Friday, May 31, 2013

I Lost my Mind in Savannah

We have been traveling, Harold and I. I didn't tell you I was on the road because that's one of the things I don't feel comfortable revealing on the World Wide Web, like my birthday, or my Social Security number, or the number of my bank account. It just doesn't seem sensible, even though the gun club meets at my house when I'm gone, and my son checks in twice daily to feed and exercise the Rottweilers. You hear stories, is all I'm saying. Bad things happen. So I kept mum. You may have noticed that I had some trouble getting on the internet while I was gone.

We left a couple of Sunday mornings ago with an actual itinerary, more or less: most importantly to see beloved relatives in Florida and Mississippi, but first to spend a night in Savannah. I visited Savannah with my sister and her cat, years ago, and we had such a good time there that I wanted to show Harold the city. So we blasted out of the house and down Route 29 at the crack of dawn. As usual I began to think about the things I was supposed to have brought with me and might have left behind. First thing I recalled was the camera, still hanging on its peg in the closet. Never mind. I had my new smartphone. I would take pictures with that.

Toothbrush? Yes. Sunscreen? You bet. Underwear enough for two weeks. It wasn't until the following day,  as we were crossing the bridge to Savannah, that I remembered the email from Hotels.com confirming the prepaid reservation I'd made at the boutique hotel where my sister and I had stayed. In my mind's eye I could see the reservation confirmation clearly, still sitting in the printer at home. Not, alas, clearly enough to read it.

I don't know what you do when you panic. What I do is forget proper names, as for instance the names of hotels, streets, and acquaintances, and then after that I start on ordinary nouns. "Where is this hotel?" Harold said. "What is the name of it?"

"I can't remember. But I know where it is. It's right down on the street by the river. It's an old cotton warehouse."

"What's the name of the street?"

"I'll know it when I see it," I said.

River Street Inn

For some reason he didn't trust me on this. "I'll just stop at the visitor's bureau. They'll have a map and the names of some likely hotels." Moments later he came out of the visitor's bureau with a handful of brochures and a map of Savannah. "The River Street Inn," he said. "That must be it. An old cotton warehouse."

"No, I don't think so," I said. "It doesn't sound right. Just drive." He began to look uneasy.

On our way to the street down by the river (East Bay Street, in case you ever need to know) we passed a Starbucks and some other things. Then up and down East Bay Street until I saw it, the same hotel where my sister and I and her cat had stayed, the East Bay Inn. An old cotton warehouse, brick, with tall windows and a parking lot around to the side. We parked the car and went in.

We had no reservation there.

I had reserved us a room in some similar hotel by mistake, and paid for it, and now we had no idea where it might be.

The desk clerk was charming, warm, and helpful. "You can use our computer in the lobby, if that will help," she said. I sat down at it and poked the keys. No good. I couldn't figure out what to do at that point. I was now in full panic mode and terrified of going crazy in front of Harold. You know how it is. It's bad to alarm your significant other.

But, wait. What I needed was to get back on my own email on my own laptop. "Let's go to Starbucks," I said. So we stashed the car in a nearby parking garage, took my laptop and retraced our steps to Starbucks, stopping three or four times to ask directions of kindly passers-by. With a good, stiff drink of java under my belt my faculties began to return, and by the time I booted my email client I realized that I didn't even need an internet connection. The email from Hotels.com was right there in front of me on my laptop. "The River Street Inn," I said.

Harold did not say "I told you so," bless his heart. As nice as the East Bay Inn was, the River Street Inn was even nicer, with a view from our room of the boats on the river. They wanted us to park the car in the very garage where we had left it. We went on to have a wonderful time in Savannah. So all's well that ends well.

So far so good. Am I going to do that again? Don't know. I'll just have to take very good notes from now on.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Right Now, Write Now

A few weeks ago, I attended Malice Domestic, the traditional-mystery writer/fan convention held every year in Bethesda, Maryland. After a panel, I was chatting with a woman who was working on her first mystery, and I happened to mention that I have another (full time) career.  She asked me, “How do you find time to write?” Okay, as a writer, I know what subtext is. I knew she really meant, “How can I find time to write?” So I asked her how much time she was able to spend now? And for ten minutes, she laid out all the reasons she just couldn’t find time. Her job, her commute, her family and social commitments; the homework, housework, husband. Not enough hours in the day. I didn’t get to say much. I nodded. My chin(s) got quite a workout nodding.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked about finding time, but as I listened that morning, I realized how often I hear lists of “Why I can’t”. I began to get a little frustrated.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. I spent a couple of decades not finding time. And there’s an “if only” lesson there I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

So, let me get to the point: Novels are written by, well, writing. And then rewriting. And rewriting. And throwing out everything you wrote the day before and starting over. Fixing the gaping hole in your plot. Crafting a better villain. A better story. New writers often believe there’s some magic out there. That they will wake up one morning not only with time, but also with sudden inspiration whereby the book will just flow from the fingertips into the computer.

There is no magic. Repeat, please. And again.

From the Shoe cartoon strip (1977-2000). Visit jeff-macnelly.com

If you’re a new writer who hasn't found time to finish (or start) that book, here's the best advice I have: Right Now, Write Now. Don’t wait till next month, when you’ve settled into your new job. Or next fall, when the kids start school. Or next year when your spouse will get that promotion and you can work part-time. Or when you win the lottery.

You need a routine. You need a commitment. Or you’ll look up a decade from now, and that book won’t be any further along than it is today. So start today.

Create an honest chart of how you spend your time on weekdays and weekends. Remember, it’s like the first rough draft of your novel. Nobody has to see it. There will no judgment but yours.

Are you spending an hour in the evening online, catching up with friends/family or checking out YouTube? Or watching TV? Are you sleeping in an extra hour on the weekends to make up for your long work week? Find what you can change right now. Even if you find only one hour on Saturday mornings and two on Sunday nights, it’s three hours more than you have now. 

