asked me if I could sing and dance. First rule of the stage is always tell the director "yes" (get your mind out of the gutter!) But actually, I can sing and I can move gracefully, or could, anyway. He liked the physicality of my performance and I felt I was a shoe in.

And besides. I wanted to fly! The wires looked like so much fun, and the director was going to play Captain Hook and I knew it was going to be a blast. All summer I practiced for the audition. In those days, there was no internet. Heck, in those days, there were no VCRs. So there was no renting the movie and watching it. No watching Youtube videos on the internet. I had to track down the Mary Martin record and play it over and over, memorizing the songs and "flying" here and there about my bedroom. I was going to play Peter Pan, and I knew it would be a turning point performance.
And then I got the news. Sandy Duncan was reviving the play for Broadway. And when that happens, Samuel French, the one and only place to get the rights and the scripts to do plays, pulled the plug. When an equity house was producing it, no one else could. I was devastated. My chance to be Peter was suddenly snatched out from under me.

And as the years past, and I grew older and dumpier, I knew that the chance was gone forever. But as they say, when one door closes, another door opens. I gave up the dream of the stage (and anyway, unlike Rachel Berry, I didn't have a plan past college. I didn't have the slightest idea how to proceed.) But I did see a future elsewhere; in all those posters and programs I was designing for plays over the years. I realized I had other talents and changed my major to art and left with an art degree and became a graphic artist in Los Angeles for the next fifteen years. It was somewhat later that I switched careers yet again to that of a novelist.

But I never forgot the career that could have been. And whenever I see a poster for Peter Pan--Cathy Rigby is performing it again here, where I live--I think of that lost chance to fly, that may or may not have amounted to anything at all. I don't think there is room today in Barrie's play for an overweight Jewish mother, flying around over the stage, chasing after Peter, telling him to wear a sweater because it sometimes gets cold in Neverland.

That just wasn't going to fly.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I Have Gone Over to the Dark Side

by Sheila Connolly

All right, I'll confess: I have read an ebook.  On my Nook.  Yes, you may now laugh, you who have already wizarded your way through this unholy labyrinth. I admit itBI'm behind the curve.

Like many people these days, I have mixed feelings about the proliferating technology for reading these days.  I like physical books, and I have the thousands to prove it.  I have always liked books, even before I could read, which was pretty early in my life.

But I have also always loved television.  I was the one who played with the knobs to see what would happen (and then my father would have to come and fiddle around until he fixed it.  HmmBmaybe that's why he would never let me near the record player.)  When my father was no longer part of the household, I was the one in the family who could retrieve a picture from the mess of wavy lines on the screen.

I have stuck to both throughout my life.  I know there were and are those who believe that television is harmful to developing minds.  I disagree, with two caveats: one, that a child spend an equal amount of time outside doing something that involves exercise, and two, that he or she do it with other people, not figures on a screen.

In my distant rosy childhood, the lines between the media were blurred.  In my elementary school, my friends and I would play at recess (yes, outside) by making up episodes for the television shows that we all watched.  Most involved horses, but we also incorporated stereotype: good guys, bad guys and women.  In our stories, the women stayed home and wore dresses.  None of my friends wanted to be stuck playing women.  It was a girls' school. Maybe we were ahead of our time?

My position on ebooks is that we as writers can't stop the critters, so we might as well get used to them.  I bought an ereader when my first estory, "Called Home," was published.  It seemed wrong to me to know that I had a story that was published but I couldn't see it.  So that story was my first purchase for my Nook.

The second was a truly obscure short story written by Herman Melville about the chimney in his house.  I wanted to read it because I was trying to understand the 18th-19th century attitudes toward hearth and home, and Melville took the time to set down his (at great length).  I'm sure this exists in a book somewhere, but I did not have the time or the patience to go find it in print.  My defenses were crumbling.

