Monday, June 30, 2014

My Writing Style

Donna Lagone is a fellow member of SinC's Upstate chapter, the Mavens of Mayhem. She's a Displaced Brooklynite like myself who lives with her husband and daughter in the Stockade District of Schenectady. She was for years a nurse at the Schenectady County Jail, as she was in Iraq during the War. REFLECTIONS, her first novel, got great reviews, so she's taken it on a world-wide Book Tour.

Tomorrow, by the way, is her birthday.

Robert Knightly

Every writer approaches his or her computer, tablet, typewriter, or yellow legal pad in a uniquely different manner. I have always been interested in how a writer writes.

The idea for the novel Reflection to be truthful came from a writing prompt placed on a table at the creative writing workshop I was attending by our instructor. There stood an assortment of photos, theatre tickets, shoes, a silver hand mirror, along with a large ornate hair comb. Seeing the hand mirror, I was captivated, the seeds were planted. Then again having an idea for a story is only the beginning of the journey.

Time, place, and characters, get to know them the easiest way for me is by creating a storyboard advice given by a dear colleague, I make lists;

Characters: I do a complete personality study not only for my main characters but also secondary as well. Appropriate names that fit into the time and place of the story, you do not want to name your protagonist Tippy if she was born in Mexico in the year 1881. What are their likes, dislikes, hair color, eye color, types of clothing, foods, careers, important times in your characters’ lives. I also do a physiological study (state of mind, reactions in certain situations, introverted, short tempered, or weak willed etc.)

Time: A timeline is very important, dates of birth, marriages, deaths and in addition what historic events were occurring during that era. Day to day occurrences especially in a murder mystery are extremely important, even hour to hour as the murder stalks his victim. Reflection, takes place from the year 1915 through to 1999 almost a century so the timeline line had to be spot on.

Place: Where is the story-taking place, real time in your neighborhood, or Mexico in the year 1915. It matters not where you place story, what matters is you the writer becomes at home with, the country, neighborhood or planet for that matter your story is set in. I was fortunate to live in Mexico but not during the time of my story. I had to re-familiarize myself with the culture, travel, religion, and Mexican family life a century ago.

Research: Research, research, research if your information is flawed you will lose credibility with your reader and do not think you may creak by unseen. Some reader will know if your facts are correct no matter how obscure the topic. Research is fun still it must not become your focus, it is the means to an end, hopefully. This information is tacked on the storyboard and not all material is used in the story. It is there for my thought process only.

Now is the time to put pen to parchment and write.

I puke write, now I know that is not a lady like term yet that is what I do. I write whatever I have planned for the day if it is two or four chapters I write them. Ideas and creativity, conversation with characters and yes we chat, mostly they are telling me how to write their story, I find let lost in the mechanics of editing. I am disciplined and write up to six hours a day with Wednesday and Sunday off for good behavior. After puking for six hours the next day I go back with a fresh eye and edit, still trying to keep at bay the opinions of my characters. Editing and revisions are ongoing and good example of that is; I thought I knew the ending of my novel until it came time to write it. I woke up in the middle of the night and said no it cannot end that way, I tend to get my ideas at odd times and places more than I like to confess. I knew the ending now and went down to my office at three o’clock in the morning to write it. The next day I realized the new ending had been alluded to throughout the whole story without my knowledge on the other hand my protagonist obviously knew cheeky devil.

I am comfortable with my style of writing, it fits my chaotic life yet I am always open to change and finding new ways of putting pen to parchment and weaving an intriguing tale.

Donna Lagone

“Fast Talking Woman”

I’m a fast talking woman,
Tough, Strong,
Hey Mom, Hey Hon,
Cut to the chase.
A healer to the wounded and broken,
Fighter, counselor to the forgotten,
It’s OK, need a place to stay?
I am a fast talking woman.
 Perfect, flawed, young, old,
“Woman with Yellow Hair”
 Spirit from long past, a Crone,
A traveler who loves a cheerful hearth,
Come on let’s go, time is on loan,
I’m a fast talking woman,
With a heart that flies
And tears in her eyes.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Strong Women Fight Back - Crime Novels by Mike Lawson, Margaret Mendel and Tina Glasneck

Readers of crime fiction are often glued to pages where a woman struggles against forces that try to destroy her very existence.

Today's headlines all around the world describe terror against women of all ages, religions, ethnic/national backgrounds.

  • Rape and sexual violence in conflicts from the Balkans to Africa.
  • A recent conference in London of over 120 countries brought dozens of men and women, including John Kerry and Angelina Jolie, to discuss ways to prosecute sexual violence globally.
  • In New Delhi a 19-year-old woman was raped, murdered and hanged by her scarf from a tree. Other women were gang-raped, murdered and hung from trees by their saris.
  • American-born teenagers of Somali descent in Atlanta and Seattle escaped family trips back to other nations to avoid the cutting of genitalia - called "vacation cutting"—to "help them connect with their families and traditions." A former Wells Fargo banker, cut as an infant and again at age 15, is trying to raise the conscience of Americans to help our fellow citizens in this unspeakable tradition! Even today, not being cut can limit a girl's chances of marriage and isolate her from her community—in the United States!
  • Mass sexual assaults on women take place in Cairo's Tahrir Square
  • Women are smuggled into the United States from Mexico and forced to work in a network of brothels in New York City, or shuttled to farms in New Jersey, where they are forced to have sex with up to 25 migrant workers a day!
  • Sex traffickers run sex mills of women in Newburgh, NY, Queens, Poughkeepsie, Yonkers, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long island City, Philadelphia and the Bronx.

Three contemporary American crime writers, Mike Lawson, Margaret Mendel and Tina Glasneck, have recently published books with a strong woman protagonist who fights for a better life.

I am honored to share a brief introduction of each writer with you, followed by their own thoughts about their female protagonists.

