Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beware the Angry Goddess

Jeanne Matthews
Today I am very pleased to introduce a guest blogger. I met Jeanne Matthews at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe this past March, on a panel of people who write about exotic locations. Here she is to tell us about her new book’s location and some of the lore that forms a background for another of her fascinating stories.

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

– Annamaria Alfieri

Mauna Loa
The largest and most volcanic of the Hawaiian Islands is Hawai’i, which is often called The Big Island. It is bigger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined and still growing. There are five volcanoes on Hawai’i. Two are extinct, one is dormant, and two are active. A sixth “baby” volcano remains 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, but it’s growing by leaps and bounds. Volcanologists expect it to poke its head above sea level about a thousand centuries from now. Mauna Kea is the tallest of the island’s volcanoes. If measured from the ocean floor, it would be the tallest mountain in the world – taller than Mt. Everest. And Mauna Loa, Long Mountain in the Hawaiian language, dwarfs every other mountain on earth in terms of volume. It is sixty miles long and thirty miles wide and comprises over half of the land area of the island. Mauna Loa doesn’t tower above the surrounding terrain. It is broad and round, like a native shield. All of the Hawaiian volcanoes are called shield volcanoes and when they erupt, lava flows out in all directions.

The Goddess Pele
by Arthur Johnsen
The old Hawaiian word for lava was Pele, also the name of the fire goddess worshipped by the early Hawaiians. To them, Pele personified all things volcanic. She was the fire, the lava, the steam, the new-formed land, and a temperamental goddess – hard to predict and hard to appease. Pele has spawned almost as many myths and legends as the volcanoes have spawned scientific studies.

Like the Greek and Roman deities, the Hawaiian gods and goddesses demonstrated all of the foibles of human beings. They were lusty, vain, evil-tempered, prone to spite and jealousy, and utterly ruthless when angered. And like most deities, they didn’t communicate directly with the hoi-polloi. Shamans called kahunas interpreted the actions of the gods and conveyed their will and their laws to the common folk. Most of these laws had to do with behavior that was kapu. The Polynesians invented kapu, a code of conduct intended to suppress objectionable desires by imbuing the desired object with peril. Kapu forbade what was dangerous and stigmatized what was unclean. Kapu also carried connotations of sacredness and it wielded a profound psychological power over those who believed, and even those who didn’t. To break a kapu, even accidentally, subjected a person to immediate death and the Hawaiian religion designated an oppressive number of things kapu.

Many of their kapu laws would be considered deplorable today, but not all. The Hawaiians were early environmentalists. They made overfishing of certain types of fish kapu to maintain long-term viability of the species and they invoked kapu to restrict certain land use practices in order to safeguard water and natural resources. A deep, spiritual connection to the land is intrinsic to the Native Hawaiian psyche. The cycle of destruction and creation, death and rebirth, was a fundamental tenet of their religion. Pele sent the fires that gave birth to the land and then her lover Kamapua’a sent the rains that extinguished the fires. Wild boars dug up the lava and softened it so that seeds could take root and plants and trees eventually covered the land until Pele sent her fires and devoured the land again.

In my new book “Bet Your Bones,” Dinah Pelerin learns just how deep this Native Hawaiian love of the land runs and how persistent the influence of a pagan goddess can be. Pele is the land and even in modern-day Hawaii, there are those who remain bitter about the United States’ annexation of the islands, those who resent the ouster of their constitutional queen and the degradation of their customs and their culture. There are some who wouldn’t stop at murder to prevent the desecration of prime ocean-front real estate, especially if sacred ancestral bones lie buried beneath.

Jeanne Matthews

Monday, June 27, 2011

Moods and the Reader

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers. Nothing else seemed to hold my attention. In a few weeks I may feel like reading something less ominous and gripping — Jane Austen or P.G. Wodehouse, or something mind-improving such as an historical tome or even a textbook (unlikely). The point is, we all have reading moods, and these moods determine our reading choices. These moods can be affected by something as simple as the weather; in the summer I tend to go for cozies and lighter novels. In the winter, I might happily settle down with a trilogy like The Forsyte Saga, or even War and Peace.

