Tuesday, July 31, 2007

One Step At A Time

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Marta Stephens. Her first novel Silenced Cry was released in April 2007.

One Step At A Time

by Marta Stephens

During a recent interview, the reporter said, “Stephens’s life has had as many twists and turns as her novel,” and then went on to list some of my accomplishments. This encouraged me to take a quick inventory and draw up my own list.

I live in the Midwest with my husband and two children. I returned to college as a non-traditional student, earned a degree in journalism in my late forties, and am fortunate to be gainfully employed. I maintain our home, shop for groceries, do laundry, take the dogs to the vet, and pay bills. In my book, this adds up to an amazingly ordinary life.

The only thing not on the list is that I’m a risk-taker. Calculated or not, sometimes we need to crawl out of the comfort zone and feel the edge of an uncharted path before moving forward. I prefer to describe my life as a series of stepping stones, each one leading to a new goal and the next level of development. The catch is, after achieving one set of goals, there are always choices: should I stop while I’m ahead or move forward?

Through my work at the university and growing network of friends, I see adults returning to the classroom every day in the hopes of career advancements or for the sake of exploring new interest. Others have sought the satisfaction of becoming entrepreneurs or giving of themselves for volunteer work. I applaud them all. It takes courage to chart a new path and re-invent ones self. Regardless of age, at the core of their decisions is a deep-rooted desire to secure their happiness.

My adventurous streak was never more evident to me than after the release of my debut crime/mystery novel, Silenced Cry. The reactions from those who have known me for the past 20 to 30 years ranged from disbelief to wild excitement. Most were extremely supportive. Some, however, were curious as to why I had pursued a writing career at this point in my life and why I had chosen a genre so different from my “normal” lifestyle. Invariably, the next thing out of their mouth was, “I always wanted to ___.” Fill in the blank with a dream. When I asked them why they hadn’t pursued whatever “it” was, the consistent answer centered on a lack of confidence.

Compared with most other authors, my four-year writing career is in its infancy. Now that I’m in the midst of promoting my book, I’m grateful for my public relations background, but I found that fact-based journalism hadn’t prepare me for a career as a fiction writer. Still, I believed I could write a novel and was willing to risk failure for the chance at success. I’m not alone.

I recently spoke with a long-time friend who had a similar experience. We met years ago when we held secretarial positions at the university. A while back, she became involved in local politics, won the primary election this year, and is now running for mayor. Sharon asked me the same questions about my writing. When, what, how? I explained that now that the word “retirement” has crept into my vocabulary, I didn’t want to wake up one day to find that everyone I cared about had moved on with their lives and that I hadn’t taken time to plant the seeds of my own happiness.

“Women are nurturers,” I told her, “and like millions of others, I’ve been a supportive wife and raised two fantastic children who are now in college working toward meaningful careers. I’ve done the committee work, plotted a career path, did the PTA thing, and in recent years, I’ve also helped to care for my aging parents. Now it’s my turn. I’ll never stop caring for others, but writing fulfills a need and feeds my passion. It’s where a lifetime of stepping stones has led me.”

“You could have been telling my story,” she said.

My friend and I both faced challenges and certain stumbling blocks in the pursuit of our goals, but the words, “I can’t” or “I’ll never” didn’t stop us from trying.

I’m reminded of a great line in the movie City Slickers. Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch is riding his horse on the range next to crusty old Curly. Mitch is desperate to find life’s secret to happiness. Curly tells him he knows the answer, holds up one finger, and says, “This. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean (anything).” Mitch, expecting a magical revelation asks, “But what is the one thing?”
A sardonic smile slips across Curly’s sun-creased face as he says, “That’s what you have to find out.”

The neat thing about dreams is that they are as unique as the people who dare to follow them. I don’t know what the future will hold except to say that Homicide Detective Sam Harper will keep on the hunt of wily criminals and will continue to solve impossible murders. As for me, I’m grateful for the here and now; the people I’ve met and the opportunities extended to me. In spite of the hurdles, the endless revisions, and insanely late hours of typing, I’m living my dream and having a ball!

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Little Extra Help

by Brenda Roger

I woke up about 6:15 one morning in 2001 with a sense of urgency that I must get down to the basement where my Springer Spaniel puppy was because she was choking. She was two floors away, crated in the basement of our 90 year-old house on Walnut Avenue in Greensburg. When I got to her, she was indeed choking. I cleared her throat and she was just fine.

Afterward, I was very full of myself for listening to my maternal instinct. My, my, what an intuitive creature I thought I was. Now, I’m not so sure.

When we first looked at the house on Walnut Avenue, it was outside of our price range. As is often the case, the house you like the most is the one you can’t afford, but I knew it was our house. It had a good vibe. Good juju, you might say. That sounds flakey –even to me, but it was true. I was home. The price was eventually dropped and that is how we were able to buy it. We took great care of that house. It needed heaps of work, much of which we did ourselves. By the fall of 2000, it was gleaming.

I never really had any major creepy experiences on Walnut Avenue. You would think that in a house that old with such a strong vibe that you would. There are only a couple of incidents that in hind-sight seem odd. More than once, when I was in the master bedroom sleeping, I heard footsteps in the hall and felt someone sit down on the bed. Once I was completely convinced that my husband had come home and if I turned around I would see him on the bed, but of course, there was no one there. It always happened when I was hovering between sleep and consciousness, so I thought that I imagined it.

I’ve been reading the book Lily Dale by Christine Wicker. Lily Dale is the town near Chautauqua, New York owned by the Spiritualist Church. Christine Wicker is a journalist, from Texas who usually reports on religion for a newspaper. She made a series of visits to Lily Dale in search of some proof that the mediums there can talk to the spirits. She recounts many compelling tales balanced with stories of chicanery.

For about a week now, Wicker and her ghost stories have had me convinced that it wasn’t my maternal instinct that woke me up when my puppy was choking. I’m pretty sure that whoever is in that house giving it the good vibe, told me to get up because she was choking. You see, when I woke up, I already knew she was choking. I was much too far away from her to have heard any noise that she was making. I didn’t open my eyes and lay there listening for her. I woke up from a sound sleep and got right up and went down to attend to the problem. There was no time spend deciding to do it.

Maybe whoever was there liked what we did with the place and helped me out to say thank you.

So, would all of the other level-headed, logical types like me care to share a story?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lessons from Reality TV

by Tory Butterworth

Okay, I'll admit it. I do it, at least once a week. And I'll bet I'm not the only one who reads this blog who does it, too. I bet most of you out there have done it at least once. At least I'm willing to admit to it, openly on a blog.

I watch reality TV.

Worse yet, I'm almost beginning to believe it has something to offer, above and beyond temporary mindlessness. I'm starting to learn lessons from reality TV.

Pretty scary, eh?

On "Hell's Kitchen," at the end of each show Chef Gordon Ramsay sums up why the contestant who's leaving didn't make the cut. About one contestant he said, "She's got leadership ability, but her cooking ability doesn't match up."