1. Mike Lawson, raised in Colorado, worked for the U.S. Navy nuclear power program, then wrote a series of over 8 crime novels set in Washington, D.C., with a recurring cast of characters. His protagonist, Joe DeMarco, a lawyer who has never practiced law, is a charming bagman for a devious, aging Speaker of the House. Recently, Mike began a new series, writing as M.A. Lawson, about a strong female named Kay Hamilton. The first book, Rosarito Beach, is set in the Mexican border region, the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and the federal lockup in San Diego.

Lisa Scottoline writes, "A new star in crime fiction, the tough-minded and tough-talking DEA Agent Kay Hamilton, a renegade who welcomes risk and doesn't play well with others. She handles ruthless drug cartels, crooked cops, and government politics with guts and attitude, but nothing prepares her to take on her greatest risk yet—one involving the human heart!"

"Rosarito Beach grabs you by the throat… and then there's Agent Hamilton. I fell for her on the first page."—Jeffrey Deaver

Mike's new book House Reckoning comes out July 2. "A fine thriller with a tense, twisting plot and a sociopath villain worthy of a seat in the House." (Booklist)

2. Margaret Mendel, a former member of the MWA-NY Board, and member of Sisters in Crime, a West Coast native, now a Manhattan transplant, best known for her superb photography, has been published in Sisters in Crime collections of short stories.

Her novel, Fish Kicker, features a young single mother in the Alaskan wilderness, struggling against the harsh winter, a history of alcohol abuse and her fight to get her daughter back. The author presents a consistent, carefully-coordinated hostile background of man and nature, as the young Sharon Wolf fights her way—difficult step by difficult step—to get her life back on track against formidable odds. Personal demons, rough criminals, harsh terrain—all lie in her path. But she pushes ahead in a dark world to pick up the pieces of her splintered life and finally trudges up the mountain of her life to a better place. This author weaves an incredible net of unrelenting pain and agony as the young mother passes from darkness into light, from being a victim to becoming a victor.

3. Tina Glasneck, a member of Sisters in Crime, the James River Writers and Romance Writers of America, is from Richmond, Virginia. She uses her own early life experiences as well as her work as a criminal paralegal to spin heart-wrenching tales of murder, mayhem and mystery. A graduate of a Citizen's Police Academy, she has first-hand knowledge and insight of a dark world. She served as an intern for Commonwealth Attorney David Hicks, where her love of research and gruesome case files factored into her decision to write crime fiction. She found she had to "find the boundary between heart-wrenching empathy and dehumanizing numbers when she encountered tragedy." Her empathy comes from her religious background with a Master's Degree in Theology.

Her first book, Thou Shalt Not, was based on real life—a troubled client threatened to harm Tina and her co-workers. She later enrolled in the Citizen's Police Academy to learn more about law enforcement. "The class was like caffeine for a coffee addict," she said.

For several years she bounced ideas off her husband, Christian, acting out fight scenes with spatulas and tongs while making dinner!

Tina says books offered escape from the day-to-day realities of living in Richmond public housing as a child. She attributes her love of books to years of checking out books with her mother at the Hull Street library branch, often checking out 10 books at a time!

Her book that I chose for this blog is Angels Cry, a dark, hard-edged suspense novella on the issue of human trafficking and body brokering, a practice that is the second fastest growing criminal industry, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tina's goal is to provide her readers with tales filled with murder, mystery or mayhem, highlighting that an absolute good or evil does not exist!

"Tina Glasneck spins dark tales. She creates characters with secrets."

In Angels Cry, the protagonist, Charlotte "Charlie" Palmer, is abandoned by her undercover cop husband. She is then caught up in a world of nightmare, her life taken over by a way of life she may not be able to escape from—alive… The author's comment on this book is prescient. "We think about human trafficking, we think about larger cities with worse reputations, we think about foreign and faraway places. Most of us never consider that it could be happening in our own backyards."

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

First, I want to thank Ms. Thelma Straw for inviting me to contribute to her blog about strong female protagonists.

The protagonist in my novel, Rosarito Beach, is a doesn’t-play-well with others DEA agent named Kay Hamilton. The stripped down version of the plot is that Kay sets her sights on bringing down the brother of the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, she arrests him, then someone close to Kay is kidnapped to force her to free the guy. Kay, who’s fearless, extracts herself from the situation with some violence, a bit of luck, and a little sex.

The funny thing about the book is that I didn’t have some sort of master plan to write a novel with a female protagonist. I’ve published nine political thrillers, and the protagonist in those books is a guy named DeMarco who’s basically a fixer for a corrupt congressman. In those books, DeMarco has a friend named Emma who’s somewhat like Kay: intelligent and strong and tricky. Well, what happened is that a television producer loves the Emma character in my DeMarco novels – likes her even better than my hero DeMarco – and he asked me to write a screenplay, a thriller for television, with a female protagonist sort of like Emma. The TV thing never happened, I never finished the screenplay, but instead I ended up writing Rosarito Beach.

What I like about Kay is that she’s flawed—and I like flawed heroes. - On the positive side of the ledger, Kay is smart, tough, sexy, and brave. She has a sense of humor. She’s willing to take big risks. - She’s loyal to people (but not organizations). On the negative side, she’s stubborn and uncompromising; she’ll isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong; she makes mistakes both personally and professionally; and she’s so driven that she can be a tad insensitive. (Well, okay, maybe more than a tad.) I’m hoping readers will like Kay not only because of the way she overcomes the deadly issues she faces in Rosarito Beach, but because she overcomes some of her own flaws to ultimately do the right thing.

Kay will be starring in a sequel to Rosarito Beach called Viking Bay, which will be released in January 2015. In this novel, she’s no longer with the DEA—she was fired in Rosarito Beach—and finds herself in a literally explosive political situation in Afghanistan.

