Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stop You’re Killing Me

I wanted to say a few words about the mystery website “Stop You’re Killing Me.” I use it often and was reminded of it when I read a story on the re-issue of Georges Simenon’s Maigret mysteries. I don’t remember how I first found out about SYKM, but I remember why I first needed it.

My husband I were making a concerted effort to get all of the Maigret novels and were having difficulty because volumes have been published under many different titles. For instance, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett has also been published as The Case of Peter the Lett and Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. This is not so tricky since I can’t imagine that Simenon would write 3 different novels about Letts.

Consider, however, The Saint-Fiacre Affaire which has also been published as Maigret Goes Home, Maigret and the Countess and Maigret on Home Ground. Pretty tricky,eh? It’s no fun having fifty Maigret novels if forty of them are duplicates.

SYKM has made me look pretty savvy on a number of occasions. Even though I tell friends that I use SYKM and send them the link, they insist on thinking that I alone know the answers to all their mystery questions. One of my friends actually yelled at me, “Every time I ask you a question about mysteries, you send me this website. I don’t want the website I want you.” I try to remind people that while Moby Dick is ubiquitous and eternal I am not, so I continue to offer the website.

I’ve answered questions about what order novels in series have been written, let people know when is so-and-so’s next book coming out and come up with a selection of novels for people based on where they were vacationing. Yes, you can look up authors based on where the crime takes place. The list is not complete. I looked high and low for Annamaria Alfieri in South America and found her not. You can look up sleuths based on when they are plying their trade (the first entry under 1940s is Lauren Atwill) and on what trade they ply (Mother Vinny is there under clergy).

And given that the site classifies the mysteries in so many different ways, if all you can remember is that the series was about some female sleuth in 1940s London, you can find your book.

If you’re so inclined you can subscribe to their updates that include book give-aways and lists of award nominees (SYKM itself has won more than one Anthony). I can’t begin to imagine how much work it must be to keep this site current.

Keep up the good work, Stop You’re Killing Me.

©  2014 Stephanie Patterson

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No One Is Coming to Clean Off My Desk

On the night table: March Violets (Philip Kerr)

I guess Will Gardner won’t be sweeping the clutter off my desk in a spectacular gesture of jealous rage after all. 

I’m going to miss that fantasy.

And God knows, I’m going to miss Josh Charles. 

Maybe I should have issued a SPOILER ALERT, but I can’t imagine that anyone who’s a fan of The Good Wife still hasn't watched Sunday’s episode or is still completely unaware of the shocked, horrified and furious response that accompanied his departure. I got my hair colored Tuesday (shock, that blond isn't natural), and my stylist and I talked about nothing else for two hours.

Before Sunday night, I'd been focusing my attention elsewhere, on some first class procrastinating about planning for my meeting tonight with members of a writers group at my local library. Most of them are new writers. Many of them aren't writing mysteries. Many of them probably don’t even read mysteries.

So instead of planning, I was obsessing. Come September, I’ll have four novels published. Just four. Who am I to impart wisdom? If I were wiser, I would have begun writing before I started to lose my nouns.

And then Will died, reminding me with a punch to the solar plexus how attached we get to characters.

In visual media, the character creation is collaborative; for Will, it required the considerable skills of the show’s writers and the actor. Novel-writing is generally not. Not unless you’re so famous that you have uncredited co-authors, or you consider a collaboration you and your internal Little Editor, who tells you that whatever you just wrote is 1) trite, 2) overblown, 3) illogical.

The novelist has to come up with not only the words, but also the way they're performed: The cadence of the dialog and the accompanying behaviors that evoke that character. Heck, we even have to supply the costumes.

Mostly we learn about character by doing it wrong. When we write our first books, we often cram every tragic flaw and misery we can think of into our characters, or load our protag up with enough backstory to grind the action to a halt every other page. Or we convince ourselves we’re being spare when what we have is a roomful of dull people who all sound alike. Or that a ‘wacky’ woman is the same as charming.

Gradually we begin to understand what all those books on how to create characters were talking about. We want to write real life, but real life and fiction are very, very different. No character comes into a book without a purpose. No bit of dialogue is meaningless. Conflict is cherished. And unless you’re writing a ‘hero versus nature’ novel, that conflict has to come from the characters.

So, I think we’ll talk a bit about characters tonight. About how and why readers become attached to them. We enjoy a clever plot, but the novel's world is made real by its characters.

I’m feeling better about my meeting. 

But there's still too much clutter on my desk, Will.

Sheila York
Copyright 2014

Note: If you never watch The Good Wife, there was a terrific scene last season in which Will got so upset with Alicia — his former lover — that he raked everything off the top of her desk in one glorious motion. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Left Coast Crime: The Right Crime Conference

A sell-out crowd of crime writers and their fans converged on Monterey, California last weekend.  For me, it was the best such convention I have ever attended: Professional, organized, full of warmth and camaraderie, and replete with talented and enthusiastic people.  I loved it.  Here are a few photos of the festivities:

The panel Murder Across the Pond, which I moderated.
All historical novelists writing about England.

Louise Penny and Cara Black

Lisa Brackman, nominated for Hour of the Rat
and Tim Hallinan, nominated for his
hilarious Junior Bender series.

At the banquet with Jeff Siger, nominated for
Mykonos After Midnight

From Monterey, the gracious and dear Ken Isaacson, whom many of you know from MWA, and his charming and beautiful wife Silvia gave me a lift to SFO Airport, where I caught the BART to Walnut Creek and the home of a long-time and dear friend.