A week or so later, I was having a discussion with some friends at work about why a supervisor didn't like a former employee of hers. One of my friends said that people naturally followed the staff member, even when she wasn't seeing the "big picture." Chef Ramsay's words came to mind. Some people can lead others, but take them in the wrong direction!

When I watched, "The Bachelor: An Officer and a Gentleman," I wondered how he'd chosen between the final two bachelorettes. Both had given him gifts on their final pre-decision date: one a wrist watch, one a scrapbook of their times together. He mentioned the scrapbook was an important part in making his final choice.

I was in a training on, "Intentional Families," when I realized the significance of this decision. The training advised parents to take time creating "rituals" with their kids, everything from bedtime to playtime. By creating jokes, games, and activities unique to your family, you also create a sense of bonding.

The bachelor chose the woman who gave him a memory of their time together, showing how important it was for her. No "pre-packaged" gift could ever be as meaningful. Their scrapbook created a bond between them that lead to a proposal of marriage!

Come clean, now. Do you watch reality TV? What lessons have you learned?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lily Dale, City of Light

by Cathy Anderson Corn

Note: Blog written while still bleary-eyed from whirlwind trip to Michigan to visit ailing parents.

We enjoyed the Festival of Mystery this past May. In our travels from author table to the next, we happened upon Wendy Corsi Staub, an enthusiastic novelist with sixty novels to her credit. Much to my delight, she authored In the Blink of an Eye, a fast paced page turner set in one of my favorite places in the whole world--Lily Dale, New York. Wendy's characters are well-developed, the plot intricate, and her writing spell binding.

Back to Lily Dale, though. It's only a three hour drive from Pittsburgh and a half hour beyond Chatauqua Institute. Chatauqua is much larger and grander than Lily Dale, which sits beside a tranquil little lake. Lily Dale's summer cottages aren't kept up as well, and you can find moss on some of the roofs. It's a Spiritualist camp, started in the 1890's, and those who've studied do hands on healing and operate as mediums.

A medium brings messages through from the other side. They talk with dead people, many times relatives or friends, sometimes pets. They offer no guarantee as to who will come through for you, and you may not hear from the ones you want. The spirits decide who comes forth.

This you can do via a private reading or one of their public sessions. My favorite spot is the Inspiration Stump service, with its benches set back well within a forest of tall, ancient trees. Usually five or six mediums do several readings each, picking people from the crowd.

I've been read several times over the years. A few weeks ago, I received a message from medium Peggy Rogers from my maternal grandmother. She said I'd changed a lot over the past twenty years. I've come from a mild, please-everybody-else person to someone who operates independently and takes on leadership roles. Another medium gave Alan and me a tandem reading, saying our heart energy was especially strong and Alan's father (deceased many years) blessed our union.

Lily Dale offers workshops during the season mostly, teaching everything from Reiki to healing with stones to sweat lodges and ghost walks. And of course, probably the most important place within the gates is the Crystal Cove gift shop. Quite a treat, and you don't want to miss it. And the cafeteria's important, too.

Mostly, I treasure the sense of peace I always enjoy there, the rest and relaxation of this lakeside community from the 1880's.

But of course, I don't think there have been any real murders in Lily Dale, just the fictional ones of Ms. Staub. The killer wouldn't have a chance, for the spirits would certainly tell on him or her.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ask Away!

by Joyce Tremel

We had to reschedule a few blog posts this week, so I volunteered to fill in today. I didn't have anything prepared, so I thought I'd just open it up to everyone.

Do you have a question about police work? Ask away! Come to think of it, ask anything of any of our bloggers--we have knowledgeable people in a lot of different areas: law enforcement, psychology, horses, editing, well, you get the idea. If you have a question, we'll try to answer it.

Just stay away from the what-are-you-wearing questions.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Over The Edge?

by Kristine Coblitz

People today are unhappy. And who can blame us? We live in a world in turmoil, the cost of living is on the rise while our paychecks are getting smaller, and we’re stressed, tired, and overweight. I read an article online recently that stated that antidepressants currently are the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. and that 25 percent of the population is expected to have a breakdown at some point.

No wonder people look for ways to escape reality. They turn to movies and books, sometimes even other addictions. As writers, it’s our job to provide entertainment, and we do so by putting our fictional characters in heaps of trouble. We pile the stress on our characters so our readers can worry about them. We end books with satisfactory endings that don’t usually happen in real life. For just a few hours, our readers can forget about their own problems and read about someone else’s (bigger) problems.

To pull this off, we as writers have to dig into our own deepest fears. Everything that happens to our characters on the page in essence happens to us in our own minds. We create these situations, after all, and in order to make them realistic, we’ve got to experience them.

As writers, are we destined to be depressed? Is it because we spend so much time “in our heads” thinking about murder and crime? Are we unable to separate our fictional lives from our personal ones? Are depression and anxiety occupational hazards?

It makes you wonder. Sometimes I wish I wrote happier stories, but then again, to not write crime fiction is denying my real passion.

If you ask me, I’m grateful for books and those little escapes I can take from reality. When I need a break from it all, I find a quiet place and read.

I try to keep that in mind when I write. I’m not just providing entertainment and thrills, but an escape for my readers. And for myself, I guess.

How do you escape reality and get away from it all?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fear of Phobias

by Annette Dashofy

I should probably leave the topic of phobias to Tory, as I have no expertise in mental health or the workings of the mind. I do, however, have a few phobias. Some of them can be explained by life experiences. Most are just plain silly. Or so they seem to me.

First, a few things that I’m NOT scared of: I am not scared of the dark. That’s nyctophobia, by the way. I love wandering around my yard or the pasture after dark. The stars are incredible when you don’t have the glare of streetlights to drown them out. In fact, one of my biggest concerns when we got new neighbors was that they might put up a dusk-to-dawn light. So far, so good.

I do admit to being somewhat scared of some of the noises I hear when I’m walking in the dark outside. Living in the country, it’s not the idea of muggers or criminals that worries me (although my crime-writer imagination can easily be set loose in that area and send me running indoors), but rather the very real possibility of an encounter with a skunk. Is there such a thing as skunkophobia? Perhaps that falls under olfactophobia (fear of odors).

I do NOT suffer from claustrophobia, or fear of confined spaces. Elevators don’t freak me out. Then again, I’ve never been stuck in one.

On the other hand, I do have brontophobia. Or maybe it’s karaunophobia. That would be the fear of storms, thunder and lightning. Our house was struck by lightning when I was little and caught on fire. A few years later, some pyromaniac kids burnt down our barn leading to my case of pyrophobia. Yep. Fear of fire.

Another life experience left me with a bad case of hydrophobia. When I was six, I almost drowned resulting in my fear of water. But only if it threatens to go over my head. I love walking on the beach and getting my feet wet. Just not my face.

