Monday, November 30, 2009

Striking a Happy Holiday Balance

The official holiday shopping season has begun. Our family celebrates Chanukah, also called The Feast of Lights. The first of the eight candles will be lit the evening of December 11. Oy!

Our youngest daughter won’t be home from college until the holiday is actually over – so I plan to send some gifts to her at school, and save the rest for when she’s eating some latkes at the dinner table. Son number one and his wife live in Washington – so I need to get their gifts in the mail. If I’d been smart, I’d have had them ready and wrapped when they were here for Thanksgiving. Son number two and his wife, and son number three, all live in the area – so we’ll probably see them for at least one of the eight nights of the holiday.

I can give you the standard spiel, which is that Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday, never intended to duplicate the breadth of Christmas. No trees, no garlands, no ornaments – at least not when I was growing up. Today, there are tons of decorations you can buy – but there’s a not-so-small voice that echoes in my mind that reminds me that I’m not supposed to go for the glitz (much as I love Christmas decorations) when celebrating the Feast of Lights. Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt. Desecrated by the forces of Antiochus IV, when the Jews retook the temple there was only enough holy oil to fuel the eternal flame for one day…but the miracle is that the oil lasted eight days, enough time to consecrate more holy olive oil.

Traditionally we eat latkes – potatoes fried in oil. In Israel they eat sufganiyot, jam-filled fried donuts. We play dreidel – a game with a spinning top with four Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Alef, Shin, symbolizing the sentence, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham" -- A great miracle happened there.” Actually in Israel, the final letter is changed to Pei , to read “Nes Gadol Haya Po," -- A great miracle happened here.”

I confess I get caught up in the commercial holiday spirit because I love picking out gifts for loved ones and seeing their delight. And while I could certainly give presents other times of the year – and do – there is something fantastically fun about enjoying the communal spirit of shopping and giving – both on a personal and charitable level at this time of year. I'm a wrapping paper connoisseur, insisting on sharp tight corners on the package, and choosing just the right bow, because the original Evelyn insisted a present always required a ribbon. Who knew?

So I try to strike the right balance between the religious components and commercialism. And there is, of course, the thrill of the hunt – finding the perfect present at just the right price. I’ve never shopped on Black Friday – except this year, when I carefully combined coupons and promotion codes, and stopped by several online stores. Throw in some free shipping and this is one happy shopper. Might I remind all that books, especially mystery books, are always a perfect, one-size-fits-all gift!

So as the weeks move along during this holiday season, whatever you are celebrating, I wish for you the joy of giving, the delight of seeing those you love savor your thoughtfulness, and the importance of remembering those less fortunate at this time.

We’ll talk more in the weeks ahead. Enjoy!

Evelyn David

Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David

Friday, November 27, 2009

From the Trenches: When Every NaNo Second Counts

Monday, the last day of November, will end National Novel Writing Month, also called NaNoWriMo, or for those beaten down by its grueling schedule who can no longer manage the extra syllables, just NaNo.

Every November for the last ten years, crazy writers worldwide have undertaken Chris Baty’s challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. Novels in their completed form, like the one you’re probably reading this week, are usually between 70,000-90,000 words and, generally speaking, many authors produce a book each year. So while 50,000 words is short by industry standards for book-length fiction, it’s gargantuan in terms of what most writers can swing in thirty days.

In his own 50,000 word book No Plot? No Problem! Baty explains how this mammoth task can be tackled. The book is a riot and I found it totally uplifting and inspiring. Even if you think you’ll never participate in NaNoWriMo I’d highly recommend his entertaining book for people who want to shake up their writing routines.

To summarize: During the month of November, writers put down 50,000 words—no editing allowed. He stresses that there is a time for writing (November) and a time for editing (December and onward). When we write passages that will never make the cut, rather than delete them, we are to italicize them. This is how we’ll know what to take out later. But for November, all the words stay in the manuscript because the name of the game is output, not quality.

Between you and me, I italicized thousands of words this month.

Professional writers fall on both sides of the NaNo fence. Some say it’s better to write carefully and well, editing as you go, because there will be less work waiting during the revision phase. Others embrace the stream-of-consciousness approach and say that there’s a creative part and an editing part to the writing process, and that when we’re being creative we must suppress our inner critic.

At Bouchercon, I talked to writers from both camps and told them I was planning to do NaNoWriMo this year. Half of them told me to go for it. The others cautioned that it was the worst thing I could do. But my mind was already made up.

I’d known about NaNoWriMo for years but had never tried it because in previous Novembers I’d always been in the middle of a project. The idea behind the exercise is not to write 50,000 more words of a project you’ve already started, but rather to start from scratch. As it happened, this year I finished the first draft of one project in October, which left November ripe for the picking. I figured all I had to lose was one month, and my writing output being what it normally is (not much) this was a no-brainer. I had nothing to lose and a potential story thread to gain.

The reason I decided to do it is because I’m a chronic over-editor. If I don’t force myself to move on in a story, I will tweak and improve and play around with early chapters forever, at the expense of not producing anything new. This doesn’t make the revision process faster, either, as those Bouchercon writers suggested it would. In the last book I wrote, for example, I massaged the early chapters until I thought they were absolutely perfect. Then my cherished critique partner convinced me to start the novel in Chapter Four. (He was right.) So where’s the economy in that?

No, the reason NaNoWriMo appealed to me is that I had a vague, general idea about what I wanted to write about in my next book. I wanted to write a mystery based on a love affair and I wanted to set it at a hockey rink. Being a mystery, someone would die, but I didn’t know who, or why, or how. This is not the sort of ambiguity upon which my editor looks favorably.

The first step of starting a new book is sending her a synopsis. In a synopsis, we basically tell the whole story to our editors in a couple of pages, including the twists, misdirections, and ending—none of which I had—and this way we can find out ahead of time if something major should be changed before we spend the next year wandering off into the weeds. So my reason for jumping into NaNo was to figure out what was going to happen in the book. I didn’t actually plan to use any passages I produced because I believed Chris Baty when he said, “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap.” (I’m here to tell you he was right.) Rather, for me, NaNo would be a success if I came away with enough material to kluge a synopsis.

Enter real life. A few weeks ago, a colleague remarked that he thinks I organize my thoughts by writing. We were talking about the scientific papers we co-author, but his observation struck me as applicable for my fiction too. I decided that if I was lucky, I’d come out of NaNo with a 50,000 word outline, basically. I was willing to throw away all those words if my thoughts about the next book would finally be organized. Or even closer to organized.

But what about setting realistic goals? I work. Have kids. I’m training for a couple races. And there was my addiction to Facebook to consider.

I also had a lot of weekend commitments that took me out of town in November. So I modified my NaNo goal to 30,000 words. Before NaNo, a successful writing month for me produced 10,000 words of much higher quality so I thought that aiming for 30,000 words of drivel might be a fair compromise.

Finally, let’s not underestimate the convenience of letting our standards slide as things get tough. I draw upon my marathoning experience for illustrative purposes:

Before the race: “I’m gonna set a personal record!”
At Mile 10: “I feel so good. I’m invincible!”
Mile 19: “Guess I went out a little fast. If I finish as least as good as last year, that’ll be fine.”
Mile 22: “Why am I here? I hate running and all my friends are at the movies. I want their Junior Mints.”
Mile 24: “I’ll finish when I finish. Hell with it.”
Mile 26.2: “I missed my goal, but I’ve finished something most people will never start.”

That’s kind of how this month went for me. The New England Crime Bake conference over the weekend of November 13th and 14th set me back. When I came home, there was so much to catch up on, including kids’ activities and sports, and Thanksgiving events at their schools (that took up my lunch hours, during which I had been writing NaNo stuff before). Long story short, the words just weren’t coming as fast as they had earlier in the month. I decided to give myself a break on the word count and focus on just writing something every day, which is another thing I don’t usually do.