Use it. Routine is very important. If you have no ideas ready when your new writing time comes along, hie thee to the computer anyway. Sit down, open the file and just write. A snatch of dialog, a description of a location. Random thoughts on the page might lead to other ideas. They will at least get the juices flowing. And don't leave till your time's up.

You’ll get into the habit of writing, and the habit of not doing something else. And then as you make progress, you'll want and find even more time to write — you won’t volunteer for yet another committee (you’ll learn to say, “Sorry, I just can't do it this time”); you’ll invite friends over twice a month, not every week; the FB page won't get updated for days; you'll revise chapters in hard copy during lunch; you’ll make character notes waiting in line at the grocery store; you’ll take a recorder with you on the treadmill, although “He said (thud, thud, pant, thud, thud, pant), put the gun down (thud, thud, pant, pant, wheeze, gasp)” can be hard to transcribe later. Using a recorder during my exercise walks around my neighborhood has been invaluable in working out dialog, and in showing me how out of shape I am.

Whatever time you can find, find it. But find it now. And eventually you’ll finish the book. It might take three years. Or five. But you'll finish it.

And your new routine will serve you well when you finally sell that first book and the publisher wants the next one in 8 months!

Sheila York

Sunday, May 26, 2013

And When She Awoke From The Magic Spell She Found She Was in the Enchanted Kingdom of Trenton


I spent my late afternoon commute from work in Philadelphia to home in Collingswood in the usual manner. I snagged the first seat I could find and settled in to read. I looked up as the train slowed to a stop, tucked away my book and got off… at the wrong stop. I had just read my way to Westmont and had to wait fifteen minutes for a train back. Well, might as well read some more.

When I got to work the next day I began to quiz my most steadfast book friends about their experiences of literature and mass transit.

My friend Dennis, who knows more about music than any human being I know, talked about routinely finding himself 4 blocks past his stop as he was reading The World According to Garp. “I found the story beautifully human,” says Dennis. “I loved the characters Irving created. They were extreme, but not so far out of reach that you couldn’t find something to relate to. I was completely drawn into the story.”

Bill, who would know more about music than any human being I know if I didn’t know Dennis, found himself at the end of the Lindenwold Speedline because of the “grippingly odd” Jitterbug Perfume. Bill notes that he’s one of those people who has to avoid department store perfume departments but, he says, “Jitterbug Perfume almost made me want to experience the nuances of manufactured fragrances. Almost. We had reached the end of the line in Lindenwold before I knew I’d missed my stop. It being off-peak I had another 20 minutes with Tom Robbins before the next train brought me home.”

And now Suzanne who just knows more about everything than anyone I know. “I distinctly remember the day I missed a stop while reading The Secret Life of Bees. The train was making its way through a steady rain and it was usually quiet. I looked up and saw Trenton. My usual stop was Langhorne.” Suzanne is given to falling into the worlds of the books she reads and has also sailed past her stop while reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I would like to say that I’ve missed stops reading the later novels of Henry James. You know, there I am with a well-worn copy of The Ambassadors, trying to figure out the true meaning of the raised right eyebrow that Lambert Strether turns toward Chad Newsome and Marie de Vionnet and so engrossed in the power of the unspoken, time and destination mean nothing. Not likely.

Indeed I’ve missed stops twice because I was reading what I characterize as “the kind of thing I don’t usually read.” My most recent miss was while I was reading one of George RR Martin’s Songs of Fire and Ice series. I began the books because John Lanchester, whose novels I admire, suggested in the London Review of Books that people who turned up their noses at George RR Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien weren’t worth the time of day and lacked imagination. Then he added (and I'm condensing this) “And W. H. Auden thought so, too!” I’m not sure I’ll get to Tolkien but the Martin books are really gripping yarns. It reads rather more like a historical novel about ancient Britain than I would expect from a work of fantasy.

But I first missed a train stop when the aforementioned Suzanne introduced me to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The novels include time travel and romance. EWWW! But the travel in this case is to 18th century Scotland and there’s lots of action.

When I sailed past my stop, I was reading an utterly unbelievable bit where the heroine rescues the hero from a fortified, well guarded prison. “I don’t believe this. This is so far-fetched” I muttered to myself as the Collingswood station receded into the distance.

Luckily for we writers of fiction, reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Stephanie Patterson

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How to Walk in New York: Advice for Visitors




Spring has settled on the City.  The wisteria on the brownstones in the Village has bloomed and faded, the trees in the parks are in full leaf, and the tourist density is reaching critical mass.  Like almost all New Yorkers, I am happy to welcome the 50 million people per year who come from all over the world to vacation in our fascinating city.  On those rare occasions when I find their sheer numbers become irritating, I think about the $35 billion they add to the municipal coffers.

A hard place to keep my cool with them is on the midtown sidewalks. Eastside, Westside, all around the town, the sidewalks of New York are thronged.  And all those bodies slow things down so very much.

New York is a city in a hurry.  As far as I can tell, it has been since the 17th century.  New Yorkers want to MOVE.  We have places to go, people to see, stuff to get done.

What visitors do not understand is that, unlike in any other sizable American metropolis, for New Yorkers walking is a major form of transportation. Almost no one who lives here even owns a car, much less has one waiting in a driveway.  We have great public transportation, but we also use our feet.  For a distance of mile or two, except in the foulest weather, we hoof it.

This means that the sidewalks are major thoroughfares for us.  On foot, rushing to a dentist appointment, going to meet Auntie Doris for lunch, or trying to make curtain time at the Shubert Theaterwe expect to traverse a north-south block in about 45 seconds.  The longer east-west blocks should take about a minute and a half.

