Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rebate, Rebate

There was an interesting story in today’s paper about the rebate checks that the government will be cutting and mailing shortly in a ham-fisted effort at stimulating the economy. (“But how do you really feel, Maggie?”) Interestingly, the majority of people (all New Yorkers, so not ones to mince words) interviewed for the story revealed that their rebates will be spent on bills—paying them, lowering their debt, not incurring new debt. Most people will not be going to customer-starved retailers and spending their cash. Nor will they be going out to dinner or on vacation. They want to pay their bills and will do so; any money left over, it was reported, will probably go into their savings accounts.

I was thrilled to hear this. Hearing that people want to get out of debt is certainly refreshing in this time of economic uncertainty.

Thing is, that’s not what the government wants us to do.

I’m not sure what we here are entitled to, but in thinking about it, I wondered what we would actually do if presented with a nice chunk of change. I really haven’t thought about it because a) how often do you get a check in the mail that’s real? (And I’m not counting the hundreds I get every year from a certain credit card company imploring me to change cards) and b) I won’t really believe it until the check is in my hot little hands. Honestly, my first instinct would be to pay some bills. But knowing that W doesn’t want me to do that, and not wanting to disappoint him (he’s had so many disappointments lately, hasn’t he?), here’s my short list of things to buy with $600.00:

1.The Christian Louboutin LaDonna Mary Jane Pump: $600.00. I get $300.00 for each kid, right? I’ve got two kids. Even I can do the math. It looks like, if I qualify for a rebate and I don’t put it toward the bills, I can get the LaDonna Mary Jane Pump, which would go splendidly with my Isaac Mizrahi Pencil Skirt from Target. The fashion mags tell us to mix and match, right? So why not a pair of $600.00 shoes with a cheap pencil skirt? I call fabulous on that.

2. Six Kobe Beef Porterhouse Steaks: Now, granted, they are twenty ounces each, and having just been in the presence of a twenty ounce steak, I can tell you that that’s a lot of steak. Over the weekend, I went to a ridiculously priced steak house in a city not far from here, and two friends split an order of a regular old American style twenty ounce steak. It was huge. But coming from good Irish families, they were loathe to leave anything on their plates, took one for the team, and finished off those bad boys. One of them is still marveling at the size of the steak and the fact that they were able to consume it. I’m still in shock from the fact that I paid $29.00 for chicken on a plate that I could have cooked at home.

3. Two composting toilets: Ok, granted, they are $305.99 each so you’d be a little short with your $600.00 rebate. But let’s say you have two bathrooms, like I do (although in the interest of full disclosure, only one is a full bath, the other being a 4’ x 4’ powder room that my son as appropriated as his own) and you are in the financial position to purchase two of these. And you want to go green. And you’d like to use your families’ waste to compost your own garden. Voila! The composting toilet. The web site on which I found this innovative product said that it is taking a little time for this idea to grab hold in most American households. Gee, I can’t imagine why.

4. Two HazMat suits: Say you go with option #1 and spend $305.99 on one composting toilet. You can put the rest of the money into the purchase of two HazMat suits to tend to your composted garden. Trust me, that would be a very wise investment.

So there are some helpful suggestions from me to you. I’d love to hear what you’re going to do with your rebate. Me? I’ll be paying bills.

Maggie Barbieri

Public Safety Writers Association Conference

I’m just back from Las Vegas and the Public Safety Writers Conference. Small group, but it was terrific! Everyone had the opportunity to speak about his/her books, books were purchased and a joint booksigning at a new bookstore in Henderson was open to everyone from the con. (Cheesecake and Crime.)

Of course, Murphy was busy. The hotel kept changing our meeting room and it took all of our detective skills to track where we would be meeting next. As program chair, I had to switch things around a bit when my morning speaker, Michael Mehas (Stolen Boy), was late due to a migraine. A few other mishaps kept me on my toes–though the attendees didn’t realize what was going on.

Sunny Frazier, (When Fools Rush In) gave a terrific presentation on book covers, good and bad–and sexy.

Victoria Heckman and I instructed the members on how to write a mystery–and they participated in the planning of one–which turned out to be hilarious.

Denny Griffin told all about what it was like to work with a gangster on Frank Cullotta’s biography. (Cullotta)

This is a terrific, even though small, conference. We had the opportunity to really network and spend quality time with one another.

Not sure where we’ll be meeting next year, but keep this one in mind. Once I know more, I'll be sure to post the information. By the way, the conference will have a name, Crime Writers and Crime Fighters.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Second Acts

A confession. I watch Dancing with the Stars…religiously. I've never had any interest in other reality shows. I've got zero interest in camping out with strangers for a month even to win a million dollars on Survivor. My idea of roughing it is a motel without room service.

But, in a little corner of my mind, I can see myself gliding across the floor in the arms of a tall gentleman in white tie and tails performing a Viennese Waltz.

Some critics say Dancing with the Stars is just another boot camp for D list stars, willing to boogie their way back into the limelight. Maybe. But the amount of work is ferocious, learning one, and now that the season is moving towards the finale, two routines per week. The way I see it, if you're on the D list and manage to make it to the final Dancing four, you've earned a promotion to the C list at the very least.

I wasn't surprised, but slightly saddened, by the elimination in the last two weeks of Priscilla Presley and Marlee Matlin. 'Cilla is no spring chicken, the grandmother of two, soon to be three kiddies. And Marlee, while considerably younger, is also past the traditional Hollywood babe age.

But there they were, kicking up their heels, Cilla performing a split for goodness sakes – and enjoying the prime of their lives. Whatever they had done and achieved in the past, and it's been significant for both, they are continuing to challenge themselves in the second act of their lives.

Which got me to thinking of how Dancing with the Stars and Evelyn David have a lot in common. (Buckle your seatbelts, this may be a crazy ride.) To be deliberately vague, let's just say that when we wrote Murder Off the Books, neither half of Evelyn David was eligible for a student discount at the movies. Just to be clear, however, we weren't eligible for the senior citizen early bird special either. But one of the best parts of the success of our book is that it has opened a new chapter (pun intended) in our lives. Rather than buy a red convertible and find some new arm candy to deal with any mid-life crises, we wrote a mystery. Then we learned a whole series of new "routines," like promotion and public speaking. We discovered that our second act is as exciting, challenging, and fulfilling as anything that we've done before.

Shall we dance?

Evelyn David
Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David
Murder Takes the Cake, coming Fall 2008

Evelyn David At Malice Domestic XX

Malice Domestic XX. It's a huge conference, but people are as friendly as they can be. Here is my "real time" diary of the event.

Part 1 – Friday

Drove down from New York this morning. Let's say it was nobody's finest hour. We'd put out a MySpace bulletin that Evelyn David would be bringing chocolate to Malice. About 40 minutes from the house, I asked my husband if he'd put the candy in the trunk. He assumed I had. The mystery is that we both lived to tell (and now to laugh) the tale. We zoomed back over the GW Bridge, picked up the candy, and headed back down the turnpike.

Finally arrived at the hotel and rode up in the elevator with Jim Lavene. He and his wife, Joyce, write the Peggy Lee Garden mysteries, as well as the Stock Car Racing series. They've got two new mysteries series about to debut. I was on a panel with them at last year's Malice. Plus Joyce is a master gardener. I'm always impressed by authors who keep several series going at once. Carolyn Hart has three series -- who else?

This evening is a lecture by the Poison Lady. I'll be taking careful notes since poison seems like a clever murder weapon! There's also two other programs tonight, plus a reception. Tomorrow the panels kick off at 9 and go through the Agatha awards banquet. Should be an exhausting, but fun/interesting day.

And by the way, dropped off the chocolate in the hospitality room -- and it's almost gone. Mysteries and chocolate definitely go together!

Part 2 - Friday

"It's incredibly easy to poison somebody."

Just came from a fabulous session by Luci Hansson Zahray, otherwise known as The Poison Lady. She's a toxicologist who loves mysteries (reads 300 books a year!). She had lots of suggestions for how to incorporate poison into a murder mystery. For example, some plants are safe to eat in the Northern states, because of the short growing season, whereas the same type of plant is toxic in the South because of the long growing season. Toxicity increases over time -- so it might be safe to ingest in May, but by August, deadly. Think of the possibilities for the clever killer who knows his poisonous plants. He declares his innocence because he ate the leaves from the same plant in his salad in the spring. Wasn't his fault his victim died in August eating a tainted salad!

Zahray told scary stories about ricin. Derived from the castor bean, if you ground up enough beans to equal the weight of a nickel -- you could kill 100,000 people.

A bit of trivia that should appear in some novel...heroin, a morphine derivative, got its name from "heroic effort against pain."

