Friday, February 29, 2008

Deleted Scenes

Award-winning investigative reporter--and now Agatha nominee--Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Along with her 24 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a legislative aide in the United States Senate (working on the Freedom of Information Act) and worked at Rolling Stone Magazine with Hunter S. Thompson. Her first mysteries, Prime Time and Face Time, were best sellers. Air Time and Drive Time are coming soon from MIRA. And this just in: Prime Time is an AGATHA nominee for Best First Mystery.

Thirty (or so) years ago, when I was just starting as a TV reporter, my first news director (think Lou Grant) gave me some advice that baffled me at the time. He said, “The hardest part about writing a news story is deciding what to leave out.”

I was such a newbie, I thought the hardest part about writing a news story was—well, everything. But as I began to learn my craft, I realized he was right. You don’t have to “empty your notebook” into your story. You don’t have to tell everything you know.

And now, writing mysteries, isn’t it the same?

When I finished the first draft of Prime Time, I joyfully took the floppy disk with my dear first novel on it to the Kinko’s down the block from Channel 7. “Could you print this for me?” I asked. I lowered my eyes, then looked modestly back up at the copy kid. “It’s my novel.”

“Sure, lady,” he said. Not that impressed. But I was—exultant—that soon I would soon see my very first manuscript printed out on actual paper.

Two hours later, I returned as instructed. This time the kid said, “Oh, you’re the one with the novel.” “Yes,” I replied, fluttering my eyelashes, wondering if maybe he had a sister or mom who would eventually love it.

He bent down under the counter, and pulled out a ream box of paper. “Oh, thanks,” I said, and turned toward the cash register.

“Hang on,” he replied. He leaned back down under the counter, and pulled out another ream box of paper. “Here’s the rest of it,” he said, placing it on the counter. “Guess your book’s pretty long.”

I had neglected to number the pages. But, turned out, it was 723. Seven hundred and twenty three pages.

And that meant Four. Hundred. Pages. Had to go.

Which brings us back to my news director. He was right again. I had to decide which of my precious words to leave out. More on that in a minute.

Last night, my husband and I watched a pretty good movie on DVD. When it was over, I clicked to the deleted scenes. “Why do you always want to watch the deleted scenes?” Jonathan asked. “They’re deleted.”

But you know why. Those deleted scenes—and the reasons the director gives for cutting them—are a little private seminar-on-the-couch on how to decide what to leave out. It works for movies, it works for our mysteries.

For instance. One scene by itself was perfectly good. But the director explained it had to be cut because it would slow the action.

In my head, I rewound, and played that part of the movie back including the deleted scene. He was right. It would have dragged.

He moved on to another very well-acted scene, where two characters slowly learned more about each other. I don’t think I imagined the regret I heard in his voice, as he described how tough it was to inform the actors that this emotional and well-shot scene was going to hit the cutting room floor. But, his analysis showed, nothing was really learned. The plot wasn’t advanced. Sorry, guys. Cut.

Finally, he showed a scene near the end. It took place in a living room, where a phone call brought good news that a missing father was coming home, and the viewer saw that his son had been born in his absence. It was sweet and touching.

Nope. It pulled the punch, the director said. How much better, he explained, to pick up the action with the father arriving home. To have the viewer see the baby—for the first time—at the same time the father did. Yes, of course. Much better.

Deleted scenes. The director loved them when he shot them. But—even more-- he loved what was left without them.

Of course, part of the difficulty with cutting is fear. Fear you’re going to ruin something. Fear you’ll never be able to put together words so nicely again. Fear you’ll cut the wrong thing.

But you’re the director in your mystery, right? You yell ‘action!’ every time you begin to write. And the characters (sometimes) do what you say. Part of the fun of cutting is seeing the sleek, fast-paced page-turner that emerges--as you begin to compile your own reel of deleted scenes.

It’s your power. Your strength. Decide which words to leave out. Do it. You’ll never miss them.

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where Are My TV Shows?

Ever since I was old enough to understand that those tiny people in the box were telling me stories, I've been hooked on television. And each year since I was about five years old, I've had a couple of favorite programs; my shows. Something I looked forward to each week, my little escape from a not-so-glittery reality.

My brother and I used to watch Dark Shadows, hiding behind a blanket on the sofa, knee socks tied around our necks to prevent vampire bites and drinking cold sweet tea in goblets - to mimic Barnabas's brandy snifters

For my shows I've given up much and suffered mightily: I've done chores early so I could watch the original Cinderella; rushed through homework so I could see the Big Valley; fought bloody battles with my sibling for control of the tv remote (and before that the tv knob) so I could watch Here Come the Brides and Emergency; skipped high school play practice to watch the movie Sybil; developed 24-hour illnesses so I wouldn't miss a minute of a Cagney & Lacey marathon; considered changing my major in college so I wouldn't miss Ryan's Hope; and warned people I would not be answering the phone or door or tolerating any conversation whatsoever during my Wednesday night episode of The West Wing.

And today? I love Medium when I can find it and remember the day it's airing. Where has all the excitement gone? I mostly channel surf now. Remember the thrill of getting the Fall Preview edition of TV Guide? I'd pick out my new shows for the year by pouring over the blurbs and photos. Then I'd fix my tv watching schedule with the skill of an air traffic controller – my old favorites plus four or five new ones that I would sample. If I didn't like the new ones, there was always time to give the second stringers an audition.

Not any more. New shows come and go within the first couple of airings. The older shows don't stick to any discernable schedule. And if you miss an original episode because of breaking news, weather advisories, or power outages? Don't count on seeing it during the summer reruns. Reruns are scattered during the regular season and the summer has morphed into a reality-tv nightmare.

I admit it. I love dramas and light romantic comedies. I'm not entertained by watching people eat fresh cow tumors or some other stomach-churning oddity. I don't like watching people being ridiculed by other people. I want the good guys and gals to win; the evildoers to get their just rewards; and the hero and heroine to ride off into the sunset at the end.

Where are my tv shows?

Evelyn David

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sex Sells (but that doesn't mean I'm going to write about it)

To start, more spoilers: Alison and Crawford do have a relationship that involves sex. I just don’t think about it—or write about it very much. I have had some interesting feedback from interesting sources (that means you, MOM) about why my books are so chaste. About why I don’t include explicit sex. About why, in “Murder 101,” after only meeting a few days earlier, Alison and Crawford didn’t jump into bed thereby acknowledging and putting a name to their lust.

The answer’s simple: I grew up Catholic and I have to live in this world.

Let me explain. Point #1: Catholicism. I, like Marian, had a very religious upbringing but of the Catholic variety. There were nuns, priests, virgins, guilt, more guilt, and CYO basketball. That’s it. Nothing else. When we weren’t going to church, or trying to make up sins to confess at the tender age of eight lest the priest get the impression that we thought we were perfect (god forbid), or playing basketball, we were thinking about one of those things. Because to think about anything else—including and mostly SEX—was a mortal sin. And we all know what you got from that: a big, black blemish on your soul. That was your first-class, one-way ticket to HELL. I’m sure that there are many people out there who grew up in a similar fashion who have led productive lives and written erotica even but the message that was given to me—“Virgins RULE!” (one that I have now embraced given that I have a teenage daughter)—was taken to heart. I have matured somewhat since that time, but the idea of writing about what goes on in one’s bedroom—even if the “one” is a fictional character—is anathema to me.

Point #2: living in this world. I have two children—one not even a “tween” and one a full-fledged teen—and a husband. I live in a very small town which is, technically, not even a town—it’s a village. The ‘town’ is where we go to do the really exciting stuff. I shop locally, worship just an eighth of a mile from my house, am a member of the PTA, and try to lead a relatively upstanding life. Could you imagine the looks I might get if I walked into the local gift shop, half of the town having just read something I had written that included the words “throbbing member” (and I’m not talking about those of us who get worked up at Booster Club meetings) and trying to purchase a hostess gift? I can’t.

