Monday, April 28, 2014

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and the Memoirs of Mike Welch

And the Return of Mike Welch...

Robert Knightly

I have just finished reading three of the four novels that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes: A STUDY IN SCARLET, THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. I’m halfway through THE VALLEY OF FEAR, and would like to finish it before I write this, but I can’t because I have to be done before my writing class tomorrow, and I am getting sleepy.

Anyway, reading the three and one-half novels has created two major impressions in me. One is that the real hero of the novels is Watson, in that he, through his devotion, provides a heart, and gives a heart for and to his friend Holmes. The real hero is certainly not deductive logic (a kind of old and ugly fellow who does not look too dashing in a deerstalker hat). I mean, who remembers how Holmes gets to the bottom of all these tangled cases? I don’t. I lose the thread usually before I am halfway through, and anyway, I kind of think deduction, what Holmes calls looking at effects and thinking backwards towards causes, has got severe limitations on it. I mean, causes can have many effects, and therefore (am I reasoning deductively here?) effects can have many causes. How does Holmes always know his backward reasoning is correct? Isn’t he just taking a stab in the dark, looking at evidence, at building blocks of a structure he calls a solution, and constructing a building in only one of many ways it could be built?

I don’t know, but without Watson, we have the 17th Century Enlightenment figure of Holmes with no Romantic relief, no yin for yang, so to speak. And Watson certainly is a romantic (he is always falling in love with some beautiful woman that comes calling on Holmes for help, and he certainly loves Holmes), and it is he, after all, who tells the stories. And they are romances, adventures, ripping good yarns (saving the Empire from rogues and rascals with a gentleman’s code of honor, with a little of Kipling’s White Man’s burden thrown in, along with a pro-capital stance so partial that the hero of “FEAR” is a Pinkerton), to be sure. And thank goodness Watson tells them! I mean, how stirring would Holmes’s description of the dreaded Hound be compared to that of Watson’s? Or the gloom on the Moor, or the city of London itself—diseased, miasmic, debauched: “the great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,” a city which threw “monster tentacles” into the surrounding suburbs.

And so Watson, stalwart (and less bumbling than as betrayed by Nigel Bruce in the series of 1940s British movies I remember watching on WOR, WPIX, and PBS on rainy Saturday afternoons as a kid) and loyal, gives us the romantic portrayal of the adventures.

Now, my memoir, the story of my depression, partakes of both Holmes and Watson. It certainly is a romance, or at least is concerned more with the heart than the brain, but telling it has required me to examine evidence and construct a theory or story of my experience.

And I have been ever aware that what I have deduced from the evidence of my life, the journey I have taken from effects back to (supposed) causes, the story I have told, is a tentative one at best. And others, I am sure, would tell the story differently. My parents, for example. The title of my mother’s story about my life would be: CHRONICLE OF A SELFISH SINNER. My Dad is a bit more verbose, and would have one of those Eighteenth Century titles like Defoe’s (which could take up a whole page and, for some reason, have a lot of semi-colons): Lessons from the Life of a Loser; That life being the callow and craven one of my very own son; Blood of my blood; The supreme disappointment of my life; Which disappointment (among other things) hath led me to the brink of despair.

Anyway, thinking this stuff through is giving me a headache. I am sure a good big bowl of tobacco, some cocaine and a little violin music would help get these rusty synapses firing, but I don’t have access to any of those, so bear with me.

I have an intuition I need to talk about the unconscious. Indeed, it occurs to me that intuition emerges to our waking selves through the unconscious (an intuition I just had about intuition). The unconscious, that place the noir tough guy detective must go to crack the case, is the place where his love for the femme fatale is clouding his vision, unable to see the culprit although she stands right before him (with lipsticked lips [and legs?] slightly parted). It’s her, you idiot, I want to yell, but I know I would be an idiot for a dame like that, too.

Holmes does not trust intuition, pays no heed to the unconscious, relies solely on his sanctified scientific method. It’s the same thing a lot of memoirists do, or tell themselves they are doing—just objectively telling the story (just the facts, m’am, we don’t need a god-damned editorial). Holmes says more than once that he mistrusts women, and if intuition is a female trait (it may not be, but it is instructive that in Holmes’s time most people thought it was) then the ultra-masculine analytical Holmes is no fan of it either.