At the opening ceremonies, I sat next to Robert Barnard, British author who flew in to conduct the interview with Peter Lovesey, who is receiving the Malice Lifetime Achievement award. I also saw Chris Grabenstein who blogged at The Stiletto Gang today; Agatha nominees Hank Ryan Philippi and Elizabeth Zelvin; and new author Rosemary Harris. I met Michael Allen Dymmock, author of the Jack Caleb/John Thinnes series.

I'm going to be broke by the time I finish buying all the books of all the authors I meet or hear this weekend. More later -- two more programs tonight!

Part 3 – Saturday

Just finished attending a wonderful panel, "Cozy Up to these Sleuths: What Does a Cozy Make?" A fascinating discussion about the cozy genre with Carolyn Hart, Jane Cleland, Audrey Friend, Mary Ellen Hughes, Emilie Richards, and G.M. Malliet moderating.

Carolyn Hart was incredibly thoughtful in her response to whether she liked the term "cozy." She said she "loathed the term" because it was originally used by Raymond Chandler as a "diss" about Agatha Christie. She prefers the term "traditional" or "classic" mystery. Carolyn explained that "I don't write 'cute' mysteries. I write mysteries dealing with human emotions, dealing with right and wrong." She added that the traditional mystery avoids gratuitous sex and violence. It's not that those elements aren't in the classic mystery, but it's how they are presented. She gave as an example, Agatha Christie' s book, "The Body in the Library." Set in St. Mary's Mead, a small town, and yet "if you look past its intimate setting, it's a very grisly book." She added "I'm very proud to be a mystery writer."

The panel discussed the elements of a cozy mystery and suggested that these include: a closed setting, limited number of suspects, the killer knows the victim, a plausible method of murder, and forensics can be mentioned by are not intrinsic to the solution.

The panel was asked: if you were stranded on a desert island, which three mystery books would you take with you? One admitted that she wanted a book on how to build a raft! but Agatha Christie's "Then There Were None," was mentioned several times, as were books by Robert Parker and Josephine Tey. Got me to thinking which ones I would about you?

Off to a panel on the paranormal called "Touch of Woo-Woo."

Part 4 - Saturday

Full disclosure: I'm the wrong half of Evelyn David to be at a paranormal panel. The Southern half loves this genre. Me? I get scared by the stuff.

After this panel, though, I might pick up some of these books. The authors were hysterical. Apparently hanging out with ghosts, zombies, shape shifters, brings out the funny! All agreed that they needed some humor in their books, otherwise they'd get "bogged down.

Moderated by Maria Lima, the panelists were Lorna Barrett, Lillian Stewart Carl, Casey Daniels, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Elena Santangelo. Two of the panelists say they were attracted to the paranormal mystery because they love history. Lillian Stewart Carl described how most historians will experience an "epiphany" when they visit a historical site, "almost a haunting...that moment when you can envision exactly what happened." It's that perspective that motivated her to write her books. It struck me that whether it's the paranormal or a more traditional classic mystery, we see that "aha" moment in the reveal when the hero/heroine can described exactly what happened - and why.

When asked why she included ghosts in her book, Casey Daniels had both a funny and an honest answer. She said that the ghosts in her book were used for comedic effect, but also added that she did believe in ghosts herself, so she thought it was natural to include them in a book.

All the authors insisted that the mystery cannot be solved via the paranormal, that is, that it can't just be a magical reveal. The protagonist has to "solve" the case, even if the answer lies in the paranormal.

We wrote one paranormal short story, "I Try Not to Drive Past Cemeteries." I wasn't sure how to write a novel-length paranormal story -- but this gave me some ideas. It's one of the values of mystery conferences - the opportunity to explore new directions.

Part 5 - Saturday

This panel had an interesting slant -- from the point of view of the villain in a mystery. It was called, Cruella de Villain: Unforgettable Killers Make Good Mysteries.

The panelists were Suzanne Aruda, Jan Burke, Ellen Byerrum, Clare Langley Hawthorne, and Roberta Iseleib. Triss Stein was the moderator.

Lots of interesting thought-provoking ideas. Jan Burke emphasized that villains need to be complex characters. She says it's a cop-out just to have "He's crazy," as the motive..."the villain's world must make sense."

Laughed when Ellen Byerrum described taking a PI class. Said she flunked "surveillance" and had to take "remedial surveillance."

When asked where they find ideas for their villains, Jan Burke talked about how sometimes a character "won't get out of my head." She also pointed out that not all first ideas are winners, but sometimes you use one and as you develop your story, a better one comes along. She suggested that it helps not to "over-direct" your creativity and sometimes ideas will develop as you let your imagination wander.

Fascinating discussion about male versus female villains. Statistics say there are fewer female serial killers -- but that is changing.

Also loved the comment about the writing life by Suzanne Arruda. She said "Writing is like combing my hair. There will always be a big knot. I have to tease it out rather than rip it out."

Part 6 - Saturday Night

Just got back from the Agatha Awards Banquet. It's always so inspirational -- and funny. The people who create fictional murder and mayhem are some of the funniest people I've ever seen.

Daniel Stashower was the Toastmaster. Incredibly articulate and also incredibly funny. He did a wonderful job moving the evening along - and he also won an Agatha tonight for editing "Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters."

Elizabeth Foxwell, a mystery historian, gave a brilliant talk on the need to preserve the letters and papers of classic mystery writers of the past, as well as how to promote the genre in the future.

Peter Lovesey won the Malice Lifetime Achievement Award. Handsome and debonair, he explained that "behind every amazing man is an amazed woman." The crowd cracked up. He then said that he wanted to give a lifetime achievement award to his amazing wife, Jacks, whom he called "my inspiration, first editor, and main reader." He then walked off the stage, gave a hug and kiss to his wife, and handed her a jewelry box. Wow! He then came back to the stage and gave a funny and gracious acceptance speech.

Lindsey Davis was presented an award as the International Guest of Honor. It was her first time at Malice and she too had the crowd in stitches.

Finally, came the Agatha Awards. Sarah Masters won the Best Children/Young Adult Fiction; Donna Andrews won the short story award; Hank Phillippi Ryan won best first novel; and Louise Penny won best novel of the year.

Malice Domestic is a delightful mystery conference, chock full of writers, readers, editors, agents, all sharing a love for the cozy, traditional, classic mystery. It's been great to be here. Learned alot, laughed alot, and can't wait to come back.

Evelyn David

Friday, April 25, 2008

Perception, Reality, and Hyper Happy CVS Customers

Anthony Award-winning Chris Grabenstein writes fabulous adult mysteries and thrillers. Hell Hole,the newest of the John Ceepak/Jersey Shore books, will debut this August. He also writes the Christopher Miller holiday thriller series. In May, look for Chris's newest project: The Crossroads, a spine-tingling spooky ghost story for middle schoolers. The Stiletto Gang welcomes Chris Grabenstein!

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in one of those Dilbert cubicle offices at our local Citibank branch, waiting for the management trainee (nice lady, but I suspect it was her first day on the job) to return once again from the Manager office – the real manager as evidenced by the fact that she had a) an office b) no mere mortal could deign approach said office c) it was behind all that brick-thick Plexiglas where they keep the new five dollar bills with the purple ink that my wife loves.

I’m sitting at the bank for the worst reason possible: someone has been forging checks on our account (look for the name Michael Butler to show up in one of my books soon. I’m not sure who he’ll be but, most likely, it will be a character who is pimply jerk with bedwetting issues and very frilly, feminine penmanship).

That’s all I want to do: stop payment on the forged check, close the account, find the forger, draw and quarter him/her, restore a sense of justice to the world. Hey, I write mysteries. The assistant manager keeps asking me if, while I’m there, I would like to take out a home equity loan. Maybe sign up for a mortgage. I think I get free airplane tickets if I do. I wonder if this is why we are currently weathering a mortgage meltdown crisis? Too many airplane tickets for folks who sign up for adjustable rate mortgages when they came in for a roll of quarters so they could do their laundry.

Anyway, I digress.

I meant to be writing about perception and reality.

Maybe it’s because, even though Ceepak Mystery #4 HELL HOLE won’t be out until July 22, 2008, I’m already working on book #5. It takes place in Atlantic City and deals with manipulated realities: a murder backstage at a world famous illusionist’s show playing in the casino’s main theatre. Lies everywhere to confound Ceepak’s honor code! As Bruce Springsteen says in his new song Magic, which, of course, will be quoted in the book: “Trust none of what you hear and less of what you see“

As I sit in the cubicle, admiring the cubicle school furniture all around me, wondering if it will ever rival Stickley, I see this poster. An ad.