Mike Lawson

Strong female characters have always intrigued me. So, it was no surprise that a character and story line began to develop when my sister, who lives in Alaska, told me about a woman she met in a fish cannery who earned a living by kicking fish off the bed of pickup trucks in a local fish cannery on the Kenia Peninsula. The image of a woman wearing heavy rubber boots, standing atop a mess of salmon gnawed at me until I had a clear picture of my protagonist, Sharon Wolf, and I was off and running into the life of a FISH KICKER.

Initially, FISH KICKER started out as a short story about a woman living on the edge, alone, struggling with sobriety, no home, camping in the Alaskan wilderness, and working as a fish kicker. The story was published in an online journal, The response to the story was positive, but the readers told me they wanted to know more about what happened to Sharon. I, too, was not satisfied with where I’d left her, on the move, with no clear destination and nothing to anchor her to the planet except the desire to stay away from alcohol, get out of the reaches of a psychotic killer who thinks she witnessed him commit a murder, and wondering if she’d ever get her daughter out of foster care.

I’ve heard writers tell about how characters take the author by the hand and together they write a novel. Well, that’s kind of how FISH KICKER, the novel, was created. Sharon Wolf did not come to me fully formed, but I knew she’d made a mess of her life and with no clear way out of what she had created, it was obvious to me that she was determined not to go back to her old ways.

Frequently I have said that the job of an author is to mess up the lives of their characters and then spend a couple hundred pages straightening things out. I guess I can do this because I have a strong conviction that even in the worst of circumstances, making the right decisions and digging down into that place where the positive resides, the lowly, the lost, the downtrodden, can eventually survive and achieve.

I had a lot of pleasure writing Sharon’s story, tinkering with her life, throwing everything at her but the kitchen sink, and then watching her bounce back. She fought against taking another drink. She learned to trust others, though swallowing her pride did not come easily. When she found herself and her daughter’s life in danger, Sharon managed to use every ounce of her inner resources to overcome the threat.

When the reader has finished the last page of FISH KICKER I want them to come away feeling as though they experienced a triumph, that if Sharon can do this, anyone can. I want the reader to cheer her on, to want Sharon to achieve, and to feel good about her self.

But this is not the last you’ll see of Sharon Wolf. She still has many stories to tell, more obstacles to overcome and more triumphs to be proud of.

You can visit my website at I’m an avid photographer so expect to see a lot of photographs on my blog which I refer to as ‘Reflections’.

Margaret Mendel

Tina Glasneck is currently recuperating from a recent auto accident and will join us later this summer with her own contribution to Crime Writers' Chronicle. We all wish her a full and speedy recovery!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Little Dogs

I left our little town of Lambertville, aka Dogburg, last Tuesday to go and party with Annamaria Alfieri at the Mysterious Bookshop in the big city, aka Gotham, in celebration of the release of Strange Gods, her latest book and the first in a new series. This time I took the bus, since driving home from Hamilton in the middle of the night seemed more than I was willing to deal with. The bus goes to the Port Authority Terminal straight from Lambertville. No worries.

I've started calling it Dogburg because so many dogs live in town these days. We have more dogs than children. I find that sort of sad. But, be that as it may, the close proximity of all these canines enables me to observe their social interactions. Have you ever noticed the way a small dog on a leash or behind a window will bark hysterically at passing big dogs? "Arf! Arf! I'll kill you! I'll kill you! If only my human would let me off this leash I would tear your throat out!"

I was minded to think of this as I stood on a street corner in New York City waiting for a light to change. A young man was crossing in the crosswalk, strolling along, intent on the music playing through his earbuds. The weather being warm, he wore a wife-beater shirt that showed off his extraordinarily well-developed body—somewhere between that of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and Hulk Hogan on extra steroids—and his tasteful, monochromatic tattoos. He may have been humming to himself. I couldn't say. You know how noisy it is in the city. You can hardly hear anything.

Suddenly a small red car came tearing around the corner intending to drive where the muscular man was walking. This was not possible, due to some basic law of physics. The driver, a weasely little fellow, became enraged at the sight of the big muscular man and began to curse at him loudly, hanging out the window and shaking his fist. It was a startling exhibition, the sort of thing I've not seen in Lambertville, at least not from a human.

The muscular man ignored him and strolled on. If he'd wanted to he could have picked up the little red car, driver and all, and flung it someplace out of earshot. But the big dogs don't have to do things like that.

You'll be happy to know that I got to the launch party safely, enjoyed myself, and went home again with a signed copy of Strange Gods. Now I'm going to settle down and read it. Looks like a winner.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Add Some Mystery to Your Summer Vacation: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Part II

At the Edgar Awards on May 1, I was by pure chance seated at the same table with two charming representatives of the mystery world: Jaime Fawcett & Chris Semtner — respectively Executive Director and Curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. I could hardly believe my luck. The Edgars — The Oscars of mystery writing, named after the writer who invented the detective story — and I get to sit with two of the people who know the most about him. I asked them if they would guest blog, and they enthusiastically accepted.

Chris guest-blogged with us last month (May 29).

Today, it's Jamie's turn. 

Elmira Royster Shelton's Albumen Print Carte de Visite. Elmira was one of Poe's early loves.

The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, tells the story of Poe’s life and legacy.  For over 90 years, hundreds of thousands of visitors have visited the museum, seeking inspiration and motivation from the largest collection of Poe memorabilia and manuscripts in the world.  The museum is a popular place for mystery writers, poets, and academics, including such notables of the past as Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and H.P. Lovecraft.

A first edition manuscript of The Purloined Letter from the museum's collection.

Poe is easily one of the most recognizable authors in the literary world.  As an iconic image, admirers feel they “know Poe”.  