While having these thoughts, it occurred to me that maybe — just maybe — agents and editors have similar reading moods. And what if the agent you’re querying about a thriller, is in a cozy mood, or vice-a-versa? Or what if the editor to whom your agent sends your noir manuscript is in the mood for a light-hearted romp? What then? Hmmm? Perhaps our rejections are simply the result of a passing mood. You know, when the rejection reads, “Nice, but not what we’re looking for,” they may be looking for it next winter when they are in a more somber mood. Or when the rejection reads, “Not for us,” they may simply mean not for us today, but tomorrow when my indigestion passes, I may be eager for it.

This revelation is not very helpful as far as getting your book published, but it may make you feel better to know that your work may not be at fault, it just hit the reader when they were in the wrong mood.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, June 26, 2011

How Do Crime Writers Get Those Wild Ideas?

by Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Someone once asked Jonathan Kellerman, "How do you get those wild ideas? You're such a nice person."

Probably our band of brothers/sisters – Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Santlofer, Lisa Gardner, Patricia Cornwell – get the same query.

My neighborhood, Carnegie Hill, bounded by 98th and 86th Streets, Lexington and Fifth Avenues, is fairly quiet and sedate. The atmosphere is friendly, a small community. Many activities center around private schools, churches and synagogues, museums and galleries, child-rearing and dog-walking.

Stores with expensive merchandise exist beside immigrant entrepreneurs. Sidewalk traffic bustles between the major subway stops.

Charming brownstones, landmarked townhouses adjoin apartment buildings, including luxurious pre-war dwellings facing the busy and well-loved oasis of Central Park. Park Avenue is home to flowering malls in summer, lighted Christmas trees in winter.

Generally, the inhabitants are viewed as beautiful, elegant, well-off! Writers, artists, celebrities share space with Who's Whos, Social Registrants, black-robed Russian Orthodox priests, pan-handlers and once-genteel octogenarians who now feed the pigeons and rummage through the trash cans for yesterday's paper.

You might hail a cab vacated by Katie Couric, gawk at Nancy Pelosi leaving the 92 Y, or glimpse the ghost of Andrew Carnegie on East 91st Street.

A few years ago you could have sat by Ira Levin at the local barber shop on Lexington. And sensed where Rosemary's Baby came from.

But things are seldom what they seem. Not all men in embroidered vestments are saints. Not all money managers augment your retirement funds.

In Carnegie Hill a simple purse snatching sometimes escalates to dark waves of murder, death and violence.

One day a well-dressed son of a prominent U.N. official entered my secure lobby and told the doorman he was there to visit his lady dentist, a well-respected buildng resident. Later we learned his purpose was to violate, attack and maul her body like a savage beast!

One block west, in a Park Avenue complex that looks like a European fortress, an old man was fatally bludgeoned in his bed by an unknown assailant.

Two blocks south, near the world-famous 92nd Street Y, a famous surgeon returned to his landmarked town house after a Y concert, and was found battered to death, lying in the gutter beside a bloodied 2 X 4 plank.

Down my block, in a building where the Marx Brothers grew up, a young woman was raped in her front doorway by an intruder.

Across the street, a passing limo caught the purse straps of a middle-aged shopper crossing Lexington Avenue and dragged the victim several blocks to her death.

I saw my first dead body in my building. A neighbor down the hall asked me to go with her to her friend's apartment when the woman did not answer her phone. The corpse lay on the bedroom floor, grey and tan, the color of wet cement. Whenever I write of death I see that body and that color.

A serious crime writer does not forget such incidents. You may blot out the details. But the fear, the horror settles in your gut and your subconscious, waiting for that hour down the pike when you, hunched over your keyboard, search for that perfect scene.

The crime scene that might put you in the line for an Edgar, or a spot on the NYT bestseller list.