When I first saw the Bart Station in the airport, I was envious.  Why don't we have this in New York, I wondered--sleek, attractive public transportation inside the main terminal.  I asked at information and found that I had to buy a ticket for $10.40 from the machine against the wall.  Piece of cake, I thought.  I buy NYC Metrocards and Metro North tickets from such machines all the time.


The first machine I approached was this one that takes only cash.  I decided to wait for one where I could pay with a credit card.

Bad decision.

The picture on the machine indicated that one put in the credit card face out.  I did.  A message told me that my card could not be read.  I tried again with the same result.  Repeated with two other cards, with the same frustrating result.  I went back to information, where the attendant demonstrated how I should hold the card, exactly mimicking what I had just done six times.  I went back to try again.  Seeing me still struggling, the attendant left her booth to help.  She reversed the card, put it with the strip facing her.  Voila!

The next step was hilarious.  The screen pops up telling you are automatically buying a ticket for $20.  Next to the left-hand buttons are the words:

  • Subtract $1
  • Add $1
  • Subtract 5 cents
  • Add 5 cents
To buy a ticket for $10.40, I had to press the A-button ten times, and then press the D-button eight times, at which point I could buy my ticket for the right amount.  I laughed out loud.  That's California for you.  They get the hard stuff right, like building a great train to the airport, and then when it comes to the small details, they manage to come across as completely loony.

Molly met me at Walnut Creek and took me to her home on the campus of the Athenian School in the foot hills of Mount Diablo, which looks like this:

I am very happily ensconced here until Monday morning.  If I have to buy a Bart ticket on my way home, at least I have successfully completed the training program.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Wild, Wild West

I met today's Guest Blogger in the Mavens of Mahem, the Upstate chapter of Sisters In Crime. I cheered Joel's induction as he raised the number of "brothers" in our group to three.

Joel Gomez-Dossi has done a lot of things in his life, and some of them he'll even admit to. He started his career as a stage manager. Then he became a production manager for PBS and finally morphed into a freelance writer, working for regional publications across the country. Now he practices the world's second oldest profession: telling stories. He is the author of two novels published by Bold Strokes Books,
Pursued and Deadly Cult. Joel can be contacted at and

Robert Knightly

Yuma, Arizona during the 1960s seems like the perfect setting for a Western. Located about twenty miles from the Mexican border, the town’s call to fame was the Territorial Prison. But it closed in 1904, and agriculture became the economic powerhouse. The township, with a population of about 25,000, was now modern. It even had a new dog track to encourage economic growth. Yet growing up in Yuma during that time, I longed to experience a Hollywood adventure where I could be a cowboy and overcome insurmountable odds. Because in every good Western, the good guy wins, the villain is punished, and life becomes better.

No doubt, the adults in town shared in my fantasy because for one week each year they relived the Western ideal. At the county fairgrounds, the Yuma Jaycees presented the Annual Silver Spur Rodeo, with a bronco riding competition; steer wrestling; and everybody’s favorite, team roping.
Months before the event, townsmen stopped shaving in order to participate the whisker-growing contest. And women hauled out their sewing machines and bought shiny fabrics in anticipation of the Queen Horsemanship Competition.

But this weeklong event couldn’t satisfy my quest for adventure all year long. I needed more. I wanted unknown territory, filled with excitement, sin, and other adult things. On one particular Sunday, my Hollywood dream almost came true. My best friend and I were riding our bikes at the school parking lot. He pulled a wheelie, and then abruptly stopped and asked, “Ya wanna go to the Dog Races?”

“Really?” I asked, with my eyes lit up. I'd never been to the dog races before, though my parents talked about it often, usually disparagingly because it involved gambling, drinking, and other adult vices. Everything a good cowboy could want.

From January through March of each year, dog racing competed for the affections of Yuma Township. Ten dog races were held each night during those months, with eight dogs chasing a state-of-the-art artificial rabbit. Betting included straight, place, or show and they even had a “Quiniela double,” if you were lucky enough to bet on the first two greyhounds to cross the finish line. It was fair and square. They even used photo finishes – the first dog track in the state to have them.

With great anticipation, we left the school parking lot. I wondered what mysteries we would discover at the track. Would we stumble upon a thief attempting to abscond with a lucky winner's take? Or maybe we would discover a box load of winnings that was mysteriously buried.

Sadly, we never made it to the dog track. After what seemed like an hour of riding in the hot sun, we hadn't arrived anywhere. We were just beyond the town border, and in the desert. All around us was zilch. Nothing. Nada.

Except in the distance, where something peaked out from a hill of sand. We hid our bikes at the side of the road and stealthily climbed the hill. Just beyond it was a near-hidden oasis consisting of a corral and an adobe hut. Horses grazed in the corral. And nearby, saddles waited in the ready with reins neatly arranged by the side. And on the wall of the hut hung two large rifles.

We looked at each other and wondered. Who owned this outpost, and for what purpose? There weren't any humans on the property, at least from what we could see. So our conclusion came quickly. Its purpose had to be bad. We needed to investigate further.

“You go first?” my friend asked.

"Me?" I said. "No way."

“Okay, I’ll go." His voice lacked conviction, but I didn't care. He took a deep breath, and trudged down the sand. Then he suddenly disappeared from sight.

“You okay?” I shouted at the sand.

“Yeah, I fell, that's all.” He stood up, brushed off his pants, and made his way to the corral. The horses trotted towards him to say hello. "Come on. Ya gotta see this!" he beckoned to me.