That brings us to the one that I have no explanation for. Acrophobia. The fear of heights. Although, acrophobia doesn’t accurately describe it for me. I’m not so much scared of heights. I’m scared of FALLING. Yet, I can’t find a specific phobia for falling. Getting even more detailed, maybe it’s the fear of the sudden stop at the bottom that gets me. Splatophobia?

I mean, I don’t mind being up high on an overlook with a railing. I get nauseous when I’m on a ledge with NO railing. I don’t mind being UP there. I’m just not at all interested in falling DOWN.

So what phobias plague you? Do you have verminophobia? That’s the fear of germs, although it sounds to me more like a fear of mice. But, no, that’s musophobia. How about bathmophobia? No, it’s not the fear of baths, but rather the fear of stairways. Go figure. If you really are scared of bathing, you’ve got ablutophobia.

Want to find out the name for what scares you? Click here. Then come back and share your deepest, darkest fears, as well as what they’re called.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let's hear it for libraries!

by Kathryn Miller Haines

Anyone out there? Oh, you’re all reading the book to the left, aren’t you?

Sounds like the perfect time to talk about a forbidden subject for a published writer. Ready for it?

I love libraries.

Yes, those places where people go to get books they don’t actually pay for. I’m surrounded by them at my day job (literally, since I work in one) and I’m a great devotee of the system. In fact, we even have a family member who started a library. My stepmother, Nancy, took her inheritance and instead of blowing it on fast cars and loose men (my father notwithstanding), created a library in Marion, Iowa. Her philanthropy rose out of her gratitude for the libraries she took her kids too when she was a poor single mother. While I didn’t know her then, I was also one of those kids, being taken by my own wonderful mother to our public library on hot Saturday afternoons where I’d eagerly peruse the stacks for the next great read to get me through the weekend.

Recently there was an article about how unfeasible libraries would be if someone were to propose the idea of a lending library in today’s political and business climate. It’s a mortifying thought that the system that Andrew Carnegie popularized by offering to create a library for any city that had a building that could be used for that purpose would be eradicated because our present culture doesn’t see the need for enterprises that are for people, not for profit.

It’s an easy idea to fall prey to. When I learned that a certain library had twenty holds on my book, my first reaction wasn’t, “Wow! People want to read my book!” but “Loosen the purse strings and buy your own damn copy, ya cheap skate.”

Fortunately, I got over myself two minutes later.

Part of the reason why I wanted to write this post was because I feel increasing shame admitting I am an active library user. There seems to be an assumption that if you're checking out books from libraries, you're not buying them and if you're not buying them, you're not supporting fellow writers and if you're not supporting fellow writers, why the heck should they support you?

Whew. I got tired typing that.

I’m a fast reader and so it makes sense good fiscal sense for me to check out things from a library. If I really want to read something, or it it’s by an author I know, I buy it because there’s one thing libraries don’t do well: creating ready access to new books (the supply never meets the demand, which is why we all bought our copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, right?).

For me, the library is the ultimate bookstore, only I get to take the books home to test drive. If I read something I like, I buy it for my sister, whose own village library in England is the size of of a drive-up photomat, or for my mother who's accumulated so many fines at public libraries in the state of Texas that legend has it an alarm will sound if she steps foot in one. And let's face it, when your writing requires a lot of research, you could quickly go broke buying obscure books like this gem that I'm currently pouring over.

So let’s hear it for libraries!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Play Ball

By Lisa Curry

In 1997, I was pregnant with my firstborn. Being the older of two daughters born to a mother who was the older of two daughters, I was destined to have a girl.

“It’s a boy,” said the ultrasound technician.

“Are you sure?”

“Look.” She pointed at the blob on the screen. “That’s a penis.”

Good grief. The little alien growing inside me was a boy. I knew nothing about boys, except that when we were children, my two boy cousins always peed all over the floor and the wall in our bathroom when they visited.

With that pleasant memory in mind, I spent the next few weeks adjusting my vision of the future to include a son. No baby dolls, no frilly dresses, no pigtails. Instead there’d be…what did little boys do? They peed standing up – and not with great accuracy, apparently. They liked Tonka trucks and dirt piles. They played baseball.

Oh crap – they played baseball. What if my little alien took after me? The one and only C I received in college was in a gym class, badminton and volleyball, because I couldn’t bump a damn volleyball off my fingertips 25 times in succession. I could picture my poor child, the most hopeless case at the ballfield, the kid who couldn’t hit or catch to save his life, the one nobody wanted on the team. He’d come crying to me, and what would I say to him? It wouldn’t be my husband’s fault. He was physically coordinated. He came from a family of good baseball players.

“Please, dear God,” I prayed, “give this kid his father’s athletic ability, so he can play baseball if he wants to. He doesn’t have to play baseball, of course. I don’t even like baseball, to tell you the truth. But just in case he wants to, it would be really nice if he could. Thanks and amen.”

I’m not a churchgoer, I’m not what anybody would call religious, and I’m not really in the habit of praying for favors, especially not for such trivial things. But it seemed important at the time, and it wasn’t for me; it was for that intangible little alien who, for the first time, had taken shape in my mind as a real boy.

Now here it is, a decade later. The little alien, who confirmed that ultrasound technician knew a penis when she saw one, did indeed decide he wanted to play baseball.

Recently, I sat in the bleachers at a scrimmage game in front of a group of women I didn’t know – mothers from the opposing team. Our team’s shortstop leapt into the air, snagged a ball whizzing for the outfield, and ran down and tagged the surprised base runner who was trying to make it back to first.

“Wow – did you see that?” one of the women behind me said. “That’s that Griffin Curry.”

“Oh, that’s Griffin?” another woman asked. “I’ve heard of him. Everyone says he’s an amazing ballplayer.”

I had to leave the bleachers and find another seat, because I felt like an eavesdropper listening to people who had no idea who I was discuss my child – even if I agreed with them.

Last weekend, we went to Griffin’s first 9-year-old all-star tournament. He hit one over the fence and received the MVP medal in two games. His team made it to the championship game Wednesday evening and was winning 3-0 when the coach sent him to the pitcher’s mound for the last inning.

He struck out the first two batters. Then his pitches started going wild, and he walked the bases full. His coach gave him a pep talk. His teammates and their parents shouted encouragement. And me – the woman who doesn’t pray for trivial favors – I sat there in silence and prayed.

“All right, Jimmy’s up,” some grandpa from the other team said. “Hit ’em all home, Jimmy! We’ll win this game yet!”

A couple of balls and strikes later, I was wringing my hands and praying harder.

Here came the wind-up, and here came the pitch. Jimmy swung the bat.

“Strike three!”

Our fans erupted. To my dismay, I cried. I could hardly see when they handed my son his big gold first-place trophy.

I wonder – had I known 10 years ago that my prayer was going to be answered in spades, would I have asked for something other than that the kid be able to play baseball? I could have prayed he’d be a brilliant neurosurgeon or president of the United States.