After the publication of my first novel I ventured down to the local ball field to watch my husband play softball. His teammates consist of a bunch of mostly forty-something dads, all of whom I know. One of them—we’ll call him “Bob” because that’s his real name—asked me why Alison and Crawford hadn’t consummated their relationship at the end of “Murder 101.” At this point in time, I was hard at work on “Extracurricular Activities” and nearing the point where my two main characters might have to steam things up a bit.

“I have trouble writing sex scenes,” I said, rather bravely I thought.

He thought for a moment. “We could help you!” he said, motioning toward the rag-tag group of softball players, some practically in traction after playing the first inning. I had a hard time envisioning any of these hurting puppies in flagrante delicto, never mind just making it to their cars to drive home. “We could write them for you!”

A couple of the other dads looked in his direction. One mentioned that with his dislocated finger, he wouldn’t be able to pick up a pencil or type on a keyboard. Another mentioned that his leg hurt so much that the only thing he’d be doing would be begging his wife to rub Ben-Gay on it. Another mentioned that after that night’s game, he was retiring from softball entirely. (They have a hard time staying ‘on topic.’ Especially when balls are flying around. Baseballs, that is.)

One of the other teammates finally spoke up with some helpful information. “Yeah, we could help her. She’d then have some of the shortest sex scenes known to literature in her book.” He looked at me, an eyebrow raised pointedly. I immediately regretted that I had entered into the conversation and felt sorry for his wife.

I gave it my best shot. I really did. But I kept thinking that the readership of the novels I and my fellow “Stilettos” are writing aren’t buying them for sheet burning, hang from the chandeliers sex. (Please tell me I’m right.)

My dear friend, Annie, mathematician and preschool teacher extraordinaire, has kindly read every one of my manuscripts before I ship them off to my editor. She could see where things were going—Alison and Crawford were getting hot and heavy and the inevitable was to occur. Her husband, raised in a more “open” environment, kept encouraging me to let loose and write some torrid sex scenes. I did my best, but my best kept ending up with Alison and Crawford having case after case of coitus interruptus. I couldn’t see the job through. I asked Annie if she was disappointed, having just read my second manuscript.

She looked at me, relief crossing her face. “Not at all. I didn’t know how I was going to look at you if you had written some explicit sex scenes. I just don’t want to know you like that.”

And hopefully, dear readers, you don’t either.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Book Launch

My book launch for Smell of Death was Saturday. I live in California but during the winter you never know what the weather might be like. We’ve had plenty of sunny days since the beginning of the year, but this wasn’t one of them.

That was the first of the problems. Three storms in a row rolled in since Wednesday, with Saturday’s forecasted as the "biggie." The weather wasn’t the only problem.

My major publicity was in our local weekly newspaper which comes out on Thursday–mine didn’t show up in my mailbox until Saturday morning. I have no idea if the rest of the deliveries were as late.

First we stopped at our local coffee and sandwich ship, Coffee Etc., where the owner had graciously agreed to bake cookies for the event. (I don’t bake anymore–it’s one of the things I’ve given up in my old age, like ironing.) Wow! She’d made a tray of the most beautiful cookies–two kinds–lemon (tasted like eating lemonade) and chocolate chip with raspberry drizzled over the top. Also yummy.

We took them and my books, table, etc. to the Visitor’s Center. We also manned the Visitor’s Center for the afternoon. Which is fun, because people stop by to find out if they can get to the giant Sequoias from here. You can, but yesterday you couldn’t get far without chains because along with the rain came lots of snow at the higher elevations.

The launch was scheduled for one, so we had plenty of time to set up. We also visited with the editor of the local paper who had the morning shift for the Visitor’s Center. She ended up staying through most of the afternoon because interesting people stopped by–not necessarily to buy books.

However, six of my fans displayed their loyalty by coming despite the foul weather and bought books. (I’ve done worse at book store signings.) While we were there we met a lovely woman from Oklahoma and her sister who had recently recovered from brain surgery. The gal from Oklahoma lived in Moscow, Russia, for a year and told some fascinating stories.

One of my granddaughter’s highschool teachers and a friend stopped in and the teacher assured me Jessica’s boyfriend was wonderful. (We already knew that.)

One of my fans who always buys any new book I’ve written dashed in for a minute and stayed for a half hour as she brought me up to date on General Hospital (the soap).

All-in-all, we had a good time, sold a few books, and ate lots of delicious cookies.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Let's Talk About Sex

Charlaine Harris, who writes the hysterical Southern vampire mystery series, swears that her books took off once she started putting sex into them.

Oy! I went to an Orthodox Jewish Day School through sixth grade (substitute Rabbis for nuns, keep the rules, and you get the picture). Try as I might to construct a love scene that involves nudity, I'm convinced that I will get struck by a lightning bolt at the first sign of heavy breathing.

Hey, I like sex – but even writing that sentence has me checking to see if Rabbi D is clucking over my lost soul.

Here's the problem. My characters are two middle-aged adults who have been around the block a few times. At some point (should it be in Book 2? Hold out for Book 3?), they're going to go steady, get lavaliered, maybe even get pinned, or the 40-something equivalent. In any case, there's a point in an adult relationship that would suggest that somebody is getting some. So practically speaking, sex needs to be part of the Mac Sullivan-Rachel Brenner equation. Plus, circling back to Charlaine Harris, sex sells. What to do?

When I first started writing fiction, I described a love scene to my husband. I could see him trying to figure out how to phrase the question. Despite years of marriage and four kids, he thought he knew me, but perhaps, there was still a surprise to be had. Finally, he decided the direct approach was best. "Are you writing smut?" "No," I answered indignantly. "I subcontracted it out."

I suppose we could just have constant "fade to black" moments in our books, much like the Doris Day movies of the 1950s. It was a time when Hollywood was still peddling the idea that a "good" 30-something woman (Virginal Doris was 35 in Pillow Talk) would wait for a diamond on her left hand before any kiss would be permitted. Forget about any tongue involvement in those encounters. Kisses that ended up with the heroine actually sleeping with the hero, after the obligatory "fade to black," still were not much more than a peck on the lips. Even I could have written those "sex scenes."

We haven't put it in the acknowledgements, but the Southern half of Evelyn David has agreed to write all steamy scenes. We don't like to call it smut. We prefer to think of it as romance. Besides, she's not worried at all about stray lightning bolts.

On the other hand, the Southern half is a Southern Baptist. Sex scenes don't bother her a bit, but she is appalled at foul language. Put a damn in a sentence and she worries that her Mom will be disappointed in her. Me? I know words and combinations that would make a fleet of sailors blush. I don't worry a bit if the good Rabbi will think I need to say any special prayers.

We're finishing Murder Takes the Cake, the sequel to Murder Off the Books. Here's a spoiler so don't read the next sentence if you want to be surprised…but on page 98, there is a kiss. More of the Doris/Rock variety, but hey, there are 250 more pages before the exciting conclusion. A lot can happen between the sheets (of paper, that is). I'm making no promises, but I'm checking out rubber tires to sling around my waist…to ward off lightning bolts.

Evelyn David

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Write of Passage

Cynthia Smith, author of Noblesse Oblige, is our guest blogger today.

Deep in the being of every non-fiction writer lies the longing to be a novelist.

So after seven non-fiction books that did fairly well (which means if I depended upon royalties alone to make a living I’d be flipping burgers at McDonald’s) – I decided to write fiction. Since I have long been a mystery book addict (I read 3 a week. My library charges after 7 days so I have to read fast) I decided to write a mystery. Heeding the lore that one should write about what one knows, I had 3 protagonists: me, my best friend in college and her 70-year-old Jewish grandmother who solved the mystery like a Yiddish Miss Marple. I sent the manuscript to an agent who read it over a weekend and phoned me on Monday to say “I loved it but I’ll never be able to sell it.” Why? “Because all the editors are 12-years-old and will never identify with your characters. You need a contemporary voice.”

