Thursday, July 31, 2008

In the Still of the Night

Since it seems to be the week for blogs on the paranormal, I thought I’d chime in with my one and only ghostly encounter. I do believe in an afterlife, although it’s a vague concept that basically has me chatting on a daily basis with relatives I miss. I haven’t completely resolved in my mind how heaven and hell really work and I confess to a childish vision of their operations. For those I want to condemn to the celestial fiery furnaces, I’m hoping there is no such thing as purgatory because I want those evildoers on a nonstop express directly to the heat. And for those angels on earth who have done nothing but good in their lives, I want them enjoying the sweetness of heaven as soon as possible.

My mother, the original Evelyn, died six weeks after my daughter’s birth. I was, quite simply, an unholy mess. I went through all the stages of grief simultaneously, while at the same time, was numb to the point of emotional paralysis. How could I deal with my loss when everyday life was so demanding: a husband, three active sons, a newborn, home, writing commitments, legal issues with Mom’s estate – all on zero sleep?

About a month after she died, I finally fell into a dreamless slumber. It was so deep that not even a noise that would, pardon the pun, wake the dead, would have caused me to stir. But in a vision that is still as clear to me as if it happened just last night, my mother came to my room and stood next to my bed. I can’t tell you what she was wearing, although she looked healthy, unlike those last months when she became a shadow of herself. She wasn’t young; there were no halos, which makes sense because my mother was the epitome of style and there’s no way she’d ever wear a hat that didn’t have a snappy brim; no celestial music which also makes sense because my mother loved jazz so unless Ella Fitzgerald was scatting in the background, she would have turned off the sound.

Mom was kind, but brief and to the point – exactly as she was when alive. She told me that she was fine – and that I would be okay too. It wasn’t a long discussion, no descriptions of the better place she was in; not even, and I would have liked this, a “hello” from my dad. But it was such a comforting visit that I awoke at peace for the first time in weeks. My mother believed in taking care of business – and not even death could stop her from getting me back on track.

Was it my psyche healing itself? I don’t think so. I could definitely feel her presence and despite being a writer, I can’t get more descriptive than that. My mother was in the room with me – of that I am sure. And today, in heaven, she's smiling that all these years later, she still has the power she always had to comfort and reassure her daughter. Thanks Mom.

Have you had any ghostly encounters?

Evelyn David

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


All of Evelyn’s ghost talk got me thinking about…ghosts.

And spirits, and the supernatural, and the occult, and tea leaves...which all lead me back to my Irish grandmother, Maga.

Maga—a name she received from me because I could say neither “Margaret”—her given name—or “Grandma”—the name given to her by my older cousins—was an immigrant from a small county in Ireland that nobody has ever heard of—even the Irish. She came to America as a broke nineteen-year-old who crafted a real estate business out of nothing, “flipping” houses after renovating them from a state of disrepair to a state that was attractive to home buyers. She lived in many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, some quite fashionable these days. My mother, her daughter, moved a lot, as they traveled from one neighborhood to another buying and selling houses.

When my mother married and she and my father decided to move to the suburbs, Maga, now a widow, accompanied them, leaving behind her beloved Brooklyn for the sticks. One of our nightly rituals was a post-dinner snack of tea and toast. The tea was really sweet, the toast covered in butter, and the stories scary and eerie. There was the one about her walking home from school (uphill both ways in the snow) and seeing a man sitting on his “honkers” (the best translation we can approximate is “haunches” but it sounded much, much scarier with “honkers” inserted) on the side of the road. When she confronted him, he disappeared into thin air. My brother and sisters still shudder at the thought of a little man, crouched down and scaring a young girl on her way home from school. There was also the story of her father bringing the children together to pray for the victims of the Titanic—which as it happened, was an event that happened the day after this collective family prayer.

But Maga’s special gift was reading tea leaves. She predicted many an event—from my Aunt’s being trapped in a big hole (she broke down in the Holland Tunnel the next week) to a friend of my mom’s, long finished bearing children, bringing another person into her bed. (That was set us giggling for a few days, as this was a very passionate and gorgeous Italian woman who resembled a blond Sophia Loren—we could only imagine who would be joining her.) The other person turned out to be the son she never thought she would ever have, a son who was about thirteen years younger than her youngest child. Incidentally, said child slept with his mother and father until he was eight.

I was there when she took a look at another family friend and felt the presence of an impending tragedy that ended up happening the very next day. She wasn’t specific and she wasn’t sure what was going to happen but she knew something bad was afoot. And she was right.

I can’t explain it and I don’t know what it was, but the woman had a special “shine” that showed her things that were meant to be. What she couldn’t predict was the triumph of the human spirit as my aunt got out of the tunnel and conquered her claustrophobia, my mother’s friend embraced her new child and made him the light of her middle-aged life, and our family friends carried on from the tragedy that changed their lives. There was nothing she could do to stop the wheels from turning but her faith in the world and the divine made her take it all in stride.
Crazy, right? I know how it sounds. But my siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends all had at least one experience where they witnessed the impossible. It has been twenty-seven years since her death but every once in a while we reminisce about the stories she would tell, the things she would predict, and chuckle. We’re imagining what we remember, right? we ask ourselves. We’re embellishing the facts, yes? Who knows.

I had a very vivid dream a few years ago in which I was sitting in my uncle’s kitchen in Brooklyn with him, a place he vacated close to thirty years ago. My uncle--Maga's oldest--and I were drinking tea and eating toast when my grandmother came in, just as real as ever, and sat down to chat with us. I implored her to stay. “We miss you so much,” I said, crying. She looked at me sadly. “But I have to go home,” she said. “I live in a new home now and I’m so happy there.” I knew that home didn’t mean the place where she had grown up, any of the houses in Brooklyn, nor our house in the suburbs. The way she said home made me believe that she was in her eternal home and that was the place she needed and wanted to be. It broke my heart—I woke up crying—but the beauty on her face as she consoled me made me feel that she was okay where she was. And that she had been near for just a few short minutes.

Recently, my brother sent his naughty three-year-old daughter to a chair in the corner of the dining room and told her to sit there until she composed herself. While in the kitchen, he heard her talking, an animated one-sided conversation about the injustice of having to sit in the chair, protestations about her innocence. He had heard her do it before and chalked it up to childhood imagination. But he heard some specifics in her rant and finally asked her who she was talking to.

"I’m talking to Maga,” she said. “I always talk to her.”

Draw your own conclusions. I know that I have.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Giving Talks About Writing

Lately I've read several blogs about what to do when appearing on TV or giving talks. I love giving talks about writing and about my books.

This video was taken when I gave a talk at the Hanford CA library about my books.

I had a runny nose that night, which you’ll certainly pick up on as I keep wiping my nose. My daughter-in-law is sitting by the books, and she is who I picture in my mind when I’m writing about Deputy Tempe Crabtree.

This is more or less how I look and sound when I’m giving a talk most anywhere–though I don’t usually have a runny nose.

I recently gave a talk on Self-Editing to a pleasant and welcoming group of authors at a lovely bookstore in the foothills on the way to Yosemite National Park. Everyone was welcoming–and no one challenged me after they realized I really did know what I was talking about. Another thing that helps is I always tell mistakes I’ve made and managed to get through into my published books, despite all the eyes that looked at it in manuscript form.

The biggest goof was in Deadly Omen, the first in my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. Tempe drives around in a Blazer which becomes a Bronco and then turns back into a Blazer, and this happens several times. I admit it, I don’t pay much attention to cars. Whenever I get a new one I make sure that my adhesive banner with my website on it is stuck on the back of the new car so I won’t have trouble finding it in a parking lot.

In Calling the Dead there’s a name change on a page–the man is called something, then his name changes (it’s a close name) then changes back. When a reader pointed it out to me, I informed the publisher and it was changed before the next round of printing.

I always warn all writers to print out their manuscript when they are ready to proof-read. Proofing on the computer just doesn’t work. Your eye seems to fix all the mistakes.

Once when I had a broken ankle, I decided to work on an old manuscript because I didn’t feel like starting anything new. I went through the novel zealously, changing words, making sure pronouns agreed with nouns, all the things I know to do when editing. But–I didn’t print the book out. Instead I sent it off to a publishing house that has always published everything I sent. What I received from them was a polite note that I should consider what the first reader had to say, and if I fixed all my mistakes, send it back for another look through.