But then again, the kid is an amazing ballplayer. He inherited all his father’s athletic DNA and none of mine, thank God. And he did get something from me, after all, something that makes him a better ballplayer than athletic ability alone. He got my focus, my passion, my drive for perfection. Baseball is to him what writing is to me – a gift worthy of celebration, a joy worthy of savoring, and a goal worthy of pursuit. What could be better than that?

Besides, there’s nothing I’d rather do than watch that kid play ball. Yeah, me – the woman who never liked baseball.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Law Enforcement Quiz for Writers

by Joyce Tremel, with assistance from Lee Lofland

Drumroll please! Welcome to my first Law Enforcement Quiz for Writers. I'm challenging all the Working Stiffs readers to take the quiz. There's absolutely nothing in it for you. There will be no prizes, unless I can round up one of those plastic Shaler Junior Police Badges that we pass out to the kiddies.

Good luck! Oh, and by the way, Lee is NOT allowed to play, but he will be stopping by.

1. When is a police officer required to use the Miranda warning?
a. Any time they question a suspect.
b. Any time they make an arrest.
c. Any time they go out for donuts.
d. Prior to interrogation when the suspect is in custody.

2. When someone enters your home without permission, either with or without force, it is called
a. Robbery.
b. Trespass.
c. Burglary.
d. Harassment.

3. You report that your vehicle was hit and run sometime overnight. You report it to the police. The police will
a. Write a report for insurance purposes.
b. Canvass the neighborhood for witnesses.
c. Collect paint samples and send them to the lab.
d. Call you every day with updates on your case.

4. Your stolen car is recovered. You’ve been notified that the car was towed to the local towing pound. What will the investigation entail?
a. The car will be dusted for fingerprints and evidence collected and sent to the lab.
b. A report will be written that your vehicle was recovered and removed from NCIC.
c. The towing company won’t charge you anything.

5. When is someone in custody?
a. At the moment they’ve been handcuffed.
b. When they’ve been placed inside the police car.
c. When they no longer feel free to leave.
d. When they’ve been placed inside a jail cell.

6. When can an officer arrest someone without a warrant?
a. When his supervisor tells him to.
b. When a crime occurs in his presence.
c. Whenever he feels like it.
d. Never.

7. When can an officer “frisk” someone?
a. Whenever she feels like it.
b. She can frisk a convicted felon anytime.
c. When she believes the suspect may have a weapon concealed in his clothing.
d. When she believes the suspect may have drugs concealed in his clothing.

8. When can the police search a home without a warrant?
a. Whenever they feel like it.
b. If they think a dangerous criminal is inside.
c. If a citizen told them a wanted criminal is inside.
d. If they hear someone screaming for help inside.

9. You’re involved in a custody dispute with your ex-wife. It’s your weekend to have the kids and your ex refused to let them leave. You call the police. What will the police do?
a. Order your ex to abide by the custody agreement and force the children to go with you.
b. Cite your ex for contempt.
c. Cite you both for disorderly conduct.
d. Calm the situation down and suggest you both discuss this civil issue with your respective attorneys.

10. And last but not least, which of these sentences is NOT correct?
a. The suspect was taken into custody at 1600 hours.
b. The actor was taken into custody at 1600 hours.
c. The perp was taken into custody at 1600 hours.
d. The asshole was taken into custody at 1600 hours.

Check back later and see how you did!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


by Gina Sestak

I've mentioned before that I worked my way through college doing various jobs. One of my most desperate ways to make a living was selling blood plasma.

You have to understand that I am terrified of needles. One of my earliest memories is panicking when Dr. Kissell, our family doctor, tried to give me a shot. I kicked him in the chest, leaving a little dark footprint on his white coat, and he had to ask a woman from the waiting room to come in and help my mother hold me down.

This fear of needles served me well in some circumstances. Since I didn't have much money, I often ended up sharing cheap living space with other people. Some of them were into drugs, injecting morphine or speed or whatever they could melt down enough to get into a hypodermic. I was never tempted to try. When they'd start shooting up, I'd get so queasy that I'd have to leave the room.

When you give blood, you have to wait more than a month between donations. That's because you're giving whole blood.

Plasma centers only take the plasma -- the yellowish fluid in which the blood cells float. They start by taking whole blood, then spin it to separate out the plasma. The blood cells are then mixed with saline solution and returned to the donor's body. You can sell plasma two times a week, which is about the most I could handle, since I'd have to psyche up for a day or two before I could face the needle. The pay wasn't much - $5 for the first donation of the week, $10 for the second. At that time, though, that little bit of money made the difference in whether or not I could afford to eat.

What did I learn from this experience?

I learned to overcome fear.

I learned that I can survive, no matter what.

I learned compassion for all of the truly desperate people of this world.

I learned to resist peer pressure.

I learned to look beyond appearances -- not everyone whose arms show tracks is a junky.

And I gained one more interesting experience to blog about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Kindly Submit Your Décor Plans with your Tax Return


Kathie Shoop

Since Congress doesn’t seem able to make headway in the weighty issues of the day, I’ve decided they should get the following law on the books post-haste:

“Each person purchasing a home over two million dollars with the means to sink another two mil into their décor must submit a plan detailing the type of décor, the reason for liking it and why they’re choosing to include the items they’ve selected if they can’t actually identify their decorating style.”

So what inspired me to take to my self-righteous, home décor bully-pulpit? I watched Posh Beckham’s show which is called something like Coming to America. It profiles her arrival with her soccer playing husband. Part of the show covered her as she’s introduced to fellow richies in Beverly Hills and the cameras follow Posh as she looks at homes she may or may not purchase.

I found myself thinking the ultra-wealthy simply can’t be trusted to decorate their own homes.

I’ve known for a long time that wealth doesn’t guarantee taste and I realize that the very people I denigrate would enter my home and be repulsed in the same way I was while watching their homes flash upon my TV.

However, my decorating has been handicapped by so many variables that listing them here would just depress the readers, but I can promise that the most prohibitive factor in creating an upscale yet warm environment is in fact, money.

So what the hell happens to all these people when they’ve finally lined their pockets with enough cash to splurge on the home of their dreams? Could velvet wall-paper, silky curtains so shiny you can see your reflection in them and lacquered black surfaces covering 9/10ths of the table-tops really be the stuff fantasies are made of?

And while my claws are out I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that the décor law be extended to those ultra-richies who cannot stop at just five plastic surgeries. Seriously. One should not alter the landscape of their person (for purely recreational purposes) more than five times without written consent from Christy Brinkley’s personal shopper/beauty consultant.

Watching Posh throw back whiskey shots with women who have turned themselves into cartoons was just too much. Don’t get me wrong. My biggest fear about getting plastic surgery (besides being in the percentage of people who get a staph infection) is that I couldn’t stop at just one surgery. Like redecorating the home, once you paint the living room, there’s the couch to deal with, the flooring, accessories. Where would I begin? Where would I stop? I am the person who would most need the law I’ve proposed. But at least I realize my weakness which allows me to reenter the world of self-righteousness, right?