The final blow came when I was doing research for my next Museum Mystery (currently nameless).  The book revolves around the Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest who was one of the shining stars of the nineteenth century stage but who is little known today.  In the quarter-century following his death in 1872, many of his colleagues wrote about him in glowing termsBpages and pages of lush Victorian prose, mostly out of print and hard to find.  I could have ordered POD copies (in fact, I did at first) but when confronted with the transcript of the actor's very messy divorce from his actress wife, which ran to over a thousand pages, I threw in the towel and downloaded a copy to the Nook.  No, I haven't read all of it, but I have read parts (the juicy bits, of course).  And now I feel virtuous about all the trees I have spared and all the shelf space I have saved.

But it was not until quite recently that I read a bookBa regular piece of fiction, currently available in bookstores. I survived the adventure, although every time I hit the screen I seem to come up with some command I wasn't looking for.  Or knew existed.  It seems Nook and I needs must become better acquainted for a real relationship to develop.

But I've taken the first step, and the second and the third.  There are more current books waiting on my Nook. Whatever the format, it's still about our words, isn't it?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Praise of Adverbs

Elizabeth Zelvin

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

The context in which I found these two quotations paired on the Internet was “when insults had class.” But I think this particular duet is not just a couple of clever quips but a statement about a philosophical gulf between two kinds of writing.

As a college English major in the early 1960s, I found Hemingway’s language too plain and Faulkner’s so ornamented as to make the stories he was telling incomprehensible. That is not to say that I reject plain diction. As a poet for thirty years, I was proud that no reader ever said to me, “I didn’t understand your poem.” My second book of poetry contained only seven words of four or more syllables in 64 pages. Nor have I ever been afraid of “big words.” As a kid, I was a spelling bee champ who could rattle off “antidisestablishmentarianism” with the best of them.

Since my college days, the English language and its literature has endured what I consider the toxic embrace of Deconstructionism, with its irritatingly opaque invented vocabulary. Thank goodness that instead of going on for my doctorate, I ran away and joined the Peace Corps—and discovered mysteries and other genre fiction. I’m told that Deconstructionism lasted longer in American academia than anywhere else. And yet it’s Hemingway whose approach to language has triumphed. With my own ears, I’ve heard Stephen King (very much a writer’s writer) declare that his advice to aspiring writers is, “Read, read, read; write, write, write—and lose the adverbs.”

In the past ten years as a fiction writer, through rejection and critique and editing and honing my craft, I have come to understand what’s wrong with adverbial writing. Those tough action verbs can serve the writer well. But I still think it’s pretty weird for the arbiters of language to shun an entire part of speech. I have enjoyed reading work in which adverbs are used deliciously and evocatively to enhance the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs. So it’s a different style. So what? Why not?

Hemingway and Faulkner, like cozies and noir, are too often assumed to be the only alternatives. Let’s hear it for the middle ground. Language can be rich without losing the reader and strong without being stripped stark naked. But what’s really dangerous is allowing any one literary style to be considered the only right way to write.

There’s a famous quotation about the dangers of “contempt prior to investigation.” (You can Google it to learn how it came to be attributed incorrectly to Herbert Spencer, but that’s another story.) So by all means, let expansive writers rein themselves in by deleting adverbs and replacing Latinate words with their Anglo-Saxon-based equivalents. But let’s also invite the hard-boiled heirs of Hemingway to spread themselves a little. Stick in a couple of adverbs in every paragraph, if not every sentence. Go on, try it. You might like it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Consider the humble utility pole

Sandra Parshall

The utility poles in our neighborhood are being replaced, and this has made me consider how vital these ubiquitous columns are to our lives, and how little we appreciate them.

They bring us electricity, of course, and even with wireless options available, most of still get our telephone service, cable TV, and internet access through wires strung along utility poles. They provide power to street lights and traffic signals, and sometimes they play host to cell phone antennae.

But do we love them? Only on the rare occasion when a storm knocks one down and we realize how much of modern life collapsed with it.

We call them ugly. We wish they could all be eliminated in favor of underground wiring, but we don’t want to foot the gigantic bill for the conversion. We  envy people who live in new developments where the only towering poles are those that support street lights and traffic signals. But be honest: don’t those suburban communities with underground wiring look a little... naked? As if nobody really lives there?