When I read it again, I was horrified to see that in many cases where I changed a word, I left the old word in too. There were other mistakes too–ones that I’d have easily caught if I’d printed out the manuscript and edited it one last time before sending it off. And no, I’ve never tackled it again.

Another good idea is to put the manuscript aside for at least a week, then go over it one more time.

Going back to the presentation, I hope that I saved those writers from the humiliation that I felt when I received that message from the publisher.

All in all, it was a terrific afternoon. I enjoyed meeting new writers, seeing two old friends, and talking about my favorite subject–writing.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Ghost Hunting - Part 2

Old creepy hotels are well … old. That was my first brilliant observation as my brother and I lugged our stuff from the parking lot up the front steps into the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The entrance doorknob was about six inches lower than a normal doorknob. At 5 foot 7 inches, I had to stoop to open the door. With my hands filled with two bags, my oversized purse, and my laptop, the maneuver was awkward and uncomfortable. Much like the rest of my stay in the Victorian hotel.

Old creepy hotels in the South in July are well … hot. Swelteringly hot. The Crescent Hotel has window air conditioning units in the guest rooms but the rest of the hotel is dependent on ceiling fans and cold spots created by ghosts.

Yep, ghosts.

First let me report that I didn't see any ghosts. I don't think I heard any ghosts. And I probably didn't sense any ghosts. You'll note that I'm a lot more definite about not seeing any manifestations, orbs, or unusual shadows.

We went on the Ghost Tour on Tuesday night, our second night, at the hotel. Starting at 8:00 P.M. a psychic with an intricate knowledge of the hotel's history led a group of twenty or more through the hallways and basement of the 1886 Victorian hotel.

Originally a resort hotel, it later became a women's college and dormitory, then a cancer clinic run by a charlatan, and again a hotel. Aside from a stone mason killed in an accident during construction and a young student who went off a balcony to her death, most of the reported ghost sightings involve patients from the hotel's infamous cancer hospital days. Dr. Baker, a self proclaimed physician despite no medical training, cruelly butchered, through experimental surgeries and treatments, and generally swindled thousands of cancer victims. Many are buried or cremated on site. Check here for more details about the hotel's history and ghost sightings.

The tour lasted more than two hours. I had plenty of time to watch for ghosts and to watch the people in the group watching for ghosts. By far the people watching was the most interesting. The demographics of the tour group ranged from 2 to 70-plus years in age, from male to female to uncommitted. All were busy with digital cameras trying to catch a spirit appearance. The two-year-old did a lot of running and screaming down the hallways. I had a feeling that if a ghost had shown up, the toddler would have had company.

My brother took over a hundred photos, one that showed a possible orb (a spirit with only enough energy to appear as a ball of light in photos). Or it might just have been the sun through the skylight.

And one that showed something we couldn't identify. He took several photos of empty chairs in spots where ghosts were reported to hang out. In the photos as in real life, the chairs appeared empty.

Personally I think the ghosts were absent because of the heat. It felt like a 110 F in the non-air conditioned lobby and hallways. What self-respecting ghost would choose to suffer those temps when they could be out in the gardens or the pool scaring humans?

Okay – so I didn't see any ghosts on this trip. And I mentioned above that I don't think I heard any ghosts. The reason I'm not as sure about the audio encounters is that between the organic noises of the old building (banging elevator, creaking floors, unbalanced ceiling fans, sounds from substandard plumbing, noisy window air conditioner units turned to the "freeze please" setting, etc.) and the loud voices of flesh and blood guests who'd spent too much time in the bar, I wouldn't have been able to hear a ghostly whisper, moan, or groan if my life depended on it.

Okay – the first night I might have heard metal gurneys from the 1930s being pushed back and forth in the hallways. Or more likely, I heard the sounds of living guests pulling their wheeled suitcases over the wooden floors. I had a digital audio recorder with me. And like the investigators on Ghost Hunters, I had planned to sit in my empty room, turn the recorder on, and then ask if any ghosts wanted to talk to me. But … I kept thinking, what if they did? What would I do if I asked a question and got an answer? How would I react? My world view would be changed. My religious beliefs would be challenged. And most importantly, I would have had to pack up and find a Holiday Inn in the middle of the night. I decided it was better to leave the recorder in my purse.

So no visuals. No sounds. What about sensing ghosts?


When I was in the basement (the location of the old operating and autopsy rooms) with the tour group, the keys I had in the pocket of my slacks, moved.

It felt like someone had passed a magnet by my hip and the metal hotel key and metal fob clanked together and moved away from my body. It was a strong enough sensation that I asked the tour guide if there were magnets in the area. He said, "No. Ghosts like to play tricks with keys." He told me that I'd been "touched."

I'm not so sure. I'm a born skeptic. But I admit the possibility forced me to sleep with a light on my last night at the hotel.

Will I go back? Probably not. At least not in the summertime. Maybe Halloween?

Even though I didn't leave with concrete proof of ghosts, I did leave with a good story. For a writer, that's all that matters.

Evelyn David

Friday, July 25, 2008

Smoking and Not Smoking

Kaye Barley is an avid mystery reader and Dorothy L poster who lives in the beautiful North Carolina mountains with her handsome husband of 22 years, Donald, and their faithful companion, Harley Doodle Barley - the cutest Corgi on God's green earth.

I’ve quit smoking.

I think.

Just taking it one hour at a time. But I think I have it licked.

The Stiletto Gang has invited me to talk about it, so I’ve decided to come clean with why I decided to quit.

During a conversation with a girl friend living in Maryland, a bell went off in my head when she mentioned that Maryland was becoming a totally smoke-free state. I’m going to be in Baltimore for a week. In a hotel. Unable to smoke. For a week. EEK! This is when I started having the same nightmare night after night.

Imagining myself at Bouchercon - finally meeting writers I’ve admired for years, being nervous, of course. But not able to have a cigarette. Finally meeting folks from DorothyL, which might also make me a little nervous. Unable to have a cigarette. Nervous and unable to have a cigarette tends to make a smoker a bit grumpy. So there I’d be. Nervous, wanting a cigarette, knowing I couldn’t have one, making everyone around me miserable, turning into a raving lunatic woman, ending up in handcuffs and dragged off to the hoosegow for being disruptive and disorderly, and still not being able to have a cigarette. Oy - what a fun trip this could be.

It just seemed easier to try to quit.

And so I did.

When Evelyn invited me here, I decided to do a little light research, which meant a stop at to see what books I might be able to find to start me off. I found “No Smoking” by Luc Sante, which is an interesting book whatever your views and feelings are about smoking. First of all, the packaging had to have been thought up by a marketing genius.

Secondly, I think the book gives a fair, fun and interesting picture of what an important part of our culture cigarettes once were. As “No Smoking” points out, there was a time when the whole world smoked.

My parents are both from large families and to the best of my recollection, everyone smoked except my Aunt Belle. My earliest memories include huge family get-togethers with kids running wild in big backyards while the grown-ups sat at picnic tables eating, drinking and smoking. Each of them keeping a close eye on all the kids, each of them always available for a hug, and each of them recognized as a constant source of deep affection, offered up in equal parts of nurturing along with life lessons, and rules to be learned and followed.

These are treasured childhood memories that come to mind often, and always bring a smile. They’re times my family recall with love and laughter.

At the head of one of the tables my much adored grandfather, Pop-Pop Wilkinson, would preside with either a cigar or a pipe, and it was his attention we all vied for.

Cigarettes were everywhere. Were there any movies made in the 40s or 50s in which people weren’t smoking? How many of us still think some of those were the greatest in the history of film? As opposed, maybe, to the graphic blood and guts violence we now see in movies? Is watching that healthier for us and our children than seeing Audrey Hepburn smoke a cigarette in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

And it wasn’t just the movies. Great mysteries had good guys and bad guys smoking up a storm. Nick & Nora Charles “wore” their cigarettes as part of their elegance. We have a few protagonists smoking in today’s mysteries, but most of them, like Elaine Flinn’s Molly Doyle, and Kathryn Wall’s Bay Tanner, are in a constant battle with themselves in an attempt to quit. In I. Van Laningham’s short stories, Andi Holmes successfully quits. Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective starts out a smoker. If the protag isn’t trying to quit, he/she is most likely one of the bad guys, as is the case of Ken Lewis’ Curt LaMar, in “Little Blue Whales.”