Yes, I realize the control is in my hands. I don’t have to watch reality TV. I have the power to just say no, to turn off the TV or change the channel—the history channel is readily available for viewing, but in life there are so few times to feel truly superior and tonight, watching that freak show, I felt damn ordinary and damn glad that I am.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Recipe Card Wisdom

by Brenda Roger

Part of the invitation to my wedding shower, almost seven years ago, was a blank recipe card. Guests were asked to fill it out and bring it to the shower to fill my recipe box. I received quite a variety of recipes. Some of the guests really thought about it, while some just grabbed a magazine and copied something –in both cases, it showed. My friend Andrew, who was eleven at the time, wrote down his scone recipe, complete with illustrations, for his mom to bring. I still use that one all the time. In fact, I may laminate it to keep the drawings protected.

Three guests wrote something on the card that was not a recipe for food. I love thinking about that because the three women who did that are three of my favorites, besides being three women who love not to follow the rules.

My Aunt Sandra is co-owner of two boutiques –one vintage clothing and one jewelry. She has had an unconventional life to say the least. She has also managed to marry a man who cooks, so the last things on her mind are recipes. She gave me a recipe for paint glaze, complete with the disclaimer “do not eat.” I don’t know if the fact that she felt compelled to tell me not to eat paint glaze says more about me or about her.

My friend, Helen, filled the recipe card with a long explanation of how to make potpourri, complete with a description of going foraging for plants with a black lab named “Duke.” Duke just happens to be her dog. To make the centerpieces for my wedding reception, Helen and I actually went foraging for moss and various other organic matter (including a newt or two, oops). Each time I read her card I remember how much fun we had doing that.

Finally, my friend Mimi passed along a piece of advice on her recipe card. It was a bit of wisdom from her Aunt Margaret who said, “You are a very good cook. Don’t ever let anyone know that.” I asked Mimi what that meant, and she told me that if people know you can cook they make you do it all the time!

Now, these ladies don’t really know each other, and somehow they combined forces to send me the same message. I’ve always thought that they were really trying to tell me not to be defined only by the role of wife and housekeeper.

Did you receive any profound premarital advice?

Saturday, July 14, 2007


by Tory Butterworth

One thing I learned from my "Sensation and Perception" course in college was that perception is all about comparison. How dark or light something appears, how loud or soft, how strong an odor, is all about what you're comparing it to.

I was sitting next to a drug and alcohol treatment administrator at a unit meeting this week, and she talked about her experience working for St. Francis Hospital. Apparently, for her first year there they didn't get any desks. They had to make do with tables and chairs. She pointed out how much she appreciated her desk, after waiting for it so long. It was so much better than the alternative.

I was reminded of her story when I had my annual mammogram two days later. I thought back on my "mammogram from Hell" ten years ago. I had optimistically scheduled a therapy appointment to deal with the trauma two hours after the mammogram. When the therapy appointment would have started, I was still sitting in the waiting room, waiting my turn.

After my first round of x-rays, I was sent back to the waiting room again. An hour or so later I was taken in for a sonogram, during which a male MD walked into the room (over the protests of my radiologist) to view me full frontal, naked from the waist up.

The crowning glory of the day came when, four hours after I had arrived, I sat down with the radiologist only to find out the hospital had lost my baseline mammogram from ten years earlier. They had nothing to compare my current mammogram to, in looking for suspicious changes.

This year I arrived fifteen minutes early and was out the door 45 minutes later. Sure, there was the joy of getting my breasts mashed and the instructions of, "Chin up! Pull that other breast back. No, further!" that made even my folk dancer's head spin. But it was so much better than past mammograms.

And then there's the ultimate comparison: how much less bad even my mammogram from Hell was than, say, undetected breast cancer.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Live from the Falls!

by Susan Helene Gottfried

As you're reading this, I'm in Canada, hopefully far from any of my computers, although I suspect we'll have at least one laptop with us. Yesterday was, after all, Thursday, and any of my regular groupies can tell you how important Thursdays are in my world.

I chose to travel on a Thursday because it's been two-and-a-half years since my family's last vacation. I'm overdue, to make a gross understatement.

I love to travel. I love to explore new places, see how other people live, learn new things. I love the possibilities that overload my brain.

The Tour Manager will refute this until he turns shades of blue, but for someone named after a job that you only do when you travel, he's a homebody. Maybe it's that he doesn't like to plan; I don't know. All I know for certain is that I'm the one who sat down three weeks ago and started showing the kids pictures of Niagara Falls. The Tour Manager, upon hearing us, fired up one of our other five computers and joined the effort.

Which is why, as you're reading this, I am running around Canada, reveling in the sights. I was here as a kid, myself; my memories are vague. Something about not being allowed to do something, a blue sky, and a little teepee my parents bought me in the souvenir shop. Of the Falls themselves, I remember virtually nothing.

My dad gave me a CD-ROM with all of his old pictures on it, including pictures of my own first time in Niagara. I dug it out in the hopes that the pictures would invoke more memories.

Lo and behold, my dad -- a man who takes amazing quantities of pictures for no good reason -- had taken exactly FIVE pictures: three were of the falls themselves. One was of my sisters with the falls in the background, badly backlit so that you can't see their faces. And the last one? My dad, in the same setting and equally as backlit.

Not much help in the memory department, I'm afraid. In fact, the pictures were useless in that regard. I'm not even sure they'll scrapbook well.

Even before I made scrapbooks and had kids to fill the books with, I'd become quite the photographer -- probably because it was a way to be closer to my dad. I expect I'll take lots of pictures while we're in Niagara. None of that posed stuff for me, either; I like it candid.

Even if my kids come home with only vague images that'll carry into their adult years, I'll have the pictorial supplements I lack of my fist visit to the Falls. Memories may exist only in our brains, but having a slew of pictures sure helps flesh out those memories and keep them real.

And maybe, just maybe, they'll help remind the Tour Manager how much fun it is when the family heads out on the road.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Book Memories

by Kristine Coblitz

Can you remember the first book you ever read?

Surprisingly, for me, it wasn't a mystery.

My love of reading started in the third grade. The book that started it all was RAMONA QUIMBY, AGE 8 by Beverly Cleary. Mrs. Katich, our teacher, used to read a chapter of the book to our class at the end of every school day. I remember how much I used to look forward to each installment. We'd all settle into our chairs, nestled in a circle as we eagerly awaited to hear what new adventure Ramona was going explore. After the last chapter was read, we all scurried to the library to acquire our own copies, which we devoured even though we already knew the story.

We all identified with poor Ramona Quimby. We could relate to her struggles with schoolwork and family. The cover shot of Ramona with her funky hair and pudgy face seemed to reflect how we all felt. Saying good-bye to the book was like saying good-bye to a friend who actually understood us.