Samuel Morse, who built the first utility line in 1844 to carry telegraph signals between Baltimore and Washington, tried laying cable underground but ran into so many problems that he dug it up again and strung it on poles. Utility poles have been with us ever since, going wherever people have chosen to live. When the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860s, telegraph lines supported by utility poles kept pace with construction, running alongside the rails. In some parts of the U.S., we still have stretches of open road where we can drive for miles without seeing towns or houses, but in most cases the utility poles are there, beside the pavement, carrying electricity and telephone service to remote areas.

Promontory, Utah, 1869
Some poles, depending on their location, carry only electricity, or only telephone lines, or only television cables. The tall poles in residential areas carry a grounding wire along the top to protect everything below it from lightning strikes. Then come the power lines. A safety space is kept open below the power lines so that workers attaching or repairing the telephone and cable TV lines at the bottom won’t accidentally touch the electrical wiring.

You might think that by this late date we would have switched to poles made of some indestructible space-age material, but the majority of this country’s millions of utility poles are still nothing more than tall, slender tree trunks stripped of bark and treated with preservative. Some of the companies supplying them have been in business for a century or more. A lot of workers are dependent on this industry for jobs, beginning with those who harvest the trees. Iron and metal poles and T structures are also made, and you’ll most often see them carrying the heaviest electrical transmission lines. Slender iron poles can be used anywhere, though, and some are colored to look like wood. (Those pictured at left are manufactured by McWane.)

Treated to prevent rot and insect damage, a wooden pole may last half a century or more. Our subdivision was built in 1960, and I don’t believe the poles have ever been replaced before. They have many cracks, and they’re riddled with holes drilled by hopeful (but always disappointed) woodpeckers. Replacing a pole involves digging a hole next to it, anchoring the new pole several feet deep in the ground, and transferring all the wiring. We haven’t seen an old pole taken down yet, but I assume they’ll all be cut at ground level and hauled away. 

Every pole bears markings, either carved or burned into the wood or printed on metal plates about six feet from the ground, that supply all sorts of identifying information – the date it was installed, which company manufactured it, the type of wood it’s made of, the preservative used, the route it serves. 

Beyond the “C” for creosote, I haven’t been able to decipher the letters and numbers on the pole at one corner of our yard. The only thing that makes sense to me is the little metal plate with “C&P VA” engraved on it – a relic of the era when the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company provided our service and Verizon didn’t yet exist. Maybe when the old pole comes down, I’ll ask if I can keep that tag to remember it by.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Sharon Wildwind

“This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.”

My publisher chose to put the above disclaimer in my latest book, not only because the book made heavy references to a real events before, during, and after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, but also because I created a photograph to hang on a character’s wall. It was a photo of four golfers: one a famous professional golfer, two public figures who were avid players, and the fourth a character of my own invention.

I guess the publisher was concerned least family members of the three real golfers got upset that I’d had the temerity to suggest their relative had played golf with an imaginary person.

Considering what’s going on with historical figures in books and movies these days, a round of golf might be the least of their worries.

I’m sorry, but I draw the line at Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter, and HRH Queen Victoria as a rare-animal-eating maniac who runs on clockwork gears. Strangely enough, I found Victoria attractive as a werewolf hunter.

I haven’t seen Benjamin Walker’s portrayal, so I can’t comment on whatever spin he gives to the young Mr. Lincoln. I object on general principles to turning the 16th President of the United States into a vampire-hunter. Lincoln had enough to contend with: depression, chronic illness, his son’s death, and the American Civil War. Let the man alone. Let him rest in peace.

I love Wallace and Gromit and Shaun The Sheep, both productions of Aardman Animations. If I were a tad younger I’d be tempted to catch a plane to Bristol and beg them to let me start anywhere. I’d sweep their floors if it would give me a chance to one day make figures for them.

While there were some raucously funny moments in The Pirates! Adventures with Scientists, they didn’t include the Queen Victoria character. Can’t fault Imelda Stanton’s voice or the clay/latex work, but the send-up just didn’t do it for me. Maybe I wasn’t sure of her motivation, or maybe she was too over the top.