P.S. Remind me to tell you how I almost shot the sheriff with my rifle!! But that's another town, another time...

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Thing About Travel

Here are some more pictures of our travels last week to Deer Isle and Bucksport, Maine. When Harold downloaded them from the camera he found them vaguely disappointing. Something was missing. What it was was the clean air, cool and moist, the smell of roses, lupines and sea salt, the smell of clam flats, the call of songbirds, seagulls, crows.

The reason you want to go someplace rather than watching a movie about it, other than to see your friends and relatives, is to get the sounds and smells into your pores. That's the thing about travel. Even if you don't leave your own country, you know you're in a different place.

Brilliant photographers can get that on film. Writers have to try to describe it in words.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Politics in This Country Are a Crime

This is all I have to say:

I have had the diagram below for many years. It has NEVER been truer than it is this week.
Patricia King

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Demise of the Bookplate?

I hope not. But – if the book disappears, so will all the ancillary products that come with it, such as bookcases, bookends, bookmarks, and bookplates – to name a few. What a sad world it will be without these familiar and lovely objects.

When I was ten years old I proudly announced to a close family friend that I wanted to be a writer. She was the first person to take me seriously. She looked at me sternly and said, “First you must become a reader.” From that day on this friend gave me a beautiful book on every birthday, and once she gave me a package of bookplates. They were decorated with a tree and had a space for me to put my name. I remember carefully printing my name in each space and proudly pasting them in my favorite books. I was twelve by then, and had quite a collection.

I checked out the history of the bookplate in my encyclopedia and learned they originated in the 1500s, when a book was a great rarity, and a valuable commodity. The Germans were the first to produce plates in volume. Albrecht Durer designed and engraved a number. The first plates were engraved on wood, copper or zinc, and were usually ornate designs, involving the owner’s coat-of-arms and sometimes their portrait. One of the portrait bookplates depicted Samuel Pepys . There are several societies of bookplate collectors. If Ex-libris ever disappears from our vocabulary, those collectors will probably become very rich.

My only other contact with the bookplate was when I had a printing business. One of my products was bookplates for children. I illustrated them with pictures from old children’s books. One of the first orders I received was from FAO Schwartz. I printed the plates on glue-coated stock. Unfortunately the moisture from the offset press caused the paper to curl. (I had a habit of taking orders for things I had not quite mastered.) A crisis developed – and I had a deadline to meet! With great difficulty, I located a brand of paper that didn’t curl, but I was up all night meeting that deadline. It was a big thrill to see those little boxes of bookplates displayed in a basket on a counter of an FAO Schwartz store in Ardmore, PA. The illustration was of a little girl looking at a bird on her windowsill. I had lifted it from an old edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses, and one of my favorite poems, “Time to Rise.”

You remember how it goes. “A birdie with a yellow bill, sat upon my windowsill…”

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Testilying II: Fooling the Jury

Last month in New York City two New York City policemen were on trial for raping a drunken woman after they had been called by a solicitous cabdriver to assist her up to her apartment. She was very drunk, experiencing alcoholic blackouts earlier in the night and after arriving home with the policemen. Undisputed was that after escorting her to her apartment, the cops returned on three separate occasions in the early morning hours of December 8, 2008. Their arrivals and leavings were recorded by a surveillance camera above a bar on East 13th Street and Avenue B in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan.

The first time, they helped the legless woman into her building at 1:10 a.m. and left 7 minutes later. They returned at 1:52 a.m. and left in 17 minutes. Their third visit was at 3:00 a.m. and lasted 33 minutes. Their final visit was at 4:27 a.m. and they left at 5:07 a.m. In all, they spent 97 minutes in the woman’s building and, except for their first Good Samaritan assignment from the Police Dispatcher, gave back false reports over the police radio about where they were and why, while they were on the three subsequent visits to the woman’s apartment. When she awoke the next day, her recollections were spotty but she remembered hearing “the sound of Velcro separating” (police uniforms and equipment abound with Velcro fastenings); remembered her pantyhose being pulled down; remembered being penetrated as she lay face down in her bed.