For the record, I spent 17 years writing and producing TV, radio, and print advertising. I am still fascinated by the manipulation of imagery for devious purposes.

On the Citibank poster, here is what is depicted: An Asian dude, probably in his mid twenties, headphones strapped over his ears, orange shirt artfully open so one can see the yellow T underneath it (the rumpled slob look currently en vogue so I know this Asian dude is a happenin’ young adult). He is riding a unicycle on gravel in a park.

That’s it. No headline. No body copy. Just the image of the lanky guy who sort of reminds me of that Chinese NBA star riding on one wheel like a doofus over gravel that will scrape his knees when he loses his balance.

This is a six-foot tall “dangler” – one of those posters that hang suspended from the drop tile ceilings in banks and fast food joints (I’m sorry, I meant to say QSRs – Quick Service Restaurants, because that’s we had to call Kentucky Fried Chicken when we told the world “Everybody needs a little KFC.”)

Why is this poster hanging in Citibank? Do they give out unicycle loans ala auto loans? Did he get the unicycle free with his Citibank Thank You points? The orange shirt?

There’s another poster. In the window. This one is at least semi-bankish. It shows an extremely happy older couple staring at a blue print and the bare beams of a house under construction, imagining their uber kitchen. Their dreams are coming true! Life is good! This one I get. Bank. Mortgages. Home Improvement Loans.

But there are other danglers simply showing happy, peppy people. Lots of heads tossed back in laughter. Super joy. Puppy dogs. Frolicking in leaf piles. The folks depicted in the bank look the same as the ones in the windows of the CVS drug store on 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue where they have whole windows filled with headshots of impossibly blissful, dare I say exultant, individuals.

Ethnically diverse. Fashionably dressed. Happy, peppy, and bursting with love. Inevitably, the heads are tossed back in throes of ecstasy. These giant heads in the CVS windows have never been SO GOSH DARN HAPPY!

So why am I so miserable? Sitting in the bank cubicle wasting over an hour with, unfortunately, a very nice lady who doesn’t know what she is doing.

Why am I not giddy with joy at CVS or Circuit City or any of the corporate chains that plaster these posters of happy people all over the place while paying their Customer Service (and I use that term loosely) workers the minimum wage, thereby attracting the surliest and sourest humans possible, folks who think it’s rude of
you to reach their register while they are in the middle of an interesting cell phone conversation.

The people in the pictures in the windows and dangling from the ceiling are happy.

I should be too.

It’s my fault.

This, I think, is the real reason behind the image of the unicycling Asian dude merrily wheeling his way through life at the bank, the cheerful senior citizens loving life, dentures and all, in the windows of CVS.

If I am having some problem with the slooooow service, the shabby products, with anything it’s just that – my problem. Everybody else, as I can plainly see, is having a wonderful time.

If my reality doesn’t meet the perception as depicted, whose fault is that?

Most likely mine.

I start unicycle lessons tomorrow.

Chris Grabenstein

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mystery Plots

A priest hanging from a bunch of helium-filled balloons disappears. A caller reporting child abuse at a polygamist compound can't be found. A mail carrier catches a baby who falls from a second story window. The daily news is a great source of "plot bunnies" for mystery writers. It's just a matter of choosing a subject that will hold your and your readers' interest for 100,000 words.

With the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet, today's writers have access to an endless stream of interesting stories and events. Unsolved murders, missing persons, haunted houses, treacherous weather, family feuds, dangerous jobs, and unexplained events are wonderful building blocks for your next mystery novel. Many writers keep a notebook filled with plot ideas; others, like me, file the information away in memory for future use.

It's time for "Evelyn David" to start a new book. Since there are two writers involved we not only have lots of plot ideas, but have to negotiate with each other to narrow the choices. Sometimes one of us will take an idea and run with it, writing a few pages to see if we can truly turn the idea into a viable storyline. I have at least five such partial stories parked on my desktop – everything from a sequel to our short story, I Try Not To Drive Past Cemeteries, to a children's story involving Jesse James loot, to a couple who run an antique store and solve murders in their spare time. From time to time I write a little more on each, depending on my mood. I'm not sure any will ever make it to a publisher's desk, but maybe.

How to start? I bring up a blank sheet of paper on my computer screen. I type a working title. Then save the blank page. (Note: it's always wise to save your work every half page or so. I haven't lost any work yet to a power surge and I don't intend to – bowing my head and offering a silent prayer.)

It's usually best to start in the middle of the action – the scream of the baby falling, the ring of the anonymous call, the man hanging from the balloons drifting out of sight. You want to start with the "good stuff" then back up and describe your setting and your characters. Some people work off of an outline. My co-author and I don't – or at least we don't have a hard and fast one. Later in the writing, as the subplots develop and begin to take on a life of their own, we start structuring the chapters and the scenes.

We keep a running list of character names, descriptions, occupations, etc. – all the details you don't want to forget (i.e. your hero drives a Ford Bronco on page 20 and suddenly leaps into a Chevy Tahoe on page 187.)

As I mentioned earlier, it's time for Evelyn David to start a new book.

The sticky tabs on the diaper held. Twenty pounds of screaming baby dropping two stories at the speed of gravity. Only fragments of seconds to act. Reaching up, my fingers found purchase between the leg opening and the waistband. Pampers were tough. And on sale at the local super center. Strange the thoughts that run through your mind at times like these.

Dead silence. The baby and I looked at each other in amazement. My heart felt like it was going to explode; I couldn't seem to take a deep breath.

The baby had no such problem. The noise was deafening.

I got a better grip. The sudden moisture on my hands had me checking the baby for injuries. There were none.

The diaper was strong—but not leak proof.

Okay, not great. But it's a start. Maybe I need to watch CNN for more ideas.

Good luck with your own writing!

Evelyn David

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Girls' Night Out--Archaic Ritual or Necessary Endeavor?

I was recently watching one of my favorite reality television shows—The Real Housewives of New York City—and the subject came up among the women on the show about the old “girls’ night out.” One woman took umbrage at the fact that her girlfriends had invited her over, yet had a collective freak out when she brought her husband. This caused much drama, with a conversation ensuing about the whole concept of the girls’ night out. The woman who had brought her husband made it a gender equality issue which one of the housewives—with whom I agree—thought was a bit over the top. The woman with the husband thought that it was discriminatory or some such hogwash that her husband couldn’t attend the dinner, which was supposed to be ladies only.

First question, why would she want him to attend?

Second, and more important question, why would he want to?

I haven’t been able to get my husband’s take on this yet, but being as he greets my girls’ nights out with a wave of the hand and the cracking open of a beer, I don’t get the sense that he’s too troubled by the whole notion. Nor do I get the sense that he wants to come along. Or that he feels discriminated against. Because, face it, at this point, all my girlfriends and I are talking about are the kids and peri-menopause. What man in his right mind would be interested in that?

And I’m not interested in finding out what goes on after his softball team, the Ducks, leaves the field and hits the bar for some cold ones and a rehash of the game. That’s for the Ducks.

Are we the odd balls? Should we, like this glamorous and madly in love couple on the Real Housewives (or so they profess), want to spend every waking moment together?

The answer, my friends, is a resounding “no.” (In my humble opinion.)

As I mentioned above, a girls’ night out affords me the opportunity to talk about those things that my husband isn’t really all that interested in talking about. To wit, has Target embraced “vanity sizing” whereby your old size twelve is now a fourteen? He is just not interested in the answer to that question, much less discussing it for close to an hour. And because he has a thirty-two inch waist and has since he was sixteen, couldn’t give a rat’s behind about vanity sizing. But for me and my girlfriends, this is a discussion that could go on as long as a Security Council meeting at the U.N.

Example #2: Are boot-cut jeans, in, out, or timeless? He doesn’t care. He wears the same jeans that he’s always worn—the ones that were on sale when he went shopping for jeans.

Example #3: How does one get out of their PTA position—the one that they have held since their now-fourteen-year-old was in kindergarten? Answer? One doesn’t. One has it until one succumbs to Dutch Elm disease. Or moves to another state. Or when one’s child graduates from the school (but even that’s not a guarantee). But until any or all of these things occur, one (me) stays on the PTA.

My husband, if I chose to bring this up, would tell me to just quit. Oh, if it were that simple. Does he realize the looks I would get at the produce counter? The hurt feelings? Or that I would have to find my own replacement and lie about how rewarding it is to do the things that I do? My girlfriends understand all this and more. (One of them is still wearing a wig and sunglasses out so that she won’t be recognized and put on a committee to run the next social event.)

Obviously, I’ve simplified things a bit. We do tackle some topics that are more mundane, and some that are more serious. We’ve done religion, politics, divorce, teenagers, marriage, and double coupons—but not necessarily in that order. I need my girlfriends to assure me that I’m on the right track, doing the right thing, doing the best by my kids and my husband. It’s a gut check, a panacea for paranoia.