Who can imagine Frank Sinatra on stage singing those torch songs without that cigarette? We may not see singers on stage with a cigarette in hand any more, but does it really mean they’re all living a cleaner, safer lifestyle? And why is it the world’s business anyway?

I was never one of those people who fantasized about “if only I could quit.” In my mind, my future was me being this feisty old woman flicking ashes on anyone who might even suggest I put my cigarette out while in their presence. Driving my scooter hell bent for leather all over the Wal-Mart parking lot, daring anyone to get in my way, smoke billowing around my head like it once did Pop-Pop Wilkinson’s

To those of you who don’t smoke - believe it or not, there are some people who don’t want to quit. That’s their choice. And there are the people who are trying desperately to quit but just haven’t yet been able to. I’ve been one of the lucky ones, I think. I’ve had tons of support. Lots of phone calls, and some awfully nice cards, and notes and email from people offering encouragement. It’s meant a lot. It also meant a lot that of all the people who took the time to write, no one preached at me. Praise glory and thank you for that.

If you’re a non-smoker and want to help those you care about stop smoking, try huge doses of patient kindness. I can promise it’ll work a lot better than a constant negative pounding. Smokers already feel like the latest in a long line of persona non-grata. The lowest of the low. The only one lower might be a person who smokes while wearing a mink coat. Let’s all feel free to stone that poor dumb clod to death. And while I’m on this little rant (I love to rant), why has the government, at any level, gotten involved in our business about this? To protect the health of non-smokers? I’m sorry, but really. Smoking laws coming from a government who can’t clean up the air or water from industry pollution? Let’s see. The EPA was created when? 1970? Gloriosa, don’t even get me started.

With the help of a prescription written by my doctor, it really hasn’t been too tough. Not as tough as I thought it might be. Tough enough though, that I hope I make it this time ‘cause I’m not sure I’d do it again.

So, you people who think the whole world needs to hear what you’re saying into that cell phone of yours? If you see me smoking – please try to have this number handy - 1-800-424-8802. That’s the number for the EPA National Response Center. It’s the number you call to report an environmental emergency. Better to do that than tap me on the shoulder to give me your opinion about my smoking.

Kaye Barley

Thursday, July 24, 2008

When Bad Movies Happen to Good People

Meryl Streep is the gold standard. If you describe Pamela Anderson’s performance in Blonde and Blonder, and point out that “she’s no Meryl Streep,” everyone knows exactly what you mean.

And while Pierce Brosnan is no Meryl Streep either, he can certainly hold his head up when walking down Hollywood Boulevard.

So what happened when they both signed on the dotted line for Mamma Mia? Did Meryl decide that with enough emoting, it didn’t matter that she was 20 years too old for the part? Did Pierce resolve that even if he sounded off-key in the shower, when he hit the big screen, suddenly he’d be Pavarotti?

In fact, the elements were all there for a fantastic movie: a stage show that’s been seen by more than 30 million people worldwide, a cast of phenomenal actors, fun music, gorgeous locale …so what went wrong?

Rick McCallum, legendary producer of the Star Wars movies, once said, “the truth is, nobody ever sits down at a table and says ‘hey let's make a bad movie’. No producer, director, writer says ‘God I've got a really great idea for a sh***y film’. It doesn't work that way. But something in the process, something about the compromises, the timing, the studio, the phenomenal pressure that artists have to go through, causes something to go really wrong.”

That happens with books too. How often have you read a book from a favorite author and the magic is gone, the story is flat, or you don’t recognize the characters you’ve grown to love?

On the other hand… Maybe somebody (or in the case of a movie, several somebodies) just had a bad day. Ty Cobb has the highest lifetime batting average (.366), but that means that he got a hit only three out of every ten times he was at bat. Babe Ruth struck out more than 1300 times in his career.

Are we too demanding? If a good-faith effort is made is that enough? Or for $10.50, plus the cost of buttered popcorn, are we entitled to better? Or was I just too hot and tired to fully appreciate the joy of ABBA music, even if sung off-key?

What do you think?

Evelyn David

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In Training

So, after all my protestations, excuses, crying, whining, and the like, I just had my second training session with my friend, S., the personal trainer. You remember her—the one who told me that in order to lose those extra five (ten?) pounds that I’ve been wailing about incessantly, I should cut out the Chardonnay, some carbs, most of the sugar, and a host of life’s other delights. After which I banned her from my house. We have since made up (how could we not? She is without a doubt one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met) and began training last week.

And now for the most surprising part: I like it.

I am as surprised as you are. Because let’s face it: I would rather sit at my desk and write , talk on the phone, and surf the Web all day than go outside to pick up the mail. I would rather have root canal, really. Talk about taking me on a two mile walk or leading me in a spirited session of a hundred crunches and I’m heading for the hills.

But all this stuff that I previously thought was gobbedly-gook like the “high” you get from exercising and the “sense of satisfaction” is all true, by golly. S., the most enthusiastic and invigorating of personal trainers, has gotten me moving again and it feels good. She checks in periodically after our work outs to find out how I’m feeling. The truth? After yesterday’s session in which she had me making sweet love to a five-pound medicine ball, I couldn’t raise my arms to cut my son’s ham sandwich. But, in her inimitably positive way, she assured me that that was “GOOD!” Because everything S. says when it comes to training is in ALL CAPS and delivered with much enthusiasm. Why? Because she has about ten training sessions per week, so she is on a constant high from all those endorphins flowing through her veins. And you can bounce a quarter off of her abdominal muscles; who wouldn’t be happy about that?

She called to check on me again this morning. I was still feeling pretty good—actually, pretty smug—about my state of being. But the muscle soreness has increased in the last several hours. Some of these muscles haven’t been worked since we played the fake Olympics in my childhood home’s backyard in 1976, so I can see why they’re protesting. But all of that soreness means that in three months time, if I keep S. in my life as a trainer and not just as a friend, those muscles may make a reappearance. And I may just look a little bit more like S. and a little less like Ernest Borgnine in “Marty.” And that is all good.

I don’t think I would have begun this training regimen had I not been bombarded with constant images of Michelle Obama in sleeveless dresses and blouses waving at the adoring voters who visit her husband’s rallies. Because the difference between me and Michelle Obama—besides the fact that my husband is not a Presidential candidate and I'm not a five foot ten gorgeous lawyer—is that when I stop waving, my arms don’t. There is a little bushel of fat right in the underarm area that says “But wait! We’re not done waving yet!” That doesn’t happen to Michelle Obama. When she stops waving, she just stops waving. Everything ceases moving. And that’s my goal.

S. is an amazing cheerleader. Yesterday, our session seemed to last ten minutes when in actuality, it was an hour. We exercised while talking about our sons (who are very good friends), our weekend, our week to come, and our love of Target. All the while, S. was telling me that I could do it, I was doing a great job, and that I only had another fifty crunches to go. (I know! If anyone makes me laugh or god forbid I have to sneeze, I’ll have to take a pain killer. And change my underwear.)

I don’t want any more junk in the trunk, I don’t want fries with my “shake,” I don’t want a “muffin top” to spill out over the waistband of my jeans. I don’t delude myself that my nearly 45-year-old body will resemble the one that I had twenty years ago but I think there’s still time to make some minor adjustments, a couple of improvements. If S. and her killer abs are any indication of what awaits me, I’m in.

Stay tuned. I might still be on that endorphin high.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Autism and Writing

I’m not sure how many people are aware of the number of children who have been diagnosed with autism. My first introduction to autistic children was years ago when I taught in a school for child development for pre-schoolers with various developmental disabilities. We didn’t know much about autism at the time, but it was amazing how much they changed as we worked with them. No, not miraculous cures, but they tolerated us more and more and actually started to do the tasks we introduced to them.