The performance I did enjoy was Pauline Collins as Queen Victoria in the Dr. Who episode, Tooth and Claw. She was quite a believable queen—haughty, presumptuous, vulnerable, carrying on in spite of her grief over Albert’s death. Because she came across as a strong and multi-dimensional character, I was ready to swallow the rest of the plot, including the werewolf, the monks that came straight out of a Bruce Lee Movie, and the secret protection that Albert had had created because he feared that his wife and the werewolf would one day end up in the same place.

Just goes to show that writers have to make real people, real people in order for them to be believable.

Quote for the week:

Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.
~Her Royal Highness Alexandria Victoria Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (nee Hanover)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Remember the ACT?

by Julia Buckley

My son recently took the ACT Test.  Remember this?  Back when we took it, there were no prep classes, no special pre-ACT software, no weekly review sessions in advance.  We students of the pre-90s era took the test cold, and lived with the results.  We also had to deal with those dreaded analogies, which looked, in my memory, like this:

Arcane is to Querulous as Snuffaluffagus is to ______________.

There are no longer analogies on the ACT.  I took the test back in 1982, and my score was a not-that-impressive 26 (I scored a 34 in the English section, but my math was abysmal).  But an ACT rep who came to our school recently told us that if you took the ACT prior to 1989, you should now add 2 points to your original score in order to reflect what you would receive on the ACT today.

So, interestingly, my son and I ended up getting the same score, about 30 years apart.

So what level of vocabulary does the ACT test?, a review site for ACT and SAT tests,  offers some pretty challenging words.  Do you know the meaning of








Try taking the vocabulary test.  I did it, and I did not get 100%.  It wasn't because I didn't know the meanings of words, but often because I disagreed about how they would be used in context.  (I also found an error in the test). :)

The ACT remains a significant factor in determining a student's chances for college admission; however, some colleges are starting to look at the ACT scores as less significant than plain old school grades. Therefore, students who don't bother to work hard in their classes because they're confident they'll score well on standardized tests would be in for a rude awakening.

In the meantime, if you ask me, the best preparation for the ACT is reading a lot of books, and starting in grade school.

How did you do on the test? :)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Canada Calling: Bloody Words

If you find yourself in or can get yourself to Toronto, Ontario for 2012 June 1 to 3, head for the Hilton Toronto Downtown for the 12th Annual Bloody Words Convention.

Visit the Scene of Crime Room where you view the evidence, read police statements and make your best guess about who-done-it. A bag of goodies to the person who gets it right.

Panels and guests abound. Guests this year are 
  • Guest of Honour: Linwood Barclay
  • International Guest: Gayle Lynds
  • Master of Ceremonies: Rick Blechta

Open microphone with agents answering your questions about publishing.

Forensic Jeopardy, where a team of 4 authors takes on a team of 4 readers from the audience to see who knows more forensic facts.

The State of New York v Peter Pan: a play that’s a mash-up between Law & Order and Peter Pan.

In addition to the annual Arthur Ellis awards for Canadian Crime Fiction, this year a new award, the Light Mystery Award will be given for the first time. The LMA is for books that make us smile. The short list for this award are
  • Janet Bolin, Dire Threads (Berkley Prime Crime)
  • Alan Bradley, A Red Herring without Mustard (Doubleday Canada)
  • Gloria Ferris, Cheat the Hangman (Imajin Books)
  • Mary Jane Maffini, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (Berkley Prime Crime)
  • Phyllis Smallman, Champagne for Buzzards (McArthur & Company)

So even if you can’t make it to Toronto, have fun reading Canadian light.

Friday, May 18, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

May is the month when somebody dies.

I'm talking about television series, particularly the long-running ensemble shows with large casts, so you can imagine eliminating one cast member without the whole structure falling apart.  Think the CSI family, NCIS, The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, and so on, where death and destruction lurk around every corner. In May, the usual end of most series' season, something has to go seriously wrong in the last episode, leaving somebody's life hanging in the balance.

I understand the value of a cliffhanger, really, I do.  We as writers want to leave our readers (or in the case of broadcast/cable/whatever people use these days, the viewers) with a burning question that absolutely must be resolved in the next book or coming episode.  We want them to groan at the end of the season and make a mental bookmark to tune in as soon as the series returns, usually in the fall, to find out who survived and who didn't.  In case that bookmark isn't enough, networks will start bombarding us with teasers months in advance. 