Fast forward to my visit to London sitting on a train to Salisbury, seated alone in a compartment with an upper class young woman who wasted her window-seat position that I coveted as she wrote feverishly in a legal pad. “I’m on my way to see my solicitor because I’m getting divorced and he told me to write down what I want from my bastard of a husband.” Who asked her? But I find people tell me things. Perhaps because my simpatica look indicates I can help them. And I do. And did. That’s where I got the idea to create a protagonist who is a sort of private eye but more – she is a Private Resolver. Her name is Emma Rhodes.

Unlike the current female private eyes who live on takeout and cut their own hair with cuticle scissors, Emma is RICH: she dresses in designer clothes, has 3 homes all over the world because she demands $20,000 for two weeks work with a guarantee of success.

She is everything I would have loved to be at her age: gorgeous, an IQ of 165, sexually free, wealthy and above all a size 8. I starred her in three novellas and gave it to my agent from whom I received a phone call weeks later.

“Berkley Crime division of Penguin Putnam is interested. But there’s a small problem.” Oi veh, they probably want me to turn her into a transvestite. “She asked if you could extend them into three full-length novels.” My one-word-answer was “When?” And so I got a three-book contract, later extended to five-books.

The fun was creating the supporting cast – necessary in a series. Abba Levitar, a colonel in the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency who was Emma’s best friend and helper, and lover Superintendent Caleb Franklin of Scotland Yard, a gorgeous Cambridge-educated black man who I modeled after the hunk who bedded Jane Tennant in PRIME SUSPECT. Abba became my outlet for profanity since my agent told me foul language would not suit ladylike Emma. Where do I get Israeli curses? I don’t use the Internet for research; I like to network until I find a live source. I found a visiting Israeli rabbi and told him I’m a writer who needed Israeli curse words. It’s amazing how the word “writer” opens doors and mouths. “Kuze mach.” He replied instantly. “I wrote diligently. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It means the pussy of your mother.” I nearly fell off the chair. “Is that Hebrew?” I asked. ”No – of course not. It’s Arabic. We do not curse in Hebrew – that is the language of the Bible!”

Cynthia Smith
Published by Busted Flush Press
Available from the following bookstores:
Murder on the Beach, Delray Beach Florida
Murder By The Book, Houston, Texas
The book will also be available though other online, chain and independent booksellers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

News Junkie

I admit it. I'm addicted to news. I listen to NPR in my office and car. I listen to CNN at home. It’s the background noise of my life.

I get antsy when I don't have access to either. I feel disconnected, unplugged from the world. Camping trips are really hard. What if a war breaks out? What if there's a mad cow loose somewhere? What if a politician flubs a speech? Or a dictator resigns? Or a Vice President shoots something besides birds? I need to know—immediately.

But I'm picky. Not just any news show will do. I need my CNN and NPR fixes. Fox won't do. Neither will MSNBC. Give me Diane Rehms treating every guest with respect and allowing them the time to answer her questions. Or Anderson Cooper, hip deep in the New Orleans floodwaters or standing outside the Sago Mine, giving us his view on the latest disaster. For something lighter, give me All Things Considered, In This I Believe, and The Car Talk Guys.

I think my obsession with CNN started about the time of the first Gulf War. I was fascinated by the minute-to-minute coverage that CNN was providing. Remember the CNN reporters broadcasting from their room while the bombs were dropping? Talk about reality tv – that was incredible. During the second Gulf War, I traveled through the desert with the embedded reporters. Sometimes I left the television on while I fell asleep, the sounds of real war playing in my ears – all with a five second satellite delay.

I know exactly when my NPR addiction started. The O.J. Simpson trial. I was doing a lot of driving for my day job during that year. I ended up hearing most of the trial through my car radio thanks to NPR. Kato Kalin? Judge Ito? Marsha Clark? I learned so much about creating bigger-than-life characters from that trial. And the murders of Nicole and Ron? I cried with Ron Goldman's father. I felt Nicole's sister's anger. I listened to the testimony like I was a juror. It began as a real who-dun-it and by the end? By the end the mystery was how the justice system ever manages to work.

At night when I write, I like to have the television on. Maybe it's a hold-over from my school days when I did my homework in front of the set. But these days it's not returns of Gilligan's Island or the Love Boat that keeps me company. It's news. I need it. I crave it.

BlueRay is in. Hillary is in trouble. An explosion in Texas may increase gasoline prices by ten cents a gallon. Bush is in Africa – I hope he doesn't do any more dancing. And hey, did you know that a beagle was the top dog at the Westminster dog show? Should have been a wolfhound.

These things are important, people!

Tune in.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Theory of the Karaoke Gene

I was lucky enough to be the honoree recently at a book signing/celebration to introduce the denizens of my hometown to my new book, “Extracurricular Activities.” My hometown is not very far from the town I live in now—just twenty miles—but because we’re separated by a bridge, it seems to be harder and harder for me to get home and for my extended family to visit me. Look for a future blog entry where I discuss “the theory of why we won’t cross the bridge to see each other.”

But cross the bridge I did and I was happy for the opportunity. My parents have decided that every year an Alison Bergeron mystery is published, a book signing extravaganza will take place. Last year’s party, to celebrate the release of “Murder 101,” the first book in the series, was a free-for-all held on a Saturday night, complete with open bar, DJ, food, and dancing. It ended, as many of our family’s gatherings do, with the manager of the Knights of Columbus hall respectfully asking the attendees—we’ll call them “fans” for brevity’s [and ego’s] sake—to leave quietly so as not to disturb the neighbors. And to leave the silverware and the napkins behind. So, when the subject of this year’s book signing came up, I said to my parents, “Why don’t we have it on a Sunday afternoon? You know, make it a little more low-key?”

“Great,” they responded, they who go to bed at seven thirty and rise at four in the morning, “Sunday afternoon it is!”

“But more low-key,” I reminded them.

“Yes! More low-key! We’ll have karaoke!”

At this point, I guess I should mention that I have a reputation as a bit of a party girl. But when I say “party girl,” I mean that in the most wholesome way possible. But I guess at this point in my life, I think it would be more authentic to say that I’m a “party woman.” I’m not a lampshade on the head type (except for that one Christmas) and I’m generally fairly responsible. I’m usually the first one on the dance floor and the last one to leave and that’s without the benefit of liquid courage. But even in my warped view of a “good time,” I didn’t think karaoke qualified as “low-key.”The reactions to the news of the centerpiece of the frivolity were mixed and ranged from “Oh, good Lord, no!” to “I’ll sing a song—maybe, if I have a couple of beers,” to “You’ll have to pry the mic from my cold, dead hands.” (The last one being mine.) All of the interesting feedback leading up to the event lead me to surmise that there is definitely a karaoke gene.

And proof of this came when my niece, Erin—three years old and full of spit and vinegar—grabbed the mic from her mother (my sister) and belted out “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Who knew it had fourteen verses?

My sister looked at me dolefully. “I gave birth to you.”

Because growing up, even though we didn’t have karaoke, specifically, I spent many a day singing along to the Supremes on my close-n-play record player while my sister practiced her foul shots on the back driveway with the neighborhood boys. (They were very tall and she was not but she always kicked their collective butts. And probably still could if she wasn’t a respectable mother of two.)