What we find, in fact, is that most visitors are originally attracted by Poe’s dark caricature.  Popular culture has portrayed Poe in hues of black, purple, and gray, while images of sinister black cats and dilapidated mansions usually fill the mind’s eye.

Certainly Poe’s real-life circumstances lend themselves to gloomy interpretation.  To say Poe led a difficult life is an understatement.  He was orphaned at three years old.  He lost his mother, foster mother, brother and wife to tuberculosis.  He was in constant financial distress.  He even died in tragic and mysterious circumstances, adding an ironic end for the Master of Macabre.

But as visitors to the Poe Museum soon discover, Poe’s historical figure is far more intricate than Poe’s caricature.  To really understand Poe’s genius, one has to appreciate the balance between “historical Poe” and “Poe the legend”. 

Poe’s real genius is that he was a brave writer.  Poe explored every human experience and emotion, and he expressed his observations with such resonance that his readers are left emotionally immersed in the story. 

He tried to live entirely by his craft, though he was largely unsuccessful due to the lack of international copyright laws.

Of Poe’s 70 short stories, only 15 actually fit into the gothic horror genre upon which his caricature is based.  Often drawing on current events and scientific achievements of the time, Poe pushed the boundaries of 19th century literature into the arenas of detective fiction, natural science, satire, and science fiction.

The Poe Museum’s Memorial Building is dedicated to Poe’s writing legacy.  Copies of first editions and manuscripts are on display, and visitors can explore the variety of Poe’s influence in American literature in depth.   

One exhibit explores Poe’s influence as the Father of the Detective Story. Through his character, the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe introduced new methods of analysis and deduction.  Calling it “ratiocination,” Dupin creatively solves crimes by putting himself in the mind of the criminal in a series short stories, “The Mystery of  Marie Roget,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and the “The Purloined Letter.” 

This innovative technique laid the groundwork for the detective fiction genre we know today.  Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, credited Poe as a writing inspiration – and Poe even earns a mention in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

To round out Poe as a historical figure, Poe’s clothing, trunk, and walking stick are also on display, providing guests with a sense of who Poe truly was.  

The Poe Museum is the perfect place for the aspiring mystery writer.  Find your own literary inspiration at the Poe Museum this summer.  Check out our website at  

Virginia’s first literary museum, the Poe Shrine (the original name of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum) opened in 1922 with a weekend of events held in what was then its newly planted Enchanted Garden. Two years later, the Poe Shrine commissioned the London firm Raphael Tuck and Sons, Publishers to the King and Queen, to immortalize the garden in a series of postcards. The artist S. Shelton produced the series pictured here.

The Garden Club of Virginia has begun a restoration of the Enchanted Garden based on these cards.

Jaime at the Edgars with Dan Stashower, who won an Edgar Award that night for Best Fact Crime for The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

Sheila York

Copyright 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014

Revisiting NYPD Past with Theodore Roosevelt

Last week I did a book review at the Albany Public Library. I’ve spoken there a half-dozen times, mostly about my own books and on one other occasion reviewing a biography of Clarence Darrow. Both times, I have to thank the Friends of the Albany Public Library (average age about sixty-five, I estimate) for prompting me to finally read a book I already owned that languished unread on the shelf among all the other Unreads. For the same reason they asked me to do Clarence Darrow (one criminal mouthpiece to another), they tapped me for Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zachs. Roosevelt was appointed on May 6, 1895 as President of the four-member Police Commission that ran the New York City Police Department. Tasked by Republican reformers to put the New York cops back on the straight-and-narrow, after thirty years of Tammany Mayors memories must have been vague as to when that last was.

In 1895, New York City was largely the island of Manhattan and “some parts of the Bronx”—which parts weren’t specified, but here’s a lament from a Bronx patrolman: “The next time I get that post I’ll demand an axe to hew a path through the forest, with a locomotive headlight to illumine the way, and a dozen red sky rockets to send up for assistance in case I fall into some gully or get tangled up in the jungles north of 180th Street.” (That’s how cops spoke of Staten Island in the 1970s.) The boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island did not merge into one New York City until 1898.

When Roosevelt (“TR”) took office, the City had 3,800 policemen in 38 Precincts, watching over two million people crammed into a dozen square miles, connected by a 5-cent cable car ride and four massive elevated train lines running north-south on Second, Third, Sixth and Ninth Avenues. Physically, the City was recognizable but different. Madison Square Garden was a yellow-and-white edifice on East 26th Street, atop which perched on her tiptoes, a 13-foot gilded copper statue of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, lit up at night by 50 Edison Lamps, spun naked on perfectly balanced ball bearings, telling City dwellers which way the wind blew. At Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, the Croton Distributing Reservoir occupied the site of the future New York Public Library. No automobiles. Instead, “Tens of thousands of horses, carriages, wagons, public horse and cable cars, but not a single traffic light or stop sign and vehicles could ride in any direction on any street, no faster than 5-miles-per-hour.” No traffic cops. Horse thieves abounded in NYC; outlaw stables where horses’ coats were quick-dyed, tails clipped and wagons repainted, presaged the coming of the chop-shops of the 1970s.

More than 30,000 prostitutes worked daily from the upscale Tenderloin district (a 2-block-wide swath along Broadway from 23rd to 42nd Streets) to impoverished Russian Jewish girls charging 50-cents down on Eldridge St. In the tiny 9-square-block 11th Precinct on the Lower East Side, 250,000 mostly Polish and Russian Jews, lived and labored. Their pushcarts filled Hester, Allen, Chrystie, Forsyth, Delancey, Grand and Houston Streets, far as the eye could see seven days a week. Pushcart men paid a few dollars for the privilege of remaining stationary, to not have to move on every ten minutes as local law mandated; Italian bootblacks paid for prized corners and shined police shoes free. You could get a drink, and more, in the 250 saloons and 50 brothels in the 11th Precinct, even on Sunday. Especially on Sunday, the workingman’s only day-off.