We are so intent on getting places in a hurry, we have strategies for taking the road of least resistance, crossing streets the second lights allow and jogging across to make it before they change.  We calculate the best way.  For instance, if traveling northwest starting from O on this chart, a New Yorker will try, in the shortest time, to land up at X, because then he can go north or west without being blocked by a red light.  If the destination is further north than west, he will keep progressing north until he hits a red light and then change directions.  We all learn this, and we pretty much all do it.

We like to be kind and welcoming to visitors.  We really want them to have a good time.  We will even give advice readily unless we are about to be late for the beginning of the opera.  But it makes us all a bit nuts when people just do not know how to be courteous to us, by letting us walk without obstruction.

To help visitors who do not ordinarily walk anywhere except in the mall or the forest, I offer the following rules followed by all New Yorkers:
·         If there are more than three of you, never walk more than three abreast.
·         If you have to stop on the sidewalk, dont stop in the middle; move to the curb or near the buildings so as not to block the flow of traffic.  This applies especially when pausing to take photos or to consult maps or guide books.
·         Never pause at the curb end of a crosswalk or in the street.
·         Even if you are English, Japanese, or South African, KEEP TO YOUR RIGHT.  Your instinctive keeping to the left will result in a silly dance with the oncoming New Yorkers.

A few corollaries:

On the subway: 
·         Never pause for conversation before the turnstiles.
·         When the train pulls in, stand aside to let people out before trying to push in.
·         Once in the car, move away from the door unless you are getting off at the next stop.
·         The pole is there to help us keep from falling, not for pole dancing.  Dont hug it if the car is crowded.  Just hold it with one hand so others can hang on too. 

While you are at it, look at the hands holding that pole.  They are all the colors human skin comes in.  Look around the car.  You are in a city where 150 languages are spoken.  The full panoply of humanity surrounds you when you are riding with New Yorkers, and we all get along.  Together we create the richness and fascination that makes our city the place you wanted to come toto see, to breathe in its culture, to wonder at its energy, to be entertained.  New York is WOW experience.

Shout when you say, WOW!  Just dont stop in your tracks when you do it.   
  


Annamaria Alfieri




Monday, May 20, 2013

How I Got my Vocation

When I was 13-years-old and away at a Catholic boarding school among the potato fields on the North Shore of Long Island, I would read (under the covers after lights-out) the novels of Leslie Charteris, detailing the adventures of Simon Templar, a/k/a The Saint, scourge of the Ungodly. Half-a-Century later, I don’t remember the plots but I remember that the Saint’s right hand man was Hoppy Uniatz and that it was okay (not a Mortal Sin) to kill bad men, “the Ungodly,” as the Saint did regularly to those who needed it. As I fell asleep in my top bunk in the dormitory, I remember thinking, I could do that. That’s how I considered “crime” for the first time and set my future course.

The school, St. Anthony’s Juniorate, prepared high-school age boys to enter the Novitiate, the next step to becoming a member of the Friars Minor, an Order of Teaching Brothers founded by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy in 1212. St. Francis loved animals, the poor, Christ and St. Clare, a nun (not necessarily in that order). How I got there, I went to St. Anthony of Padua Grammar School in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for eight years. I got in early, age 5-1/2, because my grandmother was the Cleaning Lady at the school. (They owed her, they didn’t pay much.) I didn’t meet a Franciscan Brother face-to-face until Fifth Grade; before that, I had lay teachers (middle-aged ladies) and nuns from the Order of St. Joseph. That I never understood: how a bunch of nuns got named after St. Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus sure, but a guy, still and all.

Brother Dismas was our teacher in Class 5-A and the next semester in 5-B. I think he’d fought in the ring before he got his vocation, judging by how he liked to knock us around in his classroom. The dumb guys had it the worst, the more he whacked them the less they could remember about the lesson. Years later, I met one of them, Patrick, in a bar, and as we got to talking about school days, Patrick, more than a little drunk, got off his stool announcing that he was going up to the Brothers’ Residence next to the school to have a word with Dismas. I managed to dissuade Patrick and bought another round. Whether the Brothers’ House was still standing, and if it was, whether Dismas was still in it, I hadn’t a clue, but who knew? Dismas was definitely not in the same class as his namesake, the Good Thief, but it was a long time ago. And I was, at that time, a New York City Patrolman, and as such expected to keep the peace.

Besides, I had good feelings for that time of my life in St Anthony of Padua, Dismas aside. I was a religious kid, even a bit on the scrupulous side. Never missed Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and went to Confession with my class every Friday afternoon (not that I had a choice) in the Lower Church below the Main Altar upstairs. I did my best to examine my conscience, agonizing whether the impure thoughts that assailed me constantly were mortal sins, the decision turning on whether I had “entertained” them or not. Fidgeting on the hard-wood kneeler in a pew just outside the purple-shrouded Confessional in the darkened Church basement as I tried to decide, I’d break out in a sweat under my school uniform and lock eyes on the Station of the Cross affixed to the wall next to the Confessional, depicting Jesus sweating blood as He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while His enemies hide nearby, waiting to pounce. When my turn came, I’d enter the dim Box, kneel facing Fr. O’Connor, just a silhouette behind a mesh screen—it was always red-faced Fr. O’Connor—and disgorge everything in my head as if I’d eaten a bad clam, just to be on the safe side. Once, driven by fear of eternal damnation, I dared to ask Fr. O’Connor if I was doing it wrong and that was why I was having trouble. It was he who told me, in his thick Galway accent, that I had this scrupulosity and a good thing it was. Never was able to warm to Fr. O’Connor, nor Brother Dismas for that matter, but choosing the Franciscans was the better way to go. Thing is, given my particular mind-set and having been exposed to the regular recruitment pitches of the Brothers during the four years they had me, it was foreordained that I would discover I had “a vocation”. Almost like, I owed Him.

