Wednesday, April 30, 2008
If you’re checking in for my weekly report on Citizens’ Police Academy, I must confess. I played hooky. Gina wrote about the Festival of Mystery on Monday. Well, that’s where I was instead of learning about drugs. Yes, Gina managed to attend the Festival AND still make it to CPA, but I volunteered as an author escort, so I was committed for the long haul.
My assigned author this year was Ellen Crosby who had the misfortune of having her luggage lost by the airlines. (Happy ending: it was ultimately found and returned to her before she left town for New York).
It was great getting to see some old friends and make new ones. Hallie Ephron is one of my favorites. And I’m glad I had a chance to talk to and get to know Kate Flora, too.
And then there were all the local gals.
Nancy Martin signed her Blackbird Sisters mysteries.
Heather Terrell struck a pose between Susan Wright and Marcia Talley.
Mary Jo Rulnick was there with her Frantic Woman’s Guide.
Kathryn Miller Haines charmed the crowd while being interviewed by Richard Goldman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop.
And the crowd was huge. It was nice to be around so many mystery fans.
Even our own Martha Reed came for a little shopping.
As for me, I came home with a bag full of books and am trying to figure out how to make room for them on my to-be-read shelves. I guess I just need to read FASTER to clear out space.
Next week: Back to Citizens’ Police Academy and the Pittsburgh Police Intelligence Unit/CAT Eyes.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
First off, I don’t live in Pennsylvania, I blog here on occasion because Annette Dashofy is my online critique partner and I find her work is a joy to read. So my experience mainly comes from El Paso County, Colorado, but the more I work with Working Stiffs, I see that when it comes to law enforcement, we’re really not that far apart.
So here’s where I prove my case. Christina Herndon is the Deputy Coroner for El Paso County, and she’s one busy lady. She’s also my friend, with an irreverent sense of humor, I suspect because of her job. It’s a protective mechanism. She can either laugh or she can cry. I enjoy her because she makes me laugh, and naturally, she always makes me think.
Chris is also a very generous soul. I found this out when I would be typing away on a manuscript, I’d come to a point where I’d groan and say, “I’m not sure how to kill this guy.” I would pick up the phone, call the Coroner’s office, Chris would answer, saying, “You’re who? You want to know how to do what?”
Instead of having me arrested, she became my friend. And that’s troublesome for people in law enforcement, because once they befriend me, they end up befriending a whole lot of writers and speaking at a whole lot of functions. With that said, I’d like to tell you why I determined that if you’re in law enforcement, you’re also a closet writer.
A few months back, Chris told me that she teaches coroners how to conduct inquests, and naturally, I found this fascinating and abused our friendship further and said you need to put on a workshop for Sisters in Crime.
She never gets mad, she just says okay, and as we put our heads together, a mock coroner’s inquest came to life, with me as the melodramatic producer and Chris the “acting coroner” who also filled in the technical blanks.
Now, I’ve talked about Chris, I’d also like to talk to you about fellow members of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Sisters of Crime. Don’t tell any of them that I said this – “ahem,” – but they’re hams. Really big hams as well as darn good sports and actors. I told them what Chris and I were contemplating, and as our skit came together, my chapter mates good-naturedly did as they were told. Below is the cast of characters, and the set up that Chris and I wrote that turned out to be hysterical to watch and equally fun to participate in. Without further ado, I give you…
The Demise of Penelope Pierce
Deceased: Penelope Pierce
Victim’s Mother: Elizabeth Pierce (Kari Wainright)
Cop: Officer Ruthie Guyless (Beth Groundwater)
Reporting Party: Ms. Amelia Onlooker (Maria Faulconer)
Pathologist: Dr. Clara de Colon (Madge Walls)
Coroner Investigator: Racine Sharpastak (Barb Nickless)
Counselor: Dr. Lula Wannadish (Laura Pellerin)
Victim’s Roommate: Therma Dorr (Lise Fuller)
Victim’s Ex-husband: William Love-Levam (Robert Spiller)
Private Detective: Phineas Stump (Karl Herndon)
Court Reporter: Donnell Bell (no named court reporter)
On April 15th, in the town of Nogoingson, Colorado, an officer responded to a call requesting a welfare check. The Reporting Party, Amelia Onlooker
as well as the manager of the S-h-h-h apartments, said she hadn’t heard any activity from the apartment next door, a rare thing, as her numerous complaints will attest – loud music and constant parties involving Penelope Pierce and Therma Dorr, tenants of Apartment 2B. Earlier that morning, Ms. Onlooker claims a noise that sounded like a car backfiring twice roused her from a deep sleep. Later, Ms. Onlooker grew concerned at the unheard of quiet and dialed 9-1-1. At approximately 7:25 a.m. an operator dispatched the Nogoingson Police.
Twenty seconds later -- as there really isn’t much going on in Nogoingson -- Officer Ruthie Guyless arrived on scene. Ms. Onlooker let her into the apartment in question. Therma Dorr was found sitting on the couch, rocking back and forth and mumbling. Officer Guyless requested that a Medical Unit respond to check her out. Dorr was making random statements: “I didn't want her to die.” “She was going to move out, but I didn't want her too.” “She was going to go back to that bastard.” Then, Officer Guyless found the terrace door open and observed what appeared to be a body on the balcony outside. Upon closer inspection, Officer Guyless determined that an approximately 30-year-old, 110 pound, female Caucasion lay on the 10’ x 5’ wood-slatted balcony. Guyless checked the vitals of the victim and determined that Ms. Penelope Pierce was dead. Officer Guyless then requested that the Coroner be notified to respond to the scene.
Therma Dorr was escorted outside the apartment so that EMTs could check her out. Guyless and the Coroner were searching the bedroom when Penelope's mother showed up. She rushed into the apartment, whereupon seeing Penelope's body she became hysterical. She threw herself on the body and then had to be physically removed. Mrs. Pierce was accusing the ex-husband of murder and yelling at Therma Dorr. When Mrs. Pierce saw the scratch on the decease’s neck, she became incensed, insisting that this was a murder. "Somebody killed my baby.”
While searching the bedroom the investigators found divorce papers that indicated Penelope and William were separated, the divorce papers had been filed but the decree not final yet. (Because of this revelation, William is Penelope's legal next of kin and Mom has no say so in any of the final decisions -- which really upsets Mom…)
Guyless did a GSR kit on Therma Dorr and she was then taken by ambulance to the hospital where she was interviewed later by Guyless.
The Coroner Investigator, Racine Sharpastak and Guyless investigated the scene together. The scene was photographed by Sharpastak. Guyless had no batteries in her camera and they agreed to share the scene photos. Unfortunately Sharpastak's camera had a bad memory card and none of the scene photos were captured.
They noted that the deceased’s right arm was upright at an angle, perpendicular to her shoulder, elbow bent, her forearm lying near her head. A .22 Charter Arms semi automatic pistol was found near the door. One spent casing was found near the deceased’s left foot. The gun was made safe by Guyless and then examined to reveal that the gun’s clip, which could hold 6 bullets, was found to have 4 live rounds remaining in the clip. Investigator Sharpastak then determined that there appeared to be a gunshot wound to the right temple area that was consistent with an entrance wound, but no exit wound was found. No projectiles (bullets) were found on the balcony or in the adjoining walls.