What I am getting at is this (here’s the cause and effect of my reasoning, the dialectical syntheses of it all, my Holmesian criticism of Holmes himself): If there is always more than one theory that fits the evidence, especially the evidence of personality, and the unconscious exists, then we are biased to look for the evidence that satisfies our hidden desires, or avoids our hidden fears. It would behoove Holmes to give the unconscious some credit, to plumb its depths in himself and his criminals (of course, this may be hard to do with Aspergers). Perhaps as the result of an unconscious fear he has of them, he has a blind spot about women (they are simply creatures not to be trusted, amoral, but predictable like your pet cat who would probably eat you if you died alone with her in the house). Holmes could be seriously overmatched by a female super-fiend, but he never confronts one, because Doyle won’t, or can’t.

And it is my hypothesis that the memoirist also ignores the unconscious, at great risk. It is this kind of neglect that allows the bully to write themselves as a victim and for the victim to write themselves as never having collaborated with their tormentors; allows the grandiose to portray themselves as modest (see Mein Kampf and the autobiography of Arnold Schwarznegger); allows the supposed sinner to make a lurid and sinful display of his or her sinfulness.

Of course, at the base of my theory is a kind of optimism, a belief in the kinds of final solutions Homes is so fond of, a belief that we can plumb the depths of ourselves, to go into the basement where all those gibbering, capering mad things are, and bring them to heel, outwit the archfiend Moriarty in ourselves, once and for all find the thing out. And then have the guts to write about it.

Something of Doyle’s own unconscious is on display for all to see in these stories, I think. He has a need to apologize for the Empire, I think, and does it by creating a world where you are either a gentleman or a blackguard; a Christian or a heathen; an upright thrifty and cheerful capitalist who can tie a double Windsor and owns, never rents, his tux, or a bomb-throwing swarthy anarchist; a boy scout or a pedophile (I know, I see the irony there, believe me).

And still the stories thrill me, I must admit. I know they can be a bit juvenile in their plotting, and the characterizations of the good guys and the villains can be simplistic, and yet I come back to them, to the nighttime world of the “cesspool that is London” to see if Holmes can catch his man, with the help of dear Watson, who, after all, is also trying to catch his. And me, mine.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Steph’s Knee: The Final Frontier.

When I had my first orthopedic surgery in 1973, I was a mere twenty-one and, having been raised as a Christian Scientist, I knew next to nothing about medical matters. My idea of surgery was this. You went to sleep, doctors did their stuff and you woke up fresh as a daisy.

I was a college senior and I needed to finish up course work. I knew I would be in the hospital for a couple of weeks so I thought I could get some serious reading done. I brought the following books to the hospital: Paradise Lost, The Magic Mountain, Moby Dick and Selected Plays of Eugene O’Neill. You’ll recall that Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten are not laugh riots. My serious reading led to my being moved from a hospital ward to a private room. However, I didn’t read any of those books. The hospital was noisy. I was in pain. I’ve never quite acquired the knack of reading in bed.

My latest orthopedic surgery was about a month ago when I had a total left knee replacement. I spent a few days in the hospital (a social worker called to discuss my discharge plan a week before I was hospitalized) and two weeks in a very good rehab facility. But I’ve now had many orthopedic surgeries since my first and I’ve learned that Milton and morphia don’t mix.

Yes, I could spend my pre-op time worrying about surgical outcomes and how painful physical therapy might be (It smarts considerable) but it’s much more fun to obsess about what I might read. I don’t bring electronic devices to hospitals so I ditched my Kindle and went through my stock of mass market paperbacks. I put a whole pile of paperbacks where Bob could reach them. If one book didn’t work out he could bring another.

First, I tried a Maeve Binchy. I loved Light a Penny Candle and Echoes. I brought Whitethorn Woods with me to the hospital. Alas, after many attempts to lose myself in another world, I gave up. The lady next door to me who was attempting to smoke while she was on oxygen was much more interesting.

When I transferred to the rehab facility Bob brought a different set of books. I quickly seized on The Woman in White, one of my favorite novels. Surely, I could read this. How could I not be beguiled by multiple narrators and improbable plot twists? I made it through a couple chapters but went quickly to sleep.