I began running to the horses. I never was very athletic, so I was kind of slow. But when I reached the corral, a man shouted out from nowhere. “What are you two kids doing here? GET OUT.” We looked round and round, but couldn’t see anyone.

He yelled again, and my friend turned towards the sound of the voice. Then he turned towards me, and then towards the voice again. He made an instant decision and ran away, leaving me in the dust and facing certain doom.

“You, there,” the man yelled at me. “Why are you here?”

I said nothing. A grizzly-looking man appeared from the side of the hut, hauling two large garbage cans. “Get the hell outta here!” He threw the cans at me, and rotting garbage flew everywhere.
I didn’t hesitate. I ran back to the road, mounted my bike, and flew home as quickly as possible. When I arrived, I quietly opened the front door and snuck in. My mother and father sat on the davenport while a Gunsmoke rerun played on the television. I slipped through the living room, and as far as I could tell, my parents didn't suspect a thing.

The next day, my friend and I exchanged stories about our adventure with everyone at school. Yes, we embellished the plot a bit. But even if we hadn't, our adventure would still be filled with thrills and suspense.

I live in upstate New York now, and I write thrillers. But I try to remember what I learned that day every time I sit down at the computer. The tenets of a good story remain the same, whether it’s a Western, a Thriller, or a Mystery. Suspense is anticipation. And to be thrilled involves narrowly escaping catastrophe.

It's also important I mention that in the 60s, the public never realized the cruelty that dog racing inflicted on its dogs. The Yuma Greyhound Park was no different. It closed in 1993, after two serious cases of animal abuse claimed the lives of over a hundred hounds.

© 2014 Joel Dossi

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Mystery of Titles

Agatha Winner's New Novel…

Sandra Parshall's blog "How I Write" should be required reading for crime writers! (Find it on her website at

A pillar of Sisters in Crime, Sandy, a native of South Carolina, is a constant source of helpful information on the publishing world for many mystery/crime writers. As a child she wrote stories on pulp paper tablets, then as an adult progressed from writing obituaries in Spartanburg to top-notch features at the Baltimore Evening Sun.

Winner of the esteemed Agatha at Malice Domestic in 2006 for The Heat of the Moon, she combines her love of animals and her keen observations of human nature in her series, featuring veterinarian Rachel Goddard.

Her current novel, Poisoned Ground, explores the issues of land development in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as poisoned ground beneath a bucolic Southern surface.

An avid photographer, she would love to visit the Wolong and Chengdu panda centers in China!

I am delighted to have her as our guest today…

T. Jackie Straw

Everybody agrees that a great title is essential to a book’s success. Unfortunately, agreement on what makes a great title is hard to come by. Sometimes the person closest to the material, the author, is the worst judge of what to name it.

Agatha Christie’s all-time bestselling novel, And Then There Were None, started out with the title Ten Little Niggers. (Let’s pause while everybody cringes.) She drew the reference from a British nursery rhyme, and the book was originally published in the UK with those words on the cover. The American publisher balked and changed it to And Then There Were None, drawing from the same nursery rhyme. Some editions were published as Ten Little Indians, but the only title now approved by the Christie estate is And Then There Were None.

Other examples of poor title choices by authors are less offensive to our social sensibilities but equally cringe-worthy.

We’ve all heard about the various names attached to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel before it became The Great Gatsby. Would you want to go see the film version of Trimalchio in West Egg or Among the Ash-Heaps starring Leonardo diCaprio? Would you be even slightly tempted to pick up a book with one of those titles?

The original title of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was Atticus. Beloved though the character is, his name alone just doesn’t do it as a title.

Carson McCullers titled her first novel The Mute. Houghton-Mifflin changed it to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, drawn from an 1896 poem by Scottish writer Fiona McLeod.

Crime fiction titles have to carry more baggage than those on literary novels, and the name Christie’s book ended up with is a good example of that. And Then There Were None has an ominous ring to it. We know something terrible is happening between the covers of this book, and the mystery fan in us wants to find out more.

The crime fiction umbrella covers several subgenres, and titles are chosen to signal what type of mystery or suspense novel the reader can expect. Even without seeing the colorful, pleasant scene on the cover, we can recognize a cooking cozy or a knitting cozy by its title. A humorous mystery needs a title to match. A blunt, one-word title like many of Karin Slaughter’s — Blindsighted, Fractured, Undone, Fallen, Criminal — tells us to expect a hard-edged thriller.

The titles I love, though, have a bit of poetry in them, and they’re often found on books with a strong psychological suspense element. A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, is the most beautiful crime fiction title I’ve ever seen, and it perfectly evokes the mood of this novel about family secrets.

Some writers agonize over choosing titles, seeking advice from family, friends, and their writing communities. Others have a title before they’ve fully developed the concept for the book, and they cling to it after it no longer fits what they’re writing. Few authors are happy when their publishers rename their work, and they may rail about marketing taking precedence over creative judgment — even when everyone else can see the publisher’s choice is clearly better.

Most of my titles have come from the text of the books. At some point, as I’m writing, a phrase will spool out on my computer screen and I’ll stop and say aloud, “That’s it.”

My working title for The Heat of the Moon was Memory. Then I wrote a passage in Chapter Eleven about an incident in Rachel Goddard’s childhood that made her realize her mother would never truly love her. “Her show of affection for me,” Rachel recalls, “was like the heat of the moon, an illusion, a glow that gave no warmth.” As soon as I wrote the line, I knew I had my title. I still love it, but I’ve grown used to people misremembering it, calling it In the Heat of the Moon or (confusing it with the movie) The Heat of the Night.

