Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Illustrated Guide to the Rate of Change

Last month I wrote a piece about how  a historical novelist views the rate of change.

I often look at photographs as a way to glimpse how my characters lived.  Many of those photos are illustrative of the points I made in my post "The Rate of Change."  I thought you would like to see what life looked like before the machine age:

The Cincinnati Public Library and its clientele 

Child laborers on their break
Public transportation
Clothes dryers
How you treated a toothache 

Victor Hugo's hand written manuscript for Les Miserables
Telephone wires in Manhattan
Tree pruning
Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 21, 2014

He'll Turn Up

Here's a reprint of Robin Hathaway's Easter post from 2011. It's still fresh and good.

When my children were small they were always losing things—a shoe, a toy, their homework (like I do now). And I would always chant absently, my familiar refrain, “Don’t worry, it’ll turn up.”

One Good Friday I was shopping with my youngest daughter, Anne. She was five or six at the time. And we passed a church. The door was open, lovely music was pouring out, and I thought piously, Anne should know that Easter isn’t just about bunnies and jellybeans. I decided to stop in for a few minutes, as you are allowed to do on Good Friday. After we had been in the pew, listening to the minister, for about ten minutes, I guess I looked a little depressed. (Good Friday tends to do that to me). Suddenly, Anne leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry, Mommy, He’ll turn up.”

That night I called our minister, who was also an old friend, and told him the anecdote. He had a good chuckle.

On Easter Sunday as we approached our church all decked out in our Easter best, I glanced at the placard near the front door. The title of the sermon read, “He’ll Turn Up!”

On the way in, the minister’s wife took me aside and said, “He stayed up late last night revising his sermon.” Then she winked and said, “This one’s much better.”

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Angela Zeman — One of MWA's New York Treasures!

Angela, charming, talented, gifted mystery writer, is also one of the pillars of the illustrious New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Widely known for her popular Mrs. Risk (the witch) stories, Zeman's series, "The First Tale of Roxanne", debuted in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, as the May 2013 issue's cover story. Her book, The Witch and the Borscht Pearl, is now a collector's item.

A former gemologist and Scuba Divemaster, Zeman has worn many hats at MWA: Editor of the Edgar Awards Annual, Chair of Best Short Story Committee, Chair of the Edgars Symposium, NY Regional Board of Directors, to name a few.

She is also a member of Private Eye Writers of America, International Association of Crime Writers, International Thriller Writers and the New York Friars Club.

Her favorite current crime writers include Robert Crais, Val McDermid, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connolly, Lee Child, Carol O'Connell, Daniel Silva. She likes series authors, dark suspense thrillers, Golden Age, Pulps, Noir, Harry Potter, Tolkien, graphic novels and comics!

Living in New York City is her idea of a dream life!

"What is your strongest talent as a writer?" I asked her recently.

"Story, Although some say character, which to me is story."

"What is your worst feature?"

"Rabid perfectionism — which means I'm a slow writer. Frustration — at time stolen from writing."

Please welcome Angela Zeman and her intriguing replies and leave your question or comment at the end.

T. J. Straw

Thelma: You have served MWA in so many important ways… Editor of the Edgar Awards Annual for the 2001 Banquet; Chair of Best Short Story Committee; twice as Chair of the Edgars Symposium; National Board of Directors; NY Regional Board of Directors; co-author with Barry on award-winning non-fiction articles about the mystery field, to name a few.

You were also one of the founders of MWA-NY. We'd love to hear more about this… MWA-NY has become a rock to so many of us… we'd love to know how you put it together…

Angela: Well said! NY and all the chapters consistently outdo themselves, continually evolving to fill authors’ ever-changing needs in the publishing landscape. MWA always was, and is now even more so, a formidable Professional Organization. I’m proud to be a member. I joined in 1985.

Still, this may be the hardest question you could have asked me. Growing pains are never easy. Newer members may not be aware that for decades, pre-NY Chapter, no regional chapters had automatic representation on the National Board. All MWA business was conducted at the monthly National meetings, followed by a dinner meeting that any MWA member could attend if they wished to pay the fee. All MWA Board Directors were chosen from a nationwide slate of Active status candidates, but a majority had to come from the NY region—which included NY, NJ, CT, the Mid-Atlantic states and DC—so that each meeting would have a quorum in order to properly conduct MWA business, mostly by snail mail. Can you imagine? In later years, when somebody invented Teleconferencing, we leaped for it!

The work load was immense. To be a National Director then was to agree to work hard and man committees—plural—no excuses. The Edgar Awards were, and still are, awarded in NYC. The Symposium at that time ended with a free (very nice!) cocktail party, and MWA often offered extra events for socializing.