Inside on the glass coffee table, the officers discovered a bottle of wine and two glasses, one containing a small amount of white wine. The bedroom was searched and drug paraphernalia (pipes) and small plastic envelopes containing a white powdery substance (meth) was found in a drawer of the nightstand along with a green leafy substance (marijuana). In the bathroom medicine chest, the prescription antidepressant Respirdol was also found. The prescription was for the deceased, had been filled just 2 weeks prior and was empty.
(Temperature was 67°)
The Coroner assumed custody of the body, (after placing paper bags on the hands for GSR testing) the body was taken to the Coroner's Office for an autopsy.
Guyless and Sharpastak went to William Love-Levam's residence to notify him of Penelope's death. He was interviewed there.
After being x-rayed an autopsy was performed by Dr. Clara de Colon. Dr. de Colon was able to determine that the wound to the right temporal area was a contact wound, consistent with a self-inflicted injury. The projectile was recovered during the autopsy and given to Officer Guyless for further testing at CBI, if needed. Another gunshot wound was found in the deceased's left groin area. This had not been visible on scene as there was very little blood. This projectile was located in the left butt cheek.
The investigation done by Guyless and Sharpastak concluded the following:
Ms. Penelope Pierce had been separated for a period of six months and was apparently despondent after her breakup with her spouse, William Love-Levam.
Immediately after the divorce Ms. Pierce moved into the apartment and resided with a female roommate, Ms. Therma Dorr. They became lovers, but Penelope hadn't told anyone that she was involved with Dorr.
Ms. Pierce had sought counseling from Dr. Lula Wannadish M.D. Nogoingson’s resident psychiatrist who prescribed the antidepressant and had been treating the deceased for the last two months. Dr. Wannadish has been reluctant to share any information or records until threatened with court action.
Ex-husband, William Love-Levam claims he was in his house alone at the time of death, asleep after the previous evening of writing his memoirs. Officer Guyless ran the serial number of the .22 pistol through ATF and found that it was registered to William. He denied giving Penelope the gun, but she had been at his house the previous week asking for money.
Further analysis determined that the roommate’s fingerprints, Therma Dorr, were found on one of the wine glasses, the bottle of wine and on the .22. Ms. Dorr claims that they had been arguing most of the night, at one point she tried to grab Penelope to stop her from leaving the apartment and scratched her neck with her unnaturally long fingernails. They had fallen asleep around 4 a.m. She woke up when she heard loud noises and went looking for Penelope when she realized that she wasn't in bed. Ms. Dorr found the victim with the .22 resting in her hand, and in an unthinking moment Therma Dorr picked it up, put it next to the door then went inside and started drinking.
GSR tests were done on Penelope and Therma, both were sent to CBI and both tests came back positive. CBI also did ballistic tests on the projectiles recovered from the body and the gun found on scene and they matched.
After two months, Mrs. Elizabeth Pierce the victim’s mother has become increasingly frustrated at the coroner’s assessment that Ms. Penelope Pierce died at her own hand. Penelope was a former model, and her mother claims Penelope would never have committed an act which destroyed her looks. Mrs. Pierce is suspicious because Ms. Dorr’s fingerprints are on the gun, and therefore has demanded further investigation.
She has hired a private investigator who agrees with Mrs. Pierce that this death is suspicious.
As you can see Chris gave this writer a lot of help in preparing this skit, and my fellow chapter mates played their parts, ad libbing to perfection. Also, Chris’s
husband, Karl, a deputy sheriff for El Paso County came to our aid by playing the private detective, Phineas Stump, even to the point of handing out business cards that read Phineas Stump. Try to Stump me, I dare ya!
To my dear friend, Lise Fuller, this woman was such a good sport, virtually stealing the show while she played the bi-sexual roommate of the deceased, while her real-life husband, Major Tom Fuller participated in the jury.
Pictured below are a couple of our participants books.
All in all, the event was educational, funny and a tremendous success.
Get involved with your local law enforcement and see if you don’t agree. Many of them, like Chris, are would-be writers. I guarantee the majority are generous souls.
Donnell Ann Bell is an award-winning aspiring author, a member of Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America’s Kiss of Death Chapter and other RWA Colorado chapters. Check out her website at www.donnellannbell.com
Monday, April 28, 2008
Now that the Earth has traveled once more to the warm side of the Sun (hush, I know that stuff about the hemispheres and axis tilt -- I'm just trying to be poetic) and tiny plants have pushed their soft green heads out of the ground, it's time to -- READ. What? Not garden? Not stroll through blossom-scented meadows seeking newly returned birds? NO. That's not what we here at the stiffs are all about.
Today marks the 13th Annual Festival of Mystery.
That's right. In a Greek Orthodox Church hall in beautiful Oakmont, Pennsylvania, the Mystery Lovers Bookshop will present more than four dozen of our favorite authors, live and in person, signing (and selling) their books. [You understand now why this is a time to read, I trust?] A complete list of authors can be found at the Festival website. Suffice it to say that some of our own local favorites (and working stiffs bloggers) will be among them, as well as writers from all over the country and beyond.
For anyone who hasn't attended the Festival before, getting there is easy. Just follow the Allegheny River away from Downtown Pittsburgh until you get to Oakmont. You'll know you've arrived when you see oak leaves on the street signs. More reliable driving directions can be obtained through mapquest or yahoo: the Church Hall address is 12 Washington Avenue, Oakmont, PA.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Authors sit behind stacks of their work, signing books and chatting with passing fans. It's a chance to see what these folks look like in the flesh, not just in that studio portrait on the book jacket. There is also a program in which the authors get to speak briefly from a stage. The hard part is not buying every book from everyone, although I'm sure Mystery Lovers wouldn't mind at all if you did.
So pick yourselves up, gather up plenty of cash and charge cards, and, if you don't already own one, borrow a vehicle sturdy enough to carry a humungous load of books. I hope to see each and every one of you at the Festival.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Well, in the last nine months I’ve researched and written another book. This one is very different than my typical women’s fiction fare. Writing comtemperary fiction, for me, was hard and easy at the same time. First, I was fully invested in writing about the world as I see it, as I feel it as a woman. I enjoyed it. BUT, what I enjoy about the contemporary world are the small things that create character rather than the big things that make for highly conceptual/big plots.
Some comments from my agent and others were that my novels were quite good, but small and quiet. Meaning, not enough plot, sister. I never understood that. Who cares? There’s a plot there—Sideways was small, right?
Well, fate intervened in the form of my mother. She handed over the 125 year old love letters written by my great great grandmother to my g.g. grandfather during the year of their engagement. They were unbelievable, moving, sappy, bizarre, optimistic, and totally engrossing. I think they could stand alone as a book as they have their own story arc…but we all know what the answer is to publishing letters of people of zero consequence.
Completely compelled by the content—my g. grandparents subsequent pioneering life, the birth of six kids and shocking divorce as my grandfather left her for another woman—I couldn’t get the characters out of my mind. So, I’ve taken some famous events that occurred while they were pioneering and built a story around huge plot elements, making use of tremendous characters that literally came to me through these letters.
It wasn’t until about halfway through this process that I realized (hit on head with frying pan kind of thing) what my agent and others meant by big plot. In the past I understood the difference between say, Mission Impossible and Sideways, but for me there seemed to be a subtle middle ground that was so interesting. But with this book under my belt, with characters who have environmental and internal obstacles to overcome, I get it. I suddenly, fully get it.
Here’s to learning—the process that hopefully never stops for any human being. And fate, I guess. My mother had been waving those letters at me for years and I ignored them…then one day I sat and read. Boy, I’m glad I did.