Disturbing the Dead also came from a line of dialog, when someone warns Tom Bridger — who has just discovered two skeletons of long-missing women on a mountain — that no good can come from disturbing the dead. The damaged lives of so many characters in my third book suggested the title Broken Places, and Bleeding Through seemed ideal for a book about secrets from the past bleeding through into the present and destroying lives. Among my six books, the one title I don’t like is Under the Dog Star. It fits the story, but I’ve never lost the feeling that I could have come up with something better.

Poisoned Ground, the title of my new novel, is a metaphor for the lethal strife among local people over a proposed resort development in the small mountain community of Mason County, Virginia. But it has another, hidden, meaning that gradually comes into focus as a present-day murder investigation uncovers long-ago events on some of the properties in question. That’s the kind of title I love, one with layers of meaning.

What sort of titles attract you to a book? What are some of your favorite mystery titles?

Sandra Parshall

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Misspent Youth

Once upon a time I belonged to a motorcycle gang.

Actually it was a lunch club. It was sometime around 1980. We met at my apartment on State Street in Trenton, within easy walking distance of the state office buildings where we all worked. Everybody gave Harold five dollars a week, and he came up with enough food and drink to get us through the rest of the day until dinner time. The menu was long on instant powdered soup, as I recall, the contemporary equivalent of ramen noodles.

Nobody had a motorcycle. Most of us had never even ridden on one. At some point we acquired a helmet, but that was as close as we ever came until Phil Rowe abandoned his non-functioning Ducati and Harold dragged the pieces home and stuck them in the yard. So, as you see, motorcycles weren't the point of the club, and neither was gourmet lunch. We came together because we were dizzy stylists, out for an hour of fun away from the bowels of the state bureaucracy.

We ate our soup, talked about Life with a capital L, gossiped about our friends, and sometimes did writing exercises. The three core members, me, Harold, and Lee, were writers. Others dropped in, Jim from upstairs, Leanne when she could get to town, the lovely Phoenix, and even George, who recently published his entire memoirs without ever mentioning the Wild Snakes. The membership was fluid. At its height it included all of our friends plus the forty city employees who claimed to be living in Jim's apartment. You had to live in Trenton to work for the city in those days, and these people, architects and like that, were far too hip to live in a place like Trenton. They commuted from Manhattan or Brooklyn and gave the city Jim's address.

At the height of the Snakes craze, when everybody wanted to belong, we threw a huge party in Jim's apartment. It was themed. The purity party. Everyone came in costume, and the costumes had to be white. Harold rented a white tail-coat outfit. I made myself a white satin evening gown and bought a cheap blond wig. One of the women came as Princess Leia, with her long hair done up in cootie-garages over either ear. The resemblance was striking. I've forgotten what everyone else wore, but we all looked perfectly gorgeous. We were perfectly gorgeous. We had so much style.

When Harold and I moved to Lambertville the Snakes broke up for lack of a place to meet. It had been winding down before that. The city, for example, found that it didn't really need all those architects, and Jim went back to Minnesota. Every spring, though, I feel the stirrings of the old desire for dizzy style. Here it is again. I think I'll go try to find my old Wild Snakes tee shirt.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Left Coast Crime

I am heading for the airport and Left Coast Crime in Monterey.  I will have a report on the conference and my following travels around California for you next week.  For now I leave you to contemplate this:

This was what ECONOMY class looked like in the 1960's!  It is NOT what I will be experiencing for six hours today.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pipes, the Pipes are Callin'…

The best plate of corned beef and cabbage to be had in Albany on St. Patrick’s Day is at the Hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) on Ontario Street downtown. Actually, I’m there on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day because that’s when the City of Albany celebrates The Day with two Parades. The regulation one is a Downtown event that attracts the politicians and ends in front of City Hall (first erected in the late 1600s by the Dutch, commonly referred to as The Orangemen, but not on this day). The other occurs in North Albany, historical seat of the Irish and their political power from the First World War to today. The North Albany Limericks run it on their turf and no outlander pols show their faces, I’m told.

Back at the AOH post-parade, the steam table is manned by six elderly Irishwomen in aprons, ladling out slabs of corned beef, steaming cabbage, carrots, and bread and butter to the throng on line (overwhelmingly male); the Irish soda bread (two kinds—white and brown) is already in baskets at the tables. Four other grandmotherly types circulate, working the lineup of the hungry, handing out pieces of soda bread like nurses tending to weary warriors as they stumble in from the battlefield. Two even older ladies—beatifically smiling, wrinkled faces—take your money at the entrance to the Hall, and push the raffle tickets: 3 for $5, you win a Basket of Cheer (what else?). The twelve of them—a Band of Good Faeries.

There’s entertainment. A kilted bagpiper is on a dais upfront. I pay attention as he describes his instrument, a two-drone bagpipe. A drone is the bag and he has to blow it up to play and as he demonstrates you realize what a perfect name is “drone”—pure onomatopoeia! Its range is merely nine notes but an experienced piper can “whiffle” to enhance the tune. Then, for the next twenty-five minutes, he plays—The Galway Piper, The Rakes of Clonmel, The Minstrel Boy, The Garry Owen, ending with the only one I can name, Amazing Grace. Marvelous! Stirring! And very loud! As the pipers played when the Irish faced the English down the Centuries. Queen Elizabeth I, when told that the Irish fought more fiercely on hearing the pipes, decreed death for their playing. Later, Cromwell would let you live but minus your fingers. In 1745, after the Battlle of Culloden, any Scot caught with a bagpipe was hung. The bagpiper, who led the Celtic armies into battle, was honored as the bravest of men, with the shortest of life expectancies.