We've been watching some of these casts for years now, and we've come to care for the characters, some more, some less.  That's what keeps a series coming back year after year, and keeps people watching it in endless reruns on cable stations.  Viewers like the people in the show.  That's a good thing.

But don't you feel just a bit manipulated when the scriptwriters sit down to create that season-ender and pull out the hackneyed devastating crisis, leaving you wondering just who is going to walk out of the smoke and debris in September? Admit it:  you find yourself making mental bets, and running down the list, thinking, "isn't he making a movie this year? Bet he wanted time off," or "they've pretty much gone through every possible plot twist for her (i.e., she's been romantically involved with every male castmate)—maybe she'd better get bumped upstairs about now" (or die now—anything that removes her from sight, permanently).

Seeing this plot device once in a while is fine.  It's a powerful ending; otherwise it wouldn't be used so often.  However, when every series of the crime-solving ilk uses it at the same time, it becomes almost comic.  You can surf from network to network and see the same promo for The Last Episode of the Year:  The Explosion. Doesn't matter which show or which cast, but you know the building will blow up. Or some thug will spray the bar where the cast is celebrating their latest victory with automatic gunfire.  Or a terrorist will spread a lethal plague in the subway system. Or (fill in your own choice of cliffhanger).  And some cast member will walk into the sunset.

And then in the fall someone new will walk in—the silver-haired team leader, the sexy blonde, the brash youngster, the geeky techie—and soon we won't even remember who it was that was vaporized the year before. Series life will go on.

We've got another week or two of explosions to get through.  And then blessed silence—until September.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why it took my series protagonist three books to get a girlfriend

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m a sucker for romance. While I don’t read straight romances, my favorite reads tend to include a satisfying love story along with great writing, smooth storytelling, and—a crucial element for me—endearing characters of depth and complexity. At the top of my list is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, started with a great love story (Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan) and then took a leisurely arc of seven or eight books and more than a decade in fictional time to find Miles the perfect mate. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series are on the list: complex historicals brimming with excitement and a touch of magic, both with extraordinarily charismatic heroes who find (immediately or eventually) a larger-than-life Big Love. In the Dunnett books, the ultimate heroine is only ten years old when she and the hero first meet. In mysteries, I’m particularly fond of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne and Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott and Dwight Bryant (both brilliant examples of the traditional amateur sleuth with a law enforcement partner). In the first case, it’s love at first sight and obstacles to overcome in book after book. In the other, Maron herself has said when she started the series, she had no idea that Deborah and Dwight would fall in love.

In the past, I’ve said that it’s ironic that though I love romantic stories, I didn’t write one. Now, reviewing my literary role models, I can see that I was instinctively falling into the pattern of allowing the protagonist’s love story to unfold slowly over the course of a series arc. In the case of my protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, it was not a matter of building the tension, peak after peak, in one evolving relationship, as Julia Spencer-Fleming does so brilliantly. Rather, like Miles Vorkosigan (if I dare to mention my own work and the dazzling Bujold’s in the same breath), Bruce has a lot of growing up to do before he can choose the right mate.

The theme of my mystery series, recovery from alcoholism, codependency, and other addictions and compulsions, gave Bruce some very good reasons not to have a girlfriend. The first book, Death Will Get You Sober, started with Bruce hitting bottom in a detox on the Bowery.
I’ve worked with a lot of homeless alcoholics, and believe me, most of them are not thinking about romance. Survival and getting the next drink takes all their attention. When Bruce gets to AA, he hears, along with “Don’t drink and go to meetings,” that he’s supposed to have “No relationships for the first year.” (I have had clients who had the illusion that meant that one-night stands were okay, as long as they didn’t get emotionally involved. But that’s another story.)

The secondary theme and subplot of the series, Bruce’s friendship with his two sleuthing sidekicks, his best friend Jimmy and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, also supported Bruce’s lack of a love interest in the first book. Bruce has deeply disappointed Jimmy and Barbara, and a big part of his motivation for staying sober and solving the murders is to give the friendship a second chance. There’s a lot of love in this triumvirate, and some readers noticed a teeny bit of sexual tension between Bruce and Barbara, though it was essential to the story I wanted to tell that this would be resolved harmlessly at the end of the first book.