The regions, however, came to view the situation as if NY had some kind of special advantage. I personally don’t understand where that idea originated, but nothing about it was true. Still, letters began arriving voicing concerns that they weren’t being fully represented. This occurred around ’89 or ’90. After a period of time it was decided that a NY regional chapter should be established and more representation on the Board should come from each regional chapter. With great results.

Alice Orr volunteered to head the committee to create the NY Region Chapter. She drafted my husband, Barry, and me to help, among a handful of others. Somehow I became Treasurer. You can see how it operated! Alice has a forceful personality. Fortunately, she and the rest of us operated from a place of good humor about it all. I wish I could name all the other initial Directors. I don’t remember. I believe Bill Chambers was one. Annette and Marty Meyers for sure. Maybe Al Ashforth, I’m not sure. (I welcome corrections!)

It was a great move. Look at all the new, wonderful functions that have grown in every region! Sleuthfest, NE Clambake, mentoring programs, newsletters expanded (although I miss Annette and Marty’s column, “All the Noose”). MWA has continued to grow as the Professional Organization I believe the founders had in mind since its birth in 1945. Which inspires me to announce that I should post Barry’s and my award winning account of the birth of MWA. Look for it in my website blog ( “Murphy’s Blog”). Soon.

Back to the NY Chapter: after two years of being Treasurer (and serving on a multitude of committees) I begged to be replaced. Jim Weikart, a professional accountant, stepped in. Poor guy, he worked for years at that job. Then he went on to do the same for National. He was so good nobody wanted him to stop!

Thelma: PW has called your work "magical". Tell us about the origin of your famous character, Mrs. Risk, well-known to readers of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the MWA Anthology, The Night Awakens, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

Angela: Mrs. Risk is still with me, which feels as odd to me as it probably sounds to you. One day, I entered my home office and even before I sat, ‘Poof!’ She appeared in my head, fully fleshed out in every aspect of personality, appearance, some of her cohorts, and location. I froze in amazement. I have no explanation for it. At the time, we lived on Long Island in a village much like Wyndham-By-The-Sea. And the stories began. Alfred Hitchcock published the first one in 1993. My FIRST sale! Editor Cathleen Jordan even phoned me to buy it! Can you imagine? A phone call! (I had sold another story, in 85, which qualified me for Active status, but that magazine folded. Eight years is a heart-rending gap between sales.)

Cathleen then added, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make her a witch?” I answered, “Um…sure!” (Flummoxed. But who’s going to argue with Cathleen?) I had no idea of the difficulties of making her a believable witch, a subject about which I was completely blank. I read book after book. I did my best. Then one day, after a nice AHMM series run, in her column at the beginning of the magazine, Ms. Jordan revealed her suspicions that maybe Mrs. Risk wasn’t a witch after all. And after that, I had to sell Mrs. Risk elsewhere. My agent, Don Maass then told me it was time I wrote a novel about her. So I did. The reason I picked the subject of stand-up Borscht Belt comedians is written about in several places, so I won’t repeat it here.

Thelma: As a fan of your charming book, The Borscht Pearl, I'd like to know more about how you weave the Jewish Borscht Belt background into your stories.

Angela: I guess I will repeat it here! Ok. The personality of Mrs. Risk, witchy or no, was difficult. She had firm opinions, shall we say? So she had few friends as a result. However, to be her friend was to possess her unswerving devotion. And her friend, ‘Pearl’ (Velma) Schrafft, a formerly world-renowned comedienne who desperately needed to stage a come-back or go bankrupt, landed in enormous trouble. Her beloved husband had died, plus she’d suffered a serious heart attack. Her stage name, the ‘Borscht Pearl’ came from her early years doing the rounds in the Catskills, the Borscht Belt comedy circuit. She decided to stage her return as a televised Thanksgiving Evening at the most beloved of venues, Kutsher’s Country Club, which is a genuine resort in Monticello, NY. Every detail in that book is genuine, folks. I can even name who each character is in reality, but I won’t. Mrs. Kutsher, the owner and a woman legendary for her kindness, allowed me to interview her at length. She gave me (and my family) the run of her resort over the weekend. My daughter, around ten at the time, was agog at all the amenities. While I was poking behind doors and backstage, she tried to do it all, which is impossible. It’s still one of her favorite memories.

Ironically, late Saturday night, the booked show suddenly backed out. So she phoned Alan King, who was in the middle of a golf game, to help. He ditched his clubs and came. The first thing he said was… ”What am I doing here? I’m RETIRED.” And then he explained how much he owed to Mrs. Kutsher—a launch into his entire career. A formidable lineup of performers owed much to Mrs. Kutsher. He held up his hands and said, “How could I say no?”

And how could I not write about it?