One of my great-granddaughters had autistic tendencies and started school in special classes. Now at age 11, she’s in regular classes, does wonderfully well in mathematics, in fact, likes to solve math problems for fun. (Certainly didn’t take after me.) Only once in awhile does anything she does have an autistic quality. Here’s one: She loves track and is doing well. At one of the meets she told her dad, “I’m going to try for third.” Her dad said, “Why don’t you try for first?” “No, I’m going for third.” She is a most loving child, likes to hug and be close, something some autistic kids can’t tolerate.

We had a young teenager who attended our church from time to time who was diagnosed as autistic. He was more difficult, didn’t communicate, and some people were scared of him. There was no need to be scared–he just didn’t want to be bothered. He is now in a group home that specializes in autistic young men and doing quite well.

I helped at Vacation Bible School all week and one of the children who came was a beautiful nine-year-old girl with autism. She loved the songs and dancing that went along with them, sometimes would go on stage with the rest of her class, at other times preferred to remain in the pew. She told me she was a mermaid and then asked, “Do you believe in mermaids?” And of course I told her yes.

Now I’m going to bring this all around to writing. In one of the classes, the kids were supposed to fold paper to make a canoe, she said, “I don’t want to. Can I have a pen?” She was given a pen and wrote a story. It was a darling story about a little girl who was a mermaid–she gave her a name–and a little girl who was autistic–she gave her a name too, but it wasn’t her own. These two girls went on vacation with the family. The story ended like this, “They spent a lot of time in the bathtub.” I asked her why, and she said, “Because one of the girls was a mermaid.”

We talked about writing stories and I told her I was an author and wrote books. She was fascinated. Every time she saw me after that she said, “You’re an author, aren’t you?” “I told her she was one too.”

This child fascinated me and in particular the fact that she could write so well and had such a great imagination. I hope I’ll get to see her again some time.

If you’d like to watch a video taken when I was at the Hanford Library talking about my books, here it is: I had an extremely runny nose that evening.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Ghost Hunting

What's your favorite ghost story? Was it a movie? A book? A short story? A tv series? I confess I love ghost stories, especially haunted house stories. I like the creepy ones best.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House continues to be one of the scariest things I've ever read. Steven King's The Shining comes in a close second. The television series Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker gave me rich fodder for my childhood nightmares. Movies that pulled a scream from me? These are some that I remember the best: Poltergeist, Session 9, The Sixth Sense, The Ring, The Amityville Horror, Burnt Offerings, and White Noise.

White Noise was a movie about ghosts communicating though the static "white noise" of radios and televisions that are tuned to empty stations. The movie introduced me to the concept of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP). Apparently if you want to communicate with ghosts, one way is to use a tape recorder. You might not hear the ghosts talking to you, but the tape recorder will. You'll hear them later when the tape is played back slowly and at an increased volume. I'm using the term "tape recorder" but of course everyone uses a digital recorder. Apparently ghosts don't have a preference.

Watch Ghost Hunters on the SciFi channel and you'll see the investigators go into a darkened room, turn on their tape recorder, and then try to provoke ghosts to answer questions they pose aloud. Usually they ask something like, "Do you want to talk to us? Do you want us to go away?" Something that only requires a short answer. You don't want to overtax ghosts.

I enjoy watching the Ghost Hunter episodes although I have doubts that ghosts always cooperate with the show's production schedule. They set up elaborate cameras and recording devices in an alleged ghost-filled location, spend a couple of hours, and then pack it up. I want to see someone set up camp in a haunted house for about six months with all the cameras and recorders going 24/7. That would be a great reality show.

Okay, so why am I talking ghosts today? Because I'm going to be spending tonight and tomorrow night in a haunted hotel; one of the places where Ghost Hunters filmed an episode during their second season. I've got reservations for the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. My brother is going with me (another fan of the Ghost Hunter show). We're going to take the evening Ghost Tour and learn a little more about the history of the structure built in 1886, then spend two nights watching for ghosts.

Half joking, I told my brother to bring his digital camera so we could get shots of orbs and other physical manifestations if the ghosts show up while we're there. He agreed, but informed me that they would probably drain the camera's batteries before we could get a shot.

"Drain the batteries?" I asked. He didn't seem to be joking.

He gave me a knowing look.

Okay, so maybe I don't watch the show that closely. Or take it that seriously. Maybe I just have it on while I write, glancing over at the screen when the screaming starts. I actually did watch the entire episode about the Crescent Hotel though. The scariest part wasn't the sounds or the shadows the investigators managed to catch on their monitoring equipment. It was when an investigator's laptop computer was moved, through means unknown, from the top of the hotel bed to a position leaning against the exterior door. That really creeped me out.

Nobody, ghost or human, touches my laptop.

Check back later in the week for updates to this blog.

Update: 4:00 P.M. Central - 7/21/08

Arrived at hotel and got checked in. About 100 degrees F. outside. Rooms were on the fourth floor and very hot until I got the window units going. There is wireless internet in the hotel but it's very, very slow. So far the only odd thing is that I had to put new batteries in my wireless keyboard. But it might have just needed new batteries - it's been about 2 months since I used it.

Plan to participate in the ghost tour tonight at 8:00 P.M. Central.

So far my first impression is that old buildings are great to tour but maybe not so great to stay overnight in. Nothing special about the room that I'm in - just old.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Ned Rust, Undercover

Ned Rust lives with his family in Croton, NY, and works in the publishing industry. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Rocket, and The Stranger.

I work in the book-publishing industry. I can’t really say much about it in public like this because I happen to work in a somewhat high-stakes area, and, as you would have soon guessed from my nervous, backwards-scrambling sentence-structure, I’m deeply paranoid.

I don’t quite blame the industry for making me this way. I’ve only been working in the field for 5 years and there were signs I was given to an inflated sense of self-worth (i.e., people MUST be interested in finding out more about me) and over-caution from before. Like how I compost any piece of mail that has my name printed on it. Yep. Right in there with the coffee grounds and the watermelon rinds. I have a theory that the identity thieves will find my fly-infested compost bin as malodorous and generally daunting as my spouse and children do.

Except when companies use non-biodegradable stickers—“Affix this to your mail-in coupon for a free bonus subscription to Yachting for Kids!”— everything works out pretty good. In fact, the years have proven that promotional offers—and letters from my parents I can’t bear to look at—nicely balance the “wet” compost of kitchen scraps. With time and stirring, you’ll have a lovely loamy—and, importantly, informationally secure—mix within six months.

But there are things within the publishing industry, as you may have discovered yourself, that could begin to make even a well-balanced person paranoid.

I could go on and on, but this is my first ever blog entry and prudence tells me I should maybe start with just one topic. Beyond composting, I mean, which I don’t expect is what Maggie and Evelyn were expecting from me.

So let me touch on one topic that’s near the beginning of the publishing alphabet and never fails to make me look over my shoulder—agents . . . literary agents.

I mean why do they even call them agents? Who else is an agent? Insurance people (creepy). Internal Revenue Service folks (creepy). Operators in the MI5, ATF, CIA, OSS and FBI (I rest my case).

And what do they do? You don’t go to school for it. You don’t need a license. There isn’t even an accreditation or support organization for them—like lawyers have the Bar Association—at least so far as I’ve heard. I mean have you ever seen a news story about a literary agent getting defrocked by her or his peers?

Maybe part of the problem is they don’t seem to do anything they might even have to bother putting on a frock to accomplish.

So far as I can tell—and I should confess I don’t have a lot of direct dealings with them and that I know one or two who seem lovely in person—agents need 2 principal things to make a living:

1) Enough paralegal-level savvy to hoard and be conversant with the appropriate legal forms and contracts to make writers promise to give them a hefty portion of any money they might make and to understand that the generally guile-less publishing houses aren’t taking any legal advantage.

2) The ability—through experience, charm and, or, connections—to get calls & emails answered by the people who acquire manuscripts and sometimes by those who market the finished books at the publishing houses.

The rest of it—recognizing good writing, answering the telephone occasionally, light xeroxing, brushing one’s teeth before going out in public—most of us regular folk have down.

But somehow they keep on doing their thing. Even now, in the 21st century, they’re taking often double-digit percentages out of author’s and publisher’s hands.