So how did I do? When this posts, I’ll have three days left, so I’m not done putting words down for this experiment. But at the time of this writing (Tuesday) I’ve penned 25,300 words on 95 pages, have a structure for the story, an interesting new character, and an idea about a motive. Whodunit details remain sketchy, and I won’t be using any of the words I actually put down. But over the holidays I hope to produce that synopsis.

I missed eight writing days in November. Ready for the excuses?
1. One day I was out of town for the Ft. Worth Mud Run.
2. The next day I just didn’t feel like doing anything. Happens.
3. One weekend I was at Crime Bake—too busy talking about writing to actually do any.
4. One day I got home from work and went straight to my daughters’ basketball practices, after which I came home and collapsed.
5. Another day I chose the gym over the keyboard. That was a sanity call.
6. This week I decided, rather abruptly, to paint my dining room. That took out another couple days.

Observations: Some days I wrote a couple thousand words, others I wrote a couple hundred. I wrote more longhand in November than I ever have before, scribbling words in a spiral notebook I carried around in my purse. I discovered that longhand works for me, and I’ll keep that notebook handy for long waits and unexpected downtime. I also learned that I can walk to a picnic bench near my lab and eat lunch outside while I write. I’ve never mixed business (day job) and pleasure (writing) in the same hours before, so this was a neat discovery, like stealing an extra writing hour out of the day.

By my admittedly low and sliding standards, NaNoWriMo was a success. My writing habits are more flexible than I once thought. I’d never written 4,000 words in one sitting and this month I did it twice. Before NaNo, I was unwilling to write flat dialogue or low-stakes scenes, so when I got stuck I left the keyboard, perhaps not to return for days. But by giving myself permission to explore a story in a rambling, blindfolded fashion, with no expectation of quality, I explored more possibilities. Several of them stuck and will stay in Book 3. Who knew?

Based on the last month, I’d say that if you are a disciplined writer who routinely turns out a word count with which you are satisfied, this is probably not something you need to explore. If you are that writer, then you already have a method that’s working for you. But if you’re like me, paralyzed to move ahead in your story unless you know what is supposed to happen next, then NaNo is a good exercise in pushing forward through the uncomfortable parts of a storyline. Recently I was one of several guests on a Blog Talk Radio show called What’s Write for Me. We talked about our experiences with NaNoWriMo and what it meant to each of us. If you’re thinking about NaNo or just curious how it went for other writers, click over and have a listen.

With luck, I’ll be between projects again next November because I’d really like to give this another go.

Parting words:
"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."
-- Leonardo da Vinci

Rachel Brady

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Five Things I'm Thankful For

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at The Stiletto Gang!

On Thanksgiving, do you stop to think about all the things you’re thankful for? I do. There are so many, but most can fit into these five categories.

The top five things I’m thankful for:

5. Health and Happiness (knock on wood; we have obstacles, but overall, we're good!)

4. Writing for a Living (to earn *a meager* living doing what you love is fantastic)

3. The writing and book loving community (truly, they are an amazing group of people)

2. Good Friends and Family (because what would life be without them?)

and number 1 on my 'Thankful' list is...

1. My wonderful kids and husband (because they really do give my life meaning)

Have a wonderful day!!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Of Turkeys and Traffic

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and we’re flung far and wide this year, people on the move. We’re the stay at home people whereas my parents are the flung-far people. Here at Chez Barbieri we are hosting Jim’s side of the family, which makes us a nice, even dozen. Fortunately, that number represents the maximum occupancy capacity in the house and in particular, around the dining room table, so just one more person and we’d find ourselves elbow to elbow while enjoying my brined turkey.

Mom and Dad have headed south to see my sister who lives in Georgia. In typical Mom/Dad style, they planned on leaving for the South at six in the morning to “beat the traffic” but decided, after a spirited discussion at two in the morning that they would leave then. When my mother called me at two o’clock in the afternoon on the day they were supposed to arrive at my sister’s (their original e.t.d. had them arriving around dinner time) and told me that they were fifteen minutes from her house, I was surprised. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Didn’t you leave at six this morning? Doesn’t it take thirteen hours to get there? (I had visions of my father doing 120 miles per hour down 95 and was wondering how they were still alive. I’m bad at math, as we all know, but even I can figure out that the trip not taking thirteen hours means that they were traveling at very high speeds.)

Mom: Well, Dad got up in the middle of the night and I was watching television so we just decided to leave then. Oh, and by the way, we were supposed to start back the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, but we’re going to leave the Saturday after Thanksgiving instead. You know, to beat the traffic.

Me (incredulously): You haven’t even arrived at your original destination, but you’re already talking about when you’re coming home?

Mom (through gales of hysterical laughter): We’re old! That’s what old people do!

Newsflash: they’re not old. And they shouldn’t be doing what old people do. They’ve got at least ten years before they need to start doing that. But it provided us some good laughs when Mom realized that indeed, they are mostly retired and have nothing to rush back here for. We’ll be eating leftovers for weeks, so surely they’re not anxious to get back to have dinner at our house.

Now, I’ve taken a poll and apparently, many people of retirement age are alternately fascinated and horrified by traffic and will do anything they can to avoid it. A friend’s father begins his trek from Florida at nine at night and drives until he hits…you guessed it…traffic. Only then will he stop to eat and/or go to the bathroom.

I’m thrilled that we’re staying home because the only traffic I will have to contend with will be the backup at the bathroom door as several Barbieri’s attempt to shower and look presentable for the day in the only bathroom with a shower. I’m absolutely positive that “bathroom rage” will ensue. But there is no way that I’m getting up any earlier to “beat the traffic.” I’ll just wait at the back of the line until I see a break in the action and then I’ll make my move. Just like any good driver.

Happy thanksgiving, Stiletto faithful.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Past and Present

On Facebook a challenge was put out to tell something that we are thankful for everyday until Thanksgiving. That is not a hard task for me. I have so much to be thankful for, I've been truly blessed by having a loving husband, a large family, many friends, and a career that I love--actually there have been more than one of those.

Today, though, I'd like to write about Thanksgivings past and present.

When we were kids (my sis and I) growing up we always went to my grandparents house in South Pasadena for Thanksgiving along with my aunt, her husband, and their one child, a daughter. We were never allowed to wash or dry grandmother's good dishes, so we always headed outside. Only a block or two away from grandma's house were mansions. We loved to walk around and snoop, peeking inside gates and walking up long driveways to gaze at these huge houses. Once my sister and I played tennis (or tried to play) in someone's tennis court that was right inside the open gates. The people came home and smiled and waved at us. (If kids did something like that today, they would probably be hauled away to juvenile hall.)

After we had our first house--and several children--everyone came to our house for Thanksgiving. We set up tables in the living room in order to have enough room. I was always the cook.

Once we moved to the home we're in now, I still was the cook and we had all sorts of relatives who came for dinner, plus for many years we had the six women we cared for in our home. This house is bigger and we have a round table with a lazy Susan in the middle that hubby build. We can fit 16 around it and there's room to set up an extra table or two if need be.

Last year I had a break, we were invited to our youngest daughter's for Thanksgiving. Our youngest son and wife and their daughter went too. It was a good thing because I could never have cooked a big dinner because I came down with the flu and spent most of my time in bed.

This year we're having dinner at home again. Guests will be son, wife and grandaughter, my second oldest daughter and her husband, their daughter (another grandaughter) her hubby and three kids, and her other grandma who lives with them. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't another guest or two, after all my grandson is a preacher--if he learns someone doesn't have a place to go for Thanksgiving he'll probably invite whoever it is to come to our place.

My daughter-in-law went with me to shop for the groceries needed and she'll do the mashed potatoes and a great salsa that she makes with lots and lots of fresh tomatoes, avocados, red onions, cilantro and a jalapeno. Doesn't sound very Thankgiving-ish, but believe me, it's delicious. Granddaughter has asked to make the green bean casserole and I'm quite happy to let her.

I don't like to bake so I ordered my pies from a new little place in town. I'll pick them up later today.