Bruce actually had a girlfriend in the manuscript I intended to be the second book of the series, which was rejected by my publisher at the time. Bruce is still fairly new in sobriety. Jimmy and Barbara are taking a weekend couples workshop, and Bruce tags along. The obnoxious relationship guru is murdered, and Bruce promptly falls for his widow. But this relationship has nowhere to go, and it’s apparent throughout the story.
This left Bruce free to get a crush on another murder suspect, the girlfriend of the drug dealer victim, in Death Will Help You Leave Him. He also had to break free from his crazy ex-wife, which meant dealing with the destructiveness of their relationship and his own codependency issues, love issues, rescue fantasies, or whatever you’d like to call them.

In the new book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Bruce and his friends take shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons.
They’ve just arrived when they find the body of one of their housemates on the beach. It takes two more murders and the whole summer for them to figure out whodunit. In the meantime, Bruce is very much attracted to one of his housemates, the self-reliant and enigmatic Cindy. He’s ready now, but things keep getting in the way. It’s also a new experience to negotiate the landmines of an attraction in sobriety. In recovery, not drinking is just the beginning. After that, you have to change your whole life, and that includes refraining from doing anything you’ll be ashamed of in the morning. Do he and Cindy get to first base by Labor Day? Or home? I’m not telling—and don’t you dare read the last page first!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chasing Elusive Dreams

Sandra Parshall

“Never stop trying! Never give up on your dream!”

How many times have you heard that advice? How many times have you given it to friends who are discouraged by rejection? Many established writers and other creative people say that’s the best advice they can give anyone who is struggling to break in. But is it?

Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors, doesn’t think so. In a personal essay in the June issue of Psychology Today, Burroughs cautions that “Dreams are not always beautiful things” and encouragement can keep an untalented person plugging away forever – and wasting his or her life.

His own dream was not to be a writer, but to be an actor. He thought he was good. In fact, he thought he was brilliant and would be applauded as one of the greatest actors of his day. Then he watched a video of himself delivering a monologue in acting class. He barely recognized himself. The person on the recording was not an actor. He was terrible. Hopeless. He had no talent for the one career in the world he wanted to pursue. He abandoned his dream, knowing it would never come true.

Burroughs worked in advertising for a while before finding fame with his essays and memoirs (which draw on his troubled childhood and youth and his struggle with alcoholism). He says he has no regrets about giving up his dream of being an actor. He asked himself why being an actor had been so important to him, and he realized his true goal was to reach other people, to touch their lives. He could do the same thing by writing, so he turned to a different dream and made it come true. He urges others to face the truth about their own talents and ask themselves if their dreams are realistic. If you do have talent, of course, the dilemma is more complicated. You have reason to hope for success, but you can’t count on it. You may still end up wasting your life.

Burroughs’s views strike close to the bone for me, because I spent most of my life trying to get my novels published and was on the cusp of old age before I succeeded. I’m happy to be in print now, I revel in the praise of reviewers, and I love receiving fan mail. I’m a published author. Not a bestseller known all over the world, but a published author with an audience. It’s hard for me to say all the years of rejection were worthwhile, though. My failure to realize my dream was the dominant fact of my existence for a long time, and it drained the joy from life.

If you have little or no talent, and you’re fortunate enough to experience the kind of revelation Burroughs did, giving up a dream may be easier, although it will still be painful. But the truth is that we usually can’t see ourselves clearly. A dreadful writer can read his own words and believe they are equal to, or better than, anything being published. A terrible singer can listen to her own voice and feel transported by its beauty. Aspiring actors like the young Burroughs have to depend on others to let them perform, and if they can’t find work they’ll eventually be forced to give up, but they may live out their lives with the bitter belief that their talent was overlooked.

These days it’s easy for writers and singers/musicians to bypass the gatekeepers and offer their work directly to the audience. Those with talent will probably be noticed. Those without will suffer criticism and poor sales. But will that be enough to kill their dreams? In most cases, I suspect, it won’t.