I mean, isn’t that a weird system? And there’s like, no transparency whatsoever. So you never know if like Agent Y is brother-in-law to Publisher X.

And you never really know if Agent K really does have your best interest at heart and thinks you could be BIG, or whether he’s just treating you like a mineral claim that may or may not prove to contain valuable gems but the land’s so dang cheap, why not just go ahead and put a binding deed on it so nobody else can do anything with it?

Oh well. I don’t really have anything specific to point at, but the whole scene just makes me nervous. Speaking of which, I think I hear somebody out at the composter.


Ned Rust

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

In the basement of a row house, around the corner from where I grew up, was a tiny grocery store, run by Mrs. Bass. My mother didn’t drive and my father traveled during the week, so it was no big deal for Mom, the original Evelyn, to tell me to run to Mrs. Bass for some bologna (my favorite), or a can of peas (nobody’s favorite), or just a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (unfortunately, my mother’s favorite).

But the point is, no one thought it unusual to send a little girl of six around the corner, nor did I have to take any money with me, because I could just tell Mrs. Bass to charge it and head for home.

In contrast, I was walking my daughter to her elementary school, which is all of a block and half away, until she was 10 years old. Even if we concede that I’m a worrywart, just about everyone in the world agrees that life ain’t what it used to be. Today we all think we need to watch our kids a lot closer than those days years ago when your mom opened the door at 8 in the morning and she didn’t see you again until suppertime. I'm not totally convinced that it was really a more innocent time, but we certainly believed that bad things couldn't happen on Coldspring Lane.

In any case, that sense of familiarity, of a place where everyone knows your name, seems to have gone the way of rotary dial phones. The grownups on Coldspring Lane knew all the kids and would have certainly reported any serious misbehavior to the parents of an errant child. Today, I know my neighbors on either side of my house, but I only have a nodding acquaintance with the people across the street. Maybe it’s because I live in a metropolitan area where people move in and out faster than, as we say in these parts, a New York minute?

Sometimes I really miss that sense of familiarity. Other times, and maybe it's because as I grow older I also grow more crotchety, I don't want everyone to know my business anymore. There is an interesting variation on the neighborhood concept -- one we couldn't have forseen all those summer days ago. While I may not know everyone in my town, thanks to the Internet, I now have friends and can keep in close touch with people around the world. Writing Murder Off the Books helped me move into a new part of a virtual town. I may kvetch about all the promotion necessary to market a new book, but in truth, I treasure the opportunities I've had to meet new people, sometimes in person, often online. My neighborhood has grown exponentially larger. And while not everyone knows my name, Evelyn David, we're working on it. I remember with great fondness the old friends on Coldspring Lane; but this new neighborhood is pretty swell.

Evelyn David

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To Breed or Not to Breed...

I have a confession to make.

I bought my dog from a breeder.

I know. It’s not the most socially responsible thing to do. I have heard it time and again and I walk the streets of my little village with my West Highland Terrier, Bonnie. “Is that a purebred?” I’m asked, sometimes with just vaguest hint of disdain.

“Yes, yes!” I want to cry. “I’m sorry! But I’m allergic and this breed is supposed to be hypo-allergenic.” (They’re not…at least to me who has superhero-sized allergies.) I want to continue, “They are supposed to be great with kids and easy to have around.” (All true.) And as I look at Fido, on the leash of the person I’m talking to, staring back at me with his golden retriever face with his dachshund-shaped body, I know the answer to the question I inevitably ask. “What’s your dog?”

“Oh, just a mutt. I rescued him.”

And then I feel bad about myself. (As if I need another reason.)

Five years ago, I got the hankering for a dog. I knew it would be a lot of work and that our collective lifestyle would have to change but the kids promised that they would help. Isn’t that great? (And a big, fat lie?) Anyway, here we sit, years later, with Bonnie, our beautiful and devoted West Highland Terrier who just might be the best dog ever. We adore her. And the kids do help with her, which from what I hear from my other friends with pets, is a miracle.

But since I’ve been out and about with her, I am mostly encountering rescued dogs and their owners. In the past several weeks alone, no fewer than three of my friends adopted dogs and the situation has been nothing but positive on all accounts. My best friend from college used to work at Animal Planet and feels very strongly that animals should be rescued not bought, although she has bonded with Bonnie the Westie . Her adamant opinion on rescue resulted in the adoption of Riley by mutual friends of ours, on whom the jury is still out. (Riley, that is, not our mutual friends.) Riley is an adorable beagle who was inexplicably abandoned and rescued by my friends. Riley seems to be smiling all the time, but according to my friend, it is the smile of the devil. Riley has yet to adapt to behavior in polite society, but still, we hope.

Another friend just adopted a poodle/Jack Russell Terrier mix named Pedro. Pedro is three, fully housebroken, and has adapted to life with my friend, her husband, and their four daughters like a fish to water. He now resides in a beautiful home on two acres and much to my surprise, sleeps between my normally-fastidious friend and her husband IN THEIR BED. (My dog sleeps on a pillow NEXT to my bed and yes, there is a difference.) No comment. Pedro is a very lucky dog and on the day I met him, conveyed his enthusiasm for his new living situation by attempting to give me a tour of his new digs as if to say, “Can you believe how good I’ve got it?!”

Yet another friend adopted a Great Dane/St. Bernard mix to add to their family of four dogs. When I showed my son a picture of Bruno, the new pup, he looked at me and said incredulously, “Do they have FIVE dogs now? And do you see the size of his paws?” Yes to both, son. And they love each and every one equally. Bruno was a dog that had been sent to a shelter where at the tender age of ten weeks, surely would have met his maker. He had been rescued from a flood-ravaged region of the United States with his sister and his brother, who I’m happy to report, have also been rescued by East Coast families. He’s fitting in quite well with the rest of the brood, with only one of his brothers exhibiting the least bit of jealousy at the new arrival. (He’ll get over it—like humans, everyone adjusts to a new family member. Eventually.)

And yet another friend has rescued two greyhounds. Greyhounds, you say? Me, too. They’ve never been a breed that has interested in me, and the aforementioned Pedro family had one whose breath stunk to high heaven. And then I met my other friend’s two dogs and fell in love with both of them, although the female and I appeared to have developed a deeper bond. They are gentle, loving, quiet, and good natured, which in my book are all of the qualities you would want in a dog (and a spouse, obviously).

The time may come when I’m ready for another dog—actually that time has already come but I’m not sure everyone is on board with the plan—and I think I will go the rescue route. We had a purebred Golden Retriever—the pick of the litter, no less—when I was growing up who unfortunately succumbed to a genetic disorder before his second birthday. The mutts, from what I hear, are heartier and healthier than the pure breeds, another thing to recommend them. My poor dog, Bonnie, suffers from skin allergies and a sensitive stomach and I do wonder if she had a more colorful genetic makeup if she’d suffer less. It’s anyone’s guess. But when Pedro’s new owner described the animal shelter to me and the number of animals there needing homes, it gave me pause. I’m able to control my allergies to my dog with consistent hand washing and vacuuming, so what would another supposedly hypo-allergenic dog (like Pedro) bring to the mix in terms of discomfort? Probably not a lot.

So, a show of hands please: is it time to give Bonnie a rescued playmate?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Alas, No Ghostly Visitation

Hubby and I chose to stay in Room 17 of the Bella Maggiore Bed and Breakfast in Ventura CA because the room is supposed to be haunted. We did not have a ghostly visitor. My daughter looked up the ghost and said it was because the ghost, a prostitute in her former life, only visited men who stayed in the room by themselves. Guess I ruined it.

However, we did have a rather intimate romantic encounter with a real live young man. Room 17 opens on a balcony shared with another larger room. There are no windows in these rooms, only doors that open to the balcony with no screen door and a transom. We were sitting in our room with the door open, when this darling young man popped in to inform us he was having a surprise party for his girlfriend’s birthday at 10 p.m. on our shared balcony complete with music, a Spanish harp and guitar along with a singer. We were invited.

Both of us were tired, but assured our visitor we’d enjoy the music. Of course we had to shut the door and the drapes in order to go to bed, because the chairs and table were only a few feet from our room. At 10 p.m. the music began. It was lovely and very romantic. It was over by 11.