I head out tonight with two friends for a couple of glasses of cheap wine and some burgers. I can only hope that they leave half as happy as I do after spending a few hours on the topic of my muffin top.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jackass Mail Run, Come and Gone

The second page of the Fresno Bee had a photo and story about the Mail Run, the Porterville Recorder thought it to be front page news. Tells you how important this rowdy event is. Hubby went up to town at 9 a.m. and set up the home made booth. When he was done, I went up and set up my books–we were in front of the dentist’s office.

Immediately, the scent of cooking tri-tip and popcorn and other wonderful smells drifted my way and I was ready to eat. I ended up going across the street and buying a torta a local church was selling. People started wandering down the street long before noon–the official opening time.

At first, no one stopped by my booth–books aren’t exactly tempting when there’s so much other stuff going on–mostly people driving up and down the street showing off their vehicles.

Finally, things got serious and I spent a lot of time describing my books and yes, before the day was over I’d sold 10. Not bad–better than I’ve done at some bookstore signings. Yes, I did see a lot of people I haven’t seen for awhile and met some new ones as I’d expected.

A flock of middle-aged saloon “girls” strutted up and down the streets with heaving bosoms and appropriate costumes. A group of varied aged belly dancers also wandered down the street on the way to the stage set up in front of the pizza place. We could only hear the entertainment, too far away to see it.

Around 4 p.m. the sounds of gunshots rang out. A posse came galloping in ahead of the mail wagon, shooting in the air to scare off the bad guys. Didn’t work. Once the mail wagon came right in front of my booth, the bandidos stole the mail sack. Didn’t keep it long though, they were soon shot dead right in front of my eyes. The mail sack was retrieved and the mail delivered safely to the post office. (The bandidos came back to life in minutes.)

I made the cost of the booth and some profit and had fun, so it was a good day.

My writing friend and long time mentor arrived Sunday afternoon and we talked writing all evening long. In the night, a skunk decided to stroll past one of the dogs and he barked his annoyance waking me up. I knew it was a skunk because of the distinctive stench that floated in my bedroom window.

In the a.m. we talked more writing (great fun) and at noon I took her to Porterville, where we had lunch with another writer friend who will be the hostess for the next couple of days. Now it’s time for me to pack for Las Vegas and the Public Safety Writers Conference.

(While we’re gone, the Springville Rodeo will go on. Not sorry I’ll miss it–very difficult to get out of our driveway with all the cars passing by.)


Monday, April 21, 2008

Spitting in the Wind

I don't think of myself as superstitious. I prefer to present myself as just an average woman taking reasonable precautions so the fates don't barrel in and knock me flat. I will concede, however, that what seems like sensible safety measures to me, might seem like Looney Tunes to the next person.

So where does it all begin? Remember the saying, "step on a crack, break your mother's back"? My mother had severe spinal arthritis. As a child, I couldn't help but wonder if my sister and I had raced too carelessly up and down the block? Picture six-year-old Evelyn David laboriously stepping over each crack in the sidewalk until her big sister lost patience with her geriatric progress to the movies and knocked her flat. Forget the fates when you've got older siblings.

Rational people have to be intelligent about their superstitions – and that's not a contradiction in terms. Hear me out. I don't throw salt over my left shoulder if I spill any. Why? First, who uses much salt given all the fears about hypertension? But more importantly, who the heck is going to clean up the salt if I do toss it willy-nilly over my shoulder? I've never noticed any fates picking up a broom.

But as anyone who spends thirty seconds with me, in person or online, knows, I seem to be constantly spitting. No it's not denture plates flapping in the wind. Instead, and I confess I have yet to meet anyone else who seems to have heard of this superstition, I follow the "poo, poo" rule.

It's a multi-purpose, one-size-fits-all superstition. At its core, it is used to provide cover from the evil eye. So when I see a new baby, as soon as I finish saying, "he's so beautiful" I immediately add, "poo, poo." I don't want those pesky fates anywhere near an innocent child.

But poo, poo, is also used to ward off the fates looking to up-end a cherished dream. So if I were to say, "I wish that Tom Selleck would decide to star in the movie version of Murder Off the Books," I would then add, "poo, poo." This will prevent those ornery fates from deciding to have Dr. Phil sign on for the role. Of course, the rational me says that if Dr. Phil does decide to make the movie, and more importantly, if his check to buy the movie rights clears, then maybe those fates do know a thing or two and I should stop spitting.

Sometimes I'm the designated spitter. It's the same principle as the designated driver at a fabulous party. The champagne is flowing, the margaritas are plentiful (and so is all that salt dropping from the rims, I might add), people are laughing and forgetting all caution because they know that dull as dishwater Evelyn is in the corner ready to take up the slack, and drive everyone safely home, or in this case, spit as necessary. So when the Southern half announces gleefully that our sequel, Murder Takes the Cake, is going to win an Agatha, an Edgar, and land on the New York Times best-seller list, who do you think is left spitless trying to cover all the evil eyes undoubtedly looking to send our book directly to the remainder table?

That's okay. You can count on me…poo, poo.

Evelyn David

Friday, April 18, 2008

Jane's First Book Trailer

The Stiletto Gang is pleased to welcome as our guest blogger, Jane Cleland. She is the author of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries (St. Martin's Minotaur). Her latest book, Antiques to Die For, debuts this month. Jane is also President of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Welcome Jane!

For the first time, I created a book trailer to celebrate my new book, Antiques to Die For. You can view it at

It was quite an experience creating it.

I worked with a terrific independent film maker named Kat. Kat taught me the process: strategy, script, casting, setting, shoot. Sounds easy, right? Hardly.

The strategy was pretty straight ahead because I knew what I wanted. I had a clear vision—strategically, I wanted to both show what the book was about and what the experience of reading would feel like. I wanted to provide enough information to intrigue readers of traditional mysteries while creating a strong sense of place and atmosphere.

Here’s what the book is about:

After setting up shop as an antiques appraiser, Josie Prescott’s life has not gone according to plan: business is booming and she has good friends and a promising romance—but dead bodies keep crossing her path. And now, a friend is killed just hours after confiding a secret to Josie, leaving a bereaved sister who reminds Josie of herself when her mother died.

It turns out that the victim had other secrets, too: a mysterious treasure she told her sister she was leaving behind—and a secret admirer who now seems to be turning his creepy attention to Josie. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a 12-year old orphan whose sister is murdered? Can you imagine what it would be like if your sister told you that you owned a treasure—a priceless antique—but you don’t know what it is or where it is?

Set on the beautiful and rugged New Hampshire coastline, Antiques to Die For is filled with antiques lore and complex plot twists. In the end, using her knowledge of antiques, Josie finds the valuable treasure—and solves the crime. And in doing so, she gives a young girl hope.

At first, when thinking of the trailer, I focused almost exclusively on the young girl, but that took me off on the wrong track. Certainly, the girl, she’s a little blonde pixie named Paige, by the way, is a central character in the book. But Antiques to Die For is a Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery—and that means the trailer should focus primarily on Josie’s world—antiques, not a single character.

Casting was something else all together. I wanted to hire a girl to play Paige, but only her rear view would be seen. I wanted viewers to fill in their own ideas about what Paige looked like.

Kat ran ads on Craig’s list, and we were flooded with blonde ambition. One girl, or rather, her mother, wrote that her daughter was fourteen, but could play twelve. Another wrote that her daughter was ten, but could play twelve. We had two mothers who wanted to fly their daughters to New York to audition. Enough said. We picked a lovely 12-year old local girl named Shannon.

Perhaps the greatest challenge was finding a New York City shoreline location that looked even remotely like Rocky Point, the New Hampshire shoreline community where the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries are set. Leave it to Kat! We did. When you view the trailer, keep in mind that you’re looking at a New York City beach. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

In the end, I couldn’t be happier with the finished product. It expresses exactly what I wanted to express. A excerpt of the book is available in text or audio on my website, I love to hear your thoughts about book trailers—and the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, too.

Jane Cleland

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Books on My Desk

My second novel is finished and I'm more than ready for a quiet vacation somewhere with a sandy beach, but until Oprah discovers a fondness for Irish wolfhounds, my trips will all be to mystery conventions. I'm going to Mayhem in the Midlands in May – no beaches, but Omaha is a great place to visit. Since I'm driving this year, I hope to have a chance to see all the sights.