During a two-month trial in Manhattan Criminal Supreme Court last month, 35 witnesses testified and, quite amazingly, the accused rapist, a 41-year-old officer with 20 years on the job, took the stand. His younger partner, with 3 years on the job – accused of standing by (‘playing chickey’) – also testified, corroborating his partner’s account. The older cop admitted to all the visits and the false reports made as cover but ascribed his motives to the desire to help another suffering alcoholic. (That’s right, he’s a recovering alcoholic.). In the course of helping, he snuggled spoon-like with her in her bed, kissed her either on the forehead or the shoulder (depending on which newspaper you’re reading), during which she “came on to him wearing only a bra”. But he didn’t rape her; he “supported” her, and while lying with her in her bed sang to her Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’ (Here the mind disconnects: who would say such things?)

The female Assistant District Attorney who tried the case cross-examined him long and hard, especially on one point described during her direct testimony. The morning after the rape when she woke up shaken, in her bed in a pool of vomit, she went to friends before calling the police. Later, the District Attorney’s investigators fitted her out with a recording device and sent her to confront her rapist.

During that meeting outside the 9th Precinct station house on East 5th Street where both cops worked, the woman pelted him with questions – Why? Why me? How could you? one presumes – and he answered: “Don’t worry. I used a condom.”

The jury deliberated on a verdict for seven days. Conviction, right? Nope. Both cops acquitted of Rape 1st degree (‘forcible’ because the woman had not the capacity to consent) and Burglary 2nd degree (when you trespass in a dwelling to commit a crime therein). A garrulous male juror, juror number 12, happily talked to the press about his reasons for acquitting the cops (Beware of such jurors). He said: No physical evidence to corroborate the rape (the cop said he used a condom, genius); she couldn’t remember a lot (she remembered the sounds of his disrobing, felt her pants being pulled down, knew she’d been penetrated from behind, remember?); and, “I thought maybe he raped her, she was very credible, but like the law says the the proof must be BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT” (emphasis supplied). That last: the most misunderstood proposition in our law.

At the beginning of every trial, the judge reads to the jurors his Preliminary Charge to the Jury. That’s right, he reads it out of a book; it’s a script, never varied, because it’s been approved by the judges on high as bullet-proof to withstand attack in the Appellate Courts. Judges ad-lib at their peril: namely, reversal of a conviction for misleading the jury by their homespun examples. At the end of the trial, the judge does it again, at excruciating length, in his Final Charge to the Jury before sending them off to deliberate on a verdict. The centerpiece of both Charges is an explanation of the meaning of the term: “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” I’ve listened to the Charge at least 100 times (the number of felony jury trials in which I was the defense lawyer). That Final Charge, depending on the number of Counts in the Indictment that His Honor must explain the statutory elements of, will last no less than one hour but more likely two. I confess that it is a challenge for me not to nod off during its recitation (a challenge that I have not always risen to). But I always remember these three salient points: first, a reasonable doubt is a doubt for which you can give a reason; second, jurors must use their common sense in deciding what they believe to be the facts in the case; third, consider the demeanor of witnesses on the stand in evaluating the credibility of their testimony. Obviously, the jury that gave these cops a pass nodded.

The most illuminating post-verdict recollection came, of course, from Juror No. 12: “. . . when we requested to hear again the victim’s testimony and the Court Reporter read it back to us, we could see the holes. . . ” (What? Not the emotion? Not her pain as she relived being raped? Just the facts, ma’am?) An experienced trial lawyer knows that when both victim and defendant testify in a trial (an infrequent occurrence), jurors are comparing, and deciding whom they believe before ever leaving the box for the jury room.

During Voir Dire of the panel at the beginning of trials, lawyers for both sides never fail to exhort prospective jurors to hold fast to their firmly held beliefs. During deliberations, three women jurors at first voted to convict these criminal cops but were turned by their fellow jurors. Shame on you, ladies! Every trial lawyer knows that cases are won or lost depending on the jury you pick. Rather than impaneled, this one should have been sent home without lunch.