Believe me, I've figured out the easy ways to do everything. We serve buffet style, putting all the food on the kitchen counters. I even use paper plates so I don't have to spend time doing dishes after we're through eating.

Of course the TV will be turned to football games, but the kids and I will play our favorite card game, Estimation. That's sort of become a new Thanksgiving tradition.

And that will be Thanksgiving Present.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, hope you can all be surrounded by those you love as you eat your Thanksgiving meal.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Thanksgiving Menu

Evelyn David will be at two Thanksgiving tables this year - a thousand miles apart geographically but just nextdoor in spirit.

I watched an HGTV cooking special the other night. Four families were competing for $10,000 and the honor of best Thanksgiving feast. They had six hours to prepare the meal from scratch. Each team had 3 members. Each team's leader was the matriarch of the family. The obligatory turkey ranged from fried, to roasted, to "tofu-ed." It was fun to see the variety in the menus and the interaction of the families.

My family is from Oklahoma and our traditional Thanksgiving meal is rooted firmly in Southern cuisine. A large turkey is prepared. If it's not at least 18 pounds, it's not worth the trouble. It's thawed over several days in a cooler, then wrestled into the oven by my mom (the only one in the house up at 5 am.)

I get involved in with the preparation of the centerpiece of our meal – the cornbread & sage dressing. It's very labor intensive – lots of chopping, mixing, and tasting. The recipe is very close to what our ancestors fixed a hundred years ago. Each generation has tweaked the spices – my paternal grandmother added a couple of cans of chopped oysters. My mom and I have added cheese. About ten years ago we invented "dressing balls." We had more dressing than we could fit in the oven to bake, so we put the leftover raw dressing in greased muffin tins. We baked it after the rest of the meal was done. The result was individual portions of dressing that had a crusty top and sides – perfect for reheating in a microwave for the second, third, and fourth meals with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Now we bake all the dressing in the muffin tins. Modesty aside, I'm sure our Thanksgiving dressing is the best in the world.

The rest of our menu includes gravy, mashed potatoes, a cranberry/apple ring, a pineapple/orange Jell-O dish, green beans, steamed broccoli, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows, homemade yeast rolls, pumpkin pie, and cherry pie. We wash it all down with gallons of iced tea.

My co-author is from New York but her mother was Southern. We've found that we have some of the same traditions and some different.

Thanksgiving dinner seems to be set in stone. Sure we can mix it up a little, maybe try a new dessert, but basically my family wants to see the same items on the menu from year to year, regardless of whether I’ve got my Barefoot Contessa apron on or not.

Turkey is a given – although personally I ate all sides last year and never touched the bird. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows is a staple, a salad (which is more an homage to nutrition than actually eaten), and this year I’m trying a new cranberry conserve, but I’ll also have a can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly for the traditionalists in the group. My daughter wants to make a pecan pie (yum!), and I’m going to make a devil’s food cake with a turkey decoration. If time is running short, it may just be chocolate cake sans the fancy bird – chocolate is a perfect way to express thankfulness.

Equally important to me as what is served, is what it is served on. I have several platters that belonged to my mother, the original Evelyn. A holiday wouldn’t be complete without having those dishes heaped with food – reminding me of wonderful holidays of long ago.

Our latest mystery, Murder Takes the Cake is set during the week before Thanksgiving. In one scene our main female character is debating on how she was going to spend her holiday and with whom.

Murder Takes the Cake – Evelyn David – May 2009

Mac started to walk to the door, but paused. "So what are you doing on Thanksgiving? Jeff and Kathleen want me to join the family, but I'm not up to that scene. You're probably doing something with your family.…"

"Not this year." Rachel sighed. "Sam is going skiing with his new girlfriend and my brother is off visiting his fiancée's family. Kathleen asked me to come too, but I'm not up for that scene either. I thought I'd stay home and feel sorry for myself."

"So maybe we could do that together? Or if we got really inspired we could get a pizza and watch some football or something?"

"Or maybe we could eat some turkey with cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and pecan pie and then watch a movie?" Rachel countered.

"We'd need to negotiate the menu. Whiskey doesn't like pecan pie."

"How does she feel about apple pie?"

"A la mode?" he asked.

"Of course."

"It's a date."
Tell us about your Thanksgiving menu? Does it vary from year to year? What's your favorite dish?

Happy Turkey Day from Rhonda, Marian, and Evelyn David

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Missing Corpse?

When it comes to mysteries, few things are as bone-chilling as the thought of a missing corpse. After all, shouldn’t the dead be left alone? Not necessarily. Grave robbing can—and has—happened.

Michael Jackson’s family is said to have selected Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California for his burial, feeling that it was a more secure location for his body. They needn’t go back too far in history to find reason for concern. Elvis Presley’s remains were the target of an unsuccessful “body snatching” plot, and in 1978 Charlie Chaplin’s body was removed from his grave. His widow refused to pay a ransom, so poor Charlie was later discovered left in a cornfield by his frustrated abductors.

The idea of stealing a body for ransom goes back to the late 1800s. In 1876 a plan to take Lincoln’s body was foiled, but the body of Alexander T. Stewart, one of the wealthiest merchants of the Gilded Age, was successfully removed, and this crime set off a major fear among the well-to-do. Woodlawn Cemetery, the interment site of Jay Gould, established a security force after robber baron Jay Gould was placed in the family mausoleum there because there had been threats that his body would be taken.

Of course, grave robbing used to have a “practical” purpose—digging up bodies was one of the methods necessary to obtain bodies for dissection and medical study. Often the “procurer” made his living by obtaining bodies and/or organs for doctors or medical schools, but sometimes the medical students themselves had to get their own bodies. Documents left by the students indicate that the procurement of bodies was actually quite stressful. One fellow wrote, “No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection.” With his friends at Harvard, this fellow, John Collins Warren Jr., created a secret anatomic society in 1771 called Spunkers, whose purpose was to conduct anatomic dissections.

Body snatching presented a terrible problem for the families of the deceased. They commonly set up watch over the body until burial, and later, relatives would take turns watching over the grave for a few days to be certain it was not dug up afterward.

Today fears of body snatching are primarily limited to those where there is enough ‘fame value” that the body parts would do well on eBay. In the meantime, most people today will be allowed to “rest in peace.”

Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly is a corporate speaker and successful author of more than 25 nonfiction titles. She is a veteran of both local and nationwide talk and news programs and has been quoted in publications such as Time and The Wall Street Journal. She has appeared on World News Tonight, Good Morning America, The View, The CBS Early Show, Fox and Friends, and on CNN, MSNBC and The Fox News Channel. For more interesting bits from American history, check out

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sofa Comfort

I never considered myself as quirky, but now that I think about it, I guess I do have a few quirks. One of them is that I love a good kids movie. There's something magical about them, and they fill me with warm fuzzies. Make it a dark and blustery day, throw in a cold front and/or storm, give me slippers and a cozy quilt, a mug of hot tea (or better yet a pumpkin spice latte) and I'm in:
H. E. A. V. E. N., heaven.

Harry Potter movies still top my list. They're like comfort food for me. There's something about the world JK Rowling created that truly is...well... magical. Literally. And figuratively. Getting lost in Hogwarts with Harry, Hermione, and Ron makes me happy.

Same with Pirates of the Caribbean. Love Johnny Depp in most everything, but really love him in this movie. Love Geoffrey Rush. Love the whole pirate code, er, guidelines. Again...happy.

Holiday movies? CAN’T WAIT!!! Ushering in the season with Peanuts is essential. Miracle on 34th Street (love the original and the remake--I’m not a purist and I’m not ashamed to admit it--except when it comes to the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Accept no substitute.) is a favorite. It’s a Wonderful Life? One of the most perfect movies ever made. Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol... so atmospheric, and he’s so adorable that I can’t wait to watch it.

Modern classics? The Santa Clause with Tim Allen... as good as warm cookies straight from the oven. My son played Santa Claus just like the boy in the movie. It spoke to him and so I will always love this movie. It’s magical.