Have you struggled to make your dream come true? Have you ever wondered if you should give up and move on to something else? Have you ever tried to make someone else see that it was time to give up?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

GEB and Zakka

Sharon Wildwind

If you’ve heard of the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, raise your hand. If you’ve actually read it, keep your hand up. Okay, you can put your hands down.

This started last fall when a geek site published the 9 books all geeks should have read. Since I consider myself geek-oid rather than geek-y I thought it would be fun to see how many I’d read. I didn’t do too badly: I’d read 6.5 out of the 9, yes, including the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced D & D. Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Thanks, Brian.

The 0.5 was for The Fellowship of the Rings. I tried it. Three times. One time I made it to page 70 of the first book in the trilogy. And I did see all of the movies. Three times each. That has to count for something. Thanks, Viggo Mortensen.

I’d never heard of Gödel, Escher, Bach by Dr. Douglas R. Hofstadter, though my husband assured me that he had been quite familiar with the book since his twenties and that those in the know referred to the book by initials only.

[My husband’s score on the list was 8/9, but I’m not jealous. Well, maybe a little bit.]

Incidentally, Dr. D.R.H. is one of two Doctors Hofstadter for whom the character Dr. Leonard L. Hofstadter in The Big Bang Theory is named. The other one is Dr. Robert Hofstadter, Douglas’ father.

Last October, I put GEB on hold at the local library and a couple of weeks ago, I was notified that the book was available. Wow, a six-month wait. This book was going to be really something.

It may be, but I had a darn hard time with it, and gave up on page 68, which was two pages less than I’d managed for Lord of the Rings. I have an impression that GEB might be about patterns and recurrences, symmetry, and how the brain thinks. If you managed to finish GEB, and understand it, and are ever in Calgary or happen to live in Calgary, I will buy you dinner so you can explain the book to me. I hate loose ends and not understanding this book feels like a loose end.

So what’s the one book on the list my husband hasn’t read? Edward R. Tufte’s Visual display of quantitative information. I haven’t read it either, but my name is now #12 on the list at the library. We’re going to read it together. Then we’ll be done, until the next time some geek site comes out with another list.

Next question: does zakka mean anything to you?

I came across that term about the same time I requested GEB at the library. Exploring zakka turned out to be fun, easy, restful, and without a loose end in sight.

The translation from Japanese means household goods. It’s an aesthetic that involves creating from linen, cotton, wool, and silk, small decorative items that enhance the beauty and serenity of every-day activities. Think linen pencil cases, felted wool tea cozies in the shape of a squirrel, embroidered tea towels, linen bags of every description, and soft, handmade toys.

How does any of this relate to writing? As writers I think we need occasionally to stretch ourselves, explore something about which we have no clue. Sometimes that new thing will stop us cold and sometimes we’ll get a great pattern for a little linen bag. It all evens out in the end.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why Writers Should Watch Stephen Colbert

Saturday was the 48th birthday of Stephen Colbert.  We were born in the same year, but that's not why I feel an affinity with this particular television personality.  I will venture briefly into the world of television to say something about the world of writing. And my statement is this: Thank goodness for Stephen Colbert.

There are times when I despair that things in television are being too “dumbed down,” especially the things that are meant to entertain (and sometimes educate) my children. I grow tired not only of scripts that contain too many stock characters, cliché situations, or predictable plots (oh, how very predictable many have become)!

I cringe at the notion of “reality tv,” which I find not realistic at all if by realistic they mean authentic. And the huge burst of reality programs suggests that not only is television trying to create a nation of voyeurs, but that network after network wants to jump on that bizarre bandwagon.

Colbert’s show, The Colbert Report (whimsically pronounced COL-BAIR RE-PORE) is political, satirical, and ironic (he poses as an extremely conservative American), and I appreciate all of those facets, but they are not the reasons why I feel grateful to Colbert. My gratitude stems from the fact that Colbert loves words, and he uses them effectively, hilariously, wielding them as weapons of protest, as swords of debate, as reminders of the broad vocabulary at our disposal.