Makes me wonder if there were English pipers?

© 2014 Robert Knightly

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reading Other People’s Mail: Sylvia Townsend-Warner and William Maxwell

So there are two stories in today’s post. Here’s the first:

Ten years ago you did not have to have an account with Amazon to review books on the website. I reviewed 5 books in 2003 and then didn’t go to the site again until 2006 when I became a customer. So I have reviews under Stephanie Patterson from Lindenwold, NJ, and Stephanie Patterson of Collingswood, NJ. One of the books I reviewed when I lived in Lindenwold 10 years ago was The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. (Michael Steinman is the editor). My review remains the only one on the site. In preparing to write this week’s blog I revisited that review (which I cannibalized shamelessly) and discovered that it was now credited to ‘annbender.” Who or what annbender is I know not but I’ve let Amazon know I’m displeased and they are looking into it. Though we’re talking about a handful of reviews I wrote 10 years ago and read by a handful of people, I am outraged to see my work credited to someone else.

Outrage aside, I want talk about these fabulous letters. Maxwell’s account of a New York City blackout (dated November 17th, 1965) may be the best piece of prose I’ve ever read. I’d quote from it but it is so seamless, it’s hard to cite one exquisite bit of description without wanting to just quote the whole letter. Cliched as it sounds, that letter is worth the price of the book.

Maxwell was Townsend-Warner’s editor at The New Yorker and many of the letters are about writing. When Maxwell has to reject one of her stories, he is very kind, telling her the stories are wonderful, “but not for The New Yorker.”

Maxwell is very good on domestic moments, saying to his daughter who laments that he is bald: “‘Would you trade me in for a daddy with more hair?’ ‘Yes’ she says, teaching me a lesson.”

And on his resuming piano lessons in middle age: "…And Mozart is sustaining though I cannot do it. I would rather not be able to do Mozart than any composer I can think of."

Townsend-Warner, who lived in England with her companion, Valentine Ackland, offers a number of home remedies for illness, my favorite being champagne for any ailment above the waist, brandy for anything below. And she writes with droll humor of her life in an English village: "Poor Niou (a Siamese cat) has just had his first affair of the heart, and of course it was a tragedy. As a rule he flies from strange men, cursing under his breath, and keeping very low to the ground. Yesterday an electrician came; a grave mackintoshed man, but to Niou all that was romantic and lovely. He gazed at him, he rubbed against him, he lay in an ecstasy on the tool-bag. The electrician felt much the same, and gave him little washers to play with. He said he would come again today to finish off properly. Niou understands everything awaited him in dreamy transports and practising his best and most amorous squint. The electrician came, Niou was waiting forhim on the windowsill. A paroxysm of stage-fright came over him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

“He'll get over it in time; but just now he's terribly downcast."

In recent weeks, I’ve bought The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and I’ve discovered that Maxwell was a letter writing fool and I’ve purchased What There is to Say We’ve Said which contains Maxwell’s correspondence with Eudora Welty and Getting It Down Right, his correspondence with Frank O’ Connor, a writer I think is underrated these days.

So you’ll excuse me while I put my nose in other people’s business.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, March 14, 2014


I flatter myself that I have a brilliant gift for invective. I come by it honestly. My father's family were very good at cutting people up. It was my Aunt Mildred who said, "So-and-so is the lowest worm that crawls," and though I didn't know the gentleman I admired the expression. Those of you who knew my father will remember that he could deliver terrible insults without ever actually cursing.

When I turned thirteen I came into my inheritance, as young girls do. Nowadays the thirteen-year-old girls simply drop the F-bomb when they feel annoyed. We didn't do that when I was thirteen. Still I found that I had this wonderful skill with words. I forget who I offended, but I didn't have an awful lot of friends.

Time goes on, and we mellow. It's been years since I called someone a jibbering ape to his face. Except for the breakfast table, where I sit commenting to Harold on the latest antics of the politicians, I generally keep the knife in its sheath. I'm trying to be a Christian, you see. It's hard, but we're supposed to love our neighbors.

But, writing fiction! There, you can let 'er rip. If it's an offensive remark, put it in the mouth of one of your characters.

I love a good insult. Any kind. Oscar Wilde said, "A gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude." Great one. Insulted a whole class. Dorothy Parker used to cultivate her sharp tongue, sharpened it every morning, she said. Someone at the Algonquin Round Table remarked that so-and-so was always kind to his inferiors. "Indeed?" she said. "Where does he find them?" I used to know a guy like that.

You can deliver insults with finesse and subtlety, like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde, or you can deliver them with passion. Here's a classic from our friend Marlon Brando.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Rate of Change: a Historical Novelist’s Perspective

It’s all over the airwaves and tossed about at dinner tables all over the globe.  We are living in an era of enormous change.  EVERTHING has changed a LOT in the past say fifteen years.  The Internet has fundamentally transformed the way we live.  And, presumably, we are all either suffering from or benefiting from a tsunami of the NEW!!   Nothing like this has ever happened before.

You might be on the verge of believing all this hype.  Let’s talk.