And the stop motion shows from my childhood? Santa Claus is coming to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and The Little Drummer Boy are classics that we have to watch in our household. The season isn’t complete without them.

I get the same warm fuzzy feeling when I settle in with a good book. I'm currently reading The Help. LOVE IT. Can't wait to get back to it. These are people I wish I knew. I feel like I DO know them. I want them to be real. I'm rooting for them, holding my breath as their lives unfold before my eyes, and I can't wait to turn the page, start the next chapter, find out what happens next. I will be so sad when the book ends. That is a sign of a really great story.

My own books hold that magic for me, too. I can’t wait to dive into my writing each day because it’s like spending time with friends, getting close to them, living their lives with them, and there’s nothing better than spending a day like that.

So, what gives you warm fuzzies? Is there a book or a movie that holds that magic for you?

~ Misa

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crime Baking

This past weekend, approximately 200 hundred mystery fans and writers gathered together in the Dedham, Massachusetts, Hilton to participate in Crime Bake. It was a horrible weekend in New England, weather-wise, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the attendees, all enthusiastic mystery lovers. We were treated to a lunchtime talk by Sue Grafton, creator of the “alphabet” mystery series and the fabulous sleuth, Kinsey Millhone, in which she listed ten things writers shouldn’t do in their writing. I was dismayed to find that I am guilty of oh…all ten.

But that aside, it was a great conference. Great panels, lots of interesting conversation, and a boxed lunch (my all-time favorite mode of food delivery). I met some great people at the banquet Saturday night including Dana Cameron, Paul Tremblay, and Jedediah Berry, where we all participated in trying to solve two murders that took place right before our very eyes when we weren’t growsing about how our dinners were being interrupted by the aforementioned murders.

I’m a newcomer to conferences, having only started going this year. I went to Malice Domestic in May with the northern half of Evelyn David, and now have gone to Crime Bake, which I most certainly will attend again next year. I’m not sure how much selling goes on at these conventions; remember, I come from a college textbook background and selling at conventions is what we do. But I do know that it’s great to meet other writers and fans (I fall into both categories), and to hear about how other people navigate the stormy and lonely seas of writing. I know that after having attended these two conventions, I have been spurred to write more and complain less. I always get inspiration from talking about writing and mysteries and I write more words that sound better together when I come home. (This post may not be an example of that, but hear me out.) I learned about fellow Stiletto blogger Rachel Brady’s participation in Nano Wrimo, where in you write 50,000 words in the month of November, no editing allowed. I was exhausted just listening to her talk about trying to reach the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month—most of my books run from 80,000-90,000 words when they are finished so 50,000 is no small feat—but then I remembered who I was talking to: writer, mother, rocket scientist, and all-around fabulous stiletto-wearing gal. Who, if not Rachel, would be able to undertake this task successfully?

Thankfully, November is half over so I don’t have to participate in Nano Wrimo. But something tells me that next year, Ms. Brady will be knocking at my door.

Marilyn’s post yesterday says it all: treat yourself to a conference. I was nervous about attending my first conference but I’ve learned that the mystery community is generous, accepting, and wonderful. You may meet one of your favorite authors, or find out that you have a fan or two. Going to a conference gives your solitary writing life a context and a purpose. There are more of you out there than you ever imagined and it’s nice when you can all come together to celebrate and discuss what you do and love.

Hey, Stiletto Readers: what are your favorite conferences and why?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Idea for a Writer's Christmas Gift

While reading Nancy's wonderful guest post about research, I thought about one of the ways that I do research is by attending the Public Safety Writers Association's conference every year. Many of the members who attend and the speakers are experts in forensics, law enforcement, fire fighting, FBI and any number of professions that we mystery writers often have lots of question for.

I must confess, as the program chairperson for the conference after I've managed to talk the most outstanding speakers to come and make presentations at the conference, I'd really like to have a good crowd for them to share their expertise with.

You can take a look at the great line-up by heading to the website and checking them out. My suggestion is that if you are a mystery writer you might want to give yourself a Christmas gift by signing up for the conference--and if you know a writer who would benefit from a conference like this maybe you might nudge their significant other to register him or her for the conference.

Because it is a smaller conference, attendees have the opportunity to really network with everyone. And if you would like to be on a panel, all you have to do is say so on the registration form--and it would be great if you'd give a hint as to what kind of panel you'd like to be on.

You can bring your books for sale and PSWA will only take 10% as their fee for taking care of the selling.

If you think Christmas is too soon, since the conference isn't until June, be sure to sign up before March 31 to be on a panel before the price goes up once again. (The price includes three great lunches.)

I've said it before, but I'll say it again, besides gaining some knowledge, I guarantee you'll also have fun.

And be sure to check out the contest for unpublished and published short stories, articles, non-fiction books, and fiction books.

I promise not to say anything more about the PSWA conference until it gets closer to March.

I'm a confessed conference junkie--but this is one of my very favorites and not just because I'm on the board.

Try it, you'll like it.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Our Justice System

America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
Aaron Sorkin, The American President, 1995

The last ten days has made me marvel at the brilliance, strength, and yes, generosity of the American way of government – while at the same time grow angrier at those who abuse it.

Malik Hasan Nidal, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, demands a lawyer before being interrogated. That is his legal right – and while he (allegedly) had no trouble denying the right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to 13 innocent victims, in fact, Nidal hired John Galligan, a well-respected lawyer, a retired army colonel. Mr. Galligan is absolutely correct when he insists that “my goal is to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial.”

Because of course, as angry and frustrated as I am with Nidal’s actions, I know that unless our justice system can handle the very worst of those charged with heinous crimes, then we can’t ensure that anyone, especially the innocent, receives a fair trial.

But boy is it hard to keep that in mind.

And then this week, came the decision to try, in a civilian court, the masterminds of the 9/11 massacre. It is again a reflection of the majesty of our judicial system that the courtroom is but a few blocks from Ground Zero. Buildings may have shattered, but the democratic society of these United States could not be toppled.

That’s not to say that I don’t have horrific fears that Manhattan will again be targeted – but I remind myself that it’s not only physical terror that is at stake here. Mind games and targeted fear-mongering are part and parcel of the terrorist weaponry.

I haven’t made up my mind whether the administration’s rationale for trying the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attack and four co-conspirators in a civilian court is correct, but I am not afraid of affording them the constitutional protections of our system. I’m not worried that our justice system is not up to the task. As President Obama said at Fort Hood, "We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes.”

God Bless America.

Evelyn David

Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David

Friday, November 13, 2009

Research and the Muse

by Nancy J. Cohen

A reader at one of my author talks recently said she was surprised by how much research I did for my books. She believed fiction writers made up their stories. I was appalled. No wonder some people (not YOU, of course) look down their noses at popular fiction writers. Any author would be dismayed by this observation because we put a lot of work into researching our tales.

As any reader of historical fiction knows, the writer must thoroughly research all details of the era in order to be accurate. Ditto for mysteries. I get people asking me all the time if I had been a hairdresser because my sleuth's job details are so accurate. When I mention that my background is in nursing, they are astounded. How did you learn enough to write about a hairstylist who solves crimes for your Bad Hair Day series? Well, I interviewed my hairdresser and followed her around the salon. I visited a beauty school and checked out their curriculum. I attended a beauty trade show in Orlando. I subscribed to Modern Salon Magazine. And if I needed to know anything else about hair, I asked my hairstylist or had her read relevant passages in my manuscript for accuracy.

That's just the beginning. Consider that I also consult a homicide detective for crime details and police procedure, even if forensics doesn't play a heavy role in my books. Plus each story has its own topics to research. I've investigated such diverse subjects as medical waste disposal, tilapia farming, migrant labor smuggling, the dog and cat fur trade, vanilla bean cultivation, and more. Then there is on-site research, i.e. pounding the pavement in Mount Dora to get street details, skulking through a Turkish Bath in my swimsuit, getting a reading from a medium in Cassadaga. I take very detailed notes and photos to use in crafting my story.