Things are very quiet at work these days which is good for the residents of Shaler, but bad for coming up with blog topics. I had thoughts of writing about this article, but I think the title pretty much tells me everything I want to know about it.
The other day on The Graveyard Shift , agent Scott Hoffman blogged about what really bugs us when we read a book. I've seen the same topic on a few other blogs and lists lately, so I must not be the only one who has pet peeves. Have you ever been engrossed in a novel where the plot seems to be rolling along just fine, the characters are three dimensional, the dialogue is snappy, then--wham! It all falls apart because of one little thing. That one thing that drives you nuts. Whether it's a Glock with a safety or DNA results back in an hour, you put the book down.
One of my pet peeves is info dumps. Every once in awhile I'll come across an author who has done her research, but instead of using bits and pieces here and there, or only using enough to get the point across, she insists on giving the reader a lecture. It takes me right out of the story.
Another one is when a writer keeps repeating himself. I read a book once where every time the author drew his gun, he made sure he used the complete brand name and model number. Once would have been enough.
So, what are your pet peeves when you read a book? What takes you right out of the story? Is there anything that would cause you to never pick up one of that author's books again?
(Oh, and for a little bit of fun, here's a quiz you can take. It has nothing to do with this topic, but it's a hoot anyway.)
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
This week’s Citizens’ Police Academy was a two-fer. A little bit of something new and a little bit of something old was presented during our field trip to the training center.
Relatively new to Pittsburgh is the Crisis Intervention Team. Unlike SWAT, this is not a “response” team. Rather it’s a “collaborative” team in which the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police works with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Heath and state and county correctional institutions. Police training for this program began June 2007.
So much information was thrown at us in such a short span of time, my notes leave much to be desired. Hopefully our resident mental health specialist, Tory, can jump in with some additional comments.
The training gives officers an insight into mental illness so they can possibly de-escalate a mental health crisis when they are faced with those situations.
The police based Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is the front door of a diversionary process used to divert people BEFORE they’ve done something requiring arrest. The team might be called to the scene if a report comes in of someone out on the street yelling at a stop sign or the neighbor has lined their fence with tin foil.
But it goes further, dealing with the mentally ill who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. It’s a volunteer program allowing a person to be released on bond to Allegheny County Mental Health rather than being held in jail
It also can help when a mentally ill prisoner is released by bringing them into half-way houses and closely monitoring them during the transition back into the community.
Pittsburgh has a Central Recovery Center that opened in August 2007. It has a no eject/no reject policy and is an alternative to hospital or jail. It provides screening, assessment, and crisis prevention on a voluntary basis (a person cannot be involuntarily committed here). It also offers access to longer-term respite beds when needed and offers referrals to Behavioral Health Forensics Services as well as providing communication with family and significant others.
To date, 55 Pittsburgh officers have been trained and 15 other officers from outside the city. The goal is to eventually have enough officers with crisis intervention training so that someone will always be on duty and available to respond.
The second portion of this week’s class brought us in contact with a slightly older program. Pittsburgh has had a K-9 unit since November of 1958, making it the second oldest continuously running K-9 program in the United States (the oldest, by a mere matter of months, is Baltimore County, Maryland). Unlike many police dog programs across the country, Pittsburgh Police train their own dogs and provide in service training.
We were fortunate to be able to watch several dogs put through their paces including an obstacle course and going after a “suspect” dressed in a bulky bite suit. Think the Michelin Man with bite marks.
A police canine’s greatest asset to the department is its nose. They can provide a search for drugs or explosives (depending on how the dog is trained) faster than a human could and with less intrusion. A dog doesn’t have to open a bag to tell what’s in it.
A dog sniffing (or “snearching” as Sgt. Chris Micknowski called a sniff and search) drugs is trained to respond differently than a dog searching for explosives. A drug sniffing dog will act more aggressively when it has located an illegal substance, biting and scratching at the area where it’s hidden. With an explosive, understandably, you don’t want such an aggressive reaction. Those dogs are trained to respond more passively, such as sitting and looking at the area.
Something else I found interesting is that when a dog is to go into a building to locate a suspect who may be hiding there, there is no rush to get started. Time is on the officers’ side, because the longer a suspect remains in there, the stronger his odor becomes and the easier it is for the dog to find. Sgt. Micknowski used the example of peeling an onion and letting it sit. At first, only those closest to it would be able to smell it. But after a half hour, even those in the back of the room would be aware of that onion.
And it was stressed that the police need to call in a dog first, NOT AFTER they’ve already searched the building, adding their own odors and disturbing the suspect’s odor.
Also, unlike all other departments, in Pittsburgh, our dogs are trained to locate and bark at a suspect as long as he doesn’t attempt to flee or act aggressively. And when a dog goes after someone, it is not considered “attacking.” It’s one bite and hold. The dogs are trained to go for the back of the arms, shoulders, and the upper back of the suspect, the closer to the center of the upper back, the better. That way, the suspect is less likely to be able to harm the dog. We were able to witness several examples of this training. Believe me, if you ever encounter an unleashed police canine, DO NOT MOVE.
Police canines are considered a non-deadly type of force and therefore is safer for the suspect. If a human police officer were to go into a situation, he may need to pull his gun and use deadly force. A dog will cause pain, but won’t kill. How many times have you heard of people dying after being “tased”? How many times have you heard of people being killed by police canines?
The dogs also provide safety for their handlers. Often their mere presence is enough to cause a suspect to surrender. That’s also one of the reasons that German Sheppard’s are used so extensively. They have “the look.”
And they don’t need a piece of clothing to locate someone. They search by ground disturbance odors (at least, Pittsburgh’s dogs do).
Next week: Playing hooky.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Assassin: a person who commits murder; especially: one who murders a politically important person either for hire or from fanatical motives.
A friend at work loaned me a copy of a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up for myself: MANHUNT The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. I thought it was an appropriate blog topic, because 143 years ago this week – between April 14th and April 26th, 1865, our nation was focused on locating John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who shot and killed our sixteenth President.
This book is not the same dry history I remember. I can’t put this thing down, and I’m losing sleep over it.
At approximately the same time Abe Lincoln was being stalked in Ford’s Theater, another member of Booth’s murderous crew, Lewis Powell, entered the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward under false medical pretenses and attacked Seward with a knife. Seward, who was already bedridden and trying to recover from an earlier carriage accident (broken arm and jaw) was repeatedly stabbed and cut about the face before his assassin was driven off by members of his family and staff. Secretary Seward eventually recovered, but it must have been one tough week by anyone’s measure.
This is what the Lincoln assassins looked like:
And when it comes to assassins, this is what Hollywood keeps serving up:
Why is it, when history offers such incredible true stories, that Hollywood keeps offering the same hackneyed female assassin stereotype? I suspect it has a lot to do with immature males (and I’m not just talking movie producers) and their spendable dollars.
To balance the scale a bit, let’s consider the male assassin: Viggo Mortensen in American Yakuza.
Speaking of Viggo, he’s in Pittsburgh this week filming his new movie The Road, and rumor has it he’s also considering a movie based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe. So in the end, it all comes back to mystery, as it should.
Monday, April 21, 2008
You’ve probably heard of Manet and Monet. The calendar boys, as I like to call them, have worked their way into popular culture. The once revolutionary canvases that they painted now seem commonplace –and not the least bit shocking, but in 2008 we know that shock will get you everywhere, including twenty-first century notecards.