I begged my sister all day long to do a song with me. In another life, my sister was a professional musician, so I thought it would be a no-brainer. But she doesn’t have the karaoke gene so she kept ducking me until it was no longer possible. After about an hour of exhaustive searching through the folders of potential songs, we finally decided to do a duet of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” a song I consider my signature tune. I thought we were good to go until a certain young lady, clad in a green velvet dress, approached the stage and said, “I want to sing, tooooo.” I dare you to try to sing the song successfully with someone else singing “shot!” three seconds behind you.

Based on the theory of the karaoke gene, then, it would seem that it is not a direct blood line from mother to daughter, but aunt to daughter, a maternal bloodline, if you will. Yes, the theory needs work, but all in all, makes a bit of sense, no? We’ll check back when Erin’s thirteen, and hopefully, a little more inhibited.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More on Valentine's Day

Hubby and I have been married so long I have a hard time remembering. I know it’s over 50 years, we were married the year I graduated from high school, ‘51–you figure it out. We met on a blind date during my senior year. He was the cutest sailor, all decked out in his bell bottom pants. With a whole group of my school friends and their dates, we rode the streetcar to downtown L.A. to Chinatown. A favorite hangout for us back in those days. We ate dinner, everyone danced except my date and me–he said he didn’t know how. (This was remedied in later years and he later could tear up the dance floor.)

We came back to my girlfriends home as her mother was supposed to be there to drive me home. She didn’t turn up. Finally this cute sailor and I walked the five miles to my house–arriving around 2 a.m. All the lights were burning, both my parents were waiting up. (I’d only left a note that I was going on a blind date, needless to say they were worried and angry.) After a lot of explanation on my part, and my father giving my new, good looking friend the third degree, my parents invited him to spend the night. Turns out this cute sailor was going to school at Port Hueneme Sea Bee base, quite aways from L. A. He managed to make the trek back to my house nearly every weekend via bus or thumb.

When his schooling was nearly up, he proposed. He was so darn cute I had to say "yes." (And I still think he's pretty cute.) The problem was he was leaving for the East Coast and probably overseas deployment. I was only 17 and he was 20 and our parents weren’t willing to give permission for us to marry. In October, we’d both reached the magic ages, and he asked if I’d come back East to marry him. Of course I said, "yes." Mom and I traveled to Washington DC on the train–an adventure in itself. We went to hubby’s family home in a dinky town in Maryland where I wasn’t greeted with great enthusiasm. They had the idea that I was some sort of wild gold-digger–after all, I came from California.

My family hadn’t been all that enthusiastic either. My grandfather thought sailors were worthless. No one thought our marriage would last, after all we hardly knew each other. We know each other pretty well now.

Hubby works with the kids at church at the Wednesday night Awana program. The kids made cute Valentine’s as a project–hubby made me one too. Yep, he still loves me after all these years–and the feeling is mutual.

And that’s my Valentine’s story.


Monday, February 18, 2008

John Madden, Whoopi Goldberg, and Me

Also: Isaac Asimov, Aretha Franklin, Woody Allen, the list goes on and on.

We're all perfectly sane, rational people, who are reduced to whimpering, pathetic blobs or medicated walking zombies when we click on an airplane seatbelt. We're aviatophobic or as Erica Jong would put it, we've got a fear of flying.

Have I gotten on an airplane in the last five years? Yes. Does my husband still have full circulation in his left hand? For the seven hours it took to fly to London last year, I had him in a death grip that made Darth Vader look like Barney Fife.

Personally, I believe that if God had wanted me to fly, she would have given me feathers. I'm still holding out for the Star Trek transporter. "Beam me to Paris, Scotty" or if I'm being energy efficient, "Beam me to Paris, after you drop off Uhuru at the mall." I'm not sure why I think trusting my molecules to Scottie is safer than a Delta flight, but at least the Enterprise's engineer had a perfect on-time record.

Unlike a fear of rectangles, aviatophobia is not so debilitating that I have to deal with it on a daily basis. Most of our family is within driving distance, if you define driving distance as being on the road for 15 hours straight. Oddly, I have no fear of putting my loved ones on planes. What does that mean Dr. Freud?

I've got bus envy. John, Whoopi, and Aretha all have luxury-fitted buses to criss-cross the country. Me? It's either Greyhound or drugs. Consider Madden's motor coach (since it cost $800,000, it's no longer called a bus or even an RV). In any case, his home on the road has a master bedroom with its own bathroom and steam shower, a full kitchen with granite flooring and countertops, a satellite TV, three plasma television screens, surround sound and high-speed Internet access. Sounds better than the house I live in. Think how incredible book tours would be if you had one of these babies to fire up and go.

Best flight I ever had was last October. I flew to Jacksonville for a family wedding. My doctor had prescribed Ativan for me – a wonder drug that doesn't take away the fear, but at least makes sure that I don't make a total, hysterical idiot of myself during the flight. I'd successfully tried out this medication a few months earlier on another trip and felt like I'd finally found a solution. Not a cure, mind you, but a way to endure, if not enjoy, a longer trip. Dutifully, I refilled the prescription the day before the flight. I popped two pills just before I walked down the gangway.

I wish I could tell you that it was a smooth flight. I wish I could tell you that it left on time and arrived early. Actually I could tell you that, but it's all hearsay. I had no more than sat down in my seat than I was asleep. In a move that would be perfect for a murder mystery, Death by Not Paying Attention, I had inadvertently ingested double the prescription dose. (Each new pill was 1 mg, instead of the .5 mg pills I had taken months earlier. Had I read the prescription, I would have realized that I was only to take one pill, not two).

"When is the plane taking off?" I roused myself from a very comfortable nap.

"It did, it flew, and it landed. You missed it." My husband explained, not totally unhappy to have enjoyed a trip with the use of both hands.

"Huh." I wasn't very coherent (that day or the next). But it occurred to me that it was as close as I was going to get to Scotty and the transporter. A trip that was over in what felt like a minute. Granted I slept through it (at what point is it considered unconscious?). But worked for me, worked for my husband.

We're thinking of a trip to San Diego next summer. Think that Aretha or Whoopi want to share a ride?

Evelyn David

Friday, February 15, 2008

I'm a Mystery to My Husband

Guest author Susan Konig joins us today.

I was trying to arrange an evening to meet with a group of residents in my town. We threw a few dates around. “How about next Thursday?” someone suggested.

“Isn’t that the 14th, Valentine’s Day?”

“It is, and I can be there,” said a mom of three young boys. “We’re not doing anything special.”

I laughed and understood. My husband and I hadn’t made any plans either. Was it because we had four kids?

One of the senior citizens weighed in. “I have to take my wife out to dinner,” he said firmly. “So, let’s see, dinner at six, home by seven. I’m available at 7:05.”

Sad, but true. This group of marrieds, young and old, were not the target audience to be whooping it up on Valentine’s Day.

Just as well. I do not make it easy on my husband. I get very irritated when he swears he is not getting anything for me and then caves to the pressure of all the other husbands riding on the commuter train home with boxes of chocolates and huge bouquets of flowers.

He arrives in our town and the florist who plans her fiscal year around men like him is waiting for him. Sure, he passed up vendors in the city selling for $40, $50 bucks a bunch. Now that he is steps away from our idling minivan full of cranky kids and shedding dog – not to mention stressed-out wife – he has no choice but to hand this woman $60 to save his rear end on this special day.

The purchase hurts financially but he feels as though he has done something good and noble by following the pack.

He hands me the overpriced blooms and I smirk. “What did you pay for these?"

I don’t want him spending all that money when he could have probably picked up a dozen perfectly acceptable tulips a day earlier for $10.

He doesn’t know that what I really want him to do is offer to watch the kids for an entire day or evening so I can go off and exercise or shop or think or write without interruption.

If I told him that’s what I want, he would swear up and down that he offers that all the time and I always turn him down. He’d be half right.

Sometimes he comes home from work after hanging out with his friends for a little while and working out to find me completely at the end of my rope as a wife, mother, and housekeeper (OK, I don’t really ever keep house).