Authors who use contemporary settings cannot make things up out of thin air. Besides the location, we may need to research pertinent issues to include in our stories. I always try to include a Florida based issue or something of universal interest (like Alzheimer's Disease) to give my stories added depth. Newspapers, magazines, the Internet, personal interviews, and on-site visits are just some of the techniques we use. Probably the most fun I've had for research was going on a couple of cruises for Killer Knots. I challenge you to fault any of my minute details in that adventure.

But what about the vampire and werewolf fiction out there now, and other paranormal stories? Don't those authors just make up their imaginary worlds? No, because these worlds must be consistent, and they're often based on mythology or early Earth cultures.

For example, my proposed paranormal series is based on Norse myths. I have several texts on the subject and took extensive notes so I can understand their creation theory. I wrote down the different gods and goddesses, because they play a part in my story as well. For this tale as well as Silver Serenade, my upcoming futuristic romance, I needed to name spaceships, weapons, and/or military personnel. Using the Internet to look up ranks in our own military gave me a model. I also have a collection of Star Trek and Star Wars Sourcebooks which are great inspiration for weaponry, ships, propulsion and such. So even for fantasy, research is necessary. Science fiction is even more exacting because you're extrapolating what might be plausible in the future or exaggerating a current issue from the news.

So please have more respect for fiction writers. We do extensive research, and a truly gifted writer will not let it show because you'll be swept into the story. A good work of fiction is like a stage show, with all the blood and sweat and tears going on behind the scenes. All the audience sees is the fabulous performance.

Nancy J. Cohen
Killer Knots: A Bad Hair Day Mystery
Silver Serenade: Coming soon from The Wild Rose Press

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mysteries and the Return to Adolesence

Steven Rigolosi is the author of the Tales from the Back Page series of mystery and suspense novels. Each book takes an ad on the back page of a New York City newspaper as its starting point. Who Gets the Apartment? won the David (awarded by the Deadly Ink convention) for best mystery of 2006. Circle of Assassins followed in 2007. His latest, Androgynous Murder House Party, just came out in June. He can be reached at, or followed on twitter at He lives in Northern New Jersey. He does not wear stilettos, but Robin Anders (the hero/heroine of Androgynous Murder House Party, might.

Like Maggie Barbieri, I used to be an editor of college English textbooks. For those of you who haven’t seen an English textbook lately, I can tell you that a lot of them go on at length about the process of writing and the writer’s mindset. I used to think, “Geez, everyone should stop talking and thinking about writing, and just do it.” Part of my thinking (back in the day) had been that every individual writer follows a very different process, so attempting to force one particular method down someone’s throat seemed unwise and destined for failure.

I used to wonder, too, whether writers really think about themselves as writers all that much, or whether they are more focused on the work they are writing. I used to think of myself as a product-oriented person, not one who thinks much about himself as a Writer. But I think that may be a self-deception, because each of my books (I’ve written three so far) has gone through progressively more drafts, which means that I am secretly a process-oriented person too. For example, with my third and most recent, Androgynous Murder House Party, I slogged through five drafts. (Editor’s only note on first draft: “Cut 100 pages.”) And now I’m afraid to start on the fourth because I know it’s going to take me six drafts and I’m feeling kind of tired.

I had another epiphany, too: Being published is like returning to the worst of your adolescence. By putting your work out there, you expose yourself to all kinds of scrutiny, and you start to have the same types of doubts that plagued you as a teenager. Here are the questions I find myself asking of no one in particular:

1. Will people think I’m nuts? As mystery writers, we spend a good deal of time plotting ways to kill people, creatively and with panache. We also need to create some pretty creepy characters to provide good motivation and propel the story along. So during my dark nights of the soul, I ask myself, “Will my family or colleagues think I am plotting to kill them? Will they think that my narrator is a thinly disguised version of myself?” Most likely nobody gives my mental stability a second thought, but surely some do. I mean, think about Stephen King. Haven’t we all wondered at some point if the man is as warped as the books?

2. Will people like my books? We get so invested in our books—we want people to love them and their characters. Certainly we want people to buy our books, so that our contracts can get renewed, but mostly we want people to read them and enjoy them. So I work myself up into a state, even as I turn in my final manuscript, that for whatever reason someone out there will not enjoy my book and that I will have wasted his or her time. And I know that has happened, and I wish I could apologize to the poor reader who would have been better off with Janet Evanovich, but all I can say is, “I did the best I could.”

3. Is this stupid? Many of us write to entertain our readers, to give them a pleasant sense of escape. To accomplish that, we have to turbo-charge reality, making our fictional worlds a lot more event-filled and interesting than our everyday lives. We have to push plots pretty far sometimes, which always makes me wonder, “Are people going to roll their eyes and think this is ridiculous?” It’s always a fear, but it’s something we have to do to move our work beyond the mundane and into the realm of entertainment. And it’s always amazing to see how that all-important suspension-of-disbelief-o-meter has literally millions of settings, one for each reader, with no two exactly alike. We want our readers to have a good time, but how do we do that without insulting their intelligence? Oh, I lose sleep over that one.

4. Hasn’t this all been done before, and better than I’m doing it? I’m so thrilled to be writing in a genre I love, but I find it intimidating as hell. I am most definitely subject to the anxiety of influence, wondering if I can ever do anything different, unique, better than the greats. How do I work within the formulas of the genre but give them a different spin so that readers have an engaging read—and so that my agent will continue to represent me and my publisher will continue to want to invest in my books? I get a little depressed when I read something really fabulous, new or old, because I wonder if I’ll ever have someone think so highly of my work. And yet that sort of insecurity spurs me forward, forcing me to think more carefully about the work, the words, and even the marketing.

So how does this all figure into Androgynous Murder House Party? In a nutshell, the book has two very different mysteries to solve. The first is of the traditional variety—a key figure in a circle of friends is murdered, and the person’s ex-lover decides to investigate. Nothing new there. The second is of a more mind-melting variety: The reader has to figure out the gender of each of the six main characters. The fact that they all have androgynous names like Robin, Lee, Chris, and Alex doesn’t provide readers with many clues, so they have to use context, conversation, and behavior to figure it all out.

And all the questions above apply. Will people think that Robin Anders, my narrator, is a veiled representation of myself? God, I hope not, since Robin is a pill-popping, pretentious snob. Will people like the book? The reviews have been good so far, with some raves, but also with a few people saying they found the book “too clever by half” and too “cutesy.” (That last adjective really threw me for a loop. “Nasty”--perhaps. But “cutesy?”) Is the book stupid—could any of it really happen in “real life”? Of course not, though interestingly I haven’t heard any criticism (yet) that it’s too over the top, though it clearly is. And of course Sarah Caudwell has done an androgynous narrator already, so what have I really contributed to the genre? I hope I’ve done a new and different take on the Caudwell scenario. Her cast is a loving if impatient group of friends, while mine is composed of a bunch of back-stabbing, greedy egotists. Someone recently described Androgynous Murder House Party as “an episode of Friends in which everyone decides they hate each other,” and I just loved that.

Of course, my last and final question is: Will the Stiletto Gang ever invite me back to do another guest blog, after I’ve gone over the maximum word count and exposed my twisted mind to the innocent and unsuspecting mystery-reading public?

Steven Rigolosi

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Good Babysitter Is Hard to Find...

Child #1 has become quite the in-demand babysitter around these parts. She’s mature, responsible, and actually plays with the kids, not to mention that in-between age where she’s too young to drive and have a really major social life, but is old enough to stay up late and be responsible with other people’s precious cargo. All of this adds up to the fact that she’s got a lot of steady jobs and that people fight for her Saturday-night services. Even Jim and I have to get in line if we want her to babysit for her brother, the boy known affectionately as child #2. Her clients treat her very well, stocking their refrigerators in anticipation of her arrival, pre-ordering pizza and anything else she might want to eat for dinner, and warning their children that they’ll be going to bed early and without fuss, lest they incur the wrath of the babysitter. To top it all off, she makes a small fortune, often getting upwards of $70 or $80 for a weekend stint.