Even then, the discovery and beauty of reading was taking shape in our minds. We didn't have Play Station, the Internet or iPods to keep us occupied. Books stimulated us instead. Perhaps that's why we didn't have school violence back then, but that's a topic for another blog and another day, isn't it?

If only we could turn back time. If you ask me, the whole Harry Potter reading mania is a step in the right direction. Earlier this summer, while my husband and I were on vacation, I was thrilled to see two middle school girls reading on the beach. Yes, they were reading. They were so engrossed in their books, in fact, that I doubt they were even aware of anything else happening around them.

A few years ago, I bought my own copy of Beverly Cleary's book and it has a permanent place on my bookshelf. Every once in a while I'll take it out and read it, amazed that the magic feeling I felt as a young child is still there. I intend to share it with my own children in hopes that they will appreciate and cherish a good story as much as I did.

Take a trip down memory lane and think about the book that started it all for you. If it's still in print and you can manage to snag a copy, all the better. Is it a book you'd want to share with your children or the next generation of readers?

If so, I want to hear about it. I have a pretty large bookshelf to fill in the nursery and could use some suggestions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


by Gina Sestak

Do you remember your dreams?

Dreams come in the night to entertain or frighten us. Dreams help us to process information, understand the past, and, possibly, foretell the future. Dreams inspire our writing.

One week ago today, I returned from attending the 24th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Sonoma, California. Three hundred-odd (some very odd) people came from all over the world to spend five days studying dreams from every conceivable angle. Nearly 150 seminars, workshops, and meetings were held, ranging from hard science to the woo-woo. Presenters included professors and shamans, ministers and dancers, psychologists and artists. Days began with dream sharing groups at 8 a.m. The final presentations ended at 9:30 p.m., followed by parties -- wine tasting, group drumming, a costume ball. It was overwhelming, but wonderful.

I attended many seminars and workshops, including one entitled Dreaming Into Creative Writing. Try this:

Pick a strong character from your dreams and spend eight minutes writing non-stop about that character. Then spend eight minutes writing as that character. Finally, imagine that character taken out of the dream setting and riding on a flying carpet. Spend eight minutes letting that character describe what s/he sees, feels, etc.

I used a character who has appeared in only one of my dreams, a sleeping woman who sits at a desk and writes with a lacquer pen that never runs dry. Imagine my surprise when, awakened and whisked away on a flying carpet, she cussed me out for disturbing her!

Have your dreams inspired your writing, or helped you to find a solution to a writing problem?

If you are interested in learning more about your dreams, come join our local dream workshop.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Amnesia Drug

by Nancy Martin

Do you have a memory you'd like to erase? Researchers at Montreal's Harvard and McGill University have come up with a drug that helps people forget.

No, it's not for helping you forget your first husband. Or your mother-in-law's phone number. Or the time my--er--your friend tied your brassiere to the antenna of her car and drove all over town including the pizza shop with your 36-B waving in the wind. No, Proplanonol is actually being tested on rape victims and people who suffer from serious post-traumatic stress. And it significantly reduces the stress these people experience daily.

Sounds to me as if it's the kind of shortcut our government will be eager to take when treating returning soldiers who have combat-related stress disorder. But that's another kind of blog, isn't it?

The article about this drug got me thinking. Did I have any memories I'd like to forget?

I guess I've lived a sheltered life, because I couldn't think of one. Neither could my husband. (But then, he was raised a Christian Scientist, which I think is the definition of sheltered life.) For a writer, of course, bad memories are actually a good thing.--They help us better decide how our characters act and feel. If we came upon a gruesome crime scene, we might be horrified for ten seconds, but then we'd reach for the notebook and pen to record how we feel. We want to digest every nuance for later use on the page.

Just because I don't have memories I want to be rid of doesn't mean I can't imagine how someone else might feel about a truly terrible experience, though. "I feel your pain," is a motto for a lot of writers.

Here's a website that makes me think about people and their emotional experiences. I think some of them could use this new drug. But I like the site because it reminds me what books need to be full of--emotions in turmoil.

I once had a conversation with an editor who had just become an agent. We were talking about the elements most lacking in the books she rejected. Her number one pick? The lack of drama.

I think she meant both the drama of a moment that a writer can build as well as the emotional drama the writer must first embrace, then articulate.

So the richer my emotional life as a writer, the better. But it's a fine line sometimes between turmoil you can sublimate into your work and turmoil you can't handle. I've taken anti-depressants now and then, and I've spent time in therapy, too. Neither of those experiences was a picnic in the park. But all my experiences have become useful additions to my writerly toy box.

What about you? Would you erase a memory, if you could? Because it sounds as if it could actually happen now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

What's her backstory?

by Pat Hart

Donna Moonda was convicted…

I followed this crime since the day it first appeared in the paper. A doctor was shot in the face at point blank range at an emergency pull-off on the Ohio turnpike. His wife and mother-in-law witnessed Dr. Moodna’s murder. They saw the gunman take the doctor’s wallet, shoot him and flee the scene.

How horrible. How random.

Until a woman scorned reported that the wife of Dr. Moonda was having an affair with a 23 year old black man (the scorned woman’s ex boyfriend). The doctor’s wife and the young man had met in drug rehab. Cell phone records revealed that the two had been in contact throughout the day of the murder, in fact within in 20 minutes of the murder the young man was known to be in the proximity murder scene and in contact with the widow.

It didn’t take long for the affair to be confirmed. Mrs. Moonda was paying the rent on the apartment in which the young man lived.

The young man confessed; it was murder for hire. The motive was Dr. Moonda’s money. The criminals were not clever, their crime was not uncommon, their method crude and their conspiracy clumsy. They were both drug addicts, which may explain their lack of cunning.

How did this happen to Donna Moonda? She was a nurse so she was more than peripherally aware of the dangers of taking painkillers. She started with a prescription for chronic pain and then became a drug addict. Exactly how does that happen? Where is your doctor? Shouldn’t they be carefully monitoring your every action from the moment they prescribe a narcotic? What do they do? Give you a script for oxycotin and a shiny tri-fold pamphlet about the dangers of taking a narcotic?

As writer I’m always curious about people’s backstory. What was Donna Moonda like as a young woman? I imagine she was a schemer and climber, marrying an older, wealthier man and then when the older man became an ‘old man’ she felt trapped. How long was this old coot going to live anyway?

And I wonder what she was like as first grader. She and I are about the same age. Was she one of those officious little girls that Sister put in charge when she had to run to the office? The little girl that would stand in front of the class, rolling piece of chalk between her fingers, ready to record any transgressions on the blackboard? Or maybe she was one of those girls that hung around the fringes of the clutch of bad boys in the back of the room. She’d wait for one of them to throw a paper wad or drop their books or make a loud rude noise so she could explode into giggles and blush and toss her hair around. Or was Donna Moonda a morose and kind of dirty girl whose family was odd and whose mother came to school in her housedress?