Manet, Monet, and their comrades in nineteenth-century France had a contemporary that you probably have not heard of, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Meissonier featured prominently in the artistic community, art market, and culture of Paris in the 1860s. He is also one of the major players in Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, a rollicking account of the shift in French painting that peaked in 1863. King was as meticulous about his research of Meissonier’s life as Meissonier was about his research of horses and soldiers. I must admit, I’ve grown quite fond of dear Ernest in the past few weeks, thanks to King’s engaging details about him:
In his forty-eighth year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “ugly, little
and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.” A friend described him
as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager
and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the
countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent,
fencing sword in hand. Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire,
sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he
spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and
meticulousness that had made both his reputation and his fortune.
Not only do I aspire to craft “wonders of precision and meticulousness” in any discipline,
I now realize the merits of extreme research. Meissonier was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. The pint-sized monarch was Meissonier’s favorite subject, and in order to depict him accurately, Meissonier befriended a former valet of Napoleon who had a collection of artifacts like tack and uniform buttons, he borrowed a horse that was a descendant of Napoleon’s white charger to use as a model, he created wax maquettes which he inserted into scale dioramas in order to compose more accurate battle scenes, and he galloped alongside soldiers so that he may study the engineering of equine anatomy. When his dioramas developed technical problems involving bees and mice (you don’t want to know) he staged life sized battle scenes on the grounds of his house that included horses, tack, and uniforms that were accurate down to most minute detail.
Meissonier sold paintings for hundreds of thousands of francs in his lifetime while Manet went years without selling one, and yet, when I recently acquired a catalogue from 1951 of a French painting exhibition, Meissonier was conspicuously absent. Who knows, if one of his paintings shows up here in Pittsburgh to stay, perhaps I can begin a campaign to ignite interest in this fierce little painter. Stay tuned……
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Yesterday was a fateful day. I got to work at 7:15 a.m. and immediately experienced some computer problems. My company-provided computer could not access the Internet. This is a problem I've been experiencing off and on for about three weeks now. Because the IT department doesn't come in until 8ish, I've historically found partial success through repeated rebooting of the computer. Not today.
Today whilst rebooting, the computer suddenly stopped its normal functions and showed me something new: a royal blue screen with lots of white text on it. The text remained on screen only a few seconds, not even long enough for me to reach the third line, but what I did catch was essentially this: "Windows has experienced a problem, the computer interrupted the reboot to prevent it from becoming catastrophic, you may reboot, if you dare. Bwah Ha Ha Ha!" or words to that effect.
When the IT folks arrived I explained what had happened. "Ah," they said. "You've been BSOD'd."
"BSOD'd?" I asked.
"The Blue Screen of Death. Your hard drive has failed."
Fortunately the several weeks of problems had put the fear of God and/or Bill Gates in me and I had been saving everything of any importance onto the company's server each and every day. So when my computer's life flashed before my eyes, there was nothing on it that couldn't be retrieved later. But, I reflected on my way home, the same cannot be said for my personal computer.
I thought of the characters in my drafted stories and what would happen to them if my computer similarly crashed. I like to believe my characters enjoy a "Toy Story"-esque existence when the computer is turned off and they all get together in cyberspace and hang out. I imagine they meet in the several nicely furnished houses I made for them in my hours of Sims games and brag of their adventures, point out each others typographical errors and speculate on unfinished plots. Then, in a scene fresh from some sci-fi horror flick, I imagine a giant blue screen of death sliding inexorably towards them, flinging pixilated debris as it plows relentlessly forward. My characters scream and run helplessly trying to find cover before they are defragmented for the last time.
But there is hope for them, of course. Reincarnation is a strong force for imaginary characters and they will live on in other computers. Plus I have cloned most of them onto CD-Roms so none will die forever.
Still, it is an eye-opening moment when one gazes into the blue screen of death for the first time and ponder what could have been.
Back-up your hard drives...while you still can.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Are your protagonists larger than life? Have you ever considered weaving your story around someone you know who's a character? I haven't used her yet, but my friend Judy is surrounded by stories that are stranger than fiction.
I'll just mention the part where she was hit by a drunk driver and suffered injuries that required surgery and several months in a metal halo device around her head. Oh, and while she was recovering in a hospital bed in the livingroom, her mother had a heart attack and went to the hospital, leaving Judy alone in the house.
Let's skip to the part where Judy and her two little dogs have moved to Sedona, Arizona, where Judy worked as a hospice nurse, visiting the dying. We took Judy out for dinner last fall when we visited Sedona, and she shared a hospice story.
She traveled to a patient's house one day, and there were no meds in the house to ease the dying man's pain. The meds were gone because the dying man's wife had given them to her boyfriend. As the man was near his transition time, and Judy wanted to make him more comfortable, she implemented care as only Judy could have.
"Everyone, let's sit at the table and hold hands (I think the boyfriend might have been there, too). We're going to breathe deeply and relax. We're going to send healing energy around the circle..." And so Judy, unable to give meds, did a healing meditation. The man relaxed and so did everyone else in the room, and he made his transition. A few days later the hospice got another request for Judy and her meditations.
That evening, we drove Judy home, and her two little white bijons danced on her condo balcony waiting for her. Judy is single, and they are her children, and they were excited to see her. So I was blown away when I got Judy's email two months later. Donny, ten years old, had suffered a cardiac arrest at the park during their morning walk after a normal morning at home and good health. Judy tried to resuscitate him and drove him to the vet, but it was too late.
We mourned his loss. At least she still had Dolly, just a year older than Donny, to bring her comfort.
Just a few weeks later, Judy emailed me that Dolly was very near death from Addison's Disease. A few days after that, she wrote that for the last few hours of Dolly's life, she had held her and sung her into the light.
Dolly was gone. Judy had lost both dogs in 27 days, and I didn't know how she was going to stand the pain. Sandwiched in between the passings was Judy's 50th birthday.
Then, about six weeks after that, another email from Judy. A patient from hospice had died, leaving her pets behind. Someone needed to take them.
They were two white bijons, two years old.
So Judy writes me that she now drives around the countryside taking care of people who want to live--she switched from hospice to Home Health Care. She says she still has two little white dogs, the ones the universe sent to fill the void in her life and heart, but it all feels much lighter and brighter now. Judy, a survivor, has overcome once more.
So tell me, who are the colorful characters in your life? Have you given them a place in your fiction?
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
By Annette Dashofy
The guys from Pittsburgh’s SWAT team tried to convince us that their job isn’t glamorous, but let me tell you, they do get to play with some really cool stuff. Their presentation was so fascinating that while I started out scribbling notes like crazy, pretty soon I got so wrapped up in listening and watching the videos that I forgot to take notes! This is why I never made it as a journalist. But here is a little of what I did jot down.
SWAT teams across the country from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles employ the same techniques. They are specialists with the goals of preserving life, minimizing injury and property damage and reducing public concern over law enforcement operations.
The reason SWAT teams exist is to increase the safety of officers, innocent parties, the general public AND the suspect. They reduce liability by having more highly trained officers working as a coherent, cohesive unit. They utilize standard tactics and work together all the time, so there less chance of someone making independent decisions or taking actions that might put officers at unnecessary risk.
Some specific circumstances in which they might be called into action would be hostage rescue, a barricaded suspect, a sniper, high risk warrant service, or dignitary protection.
SWAT’s mission is not to go out and kill people as some movies and TV shows might have you believe. SWAT’s mission is to SAVE lives. Their motto is “We put ourselves second that others may live.”