Makes me want to reconsider my career path. But then I remind myself that I really don’t like kids, can’t stay up late, and am not that responsible. Better to leave it to the professionals.

But as she was taking off for one of her most recent gigs, I got to thinking about my days as a babysitter. A few things came to mind:

1. There were no television shows on after the 11:00 news with the exception of Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, and the Late, Late Movie on ABC which was always a movie about a babysitter who gets killed after the 11:00 news and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert ended.

2. Nobody ordered me any food. I was usually left with a brick of Velveeta, some “macaroni” (what pasta was called before it became fancy), and a jug of apple juice and told to wing it. One night, I ingested so much Velveeta that I proceeded to throw up the instant I walked in the front door of my own house. I have not eaten Velveeta since and just typing the word Velveeta makes me queasy.

3. The pay stunk. I was paid a dollar an hour, regardless of the number of children involved. That meant that sometimes, several families in the neighborhood would dump all of their kids on me at the same time, meaning that they each only paid about .33c an hour for me to watch their little darlings, none of whom were potty trained. One time, I had eight children. (Remember, this was in the day when people had more than 2.3 children per family.) They all needed to be fed, bathed, and put to bed. Oh, and there was a dog. Who also wasn’t potty trained. I went home with $4 that night, even though the house was cleaner than when the parents left and I had taught one of the kids French. But only the curse words.

4. It was the early days of Saturday Night Live. That means that I saw every classic skit, the first time it aired. I watched Dan Ackroyd play Julia Child, and John Belushi do “chee-burger, chee-burger.” And I saw Elvis Costello play his first American gig, singing “Watching the Detectives” in all of his skinny jeaned, pigeon-toed glory. I was in his thrall. When I wasn’t worried about getting slaughtered by a babysitter-killing axe murderer.

5. I kept the house dark. I thought it would be a good idea to turn all of the lights off while babysitting. You know, to let the babysitter-killing axe murderer know that nobody was home so don’t bother to come looking for the babysitter to kill. I didn’t account for the robbers who would love to let themselves into a vacant house and steal all of my aunt’s estate jewelry.(I babysat for my cousins on a regular basis.) No, that didn’t cross my mind.

6. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone, touch the thermostat, or fall asleep. That made for a conversation-starved, freezing and/or overheated, sleep-deprived teenager. Ever met one of those? They’re not much fun to be around.

Sound like hell? It was. That’s why I’m so glad that people nowadays, in their quest to live normal lives outside of their children and have relationships with their significant others, have come to value the services of a good babysitter.

So what are your babysitting stories? Please share.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Writing Changed My Life

When reading Maggie's wonderful post about how writing saved her life, I have nothing to compare. However, when I began thinking about it, I realized writing has truly changed mine.

Many of you know I married young, raised five children, husband was gone a lot with the Seabees and when he retired the grandkids started arriving. I worked on and off through the years, wrote things like PTA newsletters, plays for my Camp Fire Girls, etc. I've always been a voracious reader and wrote short stories when I was a kid. While the kids were young tried my hand at two novels which were rejected almost immediately, tossed them out and decided I probably didn't have what it takes.

While babysitting grandkids I managed to write another historical family saga. It went through lots of rejections but after tons of rewrites, it was finally accepted for publication. I wrote another which was also accepted.

By this time, hubby and I had moved to the foothills of the Sierra where we now live and is the setting for my Deputy Tempe Crabtree novels. I switched to mysteries and wrote several of my Rocky Bluff crime novels--the first one published as an e-book, long before anyone had a clue what that was.

Rather than go into the whole long history of my writing and publishing, these are the things that changed my life because of writing.

1. I doubt I would have learned how to use computers as early as I did if it hadn't been for my writing. I got so tired of typing and retyping my books I was ready to try anything to make it easier. Of course I had to have lots of help from the fellow I bought the computer from.

2. I was one of the founding members of the San Joaquin chapter of Sisters in Crime and I've made so many friends there. I still attend the meetings whenever I have the opportunity. (I also belong to the L.A. and Central Coast chapters and have friends in both.)

3. Once my first mystery was published, I attended my first Bouchercon there I met
so many wonderful people in the mystery field--authors and fans.

4. I've since attended other Bouchercons, Left Coast Crimes, Mayhem in the Midlands and other mystery cons and made more friends. Going to one of these events now is like attending a family reunion. It's so much fun to see people I know and enjoy being around even if it is only once a year.

5. To get to all these places, hubby and I usually fly. I used to be a bit nervous--now I think of it as an adventure--even when I end up having to spend the night in an airport because of a missed flight due to weather, or being the last flight into Chicago during blizzard.

6. Together, we've visited places all over the country we've never seen before and probably would never have gone to if it hadn't been for the mystery cons.

7. Alone, I've been to Alaska twice. The first time, I went to visit a school in a tiny village and was driven there on a frozen river. The second time, I stayed with a Native woman I'd met and visited a school in Wasilla.

8. I was fortunate to be asked to be an instructor at the Maui Writers Retreat in Maui--and took hubby along--he who didn't think he ever wanted to go to Hawaii and had the time of his life while I worked.

9. I'm on the board of directors for the Public Safety Writers Association and I'm the program chair for their annual conference in Las Vegas and I've met the most fascinating experts in the public safety field as well as top notch mystery writers who've agreed to come and teach.

10. If I wasn't a mystery writer I might be like some of my friends who are my age who mostly talk about their ailments, their grandkids (I love mine and my great grandkids but I have to many I'd monopolize the conversation if I told about each one of them), how bored they are, or gossiping.

So, you can see, my life has really been changed by my writing.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Going the Distance

In the past Evelyn David has posted two blogs a week at The Stiletto Gang. That was because Evelyn David is really two people: Marian Borden and me, Rhonda Dossett. We write under the pen name "Evelyn David." Going forward, we will just be writing one blog, on Mondays. We're hoping to use the extra time to write our next novel. So how do we write together? And why?

In addition to the obvious perils of two people working together on any project, much less a book, we also live half-way across the country from each other – Marian in New York, I'm in Oklahoma. We haven't met in person. For the past ... I'm not sure how long now, five years? Six years since we started writing together? I just know we were both younger when we began and had no idea of the possible pitfalls. Because we were clueless about what could go wrong, we just did it. We wrote a book together. We wrote together just using email. No phone calls until after we had sold our first story. I think that made a difference. Writing to each other is different than placing phone calls. Exchanging emails gave us the time and space to put down our ideas and respond to the other's questions and concerns in a fuller manner than what happens when we talk on the phone. Plus, with emails you have a record for reference later.

We had fun during the writing process. The pain came later when we got involved with publishers, agents, and the business side of writing. The publishing world is not for wimps! And definitely not for quitters! You have to really want to see your book published to go through the pain of rejections from agents and the sheer mind-numbing, snail's pace of getting a simple yes or no from a publisher. Four to six months for a response is not unusual. In what other industry or profession is that kind of time delay even a possibility? And royalty payments to authors? If you're lucky and your publisher pays on time (which is apparently not the norm), you'll see a check every six months. Often it's more like nine months between checks. And if you're not getting four figure advances, that's a long time between paydays. Don't quit your day job.

Publishing isn't fun, but writing is! Especially with someone who shares your sense of humor and work ethic. We divide up the scenes, then pass them back and forth so much that in the end, it's "Evelyn David's" writing, not Marian's or Rhonda's. We both love writing dialogue – that's the candy for us. Setting the scene, plotting the action sequences, that's more difficult and rewarding in another way. I write by seeing and hearing the words in my mind first, much like watching a movie screen in my head playing in my head. Then I put the words down on paper – or rather use a keyboard to type them into a Word document.