We’ll start here.  My cousin sent me the following list in an email, which began with a picture of the 1910, Model T Ford:

At the time this car was made:
“The average life expectance for a man was 47 years.
Fuel for this car was sold in drug stores only.
Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub.
Only 8 percent of homes had a telephone.
There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!
The average US wage in 1910 was 22 cents per hour.
The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.
A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year,
And a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME.
Ninety percent of all Doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!
Instead, they attended so-called medical schools,
Many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as 'substandard.'
Sugar cost four cents a pound.
Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
There was no such thing as under arm deodorant or tooth paste.
Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
The five leading causes of death were:
1. Pneumonia and influenza
2. Tuberculosis
3. Diarrhea
4. Heart disease
5. Stroke
The American flag had 45 stars.
The population of Las Vegas Nevada was only 30!
Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn't been invented yet
There was no Mother's Day or Father's Day.
Two out of every 10 adults couldn't read or write and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE U.S.A!”

This list is pretty impressive.  But what strikes me about it is that pretty much all the radical departures from these hundred-year-old facts took place well before the arrival of the Internet and mobile phones, not to say the personal computer. 

Research during the writing of my historical mysteries brought home to me exactly when the biggest flood of change happened.  City of Silver takes place in what is now Bolivia 1650 and Invisible Country is set across in the border in Paraguay in 1868.  In the intervening two centuries, not much changed in the way people handled their daily lives.  In both stories, if you wanted to get from one place to another over land, you walked, rode a horse, or rode in a coach.  By 1868, there were railroads, but by their very nature, the places one could travel on them were very limited—and not many train lines yet existed.  If you wanted to get a message to someone who was not in the room with you, you had either to go to see the person or to write your message on a piece of paper and give it to someone to carry to its destination.  If you wanted to stay up past sundown, you lit candles or burned oil in a lamp.  If wanted to travel at night, you went when the moon was full, or you carried a burning torch.  If you wanted to cross the ocean, you went by boat.  Boats got a bit swifter between those two stories and somewhat more comfortable, but that was about it in terms of convenience.  If you got a wound that became infected, you were in danger of losing a limb or your life.

But then, consider what happened between how people lived in my first and second novels and how they lived in the third—Blood Tango.  The change was enormous.   In 1945, people in Buenos Aires had cars, telephones, electric lights, and the possibility of flying.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

The changes between 1868 and 1945 were much more transformative than the ones that have taken place since 1945.  The last fifteen years have brought us the Internet and smart phones.  Here is photo that gives you an idea of the progress:

Yes, what’s happening now is a big deal, but the difference between “no telephone” and “telephone” is much greater than the difference between “land-line telephone” and “mobile telephone.”

If you are looking for the era of biggest change, it’s the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth centuries, which saw, as the prime example, the building of the electrical grid.  Also, of course, the invention of the airplane, the telephone, recorded sound, the radio, etc. etc. That was the era that revolutionized life on this planet.  The building of the Internet, you should pardon my expression, can’t hold a candle to the impact electrification.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Police Story: Policing The Hasidim

I was sworn in as a Probationary Patrolman in the New York City Police Department on May 15, 1967, one of 600 men—no women—starting six months of vigorous legal and physical training at the Police Academy, located on East 20th Street in Manhattan. Alas, training lasted but three weeks. In the first week of June, we were hastily packed off to Police Precincts all over the City in anticipation of a “hot summer” (meaning ghetto riots). A false alarm, as it turned out.

They gave us a .38-cal., 6-shot Smith & Wesson Police Special revolver, showed us how it worked, then put us out in the street. Over two days and nights, they bussed us up to the NYPD’s Outdoor Shooting Range at Rodman’s Neck in Orchard Beach, the Bronx. At night—the range illuminated by powerful giant searchlights and the headlights of Emergency Service trucks—we unhurriedly fired off 150 rounds at paper bulls-eye targets at increasing distances. The High Command hoped fervently we’d be able to hit what we aimed at in the street rather than innocent civilians, while praying we’d never have occasion to draw the weapon from its holster.

Twelve of us reported for out first day at the 90th Precinct on Clymer Street and Division Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We wore our regulation Academy “greys”—gray workman’s trousers with matching shirt, our shields attached through three holes at the left breast—clip-on tie, highly-polished black shoes, socks, and regulation blue police cap with shield headpiece minus shield number (we weren’t the Real McCoy yet). At our first roll call in the Muster Room of the stationhouse, the Patrol Sergeant, appalled, ordered us to ditch the “greys”, and get into regulation police blues before we became “marks” in the eyes of the criminal element. By next roll call, we were all in blue.

The 90th Precinct was two square miles in North Brooklyn bounded by the East River—a hop, skip and a jump across to the Manhattan piers. The residents were equally divided between Puerto Ricans and the Hassidim of the Satmar sect of Judaism. Rumor had it that the Hassids were the reason for our presence in the Nine-O. We worked steady tours, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., on one-man foot posts, in a straight line for twenty blocks along Bedford and Lee Avenues—from the Grand Rebbe’s Victorian residence to the Marcy Avenue Projects, whence The Problem originated. Puerto Rican youths on bicycles, each Sabbath at sundown, would swoop down these Avenues—wide as the Champs-Elysees—to snatch the hats off the heads of the men on their way to Synagogue. The men dressed in their Saturday best, sporting Spodiks—long fur hats of mink and fox tail that retailed on Lee Avenue, the business hub, for $1,000 and up. No Spodiks went astray, however, during our occupation, that June through December of 1967.