Big Bill Devery, Captain of the 11th Precinct, plainly stated his view of such enterprises in his domain: “Take a payoff, let the people enjoy themselves.” Devery charged each brothel a $500 initiation fee and $50 a month; method of payment was “the police handshake,” a $50 bill palmed and passed. Saloons, gambling halls, pool rooms paid to stay open. It was this business as usual in every Precinct. Into this Sea of Iniquity, strode Theodore Roosevelt, on the arm of the Rev. Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church on East 24th Street, a hop, skip, and a jump from TR’s ancestral mansion on East 20th. Rev. Parkhurst, the Prophet Jeremiah of the Republican Reform Movement, and TR who said, “Nothing must stand in the was of enforcement of the law.” Two peas in a pod on a Holy Crusade.

During the sweltering summer of 1895, TR succeeded in closing down practically all the City’s 8,000 saloons on Sundays, for the only time in residents’ memory. During the first fourteen months of his term, TR succeeded principally in that, although the NYPD followed his lead less slavishly in shuttering brothels and gambling parlors, as witnessed by the Department trials and firings of scores of policemen. (None of whom went to jail, however.) By the following summer of 1896, the Republican-controlled Legislature in Albany had had enough, as did a thirsty City. New York State’s Sabbath Law (an Excise Tax Law), on the books since 1857, forbade attending baseball games, horse races and theatre on Sunday, as well as the buying of most anything, especially alcohol. The newly-passed Raines Law, ostensibly even harsher on its face, primarily raised fees and taxes on premises licensed to sell alcohol, while providing an unanticipated boon to the City’s saloon keepers. Private clubs (like TR’s Union League) and ”hotels with 10 rooms or more” could sell alcohol to guests with a meal seven days a week. A construction boom was thereby launched that added 10 rooms to every saloon in the City that had ready access to hammer, saw and nails. A Tammany Hall Judge helpfully ruled that “a meal” could consist of a single sandwich, thus giving birth to the “Raines Law sandwich,” described by playwright Eugene O’Neill as “an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese.” Never consumed, only one was legally required to be kept on the premises.

In April 1897, Roosevelt decamped with relief from the NYPD to his new job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in President William McKinley’s Administration. TR had tirelessly importuned his friend and Harvard classmate, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, to rescue him from his pickle. In May, 1898, the new Police Board chose Captain Big Bill Devery, TR’s bête noire, as Chief of Police. As author Richard Zachs observes: “…despite one of the most concerted efforts in the history of New York City to crack down on whoring, gambling and after-hours drinking, all three somehow thrived.” As epitaph, Abe Hummel, an infamous criminal lawyer of the day, said it best: ”Roosevelt’s tombstone should read: ‘Here lies all the civic virtue there ever was.’”

Robert Knightly

Sunday, June 22, 2014


I had my first haircut in ten months last week. Knee pain and knee surgery kept me away from Lisa, my hairdresser of 36 years. My first appointment with Lisa occurred when I was 26 and she was 19. She was engaged then. She now has 2 grown sons and is married to the same man. Though she works in very fancy places, she remains warm and cosy. She knows I like wash and wear hair and she never lets me try anything that’s too complicated. She knows I don’t like to be away from my reading for too long.

When I first moved to Philadelphia I went to a much touted salon. The male owner had a magnificent mane and artfully arranged chest hair. He was surrounded my many young female hairstylists. I always imagined that they were drowned at about the age of 23. The young ladies proffered glasses of wine and plates of salad, but the cost of the haircut went up each time I went in (“Sorry lost an election bet” was one excuse) so I decided to look elsewhere.

A friend recommended Lisa and the rest is history. She’s seen me through numerous job interviews, some parties, and my wedding. She was the first to tell me I was going gray.

Now she works in a small salon that is part of a spa in a fancy hotel. It has taken some getting used to for all concerned. The place is dark. I don’t know how gloom got associated with relaxation. There are exhortations to relax everywhere. I was dismayed to note that the lamp on an end table is really just for show. The lighting is so low I have to develop a sort of sprawl in order to read.

“I told them my customers read,” Lisa said. “But they don’t listen.”

Sometimes I overhear interesting conversations. Two blonde and tanned women in toweling robes sat next to me one week.

“So are you guys coming out with any new products?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, how long can you continue to sell crotchless underwear and flavored gel?”

I won’t keep you in suspense. The answer is “not long.”

At the end of every appointment, the receptionist asks me, “And how was your visit today?”

And every time I say, “The haircut was great but I’ve been in funeral homes that were livelier.”

But there are fun times to be had. During one appointment I found out that Lisa brought in a recording of a bunch of old songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I did a duet with one of her colleagues on “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

Light was streaming into the salon. I was happy. I didn’t have to be ordered to relax and I knew all the words.

Sometimes life is very good.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Wounded Auto

Apropos of Annamaria's encounter with an evil New Jersey driver on Wednesday, I was moved to meditate on the bumps and dings my little Corolla has collected over the past few years. Some have been fixed, and some are still decorating it, like cunning dimples on its bird-doo dappled skin. But none of them came from driving in New York City. Nothing could induce me to drive it in New York City. I will drive through Hartford sometimes, because you have to. I’ve been known to make my way from one end of Philadelphia to another behind the wheel of a car, cursing and trembling the whole way. Once I tried to drive in Pittsburgh with the aid of a spiteful, ignorant GPS, which sent me down a funnel-like construction site until I could go no further. But I never drive in Gotham. I plan to take public transportation to Annamaria's launch party next Tuesday for Strange Gods.