In a hostage situation, their priorities are: 1. the hostages, 2. innocent bystanders, 3. SWAT officers and 4. the hostage takers.
In such a situation, there would be an Incident Commander who establishes a Command Post (CP) and manages the overall operation. Everyone answers to him.
There would also be a Hostage Negotiator
And there would be a Tactical Commander who establishes a TOC (Tactical Operations Center). He is subordinate to the Incident Commander, but oversees the operation at the scene.
On the subject of terminology, SWAT trained personnel are called SWAT Operators.
As mentioned previously, they say it’s not glamorous. It’s hard work. They get no extra pay. All SWAT team members in Pittsburgh have other duties. Some may work in narcotics. Some may work in homicide. But they all wear pagers and can be called out at any time. They carry their gear in their vehicles. They take it home with them in case they’re called from there (although they are not permitted to leave it in their personal vehicles. They must take it into the house and store it in their basements.)
And the gear they carry weighs over 75 pounds.
They brought a lot of it to the class. We got to handle an assault rifle and a Glock pistol (both unloaded). We got to feel the weight of a SMALL battering ram. Even the Level 4A Tactical Vest that they wear weighs over 20 pounds.
Some of the really cool stuff they brought to show included an eyeball camera, their newest “toy.” It’s a small black ball, just a bit smaller than a baseball. When tossed down a hall or into a window or door, it will roll, right itself, and begin self-rotating while broadcasting images to a viewing screen. We determined that there were no hostage takers lurking in the hallways at the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. They also had a pole cam, which is a small camera on the end of what looks like a heavy fishing pole. SWAT operators can peer into windows on the second floor, for example, to see what’s there before risking their life entering a building.
Several classmates thought they would like to have one until we learned they cost $19,000. FYI, Pittsburgh SWAT only has one.
They also showed us a Ghillie suit which is a form of camouflaged jacket that allows a SWAT operator to blend into the surroundings while gathering intelligence. Other methods include going undercover as a UPS guy or a homeless person on the street.
The “toy” they didn’t bring with them was the BEAR or Ballistically Engineered Armored Rescue Vehicle.
Glamorous? Well, the “toys” are cool for sure. But then you have to consider that there’s a growing tendency of bad guys who wish to commit “suicide by cop.” While many suspects will take a stand against regular officers, most will give up when the SWAT team rolls in. But not everyone.
It’s not a job for the meek. Or the weak. But it made for one heck of a presentation to the Citizens’ Police Academy.
Next week: Another Field Trip!
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Names are funny things. At once memorable and forgettable. Lyrical and unpronounceable. Full of meaning and import on the one hand, vapid and tasteless, like salt-free V-8 juice, on the other.
How long did Charles Dickens fuss and fret before settling on “David Copperfield”? Why did Agatha Christie decide on “Miss Marple” and “Hercule Poirot”? Why not “Sarah Shortbread” or “Avant Maintenant”? Would Laura Lippman be as successful if she wrote about the adventures of “Adele Schlotterbock” instead of Tess Monaghan?
I’ve been thinking about names because I’m still not all that happy with the name I gave to one of my two protagonists. “Andre” originally was “Devlin,” then I decided that “Devlin” had to be African-American, and “Devlin” is not an African-American name. “Andre” is, sort of. Maybe. In some circles. It’s certainly better--that is more resonant, more identifiable with the person--than the name for my other protagonist, his partner Greg. Solid sounding, yes, and one syllable, but oh-so-white-bread.
But I’m comfortable with “Greg,” the name and the fictional creation. “Andre”--or “Dre,” as Greg nicknames him--is still causing me to doubt myself.
Not so with my other characters. I named Greg’s bete noire “Proctor” after seeing that name painted on the side of a decrepit brick building in Lower Greenfield. I dubbed my Eileen a “Shackleford” because it just fit her well and I liked the sound. (There’s that “sound” thing again.)
My day job at an international human resources training and development consulting firm (no other way to describe it in shorthand) requires careful attention to names. Because our products are sold in countries where English--or a reasonable facsimile thereof--is in common use in the business community--the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and a few others--the names we use for characters in our case studies and videos must be acceptable in all countries. Conrad, Marcos and Spencer are fine; Blair, Ed, Lloyd and Ike are not. As for women, we can create an Anita, a Jayne or a Rhonda, but Brianna, Cheri, Jeanne, or Paola are no-no’s.
Assigning names is one thing; having to work with the weird and unpronouncable is another. On the third floor of the building where I work, a large crew of assessors deals daily with client companies populated by people with such first names as Chrysostome, Jonantony, Crege, Daquanda, Turron, Trustin (as in “You can ‘trust in’ me,” perhaps?), Taquoila (pronunciation, anyone?), and Jamessa (guess Daddy James wanted a boy and when his wife produced a girl, well, “Jamessa” was born).
Names fascinate me. I love the images that pop into my mind when I hear names like Dorothy, Scarlett O’Hara and Bilbo Baggins. On a personal level, I'm a dismal failure at remembering names. Go figure. Now, give me the last four digits of your Social Security number, and I’m bound to remember it til the day I die. But, your name, sorry, what was that again?
Monday, April 14, 2008
The first time I killed a character, I felt terrible. He was a minor character I had created solely to die in battle. Since my protagonist would come through the fray unscathed, I thought this minor character's death would make the scene seem real. Still, my gut reaction was to try to save him. I wanted to destroy those foul attackers who had set upon this young man with their swords and short, sharp knives. I didn't. The story really needed him to die a horrible death.
Which brings me to my topic for today: where should we draw the line in our treatment of fictional characters?
The title of this piece is a quote from a 1991 film, Closet Land, written and directed by Rhada Bharadwaj. There are only two characters in Closet Land, a writer (Madeleine Stowe) who is suspected of planting subversive ideas in her children's books, and an interrogator (Alan Rickman) who, for 90 minutes, questions, manipulates, abuses, threatens, and tortures her in an effort to obtain a signed confession. It's a hard film to watch.
So why watch it? Amnesty International supported the film as a strong statement about the condition of political prisoners. One of the executive producers was Ron Howard -- that's right, Opie. And the two actors involved did such wonderful jobs of portraying the characters that it's difficult, even after the film ends, not to admire her and despise him. You want to run right out and put an end to all injustice in the world. The film made a point.
And maybe that's the key. It is often necessary to portray extremes of cruelty just to get a point across and, to advance the story, we sometimes do terrible things to our fictional characters -- or rather, we allow our fictional characters to do terrible things to one another.
Where do you draw the line? When does it stop being a compelling read and start becoming sado porn? That is the question for the day: how do you handle cruelty in your writing?
By the way, the complete quote is:
Victim: Your aim is to debase and humiliate a human being. There is no justification for cruelty.
Interrogator: Our aim is to rid society of negative influences. The end justifies the use of certain unorthodox means.
The Interrogator's line sounds like something out of a White House memo, doesn't it? Perhaps all world leaders should be required to write "There is no justification for cruelty" on the blackboard a few hundred thousand times, until the message sinks in.
Friday, April 11, 2008
There’s nothing I like better than reading a book I love and finding out it’s the first in a series. Unless maybe it’s reading a book I love and finding out it’s the first in a series in which the next 10 books have already been published, which means I don’t have to wait a whole year before I can read the next one. I can devour them all in rapid succession – and then start waiting for the next one.
I hate waiting for the next one.