He will say to me, “That’s it. Get out of here. Go, you’re off duty.” Sounds great, no? Except that there is no food for the kids and the baby needs a bath and he doesn’t know how to help our sixth grader with his math and American Idol is on and he won’t understand the staggered bedtime schedule of who has to go to bed when.

So I don’t go out and then I am even crankier. I guess I need him to come home with a bag of sandwiches and a plan. He tells me that if he’s home with the kids, he gets to watch them his way. But if I let him, I come home to weeping tales of “Daddy didn’t let us watch American Idol because YOU DIDN’T TELL HIM.”

I may get out of the house but I’m the bad guy when I return. Hardly worth it.

So he can’t plan and I’m no fun.

Another husband told me this week that he and his wife don’t make a big deal out of Valentine’s Day because every day is Valentine’s Day for them. Oh, please. I’d rather be grumpy and misunderstood one day a year and normal the rest of the time.

Susan Konig

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day Blues

I think Valentine's Day is kind of a wimpy holiday. For a lot of people, it's an afterthought. For the others? The ones with great expectations of romantic gestures and heartfelt expressions of undying devotion? Well, the results are usually a disappointment.

By the way, if you haven't already figured it out, the author Evelyn David is really two people. The smart, witty posts on Mondays are written by the Northern Evelyn. The "what the heck does that have to do with writing" posts that show up on Thursdays are done by me – the Southern Evelyn.

Today, in between annoying coal miners, legislators, and federal regulators, all within the same eight hours (a personal best for me at my day job), I've been worrying about this blog. It should be easy for me to write 600 words on anything. Normally, I can't even write the opening to a scene in less than 300. But today (which is yesterday if you're reading this) my mind was scattered. Gathering any blogging ideas was much akin to herding cats (I know, I know, that phrase has been overused, but it's still a favorite of mine and I intend to use it until I find another that means chasing down elusive, furry things that bite and scratch when you finally nab them.) I drafted several blogs – one on lying before congressional committees (don't go before them and don't lie) and one on the powers of the number 3 (don't ask, I was digging deep for that one).

Valentine's Day was an obvious topic choice. But what to say that hasn't been said before? I could discuss the impossible search for a perfect card and color coordinated envelope (a real feat if you shop in a super store.) Ever notice how many people don't take the envelope that the card gods intended to go with a particular card? What's with that? By the time I start looking, the remaining cards and envelopes don't match up – not even in size. Sometimes I'm choosing the card not for the design or sentiment inside; I'm picking it because it fits in the one remaining uncrumpled envelope.

And then there's the chocolate . . . . I've always thought that chocolate was an excellent gift choice on Valentine's Day – but please don't give me those heart shaped boxes of chocolate wrapped in red foil and ribbon. For me eating the chocolate in those boxes is a scavenger hunt with some nasty surprises. I don't like nuts. I don't like coconut. I'm not crazy about caramel or hidden cherries. My favorites are those pieces that taste the most like a plain 3 Musketeers' candy bar.

When I was younger, my brother always parked himself by my side when I opened the boxes of Valentine's candy. One tiny test bite and I was usually handing off the offensive piece to him – who, like the Mikey of cereal commercials, would literally eat any kind of candy. One time I made the old fashioned fudge – the cooked kind with butter, salt, cocoa and sugar. I got some measurement wrong. The stuff set up harder than a brick and I literally used a dishtowel-wrapped hammer to break it into pieces. It was also lacking in sugar. I couldn't eat it. My parents couldn't eat it. It took my brother a couple of months, but he finally finished off the whole batch. He was a real trooper! Thinking of it – I probably owe him some money for dental bills.

Before leaving work, I took an informal survey of the other ladies in the office. What were they expecting to get for Valentine's Day? Surprisingly, the answer was much the same. To avoid a lot of hassle and hurtful recriminations, they now bought their own gifts and picked out exactly what they wanted. Their husbands and significant others reimbursed them later for the costs.

I think I'll do the same. Anyone care for a Klondike ice cream bar with a red ribbon?

Maybe, I'll just skip the ribbon.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Evelyn David

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All Hail Teachers!

I promised I would come back to the topic of teachers—a topic about which I'm passionate—and here I am.

I’m talking about why I’ll never be a teacher. And why you shouldn’t be one either, unless you identify with the information below.

My protagonist, Alison Bergeron, is a teacher. And I’m married to a teacher. An experienced, dedicated, innovative, effective seventh-grade homeroom teacher, who also happens to specialize in teaching French. Nobody, besides all of us here at Chateau Barbieri, sees what he does when he’s not in the classroom: grading papers, planning classes, calling parents, responding to emails from colleagues. Nobody sees him get up at five o’clock in the morning so that he can catch the 6:18 a.m. train so that he can be at his desk by 7:45 to drink his one cup of coffee before students arrive. And nobody sees him get off the train at 6:00 at night because his school day is eight hours long and ends after four.

No—what people see is a man who is off for two weeks at the end of March, has a few extra days off around the holidays because he’s on a private school schedule, a man who takes his class to Cape Cod for a seafaring, science adventure every fall, and a man who takes over the lion’s share of the parenting duties in the summer, dropping the kids off at their various camps and activities while his wife slaves away in an un-air conditioned attic (that’s a choice, by the way. I like the heat. It keeps me “hungry.” And it’s a better climate for my shoes, which I keep stashed next to me. At least that’s what I tell myself.)

People’s reaction to seeing him around? “I should be a teacher. That’s some schedule you’ve got!”

Yes, go ahead. Be a teacher. Good luck with that.

To me, that’s like saying to your dentist, “Wow! You’ve got all of this neat oral hygiene equipment AND you make a lot of money? I should be a dentist!” Or to the local police officer, “You mean you can drive fast whenever you want? And wear a sexy gun belt dripping with weapons? And you won’t get a ticket for talking on your cell phone while in the car? I think I’LL be a cop! It sounds fun!”

You know what teaching is? It’s a calling. You don’t wake up one day and decide to teach, you teach because it’s the only thing you ever wanted to do or thought that you’d be good at. You teach because you love kids, want to see them grow and learn, and help them find their own path. You teach because you love learning and want to pass that on to your students.

Which is why I work in an attic, by myself, all day long.

Why, you ask? What about the summers off? What about the extra three days around Christmas? Here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t like the kids in mass quantity part, and am menze menze (I apologize to my Italian friends for bad spelling) on the learning part (although I would love to learn how to make my own California rolls…and pole dance). But I’m grateful to, and astounded by, the people who want to do it.

Two of my best friends are also teachers—one teaches four-year-olds at a preschool and the other teaches high school students who have various learning difficulties, two very different types of teaching positions. And while they have their bad days—someone eats too much play-doh and hurls in the classroom, or someone can’t figure out how to write an essay in under three days flat and the SAT’s are around the corner—both are committed, dedicated, and professional above all. I admire and respect them and even if there were not another person on the planet and they needed a sub for the day would I say, “Hey, I’ll fill in for you! Sounds like fun!” I’d rather have a colonoscopy than get in front of a class of kids. Because you know what? I’d be really, really bad at it.

I was born to make up stories about women who can’t keep their noses out of police investigations, not to spend the days with a bunch of kids who can’t keep their noses out of their own armpits.

I wonder, sometimes, why Alison Bergeron—my protagonist and aforementioned nosy sleuth—is a teacher. Is it an homage to the profession? Or, does it just allow me to fill her days with interesting and slightly off-beat characters? Because if you’ve been on a college campus, in a middle school, or even around a bunch of elementary-school children, you know that the halls of academia are filled with characters. But whatever it is, she’s a teacher, she’s smart as hell, and she also has the summers off, which allows her extra time to play Nancy Drew.