Speaking of sights, my house looks like a disaster area. Or maybe just a house where nothing got done the past couple of months except writing. Looking around my living room, the place where I write (yes, I have a spare bedroom that I will eventually turn into an office but for now I'm superstitious about changing anything), I see the effects of the "write until you drop" effort. Office supplies, Christmas wrapping paper, TV Guides from November, receipts from Staples, pens with mismatched caps, sticky notes with all kinds of important information (i.e. the Pizza Hut delivery number, the name of a poison I researched, and a plot point I feared forgetting), and books. I have lots of books stacked on my desk, on the floor, even part of the sofa has been commandeered to serve as a temporary bookshelf.

I love books. I love reading. So when I decided I wanted to learn to write fiction, my first instinct was to purchase books on writing. I devoured dozens of "how-to" books. Some were useful, others not so much. Some yielded practical information – the correct punctuation of dialogue; others gave me hints for structuring a plot, introduced me to pacing, and clarified the finer points of "point of view."

My favorites are already showing signs of wear and tear – I've read them more than once and refer to them often while writing.

Here's the best of the best – my recommendations for any mystery writer's desk.

For help with the nuts and bolts:
Writing the Novel – From Plot to Print - Lawrence Block.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - R. Browne & D. King.
Save the Cat! - Blake Snyder.

For research:
Death's Acre - Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson
Deadly Doses, A Writer's Guide to Poison - Stevens & Klarner.
Death to Dust–What Happens to Dead Bodies - Kenneth V. Iserson M.D.

For inspiration:
On Writing - Steven King.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Anything by Laura Lippman or Nevada Barr

Evelyn David

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Best and Worst Things about Being a Writer

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately, possibly because I’m set to begin work on my fourth installment in the Alison Bergerson mystery series. I already have a title—“Extra Credit”—so that’s a start. My editor and I are usually throwing around words and phrases long after the manuscript has been submitted and approved, hoping to land on that one turn of phrase that will pique a reader’s interest. The third novel—out in December of this year—will be called “Quick Study” and many thanks to my friend Kelly, optometrist extraordinaire, who came up with that one.

I’ve also been thinking about the things I like the most about writing and some of the things that I’m not so crazy about and have compiled a list. Here are my top three:

1. My home office: One of the best things about being a writer? My home office. One of the worst things about being a writer? My home office. Being able to amble up to the third floor and sit at my pine table and work away for the day is really a blessing; I’m here to ship the kids off to school and here when they come home (is it three o’clock ALREADY?). But truth be told, I haven’t really left that attic space to do anything approaching physical activity in a really long time. I had a friend over the other night for a glass of champagne (no occasion; I think drinking champagne should make its way into the normal and mundane days just as often as it makes its way into the celebratory and exciting ones) who is a personal trainer. I asked her her secret to having abs that you could bounce a quarter off of. Apparently, scientists haven’t invented a secret pill since I stopped exercising that will guarantee you abs like my friend’s. Her advice? Eat less fat, cut out the Chardonnay, watch your carb intake, and take a brisk walk every day. My advice? Personal Trainer Friend, do not ever set foot in my house again. That solves that.

2. Talking about writing: One of the best and worst things about being a writer is talking about writing. I love talking to other writers, hearing their secrets, bouncing ideas off of them. I like how a great conversation about writing can get the juices flowing for everyone involved. I admire other writer’s work ethics, their ability to write through writer’s block, and how they turn a phrase. What I do not enjoy is people asking me what it takes to be a writer or when they devalue what writers do. Usually the people asking me about writing discuss the excuses they have for not writing first: “I have a full-time job,” (me, too); “I have kids,” (got two of my own); “I have a great idea for a novel but am way too busy to write,” (join the club). But you know what? Just like there’s no secret pill to having rock hard abs, there is no secret pill that will allow you to sit down and write a novel. It’s hard work and requires a bit of skill. And if you want to write, you have to write (just ask my fellow Stiletto-ites). Nothing will get in your way. Let’s revisit this in nine months when novel #4 is due, the abs are still the consistency of Jello, and I’m really cranky. Make sure you’re not the person I run into at the grocery store who announces to me that writing is easy, they have a book in them (that’s gotta hurt), and after they’re done, they’d love to have me edit it for them.

3. Book reviews: Good reviews? The best thing about writing. Bad reviews? Do I even have to answer that? A good review will make my day. The birds will sing, I’ll make cornbread from scratch—just because!—and I will be whistling a happy tune. But get my day started with reading a bad review and I’ll turn into a beast that should only show its face during the full moon. Why do I let reviews—both good and bad—affect me like this? I don’t like everything I read and I don’t have to. Neither should anyone else out there (and I’m thinking of those reviewers on Amazon for whom one-star is a rave). There’s some kind of saying involving not believing the good reviews or the bad reviews and all will be well, but I haven’t been able to listen to this sage advice and continue on this roller coaster of emotion for the few months after I publish one of my novels.

The best thing I’ve done in the past several months related to writing is visiting the book club at my husband’s school. This group is comprised of about ten teachers who read and discuss the chosen book at length. They have just finished “Extracurricular Activities” and we had a spirited discussion about the book, mysteries, and writing in general. It was a fabulous evening, with some of the best refreshments I have ever seen at a book club. (Braised short ribs? Potatoes au gratin? Asparagus? I guess I’ll work all of those butter-filled calories off at some point but for today, I am salivating just thinking about that meal. Don’t tell Personal Trainer Friend—who, incidentally, I adore—she’ll have me in exercise boot camp before long.)

But since this is a combo best/worst list, I can’t leave out the part of the evening that will live in infamy: I got up to say goodbye to an old friend, tripped in my new high heeled giraffe-print shoes and took a header into the dessert table. I don’t think that even having perfectly sculpted abs and a killer rear end would have kept me upright or from grabbing the Shop teacher’s leg in an effort to ward off a head wound.

Even though it was the worst thing for me, I’m going to hope that that was the best thing about the book club meeting for the book club members. Because, let’s face it, how many times do you get to have the writer at your book club AND see her do a face plant?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Looking Forward

It seems I'm always looking forward to something. This weekend it's having a booth at the Jackass Mail Run. This is the beginning of Rodeo Weekend in Springville, CA. This particular event begins at noon with booths lining Main Street. (The part of Highway 190 that goes through town.) My booth will be in front of the dentist's office.

Most everyone will be dressed up like cowboys or saloon girls of the Old West. If a woman wears pants, she might be thrown in jail. If a man doesn't have a beard, the same thing will happen to him. It can get pretty rowdy, but not nearly as bad as it was when we first moved here, and the drunks took over by late afternoon.

There'll be some local bands playing and games for the kids. Plus it costs a buck to get out of jail if you're caught breaking the only two laws that are enforced. About 100 horse and riders will come up 190, having started in Porterville (17 miles) in the morning, escorting the mail wagon. Some of these folks do too much drinking along the way and get a bit wild. Sheriff's cars escort them as well as an SPCA truck and horse trailer.

When the mail wagon reaches Springville around 3:30 or 4, they are attacked by bandits. Lots of gun fire. Sometimes the Civil War Calvary gets in on it and shoots a cannon. The bandits drop dead in the street, but miraculously rise to fire again. It gets pretty darn noisy.

Most of the booths are manned by people selling food and trinkets. Our youth group will have a booth with popcorn and cotton candy. I'll be there hoping that, among the attendees, a reader or two might drop by and take a peek at my books. One thing I do know, is that there will be some folks I know who I haven't seen for awhile and they'll stop and chat.

After all that excitement, there's a dance in the Inn. I won't be attending. After being outside all afternoon, I'll pack up my books and head for home.

The next day, I'm having a visitor, a dear writing friend, Willma Gore. She taught me more about writing than anyone else while we attended the same critique group for many years. She moved to Sedona AZ a few years ago, and I've only seen her a couple of times since. We'll have all Sunday afternoon and evening as well as Monday a.m. to bring each other up-to-date. I can hardly wait.

Next on my agenda, is the Public Safety Writers conference in Las Vegas.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

I've got a ton of people coming for dinner on Saturday night. It's the start of Passover and we celebrate with a ritual meal called a Seder. This holiday marks the Biblical exodus of the Jews from Egypt. We sing songs, say prayers, and eat certain traditional foods (yes, this is the origin of matzoh ball soup).

Holiday preparations start a month in advance. I dig out huge pots, originally owned by my husband's grandmother, source of generations of chicken soup. I can make the broth ahead and freeze it, but the matzoh balls must be made the day of the Seder, bubbling away to perfection as we chant the opening prayers. When the crowd is large, we switch the furniture in our dining room and living room, to have space for extra tables. My husband grumbles as he schleps the folding chairs from the basement, but beams when he looks across the full room at family and friends joining in song.