Sword Song, the latest book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, a ninth-century delight featuring the best protagonist/first-person narrator I’ve ever read, came out early this year. I rushed to buy it the day it was released, finished it in 24 hours, and then lamented that I hadn’t read slower and made the book last longer.
On the upside, Sword Song is book four in a series that was originally planned as a trilogy, and the story’s not over yet.
Waiting for book five is infinitely better than not having anything for which to wait.
Back in the 1990s, I was mad about Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, set in the Roman Republic just before and during the time of Julius Caesar. Even then, Colleen McCullough seemed like an old woman, and I used to pray constantly that she wouldn’t drop dead between books and never finish the series. When The October Horse, the sixth and final book, was published in 2002, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Imagine my surprise when the seventh book in the Masters of Rome series, Antony and Cleopatra, hit the shelves late last year. I bought it last month while I was at the launch party of another book I’d been waiting a year to read, Murder Melts in Your Mouth, book seven in Nancy Martin’s Blackbird Sisters Mysteries. As soon as I finished Murder, I started Antony and Cleopatra. I’m reading it slow and savoring every word – trying really hard to make it last.
Being surprised by a book you weren’t waiting for in a series you thought was over is sweetest of all.
I’m on page 145 of 551 in Antony and Cleopatra. Even if I read as slow as possible, I’ll finish it before the end of the month. Book five of the Saxon Tales won’t come out until next year, and neither will book eight of the Blackbird Sisters Mysteries.
So help me out here – I need recommendations. What’s your favorite series, who’s the author, and what’s the title of the first book? (Because I hate reading a series out of order even more than I hate waiting for the next book.)
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Years ago, I took a DOT course on emergency driving, so I didn’t expect to learn all that much in this week’s Safe Vehicle Operation class. Wrong again.
Let’s begin with some national statistics. One in eight LICENSED (not counting those driving illegally) drivers are involved in a collision each year. Just under 42,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes annually.
Three in ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash sometime in their lives.
Nearly one in three crashes where someone dies is related to speeding.
6,289,000 traffic crashes were REPORTED in 1999 with 3,200,000 people injured. Check your decimal points. We’re talking millions.
These figures point out the importance of Defensive Driving, which means the ability to operate your vehicle in such a manner as to be able to avoid a collision no matter what the road and weather conditions.
Our instructor for the evening, Roland Livermore of the Community College of Allegheny County showed us a series of videos that should convince just about anyone to wear their seat belts. If one person in a car is NOT wearing a seat belt and the vehicle is involved in a crash, that person becomes a missile crashing around inside the car and into other passengers. In the first video, an unbelted passenger was the reason three other belted passengers died and a fourth was critically injured.
We also saw videos on the effects of speeding in crashes. Let’s just say, I drove the speed limit the whole way home.
There was also one on a PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique) involving a police vehicle tapping one side of the evading car’s back bumper, sending him into a spin. Pretty cool, but not permitted in Pittsburgh at this time. Pennsylvania is just starting to train in such procedures.
DID YOU KNOW that you cannot see color at night unless in a lit area? Police calling in descriptions will use terms like “light-colored vehicle” or “dark-colored vehicle” but they can’t accurately determine color.
Also, a sixty-year old needs three times as much light to see at night. Now you know why older folks frequently don’t like to be out after dark.
DID YOU KNOW that when you get hit by an oncoming vehicle’s headlights, the glare causes a temporary blindness that requires five to seven seconds from which to recover? The trick to avoid this is to look at the “Fog Line” which you might know better as “the white line on the side of the road.” Yes, it’s a Fog Line.
Terminology lesson: The preferred term is “pursuit” rather than “chase.” A pursuing police vehicle should maintain a four-second following distance, more in the case of rain or ice.
Officers are trained to exhibit a level of skill beyond that possessed by non-law enforcement drivers. They are to have the ability to remain cool, calm, and collected in stressful driving situations. If an officer loses that ability during a pursuit, they can be ordered to “terminate the pursuit.” They must also have an accurate perception of their driving abilities and the performance capabilities of their vehicle and they must be able to successfully apply their actual driving skills to specific situations in the driving environment.
We heard quite a few wild stories in the course of the evening, but I’ll leave you with just one. Two guys were driving on the highway, passing each other, cutting each other off, and generally demonstrating aggressive, dangerous, and immature driving. The first guy exited the highway. The second one followed him. He followed him all the way to his home. The first guy pulled in his garage. The second guy kept going.
The second guy came back later and torched the garage with the car in it.
Yes, they busted him.
Part of the evening was spent on a quiz. These are questions that very likely were on the driver's test you took when you were sixteen. See how many you can answer now.
Question #1: What does a steady yellow light of a traffic signal mean?
Hint: No, it does not mean GO FASTER.
Question #2: What is the required distance to legally use your high beams?
Question #3: What is the proper position for your hands on the steering wheel?
Question #4: When should you use your turn signal?
Question #5: What do lights and siren mean to a driver?
Question # 6: What is hydroplaning and what should you do if it happens to you?
Post your answers as a comment. (No helping, Gina!) I'll give the correct answers after lunch.
Next week: SWAT Team!
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
I know some folks think daffodils are the first sign of Spring, and don’t get me wrong, I love those bright yellow flowers as much as anyone but I live next to a park, so my first sign of Spring is when I start finding baseballs in my garden. I suppose I should be grateful I’m not finding them inside my living room.
The house next door is for sale and people ask me about it when they walk by. One older gentleman asked: ‘Is this a quiet neighborhood?’ and in all honesty I had to answer ‘no’. It’s not noisy like drug related gunfire or gang activity, but we do get kids. Skateboards, scooters, kids on bikes, kids with dogs, teenagers sneaking illicit kisses and cigarettes; they all end up hanging out at the park. Near as I can tell, that’s what a park is for.
Personally, I like all the activity. Writing takes discipline, and it can be lonely. Sure, there are days when I’d rather be outside chasing a ball then inside chasing a deadline. But just having the noise outside is sometimes enough; I imagine it’s rather like a mother listening with half an ear to her kids playing in the yard. I can detect the difference between a genuine yelp of surprised pain and a shrill burst of sibling whinery.
Yesterday I had to chase a band of adolescent ninja warriors off my garage roof so I’m pretty sure I’m developing a reputation as the mean lady at the end of the street. Since I’ve known most of these ninjas from the day they were born, I’m not too worried about it. I think their parents would grant me the temporary authority to keep them safely on the ground. I’m also going to start playing Sheriff of Fourth Street and find out which adult is letting their dog poop in my yard. I find myself ridiculously annoyed by this; I’ve had dogs and I was fanatical about cleaning up after them. But it’s all about rules; commonly agreed upon standards of behavior, and once that breaks down we’re doomed.
Which leads me to a cute little trick Amazon is trying to pull. Heck, they’ve probably already pulled it off by now, which makes it even worse. I hate strong-arm tactics, it lacks finesse, especially when the people in authority make business decisions without taking a consensus from the group most affected by the decision. Amazon.com is telling publishers that if they don’t use Amazon’s in-house POD vendor, BookSurge, then the BUY button will get pulled off their online Amazon sales web page.
Subtle, and nice, too, don’t you think?
Amazon’s argument is that this move will increase their shipping efficiencies and even limit the environmental impact by reducing overall fuel costs. Amazon’s gone all green. Puh-leeze. If limiting environmental impact is truly their concern, then let’s ditch paper altogether and use e-Books. Oh, Amazon’s already done that with their Kindle? And only authors who have Kindle contracts will get to see their books ‘in print’?