We each write all characters, although I confess to having favorites. "Mac Sullivan and Rachel Brenner" are our main human characters, but I love writing "Edgar" and "J.J." best. It's always a treat when I get first crack at one of their scenes. If you ever watched the old tv series, Gunsmoke, you'll understand when I say that "J.J. and Edgar" are Mac Sullivan's "Doc and Festus." On the surface they argue and appear to dislike each other. But underneath everyone knows (except maybe the characters) there's a bond developing.

There's a bond between co-authors. If you write a book with another person, at the end of the process you will have traveled a journey together that is unique and not completely understandable to friends and family looking on. From start to finish, it takes "Evelyn David" about 8 months to write a book. We both have day jobs and we're terrible procrastinators, so we probably, if pushed to meet a deadline, could write one in half that time. We dither a lot before we get started, try to solve the world's problems, angst over the stresses of the publishing world – then finally settle into writing a couple of chapters a week. Around the end of the first third of the book, we crash headlong into a wall (others call this writer's block). It might take us two or three weeks to get past that wall, or around it. Then things usually move much quicker, with the last few chapters coming in a rush. Believe me, there is nothing better in the world than typing the words "The End" on that last page of your finished novel.

Well, one thing is better ... having someone to shares that long journey with you.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by Susan McBride

One of the questions that writers are asked most frequently has to be, "Where do you get your ideas?" I remember hearing Denise Swanson once tell someone, "I order mine from J.C. Penney," which I thought was pretty funny. Personally, I pluck mine from the Idea Tree which grows right beside the Money Tree in my backyard (oh, man, don't I wish!).

Okay, seriously, I find ideas everywhere all the time. It's almost impossible for me to go out anymore--or to take a shower or get on the treadmill--without the seed for a plot planting itself in my mind. When I first began writing seriously post-college, I'd cut stories from the newspaper that intrigued me, usually those concerning a missing person or a baffling homicide that got me thinking, "What if it had happened this way instead?"

That's how I wrote AND THEN SHE WAS GONE, my very first published mystery. A little girl had gone missing from a public park in broad daylight in Plano, Texas, with loads of people around watching T-ball games; yet no one had seen a thing. That bothered me to no end until I had to sit down and write about it. The next Maggie Ryan book to follow, OVERKILL, had its plot loosely based on a school bus shooting in St. Louis. Something about being able to control what happened in my fictional tales had a soothing effect on me, like justice did win out (even if it doesn't always in real-life).

Once I started writing the humorous Debutante Dropout Mysteries, I couldn't exactly use such heart-wrenching real-life stories as my jumping-off point. I had to tone things down a lot (although there's no on-the-page violence or much of anything graphic except emotion in either GONE or OVERKILL). BLUE BLOOD, the first in the series to feature society rebel Andy Kendricks, involved the murder of the loathsome owner of a restaurant called Jugs (think "Hooters" with a hillbilly theme). I'd gotten so sick of seeing ginormous Hooters billboards all over Dallas that it felt pretty good to exterminate Bud Hartman, a sexist and hardly beloved character. Next, in THE GOOD GIRL'S GUIDE TO MURDER, I offed a Texan version of Martha Stewart after watching one too many of Martha's holiday specials and feeling like an inadequate dolt. I must admit, that felt very cathartic, too.

When I was asked to write THE DEBS young adult series, I had to change my mind-set. I mean, I wasn't going to kill anyone in those books (except maybe with dirty looks and reputation-destroying words). Then I got to thinking about the teens and twentysomethings I know, and I realized that technology might have changed since my high school days but emotions had not. So the ideas for the plotlines in THE DEBS; LOVE, LIES, AND TEXAS DIPS; and the forthcoming GLOVES OFF stemmed from relationship issues. Who hasn't experienced a friend's betrayal, a broken heart, a mother's ultimatum, or a dream dashed? The best part about writing those novels was getting to re-enact some of my high school drama via the characters in the book...and getting to have my debs say all the witty and acerbic things that I wish I'd said in similar circumstances. Ah, sometimes it's really therapeutic playing God, at least on the page.

When the chance came to write THE COUGAR CLUB, I leapt at it. I'd been dying to write about women my age who happened to date younger men (I only dated one but I ended up marrying him). I'd gotten sick and tired of the way the media portrays "Cougars" as desperate old hags with fake boobs, tummy tucks, spray-on tans, platinum hair, and Botoxed features. My friends in their 40s and 50s who've dated and/or married younger guys are smart, successful, classy, and real. So I came up with the idea of three women who'd been friends in childhood but slowly drifted apart through the years because of jobs, marriage, children, and distance. When they're all 45, they end up coming together again as they each hit huge potholes in their respective roads. What they help each other to realize is that true friendship never dies, the only way to live is real, and you're never too old to follow your heart. These are the middle-aged (but hardly old) women I know. Heck, the kind of woman I am.

I've got a zillion ideas floating around my brain for the next books I need to write (namely, a young adult novel that isn't a DEBS book and another stand-alone novel to follow THE COUGAR CLUB). The hardest part for me is getting the ideas down on paper for my agents and editors to see in a way that makes sense and conveys all the nuances I'm imagining. But enough about my Idea Tree. I'd love to hear from y'all. Do you order from J.C. Penney like Denise? Cut out pieces from the newspaper? Eavesdrop in restaurants? Inquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Writer's Whirlwind

With my current publicity photo as proof, you can see that while some authors get writer’s block, I get stumped!

Hurricane Ike was due to hit the Louisiana coast near Lake Charles on September 12, 2008. I boarded up the windows and delivered my wife Raejean and our dog to my mother’s house on higher ground. Forecasters predicted the storm surge would put River Road under three feet of water (and two feet under our house, which sits on eight-foot pilings on the Calcasieu River near the I-10 bridge). Throughout the night, I watched the water rise, rip our dock apart, and slosh past the predicted mark under our house to engulf equipment I had placed on sawhorses. Then the churning water lurched up the stairs until there was six feet of water under our house. At daybreak, I remembered promising my neighbors to feed their cat, so I waded through rushing, neck-deep water with wind-driven rain stinging my face.

Ike, the third most destructive hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States, left us with thousands of dollars worth of damage and one magnificent gift, a two-ton cypress stump that drifted over our “hurricane” fence from the swamp that had been clearcut in the 1920s. Five days later, a neighbor boated me to the head of River Road, where Raejean picked me up.

That meeting was its own miracle, because Raejean and I had dated for two months in 1983, when I was teaching at Lamar University, then didn’t hear from each other for twenty-two years. One morning, I opened my e-mail and there she was again. After a whirlwind romance, we married on January 4, 2008.

The birth of A Savage Wisdom has its own drama. By 1992 I had published two small-press novels and thought I could interest a major press in the story of the only woman executed in Louisiana’s electric chair. After researching the Valentine’s Day crime of Toni Jo Henry—a drug addict and prostitute by 14—I realized that she was not a sympathetic character.

Instead, I became interested in how an innocent person could transform into a cold-blooded murderer, so, in my “imaginative reconstruction,” I reversed much of her story, making her an ingénue and the novel a study in deception. After four years of work, I knew it was the best novel I would ever write.

I submitted it again and again to agents and editors who all said the same thing: the writing is brilliant, but we don’t think we could sell this because it’s not really true crime, nor is it a murder mystery or any other sub-genre we know of.

After seven years, I decided that my next best chance would be to secure a major-house publication through one of their contests, so I packed it off to a competition sponsored by two well-known New York publishers.

I was thrilled when I heard that Savage was one of five finalists. After another wait, I was dejected by the news of its second-place finish. But here’s the shocker: the first-place novel was not even listed among the original five. What happened? I believe the final editors saw that a friend’s manuscript was not among the finalists and overrode the initial screeners’ decisions.

Two years later, I saw that a movie based on Toni Jo’s life would be released in
2008. Thinking that interest generated by the movie would increase sales, I luckily found a small press, Thunder Rain, willing to publish Savage quickly.

The novel has done exceedingly well in Louisiana, and in May of 2009 it launched as a Kindle book on, climbing three times to #5 in the competitive True Crime/Murder & Mayhem category.