Freddie Roman, the Dean of the East Coast Friar’s Club, allowed me to interview him, leading to my admission to the Friar’s Club. A genuine ‘booker’ of talent for the Catskills talked to me, as did others in the field. A great experience that will never leave me. So… in the book… Pearl’s only asset, a magnificent gift of love from her husband: a South Sea (Borscht colored) pearl necklace. (Mikimoto helped me ‘design’ it! It was real!) Her manager, who had literally created her vocation of comedian, is murdered. The cops (another great experience with the Suffolk County Homicide Department) consider Pearl their main suspect. There’s more. All was at stake. Mrs. Risk, as was her method, bullied her way into the situation and… but I won’t spoil the story for you. Mysterious Press has re-issued the book. And also a companion book of Mrs. Risk’s stories in a first ever collection.

She was a great success. I have reams of new plots about her, and another finished novel I never tried to sell. I suffered burnout. I rebelled. I wanted to write other things. Frankly, I wanted to write everything mystery, not just Mrs. Risk. Even within her stories I experimented with voices, and POVs. Writing is difficult, but a joyland! How could I not explore?

Thelma: How does your writing fit into your activities as a member of the famous Friar's Club?

Angela: My activities? They consist of me sitting around schmoozing with whoever shows up. It’s a Club of extroverts who treat the club as a second home. A warm place, welcoming people, a staff who behaves like extended family. Pretty good food, too. I’ve taken many people there as my guest. The Club occupies a fabulous well-maintained brownstone so I include a tour when I bring visitors. Yeah, I work hard there ☺

Thelma: What inspired you to place Long Island into your writing?

Angela: Because my village was cute. Port Jefferson as it was then, was pretty much as described in the book, with some liberties taken. As my stories appeared, my friends clamored to be included. So I put them in. I used real names and occupations, even descriptions. They loved it! When my then-agent Don Maass found out he was horrified. Another agent got a tv producer interested in her IF I moved her to Charleston, SC. No problem! I worked like a maniac to put together a package for him. Tom Sawyer, a famous former show-runner and MWA buddy, helped me do it in professional style, because I knew nothing about tv series! The producer kept it for about two years before rejecting it. I came up with a plot for the series pilot, and then about twenty additional plot ideas for more shows. Later, I took her deeper into the Charleston idea, making her very dark. The same agent said, “Whoa, back up.” So I crafted the idea for a graphic novel, which, without an artist, still resides in my computer. No, joke, I want to try everything!

Which, by the way, all shows MWA in action. Mystery writers, I’ve discovered early, are notorious for lifting each other up. We succeed by way of each other’s helping hands. A feature not known in other genres, I’ve heard. I have a list of ‘heroes.’ People who willingly and generously gave me help. Here’s an example: I first joined MWA’s Midwest Chapter when I lived in Indianapolis, in the 80’s. Scared to death, unpublished, shy, I arrived at my first Dark and Stormy weekend in Chicago. Early, nobody else there yet, except the janitor. He was busy setting up chairs and tables, but kind and easy to talk to, relieving some of my nerves. Then the meeting started. The janitor went to the podium up front and introduced himself to newcomers as the Chapter President, Stuart Kaminsky. He stayed my good friend and mentor ever since, and I miss him terribly. This is not a rare occurrence in MWA.

Thelma: Have you written suspense novels?

Angela: I’m writing one now. It incorporates a bit of horror, also, which is fairly new for me. I’ve written suspense stories which sold and reviewed well. That encouraged me to try this novel.

Thelma: What led you into writing mystery stories?

Angela: My mother was a war widow, a working single mother. So on Sunday, we’d go to church, then pick up a Whataburger (heard of those? I’m from Texas.) Then we’d hit the library and split up at the door. I’d read all afternoon upstairs in the children’s section—the red, green, yellow, etc, ‘fairy books.’ The Grimm brothers’ work. Serious horror, believe me! And then at home I read whatever books my mother had around—always mysteries. Thrillers, suspense, noir, the classic Golden Age mysteries, she had them all. So, it was no doubt her influence. Plus, think about it—a story has to contain conflict (aka ‘mystery’) or there’s no story, no matter the genre.

Thelma: What in your background prepared you as a suspense writer?

Angela: No idea. Well, except I possess what my husband considers a highly irritating trait: I want to know WHY about everything. I analyze. I want explanations.

Thelma: When you begin a story, do you map out things in advance? What comes first—character? plot? Other?

Angela: I plot every story in stream of consciousness style, but it closely resembles a movie treatment more than a synopsis. And I must know the end before I start. What comes first? Maybe something I read—I read everything. Sometimes a name I feel drawn to, like Roxanne, a series I just started in AHMM. And in her case, since it drives me NUTS not to find the order/pub date of authors’ works in Amazon, I titled Roxanne’s story, “The First Tale of Roxanne.” Nobody will have any questions about the order of her stories.

Thelma: What is your ultimate goal as a writer?