I was well aware that the pain medication was interfering with my ability to read. I tripled my coffee intake. Normally if I want to get to sleep I can’t have coffee after about two in the afternoon. During my rehab stay I was drinking it at dinner time. Bob doesn’t like to see me bouncing off the walls in the evening. Luckily my hospital roommate thought me “bubbly and fun.”

Finally, I had some success. Dimly lit by caffeine, I picked up Christianna Brand’s
Suddenly in His Sleep. I’ve always liked Brand and this was a good old country mansion with eccentric family members who hate each other tale. I always feel vaguely at sea when I’m not reading a book so even though I was reading paragraphs rather than pages at a time, I was happy.

The nurse who was assigned to me in the evenings said to me, “Oh, I came in last night and you were sound asleep. I had to turn off the light and take off your glasses. I didn’t touch your book. I didn’t want to lose your place.”

That’s my kind of caregiver.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I put this picture up on Facebook yesterday morning to amuse my cousins. It's me and my sister, Liz, posing in our "formals" so that our mother could take a picture of our beautifulness for posterity. I blew it up a little when I scanned it in, and now I can see a number of things about this snapshot that aren’t immediately apparent in the little Kodachrome print.

First of all, my sister did not have a green neck. This effect is caused by a big thumbprint. When they tell you not to touch the front of a photograph it's for a good reason; skin oils, over the years, will spoil the colors. It’s my father’s thumbprint, I guess. Toward the end he forgot stuff, like how you’re not supposed to touch the front of a photograph. I found the picture in a pile of snapshots amongst his things.

The picture would have been taken in 1957, when I was a freshman at Douglass and my sister was a sophomore at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. I was home for the holidays, as you can see by the red ribbon in the background with all the Christmas cards pinned to it. My parents had many friends, my father many business associates, so they always got enough Christmas cards every year to go all around the living room archway.

Of whatever living room. During the years we spent in Arlington we had to move every year, because we rented houses from colonels who were posted to places like Panama for a year and then wanted their houses back. I’m looking at these bookshelves and thinking, yes, I know the books, all right, but I can’t remember ever seeing those shelves. What was our house like that year? Brick, I suppose. They were all brick in Arlington. I can’t remember the street address.

The elements of decoration I know well. We carried them from town to town every four years when I was growing up. They gave a comforting sameness to our different houses. The Currier and Ives picture is “Beauty Awake.” On the other wall, out of the frame, would be “Beauty Asleep,” a mirror image of the first one but with the eyes closed. My mother collected Currier and Ives pictures and other Victoriana, which she picked up at auctions in Illinois and New Jersey.

The chair I’m perching on is the famous Governor General’s Chair, a family piece of Canadiana dating back to the visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to Kingston, Ontario, where my great-great-grandfather was a big cheese, possibly the mayor. It was made by convicts, they say, for a ceremonial meeting between the prince and the Canadian head of state. How my forebear got hold of it, or what became of the prince’s special chair with the three feathers, are matters shrouded in mystery. The fuschia upholstery may have been original or it may have been commissioned by my great-aunt Ethel. I know my grandmother didn’t have the money to have that thing recovered. My mother did, though, and I did, so it’s been reupholstered twice since the fuschia brocade. Note the beaver carved across the top. No, it is not a rat.

The last and most bitter item I want to mention is my dress. My mother dragged me to Woodward and Lothrop to buy some clothes for college the summer before I went off to Douglass. I had never been to a prom and had never had a prom dress, unlike my sister, whose pretty yellow dress in this picture was bought to wear to an actual prom. In fact, I’d never been on a date. If I had had the choice of how to spend the money my mother paid for this wretched dress I would have bought a chic black-and-white tweed suit and got a lot more wear out of it. But my poor mother had dreams about how I would go off to college and finally meet someone who would be attracted to me, hopefully a boy, for as it happens she had begun to secretly fear that I was a (shudder) lesbian. Which I wasn’t, although the concept is much less threatening today than it was in 1957. So she dressed me as her heterosexual dream daughter.

I wore the dress once. Twice, if you count putting it on for this photograph.