The opening sequence of the show, aside from showing Colbert literally waving the American flag (hence the ironic tag), presents a visual of Colbert remaining stationary while a slew of words scrolls past his head—words that are humorously supposed to describe Colbert himself, at least in his televised persona. Every now and then a word is selected to remain onscreen; one of the funniest I recall is “gutly.” My personal favorite is “Lincolnish.”

Colbert has fun with words; writers understand this, and first and foremost I view Colbert as a writer. His show was spawned by The Jon Stewart Show, and Stewart is perhaps the king of political satire in this venue. But while Stewart is great at improvisation and cutting edge satire, Colbert is a good writer and speaker. Sure, he has a team of writers at his disposal, but I believe that Colbert, as a lover of words, is much involved in the writing of the show (I base this on his quick wit in interviews, much of which must necessarily be improvised depending on his subject’s responses).

Why are words so important? Unless television begins to challenge our minds and make us think about words, concepts, ideas beyond platitudes and clichés, we will no longer want to read or think at deep levels.  We will want only to be entertained (both Stewart and Colbert reach people, after all, by making them laugh), and if the powers behind the networks chip away at our resolve, we will be entertained by less and less impressive things. We will lose our critical edge, our love for language, our cultural depth.

There are still many shows that challenge us, but they may not all have the viewership that Colbert is building in his blatant (but funny) attempts at p.r. I won’t comment here on Colbert’s politics, because this is a blog about writing. I hope Colbert will continue to wield his pen to show viewers that words have power, that their diverse use sharpens our intellects, and that they are pleasurable to hear . . . and to read.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Spark to Ignite Ideas

John R. Lindermuth, Guest Blogger

I spent most of my working life on small-town newspapers, covering most every reporting beat and in several editing slots. A portion of that time was on the crime beat, which ultimately led to an interest in writing mysteries.
Probably because I spent so many years in the business, I retain a deep affection for the daily newspaper.

It wasn’t until the 20th century with the advent of radio, television and the Internet that newspaper circulation began to decline and the daily paper became a less important source of information for the public. I would argue though, the newspaper remains a prime source of ideas for the writer.

Once at a seminar for reporters we were asked to define news. Initially many of the participants suggested news was comprised of major events in a given time period. The consensus, after further discussion, boiled down to the fact news is anything which interests people. Look at your daily newspaper and you’ll see that is true.

Newspapers cover a broad range of activities of interest to a variety of readers. Newspapers reflect society. They reveal the daily concerns—local, national and international—of the people, their diversions, social attitudes and prejudices. That encompasses a mother lode of emotions. And emotion is the springboard for prompting story ideas.

Sure, you might get a hint of some of these same ideas from TV. But I contend it’s like the difference between an appetizer and a meal, a headline and a story. Only a newspaper account can provide the detail, the framework for building a realistic plot.

Since retiring in 2000 I have been librarian of our county historical society where I assist people with genealogy and historical research.
I was doing it on a personal basis long before that and took on this responsibility partly to share what I had learned, but also because I enjoyed it. Call it a hobby if you will, but it’s one pursued by increasing numbers of people around the world.

I like the solving of puzzles, the detective work necessary to tracking down that elusive ancestor and discovering why he did this instead of that. It can become an absorbing addiction. I also continue to write a weekly historical column for the paper. Both of these activities led to exploring old newspapers on microfilm. This experience has broadened my understanding of just how vital a tool newspapers can be for insight on what life is like for people in a given time and place.

Patricia Highsmith is said to have begun keeping her “cahiers (idea journals)” at the age of 15, jotting down germs of inspiration from her daily reading, which included the Herald Tribune newspaper. Mary Higgins Clark remarked in an interview, “I always use something in the news that is potentially a good story. If I see an interesting case I will just pull it out.” Simenon is reputed to have begun each day with a fixed routine which included coffee, cigarettes and several newspapers.

Look at any one newspaper and I’m willing to bet you can come up with a dozen or more story ideas in a single day. Even the most commonplace of crimes can be spun out of the ordinary by the imagination. We all need that spark—the thing some call inspiration—to ignite it.

J. R. Lindermuth is a retired newspaper editor who currently serves as librarian of his county historical society. He has published 10 novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. A new Hetrick novel is scheduled for publication in August.