What do you think? What kind of child grows up to commit murder, not serial killer murder, but a selfish, personal murder of a ‘loved’ one?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Reporting for Duty

by Brian Mullen

It was just an ordinary day. I drove home from work, parked the car in the garage and strolled to the mailbox to collect the day's collection of junk mail and bills. But today, the postal service delivered a surprise.

Mr. Mullen, you are hereby summoned to the Allegheny County Courthouse for jury duty.

I was so excited that I called my wife at work. "Great news," I told her. "I've been summoned for jury duty."

"You're probably the only person in the history of mankind to ever utter those words." And she was probably right. But for a novice crime writer, this was a dream come true. My company was going to pay me (which they have to) to spend a day at the courthouse - learning, nay, researching the inner workings of our country's legal system. Oh, the experience I was about to obtain would be priceless.

At long last the day arrived. My wife works downtown so we carpooled. She dropped me off at the courthouse and I bounded through the doors like a child through the gates of Disneyland!

I joined the crowd working their way through the security check points. Many others in line held their jury summons - the perfect icebreaker. "They got you, too, huh?" I asked showing my own summons.

"Man, I don't want to be here," they each said in their own way. Music to my ears. Surely the judges and the lawyers would see that no one else wanted to be there. They'd see the enthusiasm in my eyes and know I was the juror of their dreams.

We were corraled into a courtroom and told to take a juror sticker/badge and a complimentary pen. I looked around the room at my competition. Unshaven slackers in sweatpants and t-shirts. Reluctant workerbees on cell phones and blackberries trying desperately to be productive. Housewives with stacks and stacks of tabloid magazines laboriously scrutinizing enlarged photographs to determine if Jennifer Aniston is wearing a ring on her mostly obscured hand and if she is, oh my God, what does it mean?

"Good morning. I'm Judge Lester Nauhaus and on behalf of the Allegheny Court system, I want to thank you all for being here today. I know none of you want to be here."

"I do," I wanted to shout. "Pick me!" The judge went on to explain the process and provide a lot of interesting facts. "Every other Monday," he said, "we get between 40 and 60 cases. The percentage of those cases that actually go to trial by jury is in the single digits. 50% of those cases involve chemical addictions. Virtually all trials end within 5 days." He went on to tell us a little about the building and where we could find food and drink and restrooms. They gave us our parking vouchers and discount lunch coupons. "Are there any questions?" When no one responded the judge continued. "No one wants to ask about my grandchildren?" Polite laughter. "How about what we wear under the robe? T-shirts with formal collars sewn onto them and socks with sewn on pant-leg bottoms. Thank you again for your service." Then we were left to sit and wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Finally after a few hours some people filed into the room. They were going to select potential jurors for a case and they started calling out names. I was number 13. After 30+ people were called, they told us some basics about the case and asked us if anyone felt they could not be impartial based on these details. People started raising their hands. "Ha! The odds just keep getting better and better," I thought. Then they started calling us up one at a time. The lawyers would ask their quiet little questions and I watched closely - studying their moves and glances, anticipating their questions and preparing the best answers I could think of. "Innocent until proven guilty, that's my motto," I'd say. "In High School, I was voted 'Most likely to be an impartial juror.'"

Finally they called me up and I sat at the table trying my best to look non-judgmental. "Good morning," one of the lawyers said.

"I'm afraid I can't draw that same conclusion until I've heard all the evidence." I didn't really say that, but I wanted to.

The rest of the questions they asked me were of little consequence and I answered them truthfully. I thought I was a shoo-in.

I wasn't picked. In fact most of the group of 30 weren't and they picked another group of 30 and started over. By 4:00 it seemed pretty clear that no other cases were going to need juries selected and we were dismissed with the assurance that we had fulfilled our duties and should not be summoned again for at least a year. Then we got our vouchers for our day's wages - $12.20.

Was I disappointed? Sure. I'd have loved to have the experience of participating in a trial. But I take comfort in the fact that I was able to participate in some fashion. My experience did inspire some ideas for stories. And I even got a blog entry out of it! Democracy rules!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Crime Takes a Vacation

by Joyce Tremel

I'm not sure what's happening in other jurisdictions, but in Shaler Township crime is taking a vacation. Our calls are down by about 3000 from last year at this time. Part of the reason could be that the Lt. ordered the guys to quit writing down every chicken shit thing they do. They were writing reports on every single phone call, even if someone just called to ask a stupid question. The officers make all the bank deposits for the township office (why they can't do it is beyond me), so they'd write a report that said, "Made bank deposit." They also deliver all the mail from the township office to our seven township commissioners, so they'd write seven reports saying, "Delivered mail to Commissioner So and So." Thank goodness the Lt. put a stop to that! Now if I could only get him to tell the guys to quit writing citations, I'd be really happy.

In general though, our calls do go down in the summer. I'm not sure why. If I was a criminal, I'd much rather be out and about in the warm weather. Two complaints that do go up in the summer are juvenile complaints and neighbor disputes.

The kids cause all kinds of mischief this time of year. Some people call if they just SEE a teenager walking down the street. He doesn't have to be doing anything. His mere existence is cause for alarm for some people (usually the neighborhood busybody who has nothing else to do). The guys check it out anyway.

Neighbor disputes go up in the summer because people actually have to see their neighbors. One dispute has been ongoing for months. Two neighbors have been arguing over their property line. One guy keeps dumping stuff on the other's property. The property owner finally had his lot surveyed and staked. That should have been the end of the dispute--the property was clearly marked. Instead, the guy who was dumping pulled out the stakes. They are now going to court.

All these neighbor disputes will carry over into the fall, when people complain about leaves blowing onto their property from their neighbor's trees. So far, there's been no physical violence over any of this. Yet.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Summer Reading

The Working Stiffs are taking the Fourth of July holiday off to spend with our families. You might be able to find us sipping lemonade under the big tree in the back yard while burgers and hot dogs sizzle on the grill. But while we’re kicking back, we thought we’d offer everyone our Top Ten Summer Reading List. In no particular order:

THE BODY BOX, by Lynn Abercrombie (pseudonym of Edgar award winning author Walter Sorrels.) The Body Box features detective MeChelle Deakes, recently demoted from GLBT Liaison Officer to the Cold Case unit of the Atlanta PD. She and her new partner Lt. Hank Gooch search for a serial killer who kidnaps children, places them in a box and watches them starve to death.

BLIND FEAR, the second in the series in which newly retired Lt. Hank Gooch and MeChelle Deakes have 13 hours to solve a case. The catch is that MeChelle has been kidnapped, her eyes superglued shut and she’s in a soundproof room.

DEATH BY PANTYHOSE by Laura Levine. Freelance writer Jane Austen is back in another hilarious adventure. A perfect summer book to read in the shade with a cool drink.

