Sunday, June 29, 2008
I wrote a flash fiction piece a few weeks ago in which the girl gets away with her crime. It had a nice twist in it, but it got me wondering whether it was the right thing to do. People who work in law enforcement don't like it much when the bad guy triumphs.
I know it happens on occasion, but we wish it didn't. I think that most people want the good guy to win. (Well, except for one guy I saw at Busch Gardens wearing a shirt that said "Warner Brothers--if you see a cop, warn a brother." My husband wouldn't let me say anything to the guy. I had to settle for The Look.)
In real life, there's no way the girl in my story would have gotten away with her crime, but in 1000 words you can get away with a lot. Not enough time for any investigation, forensics or what not. In real life, there would have been some evidence of her wrongdoing. A real detective would have seen right through the story of a teenager who hated her parents. If I had written a longer story, I think that's exactly what would have happened.
So, what do you guys think? Is it okay for the bad guy to win in fiction? Does the story length really have something to do with the outcome? Would you read a novel where the villain triumphs?
Saturday, June 28, 2008
At long last. My dream has finally come true. A Reason For Dying is available for purchase.
I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail, but I couldn’t wait to share this with you all. It has been 3 ½ years from start to finish. One long road.
I want to thank everybody that helped me through this crazy ride and everybody who put up listening to me talk about it for hours on end.
If you’re interested, here are a few ways to buy it.
Barnes & Noble.com
Hilliard & Harris.com
Is the natural gas you use to heat your home and cook your food really safe?
Is it possible that viruses ravaged prehistoric life millions of years ago and lie dormant in oil and gas reserves, waiting to be released once again to lay waste to yet another species?
It has happened before.
Is it about to happen again?
Congratulations, Will! It looks awesome!
Thursday, June 26, 2008
How do you know if you've gone astray in the research jungle, foraging for endless supplies of teeny details that will never matter to your characters or plot?
I sort of feel like I've stumbled into library/internet quicksand and am losing sight of what I'm actually doing as I dig deeper into all the information that lives in the world, right at my fingertips.
Part of my problem is that I have no "spare" time this summer. Meaning, between consulting and the articles that are due and my children being home from school, there is very little time for my mind to rest, to weave the disparate facts of my library forays into my story, to surprise me with unexpected connections and meaningful ways to use boring historical facts...
I've got nothing.
I'm trying not to panic. I'm slowing down, lowering my expectations for the summer, trusting that if I just have fun with the kids and live in the moment, my fictional life will not suffer, that it will spin its own web and pop up, ready to go in September.
Of course, there's a big part of me that doesn't trust that, that fears if I lay low I'll wake up in September and wonder how I stopped being a writer.
So, I'll trust and do little tidbits of work when I can, culling through info, knowing that somehow it will all come together.
How about you, do you ever have these pockets of time where your creativity is truly hampered, or at least it feels that way? How do you deal with it?
Part of me thinks that he’s deliberately avoiding my books, afraid that he’ll see himself or our life mirrored in the characters. Despite regular reassurances that I have not killed off anyone resembling him (not yet, at least), he remains resistant. I’m not sure why. It couldn’t be the length of the books, it’s certainly not as if I wrote War and Peace. Or the subject matter: if I was writing treatises on the mores of Victorian Women, sure, I could understand his reluctance. But I write thrillers, page turners. I’ve had friends finish my books during a single plane flight.
Of course, I knew at the outset of our relationship that he was not much of a fiction reader to begin with. He’s an action guy, someone who would much rather putter around his boat or work on his motorcycle than settle in with a book. And when he does read, he prefers historical texts about ancient Rome or the Celts.
But do I occasionally wish that I had a Mr. Penny Warner? Sure. If nothing else, it would be great to have someone haul those books around for me, especially if he remembered to bring change (I never do). And I have hatched a plan. Our next vacation will be to Kauai, during Hawaii’s rainy season. I’ll have both of my books on hand. And this time I’m hiding the bathroom reader.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
I’m sitting here staring at a blank page as I ponder a topic for this blog. Do I write about some of the interesting locations we have around here for cheap summer vacations now that gas prices have taken away the joy of travel planning? Do I write about the death this weekend of one of my all time favorite comedians, George Carlin? Now there was a man who could make me laugh each and every time I saw him. I’ve been watching some of his routines on You Tube and thinking that some of the stuff is dated. I mean, was fart really one of the seven words you couldn’t say on TV? Is it still? I don’t think so. Seems to me they say it several times each episode of Two and a Half Men. In case you haven’t ever actually heard that routine, feel free to click here. But be forewarned, this is not the bleeped version. If you don’t want to hear the words, don’t follow the link.
I also considered writing about a recent bout of graffiti in little old Canonsburg where a gang of kids went around spray painting nemesis on cars and houses. Do we need to bring Pittsburgh’s graffiti squad out here to Washington County??? And nemesis? Why do I think these morons just learned a new word and are showing off to the world?
I started scanning other blogs, hoping to mine ideas. Hey, if you can’t come up with an original one, steal one from someone else.
But then divine intervention struck in the form of gunshots. I’ve been hearing a lot of them lately. What makes this blog worthy (or at least, I hope it is) is the fact that I’ve been paying absolutely no attention to them. I just assume someone got a new gun and is out playing with it. Around here, surrounded by acres of pasture and woodlands, guys don’t need to go to a firing range or sportsmen’s club to sight in a new rifle. They just step outside. Not that they DON’T go to the sportsmen’s club. That’s a big social thing. But they don’t NEED to.
Somehow, I suspect that if you heard this kind of gunfire in the city, you’d be thinking the cops should be involved. Drive-by shooting? Domestic disturbance?
And then there are the war-torn cities where bursts of gunfire may have become old hat, although anything but benign.