Seder means "order" in Hebrew and there is an order to the evening and to the Haggadah, the prayer book we use for the holiday. But "order" and even tradition don't have to mean stagnant. Over the years, we've introduced new songs, tested new recipes for familiar foods, and researched subjects we take for granted looking for new insights. We've tripped over our tongues trying to make the traditional prayer book gender-neutral – and for some of us, we've shrugged our shoulders, read aloud the traditional masculine pronoun for God, confident that She would understand. At the end of the Seder, we leave feeling satisfied that we haven't just paid lip service to ancient traditions, but instead have made them our own.

In an odd way – and I'll grant that it may seem a stretch –there's a similarity between being a mystery writer and preparing the Seder. There's a well-known "order" to books, with the traditional elements of hero, murderer, red herrings, minor characters, place, setting. But how you mix these up, how you make these basics your own, is what defines you as a writer. I don't want my books to be any more of a formula than my Seder.

Sometimes our choices, in cooking or writing, work perfectly, pleasing the palate and the imagination. And sometimes, they are abysmal failures and our only choice is to delete, rewrite, reseason, or dump in the garbage can. That's okay too.

One of the traditional foods for Passover is Charoset, a sweet mixture of apples, walnuts, wine, and cinnamon, to represent the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the Egyptian storehouses. It's a family favorite and will be on the table in my mother's cut glass bowl, as usual. But I'm also offering something new: Persian Charoset, made with dates, pistachio nuts, pomegranate, banana, cloves and cardamom. It's a spicy alternative that hopefully will prompt discussion about history, ancestral connections, and the meaning behind these symbolic dishes.

So this week, in addition to the usual murder and mayhem I try to create, I'm polishing silver, moving furniture, cooking, cleaning, and getting ready for a crowd. I can't wait.

Happy Holidays to all.

Evelyn David

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Split Personality

Lorraine Bartlett is the author of Murder Is Binding, the first in the Booktown Mystery series, now available, and the author of the Jeff Resnick Mystery series. Dead In Red will be released in late June by Five Star.

I’m writing under two names: L.L. Bartlett writes the Jeff Resnick Mysteries, which are either psychological suspense or paranormal thrillers, and Lorna Barrett, who writes the Booktown cozy mysteries.

I’m also promoting in harmony:

How the heck did both books happen to come out so close to each other? Karma? Just plain dumb luck? It would’ve been better had they been half a year apart, but that isn’t what fate handed me.

So while I’m pushing one, the other is always on my mind.

It’s been a little over a week since Murder Is Binding came out (my cozy), but in eight weeks, Dead In Red (the second in my Jeff Resnick series) will debut. I should be concentrating on pushing MIB, but DIR is coming up fast.

My solution? Push them both.

The problem is--they’re two distinctly different kinds of stories. The Booktown mysteries are set in a small town, where “everybody knows your name” (a la Cheers), and it’s also the first murder in over sixty years in the safest town in the state. The Jeff Resnick series is set in the second biggest city in New York; Buffalo--and my protagonist is definitely NOT known by anyone except his family in the book…until Page 1. And crime in a big city isn’t as “personal” as it is in a small town. Except for those people it directly affects.

So what’s the common ground?

Actually, there is one. The Booktown mysteries feature sisters--Tricia and Angelica; the Jeff Resnick books feature brothers--Jeff and Richard.

For some reason, sibling relationships fascinate me. What makes me qualified to write about brothers? I have two. One older; one younger. Growing up, I had a first-hand view of the relationship between my brothers--the ups and the downs--and how that relationship changed as they became adults.

So what makes me qualified to write about sisters when I have none? Wishful thinking? Maybe. Observing my friends and their sisters? Definitely.

The thing about siblings is--come hell or high water--they will be there for you. (At least one hopes so.) And that’s a recurring theme in my work. When the worst happens, the brothers--and the sisters--can be sure that one person in the world will risk everything for them.

Has that ever happened to me in real life? Kinda…sorta. I saved my younger brother’s life twice. (Once from drowning.) When I was in my early twenties, I moved away from home. Not just across town, but two states over. It didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t prepared to leave the nest. Who came and bailed me out? My big brother. Now that my Dad can no longer help me with home chores, who do I call? My younger brother. (He has neat things like chain saws and can take down an ailing tree during his lunch hour. What a guy!)

These are the kinds of real-life situations that inspire the relationships my characters have--be they brothers or sisters. True, no brother of mine has had to take a bullet for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Lorraine Bartlett/L.L. Bartlett/Lorna Barrett

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Don't Give Up Your Day Job

Coming late to a writing career, the first piece of advice I was given was not to quit my day job. Unless lightening strikes, it could take a decade of work before the income from your writing pays the bills. And that's the optimistic view.

For more than twenty years, my day job has been with the Oklahoma Department of Mines. A few years after college I started as a surface coal mine inspector. Besides acquiring my first pair of steel-toed work boots and hard hat, I quickly learned that coal mines are dusty and miners don't much like state environmental regulators. I wish I could say that I envisioned that first day a long-term career in the field, but I was primarily focused on having a paycheck that covered my rent and car payment. But as the years passed, I slowly became an expert in my small slice of the world. I acquired new skills that made my biology degree a lot more useful (lots of training, classes, networking, and practice). I worked hard, learning how to do a little of everything when budget cuts left me shorthanded. Then through attrition (my supervisors left, retired, or died) and sheer stubbornness (refusing to quit when the job seemed impossible), I worked my way up the regulatory agency ladder.

Eventually I achieved the job I have now – Administrator of the Coal Program for Oklahoma. The pay is not very good, the work sounds more exciting than it is, and I've had to get used to lots of criticism. In other words – the perfect preparation for life as a writer!

Four years ago I started writing for fun, fortune, and fame. Didn't take long for me to learn that there would be no fortune, little fame (my family is impressed), but the fun was actually endless and the opportunity to try new things and go new places has been scary and exciting.

The first time I gave a library talk, I didn't sleep a wink the night before. I couldn't imagine what I had to share with the audience. I felt like a fraud. (Especially when I discovered the case of books I'd ordered for the event actually held someone else's book). But when I started talking I discovered that I could easily fill an hour just by talking about Evelyn David's writing journey and answering questions from mystery lovers and aspiring writers. I love sharing my continued sense of "wonder" about the process of turning thoughts into words and words into a novel.

Sometimes when I'm giving a speech at a library or civic club, I'll get questions about mining instead of mysteries. And that's okay. Without my day job, I wouldn't have the opportunity to write.

The Northern half of Evelyn David has suggested we write a mystery using a coal mine as the setting. Maybe someday!

Evelyn David

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Spring Cleaning: Hoarders versus Non-Hoarders

Is there any better feeling than throwing stuff out? Am I the only person who feels this way? (Show of hands, please.) The whole spring cleaning exercise started this year when my teenage daughter, whose bedroom had last been decorated when Clinton was in his first term of office—before the blue dress, before we used the word “impeach,” before Hillary grew her bangs out—protested that she was too old for pink, Laura Ashley wallpaper and flowered bed linens. I took a look around at the sad, drooping wallpaper, and the flowered comforter on the bed with the grape juice stain, and had to agree. It was time for a change. And a major cleaning.

But as anyone with teenagers knows, they have a lot of stuff. (With thanks to my idol, George Carlin, for his extended riff on the stuff we have and collect.) So, to get things started, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: I’ll redo your room but you have to clean it out.

Her: I will.

Me: No—I mean really clean it out.

Her: I WILL.

Me: Let me be clear: everything that comes out is not going back in.

Her: IT WON’T. Please leave me alone.

That went well.

But the momentum gained from the cleaning out of her room was unexpected and welcomed by me, a Non-hoarder. Once we tackled her room, we moved onto my son’s room or as we call it, The Land of the Lost Action Hero. We moved the bed, the bookcase, the desk. I took the back off of his dresser and fixed the two drawers that were broken. We were on a roll. We found shorts that hadn’t fit him in two years and bagged everything up for the used clothing bin. We were very happy.

Since we were doing so well, I then made a proclamation that we would next turn our attention to duh, duh, duh…the attic. Let’s be fair. Although it is technically an attic, our attic is akin to what most people have in their homes called a basement. That is, it’s a catch-all room: it is home to my 5’ x 5’ office, a family room/television area, and a play section that holds all of the toys that aren’t found in my son’s room. But it is also home to several decades worth of sports equipment (five baseball mitts anyone?), the magazine from 1988 that has a picture of my wedding gown in it (why would you keep that?), several hundred baseball cards, and close to a thousand—conservative estimate—comic books. And let’s not forget the videos from toddler-hoods gone by and the tween and teen detritus.

In other words, it’s a mess.