So, here’s to our teachers who are specialized, trained, passionate, committed, and teaching our kids. Respect what they do. Thank them occasionally. And never, never say, on a hot summer day, “Hey—that’s some schedule you’ve got. I should teach!”

Not unless you want to be hit in the face with a flying eraser.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Weather and Other Items of Interest ... or Not

Hubby and I just returned from the Central Coast (California) community of Arroyo Grande. The weather was wonderful! Sunny and gorgeous. As we drove down the coast, the ocean sparkled. People who want to visit California beaches would be smart to go in February when the weather is often sunny as can be. In the summer, often the fog rolls in, making it chilly.

The weather was quite a contrast to the previous weekend when we were in snowy Chicago. We loved that too, though. In fact, I thanked the organizers of Love is Murder, our reason for being there, for having such a lovely snow storm for our entertainment.

The reason we were in Arroyo Grande was for me to participate with the Central Coast chapter of Sisters in Crime in a library presentation–which I did, of course. I’m always up for talking about my books and meeting new people. A chance to go to the coast was a huge incentive. We used to live in Oxnard (which is near Ventura) about one mile from the beach, and frankly, I miss the proximity to the ocean.

It was in Oxnard that I first became interested in writing about law enforcement. Our first house was in a neighborhood with police officers, firemen, and Navy personnel and their families. We partied and had coffee with our neighbors and got to know them all very well. Years later, my youngest daughter married a police officer who loved to tell me stories about what happened on his shift–he even took me on a tour of the police station and on a rather scary ride-along.

In my Rocky Bluff series (much darker than my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series), I’ve drawn quite a bit on my experiences from the days I hung out with those policemen and their families. If you’re interested, here’s a video about the latest book, Smell of Death,

And to bring this back around to the beach, the Rocky Bluff series is set in a fictional beach community somewhere on the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara–with some resemblance to Oxnard back in the time when I lived there.

Traveling around to promote books is fun, though not at all profitable. What I truly like best is meeting new people and my travels have been a great way to do it.

Now, back to working on my income taxes. Ugh!


Monday, February 11, 2008

Fiction is easy; Living is hard

We all know that feeling. Those times, we've stared at the computer screen for an hour and found that we couldn't even compose a shopping list, let alone the next chapter of an overdue book. We've all experienced that panicky sensation that our muses have taken a Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal and forgotten to take us along or even send a post card.

And then there are those moments, when I've worked myself up into a frenzy, when I've started checking the want ads for administrative assistant jobs because I don't think knowing how to make a fabulous matzoh ball soup is a marketable skill, and something happens which essentially is a message directly from the Lord telling me to "chill, girl."

I had one of those epiphanies a few weeks ago. I was visiting the M. Allan Fogelson Regional Branch Library in Voorhees, New Jersey, with fellow Stiletto author Maggie Barbieri. It was a lovely, lovely event, billed as "Tea and Crumpets with Mystery Authors." The turnout was great (and the refreshments were fantastic!).

I had just started talking about my book and the creative process when a group of 10 teenaged boys joined the audience. While they're not the standard mystery fans found at these events, they listened respectfully as Maggie and I talked about our work.

Afterwards, one of the boys shyly approached me, encouraged by a man I assumed was the group's leader. The teen told me he was 14 and liked to write. I asked him to tell me about one of his stories. It was a fantasy tale about a young boy who was locked out of his home for three days. He detailed a series of adventures and dangers, and the surprise twist at the end -- the hero wakes up and finds it was all a dream.

Later, privately, the group leader explained that these teens were from a program funded by the Juvenile Justice Commission of New Jersey. They were at risk kids who'd already entered the court system. This program was an alternative to a detention center. A final chance to turn around lives headed for big trouble. And the fantasy tale this boy wrote? Not so much a fantasy. He lived it.

My emotions were all over the place.

I was furious that any child should have to worry about where he will sleep at night. That should be a given.

I was worried about this youngster's future. On a basic level, would he learn from the program, get an education, pursue his dream? Or would he ditch this chance and end up back in the courts? Would he be locked out of a future?

And then there was the reality check. Was this child smart enough, strong enough, stubborn enough to pursue a life as a writer? For all the thrills and satisfaction that writing brings me, I also know how frustrating and disappointing this career can be when the mail brings another rejection letter. The odds of a high school basketball player making it to the pros are .03 percent. I'd bet that those are the same odds for a high school kid making it as a professional writer.

I don't know what I can do to help that child – and the millions of others like him. Writing – his and mine – can be one answer. For him, it can be a way of channeling his emotions and using words, not violence, to handle the frustrations of his life. For me, writing can be a way of exposing the underbelly of life, with all its glory and despair.

I always end my library talks with the explanation that I write mysteries because I want the good guys to win. How I hope that there can be the same neat, clean resolution for the real-life story I heard in Voorhees.

Evelyn David

Friday, February 8, 2008

Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?

Guest Author Sheila Curran joins us today.

Back in the day, I wrote a murder mystery. As in – back in the day – before I was published. Looking back, I realize the problem. I am a terrific wimp when it comes to violence, since I will absorb all information about such things and imagine them happening to me. As my dear friend Julianna Baggott said to her children when they wanted to watch a scary movie with her, “I get scared playing CLUE.”

Me too, which is why I don’t think I could bear to do the research involved in creating a convincing murder-mystery. It’s the way I am. There’s a deep niche in my brain that collects danger, disaster, death and destruction, and a long slippery chute by which all things happy drop through a trap door, never to be seen again.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this character flaw, I have to say that the most common complaint/compliment I hear from readers is this inability to murder those who deserve it. I speak of the many letters I’ve gotten having to do with a particular character in my first novel, DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN. Readers are vociferous, they are unequivocal, and many of them are after blood, or at least justice. You see, my protagonist, Diana, is married to an overbearing, some might even say vile man. As my most recent email, from an eminent, internationally known scholar of comparative religions, proclaimed “And as for Ted--what a shmuck! A really memorable literary asshole!”

One of my first letters came from a federal prosecutor in Arizona who was deeply disappointed by my ending, only because he felt that Ted had gotten off far too easily. (Of course, I reminded him that this is what sequels are for.) Sweet little old ladies with names like Eustice and Bertha write to ask why I would have neglected the opportunity to ‘cut off the man’s balls and hang him up to dry.’

Certain reviewers and friends alike have quibbled that surely there did not really exist in nature a villain as bastardly as Ted, while others still have congratulated me for finally ‘outing’ what they see as a fairly pernicious trend among certain people who manage to be both successful at their subject area but complete failures when it comes to those things for which their careers don’t give awards, say kindness, generosity, a propensity to ask others (including their wives and children) about themselves, that sort of thing.

Now, on the other hand, I have many many professor friends who are the opposite of this. I’m married to one, my very best boy friend, who is, at this very moment mixing me a martini and cooking dinner. I hang out with the good ones, and there are many. However, I must report, gentle readers, that there does exist, both in nature and way more frequently in culture, such a creature as Ted.

If you clicked on the links above, you may have noticed my vile husband contest. First, I apologize that the deadline of December 31st, 2005 has come and gone, but the truth is that 1.) I didn’t get a single entry and 2.) I don’t have the technical wherewithal to change the date or details of the contest without falling into the rabbit hole known as the learning curve of internet protocols.

Poor web management aside, I’m flummoxed. Is there not a single woman who can tell me a story I might share with others? (Believe me, I will change his name and yours too.) I myself have seen real, live, vile husbands on other women’s arms and wondered how in the world they managed to STAY MARRIED. In fact, it was curiosity about that general question, the witnessing of some seriously difficult husbands and just the slightest bit of imaginative fairy-wand-waving that made me write the book in the first place. (The fairy-wand thing came from my niece, Tasha, who, when she was in second grade would wave her hand through the air at people she didn’t love a whole lot and say, with a flourish and a pointed finger “POOF, you’re gone!”)