Robert Knightly

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Lupines are Blooming on Deer Isle

Last week we visited friends on Deer Isle in Maine. Harold will presently write it up and attach lots of pictures, whereupon you can eyeball his page an be dazzled. Right now, though, I thought I'd sit down and give you a foretaste before we unpacked.

This weekend is the Lupine Festival, in case you're in the neighborhood of Mid-coast Maine. The lupines are a right treat. Spiky and blue, when they aren't white or pink, hey have a nice smell, subtle and spicy. Right now they are blooming all over the island and beyond. People will come pouring onto the island for the Lupine Festival, filling the restaurants, jamming the parking places, hiring seats in airplanes to buzz the local gardens and see the flowers from above. I'm glad not to be on Deer Isle for the festival, though it was good to see the flowers before everybody else and his brother got here. It sounds almost like Lambertville's Shad Festival, an annual event hated and cursed by the locals (but great fun for tourists).

They say the lupines are not native to the island, but were brought in from away, took off, and naturalized themselves. I guess we're all like that. It would be good if we could smell that good and look that pretty.

Kate Gallison

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Art of Extrapolation

Some writers can’t write about anything unless they have experienced it first-hand.

If they write about climbing Mt. Everest, they must climb Mt. Everest; if they write about escaping from killer sharks, they must swim with killer sharks; if they write about being stranded in the desert, they must become stranded in the desert, and so on and on. I am not one of these writers. And I’m sure I’m not alone. But take heart fellow cowardly writers, for there is an alternative. It’s called extrapolation. As defined by Webster, to extrapolate is “to project, extend or expand known data or experience into an area not known or experienced.” Or, as my grandfather put it less elegantly, but more simply, “You don’t have to stick your head in the garbage can to know it stinks.” Wise old grandpa.

For example, most moms have experienced losing sight of their child in a crowded airport, train station or department store. The panic, the rush of adrenalin, the icy fear. And they have also felt the dizzy relief, the joy mixed with anger, when the tot shows up, peeking out from a rack of clothing. It is not too hard to extrapolate those feelings into what a mother feels when her child is kidnapped, and later returned.

We have all experienced death in some form, either of a pet or a wild animal—bird or squirrel—in the woods. Some of us have even had the misfortunes of witnessing the death of a relative or friend. The point is, we don’t have to visit a morgue and look at rows of corpses, to know what death is.

Recently, in the novel I’m currently working on, I was trying to describe the claustrophobic feelings of a young man on a submarine. I remembered playing hide and seek as a child when some smart-aleck kid locked me in the closet where I was hiding. Presto! That panicky, trapped feeling came back in a rush and I was able to give those feelings to my character. While working on another novel, I had to describe what it’s like to ride a motorcycle. A kind friend let me sit on his Harley, parked on a busy highway and that was enough. I could imagine the rest—the throb of the motor, the wind in my hair, and narrowly missing an eighteen-wheeler.

So—relax. You don’t have to risk your life to write. Extrapolate. That’s what we have imaginations for.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Long Shadows – A Tale of One City

Today our new comrade in blogdom, thriller writer Thelma Straw, joins the regulars on the Crime Writers' Chronicle. A true woman of mystery, Thelma has been an extremely active member of the Mystery Writers of America, a founding member of the Carnegie Hill Writers, and a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. She has reviewed mystery books for Mystery International and Orchard Press Mysteries. Contact her at

Barack Obama's disputed words about the June 4, 1967 lines triggered poignant memories.

It was another time. Another war. A tale of one city. . .

From the academic enclave of Sewanee, Tennessee, I headed for Jerusalem. A personal pilgrimage to the holy city.

At JFK the airlines told me the Israelis had closed Jerusalem to outsiders.

London, then Paris, then Rome. All had the same message: Jerusalem was closed. Nailed down to outsiders.

Didn't the American know there was a war on?