One memory from my time among the Hasidim will not fade. One Friday afternoon around sundown, I was standing on post at the corner of Rodney Street and Bedford Avenue when a bent old woman, approaching from behind, grabbed my arm, startling me so that I dropped the nightstick I’d been practicing twirling on its lanyard. As she tugged me back up Rodney Street in the direction she’d come, I followed, feeling like a knight rescuing a damsel in distress (ancient as this particular damsel might be). She wore a black shawl on her head that hid her face, and I couldn’t make out her mutterings. But I anticipated doing police work, at least something more exciting than walking up and down my two-blocks-long, one-block-wide foot post, hour after hour. I followed her into the lobby of a dirty yellow brick multiple dwelling. She bypassed the elevator, instead entering the stairwell, and we climbed two flights, her in the lead, me in tow. She opened the unlocked door to a darkened apartment. From the light in the hallway I spied a light switch on the wall and flipped it on as I entered. The lights came on, revealing a neat kitchen, the parlor beyond filled with heavy Old World furniture, and the smiling face of my guide. She pointed by waiving the fingers of both hands at the kitchen stove and finally I understood. When I lighted the pilot on the ancient gas range, the smile on her wrinkled face was beatific. Then she shooed me out the door, back the way I had come. Every Friday night thereafter wherever I was working, I made it my business to be at Rodney and Bedford for our rendezvous. She spoke little, but no matter since it sounded like Yiddish. Besides, I already knew what was expected of me as the Shabbos Goy. The Hasidim are forbidden by their religion to engage machinery—lights, stoves, elevators—on Shabbos. So she went in search of a nonbeliever.

At the remove of nearly a half-century, still nothing in my experience as a New York City Patrolman is fresher, more pleasurable to me, than the memory of my encounter with the old Hassidic woman.

© 2014 Robert Knightly

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Cocoon

Matt Coyle presents Yesterday's Echo

A board member of MWA-Southern California, Matt Coyle reminds us he owes part of his writing career to Raymond Chandler. But insiders know it is the inner starch and talent that makes a good writer.

In his debut novel, Matt pulls us right in with his first sentence: "The first time I saw her, she made me remember and she made me forget."

How could we not read on?

Then he gives us a picture of his future writing with his last sentence: "Now strangers come to me with their problems and I try to solve them. I do it for money, not for love. it's easier that way. Fewer people get hurt."

This writer will want you to do what I'm going to do when I finish this intro… run out and buy his next book!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Last May marked the long awaited (by me) launch of my debut crime novel, Yesterday’s Echo. It was a lifetime goal achieved and never would have happened without the help of many people, most of whom I mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments. But I never would have had the chance to thank anyone if I hadn’t been willing to break out of the comfy confines of the Cocoon.

I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since I was fourteen when my dad gave me The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler. The hard part was actually doing the writing and that didn’t really start in earnest for about thirty years. I’m a slow starter. However, even when I buckled down and consistently put my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard, I still had a lot to learn.

Being a fledgling author is a fun and exciting time. You’re finally doing something you really enjoy and, dammit, you’re pretty good at it. You start each day reading over the literary gold you spun the day before and realize that you’re home. You’ve found your niche. If you stay with it, you’ll have a draft in around a year, give or take. Then it will only be a matter of time before your brand new novel is on the bookshelves between Connelly and Crais.

Or so I thought. But why wouldn’t I? I read what I’d written every day and it was genius. The couple members of my family whom I’d let read the book even agreed with me. Now they might have just been happy that I’d finally started writing instead of just talking about it, but they wouldn’t lie. Would they?

Still, I’m Irish and with that comes self-doubt. So, I decided that before I quit my day job and found an agent to get me the big contract, I’d better vet the work with a professional. Let someone outside the warm, snuggly, cocoon of my family and myself read what I’d written. That is the point of being an author, isn’t it? To have strangers read your work?

So, I took some night classes at UC San Diego taught by Carolyn Wheat, mystery author turned writing teacher. Well, apparently Carolyn wasn’t that good of a teacher because she failed to recognize my genius. I was shocked and disappointed. I’d paid good money and I got some flunky as a teacher. It was a beginner’s novel class and most students never really began writing so my stuff was on the whiteboard each session. It was ugly. Carolyn asked me questions that I’d never thought of, like what does your character want in a scene and what is he thinking.

It took a while, but I started to realize that Carolyn wasn’t stupid and I wasn’t a genius. It hurt. I’d jumped out of my cocoon and let strangers see my work and been slapped in the face. Hard. I lost some of that confidence earned writing in anonymity. Maybe I couldn’t do this. Maybe I wasn’t good enough and never would be. But after I stopped feeling sorry for myself (in just a few days… okay, a month) and started revising through the Carolyn’s prism, the book got better.

Then I joined a writers group and exposed my work to other writers. Like Carolyn, they tore the work apart and helped me put it back together. Stronger. After years of tearing and mending I finally felt that my manuscript was ready for an agent and then a publisher. Ten months later Yesterday’s Echo was on the bookshelves somewhere between Connelly and Crais.

Writing in a cocoon will make you feel good. Breaking out of it might get you published.

Matt Coyle

Friday, March 7, 2014

Research and Development

Some years ago I got interested in the War of 1812. It was one of those strange obsessions, like the one the Dickens character had with King Charles's head. It will make more sense to you when I explain that my forebears were on this continent in those days, some in Canada and some in the States, and so personally involved. What was that like? I was curious. In the course of reading about that war, and about the border between Maine and New Brunswick, where the ancestors lived in those days, I came across the story of the Reverend Mr. Duncan McColl. An extraordinary man. A saint, if the Methodists had saints.