I didn’t last but two years in the Juniorate in Smithtown, L.I. No regrets, though. It was an eye-opener living in the country for a City boy like myself. Maybe you can’t see a clear link from reading ‘Saint’ novels under the covers in Smithtown, L.I., to joining the NYPD (and it’s true I never had occasion to dispatch any bad guys)—but I see it, a dead-on connection down to becoming a criminal trials lawyer and, finally, a mystery author. Writing the novels and stories somehow imposes structure on the whole business whereas, in the event, I just put one foot in front of the other, keeping on.

When I was a rascally 20-year-old in the Army, flouting the rules in the fleshpots of Old San Juan and drawing short stints in the ‘brig’, a fellow English Language Instructor once asked me, genuinely concerned: “Don’t you ever think about goals?” I didn’t understand the question then, but would reply now that I was simply living, collecting experiences into a great compost heap of material, á la Jack London and my hero of that day, the Irish playwright Brendan Beehan. It worked out.

Robert Knightly

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Kaye Barley, Mistress of Meanderings and Muses…

…Author of WHIMSEY, Friend to the Stars of Mysterydom

Kaye is known to most crime writers today, since her blog Meanderings and Muses has hosted just about every talented mystery writer in the universe. And as first Sunday blogger at Jungle Reds, she has an even larger audience now.

Charm, wit, humor and warmth—these are some of the words that describe this Southern writer from North Carolina, a state dear to my heart! With joy and gratitude I welcome Kaye as our guest today!

Thelma Straw



Kaye, you are one of the most gracious and friendly writers I've ever encountered! To what do you attribute this wonderful quality?

Thelma, you are the kindest woman—Thank You! I'm not always so gracious, I'm afraid. My outspokeness tends to get me in some hot water from time to time. But I do try to remember to treat people the way I'd like to be treated. I have to say, though, that when I'm treated badly I'm not going to just stand by and take it without speaking up.

Since many of your guests at your Meanderings blog are crime/mystery/thriller writers, can we look forward to your own crime novel in some future day?

Haven't I been lucky with the guests I've had at Meanderings and Muses?! Many of those guests, I'm proud to say, are friends and I feel quite lucky and blessed to have them in my life. As far as writing crime fiction, I don't know. WHIMSEY was almost a crime fiction novel, but the characters had a different idea about things and I listened when they spoke. The next book, which I'm working on now, is going to be Whimsey Book #2, so not crime fiction. But, maybe, on down the road, who knows? Maybe.

Your husband is such a marvelous photographer. Does he also have literary plans?

Don has such a great eye for photography, doesn't he?! He's an inspiration to me in many ways - his photography is one of many. He surprises me in many ways - constantly. I was surprised when he agreed to write a piece for Meanderings and Muses after his heart attack. What he wrote was heartbreaking and beautiful and brilliant and it touched a lot of people. You can read it here: www.meanderingsandmuses.com/2010/05/phone-call-no-one-ever-wants-to-get.html. He has a curiosity about life that's pretty amazing, so he tends to learn and to try a lot of different things. Writing? Who knows—I wouldn't be surprised, really.

Through you, I've become a dedicated fan of such stunningly talented writers as Earl Staggs and Bo Parker. For this, I have to say a huge Thank You! How did you get to know them?

Those guys are great, aren't they?! Wow. And both possess an amazing amount of talent. I met them both through DorothyL a lot of years ago. I'm happy that they're both friendships that have continued over the years and have grown. And I'm happy to have been able to introduce you to them.

You are becoming one of the most popular women writers of the American South. What do you advise women just starting out, who want to write fiction and get published?

I think you must have been expecting Margaret Maron here, right? Or Sarah Addison Allen?

The only advice I have to offer is this—Just Do It. Whatever "it" is. Writing, painting, photography, sculpture—whatever. Just do it. Don't wait until the time is right, or you have more time, or till the kids are grown. Suppose ten years goes by and you're still waiting for the right time? If there's something creative inside, you need to find the time to let it bloom. You'll be a better and happier person because that's your joy—and it will give back every single minute that you give it. I know that sounds like some motivation dreck to some people and I don't care. It's the truth.

As far as publishing, I made the decision to self-publish. And I did it for a number of reasons and it's working for me, but it's not for everyone. If you're interested in why I chose that route, you can read all about it right here: www.meanderingsandmuses.com/2013/01/why-ive-decided-to-self-publish.html.

Many writers in our current climate are discouraged by the difficulty in selling to a major publisher. You have recently taken the route of self-publishing with your charming novel called WHIMSEY. Can you tell us the steps you followed, how you felt about it, and any advice you wish to share with us about the growing world of self-publishing?

Thelma, honestly, the whole two years I was working on WHIMSEY, I had intended to try to publish traditionally. I did my research, I made lists of agents and editors of some of my favorite authors (the acknowledgements in books by your favorite writers is an excellent source for this type of information). But when I was finally finished and when Earl Staggs, who edited WHIMSEY, agreed that it was finally finished, the traditional route suddenly wasn't as important to me as it had been in the beginning.

What was important to me now was getting it out there. I personally think, for one thing, that starting out in the traditional way is now a young person's game and I'm not a young person and I'm not a patient person. And, truthfully, I wanted my mother to be able to read WHIMSEY and see it as a "real" book.

In addition to the blog I wrote about why I made the decision I did (see above), I've also written a piece about the self-publishing process, and you can read it here: www.meanderingsandmuses.com/2013/03/what-ive-learned-so-far-about-being.html.

How do you decide what topics to use for your two well-known blogs, Meanderings and Muses and your first Sunday blogs at Jungle Red?

That's such a good question. And honestly, I have no idea. When I first started Meanderings and Muses I knew I wanted it as a place to talk about books, but not just books. It grew to be the place where I shared some of my feelings about a wide variety of things—including Aretha Franklin's hat that she wore at President Obama's first inauguration. I've had some rants at Meanderings and Muses and it grew to become, I'm proud to say, a place where writers were proud to come spend a little time. It's no longer going to showcase as many authors as it did because I think it's had its place in the sun in that regard and it's time to just move on. And it's still trying to find its way as to where and how. Right now I'm having fun with photography and just a hodge-podge of other things, and I'm writing, which, as you well know, needs a great deal of time. There will still be writers doing guest spots there, but not as many.