I’ve never bought into the argument that restricting competition will result in a better product or a more equitable marketplace. And this latest Amazon decision is not limited to self-published authors or small independent presses; more and more traditional publishing houses are taking advantage of digital technology and POD. As an author, it’s hard enough now to find an interested publisher; where does artist integrity go when you can’t even get access to the readers?
I’m not really worried that writers won’t be able to continue to write. Honestly, you can’t stop us. Even when we don’t get paid for it we still do it. I love the story of the Chinese dissident who wrote his novels in prison and got them over the walls and published by having other almost released prisoners memorize entire chapters. And even though it was heavily fictionalized, I adored the movie Quills. As dreadful as the storyline was, I found a great deal of truth in it, and it’s never an effort to watch the oh-so-talented Geoffrey Rush.
So, whatever your take on the current situation in our publishing world, let’s all just duck and cover. Apparently that old boogeyman Mr. Change is back, again.
Monday, April 07, 2008
I've been struggling, for over a week now, to write a two paragraph summary of my work-in-progress. I was prepared for the request of a synopsis. That has existed for years. In what is surely an effort not to waste anymore of her time, an agent has reqested that those wishing to meet with her at an upcoming conference fill out a form that includes a two paragraph summary of their manuscript. I have decided to treat this as a marketing project rather than a writing one. My work-in-progress is called Clutching at Her Throat. Tell me what you think of my effort. Only honesty will help. I've been through many painting and drawing critique's and yesterday, I competed in a horse show where a seven year old on an overweight pony cleaned the floor with me. Yep, that's right, I have no pride left. Go for it.
There are certain people you innately trust, your doctor, your accountant and your lawyer, to name a few. For many women, their seamstress is included in that unique group of individuals upon whose services and discretion she can rely.
Just days after penning these words in an article entitled, Fitting Room Confessions, for the local newspaper of her Pennsylvania town, dressmaker, Vivien Everett, finds one of her clients dead. With the approaching deadline of a museum gala for which she will dress some of the most notable women in town, Vivien is at the center of the gossip as well as the investigation. Detective Thomas Misselli learns that Vivien is a conduit for crucial information about the young victim’s life. Unfortunately, the killer sees her that way too.
In a business heavily dependent on a social acceptance, Vivien’s situation is further complicated when the list of suspects includes the town’s favorite son, the chaplain and president of the Catholic college in town, and even the victim’s own father. With a marriage on shaky ground and a fledgling business, Vivien Everett helps Detective Misselli piece together a pattern of secrets past, petty larceny, and even a suspicious clergyman.
Friday, April 04, 2008
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
That is what a true master of economy and understatement of writing, the great Ernest Hemingway himself, is said to have called his best work. You may agree or disagree – Hemingway wrote some stellar stuff in his day – but there’s no arguing that those six words pack a wallop.
According to Wikipedia, the classic definition of a short story is that it should be able to be read in one sitting. That seems a subjective definition at best, since some people read faster, and can sit still with a book longer, than other people. My husband, for instance, suffers from some sort of narcolepsy when it comes to reading. Five minutes, and he’s out cold. Me, I can read a whole book in one sitting. You won’t find me getting up before the story is over, unless the house is on fire or one of the kids has fallen down the stairs.
Here are a couple of things I’ve learned over the past few days, as pertaining to writing short fiction:
1. Effective short stories get off to a fast start, as close to the conclusion as possible.
2. They usually take place over a short period of time.
3. There can’t be too many characters, scenes, or details.
4. The theme – what the story is really about – has to be extremely focused.
5. You have to convey more than you say (see Hemingway’s ‘short story’, above).
6. Every word has to count.
That last one’s the killer for me. My usual style tends to be chatty, with lots of interjections and loose association, much like talking. Paring down to only the necessary words is difficult, because I love my darlings, and I hate to kill them. It’s something that would probably serve me well if I could master it, but it goes against the grain.
The reason for all of this, of course, is that I’m trying to write a short story. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. I’m not succeeding, at least not yet. I’m at eight-hundred-and-some words, currently. My maximum word count is 5,000 – the usual length of one of my chapters. That’s the time it normally takes me to establish the setting, introduce the protagonist and maybe a secondary character or two, and get things in motion for the first murder. This time, because I’m writing a thriller, not only do I have to do all those things, but I have to save the world, too. And that’s a lot to expect, in fifteen pages.
So what about you? Have you ever tried to write a short story? Ever finished one? How did it go? Do you have any tips for how I may be able to finish mine? And if someone asked you to write a story in six words, like Hemingway, could you do it?
Thursday, April 03, 2008
by Susan Wittig Albert
Which poses a problem, doesn’t it? For mysteries (for better or worse) are written in series. When you decide to write a mystery, you’d better have a series premise in mind—something strong enough to carry you and your protagonist from Book One to Book Ten and beyond. This isn’t such a tough prospect if your main character is a private investigator whose clients show up regularly, or at least often enough to keep the wolf from the door. Or a homicide detective, a criminologist, a medical examiner, a bounty hunter, or a forensic anthropologist—all of whom have a gazillion murder cases to choose from.
It is an infinitely tougher prospect if your protagonist is an amateur detective. Of course, this didn’t faze Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple is the Queen of Amateur Sleuths. But when Christie was writing, Miss Marple was one-of-a-kind (well, almost). Today, the competition for readers is fierce, and there are enough amateur sleuths to fill a football stadium. So how to make your amateur sleuth distinctive and popular enough to cross the bridge from that first two- or three-book contract to ten books and beyond? I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some of my thoughts, based on fifteen-plus years in the business.
Think niche. When China Bayles began her career as a garden sleuth, there was only one other similar series and very few “niche” mysteries. Now, there are dozens, designed for readers who are already passionate about something: cooking, needlework, fishing, rare books, gun collecting, golfing, dogs, cats, birds, you name it. There’s a reason for this multitude. Niches offer the writer an already-out-there fan base, plus ways to target that base (hobby magazines, conferences, online discussion groups). But beware. Choose a niche that’s too small or exclusive (feather collecting, seventeenth-century porcelain snuff boxes) and your series may be off to a slow start. On the other hand, there’s Nero Wolfe—the orchid niche isn’t very large, but Wolfe’s companion and legman, Archie, helps to broaden the appeal, as does the setting (New York).
So think beyond the niche. There’s got to be enough appeal to carry it into the broader market—and unless the niche is huge, the writer needs that broader market. The bottom line: niche just isn’t enough. So . . .
Think setting. Setting has always been important. (Remember Sherlock’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” or the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler.) But in contemporary mysteries, setting is even more important. It has become the place-frame that gives the series depth, dimension, and plot possibilities. From the deep South to the frozen north, from D.C. to L.A., a unique setting makes the story unique--or maybe it a variety of settings, like Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon, a park ranger on the move. Choose a setting that invites reader interest (“I’ve been there” or “I’d like to go there”) and play it for all it’s worth. I chose Texas because it is distinctively multi-cultural, has a fascinating history, its own cuisine, its own music. China’s series is set in a small town, but it’s small-town Texas, and that makes it different.
Think character and character ensemble. In her former life, China Bayles was a criminal defense attorney, which gives her an ironic take on the justice system and gives me more plot possibilities to play with. China is married to an ex-cop turned private investigator. One of her best friends is a police chief, another is a county sheriff. This law-enforcement ensemble opens up more plot possibilities, so that China can get involved (more or less believably) in crime-solving. And since every friend has his/her own personal history, issues, challenges, and problems, there’s a very rich matrix for story material. Don’t just think of a single central character when you’re developing your mystery. Think ensemble, and develop characters who can grow, change, and give you plenty to work with.