In Athens a small window opened. But only as far as Tel Aviv.

The night before the flight I got a taste of war – the Athenian military pomp and swagger. The Greek bloodless coup d'etat from April 21, 1967. The Regime of the Colonels. Boxed in at a concert at the amphitheater by hundreds of highly decorated members of the Greek military junta. The smell of fear and unease was all around me.

The next day I traded the casual outdoor atmosphere of the Athens Hilton pool for the solemn tone of the Tel Aviv Hilton with the mountains of sandbags lining the halls of the hotel.

Daily I hounded the travel desk for any news of a passage to Jerusalem.

No hope. The only way I could get inside the walls of the holy city was to go hidden under a canvas tarp in a cart filled with live produce. No guarantee of safety.

I retreated to the cool water of the Mediterranean and waded into the sea, my purse and all my worldly goods held above my head.

After a week I got word that the first planeload of outsiders had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, a group of British pilgrims for a ten-day bus tour of The Holy Land. They had one seat left.

For ten glorious days our group stayed at various kibbutzim. We met hospitable Israeli and Arab people in towns and villages, held nightly prayers in inter-faith settings, made new friends.

Finally we reached the Holy City. From the King David Hotel I followed up on introductions from colleagues - the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, contemplative nuns on the Mount of Olives, teachers who worked at schools and missions.

On the last night I ventured out on my own to explore the famous bazaar. The labyrinth in the Old City souks, dazzling, stiflingly hot. A maze of narrow alleyways.

And got lost! No street signs, nothing looked famiiar. I was terrified.

Suddenly a young boy appeared and offered to guide me back to my hotel. But only after I went with him to meet his family.

A trick. I'd read this in books.

But they were real. Welcomed me as if I were a rock star! Wanted to hear all about America!. Served delicious tea and sweet cakes.

As we rode the tour bus back to Ben Gurion the next day I was more aware of friendliness and warmth I'd found on this trip than of sandbags and military force.

Obama brought back the memories – 44 years ago.

So many questions now.

The boy would be over 50 now.

Is he part of the Arab Spring?

Or does he fight for Israel -- or even Libya or Yemen or god knows where?

Did he come to America?

Is he even alive?

Long shadows from a night in the labyrinthine bazaar. . . . .

Thelma Straw

Friday, June 10, 2011

Depravity, the WSJ, and Young Adult Fiction

I wrote a blog post some months ago about Bucker Dudley, my as yet unsuccessful effort at writing a war story. The war was the War of 1812, not a wildly popular conflict in this country, given that the enemy burned our capital and made us look like dunces. One of my ideas was that by tweaking it I could convert Bucker Dudley into a young adult novel, if I could figure out what that was. It's been a while since I was a young anything.

Last weekend the Wall Street Journal famously ran a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon denouncing what passes for young adult fiction in the modern day as depraved, and calling on parents to keep it away from their adolescents. A huge outcry erupted on Twitter, under the hashtag #yasaves, spearheaded by YA writer Maureen Johnson. Some people wrote to say that the books Ms. Gordon had denounced as depraved had saved them from suicide, if only by reassuring them that they weren't alone in their particular agonies. So this is what YA novels are all about, I said to myself. Books to save the young from the tortures of adolescence in the modern day.

In an ideal world, June Cleaver could select whatever reading material she thought would be good for Beaver and Wally's little minds, and they would read it gladly and become improved. We do not live in such a world. Certainly the idea of a society where violence is the order of the day, where the strong prey on the weak, where fathers force themselves on their daughters and priests on their altar boys, where young people have to drug themselves insensible to make it from sunup to sundown, is repellent to any civilized person. But that's pretty much where we are right now. Conscientious parents raising gourmet children in sanitized enclaves everywhere are free to keep this information away from them, as Ms. Gurdon recommends.

I tell you what. If YA is all about saving the young from drugs and suicide, I'm not good enough to write it. This is a higher calling than I'm up to. God knows I've taken my share of hard knocks in my time, but nothing like the stories of some of these survivors. What could I say to them that would do any good? The best I could manage would be an adventure story to take their minds off their problems.