As far as what I write at Jungle Reds, that's usually a toss-up too. I love being a part of that group of amazing women. I was surprised and honored to be invited and they've given me free reign to talk about whatever pops into my mind. It's often not until a day or two before the first Sunday of the month that I have a clue as to what I might want to say. It's a real effort, I have to tell you, to try to write anything that's going to be in keeping with the reputation Jungle Red and each of those women have.

You are now a veteran blogger. What do you think a really good blogger should aim for? What is easiest for you? Hardest?

I think a really good blogger should decide what the heart of their blog is and be true to it. If it's important to you to have an audience who will join a community you've created, you'll need to do that, I think. And time—you'll need to give it the time it deserves. That was easy for me in the beginning—I was dedicated to making Meanderings and Muses a special place. It's now hard for me because I'm now doing a lot of different things that I wasn't doing then. Back in the beginning of Meanderings and Muses I was working, but I wasn't working for "me." It was just hours out of my day in order to earn a living. Now, I'm doing the creative things I've always wanted to do and loving each of them as much as the other. Meanderings and Muses is now only one of them and I have to decide what to do about that.

We thank you for stopping by Crime Writers Chronicle today. Is there anything you'd like to share with us I have not mentioned?

Oh, Thelma, Thank You! You've taken a bit of a leap having me here and I appreciate it. I know WHIMSEY doesn't exactly fit into the normal Crime Writers Chronicle theme of things, and it means a lot to me that you all have allowed me a spot. It's been fun.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bailing Today


Kate has computer issues today of a severity that can scarcely be believed by anyone other than another computer user. Next week she will unload her complaints on you, or not; until then you may imagine the worst day you ever had trying to work your will on the internet with the feeble tools at hand, and assume that you know what the trouble is. It's like that.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I Learned from Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks


























Meet Linda Rodriguez.  She and I share an editor.  Linda’s second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books), just hit the stores with one reviewer (Lesa Holstine) calling it “one of the best traditional mysteries I’ve read this year.” Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was selected by Las Comadres National Book Club, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. For her books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Rodriguez received numerous awards and fellowships. She is president of the Borders Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, and International Thriller Writers. She spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LindaRodriguezWrites.  She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com


Annamaria Alfieri






 In 2009, my sister gave me Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks for a Christmas present. My sister and I had always shared our love of mysteries, and we were both huge fans of Dame Agatha.

The book was fascinating. John Curran, who compiled the notebooks and wrote the book about them, helps the reader to see how Christie’s mind worked when she was developing characters and a plot. I found it fascinating to see the notes she had made, written evidence of a writer’s mind at work in the difficult planning and plotting stages of a novel (though some of the notes deal with revision also).

I read them and watch as Christie changes her mind about who is the hero or heroine and about who is the killer. One character may audition as hero before landing in the killer spot. Another may spend a while as killer before being elevated to the protagonist’s position. Settings, titles, and murder methods can and do play musical chairs also. Christie is always seeking the combination of title, setting, killer, and hero that will meld with the perfect method of murder to make a great book.

This book is a great source of inspiration to me when I’m planning and plotting, as I am now. Not that I can use any of her ideas in my own work. They’re very much of her time—each period of time in which she wrote a book over the length of her long life. However, watching her fertile mind work, seeing all the alternates considered and rejected, watching the fantastically successful mysteries come to life always kicks my own brain into high gear.

More than inspiration, though, reading through the notebooks and glimpsing Christie’s mind in the midst of her work confirms for me that it was work. She didn’t come to any of her great, clever books by anything else. Nothing was predetermined. Christie played with combinations of the elements of a good mystery novel until she ended up with something so taut she could carry water in it, and she worked hard to make each book so watertight and startling. 

After following the course of her mind for a few of her books, I’m ready to roll up my own sleeves and go to work without expecting to hit the right characters or plot on the first try without effort. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Christie’s notebooks illustrate this perfectly. So, now, I’m off to juggle setting, characters, motives, and murder methods myself, following in her footsteps.

What helps you in the planning stages of your books, if you’re a writer? If you’re not, how do you feel about seeing all of Dame Agatha’s sleight-of-hand revealed this way? Would you rather remain blissfully ignorant of how she managed her magic?

Linda Rodriguez 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Maybe There's a Lesson Here


I’m going to miss Smash. In spite of itself.

Writers need a break from the reality of their writing lives. As most any writer will tell you, when you commit to writing, you don’t get many diversions. Deadlines (self- and publisher-imposed), your family, the chores, and the other career (the one with the 401k and health insurance) don’t leave much room for other activities. You don't get to read for pleasure or see friends as much as you’d like. You go out less; you entertain less. Sometimes, it feels like you don’t do much except work and the laundry.

At times like that, I need a reboot. I need to shut down the creative part of my brain for an hour. When I start it up again, whatever froze my imagination and enthusiasm has usually disappeared. In addition, my eyes spend so much time going back and forth across my computer screen or printout that, if the reboot diversion also gives me a chance to roll my eyes for a while, so much the better.

And Smash was a worthy diversion on both counts. In the beginning I watched in sofa-lolling relaxation an undemanding melodrama with excellent singing, and then I watched – my eyes circling my sockets – plot twists so contorted that I just had to see what the next bizarre pretzel-turn would be. Which isn't necessarily all that easy with your eyes rolling around in your head.

Smash was (actually still is, for the rest of the month) about getting a musical to Broadway. Maybe I should have been warned when a series has enough, dare I say, hubris to give itself a title like Smash. And to think there was much left to be said about Marilyn Monroe.