A couple years ago, I attended a funeral for a close family member. The graveside service included full military rites. A friend of mine was holding onto me, trying to be supportive. But when they fired the twenty-one gun salute, she about jumped out of her skin. I never so much as twitched.
Which then leads to our writing. What kind of background does you protagonist have? If she heard a gunshot, would she flinch? Seek cover? Never bat an eye?
What about you? How do you react to the crack of a gunshot? And how much does your personal background affect that reaction?
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Monday morning’s commute took me past a bus shelter in one of the city’s transition neighborhoods. Walking toward the shelter was a kid, maybe 17, 18 years old, wearing ghetto-wannabe attire: baggy, multi-pocketed pants that clung precariously to narrow hips and an oversized t-shirt.
I wouldn’t have given him a second look--nothing about his dreary clichéd uniform merited special notice--but for what he did as he reached the shelter: He looked down and, self-consciously, smoothed out his t-shirt.
That little detail almost caused me to run a red light. Such fastidiousness was unexpected. He wasn’t like any of the legions of kids I see every school day outside the local high school. They are completely comfortable in their look, whether wrinkled or ironed.
This kid was trying for that “look,” but for some reason he still felt a need to look neat. Why? Was his mother’s complaint that he looked like a slob still ringing in his ears? Or did I misread his action totally, and he was actually just trying to get his t-shirt to hang even lower toward his knees? His choice of clothes told me he wanted to fit in. That one action told me that he really cared how he looked, and a lot more.
As you can see, one action was enough to jump-start my early-morning grey cells. It’s often that way: An unexpected detail--the speed walker stopping to pick up a quarter, the seemingly happily married coworker who shows up one day without his wedding band--sparks the imagination and before you knows it, a story is a-borning.
Finding the right details that makes fictional characters believable creations is not easy. At least for me. Only recently did I come up with a detail that helps describe one of my characters--and the fact that I can use that detail as a clue makes it all the more valuable. As for my other characters, some have endearing, memorable (I hope) quirks--one 70-something neighbor wears hand-knit shawls even on the hottest summer day--some don’t. Not yet. But I’m working on it.
The kid at the bus shelter has given me an idea I think I can use to good effect. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.
(It’s only appropriate that I saw this kid where I did. Telling details abound in neighborhoods in transition. There you’ll find a vibrant, boisterous mix of people, as the community makes the transition from hard-scrabble, worn-out blue-collar to energetic rainbow-collar--artists, techies, gays, old-house renovators and young professionals and the shops and restaurants that cater to them. Check ‘em out sometime.)
Monday, June 23, 2008
- by Gina Sestak
Those of you who have been reading my blog posts over the past year or so know that I made it through college by working menial jobs and doing things like selling blood plasma to survive. I haven't mentioned, though, what that survival sometimes entailed. I'm talking about student housing.
Many people think student housing means dormitory rooms. I could never afford to live on campus. My student housing was "off-campus housing," a euphemism for slum, akin to the living conditions experienced by Richard Papen in The Secret History.
This came to mind because student housing has been in the news recently; the City of Pittsburgh is finally cracking down on landlords in the Oakland area (near my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh) who rent substandard fire-traps to students.
I first moved into off-campus housing in the middle of my freshman year. I had been living at home and commuting but, as I've mentioned in previous posts, my parents opposed my going to college, so home was not a haven. Between the long walk to the long bus ride to school and work and the constant noise at home that made it impossible to study, I found myself having to make a constant conscious effort not to scream and beat my head against the wall. Instead, I moved in with some people I'd met through the anti-(Vietnam)war movement. I was eighteen.
These folks had a six-room apartment above a large garage, which meant that I got my own bedroom. We all shared a kitchen and bathroom. The furnace was broken -- no heat in January! -- but the price was right. The $75/month rent split between us came to $12 each. And it was an easy walk from campus, only two blocks from my work-study job.
Alas, that only lasted for a few months. I moved to a one-room efficiency with one of my roommates, Audrey, in an old square yellow building about a 20-minute walk from campus where the hallways always smelled like old soup and the rent cost us $30 each.
We stayed a few months, then moved to another room in a house that had been converted to apartments. I began to paint a forest mural on our wall and became friends with the art students who lived on the first floor. We would sit in their kitchen and watch them shoot up -- anything they could get through a hypodermic needle. A police raid prompted the landlady to insist that everyone move out, so some of us moved into a one-bedroom efficiency. There were five of us living there. We shared a bathroom with two other apartments. And the users continued to shoot up in our little kitchen. There was usually too much commotion going on to sleep, but I was going to school full time and working, so I didn't really have time to sleep anyway.
From there, for the first time, I moved to a place by myself, a sleeping room in the same house that had been raided. The landlady didn't know I was moving back in because I'd made the arrangements with her husband. When she realized who I was, she left me a note telling me not to let any of the other people who had lived there before come to visit and DON'T PAINT ANYTHING. I lived there for several months, sharing my room with a mouse to whom I fed cracker crumbs.
Then I heard about a cheaper place, and so I moved. A Pitt bookstore employee had rented one floor of a house, and I could get a sleeping room plus share a kitchen and bathroom for $33 per month. By then it was winter again, and once again I found myself living without heat. The water froze but, luckily, the apartment was close enough to Chatham College for me to use their bathrooms in an emergency. Otherwise, I pretty much lived at Pitt, taking showers in the gym locker room and washing up in ladies' rooms. In the spring, the landlord forced us to move out -- apparently, the guy I was subletting from had been supposed to pay the gas bill. Oh, and this was around the time I acquired a cat, Jorma, who would get under the blankets with me to keep warm.