Curiously, most if not all of the bumps and dings on my car happened while it was stock still, parked in front of my house, with nobody in it. The first hit came from an ornamental pear tree, since deceased. Harold and I were sitting on our porch, watching a storm come in, when a sudden gust of wind tore a big leafy limb right off the pear tree and threw it on the car. It was a huge limb, almost half the tree, but luckily the heaviest part didn't fall right on the car. Harold got in and drove out from under the tree limb with a strange scraping sound like fingernails on a blackboard. The damage, luckily, was minimal, consisting mostly of crinkles and dimples on the roof of the car. They're still there.

Then there was the construction truck that sideswiped the car, again, parked, when they were leaving after finishing some work at the neighbors' house. A minor blemish, I would have said, but the body work estimate came in at $1,300. We got the check from the construction company's insurance people some months later, coincidentally the same day that a bill came from my dentist for roughly the same amount. The car is still dented, but, hey, my teeth look great.

A few weeks ago it happened again. Someone sideswiped my car while bumping and grinding out of a parking place. Our plumber saw the whole thing and took down the plate number of the miscreant, who left the scene. Harold called the Lambertville police. Officer O'Rourke arrived to write up the report. He gave me his business card in case there were any questions, and I tucked it into the plastic sleeve along with the registration and insurance card.

This was the very plastic sleeve I presented to the officer who stopped me on Route 29 after the New York MWA meeting, when I was creeping along at twenty-seven miles an hour to keep from hitting midnight deer and hobgoblins. He seemed quite surprised to find the officer's card there. "How do you know Michael O'Rourke?" I had the feeling he expected me to say something interesting, but since I try never to say anything interesting to officers of the law, I told him the boring story I just told you. He seemed satisfied, and let me go with a warning not to drive so slowly. Any day now I'll go down and get a copy of the police report, file an insurance claim, and actually get the dent fixed. Probably. I do wonder whether there's some way I could use Officer O'Rourke's card for some unfair personal advantage.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Jersey Driver Stole My Homework

No apologies for my slur agains NJ:  I was born and brought up there.  I learned to drive there.  So don't get on my case for what I am about to say.

My husband always referred to Jersey drivers as "the yellow peril," which used to be a pejorative for one our the USA's major enemies in World War II.  Now it refers to the color of the license plates on the cars being driven by people who just do NOT know how to drive in New York City.

I used to attribute the problem to the fact that in NJ drivers take their "road test" on an isolated driving course, and not in actual real-life traffic, as New York State residents do.  At least that's the way it was when I took my road test a millennium ago.

So there I was, stopped for a red light, having just come through the Lincoln Tunnel, thinking of the fact that I had three hours before dinner--plenty of time to write my blog for today.  No problem.  And then--


He just banged into the back of my car.

I remained calm.  I got out so I could see the damage and waived him over to the curb.  He wife was yelling at him.  He was looking at her, not me.  Eventually I got his attention.  This little incident has consumed enough time for me to have written 2.7846 blogs.  I offer you these photos in lieu of what I would have otherwise said.  I had planned to write about the Sicilian Vespers--a night in 1200-and-something, when people of my ethnic ilk slit the throats of people who were in the territory when they didn't belong there.  (This is the EXACT truth.)

What he did to my car.  The foot in the sneaker is the one that should have been on the brake.

What he did to his wife's car.

Next week, shameless self-promotion concerning the launch next Tuesday of Strange Gods.   After that, the Sicilians will get out their knives.  By then the car should also be fixed.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Alafair Burke on Writing and the Law

Alafair Burke - American Crime Novelist, Professor of Law, Legal Commentator… and a Downright Nice Person!

Along with hordes of other readers, I'm storming the gates this week to get my copy of ALL DAY AND A NIGHT!

IF YOU WERE HERE had me glued to the pages. Its back-cover blurb expressed my own thoughts: "Blistering. As carefully plotted as a surgeon's heart transplant!"

With a Phi Beta Kappa key, honors from Stanford Law and the Order of the Coif under her belt, Alafair Burke is, according to Harlan Coben, "A major talent!"

Michael Connelly says "She's got what it takes!"

So what is in this talented writer's future besides crime bestsellers?

  • To qualify eventually for a senior LPGA tour!
  • To provide a loving home (with Sean her husband) for two adorable four-legs - Bogey Duffer Burke Simpson (known as Double) and newcomer Frannie.

I'm delighted to share with you Alafair's responses to my questions on her writerly life.

T. Jacqueline Straw

photo by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Thelma: What sparked this intriguing plot?

Alafair: This book isn’t based on any single case but on a phenomenon. With more than 300 exonerations through new DNA evidence, we are in an era where the once unthinkable is now undeniable: We convict the innocent, we imprison the innocent; we place the innocent on death row.

In this book, Detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner, JJ Rogan, are asked to serve as a “fresh look” team, essentially re-investigating the evidence against a convicted serial killer named Anthony Amaro who is serving a life sentence without parole. I thought that putting Ellie—a true blue cop who now lives with a prosecutor—at the center of a wrongful conviction case could show us a new side of her. Maybe she’d even learn something about her job and the people she works with.

In a way, I’ve probably wanted to write this book for more than a decade. The first murder case I worked on as a prosecutor wasn’t even a prosecution. My job was to help my office get two innocent people released after the real killer exonerated them. It was absolutely fascinating to see, with the benefit of hindsight, the bizarre turns of events that had led to their convictions. As a law professor, I write about some of the causes of wrongful convictions and the role that police and prosecutors can play in them, whether wittingly or not. I don’t think anyone sets out to convict an innocent person, but we’ve learned that there are red flags in the process: leading interrogations, single eyewitness identifications without reliable checks, faulty scientific evidence. Sometimes it just boils down to tunnel vision: once police think they have the right guy, they continue to process every new piece of evidence through that lens.

Thelma: What came first… the characters, the plot, the actual puzzle?