But hey, I wasn't looking for art. And as a bonus, I got to hear some terrific Broadway voices, performers who know how to interpret a song, and don’t think that as-loud-as-I-can-belt and as-long-as-I-can-hold-this-note are the hallmarks of singing. And I got to see some pretty fair dancing for a TV series (at least in the first season).

I was charmed by Christian Borle. In awe of Megan Hilty. Eager to see what Jack Davenport would get up to next. And I was certain Anjelica Huston’s facial muscles would eventually move.

And I could pair the show with a wonderful blog by Broadway actress/dancer Sharon Wheatley called SMASH: Fact or Fiction, a valentine to Broadway, full of fascinating tidbits and insight about what it’s really like to create a show on the Great White Way. And, unlike so many entertainment bloggers, Sharon doesn't seem to have a snarky bone in her body. But eventually, the parade of implausible plot points and absurd motivations forced even Ms. Wheatley to give up on Smash

Sigh.

Maybe Smash never really had a chance. Ultimately, its premise was deeply flawed: that there could be a believable competition for the role of Marilyn between the characters of Karen and Ivy. It says something about network-TV desperation, the lure of cross-marketing and the demands of “media-ready” casting that American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee (as Karen) was thrown mercilessly into the ring with Broadway vet Hilty (as Ivy). Yikes, what alternative universe have I wandered into that this fight could be fair?!

Even if one accepted the premise that a woman with no Broadway experience who looked and sounded nothing like Marilyn could be a contender, the show swung off the rails a few times in season one. Then the swinging turned to careening in season two. Karen quit the lead (the lead!) in the Broadway show Bombshell – a role in which she was called “brilliant” by other characters though the TV audience was never granted the privilege of seeing these on-stage moments – for a role in a black-box theater downtown because…  Oh, it doesn’t matter, it made no sense. The renowned Broadway director Derek (Davenport) leaves Bombshell, too, in a huff, then agrees to direct the downtown show, which isn't really finished and was created by a couple of guys who've never had a thing produced before. And Bombshell’s composer (Borle) is suddenly, with no experience, Bombshell’s director. Whaa??

And although I could have gone on rebooting my brain with Smash, NBC has pulled the plug.

What can I salvage? As with any failed relationship, one asks: Is there at least a lesson to be learned here? Can I find any bits of wisdom to pass on to, say, a reader of this blog who’s an aspiring writer? One working on a mystery novel and not, say, a network TV show?

No square pegs in round holes. In mystery novels, you don’t get cut much slack for these. Your characters aren't allowed to go off and do something that makes no sense because, you know, you need them to. Your protag can’t just decide to investigate a crime because, well, she found a body and you need her to be an amateur sleuth; and she can't do dumb things because you need her in peril. She can't go into the house when she finds the front door open; continue into the deserted parking garage even though she thinks she’s being followed; or agree to meet a mysterious informant in a place not flooded with light and witnesses. When your writing starts to feel like hammering, it’s time to stop, rail at the wall for an hour, then admit your needs aren't really important here. What does your character need? A better motive.

Obnoxious does not equal a character readers love to hate. Smash didn't learn its lesson in season one with the character of Ellis Boyd, the uber-obnoxious assistant. They doubled down in season two by making uber-obnoxious a main character, Jimmy Collins (played by Jerome Jordan exactly as the writers/producers/directors must have wanted him to play it, because he’s capable of nuance and charm). They chose to make Jimmy not only a ^%#*, but a callow ^%#*. And callow and ^%#* are pretty much impossible to make compelling. They made poor Karen his doormat, so maybe we were supposed to hate him while at the same time intuit that there was a good man underneath all that because, uh, Karen fell for him and he's cute. Doesn't that count? Not in mystery novels. Not unless you want the reader to throw your book across the room. Readers see people who are uninspiring, unintriguing and unbearable every day. They probably work for one. They don’t want to read about them when they get home.

And so Smash will be gone soon. What will I do for a reboot? Where can I find another show that will render me alternatively brain flat-lined and yelping at the TV?

I mean, other than Castle. (My devotion to Nathan Fillion is not unmotivated. Since Firefly, a woman is justified in following him practically anywhere.)

Other suggestions for reboot candidates are welcome.

Sheila York

Monday, May 13, 2013

Rikers Island Bar

In eighteen years as a criminal defense lawyer in the Courts of NYC, I represented hundreds of clients like my fictional 'Enrique'. The character is made up but the dilemma is real. Rikers Island is our Penal Colony, right out of Kafka.

Robert Knightly




I’m driving over the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge for the nine hundredth time (figuring once a week, four times a month, times twelve months, times eighteen years). The bridge connects the Queens mainland to Rikers Island, which is floating in the East River and a mere hundred yards off the runways of LaGuardia Airport. Rikers Island is the main New York City jail, housing 12,000 or more inmates at any given time, depending on how tough on crime the NYPD chooses to be. Rikers Island is America’s largest penal colony, a city of rolling razor wire far as the eye can see. I’m en route there because I’m a lawyer assigned by the Criminal Courts to defend a fellow who claims to be “indigent” (no dough to hire a lawyer), so he gets me, whom the inmates call “an 18-B” (short for the section of the County Law), as distinguished from “a real, paid lawyer,” whom they’d hire if they could. I pay no mind; I’ve heard it all before.

I get to drive onto the Island in my own car with a lawyer’s pass from the guard booth. Civilians have to bus it onto the Island after taking trains from every corner of the City to catch the Q100 at Queensboro Plaza, last stop “the Rock” (as the inmates call home). I get my visitor pass at the reception center, go through electronic surveillance, and head for the bus depot outside. Ancient yellow school buses queue up in their stalls: five separate lines go to ten jails spaced out over 415 acres of mostly landfill. As I wait to board my bus, this Kirk Douglas western, The Big Sky, is playing in my head—green movie valleys filled with fat cattle versus my electrified fences topped with barbed wire near and far.