Angela: I just hope to live a long long life. I have so much to write. Piles of ideas, plots, characters.

If someone comes to me aspiring to write, but they don’t sit down and actually write anything? They’re not writers. Then there’s the ones whose goals are quick fame and riches, well, good luck. It’s rare, but it happens. However, if you MUST write, if you just have to! You are a writer. I’m a writer.

Thelma: In this iffy climate, what advice do you have for both new and experienced writers?

Angela: This climate get iffier all the time, so nothing is for sure. The main rule, to me, is: Keep your rights. NEVER sell ‘all’ rights to anything. EVER! Plus, right now? Market like a maniac, and explore every venue to find your place. Self-publishing is no longer maligned as in the past. Although, do your homework to guard yourself from cheats. I’m lucky, I came from art AND advertising backgrounds. Although I wish I didn’t have to market so much. Time consuming. However, I’ve worked many jobs. Every job has something in it that you don’t like. It is what it is.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Owning Your Baby

This post is actually about names: what to name the baby, what to name your characters when you write fiction. We all know the rules about naming fictional characters, how the character's age will influence the character's name, how you can look up the Social Security name frequency charts to match a name with the decade when your character was born. As I was wandering through Facebook this morning I was horrified to come upon a site that claimed to list twenty girls' names that were so drearily out of date that they were dead. Stone dead. No one of interest would ever bear these names* again, said the snarky knowing ones.

Some of the names they list come down to us from renaissance times. Barbara? Barbara is a dead name? Instead of that, you should name your daughter Meliffany, I suppose. To my way of thinking, current fashion should not drive what you name an actual baby. It's all very well for fictional characters, but your flesh-and-blood daughter's name should be a name that rings down the ages, not the nom du jour.

The thing is, naming the baby is how you begin to claim this child as your own. If you let the knowing ones of the internet select a name for your baby, even me, you have taken the first step in handing the poor little thing over to the evils of Modern Culture. Drugs. Videogames. Texting while driving. When I was a bookkeeper for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, shepherds of the delinquent and abandoned, I couldn't help noticing that three-quarters of the children on the DYFS rolls had funny names. Let that be a lesson to you.

When I was a little girl, and that was quite a while ago, our dolls came to us nameless. We worked out our name-whimsey on the dolls, so that by the time we had real babies we had better sense about naming them. Not like modern women, whose dolls were all pre-named by the people at Mattel.

If you want your child to grow to be a dignified and respectable human being you have a very limited range of choices when it comes to names. Don't let anyone tell you different. You can name the baby after a relative, a beloved friend, or an admired public figure. (Not Adolph Hitler.) If you're Jewish, you can name the baby after a relative who is dead. If you're Christian, you can name the baby after a saint. If your people came from the old country—Poland, Ireland, Kenya—you can name the baby something aggressively nationalistic, but you run the risk that no one here will be able to spell or pronounce it. If you're Southern, you can name the baby, male or female, with the last name of someone in the family. That's it. Those are your choices.

You may not name your little boy Sue.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

*Blanche, Myrtle, Ethel, Barbara, Mildred, Agatha, Phyllis, Beatrice, Marge, Ruth, Gretchen, Gertrude, Martha, Opal, Rose, Eleanor, Marlene, Gladys, Josephine, Ilene

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Great American Crime Fighters

The news this past week of a hideous crime inspired this post. 

The alleged criminal Frazier Glenn Cross, 73 (aka Frazier Glenn Miller) is charged killing three people near a Jewish center outside Kansas City.   He was a former 'grand dragon' of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  Here is Cross in the 1980’s dishing out his white supremacist venom:

Here is a recent mug shot:

He allegedly shot these people to death:

A boy singer and his grand father

A mother of three about to celebrate her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary

Prosecutors say they have enough evidence to charge Cross with federal crimes that could get him the death sentence.

All the major news outlets are turning to the Southern Poverty Law Center for information about the sort of killer Cross seems to be.  SPLC has history of fighting hate crimes in general and white supremacists in particular.  They seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Founded in 1971, by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. in 1971 tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. I remember very well, when President Obama took office that they already had on their radar, groups who might target him because a black man had to audacity to run for the presidency.  And to get elected.  Twice.  Pictures of those goons appeared that month in their Intelligence Report—which keeps its fingers on the pulse of such doings.

Early on, Dees and his colleagues mounted a number of successful civil suits against the KKK, suing them for damages when they killed innocent black people in the South.  In one of my favorites, they bankrupted a KKK group to the point where the survivor of one of their victims ended up owning the local KKK clubhouse.  Many of those groups went bankrupt.  Stopping the Klan with words has been the hallmark of their work ever since.

I have been a supporter of their work since 1980.  If you care about crime fighting, I urge you to so the same at:

Annamaria Alfieri