This blog is getting longer than I intended -- I've only covered a little over one year, but I think I'll save the rest for another day. I guess it's a good thing that the City is cracking down but, in a way, I hate to see the cheap crappy housing go -- where else can poor students afford to live?
Friday, June 20, 2008
Recently, an MSNBC news article riveted my attention, for it told of Amazon Indians in Brazil who were "uncontacted." Photos showed two men painted bright red in loincloths looking up at the aircraft, ready to shoot arrows at it. Which makes you wonder, did they think the plane was a UFO? Did they imagine aliens had come to take them away? Better yet, did they perceive the object in the sky as a big bird? ("I could feed the whole village for a year if I bag this one. Shoot hard and far, boys.")
This tribe is endangered by illegal logging in the area, which reminds me of the prime directive on the old Star Trek series--to not interfere with other societies. Get this, too--there are one hundred uncontacted tribes in the world. How do they do it? How do they stay isolated in their microcosms, mercifully unaware of antiperspirants, liposuction, computers, big screen tv's, suspension bridges, and convenience stores? Medical care is the part I'd want to share with them, but maybe they have shamans or herb healers. Maybe they chew on leaves from plants when the arthritis kicks in. (Maybe they don't get arthritis.)
The notion that we're somehow better or more civilized has plagued men and missionaries for centuries. Could they be complete as is, living close to nature? Margaret Mead studied tribes and found some where the adults were loving and took care of each and every child as their own. A part of me harbors the urge to contact the uncontacted, to learn from them rather than to teach.
This brings me to a writer's perspective on all this, where I find myself part of the uncontacted tribe of publishing. I'm here in my world, aware agents, editors, publishing houses, and readers exist. Instead of a bow and arrows and loincloth, I've a pen and yellow legal pads, and a computer in my bedroom where I hang out in a T-shirt and sweats writing novels. I don't peer skyward, but into the mailbox. It's out there, something bigger and grander, and I wait to be contacted. (No, I haven't sent anything out lately, but still...)
I'M HERE! GO AHEAD AND CONTACT ME!! I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE, SO DON'T BE AFRAID!!!
(You contacted writers are welcome to tell your stories of how contact affected your tribe. You uncontacted are encouraged to share your tales of isolation from the publishing community.)
HAPPY SUMMER SOLSTICE!
Thursday, June 19, 2008
All right, so I’m cheating a little. When Joyce contacted me yesterday to ask if I’d be willing to blog for her today, I don’t think her intention was for me to post a picture and leave it at that.
Still, I’m neck-deep in revisions for DIY#2, which is due to my editor at Berkley Prime Crime next week, plus I got home from Norway to find that my book at long last has a cover, and the opportunity is just too good to pass up. And this way, I can keep that post I have in reserve – the one I didn’t get to use last time, because I was tagged for the chain blog thing – for another time.
So whaddaya think? Gorgeous, isn’t it? The fact that the cat doesn’t have a shadow is a little disconcerting – makes it look like a ghost cat, when it’s really just your garden variety Maine Coon – but you probably wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t pointed it out, right? And the red paint paw-prints are nice, too. Even the wrench looks vaguely sinister...
And just in case the cover itself isn’t exciting enough for you, there’s the fact that the book is now available for preorder on Amazon.com. That’s how I found the cover, in fact. Googled myself. Pitiful.
If you order it now, they’ll send it to you when they get it. At only $6.99 – 336 pages, folks! – it’s a steal at twice the price, and it’s available for Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25, so if you buy four copies, Amazon will send them to you for free. Your friends will thank you. So will I. And because it’s a mass-market paperback, it slides easily into the standard Christmas stocking. With a release date of November 4th, it’ll be delivered just in time for the holidays, too! In fact, if you buy one for every person on your Christmas list, from Aunt Annie to Uncle Zeke, you’ll have finished your Christmas shopping six months early and you won’t have to worry about it again.
OK, that’s enough BSP for a while. My job here is done. Unless someone tags me before then, I’ll be back on my regularly scheduled day, which seems to be July 4th. Huh... We can make it another picture day if you want. I’m sure you’re all dying to see photographs from my vacation.
Till next time!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
By Annette Dashofy
I have a structural defect in my brain. Whenever I’m confronted with the prospect of taking on a new responsibility—one that takes place six months or a year from now—I gleefully accept the challenge. After all, it isn’t happening NOW. The future seems so far away. And, I dunno, maybe I expect the world to come to an end before it’s time to actually do anything about the new responsibility.
A little over a year ago, I did it again. On the final day of the 2007 Pennwriters Conference, I volunteered to head up the 2009 Conference.
What the hell was I thinking?
The 2008 Pennwriters Conference is now listed in the history books as the most successful one ever. Nothing like a little pressure to perform.
But still, the event is eleven months away. I have lined up Lisa Scottoline as our Friday night keynote speaker. Local favorite Tim Esaias will be our Saturday lunch keynote. John Lamb and C.J. Lyons are on tap as special guest speakers. Hey, I’m ahead of the curve here!
Or so I thought. Then came (cue spooky organ music) the grant application.
I was given the news last Thursday that I needed to gather a long list of detailed information on the conference in order to apply for a grant. And I needed it by Monday. Not wanting to be responsible for losing a shot at free money, I scrambled. For ten hours on Saturday, I sat at the computer pulling rabbits out of hats and spinning straw into gold. These were details I thought I still had months to leisurely work on. Months. Not days.
With the help of our Pennwriters president and the 2008 conference coordinator, the information and numbers for the budget were neatly compiled and presented to our treasurer.
Then I learned that since it appears that we stand a pretty good chance of not losing money on the project, we don’t qualify for the grant. It seems we did too good of a job of budgeting.
Which is good thing, I think.
Ah, well, the work wasn’t all for nothing. I am now even further ahead of the curve. I can almost relax and breathe. At least until the next fire drill.
And mark your calendar: 2009 Pennwriters Conference: A Writer’s Tool Chest takes place May 15-17 at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
People often ask me where I get my story ideas and I tell them that mostly I craft them together from the bits and pieces I overhear at cocktail parties, or from something I hear while riding on the bus, or from an earlier experience in my own past. Sometime folks think that I base my characters specifically on them, and I can honestly say I never have, but it is true that a personal idiosyncrasy or two may work itself into a character I’ve already created if it fits into the previously established outline.
There is one other source for my gift, and I got a huge dose of it this weekend: it’s my family, and we celebrated our family reunion on Flag Day, June 14th, 2008. It didn’t hurt that the reunion was held in a big, spooky old house full of ancestral ghosts with grim black and white portraits staring down from the walls while the lightening crackled outside the long casement windows and the rain poured down in buckets. It was pure Agatha Christie or just like the opening credits of the PBS Mystery series.
One of my cousins retired last year and the real treat of the event was an eight generation family tree she created. You may scoff, but let me tell you once you get into studying the lines and tracing the descent, the stories come out. I was afraid folks would get bored and stand around, but it was standing room only in that conference room where the chart was laid out. It’s human nature to try to make connections – even where none exist – and I pulled up a chair and let it go, listening to Aunt X reminding everyone that her great-uncle disappeared to Texas at the turn of the (last) century and how he took the family recipe for sour-mash whiskey with him or that Cousin Y traced her descent back to a Puritan minister’s wife taken captive during Prince Philip’s War. (I had to look that one up, anything before 1776 is pretty sketchy, I had a public school education). We’ve got bankers and bootleggers, schoolteachers and ministers, and a couple of pretty good painters. But it’s the faces in the pictures that haunt you.
Another cousin brought in a garbage bag of old photographs from his mother’s estate, and for the first time I saw the faces of some of these people. In particular, there’s one picture of six sisters – six! – ye Gods, I can barely contain my own two. They are all fully mature women, and you can see the life written on each one of them. I’ve seen pictures of these women as girls, all young and fresh, but this photograph is different. One woman, a widow, lost her young husband at Antietam and you can still see the sorrow in her eyes. She also has the most carefully dressed hair, all severe part and tight curls, and I don’t know what that means or implies. The youngest sister, still in her twenties, is smiling into the camera, but I know her future, too: her husband will turn out to be difficult and her only child will die at a very, very young age. I’ve seen the grave.
So where do the stories come from? I think they come from having a sympathetic character and a disciplined, trained imagination. I can see a photo, or a perfect setting, and turn my focus on it, and something begins to stir. Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes an image, and honestly, sometimes it doesn’t work out and the idea flickers and dies. But every once in a magical while, the story gets stronger, and little connections get made, and they link to bigger ones, and then some detail from my memory creeps in and fills a small gap, or I hear a perfect bit of dialogue, and I write it down, and then one bright and marvelous day the story stands up and totters on its own like Frankenstein’s monster, and it’s alive.
Monday, June 16, 2008
The image is of a nun identified as Jeanne de Boubais, who served as abbess of the convent at Flines, from 1507 to 1533. It is unclear if Jeanne de Boubais commissioned both the interior panels of the diptych as well as the verso portrait, or if the portrait was added to an existing diptych. The painter, Jean Bellegambe, is listed frequently in the account books of the convent at Flines after about 1509, suggesting a relationship between the painter and the convent.
Jeanne de Boubais presided over the Cistercian convent in northern France at a time of reform amongst the monastic communities. There was an effort to reinstate cloistering and personal poverty as essential elements of monastic life. Recent scholarship suggests that the image on our diptych was deliberately formulated to convey the devotion of Jeanne de Boubais and her sisters to the reforms. Jeanne de Boubais is shown kneeling before a monstrance and an open text, and holding a crozier, which symbolizes her authority over her convent and its compliance with the reforms. The cloth draped on the altar is embroidered with the words “Ecce panis angelo[rum]” which translates to “Behold, the breath of angels.”
Saturday, June 14, 2008
By the time you read this, I'll be a driving fool (more so than usual)! My goal is to be on the road between 6 and 6:15 a.m. I am driving to Rochester, NY for work. This has become my norm.
In the past three weeks or so, I've been traveling all around the middle and western sides of Pennsylvania: York, Carlisle, Huntingdon, Tarentum, Oil City to name just a few. My assignments have been long hours on my feet and usually third-shift work. I've worked the past two weekends and have some nice overtime paychecks as compensation.
Because my "free time," such as it is, on these assignments has been mostly consumed by work with answering voicemails, e-mails and shopping for supplies for each night's work, writing has had to take a back seat for near-on a month. I miss it terribly.
The upside is that the multiple consecutive-hour excursions in the rental cars have allowed me to revisit my audiobook collection. Rochester, for example, is 5-hours each way so I can work in one unabridged novel or perhaps two abridged novels. I think my traveling companion this trip will be Brad Meltzer's "The Millionaires."
Yikes! I just looked at the clock and I need to get my butt in gear. Good morning to all and don't worry about me, I'll be doing something I enjoy - reading with my ears! Ciao!
Friday, June 13, 2008
Back in February, I blogged (perhaps “bragged” would be a better term) about my what a great housewife my unemployed husband made and how I had it made like a 1950s husband.
In March, Mr. Curry found gainful employment, so I had to resume taking care of some of the domestic duties around our household, such as grocery shopping, laundry and getting the little Currys fed and on the school bus in the morning. But still, he picked up the kids from their after-school sitter and handled the homework and pet feeding before I got home from work, so things weren’t so bad.
This past Saturday Mr. Curry left for a three-week business trip to his new employer’s headquarters in Germany.
Frankly, I don’t know how single parents who work full-time survive, because the first five days of this are killing me. My life is a blur from the moment I get up in the morning until I drop into exhausted sleep at night.
Feed the kids breakfast, rush them off to the sitter’s with their sports gear and packed lunches for sports camp, fly to work (which feels like a respite from stress these days, and that’s saying something), rush home to pick up kids, take care of pets, cook dinner, wash dishes, pack lunches for tomorrow, referee sibling squabbles, make sure everyone takes a shower and brushes teeth, fall into bed.
You might think Mr. Curry is having the time of his carefree, child-free, pet-free life in Germany, but you’d be wrong. He’s a homebody, and he doesn’t speak any German at all.
Nor is he an adventurous eater. He was convinced before he left that every meal served in Germany would be smothered in sauerkraut, which he detests, and that he’d starve for three weeks. Instead, he’s discovered that he can always order good pork or beef (sans sauerkraut) served with fries and a salad.
Alas, he can’t eat fries without ketchup, and the Germans in Hofheim, where he’s staying, only have Kraft ketchup – disgusting, he says. Not a bottle of Heinz, the only ketchup worth eating in his opinion, to be found. Further, they pile clover on top of their salads.
“It can’t be clover,” I said. “Cows eat clover. I don’t think humans can even digest it.”
“Well, it looks like clover,” he insisted. “And they put a whole pile of it on there. They even put a little bunch of it on my pork chop last night as garnish.”
I think it’s watercress, but it might as well be clover, for all he’s going to eat of it.
He can’t watch TV other than British CNN, which is the only English-language station on the hotel television, and all they talk about on there is South Africa, he says.
So for entertainment, Mr. Curry, who reads nothing but car and motorcycle magazines, is now reading books – novels I, his beleaguered wife, lovingly hand-selected with great care for him from my overflowing bookcases. He finished the first the other day and has now started on the second, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, a particular favorite of mine.
“Who’d have thought reading a book would ever become the highlight of my day?” he asked on the phone today.
When he gets back from Germany, I’m going to curl up with a good book for an entire evening and let him deal with the kids, the pets and everything else.
That thought may just be enough to keep me going for the next sixteen days...
Thursday, June 12, 2008
They say write what you know.
I know some weird stuff, I guess. . .
It was just a house fire. I went because it was six blocks from my house and nearly Christmas. I was a reporter for one of Chicago’s all-news radio stations and if decorative lights were the cause, that had story potential.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
After fifteen weeks of Citizens’ Police Academy, it’s over. We graduated this week and are now Citizens’ Police Academy alumni.
The ceremony was quite nice. Not the pomp and circumstance of some graduations, which is a good thing. We were allowed to bring guests, so my hubby tagged along. (He heard there would be food). Others brought spouses, significant others, children, or siblings. Some of us wore our “official” CPA shirts, others dressed up a bit.
The ceremony opened with speeches from several of the police bureau’s finest, including Chief Nate Harper.
Our class had a plaque made and we presented it to the chief.
Then, we received our certificates of completion, suitable for framing.
All that was left was to dig into the food and socialize one last time.
None of us wanted to think about that last part. When the next class begins in September, we have an opportunity to take those weeks we missed, so we were comparing which weeks we might encounter one another again during a make-up. Heck, I think I may just drop in on occasion to ask some questions that I didn’t think of until AFTER a class.
I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Citizens’ Academy ESPECIALLY Lieutenant Jennifer Beidle who has put together an incredible curriculum. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time…if you have a chance to participate in a CPA, grab it.
On the way home, my hubby expressed amazement at the sincere interest the chief showed in our class. I reminded him of what Chief Harper had said in his speech. The police department doesn’t have money to buy advertising. That’s what we are. He wants us to go out into the community and drum up support for the officers who work such a dangerous job every day and who must make life altering decisions in a split second. What you see on TV, be it crime fiction or on the news, is NOT the whole story. We’ve been given the opportunity to see what they face, maybe not from the inside, but from a front row seat. We now have a better idea of the things they face and the obstacles they must endure.
It has been fun. And it has been eye-opening educational. I think I will be a better writer for the experience. I know I’ll be a better citizen.
I’ll also miss the classes, my classmates, and Lieutenant Beidle.
But as Chief Harper pointed out, we still have our ride-alongs to do, so it isn’t over yet!
(Working Stiffs' CPA Graduates Annette and Gina flanking Lieutenant Jennifer Beidle)
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Something awful* happened to me the other day. It’s the fourth time it’s happened in the last three years and its frequency isn’t making it any easier to deal with.
We have understudies, but they’re not exactly on call 24/7 and so if they’re not available we’re stuck. As a result cast members have performed with broken hearts, laryngitis, pinkeye, pneumonia, and any number of colds and flus (and yes, people -- we perform around food). It’s the nature of the business. Theatre is one of the few jobs were you can’t call in sick.
Besides, it’s my company (or half mine anyway) and if we were to cancel a show because of me, that would mean four other people weren’t getting paid and the audience, which in many instances has been planning this event for months in advance, is disappointed or worse: litigious.
There have been times when we’ve done shows when we knew the audience was dealing with their own Awful Thing. We performed on Sept. 12, 2001, for a consulting firm that had lost two people in the twin towers. We’ve been approached by people after shows who wanted to tell us that this is the first time they’ve been out since they lost their child or spouse, or just found out their cancer had reoccurred. It’s always great to hear that you’ve given someone a respite from whatever pain they’re suffering by doing a silly little show. In fact, I think it’s the main reason why I’m still doing it after all these years.
It’s weird to be on the other side of the Awful Thing though. If we’re doing our job well, the audience never knows when we’re suffering, never suspects that minutes before we walked on stage we were brushing away tears or downing a Vicodin and praying it kicked in before the big dance number. And they’re no kinder for their ignorance (I’ve been heckled hours after the Awful Thing happened and desperately wanted to grab the nut and scream, “do you have any idea what happened to me today?!”). But then that’s not the audience’s job. They’re not there to be sympathetic to a suffering actor. They’re there to be entertained.
It sounds weird, but performing has become part of my healing process. Putting on a costume and pinning on a bad wig allows me to be someone else for a while and forget whatever it is I’m going through. I’m not Kathy the girl experiencing the Awful Thing, but Shirley, a 1920’s whore whose greatest tragedy is when she has to make change for a client (quite an embarrassment when you’re only charging ten cents to begin with). Emotionally I get to disconnect and lose myself in the ritual of performance. It’s nice being part of a world, however temporarily, where you know exactly what everyone is going to say and do next.
I’m trying to make writing function in the same way. In the past, I always let the Awful Thing serve as an excuse to stop writing for a while, which inevitably made returning to a project difficult not only because of the delay, but because the project became emblematic of the time before the Awful Thing happened. But I’ve realized that diving into a project is an extremely effective diversion from whatever I’m dealing with. It allows me the same temporary escape as performing and provides an outlet for emotions that desperately need a release.
So what about you? How do your own Awful Things affect your creative process?
P.s. it’s 17 days until the launch of The Winter of Her Discontent at Mystery Lovers Bookshop! If you’re in the area, please join us from 7-9:00 PM on Friday, June 27th.
[*in case you’re curious and inclined to skip ahead, I’m not going to explain what my awful thing is. I think we all have terrible things in our lives that we can plug in and equivocate to my experience.]
Monday, June 09, 2008
For the past several months, Annette has been posting every week about the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Citizen Police Academy (CPA) which both of us have been attending. [I am not the fellow student who volunteered Annette to shake hands with the Bomb Squad's robot. Honest!] At long last, the time has come for us to graduate. Tonight there will be a ceremony, then this year's first session of the CPA will be over. All except the ride along.
The what? you may ask. Everyone who's seen that episode of Raymond knows dangerous things can happen on a ride along. Don't worry, though. We signed releases. Your tax dollars will be safe.
I'm going to miss the weekly classes. Where else can you handle an assault weapon, search for hidden explosives, watch a K-9 in action, or visit a crime lab without having to pass a test or take a job? The police personnel themselves were also an eye opener. I mean, some of these guys, if you saw them coming toward you, you would tuck your purse securely under your arm and cross to the far side of the street! Maybe it's just the dreadlocks and the neck tattoos. But all -- every single one of them -- was an expert in his or her field, able to speak knowledgeably about national statistics and cutting edge science as well as their own local areas of expertise. Pittsburgh police are real professionals.
So here's your chance -- you can help catch dangerous criminals and graffiti artists: http://www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/police/html/most_wanted.html
Or, you can take the fall CPA class. Come on. I dare you.
Friday, June 06, 2008
First of all, my thanks to Jennie Bentley for asking if I’d be interested in guest blogging for her while she is out gallivanting around the European countryside, no doubt in search of her long lost Swedish Stripper, Freddy.
Speaking of Freddy, while Jennie is without internet access, I’d like to address the rumor that I may be Jennie’s Freddy. A while ago, she tagged me to post 6 truths about myself. I’ve been a bit remiss in answering that post, so real quickly here are my truths:
1. I’ve been to a strip club.
2. I won a sexy legs contest.
3. I’ve hung upside down from a pole.
4. I’ve undressed in front of a group.
5. I danced in a dress in front of over 400 people to the tune of “Feel Like A Woman” while on a cruise.
6. I won a beauty contest.
I hope that clears things up.
I have another confession to make. I’m an engineer, a true left brainer. By the way, do any of my truths seem in character for the stereotypical engineer? Well, most of us left brainers are better at plotting than character development. When I first took on the task of writing, I believed that plot alone could drive a novel. I no longer believe that. Even when my publisher first evaluated my manuscript, the feedback suggested I do a little more to develop the characters. So, like the maniac researcher I am, I learned all I could about developing characters.
A writer creates characters and then lives with them for a while. In some cases, months or even years. You'd think we'd get to know them well. And then someone asks a question that throws you for a complete loop.
Let me explain. I've been working on A Reason For Dying since the end of 2004 - 3+ years. The characters in the novel seem like acquaintances, some of them seem like family. Over the course of time, you get to know these fictitious folk. You know what they look like, what they act like, what they like to eat, even how they make out (that’s “make love” for all you ladies out there). As a writer, you absolutely need to know everything about your characters. After all, you are controlling their world, making their decisions, setting the course of their actions. They need to be, well, their own person. They need to be consistent. Otherwise they won’t come alive on paper.
When I first started writing, I never would have believed that I would be hearing my characters in my head or dominating my dreams. But it happens. Just like a mother seems to know what her newborn child wants, an author should know what their characters want and what they will do to get it. I took the advice of other authors and prepared backgrounds on my major characters. I know plenty about my protagonist Laura Daniels that isn’t revealed in the 1st novel. Some of it I use in the second novel, but a lot of it will likely never to be written about, ever. But it’s that stuff that defines her character and makes her act like Laura Daniels and not Wilfred Bereswill. God help her if she acted like me.
By the way, she looks a lot like Evangeline Lilly in Lost, only her hair is lighter.
Some of my characters are so well defined, my wife, who is invaluable to me as a critique reader, knows when they do something out of place and she let’s me know it. She also gets a little jealous when I spend too much time with Laura.
Here’s a real life example: Your 15 year old daughter who has never in her life done yard work, comes up to you and says, “Dad, if you show me how to start the lawnmower, I’ll mow the lawn.” Or your wonderful wife insists that you go out and buy that fifty-eight inch LCD flat panel, 1080p television with a new 7.1 surround sound receiver and Blu-Ray disc player. The hair on the back of your neck stands up with alarms and whistles sounding and your mind immediately stops thinking about whatever it was thinking about. Something is amiss. Something is terribly wrong with the universe.
It’s the same thing when your character does something completely out of sync. The reader is immediately taken out of the story.
So there I was, content that I really knew my characters and then somebody asked me some interesting questions about Laura Daniels...
What is the arc of her "hero's journey" story — what internal demons is she facing as she confronts these external terrorists?
Who's on her side, and who's going to take her by surprise?
What are her greatest strengths and weaknesses?
What does she personally stand to lose?
And what's at stake in the larger picture — what does the world stand to lose if she doesn't succeed?
These are questions I was asked when I sought help on writing the back cover copy. These are questions an experienced writer asks if they need to know about your characters. I was able to respond, but I had to really think about them first, which surprised me.
So, how well do you know your characters? What methods do you use to develop your characters? Does your significant other get jealous of you spending all that time with them?
I feel a need to clear up a few of my truths. The pole I hung upside down was on the swing set in my back yard and I undressed in the locker room after gym class. The rest is up to you all to figure out. A guy has to keep some secrets.
Is the natural gas you use to heat your home and cook your food really safe?
Is it possible that viruses ravaged prehistoric life millions of years ago and lie dormant in oil and gas reserves, waiting to be released once again to lay waste to yet another species?
It has happened before.
Is it about to happen again?
A REASON FOR DYING
Debuts Summer 2008
Hilliard and Harris
Thursday, June 05, 2008
It seems like such a long time since I posted anything here. Well, anything I've written myself, anyway. Seems like all I do is post guest blogs. That's a good thing, though. I love having visitors, even virtual ones. And it gave me the time to update my own blog and actually (gasp!) write something for it. For anyone so inclined, go to The Blotter (like the new name?) and read about my recent carpenter bee problem.
By now, everyone who reads the Pittsburgh papers has heard about our corpse in the creek this week. (The Corpse in the Creek would make a good book title wouldn't it?) You should have seen how fast the station cleared out when that call came in. No apparent foul play involved, though--just an accidental fall.
That's the most excitement we've at work for months.
It also seems like a long time since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, but it just wasn't to be this year. You done good, guys. Next year--Let's Go Pens!
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
This week was our final Citizens’ Police Academy class. I don’t think it has sunk in yet that our group’s time together is almost over. We’re a diverse bunch with a variety of motives for taking the course, but we’ve all bonded over the experience.
Our last class was another two-parter. For the first hour, we listened to Sgt. Keith Nemeth and Detective Sheila Jeffries talk about the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI). This department investigates complaints against Pittsburgh city employees and handles each investigation as if it were a homicide. They are fact finders. They do not recommend discipline. That is ultimately up to Chief Nate Harper.
On an average, OMI investigates 300-500 cases per year with the bulk of those cases being police department related.
Here’s an example of how it works. Mrs. Jones files a complaint stating that Officer Smith called her foul name and then hit her in the nose. Investigators would look at photos taken of Mrs. Jones after the incident to see if there was indeed evidence of injury. They would also search for and interview third party witnesses. These witnesses need to be impartial. In other words, if Mrs. Jones’ son vouches that the officer hit his mother in the nose, he might be saying what his mother WANTS him to say. Or if Officer Smith’s partner says, no, that it never happened, he might be standing up for his partner. So OMI would continue to seek out some other witness. If no other witness can be found and the preponderance of evidence neither supports nor disavows the claims, the case may be left as “unresolved.” Such cases remain in the database for the officer’s entire career.
OMI also looks at patterns of complaints. They may learn that Mrs. Jones has filed similar complaints against Officers Starsky and Hutch in past years, too. OR they may learn that Officer Smith has had previous complaints about calling suspects names and punching them in the nose. All this factors into their report.
Cases ultimately fall into one of five catagories: Sustained, unresolved, exonerated, unfounded, or closed. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all the cases end up as sustained and some of those are technical violations. For example, our Officer Smith has used OC spray on a suspect from a distance closer than three feet during a struggle. In such a case, he did indeed violate procedure, but it was justified.
Remember, OMI does not recommend discipline. They only file the report. Chief Harper then determines what should be done, be it retraining, punishment, or firing.
The second half of this week’s class dealt with Pittsburgh’s newest division: THE GRAFFITI SQUAD. Consisting of three detectives (Frank Rende, Alfonzo Sloane, and Dan Sullivan, all of whom spoke to our class), this group has only been inexistence since November 2006. Since then they have made 38 arrests while blazing new territory in the investigation of graffiti.
Only about 10 % of this graffiti is gang related. It’s vandalism. New ordinances have recently been implemented in Pittsburgh to make life harder on the “taggers.” You must be 18 or older to buy paint or markers in the city and if you buy it and give it to a juvenile, it’s legally the same as giving them a beer. Local judges are cracking down. For instance, take the case of Danny Montano. This graffiti tagger has been held in jail for seven months already and will likely serve a lot more time. He is scheduled to be sentenced on July 24. You can bet a lot of these graffiti artists are watching this case.
Our three graffiti-busting detectives obviously love their jobs. They haven’t lost a case yet, mainly because they collect an overwhelming amount of evidence. They now have a graffiti database where they store photographs of various tags. So while a tagger might be busted in one municipality for one tag, the graffiti squad marches out photographs of forty more from other communities. Most of those arrested plea out or confess.
And they’ve never had a warrant contested, although they admit, they know it will happen.
Bottom line: graffiti artists are not welcome in Pittsburgh. While we were once known as a Mecca for these taggers, the welcome mat has been rolled up. Detectives Frank, Al, and Dan are on the job.
Advice for those of you who are Pittsburgh residents: if you are the victim of graffiti, call 9-1-1. That is the start of the process. These detectives, with the help of some very hard line judges, are determined to clean up the city and send these artists packing.
Next week: GRADUATION
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
A rare and wonderful thing happened to me on Friday – my short story PASTURES OF HEAVEN was accepted by Mysterical-e for their Summer issue. This was a bit of a surprise; I really like POH, but it is a little odd, not my usual style, and I wasn’t sure it would ever get placed. Which only goes to show that there’s a home for everything if you research the marketplace and keep trying.
When I sat down to my Mac on Friday night and opened my email, I saw the reply from Mysterical-e and found myself performing a new-to-me ritual before I opened the message. It might even have been a little prayer. I paused, my fingers hovering inches over the touchpad and said: “Be the right club, today!” Then I closed my eyes and imagined an acceptance before I opened my eyes to actually read their words. Lucky for me, this time the word was ‘Yes’ and I yelped so loudly I’m sure my neighbors on Fourth Street heard me. The yelp was followed by my version of a boogie dance that should probably remain closed to viewing for reasons of public safety – the vision of me jumping around victorious would probably scar young children.
I also wondered, the more I thought about it, where I pulled the phrase ‘Be the right club, today!’? I remember watching some golf on TV, and I went online to look it up, and there is was: Hal Sutton, 17th hole, The Players Championship 2000. Hal had a one stroke lead on Tiger Woods (imagine that pressure) and when Hal hit a shot and the ball sailed toward the green he commanded: “Be the right club, today!” (emphasis on today, Hal’s from Alabama). Now, I understand completely what Hal was trying to do; it was the same thing I tried to do with my story: he was focusing his will on the outcome to achieve the positive outcome he wanted – and he was focused enough to disregard the many outside factors (including Tiger Woods standing next to him) that he had no control over.
Baseball players are a superstitious lot, too, but this new ritual of mine made me wonder: how about writers? Does anyone out there have a superstition and/or ritual they feel compelled to follow or perform before writing, submitting, or opening that dread reply?
Usually, we plan, and execute, and do our best, and then we sit back to let events take their natural course. But every once in awhile – and is it just during competition? – we try to will a positive end result like it’s some kind of magical thinking. I’ve done it; last Friday was the perfect example. I didn’t want it; I willed it, and on Friday I felt it, and it felt like I was tapping into an energy grid where a positive outcome was already pre-determined in my favor. Was this a gamblers high? Willing that acceptance didn’t feel arbitrary or capricious; it felt powerful and compelling. Has anyone else experience this?
Monday, June 02, 2008
Several years ago I had a chick party on a Monday afternoon. It was a truly lovely party and fun was had by all. We ate girly food from glass snack sets from the 1950s, and drank cosmos in the middle of Monday afternoon. Even the weather was fabulous.
Several days after the party I received a lovely note raving about the party and asking that I apologize to my neighbors. Hmmm. The neighbors, henceforth to be know as Rocket Scientist and Nurse Betty, left a nasty note on my guest’s car about her having parked to close to their mailbox. I guess they didn’t receive their mail that day because of it, and were upset that they had to go a whole twenty-four hours before they could get the catalogues from which they order their unfortunate Capri pants and oh-so-snappy bike shorts.
My blood was boiling. It was necessary to respond in a way that would make my feelings clear to them. I had suffered long enough. Here is the letter that I wrote back, in a blind rage from years of their idiocy:
Dear Rocket Scientist and Nurse Betty:
Ah, the irony! Imagine my surprise when I received a thank you note from one of my luncheon guests that also contained the enclosed, with an apology to you!
You see the source of the irony is that for the three and a half years that we have lived here, we have been repeatedly disturbed by your complete lack of consideration for those around you. When you live around other people you are inconvenienced by them on occasion, or on a regular basis, as the case may be.
Let me give you some examples. Sometimes, you have to scrub urine from the neighbor’s cat off of your basement door in 30-degree weather, because, despite the fact that you have no cat, your basement smells like cat pee. You may be forced to give up vegetable gardening entirely because you do not wish to eat produce from a cat toilet. Dead rodent removal may become a regular part of your gardening routine. Also, you may have to listen to your neighbor’s dog bark (more like a shrieking sound) for up to five hours while trying to paint the dining room, recuperate from a pounding migraine or sleep past six o’clock in the morning. This happens with such regularity that I wish I kept a log of these occasions that I could enclose with this letter. In addition, sometimes, the people around you leave their yard strewn with toys, garden tools and various assorted other belongings that you must simply endure as part of your “view”. You may have all of your tulips consumed by deer who are only in your yard because of the excess of rodent feeders in the yard next door. Also, because of the rodent feeders, you may spend thousands of dollars on a deck and patio, which is actually a bird toilet where you can sit and listen to the previously mentioned barking.
When you live with total disregard for the feelings and comfort of those around you, you are not really in a position to complain to or to embarrass those who have been repeatedly inconvenienced and disturbed.
Because I actually consider those around me, I will sincerely apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced as a result of my guest parking in front of your mailbox. In the future, I will ask my guests to avoid parking in front of the house with the screeching sound coming from the back yard.
I do not expect the situation ever to arise again, but if it does, I do not expect that any guest to my home will ever again be left feeling as if they owe you an apology. In the future, you may complain to me directly.
They are every bit as inconsiderate as they ever were, but now I feel much better.
Did I ever mention before that my nickname as a child was “poison lips?”
Have you ever had to write a zinger of a letter? Do tell.