Alafair: The character of Carrie Blank came first. She’s a young defense attorney whose half-sister was a stripper and a drug addict and was one of Amaro’s victims. She agrees to represent Amaro because she believes it’s the only way to make sure the police got the right man for her sister’s murder.

But working on this case brings Carrie back to her hometown of Utica and all the guilt she feels for escaping the rough neighborhood where she was raised. Years ago, I read a lengthy New York Times article calling attention to how difficult it is to break out of class barriers in this country. The article focused on three girls from poor families who were close friends and academic super-stars. Despite getting college scholarships, they all struggled to get through school. They had family obligations, distractions, and a hard time fitting into college culture. Carrie’s backstory grew out of that article.

Thelma: I confess I am most drawn to your standalones. Anything on the near horizon?

Alafair: I am just starting a new standalone this week! I’m really excited about it. But that’s all I’m saying for now.

I also have a book coming out in November that is co-authored with Mary Higgins Clark. It’s called THE CINDERELLA MURDER and is the start of a series based on Mary’s #1 bestseller, I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN.

Thelma: Do you map out a plot in advance - or are you what they call a pantser?

Alafair: Oh, I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. But I usually don’t start writing until I have a good sense of the main characters and their motivations. It’s amazing how well that groundwork can lead you on the plotting journey.

Thelma: What kinds of scenes do you get a real kick out of doing?

Alafair: I love banter. I love fast-talking, quippy, dialogue-driven movies where all the characters are sharp-tongued and quick-witted. My favorite scenes are when Ellie is verbally sparring (in jest, of course, and as sport) with her brother Jess or her parter, JJ Rogan.

Thelma: Why did you start writing novels? You have had a brilliant career in law.

Alafair: I was already a big reader, especially of crime fiction. When I was the District Attorney’s Office in Portland (in the 90s), I got an idea for a book and became yet another lawyer who wanted to write a novel. When I moved to New York, I took a summer off to study for the bar. I figured I’d go ahead and start that book while I was at it. It took me three years to finish. By then, I was a law professor. Much to my delight and surprise, the editors who wanted to publish the novel assumed it would be a series. Who was I to disagree?

Thelma: Do you plan to base other novels on your legal experience?

Alafair: In a way, I would say that every book I've ever written was based in some part on my legal experience. Even when the characters are not lawyers, I am writing about the impact of crime on human lives, which I don't think I would understand at the same level if not for my time at the District Attorney's Office.

Certainly, though, some of my books are more squarely set within a legal context. In fact, the standalone that I am about to start has a defense attorney has a main character.

Thelma: Would you consider setting parts of your plots in foreign settings? If so, where?

Alafair: Ooh, that's a really good question. I do love to travel, and find myself including what I see in my books. For example, I recently wrote a scene set in Anguilla, one of my favorite places in the world. And in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT, Carrie dreams of going to Europe, because she grew up in a neighborhood where people didn't get to do that kind of thing.

I think I would be intimidated to set an entire book in a place I didn’t know extremely well. To me, place is as big of a character as any individual person. I didn't write about New York until I’d been living here for several years.

Thelma: Will you create a strong major male protagonist for a future book?

Alafair: Yes! I think I have written strong male characters, such as JJ Rogan, Jess Hatcher, and several characters in my standalones. (Patrick in IF YOU WERE HERE is loosely based on my husband.)

But the book I’m just starting has a main character who is male. Stay tuned.

Thelma: Can you tell us what's next on your drawing board?

Well, I’m going to try to start this week while I’m on book tour, so it’s hard to say much about it. Hopefully that drawing board will be filling up quickly.

Thelma: What kind of feedback do you get from your legal colleagues?

Alafair: For the most part, I think my fellow law geeks are thankful that they can read a book without major legal mistakes in it, which is a relief. But I've also learned by now that you can’t write a good novel simply by being a lawyer. People don't read fiction for legal detail or procedural information. Too much of it is a distraction.

I had to take more liberties with legal process than usual in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. Wrongful conviction cases often take years, which doesn't really work for a page-turner. I have the pace of this case much faster than you're likely to find in real life, although I did try to set up for the reader why the case might move extraordinarily fast.

Thelma: Can you tell us what a typical writing day is for you?

Unfortunately, I don’t have “typical” writing days. I’m a full-time law professor, and my students come first. But when I have a day with no other obligations, I try to write as much as possible that day. I also love to write late at night (like really late, where I start falling asleep at the desk). Most importantly, I try to write at least a tiny bit every day. As long as I do that, I always have the characters and voices in my head and can pick up right where I left off when I get a bigger chunk of time.

Thelma: Describe your most comfortable writing environment.

Alafair: A few years ago, I bought a small studio that is all my own, and I love writing there. I also love to write at Otto, a Mario Batali pizza and wine bar near my apartment. I even have the bar manager, Dennis, as a character in the Ellie Hatcher books.

Thelma: Do you run your first draft by a valued first reader?

Alafair: I am extremely lucky to have my editor, Jennifer Barth at Harper, as my most valued and earliest reader. We have done 10 books together now. She’s invaluable.

Thelma: Do you ever plan to write a novel that takes place at another time in the past?

Alafair: That's one thing I can say I will never do. Parts of ALL DAY AND A NIGHT take place in the 1990s, and that's about as much history as I can take.

Thelma: What is the hardest part of the process for you in creating a new novel?

Alafair: Starting is the hardest part. Because I don't plot things out scene for scene, I have to trust my gut about when it's time to start writing. I usually wait longer than I should. You have to trust that you have enough of a sense of the characters to find your way through a beginning, middle, and end.

Friday, June 13, 2014


It's Friday the Thirteenth, folks, and tonight the moon will be full. Time for ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. In honor of this rare concatenation (next time it happens will be 2049; last time was October 13, 2000), I thought maybe I'd tell some ghost stories.

