Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What's Your Excuse?

by Tory Butterworth

For those of you who pay attention to our blog schedule, I’m subbing for Annette today. Her father passed away on Sunday and the funeral was today. Annette wrote a really sweet piece on him (it made me cry) in her blog.

My dad used to say, “There’s no excuse!” when he was referring to some behavior that made him mad. But I think, “My father died,” is an excellent excuse. My father died a few days before taxes were due. Definite excuse to file an extension. My mother died a few days before Christmas. This was an excellent excuse for not sending out Christmas cards that year.

My mom hated Christmas. Every year she asked us, “Can we skip Christmas and go to Mexico this year?” My dad hated taxes. You can’t convince me, the psychotherapist, that my parents’ unconscious wishes didn’t play a role in the timing of their deaths.

My dad was cremated. My mother, for some reason, wanted to “see the body off,” (really the casket, praise the Lord) as it was headed towards the flames. I couldn’t see her doing this alone. I had a class the morning this was scheduled, and as I’d missed class the week before I wanted to go to this one if I could.

The professor of the class in question was a self-important psychoanalyst (that is, orthodox follower of the practices of Freud.) He conducted the only 8:30 a.m. class in the entire psychology department and reputedly showed up after having seen his first patient of the day. Let’s just say that “rigid” was his middle name.

The week before my dad’s passing I had asked him for a copy of a paper a friend of mine, since moved to Massachusetts, had written for the course the year before. I knew that if I didn’t catch him that day, it was likely the paper would be lost forever.

I stood in the line of other students after class, waiting to talk to the professor. He and the student before me were engaged in an animated conversation. The minutes ticked by, and I imagined not getting to the crematory in time.

I attempted to briefly interrupt him, expecting I could get the paper, run, and he could return to his conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, as politely as I could.

He turned and glared at me. “What, young lady, is your hurry?”

Damn, you don’t get handed those sort of lines often enough. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t tell him. At that age, I was too timid. But I still think, “I’m late for my father’s cremation,” would have made an excellent excuse, even for a rude interruption. And one I can never use again.

What’s on your top list of best excuses?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

They're in your neighborhood

by Judith Evans Thomas

Yesterday, one of our members posted a website for monitering criminals in our neighborhoods. My initial reaction was … great. How nice. I logged onto the National Sex Offender Registry. A cute little bulldog … well the spike collar was a little weird/ugly but got the message across. We were dealing with ugly stuff. At least the dog wasn’t drooling.

In a fit of curiosity I typed in my daughter’s address in Philadelphia. She is newly pregnant and I was curious. Not expecting much I sat back in my chair sipping tea. The web server took a little longer than usual to connect and then I saw a map with lots of squares. Each one marked a different item. One color indicated schools, another logged predators. To my shock/ horror, there were over fifteen men within a five mile radius who had been arrested for rape, child molestation, indecent exposure and other crimes. I ran to my gun closet to get out the AK47 and Glock. Whoops. They were only in my book. I had no real weapon with which I could protect her from these perps.

Half an hour later, I found myself knee deep in print outs of these (mostly 40’s-50”s) amorphous grandfatherly types. What was I going to do with this information? Could I post it all over her home in case one of them appeared at the door delivering pizza? Could I set up cameras monitoring her front door? After an agonizing moment I realized there was nothing I could do. These people live among us and are maybe trying to rehabilitate themselves and maybe waiting for the next victim. There is no way to know or protect ourselves. Fiction is fun. This is reality. What would you do?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Noh Your Audience

by Brenda Roger

I have recently embarked on the adventure of writing labels for an art exhibit. I’m attempting to learn what a curatorial assistant does, so that I can pretend to be one for three months while a real one is on maternity leave. The topic of my first adventure in label writing --Japanese woodblock prints of characters from Noh theater. Oh crumps, as my grandmother would say. I know nothing about that! This will require research and reading and learning to pronounce Japanese words. Yikes! Yinz, know I’m from here. I can’t say or even remember Japanese words. Ok. Deep breaths. When in doubt, read.

As is usually the case, during my reading for the new exhibit, I found out something fascinating that relates to one of my many personal interests. Some of the Noh plays are based on stories or characters from what is considered the first novel ever written! The book is called Tale of Genji, and both its author and its historical context are fascinating.

Tale of Genji is a large work. It consists of fifty-four chapters and when translated into English is over a thousand pages. (How long is War and Peace? I’ve blocked it out). Tale of Genji was written in the early part of the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu. She was a bit unconventional in that she was raised by her father and was educated like a male.

The historical context of Tale of Genji is what I find most fascinating. Apparently, an upper class Japanese woman was to be seen by only two men during her lifetime –her father and her husband. She literally spent her time closed up in her rooms, sitting behind a screen or peeking out of a crack in her carriage on her way to the temple. Take a moment to imagine that existence. Then imagine you get your hands on a book that contains romance, travel, the supernatural and an ideal hero. I don’t know about you, but I would devour it. Diaries from the time indicate that the upper class female audience in 11th century Japan agreed that there had never been anything like it.

Tale of Genji has a key element that makes a book successful. The author knew her audience. Is today’s book market really any more complex than that? What do you think?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Knock on Any Door

by Gina Sestak

I mentioned being a lousy waitress in a prior blog, but the one college-era job at which I really, truly sucked was selling door-to-door.

You have to understand that I was supporting myself and working my way through school at the time, so I was desperate enough to try almost anything. Collier's Encyclopedia promised high commissions and easy sales. Growing up, I'd loved to read encyclopedias. They're so full of information. So I signed on, prepared to go out into the community and deliver knowledge.

I don't know whether or not you've ever worked in sales. It's a different world. Our day began at the downtown office for a psych-up session, where we would practice our pitches. There's a science to the sale, and this group had it down pat. There was a script that began by asking the potential customer whether s/he was familiar with Collier's Magazine:

Potential Customer: I already get it.

Salesperson: Are you sure?

Potential Customer: Yeah. I don't subscribe myself, but my mother gives me her copy as soon as she's done reading it.

Salesperson: That's strange. Collier's Magazine went out of publication in 1956.

At that point, the poor potential customer was so confused and embarassed that s/he would shut up and listen to the rest of the pitch. The pitch wasn't just a speech. It was interactive and, if we could get into the house, came with visual effects, like hanging a large picture of a bookcase full of books over the TV so they could see how it would look in their living room. The pitch was also full of questions that required an affirmative answer, on the theory that once you got somebody saying "yes" it would be hard for them to switch to "no."

And we didn't call it "selling." No. We would "place" a set of encyclopedias, as if finding homes for lovable pets.

Sometimes the more successful sellers would demonstrate their techniques. The top salesman would wear a bright pink shirt and fling a stretcher (a long cardboard mock up of the encyclopedias on a shelf) onto the floor. The manager would exhort us all to greater success, shouting and sweating like a stereotype Southern preacher. Salespeople watching him would leap to their feet and vow to place not one, but two, sets of encyclopedias that day! It was quite a show. Then we would be taken out to sell.

We worked in teams of four or five. The team manager would drive to a suburban community and drop us off one at a time along the roadside, with instructions to meet at a designated spot in 8 or 10 hours. Then we were on our own.

I was 19 years old at the time and city-raised, so the suburbs were a mystery to me. We were told to target homes with obvious signs of children, such as playthings in the yards (or, as one of my teammates enthusiastically called them, "BABY GORILLA TOYS!!"). I prefered to find the lonely old women who would invite me in, give me food, and tell me about their lives. Not much chance of a sale, but then I wasn't having much luck selling to the target population, either.

I was almost arrested once, in West View, which apparently had an ordinance against door to door selling. I wonder why the team manager hadn't warned me about that.

I only kept that job for about five weeks. I only made three sales.

What did I learn from that job?

I learned to be wary of any obvious sales technique. I learned to find my way around the winding residential streets of suburbia. I learned to be out on my own in a strange place. Most of all, I learned I sucked at sales.

Still, the job provides a lovely background for a thriller -- a young woman alone, someone who won't be missed for hours, carrying her sample case as she climbs the steps to the serial killer's porch -- oh, wait. That one has been done to death. How about the innocent looking young woman who gets into people's homes, only to pull a gun and blow them all away? Too violent? How about if she introduces a slow acting poison into the home, perhaps by rubbing it onto the children's toys. An astute detective starts to wonder why everyone who refuses to buy from her sickens and dies . . .

Friday, January 26, 2007

Mysterious Moratorium

By Susan Helene Gottfried

Most of my fellow Stiffs, you may have noticed, are mystery or thriller writers. I’m not. You’d think that this would make me feel like I don’t fit in, but I am the creator of Trevor Wolff, a man who fits wherever he damn well wants to. And besides, I like the Stiffs. I’ve learned a lot from them.

They have worn off on me, too. In fact, I think that I’m going to need to take a hiatus from reading so many mysteries and thrillers for a bit, much as I don’t want to. But it’s either them or books, and I’d rather not give them up.

It all started at the end of December. I woke up at four in the morning, startled awake by a distinctive “Who, who, who-who-who”. My first thought was, “Cool. We have owls. Who would have thunk?”

But I heard it again. And again.

And my fellow Working Stiffs crawled into my brain. What if that’s no owl but is actually some guys who are signalling each other that they’re in position to come storm my house? Have they cut the phone lines yet? My cell phone’s downstairs; where is the Tour Manager’s? How will we survive this?

By the fourth or fifth hoot, I decided that any bad guys would have gotten bored by now and given up. Yet the owl didn’t.

I woke the Tour Manager, who, as always, thought I was nuts. “It’s an owl,” he told me.

“Yeah, but … what if it’s not?”

“Go to sleep,” he told me and proceeded to show me how.

I laid awake until the night quieted. By morning, I decided that being visited by an owl was pretty cool.

The next night, I heard the owl around ten. I sent the Tour Manager outside to see where he was. The report came back that he was across the street, between two houses. And that he’d been scared off when the Tour Manager had gotten close.

I figured that would be the end of it, but my owl came back for a third night. And then a fourth. I laid in bed with a book -- yes, a mystery -- and listened to the hooting. At first, it gave me warm fuzzies. We had a new pet, sort of. The owl liked us as much as I liked it.

But then, my brain went into overdrive. Owls, some Native Americans believe, presage death. Whose death was this owl telling me about? Mine? The Tour Manager’s? Our kids’? Maybe one of the neighbors?

I didn’t sleep easy that night.
When I turn this into fiction, my owl will inspire a songfor my fictional band, ShapeShifter. But the Stiffs… they’d have that home be invaded. People will die. That’s how it is when you write mysteries and thrillers.

Me, I’m on hiatus from the books until my brain stops being so morbid. Time to go read a nice romance or two.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Web of Lies

by Kristine Coblitz

As writers, we are constantly looking for ways to get our names out there and attract readers. We create websites, blogs and Myspace pages. (I have all three.)

There was an article recently published in Writer's Digest warning writers to be cautious about what they write and publish online. Some recent cases have proved it's easy to offend and make a negative impression of yourself based on what you write and who may be reading what you are writing. This also goes for e-mail.

When I started my personal blog, I mainly did so as a journal and as a way to make myself accountable for writing something on a regular basis. I also did it for my family and friends to keep up on my progress so I wouldn't have to answer the dreaded questions (Is your book done yet?) at family functions. I was shocked when I discovered that not only are my family and friends indeed reading my posts but also that my blog has gained attention from others on the web locally and internationally. Yikes!

As a result, I've become very careful about what I post online. Not too much personal information. I include nothing I wouldn't want complete strangers to know about me, and I'm not just talking about the color of my underwear. I've also tried to add valuable content to my posts and stay away from the mundane details of how I spend my day. I mean, who really cares what kind of tea I like to drink or what I had for breakfast? (If you MUST know, I drink wild sweet orange tea and eat Special K cereal. As for the color of my underwear...that's top secret.)

Evidence of the power of the Internet came this week in an article about a 22-year-old man who was shot to death by a co-worker due to jealousy over an Internet relationship both men were having with an 18-year-old woman. The twist? The 18-year-old woman was really a mother in her forties who was using her daughter's name to attract men over the Internet. The mother went so far as to send pictures of her daughter and sexually suggestive gifts to one of the men. The man's wife intercepted the packages, and can imagine what happened next. You can read the whole article HERE.

Personally, I enjoy making connections with people over the Internet and think the information superway is a wonderful way to meet new friends and fellow readers. We need to tread carefully, however. When we publish anything (either in print or online), we expose ourselves to the world by what we write.

How much do you want the public to know about you? Are you comfortable with what information about you is currently online?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Serious Talks with Cats

by Tory Butterworth

I used to post a Silvia cartoon on my office door titled, "Serious Talks with Cats." Unfortunately, I lost it when I left my last job, so I'll have to paraphrase. It pictures a woman eating a hamburger with a cat looking on hungrily. She says, "It appears you have problems with personal boundaries, distinguishing what is yours from what it mine. Have you ever considered intensive psychotherapy?"

I'll admit it, I have serious talks with my pets. A few nights ago, just as I had gotten into bed, I heard a crash downstairs and then a strange brushing sound. As a single woman living alone and a mystery writer, this type of noise tends to put me in mind of burglars invading my premises. I'm proud that I managed to convince myself it was Thora and fall asleep nonetheless.

The next morning I looked around to find what she had pushed over, and discovered a metal glasses case on the floor with the glasses, thankfully unharmed, a few feet away. The case had also contained a pair of clip-ons in a velveteen sleeve. I searched the downstairs and the basement, to no avail.

"Thora," I said, mustering my serious cat talking-to tone, "I understand that you find my glasses much more fun to bat around than the twenty-odd cat toys I've supplied you for that purpose. I know cats need to keep busy and active, and I appreciate your mischievous nature. But I really need those clip-ons. Where did you put them?

What do you know, half an hour later, I once again heard that strange brushing sound. Thora was pawing the bottom of the refrigerator. Investigation with a long, thin stick under the fridge revealed the clip-ons, still in their case.

Score one for human-feline communication!

I had a less productive talk with Thora regarding our weekly adventures in "clipping butt." As neither of my Persian cats will let me brush them, weekly knot clippings are a necessity. Pansy tolerates them, looking forward to her canned salmon reward. Thora has taken to hissing and growling when I get too close to her rear end.

"Thora," I say, "I understand that you take my desire to clip your knots as a personal affront. However, if you don't let me near you, you will soon become one big dreadlock. Not only will this destroy your impressive good looks, but the knots will pull and ruin your playful disposition. Will you let me proceed?"

Score for the week: one for the humans, one for the cats.

A friend of mine once told me about a child-rearing book that deeply influenced her experience of motherhood. "You don't have to win all the battles," it said. I'm hoping the same is true for cat motherhood.

Fess up, how many of you out there have serious talks with your pets? Is it the same with dogs as with cats?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


by Meryl Neiman

I've been thinking a lot about sleep these days. Maybe because I haven't been getting much of it.

I'm prone to bouts of insomnia. If I'm working too late or under stress, my brain refuses to turn off. Once I've had one or two nights of little sleep, then I become stressed about not sleeping. As you can no doubt see, this results in a vicious cycle of sleeplessness.

The past two weeks I was working 24/7 getting ready for an auction fundraiser. I finally turned to sleeping pills, but even those little beauties had their limitations. The event was on Saturday night. Everybody had a wonderful time (except for my husband and I who were running around like chickens with our heads cut off). People spent lots of money. A woman bid by proxy from Maine to win a trip to the world premiere of the new movie 300. Another woman spent over $4,000 to win a walk-on role in Weeds. Guests stayed out late after the event partying.

We came home. To sleep.

But my body was so used to not sleeping, that sleep still did not come. And, of course, there were all those post-event details to ponder. Like how to get the airline tickets and gift certificates back from the woman who inadvertently took them home with her package!

So, I've been thinking a lot about sleep. As babies, we sleep most of the day. Yet, as parents of infants know, sleep doesn't always come easy even then. My daughter would fall asleep in my arms and then awaken a minute after she was placed into her bassinet.

For most children, sleep is the enemy. Kids clamor to stay up late. I remember hating bedtime. Sleep seemed like such a waste of time. The interruption of a good day.

Now, I love to sleep. Snuggling into bed with a good book is my favorite time of day.

Then, of course, there's death. The ultimate sleep. The state that is so elusive to many envelops all of us permanently in the end.

How do you feel about sleep? Waste of time? Pure bliss? Any home remedies for insomni? My ears are open.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Fan Base of One

by Pat Hart

I had a writer-ly experience last week.

I’d promised myself, sacred vow, that I would finish my current WIP before the Pennwriters in May. I made that commitment in August when I’d reached the 100-page milestone. Today I am at a whopping 125.

I’d skipped Pennwriters last year because I’d “put aside” my first finished manuscript, Go Fish, and had just started on my new darling and therefore didn’t have anything to sell. Plus it was way over on the other side of the state and I was being cheap.

I regretted it.

I didn’t want yet another year to slip by without at least trying to get published. So, faced with the impossibility of reaching my original goal of completing my current WIP, I revisited Go Fish.

I have the document in printed form and it would have been so picturesque to dig a dusty box out of the back of closet, wrap up in a crocheted afghan, and settle into a stuffed chair, mug of tea steaming in my hand, calico cat purring on my lap…in actuality I just clicked a few keys and it appeared on my screen.

I edited as I read my old manuscript and I found plenty to change. Previously, I’d worked to tatters the first ten pages of that poor story. I’d flopped back and forth from first person to third person narrative and then back to first person and traces of the old point of view would pop up unexpectedly. I was alternating between putting an “s” in and taking an “s” out. Comma in, Comma out and so forth. No wonder I’d put this thing aside.

But then around page 10, I forgot to edit, forgot I was the author, and just read.

It’s a strange thing to read your own words and not really know what you’re going to say next. I don’t know if it’s because I’m over 40 and can’t remember the movie I saw a week ago, or if it’s every writer’s experience when reading work from a couple of years ago.

As I read, I forgot to think of structure, motive, story arch, and point of view. I was thinking: “that girl’s screwed, he’s a jag off, and HA, that’s funny!” and I was entertained.

It was a great encouragement to me that I could at least please one reader, even if it is just myself.

Hope to see you all at Pennwriters this year!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Character to Author: "Why am I here?"

by Brian Mullen

Does every character in a story have to serve a purpose?

When I'm not writing mysteries, I am usually working on my science-fiction stories. I have plans...oh, so many plans...for my characters. But not for ALL of my characters. Let me explain.

I am writing a large collection of short stories taking place in a shared world. This means that the characters in each short story inhabit the same world. What happens in one story could affect what happens in others. Some characters reference each other. Others will eventually meet and interact.

My plans require me to write enough stories to fill seven books so that, in book #8, I can launch my master story that involves all of the main characters I've written so far. Except one. Right now, his stories have little impact on my plans.

He is one of my favorite characters to write and, on the surface, he has far more potential than most of my other characters. In fact, that's part of the problem. He has so much obvious potential that I feel he's not being utilized enough. But try as I might, I can't find a place in the final book for him. Should I delete him altogether? Or is it acceptable to have characters that accompany you throughout the journey but don't reach the destination with you?

If his involvement in the series were just a single story (or maybe even a few), I could probably cut him without much thought. But he will appear so many times in the first seven books that I believe the readers will be thinking his involvement in the climactic story is a foregone conclusion.

And today, it isn't. Hopefully tomorrow his place in the story will be clear. I look at the stories I've written so far, and the stories I've plotted and planned. I imagine him looking back at me and asking, "What's my purpose? Why am I here? Are there big things planned for me?"

And I don't know what to tell him.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Edgar Nominations

The Edgar nominations came out today! How many have you read? Or what have you read this year that you believe deserves recognition?

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Gentleman and Players by Joanne Harris (HarperCollins – William Morrow)
The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (Hachette Book Group - Little, Brown and Company)
The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard (Random House – Ballantine Books)The Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur)

The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson (Random House)
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Crown - Shaye Areheart Books)
King of Lies by John Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur – Thomas Dunne Books)
Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith (St. Martin's Minotaur)A
Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read (Warner Books – Mysterious Press)

The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotto (Europa Editions)
The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
Snakeskin Shamisen by Naomi Hirahara (Bantam Dell Publishing – Delta Books)
The Deep Blue Alibi by Paul Levine (Bantam Dell Publishing – Bantam Books)
City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate (Penguin Group – Riverhead Books)

Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger (W.W. Norton and Co.)
Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine by Capt. Joseph K. Loughlin & Kate Clark Flora (University Press of New England)
Ripperology: A Study of the World's First Serial Killer by Robin Odell (The Kent State University Press)
The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers,
Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower (Dutton)
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir by John T. Irwin (Johns Hopkins University Press)
The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear by E.J. Wagner (John Wiley & Sons)

"The Home Front" – Death Do Us Part by Charles Ardai (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown and Company)
"Rain" – Manhattan Noir by Thomas H. Cook (Akashic Books)
"Cranked" – Damn Near Dead by Bill Crider (Busted Flush Press)
"White Trash Noir" – Murder at the Foul Line by Michael Malone (Hachette Book Group – Mysterious Press)
"Building" – Manhattan Noir by S.J. Rozan (Akashic Books)

Gilda Joyce: The Ladies of the Lake by Jennifer Allison (Penguin Young Readers – Sleuth/Dutton)
The Stolen Sapphire: A Samantha Mystery by Sarah Masters Buckey (American Girl Publishing)
Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
The Bloodwater Mysteries: Snatched by Pete Hautman & Mary Logue (Penguin Young Readers – Sleuth/Putnam)
The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer (Penguin Young Readers – Philomel/Sleuth)

The Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks (Scholastic – The Chicken House)
The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson (Penguin YR – Sleuth/Viking)
Crunch Time by Mariah Fredericks (Simon & Schuster – Richard Jackson Books/Atheneum)
Buried by Robin Merrow MacCready (Penguin YR – Dutton Children's Books)
The Night My Sister Went Missing by Carol Plum-Ucci (Harcourt Children's Books)

BEST PLAYSherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure by Steven Dietz (Arizona Theatre Company)
Curtains by Rupert Holmes (Ahmanson Theatre)
Ghosts of Ocean House by Michael Kimball (The Players' Ring)

The Closer – "Blue Blood", Teleplay by James Duff & Mike Berchem (Turner Network Television)
Dexter – "Crocodile", Teleplay by Clyde Phillips (Showtime)House –
"Clueless", Teleplay by Thomas L. Moran (Fox/NBC Universal)
Life on Mars – Episode 1, Teleplay by Matthew Graham (BBC America)
Monk – "Mr. Monk Gets a New Shrink", Teleplay by Hy Conrad (USA Network/NBC Universal)

Conviction, Teleplay by Bill Gallagher (BBC America)
Cracker: A New Terror, Teleplay by Jimmy McGovern (BBC America)
Messiah: The Harrowing, Teleplay by Terry Cafolla (BBC America)
Secret Smile, Teleplay by Kate Brooke, based on the book by Nicci French (BBC America)
The Wire, Season 4, Teleplays by Ed Burns, Kia Corthron, Dennis Lehane, David Mills, Eric Overmyer, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon & William F. Zorzi (Home Box Office)

Casino Royale, Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis, based on novel by Ian Fleming (MGM)
Children of Men, Screenplay by Alfonso CuarĂ³n, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on a novel by P.D. James (Universal Pictures
The Departed, Screenplay by William Monahan (Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Good Shepherd, Teleplay by Eric Roth (Universal Pictures)
Notes on a Scandal, Screenplay by Patrick Marber (Scott Rudin Productions)

William Dylan Powell"Evening Gold" – EQMM November 2006 (Dell Magazines)

Stephen King

Books & Books (Mitchell Kaplan, owner)
Mystery Loves Company Bookstore (Kathy & Tom Harig, owners)

Bloodline by Fiona Mountain (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Penny for Your...Tires?

by Joyce Tremel

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, some criminal comes up with a new way to rip people off.

Right now in Shaler, it seems the thieves are taking a break from the copper pipe and have moved on to auto parts theft. By auto parts, I don’t mean someone stealing hubcaps or taking the battery out of someone’s car. The thieves are taking bigger things, like tailgates off trucks. Or even better, tires and rims from cars.

This might not seem too odd except for the fact that the thieves are doing it in broad daylight from shopping center parking lots. Yes, it’s not even safe to go shopping. Last week we had a call from an elderly woman who went shopping in K-Mart. She was only in the store for fifteen minutes and when she went back to her car, the tires and rims were missing from one side of the car. The thief used a standard car jack and just left it in place. We had a similar call on Monday from the Eat ‘n Park across the street from K-Mart. No jack left in place this time—the frame was left sitting on an old tire.

Wouldn’t you think someone in the parking lot would have noticed the actor pulling up beside a car, removing the tires and rims, then taking off?

Wondering if this might be some kind of trend, I did a Google search. While these thefts do occur other places, Shaler seems to be unique. In other cities, stealing tires and rims is common, but the thieves target custom rims and expensive tires. The two cars here were a Ford Escort and a Pontiac Grand Prix with factory rims and cheap tires. And our thefts occurred mid-day, not overnight.

All this leaves me wondering why. Why would someone steal tires and rims? Is it money? Or something more sinister?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Coyotes and Country Crime

by Annette Dashofy

Unlike most of my fellow Working Stiffs, I am a country bumpkin. I’ve lived in rural Washington County all my life. Most folks think that crime doesn’t exist out here. Wrong. Although I’ll admit the frequency of major crime is much less and the types of calls our local police respond to tend to vary from their city counterparts.

For instance, last week a coyote was hit on the road in front of my house. Yes, you heard it right. A coyote. In front of my house. I’d heard they were around. Neighbors on the other side of the hill complained that coyotes take several of their lambs every spring. But I’d never seen or heard one. Apparently, neither had the cops. This road kill drew not one, not two, but THREE squad cars in response. All with flashing lights. It was the light show that caught our attention and drew my hubby to go outside in the darkness to see what was going on.

But some aspects of crime and intrigue span the city/country boundaries. I’ve been following the goings-on in a neighboring township that have the making for great murder mystery.

A resident whom I’ll call Bob (I’m changing the names to protect—well, not the innocent, but maybe me, since I’m adding editorial comments to the case) managed to get elected to the three-man board of supervisors. He then buddied up with a second supervisor, also new to the board. This second supervisor, Hank (not his real name) nominated Bob as chairman and Bob nominated Hank as deputy chairman and they basically took over control of the township. Bob signed himself up for health insurance at the tax payers’ expense and when the township legal eagle stepped in and said he wasn’t eligible for it, Bob fired the lawyer and brought in a crony from outside the township to become their legal council.

Two older ladies who had been secretaries for the township for decades protested. Bob arranged for charges to be brought up on both ladies for stealing township property and had both of them fired. The ridiculous charges were ultimately dropped, but by then, the two ladies didn’t want their old jobs back (can you blame them?) and Bob and Hank had a few more obstacles out of their way.

Township residents rebelled. They raised a ruckus at the township supervisors' meetings complaining about how Bob and Hank were running things. So Bob called the cops and had the “unruly” residents arrested and removed from the meeting. At one meeting things got exceptionally heated and Bob banged his gavel, adjourning the meeting before any real business had been completed and left through the back door. With police escort.

I guess things got to be too hot for Hank. He suddenly came up with a new job that prevented him from attending the supervisors’ meetings and resigned his post. The residents, back in control, replaced him with one of their own who partnered up with the third supervisor and put old Bob in his place. They fired the new lawyer and cut off Bob’s health insurance.

Bob still stirs up trouble from time to time, but now he’s the third man out. The local newspaper isn’t nearly as interesting to read anymore.

I saved boxes of clips from this little fiasco. As a mystery writer, I think Bob makes prime murder victim material. And the entire township population would be suspect.

Lots of us get our ideas from real life drama in the news. What makes this case all the more interesting (to me, at least) is that I am acquainted with Bob and consider Hank to be an old friend.

No crime or intrigue in the country? HA!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

To Blog or not to Blog

Judith Evans Thomas

Over the last week our Working Stiffs' group has started to investigate the pros and cons of blogging. Not that there are many cons because we're a group of writers with day jobs who like to hear our own voices and listen to others as well. It's fun for us, but is it meaningful to the blogosphere?

We don't blog about Brittany Spears fashion blunders, Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell's latest war of words, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's ever so puky love life, or even Kevin Federline's iffy talent. We take the high road and explore real life from the working stiff's front. But does that bring readers? What are blogs really meant to do? I contend that they are no more than any other form of entertainment.

We, the American people, are voyeurs, and what better way to be one than by reading someone's blog. In print, with no editorial input, we bloggers reveal shocking, or boring, aspects of our lives that intrigue other voyeurs who hopefully have more boring and not more shocking lives.

In this blog alone, I have revealed my opinion on Hollywood icons, Brittany Spears, Donald Trump, Rosie O'donnell and Kevin Fedderline. Might I also opine on Madonna, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Greta Garbo. Stay tuned. What is your voyeuristic trigger? I want to know. Then I'll blog for you.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Accelerate at the Apex of the Turn (and other things my father taught me)

by Brenda Roger

My father is full of pearls of wisdom. He has a knack for creating “rules” for living. Most of the rules were created in reaction to repeated bad experiences. As a kid, I would just roll my eyes when he was imparting his wisdom upon me. Some time during my mid-twenties, he got a whole lot smarter.

I come from a long line of burly Irish-Catholic union men. When you work a job that is both physically grueling and mentally taxing for over forty years, you develop a unique set of ideas and an equally unique way with words. “Direct” is the best way to sum it up. My uncle once told me that when he leaves a room, people rarely wonder what he meant by what he said. As an aspiring writer, I hope that it runs in the family.

Part of being direct is choosing the right word. Some of the “rules” (my favorites, anyway) involve the word shit. Shit runs downhill is a good one. Then who hasn’t been told as a child to wish in one hand, shit in the other and see which fills up faster? You haven’t? Oh.

If you wanna go, you gotta pay. This seems like a pretty elementary concept, but I encounter people all the time who are expecting something for nothing on both a small and grand scale. I’ve been tempted to say this to everyone from gala committees to handbag customers to my superiors at the museum. Sometimes it is just fun to savor this one for myself and speak through my actions.

A number of the rules relate to driving. That is exactly the way that Dad intended them to be used, however, I find that they make good life rules as well.

Never rely on someone else for your transportation is a rule to live by. I learned this the hard way after a trip to Connecticut that I now refer to as “the good, the bad and the ugly” trip to Connecticut. That is a story for another blog. This particular rule creates a problem when my Dad and I go someplace together because we both want to drive. It reminds me, though, to be as independent as possible and to take initiative when necessary.

You either have a full tank of gas or you need gas. I used find this declaration annoying. My Corolla got thirty-nine miles to the gallon, I worked at home and all of the places that I went regularly were within five miles of my house. A tank of gas lasted weeks in those days. At some point, I became a frantic gas tank monitor and I found myself breathing a satisfying sigh of relief only when I had both cars filled to brim. Dad doesn’t know this, so don’t tell him! This rule is about being prepared and having what you need to get things done.

My favorite driving rule is accelerate at the apex of the turn. Dad taught me to ease off of the gas as you go into to a turn and then nail it at the apex. Try it. It’s a fun way to drive, especially if you have a zippy little car like mine. You also have more control of the car in the process of turning. As I travel through life, I am trying to apply this rule to opportunities that come my way. I try to work consistently and be steady, but then pull out all the stops if an opportunity pops up.

Modern life is very challenging. The life that my husband and I have carved out for ourselves is particularly challenging because it puts us into contact with all sorts of people from one extreme to the other. Something about us makes one segment of the population want to tell us all about their top-notch educations. It is funny that in a sea of people tripping over each other to announce that they went to boarding school and an Ivy League University, my Dad is one of the smartest guys I know.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cat Person or Dog Person?

By Lisa Curry

Job interviews always make me a little nervous, but one in particular stood out for tough questions.

The year was 1991. The position was catalog copywriter. I had no catalog experience, but I’d been underemployed – and commensurately underpaid – as a temporary data-entry clerk after leaving a perfectly good marketing job in Atlanta to move back to Pittsburgh four months earlier. This was the first writing job I’d seen in the classifieds, and I wanted it – badly.

The interviewer studied my resume. “You did very well academically in college. Would you attribute that mainly to intelligence or hard work?”

His emphasis on “mainly” ruled out a safe, wishy-washy answer like, “Both.” So, gee, which would I rather label myself – stupid or lazy?

When in doubt, tell the truth, Mother always said. I told him my freshman-year grades owed to intelligence, because I really hadn’t applied myself. (Okay, I was drunk seven nights a week.) But once I knew I wanted to be a writer and changed my major to journalism, I worked hard and earned better grades. (Limiting drunkenness to three or four nights a week.)

The tale of youthful fecklessness vanquished by maturity and purpose must have sufficed. I got a second interview.

On that visit, I was ushered into the CEO’s office.

“What’s the last book you read?” this man asked without preamble.

His wall displayed MBA and law degrees from Harvard. Not a man to be impressed by a bachelor’s from IUP, even if I did manage to graduate magna cum laude while mostly intoxicated. If I said the last book I read was a paperback romance, he’d write me off as an imbecile. I’d be subsisting on PB&J while the gap in my resume widened for the rest of my life. I started to sweat. But wait…

Barbarians at the Gate!” I blurted like a Wheel of Fortune contestant.

My boss at the temp job – bless him – had loaned me the account of the RJR Nabisco hostile take-over. It wasn’t quite the last book I’d read, but close enough.

“Really?” The CEO looked more interested, and we discussed the book.

Just when I thought I was on solid ground, he asked, “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”

What an odd question. “Both,” I said. “I have two cats and a dog.”

“But which do you prefer?” he insisted, proving my theory that wishy-washy doesn’t cut it.

I had no clue what the right answer was. Had the man been mauled by dogs as a child? Did he despise cats? What did pets have to do with writing catalog copy on computer networking hardware, anyway?

When in doubt, tell the truth. But I wasn’t even sure what the truth was. I loved my cats. I loved my dog. I forced myself to imagine life without one or the other.

“Okay, I’m a dog person,” I said, guilty over the admission.

I got the job. I worked there seven years, until the company fell prey to its own horde of barbarians at the gate. But before that, I did ask the CEO about that question.

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” he said. “Whether you prefer cats or dogs tells me about your personality. If you don’t like animals at all, that tells me something, too.”

His tone hinted that disliking animals might be the wrong answer, but I couldn’t be certain. And he never explained exactly what feline or canine affinity told him.

I have a theory, but how about you? Are you a cat or dog person, and what, if anything, do you think that says about you?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Books, Books, Books, and a Page

by Gina Sestak

The title of my first college job was "Page." That was fitting, because I worked in a library. While most of the pages were compressed between the covers of the books, I got to roam around.

Working in a library is a great resource for a writer. You are surrounded by so much information. I found all kinds of things, including books on the origin of swear words, spells to invoke demons, and a collection of letters home written by 16th Century colonists in Georgia, among others. I spent my time reshelving books, working the check-out/return desk, and -- when no one in authority was watching -- catching a few minutes to read whatever looked interesting.

I found most of these interesting reads while reschelving books. Hillman Library didn't trust students to return books to their proper places in the stacks. Instead, there were book return areas where books would pile up. I would collect these books on a small cart, arrange them in order, and return them to the shelves. Sometimes, I worked the front desk, checking out books and checking in the ones that had been returned.

It was an interesting time to work the check-out desk. In my two-semester tenure, the library converted from a manual to a computerized check out system. First, let me describe the manual system:

Every book had a little pocket inside the front cover in which there was a card. When the book was checked out, this card received a color-coded plastic sleeve and was placed in a large flat bin with thousands of similar cards, in order. The color of the plastic cover indicated when the book was due. Once the due date passed, the over-due book cards could be pulled and threatening letters sent to the borrowers.

When the library computerized, the little cards were replaced with longer cards of strong paper. Like most computer fodder in those pre-online days, the cards were standard IBM-card size and had been hole-punched to identify the book. To check out a book, the borrower would take it to the desk where a staff person would feed the punched card into a computer the size of a small refrigerator, along with the borrowers student ID. The computer would read the card and ID, then spit them back out. The staff person would put the card back into the pocket in the book and the computer would periodically issue print-outs listing all of the books, who had them, and when they were due. From there the work was still mostly manual.

One of my more fun duties was climbing out onto a balcony beside the staircase to water a few plants. This wasn't really very dangerous, but I pretended that it was. I led a dull and boring life.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned the Library of Congress cataloguing system. I learned to savor the smell and texture of old books. I learned the origin of the "f" word. And I had a lot of fun.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Reading Goals, 2007 style

By Susan Helene Gottfried

This being January, many of my friends are making their reading goals for 2007. Often, they choose a number of books they'd like to read. Sometimes, they'll undertake a challenge -- can they read a book written by someone from every country? A book set in every one of the fifty states?

Any goal is an admirable one, especially if it's not too far-fetched.

So, without further ado, I'd like to lay out my two goals for the year.

The first is to do what I did in 2006: Read Less Crap. By crap, I mean a book I disliked so strongly, I didn't finish it. I only count the unfinished books in this category, although there are always the few that I skim, just to see if the ending is as bad as the rest of it.

In 2006, I counted 48 books as crap. In 2005, I counted 54. My choice of book must be improving, which is both good news and bad. The good is obvious. But the bad is because I have too many books here, waiting to be read. If I'm reading more to the end, I'm probably reading fewer books.

Which brings me to my second reading goal of 2007: reduce the number of books in the house. No easy feat, not when books are so easily available and so darn tantalizing.

However, one thing that'll help is that because I trade books online, instead of making a one-for-one trade, I can accumulate points for each book I send out instead. I'm planning to give some of those points away; one site will even let me donate them to book-related charities.

Another way to pare down my books is to give them away. I do a lot of this now, surprising people with something once I've finished it. I'm also planning to offer books as prizes for contests at my blog -- like the one I'm currently running, in fact.

This goal shouldn't be too hard to achieve -- assuming there aren't a lot of others who surprise me with books. Last year, there were. I even won a sweepstakes where I got about 50 books as my prize. And then there are the few books every month from people who have checked out my online wishlist and sent me a book, just as I do to others.

I'm appreciative of this; those books are on my wishlist for a pretty obvious reason. They aren't helping reduce the inventory, but they're welcome to arrive anyway.

I'll get there this year. I made a nice dent in the numbers in December, sending out many more than I received. Every time the stacks in here shrink, I feel more creativity emerge from the clutter. I can see out my windows again. If those two things aren't inspiration, I don't know what is.

Here's to a 2007 filled with great reads -- and attainable reading goals.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Deadlines and Patience

by Kristine Coblitz

I struggled to come up with a witty and informative topic for today’s post, but I kept coming up empty. The holidays are over, and it’s back to the daily drudge of being a working stiff. My life isn’t very interesting right now, which is probably why finding a compelling topic for this blog turned into a somewhat impossible task.

January is always a busy month in the magazine business. Due to the fact that no one seems to work during the month of December anymore, I’m forced to play catch up in getting my articles secured and press releases filed for the February issue, which is due to the printer in a week. I have to track down previous unanswered calls to sources for the March issue and expect these people to turn out 1,500-word articles for me in two weeks.

The tricky part is shutting off this part of the brain when it comes to my fiction writing projects. Over the holidays, I announced that I’d finish the second draft of my novel by the end of January. I’m realizing now that it may have been a bit optimistic.

I just finished reading a great book about writing called “Writing From The Inside Out” by Dennis Palumbo. In it, he talks a lot about overcoming the emotional roadblocks to writing such as fear, procrastination, and impatience. According to Dennis, writers are encouraged to take the “long view”—which means “being both energized and relaxed; enthusiastic and patient.” It means “just doing your work, day in and day out, forging your process out of the raw materials of your experience. Keeping your focus in the tension between building craft in the now and holding hope for the future.”

If you want to check out Dennis Palumbo’s website, click HERE. (FYI: According to the book, he's originally from Pittsburgh.)

So I’ve decided to be a bit easier on myself. I’m going to focus on my daily writing, working on developing my craft instead of stressing myself out over meeting a self-imposed and unrealistic deadline. I’ll leave the stress-induced deadlines for my day job working for the magazine.

As a parting thought, I leave you with another quote from the book, which is “Writers are better served by exploring more fully where they are now—and that requires patience.”

So I accept that I have a long way to go on my second draft, but if anyone has any tricks for being patient, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


by Tory Butterworth

These days, bipolar disorder seems to be all the rage. This fall, I watched several TV dramas which diagnosed a character as "bipolar." Many of the patients at my community mental health center job described themselves as "bipolar." My co-leader and I used to come up with slogans for our orientation group. Hers was, "Teaching Pittsburgh they're not bipolar, one client at a time." On some days, that's how it felt.

I can't say I understand this societal phenomenon. Bipolar is a hell of a disease, and I wonder if patients knew how devastating it is, whether they'd choose to label themselves that way.

Bipolar used to be called manic-depression. People with bipolar disorder are constantly on a roller coast ride between severe depression and mania. On the depressed end, this can include feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt, changes in eating (over- or under-), changes in sleep patterns (can't go to sleep or can't wake up), and recurrent thoughts of death.

On the manic end, bipolar people experience feelings of grandiosity, believing they're capable of things nobody can do. At this end of the spectrum they often sleep very little, their thoughts race, and they can't stop talking. They tend to get involved in risky activities, such as unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments. Some feel more angry than expansive in their manic phase, or when they're on their way up or down.

As mystery writers, we might tend to think of characters with bipolar disorder as our villains. When they are on the manic end of their cycle, these people are more likely to behave impulsively and commit arson, theft, take drugs, or engage in reckless driving. Most patients with bipolar disorder have little capacity for insight into themselves and what motivates them, and so they are frequently a pain in the ass to deal with.

Still, the majority people with bipolar disorder are law-abiding citizens. I might suggest a few other ways to integrate bipolar characters into your stories. One of your suspects could be bipolar, as he or she wouldn't think to cover their tracks. Someone in their manic phase could easily become the victim of a villain, as they are often impulsive and "out there."

In the TV show ER, writers used a bipolar character to provide back story. They introduced the bipolar mother of ER resident Abby Lockhart, played excellently by Sally Fields. She helped viewers sense the frustration and unpredictability of Abby's life as a child as well as to empathize with Abby's intense need for control as an adult.

So, what other ways might you use a character with bipolar disorder in your writing?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Who is Fred, really?

by Mike Crawmer

I’m obsessed with Fred. No, not my brother Fred. Obsession thrives on imagination unhampered by knowledge. I know my brother all too well.

This “Fred” is pure mystery. For one thing, I don’t even know if he exists. Or if “Fred” is a he or a she--or even human. But, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that “Fred” is a guy, not a Fredericka, or a pet or some cartoon character.

I first became aware of Fred last spring. I was cycling along the Southside Trail, waving to the engineers on passing freight trains, veering around wobbly weekend cyclists, and enjoying the good weather. Somewhere along the four miles between Ninth Street and the Glenwood Bridge this love note painted in white on the trail’s asphalt caught my eye: I LOVE FRED.

Graffiti is as much a part of Pittsburgh’s biking/hiking trails as the weeds that line these urban paths. On the Eliza Furnace Trail (aka the Jail Trail), the north-side wall (the one holding up Parkway East) is an exploding canvas of color for an ever-changing cast of “graffiti artists.” (BTW, I really don’t consider these people artists; in my book, they’re no better than strip mine operators and clear-cut loggers. Environmental destroyers all.) Some of their “art” hints at potential. Mostly, it’s little more than the juvenile scribblings of some bored kids with little talent and less regard for the public good.

Amid all this colorful, chaotic and incoherent chatter, I LOVE FRED was just another scribble. But, as spring morphed into summer, I LOVE FRED (or sometimes just FRED) started popping up everywhere. In black paint on benches. In red paint on the sides of port-o-johns. On large boulders and submerged barges. Whoever loved Fred certainly wanted to tell the world about this passion.

Then, one day last summer, this valentine to the mysterious Fred went from a trail-side advertisement to a giant billboard. Looking across the Monongehela River from the Southside Trail I couldn’t help but notice a new I LOVE FRED, this time in giant block letters--8, 10 feet tall at least--on a riverside wall.

While some of the other messages have faded or been painted over (bless the city’s beleaguered anti-graffiti crew), the giant I LOVE FRED lives on, difficult to reach and invisible to motorists passing overhead. By now I can’t help but see it every time I pedal down the trail. I’ve even taken to looking forward to seeing it, as if seeking reassurance that the artist’s love for Fred has not faded.

For all I know, the artist and Fred are no longer an item. Or maybe they’ve married and moved on, taking their love and their paints to another city. Then again, the artist may have been Fred all along, and these avowals of devotion are just his way of announcing this truth: that the graffiti artist’s first and only true love is himself.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Kathie Shoop

The last four months have brought substantial sickness to my home—at least three spells of strep per person to give you an idea. The last bout came a week ago and because the drugstore was backed up, I had the opportunity to take a close look around the new Walgreens in Oakmont.

Many of my writer friends have a thing for office supply stores. They rarely make it out of Staples without spending at least $100—not including the cost of manuscript copies.

For some reason my heart doesn’t beat a little faster when I’m in a Staples, but boy, set me loose in a drug store and I can’t whip my MAC card out fast enough.

First, I ambled down the baby aisle, feeling the urge for a third baby, marveling at how fast baby-care products change. Just two years ago I bought regular old diapers and sippy cups. Now, apparently, those same items do things like call your name when your child is wet or out of juice.

Next, I wandered into the skin care aisle. This one sported an unprecedented variety of body lotions, sprays, powders, and soaps with matching candles and air fresheners. Most interesting was a line of products called “Bodman.”

One fragrance in the Bodman line was “Really Ripped Abs.” Really? I thought only women were silly enough to think spraying one’s body with frangranced liquid could change, at the cellular level, flab to anything other than mushy lard. Another scent was called Black—licorice, maybe? And another, Fresh Blue Musk—well, who knows, but suffice it say I was surprised men had jumped so fully into the ocean of ridiculous body products.

I perused the make-up aisle and almost spent $110 dollars on liquid foundation, sponges to apply foundation, a new shade of lip-liner, eye-shadow, and foundation that is actually a powder. Juggling these products, a line of seventeen people gave me the time to realize I couldn’t imagine, not even in my writer’s mind, four successive days when I’d manage to apply one type of foundation, let alone two.

Empty-handed and back near the pharmacy section of the store, I checked out the plethora of home tests available. Drug tests for marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs and others I can’t now remember. Other kits checked for HIV, yeast infections, and even ear infections.

New pregnancy tests allow prospective parents to discern conception during intercourse and ovulation can be mapped out and charted with just one urine-drenched stick—yes, the stick actually fills out the chart for you.

Who needs an HMO with all this stuff available to the public? If only we could write and fill our own prescriptions then turn around and combine just the right ingredients to formulate a body spray called “You’ll look like Julia Roberts, You Dumb Ass,” we’d be in business.

New Year's Resolutions of Yesteryear

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

How many of us make New Year's resolutions? I do, but it doesn't involve soul searching or tons of concentration. I just slap something down and look at it periodically during the year, thinking lots of luck with that one or geez, that actually happened.

I've had two long term items on the list (in the over a decade category). The first has reappeared year after year for about the past twelve years: get an agent, get published, sell books and live happily ever after (I know. Let me keep my fantasies.).

That item won't budge, so I'm doing something wrong or not enough of the right stuff. I keep plugging away, gathering pearls of wisdom where they lie. Being a part of our Sisters has been inspirational. That item's back on the list for 2007. There may be hope because the second item finally came through.

I'm divorced and single for twenty years, and for at least fifteen of those I've resolved to meet/find/rope and hogtie a man suitable for a long-term relationship. Mr. Right was nowhere in sight.

Until right before Christmas three years ago when two of my friends died suddenly and there was no one there to comfort me. With elderly pets and parents, I realized I didn't want to face the hard stuff alone.

So I dove into online dating, something I said I'd never do. And on November 8, 2004, Alan Corn and I met in the corner booth of Eat 'N Park of Robinson Township. Oh, the wonders of The wedding's February 8, 2007.

So you see, even those long term resolutions have a chance of coming true. Hang on to those dreams and just figure they'll appear when the time is right.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Behind The Scenes

by Meryl Neiman

A few weeks ago, I received a rare privilege. The chance to go behind the scenes of the Pittsburgh Ballet production of the Nutcracker. My mother-in-law had purchased tickets for the entire family and the backstage tour was offered to large groups.

We began in the beautiful lobby of the Benedum, but quickly we crossed the threshold into a different world. This was a world of uneven stairs and narrow hallways. This was the story behind the story.

We saw the room where the dressers work. These are the ladies who are responsible for readying all of the costumes for the performance. On the day we toured, we had tickets for the 4:30 matinee. This was the second production of the three performances of the Nutcracker for that day. The costumes are now machine washable (in the old days, the poor performers had to endure the stench of each prior wearing) but these women have to wash all the costumes and have them back in their locations in about an hour and a half. Then the dressers are responsible for assisting with each of the many costume changes throughout the day.

We also learned more about these costumes. They are not made, they are built. The costumes must, and can, survive for years and years of hard use. These are the best made clothes you have ever seen. Each one is sewn by hand. Each bead, each jewel, is hand stitched onto the material. Some costumes have thousands of these individually sewn adornments.

The toe shoes worn by the ballerinas are kept in boxes by size. Although these shoes are themselves well upwards of a $100 a pair, some dancers go through a pair a day. Once the toe box becomes soft, the shoes are no longer usable.

The Benedum is huge compared to most theaters. The stage is the third largest in the country. Yet things behind the scenes still appear cramped. There are costumes hanging in wardrobes in the halls. The Chinese dragon rests perched along one wall.

My daughter's favorite part of the tour was the stage. The curtain was down. Dancers stretched and danced across the specially laid floor. Set pieces were housed along the side. There was the famous Kaufman clock. There were the carousel horses just waiting for the young dancers who propel them across the floor with their small feet.

We saw how the theater can stage multiple productions at the same time. And we saw where the stage manager sits. He is the boss of the show. He cues every action in the performance from the curtain rising to the final bows. He handles the unexpected, like what to do when the children in the cast are suddenly struck by chicken pox!

At the end of the tour, we stood in the audience in the front of the first balcony. We were the only ones in that part of the theater. At first, the curtain is down. It was an empty theater, devoid of magic. But then slowly things began to happen. We watched as the hands on the clock above the curtain moved into the correct position for the beginning of the ballet. The curtain came up. Sets appeared. Lights are dimmed. We saw that moment when the play behind the scenes merged with the production that the audience sees.

And then I realized. This was no different than the work we do as writers. Like the seamstress who hand secures each bead, we struggle to find the perfect word. Not so that the reader will stop and admire it, but so the whole piece will sing. The craft of writing isn't glamorous. Behind the scenes, we plot our books, we make sure that each character's arc is complete, we hone our theme, we add healthy doses of conflict and tension, and we sweat every detail, every word.

But like the Nutcracker, if we have done our jobs right, the reader won't notice any of our work. He will merely be taken away into our fictional world and given a hell of a ride.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


by Joyce Tremel

Most organizations rely on statistics to inform them how well they did the previous year. Corporations need to know how much money they made. Hospitals track how many patients were admitted. Stores want to know which customers bought what products. Police departments are no different. Township or city officials want to know how many calls the police responded to and for what.

Every month, approximately 17,000 police agencies in the country collect statistics and compile them into what is called a UCR, or Uniform Crime Report. This data is sent to the FBI, who has been charged with archiving these statistics. The FBI issues a yearly publication, Crime in the United States.

Anyone can view these crime statistics. Writing a book set in Chicago and need to know how many murders they had in 2002? Moving to Shaler and want to know how many burglaries we had in 2005? A couple of clicks of the mouse and you have an answer. Even if you don't need statistics, the FBI website is a wonderful source of information for writers. Check it out.

In case anyone is interested (or even if you're not, I'm going to tell you anyway), Shaler Township Police Department answered 9828 calls in 2006. (Guess who got to type most of those reports?) The highest number of calls were Emergency Medical Assists (1078).

In Shaler, police always respond to EMS calls. Everyone is trained in CPR and the AED, and many times the police arrive before the paramedics. There's also a chance the call could turn out to be something else. For instance, Aunt Mary calls 911 and says Uncle Bob had a cardiac arrest. The police arrive and find out Uncle Bob was really hit over the head with an iron skillet by Aunt Mary.

Not likely, but it could happen. And if not in real life, you can always put it in your book.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Left Brain/Right Brain

By Annette Dashofy

About two decades ago, when I was operating my own photography studio (this was about the same time as when I was working retail at the photofinishing kiosk), I took a workshop from a New Orleans photographer whose name escapes me at the moment. What I do remember as clearly as that day was a visual he shared regarding our need as creative professionals to switch from right-brained thinking (creative) to left-brained thinking (business). He painted a mental picture of a toggle switch on the top of our heads that we must constantly click back and forth. He pointed to the top of his own bald pate and insisted that he switched back and forth so often that he had worn all his hair off.

Thankfully, I still have a full head of hair, but I learned what he meant. As a photographer, I had to switch into right-brain mode to make beautiful portraits of my clients and then switch into left-brain mode to sell the portraits with the hopes of showing a profit.

I suspect that many aspiring writers dream of a life locked into the right-side of their brain, writing and writing and more writing. Let someone else worry about that left-brained stuff.

(Cue hysterical laughter)

These days, having a marketing plan which includes blatant self-promotion, getting your name out there in print and online, anything to build a readership is vital. Why do you suppose all of us Working Stiffs are desperately trying to entertain you? Hmm?

Included in the time I devote to my writing career are hours spent keeping my blog and website updated, printing out business cards, which I hand out to anyone who makes the mistake of asking how the writing is going, and assorted other attempts at building name recognition.

Some writers hate standing in front of a room full of people and talking about their work. I kind of like it. Hey, I teach yoga. I frequently stand in front of a room of strangers in Downward Facing Dog pose wearing yoga tights. Standing upright in a business suit is a piece of cake. Of course, it would be more fun if I actually had something to market, but I’m working on it.

The left-brained task that I’m less fond of is the same task that everyone is going to be dealing with over the next few months.

Tax preparation.

I spent several days last week up to my armpits in tissues (no, I wasn’t weeping…I have a cold) and receipts. I’m usually more organized about these things, but I had to put a lot of time and energy into getting my mom and dad’s financial and legal matters in order this year, so my own bookkeeping fell to the wayside. Taking advantage of vacation days that I was too sick to enjoy, I clicked over to my left brain and sifted through a pile of receipts. Sadly, the income portion of the task took very little effort or time. (sigh) Maybe in 2007…

There are still a few numbers remaining to be crunched, but I’m confident that I have sufficiently tackled my left-brained chores for the moment. I now intend to flick that toggle-switch back to right-brain and return to writing, writing, and more writing.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Memoir of a cluttered mind

by Judith Evans Thomas

With each passing year I find that my ability to concentrate for long periods of time has decreased. At first I assumed it was the process of aging or, going to extremes, a brain tumor. Worse yet, Altzheimers. I watched my stepfather die of that and quickly put it out of my mind. Or did I stop concentrating and just forget? I obsessed over this decreased ability for a couple of months until I had put myself into a real funk.

Last week I googled "concentration" and aside from a dizzying array of sites offering to help me, motivate me, cure me, and medicate me, one paragraph stood out as if it had been dipped in fluorescent paint and shot through the screen.

And this is the first paragraph that has changed my life:

Self Talk
Many people are not aware that as we perform tasks, including studying, we talk silently to ourselves. "Self talk" can be motivating - praising accomplishments, helping to sort out what to do next, monitoring progress and achievement. However, if it becomes overly evaluative or critical, self talk can have a negative effect on concentration. Have you ever started to write a paper, then given up in frustration because you can't even get through the first paragraph? An overly critical "inner editor" may be the culprit. Comparing your abilities to that of other students and having unrealistic expectations about how long or well you "should" be able to concentrate may also contribute to negative self talk. With coaching, you can learn to manage this distracting internal chatter.

Do you talk to yourself while writing? I do. It is distracting and tiring... like writing twice... without editing. I'm doing it now while writing this. I hear the words in my head and think about how they will read. Too much chatter kills the inner muse.

The second factoid that jumped out at me was the one about clutter. My desk is filled with "things to do." One folder marked "urgent" contains bills, thank you notes I need to write, column deadlines with ideas, to do lists about my novel, agent, kitchen granite and trip schedules. And this is when I realized that there was nothhing wrong with my mind. I was cluttered and chatty.

How do you deal?

Monday, January 01, 2007

C'mon January 2nd

by Brenda Roger

I was relieved of blogging duty on Christmas day by my fellow bloggers. This was a good thing for all. I don’t like Christmas. Blogging today, the first day of a new year, is more my speed. A new beginning is something I can really get behind.

New Year’s day is a great day to throw things away. You can get rid of papers you were holding on to for one reason or another. You can throw away all of the catalogs you thought you might need for Christmas shopping. It is even a good day to throw away socks and underwear and just start over in those two drawers. Something about starting 2007 in new underpants is appealing right?? I’ll see you in the gutchie department later today.

2006 was not too bad for the Roger pack. There was some sadness, yes, but also many accomplishments to build on in 2007. This is an improvement over some years, when I look forward to the year changing just hoping it will signal some kind of cosmic switch that gets the universe to stop messing with us.

Then there are the resolutions. It seems like a good time to change bad habits and adopt new and better ones. I love the idea of resolutions. They are just so darn hard to keep past January 3rd. Every year I say I’m going to be more organized. Sigh.

Some people make a resolution to stop making resolutions. I know from experience that is tricky territory. I’m still trying to make a comeback from giving up lent for lent.

Does anyone out there care to share resolutions or new beginnings? I’ll be in the office throwing away papers all day, so I’d love to hear from you. Although, I do need to go out for a bit to buy some new undies…….