So that’s the sort of mystery I’m bent on solving. Where have all the vile husbands gone? Has some group of geriatric vigilantes come along and hung them out to dry, their most precious valuables removed for safekeeping? Or have I set the bar too high, asking for a completely vile person when no one is exactly such. Even Ted had his strengths, which will, if I ever publish the sequel, be tested. The poor man will already suffer at least a short exile to Wales, sans alcohol and professional status, plus shallow in-laws, wandering wife, and a baby-on-board.. Until then, I leave it to my hosts, women with gumption, gumshoes and at least a little glitter, to bravely go where few before them have gone, into the Ass-Hat-Sphere, magnifying glasses in hand, to seek revenge, or even revelation, of the crimes no one, or at least no one in my cyber-circle, is willing to commit. (At least to memory.)

Sheila Curran

Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Love for Tom

I freely admit it – I have no innate sense of direction. I can get lost going around the block. More than once I've pulled into a center travel stop off a major highway, filled up with gas and coffee, and promptly headed back in the direction from which I'd come. The problem was even worse when I was traveling on country roads – which I have to do quite often for my non-writing job. As a coping mechanism, I'd make notes to myself – right turn, left turn, two miles past the yellow house, etc. I could usually find what I was looking for, but getting back home was a real challenge even with the post-it notes turned upside down.

Recently, I took a trip back to a town where my family and I had lived for several years, starting when I was in the third grade. I hardly recognized anything. No familiar landmarks. Nothing. My brother, two years younger than I, and only a second grader the last time he'd been to the location, knew exactly where to turn off the country road to get to the place where our grade school used to be located (the building was no longer there). Do you think there is a GPS gene? Is this a male versus female trait?

In my defense I never had to read a road map until I was in college. How does that happen? Why didn't someone teach me how to read a map in Driver's Ed? Of course, those old folded maps you purchased at gas stations, didn't always give you enough information to make a travel decision. Was that dashed line a goat trail or a perfectly passable two-lane road?

On-line Google and Yahoo travel maps with turn-by-turn directions substantially improved my life! Of course I still had to read and drive at the same time – which was always tricky in traffic. And what happens if you're in the wrong lane to make your turn? Once you're off the Google map, what do you do? I know what I did. I circled a lot. Two years ago I circled St. Louis for half a day – and visited three states - before finding the one I-44 W connection.

This Christmas, all that changed. This Christmas I fell in love. His name is Tom Tom.

I received a portable Garmin Tom Tom gps unit as a gift. Now I always know where I am, where I'm going, and when I'm going to get there. Life is good.

Last week I drove from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the Love Is Murder book conference in Rosemont, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) without even one missed turn. Snow was blowing the last hour and I couldn't see the exits, much less read the road signs, but my buddy Tom kept talking to me, telling which lane to get in and when to turn, turn, turn.

In the hotel bar I told my publisher Karen Syed about my new love. She agreed that he was a great asset on a long trip, but warned me about becoming too dependent. Some day Tom might not be there. Her own Tom had experienced sudden death on her drive from Maryland. At a complete loss and feeling betrayed, she'd had to call her husband and get driving directions via her cell phone.

I guess at some point in any relationship, the romance is over. I'll try to prepare myself for it. Maybe buy a few maps and stuff them in the glove box. Just in case.

But for now, Tom is here, glowing brightly on my dashboard. My love for him knows no end.

Evelyn David
(directionally challenged no more)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Of All Things Super and Fat

I was going to write about teachers, and I promise I will, but since it’s the day after Super Tuesday, two days after the Super Bowl, and it’s Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday—the superest of quasi-religious celebrations—as I write this, I need to address all of these topics. Today we’ll be talking about things that are either Super or Fat. Or both.

Let’s start with Super Tuesday. I was lucky enough (or was at the top of the alphabet enough) to partake in one of those surveys from a local college about the primary. Now’s a good time to disclose that I’m not a poller, a pollist, or a pollizer, whatever the term is. I’m polarizing and want to learn to pole dance but know nothing about polls. I can answer questions (or thought I could until I partook in this poll) but I could never write a substantive or informative poll question. So, I feel a little guilty talking about polls in a mildly disparaging way, but let me detail the kinds of questions I was asked. Then you can decide for yourself. After we got through my age (somewhere between seventeen and a hundred and fifty), my race (let’s just say that I’m somewhere between the color of alabaster and whale blubber), my income (hey, I’m a writer—take a guess!), and number of children (of the ones who will claim me as mother, just one, although I’ve borne two), we were ready to go with the real questions. Which were harder to answer than I would have imagined.

First question. “Did Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?”

And already I was stumped. Love Caroline Kennedy but I hadn’t given the whole thing much thought.

“Well,” I stammered. “It really doesn’t make a difference.”

Now she was stumped. “You have to answer the question.”

“More likely?” I guessed.

She let out a sigh of relief. “Great. Next question. Did Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?”

I could see where this was going but all I could think of was that I had looked in the mirror that very morning and thought that my hair was starting to look like Ted Kennedy’s. The question should have been “Did seeing Ted Kennedy endorse Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to call Carla, the hairdresser, to set up a hair appointment?” But I decided to play it straight with her on the whole endorsement question. “Less likely?” But may I mention that my head looks more fat than super right now? No, you may not.

More relief on the pollster’s part. The questions continued in this vein until I admitted that “Project Runway” was just about to start and I needed to go. Because in my world, at this time and in this place, whether or not Romi can pull out a win over Christian is all I need to know. I also need to know if jodhpurs are coming back in style, too, because if so, there’s some work I need to do. And it has nothing to do with sewing and everything to do with liposuction. Because the legs? They are fat.

Onto the Super Bowl. I'm still in a state of shock and awe. Although I will admit that I don’t have a stomach for contests that are decided by a mere field goal and that I did go to bed with a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear the outcome. And as a result, missed the David Tyree catch heard round the world that broke open the game and brought the Giants their first Super Bowl win in many, many years.

The moral of this story? Hang tough and watch the game as hard as it is to do it. Otherwise you will miss something super.

And onto our last topic: Mardi Gras. Tonight is our church’s annual celebration of Fat Tuesday, which is basically a pot luck supper in the gymnasium. There are silly hats, free beads, and thankfully, no exposing of one’s bare torso. (Yet. There’s also free wine and beer, so it’s just a matter of time really.) It’s a family affair and I do love me some free beads. But the weather is lousy, I have to run the gauntlet that is voting in this town (what district am I in? I can never remember when confronted with all of those tables and little old ladies eating Dunkin’ Munchkins—hey, which will make you fat even if it is Super Tuesday!), and I haven’t made a proper dinner in weeks. I owe my family at least one decent meal and by golly, Fat Tuesday is the day for it! And let’s face it: dragging the kids to a church function in the middle of the week won’t be an easy task. Even with the promise of free beads.

Oh, and incidentally, I just ordered my first pair of Spanx, from what I gather, great for the stomach fat and super tight. Stay tuned to see if I, like my friend--we'll call her "M."--will use the jaws of life to free myself from them in the ladies’ room during a bat mitzvah. I’ll let you know in the coming weeks.

You now have my musings on all things super and fat. Do with them what you will.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On Writing About a Culture I'm Not Really a Part Of

(Yes, I know that’s terrible grammar, but "On Writing About a Culture of Which I’m Not Really a Part" sounds terribly stilted.)

My heroine, Deputy Tempe Crabtree is an American Indian and I’m not. My closest relationship to native people are my daughter-in-law and a four-year-old great-grandaughter. When I first created Tempe, her native blood wasn’t a big part of life. With each book, she learns more and more about her roots. I’ve learned right along with her.