Bus #3 delivers me to my destination, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, where my client is housed. Funny thing about the jails, they’re all named after people: the Rose M. Singer Center (women’s jail); the George R. Vierno Center; the Anna M. Kross Center; the George Motchan Detention Center. You get the picture? All dead. I can’t help wondering if Otis Bantum would approve of ‘the Bing’—solitary for the incorrigibly violent—being housed in his jail. Nobody will admit knowing how the Bing got its name; I suspect it’s onomatopoeia for the sound a nightstick makes when banging off the head of an inmate.

Today I’ll see my new client, Enrique. He resided in Washington Heights among a legion of illegal Dominicans, of which he is one. He was arrested a week ago for selling a couple of “20s” of cocaine to an undercover cop. I interviewed him in the feeder pens behind Manhattan Night Court, but it did not go well. Enrique doesn’t know English. Unfortunately, the court interpreter was a Cuban who abbreviated Enrique’s fulsome responses to my questions into either “yeses” or “nos.” (You had to watch the Spanish interpreters: they had fierce prejudices against defendants from countries other than their own.)

Yesterday, by phone, Enrique informed me through his English-speaking jailhouse buddy that he won’t take a plea—he wants a trial. This pernicious idea is endemic to the Rock. Inmates always phrase it as “wanting their day in court.” It is the product of the Rikers Island Bar, a hardcore cadre of inmates who, during long stretches in Upstate prisons, have honed jailhouse lawyering to an art. Daily they counsel innocents on their cases, bad-mouthing the advice of 18-Bs like me, filling heads with legal fantasies. Their fees are assessed in the prevailing currency: cigarettes, sex, whatever. There’s a law library in every jail on Rikers, each staffed by a civilian librarian. The Rikers Bar is as old and as active as any of the County Bar Associations.
Plea bargains are the local currency of the justice system. No way can the courts give every defendant a jury trial. As a reward for not being difficult, defendants plead guilty and get far fewer years in prison. But insist on your day in court and you get hammered upon conviction. Contrary to the opinion of the Rikers Bar, Enrique will be convicted at trial because the District Attorney has physical evidence and witnesses— which I don’t, and seldom do.

I must steel myself for the coming battle. I must erase the word “trial” from Enrique’s mental slate.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Rose for Miss Bonnie

My mother has lived with us since her death in 2006.

My mother hated staying overnight in unfamiliar surroundings. She was happy to go anywhere you might want to take her as long as she could sleep in her own bed the same night. It made sense to me to keep her ashes among family.

Her urn is topped by a jaunty hat that she loved wearing. She is surrounded by a Furby (She had several who talked to each another and there was sometimes a disquieting twitter—in the old sense—behind her when I called home), a frog (she collected them), a stuffed dog that taps its foot and moves an umbrella as “Singin‘ the Rain” plays, an old VHS of Johnny Carson shows and a book about “Guiding Light,” her favorite soap opera. The symbol of her devotion to Bill Clinton, a hand puppet of the former president given to her by my cousin, Alison, did not wear well and will need to be replaced. What is not so well represented in this collection is my mother’s love of books.

My obsession with books came entirely from my mother. I was the first grandchild on my mother’s side and my grandmother loved bringing me gifts. My mother didn’t like this. Her family had little money and she didn’t want me to expect a present every time my grandparents visited.

“If you have to get her something, get her a book,” mom said.

I became the owner of countless Little Golden Books and a whole series of Louisa May Alcott novels. I had many Little House books and a lot of Doctor Seuss. During my childhood and adolescence the Scholastic Book Service sold books in schools and the day the shipment came was always an exciting one for me.

As I got older, my mother still emphasized the importance of books and doing well in school. I was the only child I knew who didn’t have fights with her parents over cleaning her room. It was perfectly acceptable to befriend the dust bunnies, curl up on the unmade bed and read.

I was never told I wasn’t allowed to read a particular book. My mother assured me I might read whatever I liked. She told me she didn’t worry about my being tainted by dirty books. She worried that I would be bored. When, at about 14 I tried reading Lolita, mom’s fears were realized.

During her later years, Mom got her stories from T. V. and movies. The last book I remember her reading was Sue Grafton’s P is for Peril. Shortly before she died, she said to me, “Stephanie, I don’t know anyone who feels about books the way you do.”

“And whose fault is that?” I asked.

My mother, who was not always particularly happy during her last years, gave me the most delightful smile.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, May 10, 2013

Living in One Place for Thirty Years

While I was growing up my family used to move every four years. Like Stephanie and Thelma, I read a lot and learned to rely on my own company as a result of this. I had an odd view of other people, too. Four years isn't long enough for people to change very much, so I had a sort of flat view of what other people were all about. When I think of my sixth grade teacher, for example, I see him as he was when I was in sixth grade, handsome, charming, fresh out of the Navy, with his cleft chin and sparkling eyes. We left town at the end of that year, so I never had a chance to see him grow old.

Now I've been living in Lambertville for thirty years, longer than I've lived in any one place. (And in the same house, too. You can imagine what my attic looks like.) The townspeople are all thirty years older than they were when Harold and I moved here. (Good heavens! So are we!) The babies in diapers who used to run around underfoot at the tee-ball games where our son played have all grown up. The young cheering parents have gray hair now, or dyed hair, or no hair, and a few of them are no longer with us. Some of the young children of the town have left and become wildly successful. Some of them are stuck. Some have gone to the bad. Babies. I think of them all as babies.

There was a little girl living down the street when we first moved here, a thin, waif-like little creature who came over to visit sometimes to play with John's toys, one of those little girls who makes you want to take a hairbrush and get the tangles out of her hair. I didn't think much of her mother, who used to stand in the street making out with strange men. They left town about the time that real estate values got so high. A lot of the locals couldn't afford to stay here.