Which brings us to the real purpose of this blog entry: hoarders versus non-hoarders. I’m a non-hoarder living with a bunch of hoarders. I will admit to keeping any piece of preschool artwork with the word “I Love My Mommy” on it but I will throw anything else out that isn’t bolted to the floor. Haven’t looked at that signed Bobby Orr puck since you got it? Gone. So’s the stack of ‘45’s that you can’t play anymore because we don’t have a record player. And make sure you don’t look for that stack of Power Rangers videos—they were donated in ’99 to the preschool tag sale. So, needless to say, when I brought my family of hoarders upstairs, the fur flew, so to speak. I picked up a bunch of Nerf-ish ammunition from the floor, little orange Styrofoam darts that I was sure my son used to torture my daughter.

Me: What are these?

The Hoarders: Those are the pellets to the Nerf Super Blaster.

Me: (holding aloft a black plastic garbage bag) Say goodbye.

The Hoarders: NO!

And so it went. I would create a little mound on the floor and to be fair, would give the Hoarders a chance to take a look before bagging up the items in the great pile. There was a great deal of consternation as things proclaimed “favorites” that hadn’t been played with in years, or items that all of sudden became “special,” found their way into the garbage bags. It was an endless, emotional process that left all of us drained. And not just a little bit angry at one another—me because of the collecting, and them for my lack of sentimentality or recognition of the special nature that each item held.

I had had enough. I was tired of working in an area that looked like the set from “Sanford and Son.” But they had worn me down. I was done. I couldn’t battle to get another Wonder Woman action figure (missing a leg, no less) into the garbage bag and they couldn’t hold me down long enough or distract me for any length of time to go through the bags. As I lay on the floor, exhausted from the cleaning and the fighting, a thought dawned on me:

In two days, they would go back to school. And we live two miles from a Good Will Donation Center.

The skies parted and the angels sang and I left the attic. The Hoarders were more than a little suspicious but confident that they had worn me down.

I had a very nice chat with the ladies at the Good Will Donation Center this week, who were more than happy to hold the door when I arrived, boxes in tow, with all things “special” and “favorite.” Bless you, ladies. May someone else—a Hoarder in training, maybe?—enjoy the fruits of my cleaning labor.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

For Writers: Organizing Your Time

Or I could title this, "Figuring Out How to Get Other People to Do your Chores."

The older I get, the harder it is for me to take care of everything in my home like I used to do. I've been paying someone to do my housework for years. Back when I had kids at home, I paid them. Relatives, who need money, have been my later choices.

One thing I've learned, though it hasn't been easy, it isn't necessary to do my chores on a particular day of the week like my mother. Believe it or not, some things don't have to be done weekly. A lot depends upon your personal tolerance for messes. Dust waits for you.

I can't stand to have dirty dishes piled around, so besides using paper plates a lot, I've trained everyone who eats or drinks at my house to put dishes and glasses away in the dishwasher. I only run it when it's full. Then I hope that someone else will put the clean dishes away and often someone will.

My best time for writing is in the morning, so after I shower and dress (yes, I always do that first because I don't like to be caught later in the day in my p.j.'s - just doesn't seem fitting for a great-grandma), I plop myself down in front of the computer and get started. Usually I quit when I'm getting tired but still have more to write. That way it's easy to get right back to it the next day.

I'm interrupted plenty during my writing time - phone calls, hubby or other relatives who have something "urgent to tell me that just can't wait" and I do stop and listen. When the laundry piles up, I take time to do that while I'm writing. After all the washing machine and dryer work while I am. I fold and put away the laundry in the evening when I'm watching TV.

Yep, I watch TV. Love movies and I have my favorite shows. If I've written all day, I'm done by evening and need to give my brain a rest. Sometimes I do other paperwork in the evening - might even do some editing. I'm a champion at accomplishing odd jobs during commercials. (Helps keep me awake.)

Once a week, I take a break and for at least part of a day, do something totally unrelated to writing. Usually it involves a movie and eating out. Reading is also important to me. I read in bed and always take a book with me if I have an appointment somewhere and might have to wait.

For me, to keep my writing fresh, I have to know when it's time to stop and have some fun. Though I don't write out a schedule, I'm always sure to make that part of my daily schedule.

Having a calendar nearby that I make notes in also helps keep me on schedule for upcoming book promotions, blogs, the teaching I do, and the mundane stuff like doctor appointments. I also write myself lots of notes, especially when I'm in the middle of a book.

Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband who loves to go to town so he's stuck with grocery shopping and running errands.

Now, it's time to get back to the book I'm working on.


Monday, April 7, 2008

The Writing Life

Last week I gave a library talk in Neptune, New Jersey. Lovely group, great food, fun discussion about my favorite topic – mysteries! I was packing up, considering carefully whether I should take one of those delicious brownies for the road, when a gentleman stopped me.

He wanted to know: "How did you become a writer?"

I thought a moment and then explained that there had been a survey on the Dorothy L listserve about why writers write and the general consensus had been: "because we can't not write." For me, writing is as much a part of who I am as breathing and brown hair (albeit the hair color might have a tad bit of help).

Maybe it's destiny or maybe it's the challenge that intrigues me. George Mallory, the British mountaineer, gave a similar response when asked why he wanted to scale Mt. Everest: "Because it is there." He couldn't not try.

On the simplest of levels, we become writers because we have something to say. But why fiction? Jean Kerr, one of my favorite funniest authors, explains in her first book, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, that she decided to become a playwright because as a child, her father, exasperated by her constant chatter, declared "all you're good for is talk." Wasn't that the perfect encouragement, she reasoned, to make a living writing dialogue? She then went on to further explain that she needed to find some career since there didn't seem to be much income potential in marketing her signature soup—which she had developed by combining two different varieties of Campbell soup.

I re-read several of her essay collections as the Southern half of Evelyn David and I were starting Murder Off the Books. I laughed hysterically (again) and had one of those aha moments. (1) I like to chat so maybe I too could write dialogue, and (2) I don't think I can make much of a career selling my world-famous matzoh ball soup so I might as well write.

Sometimes writing is exhilarating and sometimes, often, it's tortuous. There are times when the words seem to flow like water and I'm sitting at my desk reveling at the cadence and precision of the language I've created. And then there are the times when I couldn't compose a shopping list if held at gunpoint.

So why do I write? How's this? Because for all the disappointment, rejection, poor pay, and frustration, no other job makes me as happy. I write because I love it.

Evelyn David

Friday, April 4, 2008

Death Will Get You Sober

Today Evelyn David interviews Elizabeth Zelvin, author of Death Will Get You Sober (St. Martin's, in bookstores April 15). Liz's story, "Death Will Clean Your Closet," has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. The story appeared in the anthology Murder New York Style and is available as a free download on Liz's site,

Your journey to published author has had a lot of twists, turns, and detours. What gave you the impetus to keep moving and writing?

I had dreamed of getting a novel published for too many years to give up at this late date. I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old—about a hundred years ago—so I’ve had a lot of practice. Of course there were moments, still are, when I look at my work and think it’s no good. I think every writer has them. But there are more moments when I knew that there were readers out there who’d enjoy what I had written, if I could only find that elusive agent and publisher. Death Will Get You Sober was always meant to be the first of a series. Once I’d written it, my protagonist Bruce and the other characters, especially Barbara, the codependent addictions counselor, kept making clever remarks in my head, so I had to keep going.

Recently, there was a lengthy discussion on a mystery listserve about humor in whodunnits. Some love it – others don't want to mix mirth with murder. Death Will Get You Sober features a recovering alcoholic – any laughs for such a serious subject?

I think Death Will Get You Sober is hilarious. Not everybody will agree, but I bet that people in recovery will. I didn’t create the humor. It was already there. There’s a lot of laughter in AA meetings. Recovery is all about getting honest about yourself, and for that, you need a sense of humor. Alcoholism is serious. Our society tends to think of certain kinds of drunkenness as funny. I don’t agree. But recovery can have a lot of fun in it, and that’s what I wanted to convey.

What do you know now about writing and publishing that will make a difference for subsequent books?

I made a lot of mistakes that people warned me about, but it took a while for them to sink in. They said, “Don’t send out your first draft, and don’t burn through too many agents right away.” I learned the hard way. My manuscript went through many drafts, and I queried many agents and editors, before St. Martin’s took it. I’m grateful it had time to turn into the book people will read. They said, “Kill your darlings.” In other words, there’s such a thing as too much, even if you’re in love with every clever word or well turned phrase. I had a three-week arts residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida in 2006, a paradise for writers and other creative artists. SJ Rozan was the “master artist” I worked with. She said, “Liz, two good lines are enough for any paragraph—you don’t need three or four.” After she said that a few times and my colleagues in the workshop agreed, all of a sudden I could see what needed cutting. Having to put together a reading where you’d get the hook after three minutes also helped me streamline my work.