Dr. Norman German
Winner of the Deep South Writers' Contest, and author of A Savage Wisdom (Thunder Rain Publishing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Writing Can Save Your Life

We’re writing about writing this week at the Stiletto Gang. After a very happy Hallopalooza, and a great big shout-out to Southern Evelyn David for thinking this up while working her tail off at her day job, we’re settling back in to posting about the things we love, the things we think about, and the things we’d like others to love and think about. So this week it’s writing and I have a lot to say.

Not that that’s different from any other week.

The Northern half of Evelyn David and I talk about this quite a bit and she was the impetus behind a talk I gave in Tennessee last year that I called “Writing Can Save Your Life.” See, I didn’t started writing in earnest until I turned 39. It seemed like I had passed through my thirties thinking “I’ll write later” when I was finished potty training, house breaking, and doing lots of little things every day that added up to big things when the day was done. I kept putting it off until a rather round birthday approached and I realized “I am middle aged. I’d better get moving.” So I started to write and cranked out Murder 101 in a year, focusing on little else. I started Extracurricular Activities while sending out query letters to agents until the wonderful Deborah came knocking. And I continued writing while I waited to hear from the wonderful Kelley that indeed, she wanted to publish my books. I was so glad I decided to write.

Fate had a different idea of how my story would turn out, though, for on the day that I received my contracts for the first two books in the Murder 101 series, I was also diagnosed with cancer. And not just any cancer, “a bad one” as an acquaintance would say when my husband told her about the news. But instead of focusing on how bad the situation was (and it was) and how I should have been able to focus on the happiness of seeing my dream come true (that’s life, baby), I continued to write. I wrote through three rounds of chemo, one horrendous surgery, twenty radiation treatments, more chemo, two biopsies, a clinical trial, more chemo, and finally, the clinical trial that changed my prognosis from dire to positive. Because as bad as Alison Bergeron’s life may seem to those of you who read about her in every installment, she has never had cancer and she never will.

What she has is man trouble, murder trouble, and dog trouble. She falls down in too-high heels, a lot. She says the wrong thing at the wrong time and zigs when she should zag. She deals with life’s little problems, which to her, seem like huge problems. That’s why I love her. And that’s why I write.

I love writing, but in particular, I love my characters and try to do the best by them. Because as bad a day as I am having, I can make theirs that much better. I can get out of my own head and into somebody else’s. I can let them live happily ever after or make them hit a giant bump in the road, a bump that will soon by smoothed over. They have their ups and downs and hopefully, always end in “up.” But ultimately, I always know what’s going to happen to them, and that kind of control is hard to come by in the real world.

I have been on a lot of medicine and have been attended to by the smartest people the best insurance in the world can get you access to. I’m lucky that way. But I’ve also been supported by devoted family and friends and despite what I have had to go through, been able to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing: write. Writing is my passion and it gives me purpose. Without it, I don’t know how I would have survived.

Do what you love every day. It doesn’t have to be writing, but if it is, make it a point to escape for a moment or two every day and go to your other “world.” Because for me, in a very real sense, writing saved my life.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Some Tidbits About My Latest Book

For the entire month of October I was on a virtual book tour where I jumped from blog to blog every day except on the weekends.

Though easier than a regular book tour in that I didn't have to dress up and drive off to various book stores, I did have to spend a lot of time on the computer writing about Dispel the Mist and answering interview questions.

I probably had more fun writing Dispel the Mist the any of my other Deputy Tempe Crabtree mysteries. In every one of the books in this series there are always Native American elements both mystical and real. This latest book was conceived after I learned about the legend of the Hairy Man. The Tule River Indian Reservation is very near where I live. When I learned the Indians not only had a legend about a Hairy Man, there also was an ancient pictograph of him and his family in a rock shelter called The Painted Rock.

Once I started asking questions about the Painted Rock site I was invited to go on a field trip with the local anthropology class and take a look at the Hairy Man. It isn't ever going to be a tourist attraction. The rock shelter is a huge boulder with other boulders piled ontop making the cave where this painting and many others are located on the rock surfaces. It is very difficult getting down the boulder to enter the cave like entrance. In fact, if it hadn't been for the much younger college students who helped me down, I'd have never made it.

The paintings, though faded, are still quite discernible despite the fact they are thought to be between 500 and a 1000 years old. I was definitely inspired at that moment.

The Hairy Man has an important place in Dispel the Mist. The story centers on the suspicious death of a popular county supervisor who has roots in both the Indian and the Hispanic communities. There is controversy over a hotel complex the Indians want to build alongside the highway and a licensed group home for developmentally disabled women in an up-scale neighborhood.

Tempe is haunted by unsettling dreams that may or may not be prophetic.

For a look at the Hairy Man on the Painted Rock, take a look at the book video for Dispel the Mist.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Hallopalooza Reveal & Winners!

Thank you for joining us on our first Hallopalooza - our first Stiletto Gang Scavenger Hunt. We hope you had fun, enjoyed the mystery, and found some new blogs to visit on a regular basis!

If you'd like to read the entire mystery in one location, we are including a link to the Evelyn David website where you'll find a PDF file of the story.

The Halloween Ball Mystery introduced a new character, Private Detective Milla Adams. Milla had to interview many suspects over the weekend, sort through many red herrings, and travel down many blind alleys. Sometimes the best way to figure out "whodunit" is by eliminating the suspects who "couldn't have dunit." Milla and the winners did just that.

Steven McCall killed Carla Jordan. Wearing a cape and witch's mask, he followed her to the conservatory after she stole a file from G. Winston Howard's study. The file contained information about McCall's crooked construction company - Sticks & Stones. Carla Jordan tried to reveal her killer's identiy by clutching several pebbles and a stick in her hand. Milla eliminated the other suspects based on what they were wearing during the party, their opportunity to commit the crime, and their lack of a motive.

Congratulations! The readers who solved the mystery are:
Cate Matheny
Tara Woods
Helen Kiker
Shirley Nienkark
Kathleen Spencer
Janet Cearley
Darcy Odden

A random drawing from the names above was held.

Janet Cearley is the winner of the $50 gift certificate to a book store of her choice, plus a copy of A Savage Wisdom by Dr. Norman German.

The runners up win the following:
Cate Matheny - Misa Ramirez mystery
Tara Woods - Susan McBride mystery
Helen Kiker - Rachel Brady mystery
Shirley Nienkark - Marilyn Meredith mystery
Kathleen Spencer - Maggie Barbieri mystery
Darcy Odden - Evelyn David mystery

The winners will be contacted by e-mail to make arrangements for delivery of the prizes.

As of noon on Nov. 2, 2009, we also have the following information from these blog owners about the winners of their individual blog prizes. Please check at the individual blogs for more information and for other winners:

Poe's Deadly Daughters:
Winners are:
Sandra Parshall's Crime and Punishment mug goes to : PK the Bookeemonster
Lonnie Cruse's signed book goes to: Helen Kiker
Sharon Wildwind's signed book goes to: Shirley (boots9k)

Morgan Mandel's Blog - Double M's Take on Books, Blogs, Dogs, Networking & Life
Winner of a Killer Career cap or tee shirt is Jonnie (edmontonjb) from

Mysterious Musings
Winners for Mysterious Musings:
Copy of The Dark Backward by Julia Buckley - kaisquared and janel
Winners should e-mail Julia with their contact information.

Meanderings & Muses
The winner at Meanderings and Muses:
Copy of Sharon Potts' In Their Blood - Penny Tuttle

America Comes Alive
The winners from America Comes Alive:
$20 Amazon gift certificate—Anne Pichette
Copy of Election Day - boots9k

Lesa's Book Critiques
Winners from Lesa's Book Critiques are:
Jessica Blair won Hex in High Heels by Linda Wisdom Janewon Sharon Fiffer's Scary Stuff.

Fang Face
Winner of copy of Fang Face is: Edith Max

The Stiletto Gang