Maybe I could try that. Bucker Dudley might work.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Criminal Brain

Those of us who write and read crime stories may be interested in a new wrinkle on what causes criminal behavior. The twist is in the wrinkliest part of anyone’s body—his brain. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, in an interview on the great public radio show Fresh Air, recently described his research on the criminal mind. Eagleman has written a book called Incognito, about the unconscious workings of the human brain. Everything about the interview is fascinating, but the part that struck me was his inquiries into criminal behavior and how it relates to the brain. He gave a couple of fascinating examples.

Remember that guy who went up into the tower at the University of Texas and killed those people? His name was Charles Whitman, a former Marine and a student at UT Austin. On August 1, 1966, this quiet, well-liked, academically excellent young man killed his mother and his wife in their home and then climbed the tower of the university’s administration building, killing three people along the way. From the observation deck, he opened fire on the people below. He killed ten more and wounded 32 others before being killed by the police.

The initial theories about why Whitman went bonkers posited a dysfunctional family and abuse of amphetamines. Whitman, who had been complaining of unbearable headaches, left a suicide note that asked that an autopsy be performed on his brain. The postmortem revealed that a brain tumor called a glioblastoma. The coroner’s report said it "conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions."  Eagleman thinks it did. I believe him.

Eagleman also told the story of a perfectly normal man in his forties who suddenly became a pedophile, collected child porn, and hit on his stepdaughter. When his wife found out, she threw him out of the house. He was arrested and served time. But in the meantime he was discovered to have a massive tumor on the frontal lobe of his brain. When it was removed, his behavior returned to normal. After a time, he started to display the criminal behavior again. He went back to the doctor, who discovered that a piece of the tumor had been left behind in the surgery. When they removed it, his behavior again returned to normal.

Eagleman insists that people who are dangerous have to be taken off the streets, but his research has enormous implications for the criminal justice system. If you would like to hear the interview, here is link to the podcast. This is all fascinating stuff and might influence the thinking of writers of crime fiction as well as the procedures of cops, judges, and wardens.

The part about criminal behavior comes in the second half of Terry Gross’s masterful (as usual) interview.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Secret View of the Chrysler Building

Since as far back as I can remember, the Chrysler Building has been my favorite building. At all times of year, in all kinds of weather, it stands out like a beacon among all other buildings, making them look shoddy and second rate. I have a secret spot from which I gaze at this beautiful edifice, just a half block from my apartment. * The best time to view it is at twilight, when the lights come on and it glows softly in the dusk.

Despite my admiration for this icon, I realized one day how little I knew about it. For example, I didn’t know the architect. A quick check online and I found his name — William Van Alen. I also learned his sad story. Van Alen was a talented architect who studied in Paris under some of the most brilliant architects of that time (the 1920s). He returned to the United States and began his career, designing a number of buildings.

He was still young when Mr. Chrysler hired him to design his building. When the Chrysler building was finished, it was greeted by some acclaim, but also by some scoffing. There are always those who balk at anything new and daring, no matter how beautiful it may be. Even Louis Sullivan, the great Chicago architect, panned it. But worst of all, Mr. Chrysler neglected to pay Van Alen. Van Alen sued Chrysler and won, but afterward no one would hire the architect. The Chrysler building was his last design. In desperation, he turned to his second love —sculpture.

I wish I hadn’t learned the history of William Van Alen. Now, whenever I look at his masterpiece, I wonder what other magical creations he might have produced if only he’d had the opportunity.

Robin Hathaway

* Secret View: SE corner of 33rd and 2nd Ave. (But don't tell anyone. I don't want hordes of people pushing me off the sidewalk!)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Testilying II: Bad-Cop Story-Telling by NYPD’S ‘Rape Cops’

Well, I just wrote 400+ words on the subject and accidentally erased them. I don’t have the heart to start over, folks, so…to be done for next week.