Tempe belongs to the Yanduchi tribe which is part of the Yokuts. Yanduchi is not a real tribe, though quite similar sounding to one. The Yokut Indians have many off-shoots and were and are located all over the Central Valley of California. The Bear Creek Reservation where many Yanduchi live has a strong resemblance to the Tule River Reservation which is located fairly close to where I live.

In looks, Tempe resembles my daughter-in-law who is part Yaqui, but her personality is her own. I've also been very much influenced by two female law enforcement officers I know.

Whenever I’ve put Yokut legends in a novel, the legends are true. Calling the Dead has quite a few that seemed to fit what was going on in the story. A future book, Dispel the Mist, is based on a Tule River Indian legend that isn’t well-known, but oh, so much fun to write about. To find out more about the legend, I was invited to go along with the anthropology class to the Tule River Reservation and visit the Painted Rocks.

Though I have attended Pow Wows and visited with our local Indians as part of my research, much of what I’ve used has come from books, especially when I’m writing about supernatural and spiritual aspects of the culture. I want to be respectful and that’s one of the reasons I always emphasize I’m writing fiction.

The town of Bear Creek is a fictionalized version of the town I live in, though I’ve moved it a thousand feet higher into the mountains. In all the years I’ve lived in my little town, there’s only been one murder and a second in a mountain community several miles above us. Bear Creek isn’t so lucky. The worst that happens on the real reservation are vehicle accidents on the narrow, winding road leading to the reservation and it’s casino.

Fortunately, I’m thrilled to say, the Native Americans who’ve read my books seem to like them.
My latest, Judgment Fire, besides investigating the murder of a battered wife, Tempe participates in a Starlight ceremony that opens her eyes to some buried painful memories of her highschool years.

Writing this series has brought me great pleasure and some faithful fans.

Marilyn http://fiction

P.S. I met in person half of Evelyn David this past weekend at Love is Murder. Actually I'd met her before though I didn't realize it. We all had a great time at LIM.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Does the Dog Die?

The Southern half of Evelyn David thought things had gone pretty well. It was her first library talk after the publication of Murder Off the Books. Good turnout, delicious refreshments, the group had laughed at the jokes and listened with interest to the creative process that goes into writing a murder mystery. She opened up the floor to questions.

"Can you promise me that no dogs or humans are killed in your book?"


Well, it was easy enough to promise the first. We guarantee that no animals were harmed in the creation of this mystery.

But as to the second? No vows could be made.

In fact, as a murder mystery, it seems to me that there is an implicit agreement between readers and the author: somebody will bite the dust. In Murder Off the Books, in fact, somebody kicks the bucket (or has the bucket kicked for them) in the first paragraph.

We decided to ignore the old showbiz warning: Never work with kids and dogs. Whiskey, the adorable and adored Irish wolfhound in our book, weighs 120 pounds, is six feet tall when she stands on her hind legs, and has never met a cheeseburger she didn't enjoy. She instinctively knows the good guys from the bad guys, offers licks to those she loves, and growls to those who are dangerous. She brings warmth, goodness, and yes, humanity, to a book that explores the origins and effects of evil.

Animals in books serve many purposes – much like they do in our lives. Of course, Whiskey is a plot device. In Murder Off the Books, the hairy beast is a sounding board for our protagonist Mac Sullivan's inner thoughts. Whiskey is also comic relief, our version of the gravedigger in Hamlet. She provides the audience with a laugh in the midst of murder and mayhem. And unlike the humans who surround her, Whiskey is clearly drawn with no shades of gray. Everybody, but bad guys, likes Whiskey.

But including a dog in the narrative is tricky. You have to appeal to readers without turning them off. I still can't re-watch Old Yeller because while I understand the dramatic purpose of the dog's death, I vividly recall the childhood trauma of hearing the rifle shot and understanding what had transpired off-screen. I'm perfectly fine with killing all the villains in whatever gruesome manner an author chooses – but anything with four legs must survive. Thank goodness Trusty in Lady and the Tramp had no more than a broken leg.

I recognize that over-crowded animal shelters and Michael Vick's off-season "hobby" are clear evidence that, in real life, animals are frequently at risk. And yet, I can't write fictional stories with that kind of storyline. It's not that those books can't be done with taste and care – but my imagination won't let me travel that road.

Clio, the Irish terrier who shares my office while I write, fulfills many of the same roles that Whiskey does. She's privy to my musings on how to create fictional havoc; she offers comfort when writer's block descends; she's always good for a laugh as she rolls on her back, four legs in the air, and waits for a tummy rub. Maybe that's the reason why I can't create stories where animals are harmed? It's too close to home.

In the meantime, I'll just re-read The Thin Man. I'll visit speakeasies, sip martinis with Nick and Nora, and toss a treat to Asta. She's a schnauzer with a nose for murder. I'd like to introduce her to Whiskey.

Evelyn David

Friday, February 1, 2008

Callie's Southern Voice

Guest blogger Fran Rizer is the author of A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket. The second Callie Parrish mystery, Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle will be released by Berkley Prime Crime on March 4, 2008. Her website is

Southern literature has been defined as writings about the South, written by authors raised in the South, characterized by importance of family, importance of time and place, and use of southern voice and intellect. I didn’t set out to write the Callie Parrish mysteries to fit this description, but Callie is, in fact, southern. Why?

Write about what you know—I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard, read, and taught those words. They’re why the Callie Parrish mysteries take place in the south. I’ve lived in South Carolina my entire life. The laid-back charm of the land and life are as distinctive and apparent as the southern dialect.

Southerners are gracious—A successful mystery writer recommends that protagonists have “unusual occupations.” Callie was a kindergarten teacher, but she grew tired of five-year-olds who wouldn’t be quiet or lie still for their naps. She solved that problem by becoming a mortuary cosmetologist, a job she loves because her clients are silent, don’t jump around, and don’t have to tee tee every five minutes.

I’m surprised how many of Callie’s fans have worked in funeral homes. Until I set out to learn the business, I didn’t even know that in Funeraleze, Callie’s position is called a cosmetician, not a cosmetologist. I learned through the graciousness of Southerners, who, for the most part, are courteous and helpful, especially those super polite undertakers.

The graciousness of my southern relatives is why my family members didn’t freak out when I went missing at funerals and visitations. They’d be looking for me, and finally someone would tell the others, “I saw her go downstairs (or upstairs or to the back) with the mortician. She’s probably asking questions and climbing around the caskets again.”

The kindnesses of people at the School of Mortuary Science less than a hundred miles from my home and the South Carolina Undertakers Association are also very helpful. Caution to non-southerners: Beware of southern graciousness. Sometimes smiles are masks some southerners wear while they call you “Sweetie” as they knife you in the back.

The “Bless her heart” syndrome grants grace—Authors say they like to write southern because it’s okay to say anything bad about a person, so long it’s followed by “Bless her heart.” Example: “That woman is just an evil, conniving bitch. Bless her heart.” The blessing makes everything okay.

I haven’t used that expression yet because Callie defies the stereotype and has a tendency to “call a spade a flippin’ shovel” without adding “bless her heart.”

Southerners are easy to describe—When Callie says her daddy “looks and acts just like a sixty-something-year-old Larry the Cable Guy,” nothing else is needed.

I love the grits and gravy heritage—Southern greats set wonderful precedents. William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe wrote sentences that ran on over half a page, longer than my paragraphs. Some are about as lengthy as my chapters. (Hyperbole is part of the southern speech pattern.)

They knew about run-on sentences; they simply wrote their stories in the rhythm and flow of the South. I didn’t set out to write “southern.” Callie’s rhythm and flow are her own, and occasionally that means sentence fragments and unusual structures. Being classified as “southern” enables writers to break rules though I can’t say being southern lets me get away with murder. Callie always solves the crime...bless her heart!