Having the dress, I felt impelled to invite someone to the Douglass Christmas Ball. There was a fellow I was kind of sweet on. I called him at the fraternity house and asked him to go to the dance with me (cold sober, would you believe; it took all I was worth to sound nonchalant). A few years later we were married, fulfilling my mother’s dearest wish, at least until it all went south. But if it weren’t for that stinkin’ dress—!

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Illustrated Guide to the Rate of Change

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

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

The Cincinnati Public Library and its clientele 

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

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

He'll Turn Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is your worst feature?"

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

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

T. J. Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how could I not write about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thelma: Have you written suspense novels?

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

Thelma: What led you into writing mystery stories?

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

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

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

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

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

Thelma: What is your ultimate goal as a writer?

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Owning Your Baby

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

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

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

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

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

You may not name your little boy Sue.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Great American Crime Fighters

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

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

Here is a recent mug shot:

He allegedly shot these people to death:

A boy singer and his grand father

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, April 13, 2014

OOPS! The Wrong Things to Say to Mystery Readers

So Isobel Allende caused a bit of a stir earlier this year by aiming slighting words at mysteries as she was promoting her first foray into the genre—sort of. I’m not going to get into the whole controversy, but despite a bookseller sending back her autographed copies to the publisher and the reported outrage of mystery readers and writers, Ripper seems to be selling quite well. Of course if you’re going to raise a controversy regarding books, it’s a good idea to do it on National Public Radio since their audience is filled with people who buy books.

I’ve found that many writers can get themselves into trouble as they move from writing to talking, especially when they free associate about mysteries. At a Bouchercon years ago, a writer on a panel announced herself as winner of some book award for her first mystery. The panel went on pleasantly enough. It was the Q&A where it all went wrong. Someone in the audience asked the new award winner what advice she would have for aspiring mystery writers.

“Well, she offered, “can I just say I don’t read mysteries; I don’t like them. Somebody giving out awards decided my book was a mystery. So I got invited to this conference.”

The audience was quiet. And may I say I do not remember what the panel title was, but she repeated the phrase I’ve grown to loathe: “I don’t know why I’m on this panel.”

I wanted to rise from my seat and yell: “You’re on the panel so you can promote your book, but you’ve just blown that opportunity by telling a room full of people who have paid significant money to hear mysteries discussed that you don’t like the genre. Nice work!”

Reginald Hill, whom I still miss, was once on a panel with John Banville/ Benjamin Black. John Banville, the literary novelist, talked about how much easier he had it as Benjamin Black, mystery writer. “Banville produces 200 words a day; Black, 2000.”

Hill responded, “Yes, when I get up in the morning I say to my wife, 'What should I do today? Write a Booker prize winning literary novel or a best selling mystery?’”

Mystery writers write some of the best novels around today; there just happens to be a dead body at some point in the plot.

If you doubt me, try Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest Book.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, April 11, 2014


Nearly everyone I know who uses Yahoo! for an email provider has had the Yahoo! mail account hacked sometime in the last couple of years, strangers sending out messages over the rightful owner's signature. Russians (okay, Russians and others, let's not be bigots) get hold of the password and use the email account to distribute spam and malware. But you don't have to be on Yahoo!. It can happen to anybody. It happened to me, just last week, on my Host and Store account.

How I knew that this was going on was by the messages that bounced back from the "postmaster" of email, undeliverable, sent from my address. All in Cyrillic. The Russians, those clever devils, are at it again. Actually one of the messages was in Italian, but it was addressed to Yuri somebody-or-other. The message was clearly spam, couched in the form of a job offer: click here to get a good job and turn your life around. Right. I'll be sure to do that, right after I send the Nigerians my bank account number.

Anyway, as a result of having my email account hacked last week I changed my email password. It's a good idea to do that at regular intervals anyway, for all your passwords.

Then the news broke about Heartbleed, which isn't even a hack, or a virus, but a back door that somebody left open when they put the open-source security code together that's supposed to keep the hackers out of many sites. What it does is enable knowledgeable hackers to steal your passwords, maybe your Social Security number, maybe your bank account number, maybe your phone number. Does Host and Store use this open-source code for security? I don't even know. They were too small to be interviewed. I do know that they haven't re-upped the security certificate for my website, not since they've been handling it, so that I get a warning message every time I go to open my mail. But I digress.