Robert Knightly

Friday, June 3, 2011

Writing Advice

I'm not going to give you writing advice. Instead I'm going to talk about other people's advice to you.

I'm not going to give you advice on surviving criticism, either. People in your writing group, your friends, or one of the dwindling ranks of professional reviewers, most of these folks will have something negative to say about your work sooner or later. All that means is that it's not what they want right now. If you throw up your hands and say, "Well, I'm no good," after that, you're not a writer. Nothing wrong with not being a writer. Being a writer is not the highest calling in life. I mean, think about it. Was Gandhi a writer? Was Escoffier? Heifitz?

But if you are a writer, and you feel that your craft needs honing, either because someone has told you so, or you have noticed your own deficiencies, or your self-confidence is faltering, or you're very young, you may find yourself turning to books on writing advice. This is not a bad thing, but you have to be selective. Many of these books will not give you what you want right now, which is useful advice and encouragement. Many of them are there to lead you up the garden path, waste your time and separate you from your money.

My personal criterion for a book on writing advice is this: Can I imagine writers I respect reading this and paying any attention to it? Having passed this initial sniff test, good books of writing advice fall into four categories:

  1. Living the writing Life
  2. Structuring your book and completing a first draft
  3. Editing and polishing your book
  4. Selling and promoting your book

The first category is the most fun to read. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is my very favorite of these. Steven King's On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft is not to be missed. Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner is also a treat.

The second category is for me the most interesting, because plotting and structure are not skills that come naturally to me. When I get hold of a good one I study it ardently. My favorites are Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. There's another one I truly love but I've lost my copy and forgotten the title. Writers Digest published it. It had a blue cover. It talked about Aristotelian poetics.

Don't read books in the third category while you are still working on the first draft. You will get all bogged down in grammar and the minutiae of elegant self-expression when you should be figuring out who did what to whom and when. When you are ready to edit, a different process from writing, you can't do better than Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, and Don't Murder your Mystery by Chris Reorden.

I don't have a good book on selling and promotion. Things in the industry are changing so fast that a book might not be the way to go. You might be better off online, following things like Publisher's Marketplace, and the Query Shark's blog.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Do You Do When Things Go Wrong?

I just washed my hands with Evian!

There is no water in my apartment. Over the holiday weekend, while we and our downstairs neighbors were out of town, the water heater in our flat decided to give up the ghost and leak hot water into the apartment below ours. The good news is that though the water destroyed part of the ceiling, it largely leaked into a shower and went right down the drain. The bad news is that the woman downstairs did not see the fortunate part of this and returned our apologies with insults.

In an unrelated incident, the batteries in our rechargeable cordless phones are all dying at once, so when the plumber called back, the phone I used to answer his call went dead as soon as I started to speak.

I grabbed my cell phone, though The World Health Organization says it could cause cancer, and called him back. I got his answering service. He is in New York. I am in New York When did all the plumbers in the United States decide to hire an answering service in Virginia?

“Screw it. I will ignore all this tsouris, and write my blog,” I said to myself. I had such a great topic. I was going to call it “Creating False Identities.” It was to be based on a favorite Radio Lab broadcast that posited that we get our whole sense of identity from the stories we tell about ourselves. So I tried to log on to the Radio Lab website to listen to the podcast once more—to be sure I had my facts straight. But the Radio Lab website must have crashed because it gave error messages no matter how I try to access it.

Now I am going to take a dance class that is supposed to reduce my stress. If the sound system goes down, I am going to bed until the gremlins get tired of listening to me snore and go torture someone else.

Picture of Annamaria's Nerve Endings
Wish me luck. See you next week.

Annamaria Alfieri

10 Ways to Beat the Heat

  1. Do nothing
  2. Drink cool beverages
  3. Doze in air-conditioned room
  4. Daydream
  5. Eat ice cream
  6. Read books set in cold places
  7. Take a cold shower
  8. Don’t wear any clothes
  9. Listen to cool jazz
  10. Think cool thoughts

Robin Hathaway