No doubt you've asked yourself from time to time, what if they gave a war and nobody came? It actually happened on the Saint Croix River. Duncan McColl made it happen. After many years of his labors to save souls, he had built up a huge congregation from both sides of the border, including most of the people in the towns of St. Stephen (Canadian) and Calais (American). Living as they were in Christian amity, they didn't want to fight each other when the American government declared war.

So they didn't.

Duncan McColl went to the magistrates to urge for peace. They formed a committee of the prominent men on both sides of the border to keep order. All went well. The following year, American troops showed up in Calais. Luckily, or by the grace of God, the commanding officer and many of his men were Methodists. Duncan McColl preached to them and they agreed to keep the truce. British troops came to the other side, but Mr. McColl talked to their officers also, and they, too, kept the truce. They say a load of gunpowder that the British authorities sent to St. Stephen for self-defense was given to Calais so they could have fireworks for a proper fourth of July celebration. A picnic, I'm thinking, although with no dancing. Duncan McColl was sternly against dancing.

Lest you think that Mr. McColl was some sort of milksop, let me assure you that before he answered the call to become a preacher of the Gospel he had a distinguished military career, serving in the Argyll Highlanders, the famous 74th Regiment of Foot, where he saw sharp action at Castine, Maine.

It's all in his memoirs. These were serialized in the British North American Wesleyan Methodist Magazine of 1841 and 1842, ten years after Mr. McColl's death, printed out in tiny blurry print almost illegible to human eye or optical character reader. I'm here to announce that I spent all of last week, something like fourteen hours a day, scanning, copying, and parsing his words (and the words of whoever edited and annotated his work for the magazine) with a view to putting the memoir up on Kindle in legible form. This I have done. As a result I'm almost blind from eyestrain. I would be happy to give it away, but 99¢ was the least Amazon would let me sell it for. Go get it here.

…And now I'm going to go rest my eyes.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My First True Crime

In the summer of 1967 I was spending time at home. Though I was 14 and about to turn 15, at the beginning of the summer I was still waiting to see if my parents were going to insist I have a babysitter. My last babysitter had not been reengaged.

Mrs. Marsh was a single mom, one of whose daughters was in my class at school. She was nice enough but life at her home was boring. Her taste in music ran to the Ray Conniff singers and she served one unvarying lunch: Warmish iced tea in waxy glasses and Kraft American Singles (you couldn’t call it cheese) on toasted bread. She was rarely my babysitter in the afternoons. She went off to the officer’s club at the local military base and her daughter, my classmate, was in charge of me.

One day she came home aglow (and perhaps a-slosh) with the news that she had seen my father at the officer’s club. She leered at me and it was only some years later that I realized that if he was talking to officers at all, they were probably female. Alas, for Mrs. Marsh, my dad also saw her, the caretaker of his delicate daughter, at a bar in the middle of the day. As I wasn’t knocking back martinis with her, she couldn’t be watching me. She was out of a job.

I begged to be on my own. If I promised not to answer the door or go off our property, what could possibly happen? Would reading too many books put me in danger? So my parents, with some reluctance, let me stay home by myself. My mother left sandwiches for lunch and I was allowed soda pop. Normally, I would have listened to the Beatles, and Broadway show recordings (I can still can do a fair number of Rex Harrison’s ‘songs’ from My Fair Lady) but in the early part of the summer I had a larger task.

My parents and I were a Nielsen family. We got a weekly log in which we were to record what we watched on T.V. The big event in the early summer of 1967 was the Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six Day War). All the networks were covering the debate at the United Nations. I recorded that I watched every minute of that debate.

I wanted the folks at Nielsen to know that I was a teenager deeply interested in world affairs. (The fact that information about names and ages wasn’t requested didn’t faze me.) And I did learn something. I learned that when U.N. delegates really despised each other they hid it under diplomatic language. No delegate called another a smarmy little worm. The language went like this: “If I might remind my distinguished, learned, honorable colleague…” That’s diplomatic lingo for smarmy little worm.

What was I really glued to? My hardcover copy of Dorothy Kilgallen’s Murder One.

Yes, while foreign intrigue featured on T.V., my book spoke of malice domestic. This was ,for my naive 15 year old self, hot stuff. I’m sure no 15 year old of today would turn a hair.

The trials Kilgallen covers span the 1930s to the 1960s and they all involve sex. Kilgallen has a way with a phrase. Describing Bernard Finch who is on trial for the murder of his wife: “Dr Finch at 40 had a lucrative surgical practice, was a ranking tennis amateur, and had a winning way with the ladies. He was, in short, notably successful both as a surgeon and an operator.”

In the case of “Greta Peltz,” who spices her love letters with bits of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, we are told that her defense attorney whispers this Lawrence into the record. Ms. Peltz admits to killing her lover because he raped her. She is acquitted it seems, not so much because of the rape, but because her lover asked her to perform repulsive sex acts. Ah, guilt in a more innocent time. There are also accounts of one case that very much resembles An American Tragedy and the first trial of Sam Shepard. I loved this book.

When my parents came home, I made sure to regale them with stories from the U.N. My mother knew what I was reading, but hadn’t read the book herself. Then one evening my father, no reader he, came home, picked up the book, and started leafing through it.

“You’re reading this?”


“Well as long as it doesn’t make you uncomfortable and you’re not bored.”

“No,” I assured him. “Never bored.”

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson