Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Monster under the Crepe Myrtle

When I was six years old my parents, younger brother, and I lived in a house next door to my grandparents in a neighborhood parked on the edge of a sleepy southern Oklahoma town. My brother and I had the run of both places, probably ten acres or more of hay pasture, vegetable gardens and flowerbeds to get lost in.

I look back on that summer before first grade as one big adventure. I had two friends my same age and gender who lived in houses off the same dusty road. And of course my brother was always three steps behind whether or not I wanted him to be. We played hard from early morning until the evening mosquitoes drove us inside.

Our favorite games were skits – Daniel Boone was popular on television that year. And we knew all the episodes by heart. We reenacted the battles, protected the fort, shared the genuine imitation coonskin cap owned by my brother, and of necessity, expanded the roles of the supporting characters (they got surly otherwise). Yes, I was usually directing the action and handing out lines to my cast. I loved making up stories.

My grandmother was a natural storyteller. I don't remember if her stories were particularly good or bad, but they certainly held our attention that summer. She'd take us fishing and while we watched the cork bob up and down, she'd tell us real, blood and guts stories. She wasn't afraid to kill off the main characters, leaving us in tears, or scare the you-know-what out of us with descriptions of creatures she had hiding behind every gnarly bush or plot twist. We took in every nuance of the yarns she told us and begged for more. No fairy tales for us, we wanted adventure and most of all mystery.

She also created and tended massive flowerbeds. Today, for most families, their whole yard isn't nearly as large as her flowerbeds. Ornamental trees, shrubs, honeysuckle, rose bushes, tiger lilies, massive hydrangeas, she planted them all together and created a true riot of color and smell. Even though we weren't supposed to, we played hide and seek in those flowerbeds, dodging honey bees, collecting horned toads, and finding the occasional turtle or two.

One hot summer morning I headed for my favorite hiding place – a hollowed out area under a massive crepe myrtle tree near the barbed wire fence separating the back of the flowerbed from the hay pasture. Running full out, bare feet flying, I dove under the heavy blooms and encountered my first real monster.

It was huge. At least three times my size. Bristly hair, stretched leathery skin, flat nose, and the smell … the smell was the worst thing I could have ever imagined. The gates of hell had surely been left open and something evil and vile had escaped. I screamed and scrambled backwards as fast as possible, catching skin and hair on rose thorns and barbed wire.

My location betrayed, my cohorts arrived posthaste and after a collective survey of my ragged condition, and with visible trepidation, they slowly advanced close enough to peer beneath the branches. While they stood with stunned disbelief etched across their faces, I went for help.

Okay – it wasn't a monster. It was a 200-pound hog that had escaped from the stockyard about a mile away which had died in that dark spot under the crepe myrtle. The hog was so bloated, so badly distorted, that a six year old would never recognize it for anything other than a monster.

My friends and I told and retold that adventure until it barely resembled the original event. I made up whole stories about that hog and why it ended up in my grandmother's flowerbed. In essence, I created my first murder mystery.

There was a real monster there with us that day, but we wouldn't know it for several months; childhood leukemia – a death sentence back in 1964. One of my friends never started first grade with us that fall, she was too ill. But I can still see her face when we retold that story– that look of real pleasure as we scared each other over and over.

So you see, I've loved mysteries for a long, long time.

Today, I'm on my way to Chicago to attend the Love Is Murder conference. I'm going to be on two panels – "We Killed" and "Cupid's Call." Stop by and chat about monsters, mysteries, or even hogs, if you're in the area.

Evelyn David

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Editor, My Editor!

In my other life, I am an editor. Nothing so glamorous as mystery novels, I assure you—I’m a college textbook editor. I help authors craft the “story” of their book—or what will be the overall sales handle—help them lay out the organization, direct them toward what features to include and how to handle them, and give them gentle nudges towards completion of the manuscript along the way. I’m a cheerleader with a laptop and a knowledge of what sells in a particular market, say, like the book I’m working on now, the Introduction to Dinosaurs course. Not so different from what my editor does, with a difference: none of the authors with whom I work whine as much as I do.

On that we can rely, as the song goes.

My third novel, now called “Quick Study,” as opposed to “Book 3,” as it was known for most of last year, was due to my editor on December 31, 2007. As that date approached and I got wrapped up—literally—in the holiday hubbub, the ending of the novel got further and further away from my grasp. I have never missed a deadline. Never. So, I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote when the ham was in the oven on Christmas Eve, mere minutes before my loud, Irish, family descended on us. I wrote after a serious bout of the stomach flu the day after Christmas. (I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty. And the kids get really, really terrified when Mommy makes scary noises.) I wrote while my kids played with their new Wii, and my husband—on holiday break from teaching—lounged downstairs, the most well-deserved session of lounging that you could imagine. (More in a future blog on why I will never be a teacher.) I wrote while the dog stared at me for hours on end as if to say, “Aren’t you done with the dang thing yet?”

It was painful.

At this point, I think it’s relevant to say that I used to be disparaging towards parents who treated pink eye like the bubonic plague. Until I got pink eye and awoke one morning only to find that I couldn’t open my eyes. And I used to scoff at writers who pronounced our profession “hard.” Until I became a writer who had deadlines. And now I have had my comeuppance.

You know what? Writing is hard. But I finished and I hit “send” on New Year’s Eve. Because I MAKE MY DEADLINES, DARN IT!

You’d think I’d be relieved. Yet, with each passing day, dread gnaws at my insides. Because, in my haste to end the novel, the best I could come with was: “And then they all died. THE END.”

That’s not really the end, but it’s pretty darn close.

So, I await my editor’s wise words, her gentle coaching, her therapeutic massaging of what I think are maybe the best 300,000 words of the lot, and not so great 102, 943 words in a four-hundred page manuscript.

And more than once while I wait, I’ll think, “they’re really not paying her enough” something I hope some of my authors say about me as I plow through pages and pages of dissertation on anything from reading skills to paleobiology.

It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Bit of History

By way of introduction, I am the granny of the group. I’ve been on this planet for a long, long time. I remember listening to President Roosevelt on the radio announcing that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. (Maybe my memory has been enhanced a bit by hearing that announcement so many times afterwards.)

Despite the fact I grew up during World War II, I had an absolutely wonderful childhood. In fact my imagination was enhanced by the war. Because they were sending English children to various places to be safe, I told everyone my little sister was a princess and we were caring for her until the war was over. No one really believed me except my sister, who for years thought she was adopted.

Blackouts (when the whole city of Los Angeles went dark) were great fun. You have no idea how exciting it was to ride in a car with no headlights, no lights on the street or traffic lights. (I’m sure my parents were not as thrilled as I was.) We had an inner room inside our house where we could wait until the air raid was over and a place we could have a small light. We played board games and ate snacks my mom had stashed away in the cupboards.

My secret ambition was to be a spy if and when the enemy took over our city. Who would suspect a kid? My friends and I dug secret tunnels in the empty lots and concocted poisons to take care of the enemy. None of our parents had any idea what we were up to because back in those times, as long as you were home for dinner no one worried.

On a regular basis the air raid warden held meetings at his home and everyone in the neighborhood was expected to attend. The adults learned how to grow victory gardens and do first aid, we kids had a great time playing hide’n go seek and various other games. The refreshments were always great despite the fact sugar was rationed.

I organized 4th of July parades with the kids in the neighborhood, everyone decorating their bikes and wagons.

And to bring it around to writing related matters, I wrote plays for my friends to perform, in middle school (called junior high back then) and I put out my own magazine and authored all the stories and articles.

Now, I’m the author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series (Judgment Fire) as well as other books. I’d never thought of my series as being cozy, though since my characters don’t swear, not much blood is spilled on stage, there’s a laugh or two, and yes, the bad guy always gets it in the in, I guess the term cozy fits.

Years ago I wore high heels, now I stick to whatever is comfortable. Despite all this, I’m extremely pleased I was asked to join these talented young women.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Shoes Make the Writer

I promise to circle back to shoes. This is the Stiletto Gang and since we're women and we're mystery writers, we were impressed with our little wordplay. I know nothing about stiletto knives, but as a shoe whore I've got plenty to say about stiletto heels.

But first, why another blog from a bunch of mystery writers?

Here's the down and dirty, simple truth. Why not? We're writers. Blogging is a way of touching base with fellow mystery fans; a way of promoting our books; and it's what we do. We write (or play free cell).

I've been watching a lot of political debates lately and always sympathize with the candidate who has to give the first answer. Sure you get your point out early, but you just know that the other guy (gal) has an extra few minutes to figure out something cleverer to say.

So it was probably not the smartest thing to volunteer to write the first entry for The Stiletto Gang. But then it struck me that the best way to meet the challenge is to quote somebody smarter than me: Carolyn Hart.

At the last Malice Domestic, she explained why she wrote cozy mysteries. "In my books, the good guys always win."

It was the proverbial light bulb moment. Now I knew why I loved writing mysteries. Mini-control freak that I am, writing who-dunnits gives me the opportunity to create a universe with the outcomes I want. In the world of Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, and Whiskey, the adorable and adored Irish wolfhound, the good guys always prevail.

That doesn't mean that I want a Pollyanna solving mysteries in her spare time. Sure there are days when I want life to be simple. I want some blessings that aren't in disguise. But I want to create complex, multi-layered characters who encounter conflict and struggle not with black-and-white issues, but with all the shades of gray that life entails.

My good guys love coconut cream pie, and have the love handles to show for it. My heroines have ex-husbands who cheated on them, and they have footprints on their backs from being doormats. They have pasts that haunt them, futures that worry them, and bills to pay. Me too. The question isn't whether evil exists in my world. It most certainly does. It's just that I get to thwart it, one killer at a time.

Now, a tad late in the essay, let me say welcome to The Stiletto Gang blog. We're four writers, although two of us share a name. Evelyn David has a split personality. I'm Marian, the Northern half, and I live in New York. Rhonda, the Southern half, lives in Oklahoma. Our first mystery is Murder Off the Books (Echelon, 2007). We're frantically finishing the sequel, Murder Takes the Cake. Check out our web site,, and discover the intriguing secret of how our book was written.

Tomorrow you'll meet Marilyn Meredith. Marilyn is the author of the acclaimed Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, as well as the Rocky Bluff P.D. series.

Wednesdays, Maggie Barbieri, author of the Allison Bergeron series (which has taken off like gangbusters), mans the helm.

Thursdays, Rhonda Dossett, the Southern half of Evelyn David, puts pen to paper (make that fingers to keyboard, but you get the drift.)

Fridays, we'd love to hear from you. Share your thoughts in a guest blog.

A promise is a promise. Let me circle back to stiletto heels. I'm a writer, so let's be real. My default writing footwear is bedroom slippers. For dress-up, I wear a pair of black suede Merrell slip-ons. When I win an Edgar, I'll wear stiletto heels. Promise.

My wish for you all: a world where the men are good looking; the women are brilliant and beautiful; the dogs are loyal and loving ... and where the good guys always win.

Evelyn David