In yesterday's paper we read that a man had tried to snatch some woman's purse on Bridge Street, in broad daylight, and when he failed, jumped into a car, driven by some woman, and sped away. Since there were plenty of witnesses the police had no trouble apprehending the pair on Route 29, headed for Trenton. Their eighteen-month old baby was in the car. Drugs were involved. The moll was my old neighbor, the little waif. That makes me feel really sad.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Tribal Archetypes as Characters in a Mystery


Let me begin with a disclaimer:  I don't think I could ever write a story that I would want to read by following a formula.  BUT, that said, my stories pretty much always wind up with three people who play archetypal roles and who must cooperate and communicate if the mystery is going to be solved.   No teamwork, no solution.  Keeping secrets means screwing things up and delaying the process, which in storytelling can be a good thing.  Somehow in my novels, I always wind up with characters who assume the three tribal roles: The King, the Priest, and the Warrior.

In my old day job as a management trainer and consultant, these archetypes were an interesting way to analyze and figure out what might be going wrong in the leadership/management of an organization.  The roles have nothing to do with the person’s actual job title or position in society.  They are defined by how the people behave in the context of their tribe.  Here’s a way to think about them in real life and in mystery stories:
  • ·         The King is the person who defines the goals, who gives the group its vision of itself and helps it rise above its self-imposed limits.  Kings can do this with words, like “I have a dream…”  Mostly they do it by example.  And image.  The King doesn’t have to be charismatic, although that helps.   She does have to see beneath her followers’ surfaces and beyond their horizons.  He has to know their potential and declare it to them.  Spur them on.  Unleash their power.   Good Kings harness people’s idealism.  Bad ones tap into their fears and selfishness.  In mystery stories, the King is usually the character charged with or motivated to get to the bottom of the crime.  Often, he has others around him who are not so gung-ho but whose cooperation he needs.
  • ·         The Priest is the one who defines right and wrong, who tells anecdotes that remind people of who they are and how to judge what they do.  She asks the challenging questions and tells the old war stories—happy ones that define right behavior, and sad ones that warn against mistakes.  Many good mysteries have detectives—amateur or otherwise—who can easily go astray and want to break the rules to find and punish the evildoer.  This kind of character needs someone to keep him from straying too far from the straight and narrow.  In police procedurals, the Priest is hardly ever the detective’s boss.   More likely, it’s his sister or her son.


  • ·         The Warrior is impatient for action and gives the group its sense of urgency.  He is the brave soul willing to go out and wrest victory from the jaws of defeat.  She is not afraid to make a mistake.   Many mystery novels give us a younger sidekick who is the warrior, but who can easily turn into a loose cannon.
       In many mystery novels, we get a loner detective, alienated from the world, perhaps despised by his fellows at work and plagued with a dysfunctional family or none or all.  He (almost all these characters are men) must embody all the tribal roles or the story has to do without what the missing ones would add.  That this hero has to be everybody at once would make him hard to accept as an ordinary human.  Therefore, he must have a huge flaw to prove to us that is he is a person not a super hero.  Usually, his creator solves this problem by making him a drunk.   I have no capacity at all to imagine what it would be like to live in such a person’s skin.  So I have to give my characters other people to work with.


When I was writing City of Silver and Invisible Country, three characters in each story fell into the archetypal roles without my really knowing what I was doing.  In retrospect I can see them for what they are.  The King is an Abbess in City of Silver and the pastor in Invisible Country actually fulfills the role of the King.  Strangely enough, though both stories have characters who are priests, neither man fulfills the role of Priest.  In one the Priest archetype is a nun and in the other the Priest is a shy village woman.  In both those books, the Warrior is a young woman. 

In the mystery plot of Blood Tango, the detective is the King, the dressmaker—a woman in her forties—is the Warrior, and the dressmaker’s father—a man in his seventies—is the Priest.   The subplot deals with the political turmoil of Buenos Aires in 1945.  In that story Juan Perón is the King.  Evita, his mistress, soon to be his wife, is the Warrior.  They do not have a Priest.  If you ask me, they could have used one.


Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Happy Birthday to My Taurean Twin, Linda Fairstein

It was my birthday. Little did I know, trudging to school along a sandy path on Willoughby Beach in Norfolk, Virginia, that on that same day a little girl was born in Westchester County, New York, who decades later would play a big role in my adult life.

Of all the bonds on this fragile planet, so full of surprises, finding another human who was born on your own birthday is a galactic coincidence unlike any other. Nationality, age, gender, ethnicity—none of these has the same tie as knowing that—in the light of eternity—this other human being first saw the light of day on the same calendar marker that was assigned to you!

I'd never met anyone born on my day, May 5, so years later, when I read that a stellar crime writer, someone whose books I'd devoured for what had been decades, a notable whose speeches I'd been glued to at meetings of writers' groups, was also a May 5 child, I felt an instant bond, and knew then, even if I never met this literary giant, I'd be her champion for life!

I finally did meet Linda Fairstein, as a fellow member of the Board of Directors of the New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

What charming games the universe plays with human lives!

I'd read every book by this gifted writer, was immersed in every plot of her novels, after her debut novel, Final Jeopardy, never knowing all those years that there was an ethereal bond between this famous lawyer and star on the world stage of literature and—little ole moi!

Today with over 14 bestselling novels under her legal belt, this talented honor graduate of Vassar and the School of Law of the University of Virginia has won high acclaim in many languages on countless shores. She has created her own unique spot in literary history.

Few writers have transformed historical places and moments in the colorful history of New York City into such memorable word tapestries!

Her novels should be required reading in all courses of New York history, as well as in advanced curricula on American literature.

From Final Jeopardy ( 1996) to Angel of Mercy (July 2013) I join the throngs of readers who are also fans—and wish my Taurean Twin many more years of success, joy and a special place in the annals of literary talent!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw