Saturday, April 28, 2007

Important Moments in Writers' Conference History

by Cathy Anderson Corn

Attending writers' conferences has enriched my life, and I love listening to the people who make publishing happen. The whole process fascinates me, from paper and pens to computers and literary agencies. In that spirit, let us examine pitching experiences to agents and editors in my past conferences.

My first conference, the Pennwriters. I've completed a science fiction novel and have an appointment with a sci fi editor. I am clueless, completely terrified, and cannot speak in complete sentences. I clutch an index card with notes on it. She asks questions and shoots down my novel. I go away less terrified and mostly humbled.

Several conferences later, I attend the Columbus Writers' Conference. I'm to see an editor for my appointment for a paranormal mystery. As I walk into the room, I hear a woman talking with a big guy at a table in the back. She says, "Don't worry, it'll be fine. You'll do a great job." "It's his first conference," she says to me.

The editor is more terrified than I am, but he makes an amazing recovery and is helpful about my book proposal. His only fault is that he doesn't offer to publish my book for $100,000. This conference still humbled me, but I had some fun, too.

Let's skip to the Pennwriters Conference of two years ago. My burning need to make money as a novelist urges me to become vulnerable to the forces of publishing. My appointment with a big agent nearly reduces me to tears. Not only does he not recognize Great Talent, but I can't even understand his critique (others experience this, too, to their great delight).

The read and critique group at this conference should have been renamed "read and trash group," as that's what they do with my two pages of manuscript. Two of the three authors are so viscious I want to dim the lights to see if their red eyes glow in the dark.

There may have been more, but amnesia has gratefully taken over to salvage my mangled ego. At this conference I wasn't so much humbled as crucified.

Last year I attended no conferences.

The Pennwriters Conference this year is May 18-20, and yes, I'll be there. I'll enjoy the company of writers, learn lots, even speak with an agent or editor. But my cavalier attitude will see me through the rough spots, for in my inner knowing, that which I seek will be found elsewhere.

In the spirit of The Law of Attraction and other books on making your life what you want it to be, I realize I can call upon the bounty of the universe to get me where I'm going. No more struggles and humiliations, no more anti-perspirant failure. After all, my thoughts determine my world and what is in it.

Check back later for an updated blog: Gonna Manifest Me an Agent. This should be the most fun of all and will prove that history need not repeat itself.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Are Those Real?

By Lisa Curry

Last fall, my sons, ages 7 and 9, had a day off school. My mother-in-law and I both took the day off work to take the boys on our annual pilgrimage to a toy store that puts on a big Christmas display. Afterward, as a matter of tradition, we had lunch at a nearby family restaurant.

When the waitress came to take our orders, she looked at me and asked, “Are those real?”

If I were someone else, I might have thought she meant my breasts. But anyone who’s ever met me can tell you there are eleven-year-olds far better endowed than I am in that area.

So what was she talking about – my curls, maybe? They’re real, although their original color, dark brown, has long since departed and is now chemically reproduced.

“Your eyes, I mean,” the waitress said.

That conjured a mental image of the skinny blond pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with a fork stuck in his wooden eye. I tried not to laugh, but I knew what she meant.

I have blue eyes. Just garden-variety blue, not some bizarre violet or turquoise shade nature never produced. Still, people occasionally ask if my eyes are really that blue or if I wear colored contacts.

I told her they were real.

“They’re pretty,” she said, and I thanked her.

I would guess that according to Emily Post, asking a person if her eye color – or curly hair, breasts, diamond ring, whatever – is real is probably a breach of etiquette. But let’s face it, out in the real, everyday, working world, there are plenty of people like that waitress, who don’t mean to be rude, but are simply curious. So it would seem mean-spirited to respond to the question with, “None of your beeswax.”

And, really, if you’re blessed with a feature that causes people to question its authenticity, you might as well take it as a compliment, right?

But what if the answer is no? What if you do wear colored contacts, get your hair permed, or have breast implants, and someone asks you, “Are those real?” Then how do you answer?

Pondering that reminded me of a story I heard at one of my sons’ baseball games. A bunch of the parents had gone to an adults-only party at a neighborhood pool the night before and were discussing a woman who’d drank too much, shed half her bikini, and swam topless.

One boy’s mother laughed and said, “That was my aunt, visiting from out of state. She’s a 45-year-old breast-cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy. If she wants to get drunk and show off her new boobs, can you blame her?”

Well, no, honestly, I can’t.

What do you think that woman would say if someone asked her if her breasts were real?

I bet she’d say, “Hell, no, they’re not real. I paid thousands for these babies. Check them out!”

Drunken skinny-dipping aside, we can all take a lesson from that woman.

Today, let’s celebrate ourselves – the parts of us that were gifts of the gene pool, the parts we bought and paid for, the parts that are less than perfect that we’ve learn to live with.

Let’s just celebrate being alive.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Next Big Thing

by Joyce Tremel

For several years, I’ve nagged people to keep their cars locked even if they’re parked in their driveways. Now I’ve discovered that’s not good enough.

Although copper pipe thefts from houses is still big, the latest crime wave is the theft of catalytic converters from vehicles. What’s a catalytic converter, you ask? It’s an emissions control device that is located under the car on the muffler. A thief with a Sawzall can remove it in as little as two minutes. In Shaler, we’ve had several reports where cat converters were stolen from vehicles in a car dealer’s lot and from several auto repair facilities. It appears to be a nationwide problem.

Catalytic converters contain three precious metals--platinum, rhodium and palladium. Market prices for these metals range from about $350 an ounce for palladium to over $5000 an ounce for rhodium. Scrap dealers who advertise in the local Green Sheet are buying catalytic converters for $100 a piece. If a thief steals a dozen in an hour, that’s a nice payday. Scrap dealers then sell them to companies who remove the precious metals. If you have one stolen from your car, it could cost over $2000 to replace it, depending on the vehicle.

Fortunately, few of these thefts occur in residential neighborhoods. Thieves target places they can do multiple vehicles without being seen. A Sawzall firing up in someone’s driveway might draw a little too much attention. Most thefts seem to occur in places like Park and Ride lots, car dealers, or auto repair shops where people leave their cars overnight. Last week, I had an appointment to have my car inspected. In the past, we’d drop the car off the night before, but this time we waited until morning. I’d rather be inconvenienced than have a huge repair bill.

All in all, I guess some of these thieves aren't as dumb as we think. Stealing catalytic converters sounds like an easy way to make $1200 an hour. Anyone got a Sawzall?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


by Tory Butterworth

I don't know about you, but I'm not a big believer in the, "Not Guilty by reason of insanity," plea. I've worked with many clients from dysfunctional families, including sadistic and/or abusive parents. Some of these clients are the nicest people you'll ever meet, with a great capacity for empathy with others' pain. Of course, some sadistic and/or abusive people also come from such backgrounds. Still, it proves to me that there can be many different responses to the same dysfunctional environment.

I was reminded of why we need the insanity defense when I met a patient I'll call Joe (not his real name.)

Joe believed the FBI was chasing him. He got on a bus and rode across the country, exiting somewhere in Utah. Scared he was being followed, he stole the nearest car, and in due time was caught and arrested.

Now, I don't know about you, but if I thought the FBI was chasing me, I might well have done the same thing. The problem, of course, was that the FBI didn't have anything to do with it. It was all in Joe's head.

Joe complained that the people next door where listening in on his thoughts. He said he wanted to move to Minnesota to get away from it. I asked him how it would be different for him in Minnesota. He said, "In Minnesota, if they're listening, they don't talk about it!"

This is what clinicians call, "psychotic," being out of touch with reality. A number of conditions can cause psychotic symptoms, including dehydration, severe lack of sleep, and abuse of certain substances. Several different psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder and depression with psychotic features, can also cause psychosis.

The most common cause of psychosis, however, is schizophrenia. Epidemiologists estimate one in 100 people in this country are schizophrenic. Average people sometimes use "schizophrenic," to mean having a split personality. The mental health diagnosis, however, is part of a much broader disease that can lead to progressive mental disorganization.

To follow up on the, "Creating Believable Villains," theme of my last few blogs, I believe that psychotic people can make sympathetic villains, if the author can show how their actions arise from their distorted thoughts. However, it is usually difficult to disguise psychosis (most people can tell that someone who's psychotic is acting weird, even if they don't understand why) and so it may be difficult to make it a surprise that this type of villain committed a crime.

Any of you crime writers out there considering making your villain guilty by reason of insanity?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blogging and the ASJA

by Judith Evans Thomas

Part of the job of a working writer is keeping up with the market and to me that means attending Writer's Conferences. To that end I spent the weekend in New York City at the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors, Inc.) Conference. Because the group is composed mainly non-fiction journalists and authors, most workshops were geared to making the most of the non-fiction story.

The Friday, members only day, had workshops on Travel Writing, Contract Preparation and Negotiation, Writing for Foreign Markets, Pitching your story, and Writing Humor That Pays. On that panel, I heard from Carrie Thornton, senior editor at Three Rivers Press, that there is a thriving market for humor...with a twist. Her latest NYTimes bestseller, "Why Do Men Have Nipples?" is actually a question and answer science book. Another panelist, Jen Singer (14 Hourst til Bedtime) took her experiences as a new mother and started a successful online blog, and parlayed that into a series of national magazine articles and, most recently a contract to write a script for JibJab

The Afternoon sessions included:
Screenwriting with David Title, head of development at Crossroads Films as well as Janet Roach, the Academy Award Nominee for adaptation of Prizzi's Honor.

with agents Liza Dawson and Janet Rosen along with editors Toni Sciarra and Michele Wells.
Internet Writing or How to make $4,000 a Week Selling on your own.

I could go on for another hour about what I learned, who I met and how much the networking meant to me, but I want to focus on the last speaker of the last day...who changed the way I will do business forever. Sree Sreenivasan is the Dean of Students and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. He is also a tech writer for WNBC-TV. His web tips for journalists and links to sites of interest were astounding. To get your very own copy go to Sree's website. Bottom line of his three hour talk....GOTTA BLOG. I'm continuing this on my other blog, Glamgal so if you want updates on Sree come on over.

As to the keynote speaker, Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass House told a riveting story of coming from a very poor southern family and ending up Barnard educated, interviewing celebrities for MSNBC and living on Park Avenue while her mother remained homeless and she felt ashamed. The book is her own coming of age tale of embracing and allowing her past to set her free.

To see the full schedule and participants go to the ASJA Conference Website.


I Heart Information

by Brenda Roger

I love information. I’ve always loved information. Facts. Yummy. The word tastes sweet in my mouth. Living in the information age confirms for me that, although I prefer clothes and movies from the forties and fifties, I was born at the right time.

Not having information makes me homicidal. Lately, I seem to be caught in a tangle of situations without enough information.

I’m filling in at work for a colleague on maternity leave. Everyday, there are expectations of me that in order to be fulfilled would require specific information. The institution in question is about to borrow two vintage Mercedes Benz cars, and labels need to be written for the display. That task has fallen to me. I have a degree in art history. Cars are cool. They are sculpture. I like all things red and shiny. Cars are often red and shiny. How would that look on a label? Because that’s what I know about cars. Oh, and it is actually someone else’s job to be writing labels for the cars. It’s, uh, the car guy’s job.

On Friday, I was told to pull up the such and such agenda and then e-mail so and so about it. Did you understand that? If I quoted exactly what was said, you still wouldn’t understand. There wasn’t any information in the original version either. It was also, 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. Is that the best time to send someone an ambiguous email about a meeting agenda (with no information in it)?

I’m working on a timeline for the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art. It is a thirty-foot long collage of pictures and newspaper articles. It has been somewhat fun, but I keep experiencing anxiety about putting the pictures in the right order. I agonize over whether something is from 1957 or 1967, and then I remember a very important piece of information –I WASN’T BORN UNTIL 1973! How would I know?

I have a blackberry. I would say that I use it, but I think I just have it. Last night, I tried to change one of the e-mail accounts on my blackberry. After forty-five minutes I had to call tech support. They asked me if I’m using a something or other, or a such and such. I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I just wanted to change “” to “” at the end of my email address. There was a space to enter the “ESN” on one of the login screens. Does anyone out there know what “ESN” stands for? Anyone? Anyone? After a frustrating hour of spewing expletives and being on hold, my blackberry is back in action. Now I can resume getting the informationless e-mails that flood my mailbox.

These are just examples that I can remember from the last three or four days. These instances have been flying at me rapid fire. It is making me homicidal. The next person who does this to me is going to be in for it. Luckily, I’m only armed with words, so here’s what I’m going to say:

Do you order pizza? How do you think it would work out if you asked the pizza guy for a pizza and gave him no other information? Based on the information you just gave to me, I would have to guess that when he gets there with a plain pizza, you are mad at him because he didn’t put on the pepperoni and mushrooms, and how dare he assume you wanted a large? Now, do you wanna try to ask me for that again?

Then I’ll take a deep breath and remember the words of the great orator, Pee Wee Herman, who said, “it’s like you're trying to unravel a giant, cable-knit sweater, and someone just keeps knitting, and knitting, and knitting, and knitting…………………..

Saturday, April 21, 2007


by Gina Sestak

My first full-time job after law school was as a senior research associate with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Law & Psychiatry Program. I was part of an interdisciplinary team -- one psychiatrist, two lawyers, and three sociologists. We wrote a book about informed consent to psychiatric treatment, based upon a study of the implementation of the newly enacted Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act. Two of the sociologists were embedded in hospital settings, one with the staff and the other with patients. They made copious notes of what they saw and heard in an admissions unit, in an outpatient treatment clinic, and on an in-patient research ward.

For the purposes of our study, informed consent to treatment was broken down into five components: voluntariness, competence, information, understanding, and decision. It was my job to review the sociologist's notes and code them according to this model.

It is noteworthy that the first component listed was voluntariness -- consensual treatment presumes that the afflicted person will seek help. But not all people with mental health issues do so.

A question that has come up repeatedly since the shootings at Virginia Tech is this: why wasn't the obviously mentally ill shooter forced to undergo treatment, or at least locked up where he couldn't hurt anyone? A century ago, he could have been institutionalized for years upon the say-so of a doctor or two, but nowadays laws designed to protect the mentally ill from that kind of warehousing made that difficult. Laws designed to protect patient privacy made it illegal to even tell his parents how far gone he was.

In trying to understand what happened at Virginia Tech, it is important to remember that "mentally ill" and "dangerous" are not synonyms. Most people who have psychiatric diagnoses never commit murders; most murderers are nominally sane.

Generally speaking, no one in the United States can be involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness unless, in the opinion of an examining psychiatrist, that person is a present danger to self or others. That is, unless someone is suicidal or homicidal, or so seriously impaired as to be unable to manage day-to-day life functions (such as eating), that person cannot be involuntarily committed or, if committed, cannot be held beyond an initial short commitment period during which an evaluation is performed.

It is not always easy to predict dangerousness. The best predictor of dangerousness has been shown to be past acts -- people who have done dangerous things before are more likely to do dangerous things in the future than are people who have never done anything dangerous. It is interesting to me as a writer that the person who spotted Cho's dangerous tendencies was not the examining psychiatrist during his one short commitment but his writing teacher.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm Coming Out

by Kathryn Miller Haines

I have a book coming out, and suddenly it’s all anyone wants to talk about.

The problem is, while it’s all I can think about, it’s the last thing I want to talk about. For years, writing was my dirty little secret. I have three jobs (now that writing has become part of my income tax): I run a special collections library at an academic institution whose name rhymes with spit, I run and perform in a dinner theatre company, and I tell lies for fun and profit. I have always kept the day job entirely separate from the others, as though it wasn’t performing and writing I was doing in the evenings, but crime fighting under a secret identify. With the acting thing my logic was simple: I didn’t want anyone I knew to come to any of my shows because the minute I did the staid, responsible librarian would get confused with the girl who speaks with a funny accent, sings offkey and dances around in costumes that make my own husband say, “for God’s sake, put on a sweater.” There is no dignity in dinner theatre, but there is good money.

Naturally, one day those worlds collided and someone I knew from work (inadvertently) came to one of my shows. I am pleased to say she is no longer employed by said academic institution.

My reasons for not talking about my writing were more complex. For years I had nothing to show for it other than a stack of rejection letters and as we all know, those make for poor conversation and even poorer toilet paper (chaffing you know). I was convinced I was going to never get published and I didn’t want to face premature rejection by talking about a book that wasn’t finished with people who might not know any better than to voice their opinions. That was what my critique group was for. And they give me cookies along with their cold, hard reality.

When I got my agent and sold two books, I didn’t know how to adjust. Suddenly anytime I talked about the book deal felt like bragging. Worse, my already anxious persona was riddled by more anxiety: sure I got a book deal, but what if the publisher changes their mind? What if the book doesn’t sell? What if it gets terrible reviews? What if I get a slew of letters pointing out historical inaccuracies? What if I can’t write the second book? What if I die of spontaneous combustion right before my release date? It was easier to remain silent than to let all those fears creep into conversation where they’d either convince the listener that I was an ungrateful idiot, or reveal far too much about my tenuous grip on reality.

Word about the book has slipped out though, as it’s bound to do when you have an Italian mother, but I’ve still managed to keep the whole thing relatively quiet at my day job. I told two people – the folks I work directly with – and even then my announcement was framed in such a way that you would’ve thought I was informing them of some disease I’d been stricken with that I wanted them to know about just in case it caused problems in the future. Some of my student workers found out too (the little buggers have a way of eavesdropping on my phone conversations) but they know that if they displease me, they won’t get paid. Mistress Kathy doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

That’s about to change though. I know I need publicity to sell books, and I need to sell books because a gal can’t work three jobs for the rest of her life. So I’m trying to work past my discomfort and let the world know that I HAVE A BOOK COMING OUT. I just hope I survive the experience.


News Junkie

by Kristine Coblitz

When I was in college studying journalism, one of my professors proudly announced she was a news junkie. She would boast about the numerous televisions she had in her home, all of which were tuned to news channels 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I had visions of her home being like CNN headquarters.

I guess her influence rubbed off on me because I have followed in her mental footsteps, but of course to a lesser degree. This can be both a blessing and a curse. There are times when I have to step away and escape into a blissful state of denial where bad things don't happen. My overactive mind can only take so much, after all.

This week, for example, I'm not enthusiastic about being a news junkie. As many other people, I'm scratching my head at the devastation and horrific shooting that rocked Virginia Tech earlier this week. My husband and I spent most of Monday evening watching Fox News with sadness and in awe, discussing images and details of what they are calling the worst school massacre in our nation's history. (Yes, my news junkie tendencies have rubbed off on my husband, too.)

Ever since then, I've been trying to catch clips on TV about the latest developments, and when on the computer, I keep watch on the news headlines. I've also been paying close attention to how the media is covering this story and the tactics of the various reporters.

This is scary stuff, folks. When I think back to my college days in downtown Pittsburgh, the worst thing I had to worry about was if a delay at the bus stop would make me late for class. It was a small college and I felt relatively safe there, even in the heart of the city. Heck, I spent most of my life during those four years on that campus.

In light of this situation, however, when I look back, there were some definite security issues that should have raised some red flags. Maybe I was too young to notice. Maybe I didn't care because I was at an age when I thought I was invincible. Maybe it's because the world was a much different place then.

Now that I'm a crime writer (yet still a journalist at heart), my interest and obsession with the news has two different motivations. In one way, I'm always looking for material to pipe into my fiction. In another way, I have an almost obsessive need to know what's going on in the world. I want to know all the details. Who, what, when, where, get the idea. Although I must admit the “why” part is what intrigues me the most and is usually the most difficult question to answer.

The frustrating part is that, unlike fiction, events like this shooting don’t usually have a happy ending or even a satisfying one like you get in a novel. (Long live the book industry!) In real life, we are often left with even more troubling questions long after the case is solved.

As more details come in about this monumental tragedy in our history, you can bet I'll be paying attention. Will you?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Country Cold Case

by Annette Dashofy

I suspect most folks assume that life in the country can be summed up with words like serene, quiet, and peaceful. Murder, mayhem, and intrigue probably don’t enter into the equation. In fact, the only thing mysterious about farm life these days is how anyone makes a living at it. And years ago, farm living was even more tranquil, right?

Not necessarily.

Even as a child, I loved a good mystery. And from as early as I can remember, I often heard one story in particular repeated in hushed tones. My own family’s cold case. I’ve changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent because newer generations of all involved continue to reside in the area.

My maternal grandmother’s family owned the Andrews farm, two farms over from my maternal grandfather’s family farm. Yes, it was a romance between neighboring farm boy and farm girl, but that’s another tale for another time. When Great Grandpap Andrews died back in the early 1940s, he willed the farm to his oldest son Pete who ran the operation with his brother Charlie until Pete’s death a few years later. Both men were old bachelors and when Charlie took over, a couple of men from a poor immigrant family, moved in as hired help. Other Andrews family members frowned upon the arrangement and the way the Mastro family seemed to be isolating Charlie from his other brothers and sisters. They also seemed to be making all the major decisions for Uncle Charlie, with or without his approval.

Then one day Uncle Charlie was found dead in the barn. The Mastros arranged for a quick burial. Neighbors nagged at the surviving Andrews that an investigation should be conducted. But none was. And while everyone assumed that younger brother Dale and his wife would inherit the farm, when the will was read, Uncle Charlie had left the family property to the Mastros instead.

This all transpired years before my birth, but as a child I remember that anytime someone in my family mentioned the Mastros, the name was spoken in hushed, venomous tones. Not quite a full blown Hatfields and McCoys type of feud, but I knew better than to associate with any of them.

Several years ago, one of the Mastros who had been involved in the suspicious dealings was murdered. My sweet unassuming (grudge-carrying) mother calmly said at the time, “Well, the Andrews farm didn’t do him any good did it?”

No, I can’t quite make the connection either. I guess that’s her way of saying What goes around, comes around. Rural karma.

Personally, even with all we don’t know, I think it makes for a great mystery. Maybe this should be the basis for my next short story. Or even a novel. What do you think? Cold Case: Green Acres.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Write Time

by Joyce Tremel

I don’t know about the rest of you but I need more hours in the day. Is there someone we can petition about this? I’ve tried the Big Guy Upstairs, but He turned me down. Said I have to make do with what I have. If He wanted more than twenty four hours in a day, He’d have made them. After all, He created the entire universe in seven days, so I’ll just have to deal with it. Not exactly what I wanted to hear.

Most days, I do okay with the time allotted me. I get up, go to work, come home, make dinner, do dishes, laundry and whatever else needs done. If I’m lucky I can write for an hour. Lately though, that’s not good enough.

I want more time to write. Preferably uninterrupted time.

Here’s what usually happens: I’ll be immersed in writing a scene. I have the dialogue all worked out in my head. I know exactly what I want to write next. My fingers are flying over the keyboard. Then someone in my family has the nerve to talk to me. How dare they! And it’s usually something like, “Mom, did you see the cat?” or “Honey, remind me to move that money from savings to checking.” You get the idea. Whatever that next sentence was going to be is now gone forever.

I’ve taken to writing after everyone goes to bed, which works most nights. But some nights, I’m just too damned tired. Ten o’clock is late when the cat wakes me at five-thirty to get her food that she doesn’t eat anyway. Forget about writing that early in the morning. It’s gibberish at that hour.

Over the weekend, I made a lot of progress. I wrote almost ten pages on Sunday. I had some of that all-important uninterrupted time, so the words flowed. If I could do that every day, I’d be very happy. Unfortunately, my next two weekends are booked solid, so forget about that happening.

I’d like to hear how everyone else manages their time, especially those of you with jobs outside the home and families to take care of. (For anyone who thinks it’s easier when the kids get older—hah! Are you in for a surprise!) How do you squeeze in the time to write? And how do you keep from getting cranky when you don’t?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Greenwood Cemetery

Pat Hart

Hey, writer pals I started a new book...okay I should finish the one I'm 150 pages into or rewrite the one that's done and sell it but this new one's got me sucked in. Here's the opening scene:

Dad and Will pushed the body in a wheelbarrow up the hill through the silent graveyard. The body was trussed up in a burlap sack so we didn’t have to look at the busted up mouth and dead eyes.

Bobby was down in the grave tossing up shovel fulls of heavy clay. He’d just closed this grave up this afternoon, so, the despite the frozen ground, the digging was easy.

I stood next to my mother but there was no comforting arm extended from either of us. Guess the digging wasn’t easy between us either; things had been buried too long, secret things.

My jeans were frozen; I clenched my thighs to keep the cold denim off my skin. I hunched my shoulders up so the wide collar of my pea coat covered the frozen edges of my ears.

Dad and Will stood panting from the exertion of the uphill climb, their breath making clouds in cold air. The gusts of wind snatched the clouds and threw them down the valley, towards our faintly lit house.

The scrape of shovel on wood drew us all to edge of the grave to look down on Bobby’s red hair, darkened by sweat to the color of an orange brick. Will extended his hand and Bobby climbed up.

“Awright,” Dad said.

My brothers lifted the body. Bobby grabbed the feet and Will hooked his arms under the shoulders, the burlap-encased head lolled against Will’s belt buckle. Without needing to count, the boys swung the body between them, letting go as it reached the top of the arc over the open grave. The body paused for a moment, then gravity dragged it into the open grave. It landed with a muffled thud, bouncing a little on the coffin at the bottom of the grave.

Will and Bobby filled the grave.

In a few days a new tombstone would be set. It would read: Franklin D. Newkirk, Beloved husband, father, brother and friend, 1920-1976. There’d be no mention of the 28-year-old white man who’d be “unofficially” sharing Mr. Newkirk’s Greenwood Cemetery grave, undetected, God willing, until judgment day.

My Dad stood the foot of the filled grave, the boys panting and leaning on their shovels “This is done,” he said. “You’re not to talk about this to me, your mother or each other. Ever.” Then he held his hand out to my mother and they walked back to the house hand in hand. The boys and I trailed after.

I went to bed that night in awe at the power of lying, ambivalent about the value of truth.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crazy Like A Fox?

by Brian Mullen

Last night my wife and I had dinner with my mother-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law. As with most Americans, I suspect, the conversation eventually turned to the Freak Show that is Hollywood and, specifically, to Miss Britney Spears and her previously bald head. At that time my sister-in-law went all "TV Detective" on us and gave us some mystery "food for thought." Consider...

FACT #1: On Feb 17, 2007, Britney shaves off all her hair.

FACT #2: On Feb 20, 2007, Britney enters rehab in an American facility.

FACT #3: American rehab centers are regulated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

FACT #4: SAMHSA's rules include mandatory federal drug testing that include specimens of hair. "Hair testing provides longer detection periods (approximately 90 days) and is particularly well suited and effective in pre-employment and random testing. The shorter detection periods available with urine or saliva are effective with post accident and reasonable suspicion testing."

Adding to this, in my now suspicious mind, is that Britney went into a non-American rehab center on Feb 16, 2007 and stayed less than a day. Did they attempt drug testing on her hair forcing her to flee? Did she realize she'd have to shave the incriminating follicles off before they could reveal 90-day evidence of substance abuse. Did she fear the information becoming public, especially seeing how she was then involved in a custody battle for her children?

There are mysteries everywhere you look. Some food for thought.

Friday, April 13, 2007

April Showers

By Susan Helene Gottfried

I love April. Yes, even though I sit here clad in my favorite winter fleece, I love this month.

Maybe it's the unpredictability of the weather. The fact that April refuses to conform and insists on throwing us, day after day, a curve ball.

In many ways, I am the same as April. That's fitting, as I am an April baby. The month and I reflect each other. We compliment each other, we contradict each other. That's how I like it.

Most of the major events in my life have taken place in April. Not just my birthday, but my Bat Mitzvah, too. I graduated from college and passed my oral exams to officially earn my MFA in creative writing in April. I started my blog a year ago, in April. And this month so far, I've won awards and accolades.

About the only thing that hasn't happened in April was my wedding, which happened at the end of March. And what tends to follow a wedding but children -- neither of whom were born in April. Not for lack of trying, however.

Given all of these Aprilian warm fuzzies, you'd think I'd love my birthday. Remember, though, April and I are unpredictable. And, thus, I loathe my birthday.

It's not that I mind getting older. Not at all; I've earned these years. Even though I wonder if I should act sedate and wear pastel flowered clothing, I like where I am. I like the paths I'm on.

The problem with my birthday is simple. No matter how little I expect, I never get it. Oh, the Tour Manager is stellar on birthdays, don't get me wrong. And my parents never forget to send an e-mail. It's everyone else who presents the problem.

A few years ago, I declared the entire month of April to be my birthday. Despite the fact that you only had a one-in-30 chance of getting the actual day right, you were never wrong when you wished me a year's worth of blessings.

I had a friend who, a few years back, rose to the challenge of getting the day exactly right. Every single April day, he sent me a birthday greeting of some sort. A joke. An e-card. Every single day.

We've fallen out of touch since then, but I still treasure his effort. Just like April, it was unpredictable and wild -- and fun. It made me, for once, not hate my birthday.

This year, with the Penguins in the playoffs, I've got an equally good reason to draw the cheer out. I declared that my family was going to get dressed up and have dinner in a local seafood restaurant… only to have the playoffs interrupt our plans.

Well, it's April. If there weren't snags in the plan, I'd worry. And if we have to wait until May for my birthday dinner because the Pens are kicking the Senators back to Ottawa, that's a present in and of itself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Some Book Reviews

by Nancy Martin

Writers read differently than readers. We're always evaluating, noticing technique, judging the wordsmithing, and thinking three steps ahead of the author we're supposed to be enjoying. It takes a lot to pull me fully into a story now. I read a lot of first 50 pages and then toss the novel aside when the work doesn't measure up. But when I fall in love with a good book, I fall hard.

Writers also read a variety of books. Not just our own genre--although we know it's important to stay current--but also books that inspire, supply much-needed research information, and/or let us relax and enjoy.

Here's what some of us are reading at the moment:

From Kathy: I'm reading THE COTTAGERS by Marshall Klimasewiski. It's a minatream novel with a suspense base. A young man stalks/peep-toms a woman among four cottagers in a resort town. The novel unfolds slowly and is very interior.

Kristine says: I'm reading IT AIN'T ALL ABOUT THE COOKING, by Paula Deen. I know it's not a mystery, but I'm a fan of The Food Network, and I must say that this biography, autobiography is so inspiring and very well written. Paula's honesty in this book and her unwavering commitment to her passion of cooking is an inspiration to anyone, even writers.

From Sylvia: I'm reading THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL: MARY ROGERS, EDGAR ALLAN POE AND THE INVENTION OF MURDER by Daniel Stashower. I have conflicting feelings about this read. The book has taught me that sometimes a writer is best at a distance. Knowing too much about the author can get in the way of appreciating their gifts. I don't even like to look at the author's photo on the flyleaf. On the other hand, I am intensely curious about people and there is something compelling about Poe's relentless self destruction. The flaws of the famous do fascinate. And Poe's craving for money, fame and professional recogniztion--heartbreaking.

Annette says: I am once again savoring Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD. I take something new and wonderful from it with each reading. Where else can you learn to listen to your broccoli, tune out radion station KFKD, and finish that shitty first draft? Love it.

Nancy says: I just finished Peter Speigleman's RED CAT, which I purchased--truth be told--because of the racy cover art and a bookseller's whispered, "It's a really, really sexy book!" In the sexy department, I must admit I was disappointed. (I think it's a man's idea of sexy. To me--not so much.) This is a pretty standard private-eye-investigates-sordid-murder-story, and because it never got racy, I found myself annoyed and disappointed. (This was my problem, because I came into the book with expectations, right?) But the author's excellent writing won me over. No overblown, "mean streets" melodrama. Good, clean, evocative writing. Kudos.

Also from Nancy: I didn't get around to reading Lisa Scottoline's DIRTY BLONDE until it came out in paperback. I'm sorry I waited. The story of a judge with a dirty secret, this suspenseful mystery opens with a bang and keeps up a blistering pace. The protagonist is a complex character worthy of further discussion, so I hope somebody else reads this one. This author gets better and better. I'm looking forward to DADDY'S GIRL, out in hardcover now.

From Lisa: Believe it or not, I'm on page 140--right smack-dab in the middle--of A CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED DEATH by Nancy Martin, and I'm loving it. Nora and Mick are together, which always makes me happy. Emma's funny and delightful, and Libby's annoying, and I can't wait to find out who killed Penny Devine. Or if she's even really dead... It's a page turner!

What about you? Where is your bookmark right now?

Personality Disorder

by Tory Butterworth
In fiction, when we think about, "character," we think about the unique traits that make one person distinct from another. These include mannerisms and ways of speaking and also, on a deeper level, characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In psychology, such traits are considered, "personality." There is an entire branch of psychology devoted to studying it.

In therapy, there is something called a "personality disorder," when a patient's personality is their basic problem. This brings up an interesting question: when does someone's personality help them and when does it get in their way?

The DSM-IV, the list of diagnoses from the American Psychiatric Association that is used by most mental health agencies, defines a personality disorder as, "An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture." In other words, it's when someone's personality does not fit with their environment.

I would take this one step further. For me, a personality trait becomes a personality disorder when it is so rigid that the person can't modify it to fit the situation they find themselves in.

Think about the trait of stubbornness. Many times this is a good thing. Stubborn people stick with problems long after others have given up, and so they may solve a problem which others don't. However, all of us have the "Vietnam wars" in our lives, times when we need to let something go. Ordinary stubborn people do this reluctantly. People with a personality disorder may never let go, even if it hurts their life and relationships.

All good traits have their dark side. A sense of humor is usually a good thing, but we all know people who take this too far, who crack jokes at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. Intelligence is valued in our culture, but goes too far when someone relies on it to the exclusion of their feelings.

I'd like you to try an experiment. Think of something you like about your spouse/ child/ coworker/ friend/ neighbor. Doesn't that trait, at the wrong place and time, annoy you? My next door neighbor is a very friendly person, but his mindless chatter with his friends on his back deck (right next to mine) can bug the hell out of me when I'm writing.

Let me know what you come up with.

The hardest traits to see, of course, are our own. Do you have any personality traits you'd like to be able to "turn off" at certain times?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Beginnings, Morticia, and the rest of us

by Judith Evans Thomas

After reading Brenda's post I felt a longing for the beginning of my own feminity. I was raised by the ultimate feminist Mom who showed me medical texts explaining sexuality in all it's less than erotic forms. I think I was 10 years old when she brought them out. I was awed by the anatomical drawings and confused by what they meant. I marched down Fifth Avenue arm in arm with my college roommates and Mother ...bra -less to say. We are fee women. I still go bra-less but it's not so pretty.

After college and in the job hunting mode, reality took a different turn. Yes I had a degree and was oh-so-intelligent, but what got me my first job was my looks. Appleton Century Crofts Publishing. I was hired as the Administrative Assistant to the Publisher. Kiss my .... And what you might ask did that high flying job entail? Coffee, meeting annotation before computers existed and boss suggestions of more important meetings. Needless to say, I didn't last long.

But that job turned out to be the history of every job I got for the next ten years. Yes I had to be able to do the work but why was I hired over Sandy, Gena or Gail? Looks. It's a game I learned to play and I'm not proud of it. Not that I gave in to the Clinton-under -the-table stuff. More the hint of possibilty. And when the Boss figured out the possibility was an improbablity, the job seemed to evaporate. That was the time. And finally I learned to define my abilites by just that. Ugly Betty Rules.

What are your job experiences?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Morticia, Mary, Ann Marie and Me

by Brenda Roger

I have no shame about the fact that after moving to the suburbs in 2002, I became depressed. The suburbs can be a beige and lifeless purgatory. Some days I swore that David Byrne was sitting on my shoulder singing, “how did I get here?” I was forced to take a look at my expectations and the reality of my life thus far and to try and figure out why they were so far apart. It was a downward spiral of ugliness I’d rather not relive; I’ll tell you about the lighter side of the whole thing.

During the process of figuring out where I went wrong, I looked back on my childhood and tried to pinpoint the source of my ideas about what kind of woman I wanted to be. I’ve had cable television since the third grade. I was watching the day that “Video Killed the Radio Star” started a whole new genre of TV. I watched way too much of all of it. Somewhere in that visual overload I found enough information to form an idea of womanhood.

I always wanted to be Morticia Addams. It wasn’t that I wanted to wear that slinky black dress and be Goth, although, long sleeves a v-neckline are flattering on me. Frequently, when I’m handed something, I resist the urge to say, “thank you, Thing.”
As an adult, I can see that I wanted to be Morticia because she had power. In fact, she had total power over Gomez. Immobilizing him was as easy as muttering some French. She was also a painter, sculptor, knitter, cook and gardener. She could do it all. She was feminine, but not weak.

Then there was Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. I blame some of my disappointment in myself on her. I thought that when you grew up you got a cute apartment, dated, wore smart flared legged pant ensembles and had great time with your kooky neighbor, Rhoda. Mary had no education debt! She didn’t live in her parents’ house! She was out there. Doing things. She was independent. That appealed to me. Still does.

Finally, dear Anne Marie from “That Girl.” It is all her fault that I thought that it was possible to do a commercial once every six months and afford an apartment in New York and a coat to match every dress. If you can’t have a Gomez and you don’t want to date around like Mary Richards, by golly Donald Hollinger was a good compromise! Anne Marie wasn’t toiling away at pointless jobs. She was pursuing her dream. To a kid in the suburbs, her life seemed like non-stop glamour.

I was born in 1973. Ms. Magazine was started in 1971. My mother and aunts just barely missed the feminist movement. I know that the spirit of it invaded their subconscious. They were probably the last generation of women who were told to get married and have babies. My mom and her sisters had an inkling that they might have sold themselves short. My mom in particular was careful to make sure that I thought I could do anything I wanted.

Therein lies the disappointment. I found myself in the ‘burbs in 2002, surrounded by women going the route that I had tried so hard to avoid. I wasn’t one of them, but I hadn’t really managed to DO anything significant either. In fact, I struggled to do what little I had done. Doing anything you want comes with a heaping helping of responsibility.

Since all of this soul searching, I have formed a much clearer, revised picture of who I want to be. The crisis has passed, but the enlightenment remains.

Does anyone have any funny stories about popular culture and self-image?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Anything That Floats

by Gina Sestak

One of the many jobs I held during law school was with a small law firm that specialized in admiralty cases.

"Admiralty" is the law of the high seas. Why, you are probably wondering, would there be an admiralty firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean? The answer is simple: river traffic. In the U.S., the federal government has admiralty jurisdiction over all navigable waterways, including inland rivers and streams.

Pittsburgh is situated at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. ["Confluence" is a fancy word for the place at which two or more rivers join.] The Allegheny and Monongahela meet in Downtown Pittsburgh to become the Ohio River. When the steel industry was booming, coal barges moving on these three rivers made Pittsburgh one of the busiest ports in the country.

I got the job through a friend. The firm was small - one lawyer, one secretary. They were husband and wife. They were elderly. They were Communists. It was a strange place to work.

The husband, Hymen, had been persecuted during the McCarthy era but remained a committed member of the Party. There were copies of Soviet Life around the office. This was a glossy magazine that touted the glories of the Russian Revolution. Typical cover photos featured smiling peasants seated atop gleaming tractors surrounded by abundant fields of grain, and the stories inside portrayed the Soviet bloc as a workers' paradise. Having known people who'd lived under Stalin and Krushchev, I thought otherwise, but Hymen kept the faith.

The wife, Ida, kept a tv blasting all day long, watching soap operas. Like many family members in business together, they tended to scream at each other.

I was primarily a file clerk, working under Ida's supervision. There was a room with floor to ceiling shelves full of thick case files. My job was to figure out which piece of paper went into which file, an important task because, as Hymen frequently mentioned, he had once lost a case because a critical piece of evidence had been misfiled and could not be located in time to be presented at trial.

Most of the cases fell under the "Jones Act," a federal law that required ship owners to provide sick or injured crew members with maintenance and cure -- that is, financial support and medical treatment until the victim recovered. This made a lot of sense if a crew member got sick or hurt while the ship was docked in Zanzibar or Canton. Barge owners tended to fight it, though, when (as happened in one of the firm's cases) the crew member was taken off the barge with pneumonia within two hours of reporting for work, while he was still within a few miles of his home in West Virginia.

Most of the cases, though, involved job-related injuries. The rivers are a hazardous work place. Aside from the obvious dangers of wrecking into other boats or obstacles [bridge abutments, etc.], being swept over dams, and just sinking in general, crew members could fall overboard or be buried by a shifting load of coal. A snapped cable could slice through flesh.

The job prompted me to take a class in Admiralty, which has the distinction of being my only law school class that had a field trip. A group of us, accompanied by the professor, canoed down a portion of the Allegheny River. I brought my then-husband along and, while the others tended to float sedately, Terry and I paddled madly from one side of the river to the other, getting stuck in the tops of inundated trees and looking for river otters. It was the most fun I had in law school, which generally managed to be both pressured and boring.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned that where an injury occurs can make a major difference to the victim. An injured barge worker was legally entitled to maintenance and cure under the federal Jones Act. Someone loading the barge would be entitled to medical care and some formula-determined financial assistance based upon a determination of disability under the federal Longshoremen and Harbor Workers Act. A person similarly injured on shore would be covered by Workers' Compensation, which varies from state to state. Only the barge worker would be entitled to anything if felled by illness rather than an injury.

I learned that, if you're going to get sick, it's best to do it while you're working on a barge.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Freak Show

by Rebecca Drake

I belong to two different book clubs though lately my attendance has become sporadic at best. These are groups that eschew Oprah books, though the mostly middle-aged female membership is certainly Oprah’s demographic.

Both of these clubs concentrate on fiction with an occasional deviation for memoir, and both favor works that are classified as “literary” or “contemporary." This means we’ve read both Bridget Jones's Diary and Twelfth Night in one club, but no one, besides yours truly, would ever suggest reading the latest Lee Child or Karin Slaughter.

Once, when it was October and my turn to host and thus choose the book, I decided to use Halloween as an excuse to force the group to try some crime fiction. I chose Red Dragon because I could add the imprimatur that it was a “classic” of the genre.

To say that everybody else disliked this selection would be an understatement. Reviews ranged from disturbed to repulsed and I could feel myself flush with the first-time awareness that there was obviously something very strange about me for not just liking, but having relished re-reading this book for the umpteenth time.

And then someone said, “But this isn’t what you write, is it?” and at once all horrified eyes turned toward me, the only author in the group. At the time I was finishing a novel about a serial killer who dispatches his victims with a nail gun. I found the death scenes the easiest ones to write.

Oh no, I said, nothing like that here. Rainbows and happy trees and don’t forget the prancing unicorns.

They all politely support my career anyway, especially since I suggested that mass market paperbacks are a perfect size to use as a doorstop or a paperweight. Some of them have my novel on display when I come over, just like a ghastly cross-stitch brought out of storage when the myopic great aunt gift-giver comes to visit.

The knowledge that I’m a freak initially disturbed me, but it’s becoming easier to bear with every conference I attend. I mean, there’s nothing like knowing that there are lots and lots of other people who like to write, read, think and talk about your own peculiar obsession. And like every group of fetishists, we spend lots of time discussing the rest of the world’s rejection of our favorite thing. There’s always at least one panel about the lack of respect accorded crime writers by the outside world and there are always war stories to share about the latest insults we’ve endured.

I’ve certainly endured mine. Why even the man I love best in the world used to write on the margins, “Why can’t you write a nice story?” And then there’s the wet-behind-the-ears, pimpled bookseller who, when asked if he enjoyed thrillers, replied, “No, I read literature.” Yeah, bud, sure. Get back to me when you feel like slumming.

So to all the like-minded crime writing freaks: What is your favorite war story?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Traffic Diversions

by Kristine Coblitz

As any Working Stiff will tell you, the commute to work can be the most tiresome and frustrating part of the work day. When I worked outside the home, I drove nearly 30 miles each way to my office. That was about 90 minutes of my life each day spent behind the wheel of my car. During bad weather or when there was a car accident on the highway, I could easily tack on another hour…or two.

It’s the spring season in Pittsburgh, which means orange construction barrels as far as the eye can see. Nearly every main roadway has orange signs signaling upcoming projects. You know it’s bad when the majority of the television newscasts are consumed with detour instructions and roadside interviews with disgruntled drivers. Let’s not even get started on the rising gas prices.

I rather enjoy my life as a hermit now, but I do have to get out once in a while.

I don’t listen to the radio when I'm driving. Too many advertisements and too much mindless chatter for my taste. When I get into my car, the first thing I do is turn on my CD player and lose myself in my music selections. Singing along to tunes takes my mind off reckless drivers and traffic snarls, at least to some degree. When I’m planning a long road trip, such as my recent hike to Cleveland a few weeks ago, I take a book on tape to keep my mind stimulated. If I can’t read a book while I’m driving (too dangerous), at least I can listen to one, right?

I try to be a responsible driver. I don’t talk on my cell phone unless I’m lost or running late. I don’t eat greasy hamburgers while I drive, although I will sip a drink from my water bottle once in a while. I don’t put on my make-up, unless it’s a quick coat of lipstick while stopped at a red light. I use my turn signal.

And I always sing along (loudly) to my music.

Drivers who can’t control their road rage infuriate me. So do distracted drivers. A few nights ago, I was driving in the parking lot of the grocery store behind a woman cruising in the opposing lane of traffic because she was fussing with something (or someone perhaps?) in the front seat. Gotta love it. Perhaps it’s Spring Stupidity (Thanks for the snappy catch phrase, Joyce!).

Tell me I’m not alone in this. What are your driving pet peeves? I want to hear what really gets under your skin when behind the wheel.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Wide World of Mystery

By Annette Dashofy

We crime writers are always looking for a great world in which to set a story. Often that world is someplace familiar and that makes sense. Lawyers write about the legal system. Doctors write medical thrillers. Not always, mind you. But who better to write about those worlds than someone on the inside?

My life as a yoga instructor doesn’t offer much in that area, though. If it does, I don’t see it. I wrote one short story about a yoga instructor. It has never sold.

However, I have one passion that has offered an abundance of possibilities. Horses. I grew up reading Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. So when I was looking for a setting for a new novel a couple years ago, the world of Thoroughbred racing intrigued me. The problem was while I had owned many horses over several decades, my behind-the-scenes experience of racing was minimal. Fortunately, I met a trainer from Mountaineer who has become a close friend and I am now a licensed groom.

During the day, I write. In the evening I teach yoga. On the weekend I play with racehorses. I don’t get paid, but I like it that way. I don’t have to show up on time and can come and go as I please. But when I’m there, I’m thrilled to get my hands dirty. My chores vary from cleaning a stall to dumping the wheelbarrow (I didn’t say it was glamorous) to brushing and walking the horses.

During my last trip there I held Crook, who is new to the barn and needed a beauty treatment. My trainer friend Jessi pulled his mane (which is a method of making it straight and even, in case you’re unfamiliar with horsey lingo). Crook didn’t much care for the idea and required some restraint. He made a grand effort to bash me in the face with his head. Failing at that, he succeeded in stomping Jessi’s foot. Bad horse!

Fatty, who’s been in the barn since last summer (in other words, she’s earning her keep), and Charles (AKA Charlie), who is another new face, went to the track for a little exercise. Charles needed it because he’d managed to escape from his stall a few nights earlier and had some puffy legs to show for it. Fatty is a sweetheart, except she needs to nibble on something…ANY thing if you’re just standing and holding her. The end of the lead shank, your hand, it doesn’t matter to her as long as she has something in her mouth.

Another new addition to the barn is Fatty’s pet goat, Dash, a rotund little fellow who also likes to nibble. He and his horse are well-suited. Except she occasionally steps on him and he apparently is too lazy to move, so he lets her. Hopefully he smartens up soon.

I love hanging out at the track. Sure, it’s great fun being around horses, but as a writer of crime fiction I especially appreciate life on the backside, or barn area, of the track. The colorful assortment of owners and trainers, grooms and riders that go about their daily tasks sparks all kinds of inspiration for stories and fictional characters. It’s a close-knit community with a nice mix of transients along with the regulars. The potential plotlines are endless. It’s a world of mystery and intrigue with gambling and the lure of “easy money” as motivation.

What world do you as a writer use in your stories? As a reader, what books are set in a world that interests you?

Monday, April 02, 2007

That's What You Said, But What Did You Mean?

Kathie Shoop

April 3, 2007

I’m working with a friend on injecting our writing with clarity and energy that'll make editors take quick notice—the kind of quick that makes their fingers do the talking within minutes of receiving the manuscript. A girl can dream, right?

My friend attended a workshop where The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues, by David B. Givens, was introduced as a tool to infuse one’s writing with action and sizzle.

I know you’re familiar with nonverbal language—a writer's lifeblood. But this online dictionary is pretty in-depth and very easy to use. It might help you add another layer to a character's life or simply inspire you to change things up a bit.

The dictionary entries vary in length, but most contain the usage of a movement, physiological underpinnings, evolutionary details of the gesture, sometimes the psychological root, anthropological and cultural tidbits, and examples of how a cue may play out in modern life. This information can be helpful for a writer deciding how and when to use a particular action to communicate a particular thought, feeling, or desire.

One entry I explored was the Body Wall entry. In terms of nonverbal definitions, the Body Wall is “1…an expressive unit consisting of the head and trunk (without the face, shoulders, arms, hands, legs, or feet).”

Did you know, “As expressive cues, movements of the body wall are more fundamental as mood signs than are hand, arm, and leg motions?”

That jolted me. It brought to mind the way I convey nervousness or worry. I often focus on hand gestures (especially first draft)—maybe the fondling of a necklace, or running a hand through hair to convey a character’s uncertainty or concern. I don’t nearly as often isolate the head, neck, and trunk (minus the face, arms, and hands) to communicate an inner thought—one that the character might prefer to keep to herself.

I’ve only begun to explore this tool and already I’m finding ways to weave new gestures, cues and movements into my characters’ lives.

One thing’s for sure. I need to boot the fondling of pearls from my manuscripts. How about you? What gesture, cue or movement do you find creeping into every draft of your writing?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pony Bridges

by Pat Hart

A couple of years ago my husband and I took our boys to the circus, not the expensive amazing, gravity defying, no animal Cirque de Soleil, but the traditional Ringling Brother’s-where-the-heck-is-the-SPCA? chintzy, smelly Circus. My guys saw the ads on TV, one every 10 minutes, until they both became obsessed with going. I suspected they’d be terribly disappointed, but what the heck, it was about time they learned to discern the steak from the sizzle. Charlie was 9; Gilby was 5.

We bought expensive seats, there’s no point in taking kids to sit in the peanut gallery; we bought each kid a $10 spinning, shrieking, lighted device and settled down a few rows back from the center ring.

To warm up the crowd, there were clowns, not my favorite. Though they did do this amazing skit of jumping in and out of boxes the size of milk crates. At one point a very tall clown closed himself up in three of these boxes stacked on end. Then when a fat clown “accidentally” tipped the stack of boxes over, the tall clown was gone and three midget clowns rolled out, one from each box, and angrily chased the fat clown out of the arena. It was hilarious, though a little freakish.

Then suddenly the entire arena went pitch black, only faint “exit” signs glowed in the total darkness. All fidgeting and whispering stopped. In the darkness I could feel a cold draft, as though someone had opened a door to the outside and there was a sense of something, something massive moving in pitch black. And then came the smell…the elephants had entered the building.

Suddenly there was a dazzle of light as eight elephants, outlined in tiny Christmas lights, a glittering show girl in a headdress of feathers astride their backs, stood massive, silent and gray not 20 feet from us. Slowly they turned as one and began to RUN around the arena. They were ass to trunk and really booking it. The showgirls on top were waving gracefully as the elephants, wrinkled and saggy, pounded beneath them.

Next came an acrobat troop, an extended Asian family of older men, young women and tiny children. The kids they launched into the air like t-shirts at baseball game. I stopped worrying about the SPCA and wondered: Where were Children and Youth Services?

The highlight of the evening was to be the Mongolian Pony Riders. This was troop of about eight guys dressed like Genghis Khan racing around the center ring on these incredibly speedy small horses. They were vaulting on and off the horses, doing head stands and swinging giant curved swords over their heads. It did not seem safe at all and after the kids being sling shotted to the rafters, I needed a little anxiety break.

I started watching a much tamer event in one of the other rings. There were four large, white horses trotting, rather slowly, around the ring. A man in the center of the ring was encouraging them with long whip he would crack behind their asses whenever they seemed to be slowing down to an actual walk. The horses had four-foot tall sparkly headdresses with giant white feathers that bobbed from their plodding gate. Compared to the Mongolian ponies these old gals looked done in. I started to feel sorry for them, once they’d been in the center ring, the klieg spotlight making their white coats glow. Now, they were strictly third ring entertainers, getting their bums nicked for slacking off. I decided to loyally give them all of my attention, to hell with those pony upstarts in center ring.

Then the man with the whip rolled out four stands. They were round barrels about three-feet tall, the kind that elephants pose on. He placed the four stands in a circle around the middle of the ring. The horses stopped their slow trot and each put his forelegs up on the stand and stood very still.

I was just wondering if I should applaud this very modest feat when the three clown midgets appeared, each leading a miniature horse. The miniature horses ran into the ring and began running around the edge and under the horses standing with their fore legs on the barrels. The four white horses were now merely Pony Bridges.

The phrase: “…and what? Give up show business?” came to mind.

I started to laugh at this ridiculous tragic sight like I had never laughed at anything before in my life. There are still hulls of popcorn wedged deep in my nasal cavities from the very sudden and forceful snort I made that day. Sometimes, late at night, deep in my nasal passages the hull gently vibrates with my breath and makes a sound like a mournful horse nickering for her lost days in the center ring.

The Pony Bridge has become the benchmark of my humor index; things are either funnier (rarely) or not as funny (usually) as them. Why this mix of pathos and absurdity is funny to me…well, that’s a subject for another blog.

PS Sorry no time for proofing! there's wicked lightning storm going on and the lights are flickering. Its post or perish!