Heartbleed. It's everywhere, almost. If you want to know about a particular site, here's a link you can use to inquire: Although it might not be entirely effective, given that it says that Host and Store's web site doesn't even exist. Bottom line, you might want to stay off the internet for another few days, and then change your passwords. If you change a password before a patch is in place, the hackers can get it right away anyhow, if they want to, or so say the knowing ones.

As for me, I recommend putting nothing out on the internet that you wouldn't want to see on a billboard in Times Square. That includes birthdays. You won't find my birthday on Facebook. I assume you wish me a happy birthday, whenever it is. I wish you one too. It'll be happier if criminals aren't stealing your identity.

Yours in paranoia,

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Where my characters tread

A friend recently described the characters in my novels as “treading a liminal path.”  Since I know my imaginary friends so well, I thought I knew what she meant, but I looked up the word.  Depending on what dictionary one uses, it has a number of meanings, but it always implies “at a threshold,” “between two worlds,” “between two states of mind.”

Once my friend raised the issue, I began to see that many of my characters live with one foot in each of two worlds.  Evita Duarte (later Peron) who figures prominently in Blood Tango, is a case in point.  Powerless as a child, a starving would-be actress until a few months before the story begins, Evita first appears in my story with her soul still angry at the deprivation she has had to bear.  But she is, at that point, also the mistress of the most powerful man in the nation, a successful radio personality, and a woman who has her clothes made by the most elegant modista in Buenos Aires.  Through the story, she struggles to keep her balance as the action shifts her from one foot to the other, as it were.

In my upcoming series, which begins with Strange Gods, due out in June, I consciously invented characters who did not fit easily into any group around them in the conflict fraught land they inhabit—the Protectorate of British East Africa, beginning in 1911.  The British have just begun to move in, with hopes of adding to their widening empire.  The local tribes have been at each other’s throats for eons.

Here is how my characters fell into my head when I first started to think about who they would be:

·      Captain Justin Tolliver, British constable—an idealistic but somewhat na├»ve, English policeman who will be the series detective.  He is bright, good at heart and very determined, but his British assumptions, his exaggerated sense of fair play and gentlemanly conduct, his knee-jerk belief in the superiority of the British way of life will get in his way.  As the series progresses, he will develop and mature and become more African than English.  This will jeopardize his position with those above in the British Administration.
·      Vera McIntosh (later Tolliver), his love interest in Book One, later his wife, the daughter of Scots missionaries, born in BEA, raised with black African children by a Kikuyu nanny.  She speaks Kikuyu and some Maasai.  She is very intelligent and logical, but often bungles relationships with the white settlers.  She is warier and more suspicious than Tolliver and often right about what is really going on.  But she is impatient.  Sometimes her headstrong belief in her own conclusions leads Tolliver’s investigations astray, just as Tolliver’s Anglo-centric assumptions trip him up.  Through the series she will have children and struggle with how to raise them as white Africans, but she will always wind up taking an active role in Tolliver’s investigations because he will rely on her superior knowledge of African ways.
·      Kwai Libazo, Tolliver’s top black African lieutenant.  Though he is very intelligent and often is the first to see the path to the truth, he is conflicted in that his allegiance is now supposed to be to the Brits and Tolliver, but his instincts are with the African tribesmen.  No one who knows what job he holds trusts him, not the Whites because he is black and not the Blacks because he represents British rule.  This position interferes with his ability to discover information, but because he is black and not known outside Nairobi or Mombasa, he can go undercover among blacks or get a job as a houseboy and spy on some suspect.

As I wrote the first story, my knowledge of the characters broadened and deepened.  And, without my knowing how, they became more and more people with one foot in each world.

Every once in a while, but only briefly, I wonder what it means about me—that my main characters always turn out to be so unsteady on their feet.   I can tell you this—when I talk about myself being in two worlds I often say that when I am in the USA, people think of me as Italian, but when I am in Italy, they  think of me as American.

I find I am not much motivated to analyze myself further than this.  I much prefer to put my fingers on my keyboard and see what kind of story my characters have to tell me about themselves.