The next day, after we’d had our wonderful breakfast and hubby was transporting our bags to the car, I was sitting on the bed with door open and in pops the young lover. He wanted to know if we’d enjoyed the music, I assured I’m had. I said, "I hope your fiancee appreciates you, not many men are as romantic." She came out and I met her (cute young thing) and told her that her boyfriend was definitely a keeper. He said, "Thank you."

From there we went to the Premiere Author event at the Crowne Plaza hotel. Though it was nice, we didn’t have much traffic. The talks about writing and poetry reading were scheduled back-to-back with no time in-between for the attendees to step into the book room. I sold two books and I don’t think anyone else sold more than one. Of course, the organizers realized they’d made a mistake. But it was wonderful to see and smell the ocean air.

From there, we headed to the Bank of Books (bookstore in a former bank) and set up for a talk about mystery writing. This was planned spur of the moment, so didn’t expect much of a turn-out and I was right. Three people came to hear me and we all had fun. We will plan another event, with a bigger lead-in time for the fall.

No matter what, we had a good time. We spent Saturday night in our youngest daughter’s new home, beautiful and huge. Five bathrooms! Can’t imagine having to clean them all. Of course she says my grandchildren are responsible for their own. (They're grown or nearly grown, so it is possible this might happen.)

After a great breakfast, we left the cool temperatures by the ocean and headed back to the hot temperatures of the San Joaquin Valley.

This week I'm helping out at Vacation Bible School. Actually had fun with the fifth and sixth graders that I had to keep track of.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Captcha Tyranny

You would think that a mystery writer would like word puzzles. And I do, but not the kind currently being used on the internet to sort out humans from machines in the no-holds-barred war against SPAM (unwanted, unsolicited emails or messages sent in bulk by electronic means).

A Captcha is defined on Wikipedia as a "Completely Automated Public Turing Test." What's a Turing Test? A test to see if a computer can respond like a human. Captchas are sort of a reverse Turing Test. A computer tries to determine if it's interacting with a human or another computer.

More and more often you will be required to answer a Captcha before posting a blog, sending an email, or even sending a "friend" request on social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, etc.) The Captcha is a series of letters and sometimes numbers that are distorted, stacked on top of one another or otherwise obscured by background images. You are required to decipher the Captcha and type it correctly into a box underneath the image. You don't have to worry with whether or not the letters are upper or lower case. You just have to figure out what the letters are. And it's not that easy.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time convincing computers that I'm human. On an average it takes me four or five wrong answers, before the computer accepts my solution. The following are actual Captchas I've been confronted with in the last few days.

If you look at this Captcha it's not too hard to solve. My eyes tell me it's one of two possible strings - IMGIFM or IMGIFRN.

This second Captcha is solvable – CSSQCNE – assuming that you remember what a cursive Q looks like.

But look at the Captcha below. Is the first character an F? Or is that just a line in the Captcha to obscure the other letters? FHJTSXY maybe. Is there just one large T or two smashed together?

Okay – what's the answer for the Captcha below? DUOHZK? Or DUDVZK or DUCLVZK or DUCHZK? Could be any of them. What a headache!

There is usually an option to ask for another Captcha to solve or a "handicap" symbol to click if you get stuck. Theoretically, if you click on the handicap symbol you are supposed to get an audible recitation of the Captcha and then you just type what you hear. I tried that a few times. Usually the audio file would not play correctly on my computer – think soft, quick mumbles of sounds. Nothing I could identify.

Sometimes I just let the computer win. Often I decide that whatever I'm trying to post or whoever's group I'm trying to join is just not worth the effort.

Remember "Hal" from the 1968 movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey"? Hal was a computer on a space ship who took control away from the astronauts on board. Hal would love Captchas. I don't.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Testing the Market

Pat Browning is a refugee from California, where she was a travel agent, legal secretary and award-winning reporter, but not all at once. Now retired and dodging tornadoes in her native Oklahoma, she’s writing her second mystery starring – surprise! – a small-town reporter.

Blogs, podcasts, book trailers, Web sites, talk radio – so many shiny toys to keep a writer from writing. Promotion, who needs it? Every author, that’s who. If you’ve written a book, crank up the promotion wagon and get the show on the road.

With my first mystery, Full Circle, I did it the traditional way and learned everything the hard way. Now I’m at it again, only this time I’m promoting a mystery that isn’t finished. It’s called test marketing.

At a workshop in Northern California a few years ago, literary agents Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada critiqued first-page submissions. One of their handouts was titled “15 Ways to Test-Market Your Book to Guarantee Its Success.” I didn’t have a book to test market at the time but I kept that handout and I’m ready to give it a try.

The 15 ways are much too detailed for a blog, but I’m looking at No. 6.

You can test-market the manuscript for a novel or a proposal for a nonfiction book. Once you finish your proposal, use the Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul recipe for making sure your work is 100%: Send it to 40 readers. Have them grade your humor, your anecdotes and your work as a whole on a scale of one to ten. The more specific you are in the feedback you want, the more helpful your readers will be.
Get feedback from your networks before submitting or publishing your book. If you are a speaker, make every audience a focus group for your book. Whether you've sold your book to a publisher or not, as soon as you integrate your initial feedback into your finished manuscript, print it single spaced, back to back and have it bound in small quantities. Call it "A Special Limited Edition."
Sell copies at your talks and offer those who give you feedback on it an autographed book and an acknowledgment in the published edition. Keep adding changes before you reprint, and keep reprinting until your audiences run out of suggestions. The primary object of this edition isn't to make money but to get feedback on the manuscript. After you've received all of the feedback you can get, reread the manuscript to see if you can find changes worth making. Then integrate the changes into the manuscript.
I’m starting small, and on the Internet. By the time you read this I’ll have a do-it-yourself Web site up and walking, with the first three chapters of my work-in-progress, a mystery I’m calling Solstice. I’m soliciting comments and suggestions. The URL is

Warning: It’s a cozy or amateur sleuth mystery -- no steamy sex scenes, very little blood on the floor. Constructive criticism will be welcome. Destructive comments – do I need to tell you what will happen to those?

And moving right along … I’ve hit a small pothole on my road to Web site building, but at the very least, Chapter 1 will be there, with an e-mail link back to me so you can tell how why you really, really love it, or hate it. With luck, all three chapters will be up. If not, I hope you’ll keep checking back.

Meantime, take a look at the Larsen-Pomada Web site at You’ll find a lot of good tips for writers, including the famous 15 Ways to Test-market Your Book to Guarantee Its Success.

Bowing out now, with a big THANK YOU to Evelyn David for inviting me to the party.

Pat Browning

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Adventures in Nature

Full Disclosure: I’m not an outdoor girl. My idea of camping is a hotel without room service. And yet, I’ve just returned from one of the best vacations I’ve ever had…and me and nature mixed it up.

The husband and I headed off to Bar Harbor a week ago. Let’s just say that the loooooong car ride did not bode well for an anniversary celebration. But a good night’s sleep and some pancakes with native wild blueberries, made me believe that the husband could live another day. Bar Harbor is a quaint village by a restless ocean. It’s got a library to die for…and Acadia National Park.

I’ve been to parks before – but they’ve always been little preserves of nature in the midst of concrete (think Central Park). But this was acres of lush foliage, filled with incredible contrasts from a sandy beach to a soaring peak. We hiked about five miles through the park, and while I won’t try to convince you that I scaled Mt. Everest in sandals, I’d like to think I held my own with Mother Nature. Frankly, I wanted a brass band to play when I used the outhouse provided for hikers, but I suspect that I don’t get to be called Nature Girl until I really get back to nature, if you catch my drift. All that hiking stirs up an appetite so we ended our trek at the Jordan Pond House - with scrumptious popovers and fish chowder.

Alas, our time in Bar Harbor was way too brief, but we’re already planning a return trip. We next headed to Prince Edward Island, across a nine-mile bridge. There we found clean air, rolling green farmland, and lighthouses that dot the rocky shores of the cool crisp waters. But though I’d never been to PEI before, I felt immediately at home, thanks to the delightful series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. Exactly one hundred years ago, we were first introduced to the fictional PEI town of Avonlea and the red-haired orphan Anne (with an “e,” as she insisted) Shirley stole into our hearts.