The first story is a non-ghost story. As you may know, I serve as a docent at the Marshall House here in Lambertville, the childhood home of James Marshall, who found the first gold in California and started the California Gold Rush of 1849. I could go on and on about his life and work, and I frequently do in the course of my docent gig, but the main thing that strikes me about James Marshall is how badly he got along with his father, Phillip Marshall. Both of them, as near as I can determine, were grumpy and ill-tempered, just the sort of people who might be expected to haunt a house after they've passed over.

And yet the Marshall House is free of haunts. (Possibly this makes it unique among buildings in Lambertville.) Why is this? I maintain that it's a result of having been occupied for eighty years by Sisters of Mercy, who taught in the old stone parochial school that used to be out behind the house. They prayed all the spirits away, you see. Religious structures generally tend to be free of ghosties. Here's a sign in the churchyard of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston. It says, "The only ghost at St. Phillip's is the Holy Ghost. Join us for worship Sundays 8:15 and 10:30, Wednesday 6 P.M …and learn about the Trinity including the Holy Ghost." Evidently they are troubled by tourists tramping about their old graveyard in search of apparitions.

When our tourists here in Lambertville inquire about ghosts they often get to chatting about their own ghosts. You would be surprised how many people have resident ghosts in their homes. The tales they tell me are oddly similar. Their ghosts like to hang out with the family. Sometimes they get jealous of visitors and break things, shelves full of old china and glass. Sometimes they warn people of impending disaster, trees about to fall on the children's bedrooms and the like. Those are the friendly ones. Then there are the ghosts who weep all the time, loudly, inconsolably, completely self-absorbed. You never see them, you just hear them through the wall. I had a friend who said she never lived anywhere that wasn't haunted. She used to hear weeping and screams. Makes you wonder.

This may be a feature of the craze for buying new houses. Get a house younger than ten years old and you'll have to haunt it yourself. Also you won't need to replace the roof, furnace, wiring, or plumbing, but that's another issue. I have to wonder where all these new houses are going to be built. In graveyards, maybe, when the rest of the land runs out. Then you'll see some haunts.

I like an old house. I don't see or hear ghosts, myself, and as far as I know no ghost has ever attacked my crockery. I do sense a difference, when I walk into a place, between a brand new structure empty of old vibrations and a place where other people have lived.

When you sell your old house you have to tell the buyer if it's famously haunted, like the Amityville Horror house. It's an official stigma, like people dying or murdering each other in the house. But if you have just one or two quiet, friendly little ghosts I don't believe you need to declare them. Caveat emptor, after all. Some say my attic is haunted; a woman who lived here happily for ten years says it is not. My glasses are so dirty that I can't see live people, let alone haunts, and the only thing I hear is my neighbors. So maybe yes, maybe no. Anyway it isn't for sale.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Amber of Zanj

In the tenth century, an Arab traveler named al Masu’di wrote of his wonderings in Persia, India, and China.  And along the east African coast, which he called the Land of Zanj.  Chinese, Indian, and Persian traders adopted the moniker for the area from present-day Mogadishu south to Pemba Island in Tanzania.  Roughly translated “Zanj” means “the land of blacks.”

The Bantu peoples who lived there, through intermarriage and trading relationships, eventually developed what is now the Swahili culture and its language, which for a few centuries has been the lingua franca of the that part of Africa.

In the heyday of Zanj, there were thirty-seven port villages doing substantial business in imports and exports.  A few became quite prosperous, but they were under a ruling class of Arabs and Persians.   Two of the most important medieval coastal settlements are modern cities in Kenya: Malindi and Mombasa.

When he went there, at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, Masu’di found a mixed population of Muslims and Bantu pagans.  And riches worth trading, not the least of which was amber.  Here is what he said of that highly prized substance:

“Amber is found in great quantities on the Zanj coast…The best is …sometimes as big as an ostrich egg, sometimes slightly less…”

The jewel-like substance is really fossilized tree resin, and was sought after for its beauty from the time of the cavemen.  In Zanj, it could be found lying on the beaches.

Masu’di also found other luxury goods in the area:

“The land of Zanj produces wild leopard skin.  The people wear them as clothes, or export them to Muslim countries.  They are the largest leopard skins and the most beautiful for making saddles…  They also export tortoise-shell for making combs, for which ivory is likewise used.

“There are many wild elephants but no tame ones.  The Zanj do not use them for war or anything else, but only hunt and kill them…for their ivory.  …the tusks.. go to Oman, and from there are sent to China and India.  This is the chief trade route, and if it were not so, ivory would be common in Muslim countries.”

Keep in mind that these are quotes from someone who died around 945 AD!     
Though the people in that part of Africa were often stereotyped as backward by the lighter skinned folks from farther north, many visitors thought them much more accomplished.  One Fourteenth Century Berber visitor described the city of Kilwa as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.  The whole of it elegantly built.  The roofs are built with mangrove pole.”  He reported the chief qualities of the population as “devotion and piety.”

Sad to say, a major export from the area was people.  For centuries, all the countries with ports on the Indian Ocean brought in slaves taken from among the Bantu of east Africa, who did just about all the household work and soldiering in Persia and were known as far away as China, where they were called Seng Chi (Zanji).

Some of the slaves in the Middle East were put to work in miserable conditions on sugar cane plantations in what is now Iraq.  Between 869 and 883 AD, they rebelled against their Arab masters in the first known uprising by black slaves in history.

After the Middle Ages, the name Zanj fell out of use.  It was British explorers who brought it back at the end of the Nineteenth Century to describe the forbidding and mysterious land that peaked their adventurous longings.

The very sound of the word peaks mine now.
Buddhist prayer beads brought home from China in 1946
by my father, with three beads of amber and one of ivory.

Annamaria Alfieri