Oh, yes, grow. Used to be, mystery characters stayed the same from book to book. Take Nancy Drew, for instance. From 1928 to the present, she’s never grown a day older. But the series form presents writers and readers with intriguing new possibilities for characters’ growth and change. You might want to read my post, “China Who?” to see what I’m talking about here.
Think marketing. Sorry about this, but it’s a hard truth in the book business that writers who don’t market don’t last very long. The publisher can’t or won’t do it for you—you have to do it yourself. Which means library, bookstore, book club, and mystery conference appearances; print materials for handouts or mailings; and online promotion. If you have a platform, use it. (A platform is you-as-expert on the subject of your mystery. For the China series, my platform is herbs/gardening.) If you don’t have a platform, build one. Join organizations related to your niche. Identify yourself with your setting (as Sharyn McCrumb has done with her Appalachian series). Write articles, blog, create a newsletter, make presentations, do whatever it takes to let people know how much you know about the subject.
Thanks again to Working Stiffs for hosting me today. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around all day, and tomorrow and the next, to reply to your comments.
If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Working Stiffs closes at noon on April 6, 2008.
Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
This week the Citizens’ Police Academy went on the road with a field trip to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was an EMT on the local ambulance service, I did a little dispatching. So this was something that especially interested me. We’ve come a long way from my days of a telephone and a radio!
There are 131 municipalities in Allegheny County and 88 communities in the City of Pittsburgh and calls for ALL of them come into the EOC’s 9-1-1 center. Not ALL of them are dispatched from there, but ALL the calls come IN to there. In 2007, 1.5 million incidents were handled through the EOC.
It’s a busy place.
If you call into the Allegheny County 9-1-1, the first question you will hear is “What borough, city, or township are you calling from?” It’s vital that you know this information. Don’t just say the North Side. Be specific. They want to get help to you as fast as possible and knowing precisely where you are is vital. Also know what street you’re on.
Yes, your phone number will pop up in front of them, but that’s not enough. These days, you can move and take your phone number with you. So exchanges don’t necessarily mean anything. And records may not accurately show where you live from you phone number any more.
Also cell phones are tricky. Their signals will be picked up by the tower closest to the call and thanks to GPS coordinates and triangulation, the TCO (Telecommunications Officer) will be able to get a rough idea of where you are, but only within 7 football fields. That can be a lot of area.
Another hindrance to finding a caller are PBX systems. These are switchboards used in some schools, colleges, nursing homes, dormitories, etc. You may be in a building in one place, but your phone call may go through a switchboard in a different location, even a different community. The location of the switchboard is what will show up at EOC.
The point is, answer the questions the call taker asks you. Don’t waste valuable time arguing over why they need to know.
Notice I said “call taker,” not dispatcher. They are not always one and the same. Often times, a call taker picks up the phone and then sends the information to another computer, perhaps clear across the room (and it’s a VERY large room!) to the person who actually dispatches help, be that police, EMS, or fire. This happens seamlessly thanks to their CAD system or Computer Aided Dispatch.
Besides location, there are other questions you will be asked, depending on the purpose of your call. Just answer them. Stay calm. Remember, the person you are talking to has already sent the location information to the dispatcher and in most cases, help is already on the way.
Some of the other information they need to know is to help keep the responders safe. Did you hear shots? How many? How fast were they? If you saw a gun, what kind of gun was it?
Of course, not all incidents have top billing. If you are calling to report that your car has been egged and the kid who did it has run off and meanwhile, your neighbor is calling in to report that someone is breaking into her house, HER call is going to get a more immediate response.
But don’t just fabricate stuff to make your call APPEAR to be a higher priority. False information can result in injury to a field unit in response.
Where? What? When? Who? Weapons when applicable and any injuries? These are the types of things a TCO needs to know from the caller.
Under the “who,” there is information on a suspect that you may be able to supply to the TCO. Such as name and address, if you know them. Also, a physical description and their means and direction of travel.
When describing clothing, start at the top and work down. Shirt color and style, coat color and style, pants, shoes. And food for thought: someone who has just robbed a store might swap out their clothes, BUT they rarely change their shoes. Same thing with a child abductor. They will change the child’s clothing, but not their shoes.
When getting a description of a vehicle, think CYMBALS: Color, Year of vehicle, Make/model, Body style (2-door, 4-door, convertible, etc), Additional information, License number, State of license.
And one last note of interest, there is something simple we can all do to make tracking down a loved-one easier should we be in an accident and can’t tell the emergency personnel who to contact. Program an ICE number into your cell phone’s address book. In Case of Emergency. More and more emergency responders are being trained to check cell phones for that ICE number.
Next week: Safe Driving
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
She found me one fall day when I was walking my other two dogs around the block. Reluctantly, I brought her home thinking I’d figure out who she belonged to after the rush hour traffic died down.
She never left.
When she first joined us she showed obvious signs of neglect. Her belly was covered in fleas, she had extra toes on her rear legs and the nails had become in-grown. Mainly, though, she was desperate for affection. We chose her name –- Violet -- based on the color of the collar she was wearing when I found her. She was a mutt -- part shepherd we think -- that our vet use to gleefully describe as a typical American dog. Her tongue lolled out the corner of her mouth when she was happy and her tail possessed such joy and power that she could sweep coffee cups and picture frames off of tables. She was the only one of my dogs who could be trusted off lead and also, strangely, the only dog who’d never been to obedience school. It’s not that she had manners; she just desperately wanted to be with you.
She was a bad dog, with an appetite for paper that didn’t distinguish between manuscripts and money. She hated thunderstorms and destroyed my front door in a fury of rain-induced anxiety. In motion, she looked like a zeppelin, her large posterior threatening to reach the bottom of the steps before her front did. She anxiously awaited that moment each morning when your eyes first opened. Then, before you could recognize that she was friend not foe, she pounced on you, her 65+ pound body pinning you to the bed and leaving you no choice but to laugh at her efforts to greet you with good morning kisses. Cat-like, she batted at you with her paws, ultimately holding your arm in place so that she could drench it with her tongue.
As many women do, she grew regrettably pear-shaped over time. She loved nothing more than to have her belly rubbed, a substantial effort given its size. In a house full of male dogs, she was the queen, putting both boys swiftly in their place if they tried to do anything that wasn’t to her liking. If they were already seated where her royal highness wished to be, she merely climbed on top of them until they cried uncle and squeezed out from beneath her bulk. She loved to lick their ears and often battled them for the right to do so. If we were threatened by a loose dog while walking, she was the only pup who rose to the occasion to defend me, warning the infiltrator in a voice reminescent of women on “Jerry Springer,” exclaiming, “you don’t know me.”
She dug up my plants and enjoyed burying rawhide until the rain rendered it soft and disgusting. She would haul this canine-kimchi through the house until you insisted she relinquish it to the garbage, which she always did willingly. When I wrote, she was at my side, oftentimes attempting to lay on my keyboard in an effort to comment on the futility of my prose.
When I was sad, she was the first one at my side. As I suffered the pains of three miscarriages in two years, she pressed her body against my belly, simultaneously soothing my physical pain and assuring me that the terrible emptiness would pass.
We didn’t expect her to get sick. We didn’t expect to have only seven years of her affection and haranguing.
Goodbye baby girl. I miss you. Every day.