Of course, there is a commercial side to this native heroine. Tourism is as big a crop as the native potatoes and strawberries grown here. In Charlottetown Centre, there is an Anne Shirley shop, where a saleswoman dressed in a period costume, also sported a tongue stud. There are Anne Shirley chocolates, Anne Shirley soda (red, because Anne declares, “I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They taste twice as good as any other color.”), and Anne Shirley dolls, books, and DVDs.

I bought a new copy of the book from the tongue-studded Anne, and reveled once again in the never-out-of-date story of the little girl with the “vivid imagination,” who roamed the natural paradise of Prince Edward Island. I'm not quite ready for my Girl Scout nature badge, but my stay in nature sparked my own "vivid imagination." How about murder in a national park?? But the amateur sleuth stays in a quaint Bed and Breakfast with indoor plumbing??

Evelyn David

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Reentry is a…

…well, if I have to spell it out…

Anyway, I’m back from San Francisco, the City by the Bay, and my favorite next to my hometown, New York. The trip was fun-filled, exercise-filled, food-filled. We are ful-filled, as a result. The first part of the trip was work, if you consider talking about yourself and your books work. (I don’t.) A piece of advice: if you live in the Bay Area and can get yourself to San Mateo, run, don’t walk, to the M Is for Mystery bookstore on Third Avenue. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to do a signing/reading there (a shout out to my two new friends, Judi, the Millbrae librarian and Kevin, a fellow East Coaster now West Coaster) and was amazed by their stock, their staff, and all of the extras they offer. I got a lovely M Is for Mystery baseball hat which I sported around San Francisco while I was there. The store is owned by a charming man named Ed Kaufman and he is a mystery aficionado. Anything that you might want, he has. He has the most impressive collection of signed first editions (including Extracurricular Activities!) I’ve ever seen and I was fortunate to pick up a copy of Lisa Lutz’s second book, Curse of the Spellmans (more on that later).

Since I was traveling with two teenage girls, most of our trip was spent shopping and eating, although we did manage to get in some culture while we were there, hitting the DeYoung museum. The DeYoung is a nice, manageable museum in terms of size and boasts a tower from which you can take in a panoramic view of San Francisco. It’s not high enough to be scary for those of us who fear heights, but it is high enough to get a bird’s eye view of this fabulous city. But I still wouldn’t get too close to the glass. I did that at Coit Tower and managed to bang my forehead right into the protective plexiglass, alarming the other Tower-goers and forcing my two teen companions to disavow any knowledge of me as a person.

We also made a trip to the Palace of Fine Arts, a spectacular structure, in my opinion. There is a hands-on science museum on the grounds called The Exploratorium, and any fears that I had that this would skew young and not be interesting to the teens were soon squashed. While they ran around the museum taking in all of the experiments (including one which challenges your sense of convention by having you drink from a toilet that has been configured into a water fountain), I sat on a bench and people watched, which is probably one of my favorite hobbies. The parade of Bermuda shorts paired with sandals and socks was just too spectacular to miss.

Our afternoons were spent refueling (the girls) and reading (me). (I wore them out, what with my insistence that we climb every hill in the city.) While I was traveling, I started reading The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz’s first novel about a family of San Francisco private investigators, which couldn’t have been a better pick, not only because it was set in the city I was visiting but because it was one of the most entertaining reads I have consumed in a while. If you have a chance, get yourself a copy (now in paperback). This is not your ordinary family—one of the family members begins her P.I. career at the tender age of six—nor is it your run-in-the-mill story or plot. I promise you that you will be entertained. I started the second book, the aforementioned Curse of the Spellmans, during the trip as well and enjoyed it equally, if not a bit more because I had gotten acquainted with the characters already.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with two old friends (shout out to Rose and Chris!) who attended the book signing, shuttled me around San Francisco and Sausalito, and made my trip very special. I can’t begin to tell you both how much I appreciate your support.

So back to reentry…it’s tough (I’ve cleaned up my act a little bit…but the old profane Maggie will return soon). I still have jet lag four days after arriving home, I can’t find my phone charger, my suitcase is still open in my bedroom filled with dirty clothes, and I’m way behind on work. Was it worth it? Without a doubt.

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Writers Critique Groups

Some writers hate them and others swear by them. I’m in the latter group. I was first introduced to critique groups back when I was writing my first book that was published, Two Ways West. I couldn’t find a critique group where I lived, but my sister found one and took my manuscript chapter by chapter. Because I wasn’t there, they were merciless. But I was glad they were. Author Francine Rivers was a part of that group.

I didn’t have a clue what point-of-view meant and when they told my sister I had point-of-view problems I told her I only knew what it meant to have a point-of-view. They managed to get across to her and then to me about POV.

When we moved to where we live now, I discovered a notice in the paper for a writers’ critique group and I could hardly wait. I’ve belonged to that group ever since. It changed over time, as well as the people who attend. In the beginning, there were so many people we didn’t always get to read. But if you missed, then you were first the next time.

From time to time, the group grew smaller, always to those most committed to making their writing better. For a long while, we had a wonderful leader named Willma Gore. She taught me so much about every aspect of writing. She eventually left us too, and moved on. Now she’s busy teaching writing in Sedona AZ and still selling articles. Over 80, she just returned from what she says is her last book tour–but I don’t believe it.

Now, our group consists of the very woman who actually started the group before I was a part of it, a young school teacher writing children’s books, a retired rancher who is also writing a children’s book, and various others who show up from time to time.

I feel it’s imperative to run my book by the group. It’s amazing what suggestions they each come up with. I don’t always agree, but they make me think and make some kind of change. Once I’ve read the whole book through, since I’m two books ahead, I can take the time to do this, I’ll send it off to my good friend, Willma, for a final edit.

After that I’ll go through it one last time and send it off to my publishers–and you can be sure the editor there will also find things to change. By that time, unless it destroys the plot or is illogical, I don’t argue. I’m ready to move onto my next project.

For me, having a critique group to run my novels by has been invaluable.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Summer Vacation Angst

When I was a kid the first school assignment each fall was to write about my summer vacation. The only problem was my family didn't go on summer vacations, not as a rule. We didn't have the extra money and it just wasn't something my parents were accustomed to doing. I come from a long line of people who work forty to sixty hours a week and the only vacations they took involved baling hay or the odd hunting/fishing trip. My summer vacation essays were short and generally avoided the assigned topic as much as possible.

Last year I combined three library events in Missouri with my vacation. My brother and I played tourist in the St. Louis area and despite the heat, had a great time. We went in the Arch and viewed the exhibits. My brother actually took the tram/elevator up to the top. I confess, I'm not crazy about heights or small cramped spaces. We were there the week after the tram had gotten stuck and riders had been stranded for a few hours. Just the thought of that was enough to keep me on the ground. I was perfectly happy sitting on a bench, reading, and waiting for my brother to return with photographs.

I've been thinking about where I want to go this year during my time off from my day job. Usually I just stay home and catch up on all the things I never get to during the rest of the year. You know – painting, cleaning out closets, cleaning out gutters, well, just cleaning in general. Nothing too exciting.

In July of 2001, my brother and I took a big trip. We flew to North Carolina, rented a car and spent a week on the Outer Banks. We saw all there was to see and then some – the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, Ocracoke Island and the Blackbeard Museum, the reenactment play of the Missing Colony of Roanoke, and the beach at Nags Head. A nervous flyer, it was my brother's first and probably last airplane flight. We came home sunburned and happy, then less than six weeks later planes were crashed into buildings and life in the United States – especially travel – changed forever.

This year I don't have a new book to promote (yet), so I won't be planning my vacation around libraries and bookstores. If gas prices don't hit $5 a gallon before the end of the month, I may drive to Branson, Missouri for a few days. Branson is a country music boomtown and home of the Silver Dollar City theme park. It's a fun place if you don't mind the heat and the summer crowds. I figure I can last about two days, maybe three, before I'm dying to come home.

I don't know – it wouldn't take much to talk me into staying home in the first place, investing in some new patio furniture, and reading a few dozen mysteries. Might even work on the next Evelyn David book! Okay, I'd probably have to do some painting and yard work too.