TILT A WHIRL by Chris Grabenstein introduces Danny Boyle and John Ceepak as odd couple partners solving the murder of a billionaire real estate tycoon found murdered on the amusement park ride in a quiet tourist town in New Jersey. If you’ve already read it, try MAD MOUSE or WHACK A MOLE, the next two in the series.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman is an eerie cold case in which two young girls disappear from busy shopping mall, their bodies never found. Thirty years later a dazed woman involved in a hit and run accident claims to be one of the sisters. A top notch tale reminiscent of the story of Anastasia.

THE CHRYSALIS by first time author Heather Terrell tells a story the crosses centuries as attorney Mara Coyne attempts to unravel the mystery behind the ownership of a lost masterpiece, The Chrysalis. The investigation into the painting’s true provenance leads Mara to discoveries involving underground Catholicism in the 1600’s, to Nazi atrocities, to lies and deception in the present.

THE WAR AGAINST MISS WINTER by our own Working Stiff, Kathryn Miller Haines. Set during World War II, aspiring actress turned gumshoe, Rosie Winter is thrust into a role she never expected when her detective boss turns up dead.

From new releases to a classic, what’s a summer reading list without perennial favorite REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Need we say more? Didn’t think so.

For those of you who'd like to take a break with a little non-fiction, here are two books that might inform your settings and characters this summer.

LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME: EVERYTHING YOUR HISTORY TEXTBOOK GOT WRONG by James W. Loewen claims that whitewashing American history not only diminishes its worth but makes it just plain boring, a lesson every novelist should take to heart. Along the way, readers get to know familiar historical figures and events in new ways, which could energize your next historical mystery.

Loewen argues that racial conflict is central to the two most famous American novels of all time: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind. Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CAFETERIA? can help writers visualize endings for such conflict that are emotionally satisfying and treat minorities with respect.

Those are some of our picks. What are yours?

And Happy Fourth of July from the Stiffs!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Washington Strangler

by Annette Dashofy

The question of why I choose to write crime fiction has come up several times lately. When I started writing “novels” back in my early teens I wrote westerns and science fiction mostly. They were all crap. Trust me. I think my mother probably still has them hidden away somewhere as potential blackmail material. But at some point, I switched to a life of crime…writing, that is. And after giving it some thought, I think I’ve pinpointed exactly when that happened.

I’ve lived in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania all my life. Most of our crime is small potatoes, although lately, drug dealers have been moving out here from Pittsburgh. But back in the mid-seventies, it seemed like a pretty safe place to live. Then came November of 1976.

On November 25, 1976, Susan Rush, age 21, of Washington was found strangled in the trunk of her car. She’d left her job at Murphy’s in the Washington Mall shortly after 6PM the night before.

Mary Irene Gency, age 16 of North Charleroi disappeared on February 13, 1977 after leaving home to meet some friends after dinner. Her battered and raped body was found six days later in some secluded woods.

Seventeen-year-old Deborah Jeannette Capiola of Findlay never made it to her school bus stop on the morning of March 17, 1977. Her body was discovered ten days later, just over the Allegheny County line in Robinson. She had been raped and strangled.

And on May 18, 1977, Brenda Ritter, age 18 left her boyfriend’s house shortly after 10PM as he and his mother watched her drive away, making sure that her doors were locked. Girls in Washington County were getting jittery. Still, she never made it home. Her body was found the next morning, three-quarters of a mile from her abandoned car. She also had been raped and strangled.

Some say the string of murders ended there, as suddenly as it began. Further research reveals other similar murders in West Virginia and Ohio before and after these dates.

The Washington Strangler, as this “serial killer” was called, made quite an impression on me. I was a senior in high school at the time. The dead girls were close to my age. I frequented the Washington Mall and G.C. Murphy’s where Susan Rush had worked.

It was during that time period that I wrote my first crime fiction novel, inspired by the real life unsolved mysteries. I created two women cops, the female versions of Starsky and Hutch. (Shortly afterwards a new hit TV show premiered. Cagney and Lacey. I guess I was a little ahead of my time.) Like my westerns and science fiction efforts, my first crime novel sucked swamp water big time. But in that novel, my fictional cops solved the string of murders. Small comfort. Three of the four real ones remain unsolved. Deborah Capiola’s killer was arrested in December 2000 after advances in DNA connected him to the murder. It’s also cleared him of at least two of the others.

That potentially leaves at least one other crazed killer out there.

That string of murders left me rattled as a young female, suddenly aware that her rural home wasn’t the safe haven she’d previously believed. But it also sparked my interest in crime writing. In our fiction, we have control over the outcome. Our heroes find all the clues, connect all the dots. The bad guys get caught and justice is served. There is a strange sense of fulfillment in making things turn out “right” in the end. Thirty years later, there is still no satisfactory ending to the stories of Susan Rush, Mary Gency, or Brenda Ritter.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Adventures in the Pie Wagon

by Brenda Roger

I found myself laughing abnormally hard in the middle of a conversation one day; eyes- running-can’t-catch-your-breath hard.

We were talking about a van that my family had in the late 1970s. It was affectionately referred to as “The Pie Wagon.” Yes, as you can see, the outside of the Pie Wagon was a treat, but the inside was where the cool factor really shot up. Being avid do-it-yourselfers, my parents customized the inside themselves. There was a “deck” in the back, which was basically a raised area that ran half the length of the vehicle. That was covered in carpet that was a blend of black and red yarns –snazzy! The walls were paneled and the floors were all covered in the lovely carpet. We had a small refrigerator and ………. an eight-track tape deck. I can still hear the Rita Coolidge songs when I close my eyes. There was one other fabulous element to the décor, but I’m saving that for later.

There were many fine family memories made in the Pie Wagon. I think I was about five or six when it showed up on the scene. You could pile an army into it. We carted around our Springer Spaniel, and two or three of my male cousins (the brothers I never had). We once picked up a lady whose horse had run off on her. I still remember her crouching between the seats with her eyes peeled while my mother raced to catch up with the horse. Once, we were having an impromptu McDonald’s picnic on a summer day, burgers and fries spread out in the back of the Pie Wagon with the double side doors open –then a gift from the universe –my sister sat in ketchup. If you ever met my sister, you would see why this was a gift from the universe.

My favorite Pie Wagon story involves the pièce de résistance of van accessories circa 1979. Way before anyone cared that when you stop fast in a vehicle, small things like children become projectiles, we actually had two bean bag chairs in the back of the Pie Wagon! One day I was innocently cruising along in the back of the PW, sacked out in my bean bag chair, and wham! My Mom had to hit the brakes to avoid a collision and I careened across the carpeted floor in my slippery vinyl blob and did a face plant on the back of the passenger seat. The next day I had a shiner, and my first grade teacher was very interested to hear how it happened. I told her the whole story and I can still remember the look on her face. It was a look that said, “that must be true because no one could make that up.”

Now none of these things that I’ve shared are the reason(s) that I couldn’t stop laughing. I was laughing so hard because part way through the conversation about the PW, I truly wished we still had it!

Do you have any good family car stories?