About publishing: I knew going in that nowadays the writer has to do the promotion, unless you’re a celebrity or a bestseller. Working with St. Martin’s, I’ve been lucky to realize that people at the publisher’s can be enormously helpful if you take the time to learn what they actually do and develop a relationship with them. You may book your tour yourself or hire a publicist, but they’ll make sure the booksellers and librarians hear about you, and they’ll get the books there.

Any special rituals or favorite foods that you need to kickstart your writing?

No. The best writing day for me is one that starts with me stumbling right out of bed to the computer with a scene or sentence or line of dialogue tugging at the inside of my head. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. But when I can get the world to leave me alone—and that includes my husband and my email, both irresistible at times—it can be a morning when the words come pouring out.

Why did you choose to have a male protagonist?

That was sort of an accident. I wanted to write a recovering alcoholic, and I wanted to write someone who nobody would think could possibly be me, which meant a man. But I took it for granted I’d have a female voice as well. So I originally had two protagonists, Bruce and Barbara, the codependent who loves to help and mind everybody’s business. They alternated chapters as first-person narrators. I got inconsistent feedback: some agents and editors had no problem with it, others thought it didn’t work. One or two wanted me to throw Barbara out, one at least wanted me to get rid of Bruce. Then the first editor who saw the manuscript at St. Martin’s told me he thought Bruce made a terrific protagonist but Barbara would do better as a sidekick. First I thought, “I can’t.” (My husband says my process always starts with, “I can’t,” and he’s probably right.) Then I thought, “St. Martin’s! This could be my shot.” So I rewrote it, and the editor was absolutely right. It made Bruce stronger and Barbara, oddly, more endearing. And that’s the book St. Martin’s took.

Which camp are you in? Long-hand or computer?

Keyboard all the way. I was a poet for thirty years before this turn to mystery, and I never wrote a poem that was a “keeper” in longhand, even when I used an old Royal manual typewriter, long before computers. I love writing on the computer because I can type faster. I was always a crackerjack typist, but I think fast too, and it’s good that my fingers can always keep up. As I get older, I’m sometimes afraid I’ll forget my best lines before I can get them down. It’s happened! But I usually carry a little digital recorder in places I can’t type, like when I’m driving or running around the Central Park reservoir.

Success as a mystery writer came later in life for you. How did being older influence you as a writer?

Oh, all those books in the drawer! The three mysteries from the Seventies, completely outdated now. The book about my first marriage—thank heaven that never got published. Mainly, it’s not so much that I became a better writer, though I certainly became a better editor. And in the course of writing Bruce, I’ve found my voice, which is something I believe you can’t fake or force. But what I have to say owes everything to life experience and whatever wisdom advancing age has brought me. I might not even want to read the novel my 24-year-old self might have written today.

You seem very comfortable online. In your other career as therapist, you have an online therapy and counseling site, . Why should writers establish an online presence?

I wouldn’t say “should.” In fact, it’s a word I almost never use. I’ve said in a professional context that online therapy is for those who love it, both therapists and clients. I think the same is true of cyberspace in general. I’m no techie. My family is still astounded that I can not only use a computer but am at it all day long in both my “hats” as therapist and writer. I’ve been seeing clients online since 2000 via chat and email, after twenty years in traditional private practice as a psychotherapist and day jobs directing alcohol treatment programs. I made a lot of my mistakes and went through my very gently inclined learning curve with my online therapy site. I was able to put my author site, , together relatively quickly once I got my contract and knew it was time. I already had a webmaster, and I knew what each of us could and couldn’t do. He can program anything so it works across platforms (a concept I didn’t even understand for my first five or six years in online practice), but he can’t write my text or spot a typo. I do my own design too, because I have an eye. I took the photos on both sites (except for the head shots) and did the drawings on the LZcybershrink site.

But the websites are only part of the story. For me, becoming a published writer has been all about networking. And networking is just another word for making friends and, as we say in New York, schmoozing. I love to schmooze! I used to look at authors’ Acknowledgments pages and wonder how they got to know all those other writers they were thanking. Now I know hundreds: in part, thanks to living in New York and belonging to such great organizations as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, but also because of the amazing online community of not just mystery writers but also mystery lovers of all kinds: readers, booksellers, librarians. I’d never have gotten past the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober without the Guppies, the online chapter of Sisters in Crime for newbies trying to break in—and now, many who have, like me. I love the very different flavors of DorothyL and CrimeSpace. And what I’ve learned from generous pros sharing their experience on the e-list Murder Must Advertise is priceless.

Another unexpected pleasure has been blogging. I’m lucky to belong to Poe’s Deadly Daughters with five terrific blog sisters, fellow mystery writers Sandy Parshall, Lonnie Cruse, Sharon Wildwind, Julia Buckley, and Darlene Ryan. I love the community, and I love the writing, which for me is like being a journalist once a week—a columnist with freedom to write about whatever I want. And most of all, I love saying I have “blog sisters.”

Elizabeth Zelvin

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ruby Slippers Don't Help In Tornado Alley

It's that time of year again. Tornado season. Monday was the first day of 2008 that eastern Oklahoma was under a tornado watch.

Of course I'm used to Oklahoma's wild spring weather. I grew up here. Some of my earliest memories are of being bundled up in the middle of the night and taken to my grandparents' cellar. We'd spend an hour or two in that small, humid, underground room with its metal door, then go home. My grandmother stored canned vegetables from her garden down there on metal shelves that lined the concrete walls. There were also chairs and a metal cot with an old mattress and heavy handmade quilts. I don't ever remember being scared down there – it was more an anticipation of something that might happen but never really did. I'm sure my grandparents felt something entirely different during those times we were huddled in that cellar. They were remembering an evening in 1950, before the National Weather Service broadcast weather warnings; before towns had tornado sirens.

On April 28, 1950, at 7:05 pm, an F-4 tornado ripped through Holdenville, Oklahoma with no warning. My Dad was 13 years old that year. As he tells the story, he and his parents had been planting corn all day in the adjacent field. There had been a light rain and they had returned to the house to get cleaned up – they were planning to go downtown to eat dinner. By 7:00 pm everyone except my grandfather was ready to go. With only one bathroom, he was the last in line to take a bath. My grandmother and my Dad were in the kitchen, waiting for him, when they heard the sounds of a train. That wasn't an unusual sound for their area, but it was coming from the south. There were no train tracks in that direction. My grandmother and Dad went to the window. First they saw 50 gallon oil drums spinning in the air, then noticed the dark funnel cloud approaching.

Things happened very fast after that. My grandmother screamed for my grandfather, "There's a tornado coming right at us!"

My grandmother and my dad then tried in vain to open the cellar door. It was a trapdoor in the back porch and the metal file that they used to pry up the door was missing.

The sound of wind attacking the house was incredible. My grandmother sent my dad to lock the front door, but he found the living room and the front door gone. By that time my grandfather was dressed – his shoes on the wrong feet. He tried to get everyone into the cellar, but before that could happen, the kitchen roof fell in on top of them.

As suddenly as it came, it was over. My grandmother ended up in the bathtub – no one was ever quite sure why or how. They teased her for years about taking a bath during the tornado.

They stood on the back porch and watched the tornado destroy a pond dam and two more houses before disappearing. Horses from a nearby stockyard were scattered in their pasture – two by fours piercing their bodies, nailing them to the ground.

My grandparents were lucky. They survived the tornado without any injuries. They lost livestock, outbuildings, their barn, and their house. At least five people in Holdenville died that day. Thirty-two were reported injured. I asked my Dad what they did that night after the tornado struck; where did they go? He said they stayed right there. It was their home and they had to keep looters out. The next day they searched for items that had been blown away. He remembers finding his saddle about a half-mile from where the barn used to stand. Their two-car garage was gone, a car and truck that had been parked inside were still there, although slightly smashed together. The four dogs eventually all made it home; one remaining glued to their ankles for the rest of the summer.

My dad's older brother was in the Air Force, stationed in Illinois when the tornado struck. He was allowed to come home to help during those first two weeks; a short time after that he was given a hardship discharge and returned home for good. The National Guard was called in to protect the town.

That summer my grandparents rebuilt their home. First a garage and then an apartment located over it; someplace with a roof to live in while they constructed the new house, barn, and cellar- the cellar I spent so much time in fourteen years later.

I think about that day in 1950 when I hear the weather alerts on the television and the radio. I marvel at how far we've come in predicting when and where tornados will strike.

Like I said, I'm used to Oklahoma's spring weather. I don't get upset. But I do watch the skies.