What about you? What was your best summer vacation? I promise you don't have to write an essay about it if you don't want to. There will be no grades assigned.

The Southern Half of Evelyn David

Friday, July 4, 2008

True Crime

Jeff Markowitz has written two mysteries for Five Star, A Minor Case of Murder (released in 2006) and It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder (coming from Five Star in 2009). He will join Evelyn David, Jack Getze and David Handler on the panel, Laugh or I’ll Kill You: Humorous Mysteries at the New York City Public Library on July 15. Jeff’s website can be found at Jeff blogs at

When my mother read my first book I could tell that something was troubling her. Finally, she just had to ask. "Did you intend it," she asked, "to be funny?" You see, it troubled my mom that I had written a funny mystery. Mysteries aren't supposed to be funny, she told me.

I didn’t set out to write a “humorous mystery” in the sense of identifying “humorous mysteries” as the subgenre I intended to inhabit. But I did set out to write a mystery that reflected my own worldview, and apparently, some of you find that worldview funny. (Of course, to put this gently, some of you are deeply disturbed).

So now I write humorous mysteries. And people expect me to be funny when I talk about writing. I have until July 15 to figure out what’s so funny. Or to lower people’s expectations.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble coming up with a plot for my next mystery, I think I'd like to write true crime. And I know just the story. Long before I ever considered becoming a writer of murder mysteries, my wife and I would make a trip every winter to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was an annual pilgrimage, a week of cross-country skiing in and around the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Every trip was memorable, but only one trip was memorable for murder.

It was the winter of 1985. Driving north, we caught the tail-end of a news item on the car radio, nothing unusual, something about an open murder investigation. And then we arrived at this very small inn, one that we had not stayed in before, just outside of Jackson. The place had perhaps a dozen guest rooms, so, even at capacity it wouldn't be busy, and yet, when we checked into the inn, things seemed especially subdued. But the snow was outstanding.

It was the kind of place where you would step outside, wax your skis and ski right from the door of the lodge. We spent the first day deep in the back-country. But when we returned to the inn, we noticed a news crew finishing up at the front. And that night, the inn was nearly deserted. If I hadn't known better, I would have said we were the only guests.

But the conditions were outstanding. The next day, we took a long ski tour on the East Pasture Loop, and, returning to the inn from a different direction, we were confronted by yellow crime scene tape.

It took a few hours to piece together the story, but, apparently, several days before we arrived, someone had murdered the innkeeper and his wife, setting the bodies ablaze. My own wife was understandably anxious.

But the ski conditions were outstanding. I didn't want to leave. "They're not killing guests," I told my wife, as I pushed furniture up against the door.
But we did leave, cutting short our vacation in the White Mountains and heading for Cape Cod, the beach beautiful in the dead of winter, ice floating on the water.

And that was really all I knew about the story until I stumbled upon a website recently. Apparently, in January of 1985, several days after the murders in New Hampshire, the remains of two charred bodies were found in a burned-out barn in Alachua County, Florida. Although there was evidence connecting the dead bodies in Florida to the dead bodies in New Hampshire, it took eighteen months to make a positive identification. The bodies in Florida were eventually identified as the daughter of the innkeepers and her ne’er-do-well boyfriend. A lengthy suicide note explained that they had killed the young woman's parents because they didn't approve of her boyfriend. Then they took their own lives so that they "could be together forever in death."

I was right. They weren’t killing guests. This was no random act of violence. It was a crime of passion committed by a disturbed family member. I am tempted, even now, to tell my wife I told you so. But she is a passionate woman. I worry about disturbing her. It’s probably safer just to use it in a story.

Jeff Markowitz

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pollyanna Grows Up

I was flipping through the channels the other day and there it was. A movie that my kids wouldn't be caught dead watching, but which I am perfectly content, nay happy, to rewatch on an endless loop. It's not Hitchcock, Scorsese, or Coppola. It's pure, unadulterated, treacly sweet Disney: Pollyanna starring Hayley Mills.

While it was the American debut of Ms. Mills, the movie also starred old Hollywood favorites like Academy Award winners Jane Wyman and Karl Malden, and the ever-brilliant Agnes Moorhead.

Watching this movie is like eating a grilled cheese sandwich, followed by chocolate pudding served in an old, blue custard cup. It's visual comfort food that takes me back to a quieter, gentler time – even if in my heart of hearts, I know that period in my life wasn't ever quite as calm or as kind as I remember.

There's a sweetness and simplicity to the Pollyanna story. A poor orphan girl comes to live with her rich, cold aunt, and with innocent goodness transforms a whole town. Pollyanna doesn't need years of therapy having lost both her parents at an early age. She isn't haunted by demons or bitter about being forced to live in an attic by an uncaring guardian. When she falls and is paralyzed, her hair is immaculate. When the doctor picks her up to take her to Baltimore for delicate spine surgery – there are no backboards to immobilize her body, just Doc Chilton tenderly carrying her in his arms to the train station. Little Jimmy Watson is adopted by old man Pendergast (bravo to the incomparable Adolphe Menjou), and there's no home inspection by social workers. For that matter, Pollyanna at 12, still wears pigtails, has no body piercings, and her greatest joy is to win a doll in a carnival game. It's not even an American Girl or Bratz doll.

There is, thankfully, no gritty realism in this movie. Maybe it's a cop-out, but Pollyanna is the perfect antidote, at times, to my troubled world vision. It's refreshing to believe that we should always look for the good in our fellow man. It's comforting to think that sheer decency can make an enormous impact. It's heartening to believe in the power of an individual to effect change.

Carolyn Hart has explained that she likes to write traditional mysteries because "the good guys always win." Me too. I can't control much in this world. But just like in Harrington, the "Glad Town," in the universe I help create of Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, and the Irish wolfhound Whiskey, the good guys always win.

Evelyn David

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On a Wing and a Prayer

“I don’t know what to do.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“What can I do?”

How many of us have said these same things when we have heard that someone is walking a bumpy road or enduring a trial? The answer is simple. For number 1: pray. For number 2: say a prayer. For number 3: same as number 2. It’s that simple.

And you can always do the tuna casserole if you have to keep your hands busy. That works pretty well, too.

Life is alternately hard and easy. It is a series of ebbs and flows. Sometimes, you are riding a wave of good fortune and mild seas while at other times, you are adrift, navigating bumpy waters, hanging on for dear life. Sometimes it’s other people who are in the midst of bad times. But one thing is for sure, we will all experience some kind of hardship and we all need each other to see us through. Cherish the good times and reach out in the bad. Because by reaching out—by saying “I need you, I need your prayers”—you will be allowing others to do what they can to see you through the rough times. Accept it graciously because without the ability to receive, nobody will ever feel the joy of giving.

I had a couple of years of bumpy seas myself. The first thing that was done for me, en masse, was a prayer service at my church. Very simple, very plain—just a darkened church with some votive candles, my favorite songs, some prayers from the heart—but the room was filled to the brim with people I knew, some I didn’t, and some just acquaintances. The word had gone out: one of us needs help. And everyone responded. I didn’t need anything else.

The group was diverse in every way possible: by age, by faith, by economic status, by hometown. But it was one thing that they could all do, to say, as a group: “We’re here; we love you; we’ll help you get through this. We are doing something.”

And if you have ever felt the power of someone, or everyone, sharing your collective burden, you know that it is a comfort. Together, despite our many differences, we came together to pray.

Prayer is a funny thing: some people embrace it, while others eschew it. I feel that prayer is a way to put positive energy into the world and to me, there’s nothing negative about that. When we pray—and I don’t care to which God or higher power you pray or we’re talking about—we focus on a power or energy that is beyond us. And if it centers us and takes us out of ourselves and into a different space, it’s all good.

One of us needed help today. So five of us gathered at a critical hour in this person’s life, when she would submit to a test that would tell her if what the doctors thought they saw on another, more general test, was indeed cancer. As we held hands and offered prayers between the silent spaces, I felt a power pass between us, an energy. And as the tears flowed from her best friend onto the individual hands of each woman, we acknowledged that we are here. We are doing something. We are praying.