Monday, March 31, 2008


by Gina Sestak

I gave up my private law practice in 1986. I was tired of fighting for people in court, then fighting those same people to get them to pay me. I had begun to regard clients as somewhat akin to cockroaches, except I liked the roaches better.

So I began to rent my services to small firms and sole practitioners. Let those lawyers fight their clients over fees -- as long as the lawyers paid me, I was happy. I billed myself as a freelance associate, willing to step in at a moment's notice to handle awkward, inconvenient matters.

It is an immutable truth of the universe that, if you have to be at two events in any given year, those two events will be on the same day in different locations. Hence the need. A sole practitioner might received notice of a motion being presented in Lawrence County at the same time she is due in court in Allegheny County. I would step in to handle the motion in Lawrence County.

This was fun. There are several small counties with pretty little courthouses around Pittsburgh. I often didn't even charge for travel time. It was too enjoyable, learning to navigate unfamiliar court personnel and judges, and being out and about -- although I admit that I sometimes got confused on the way to Washington County and almost went to Erie (you local folks know what I mean).

My favorite part of this job, though, was attending depositions with the deponent. Modern law practice tries to avoid courtroom surprises, so it is the norm (at least in larger cases) for each side to question the other's witnesses under oath prior to trial. Such a questioning session is called a deposition; the testifying witness is called a deponent. The purpose behind this is simple: if both sides know what the evidence is, they are more likely to reach a settlement. Even if the case isn't settled, the attorneys may be able to agree to certain facts. This can streamline the trial by cutting down on the number of things that have to be proven in court.

The attorney taking the deposition might spend a day or more asking probing questions, while the attorney on the other side fretted over taking time away from other pressing matters. The solution: I would attend the deposition. It is important for attorneys for both sides to be present but, if you're not the one taking the deponent, you don't have to do much. I mainly drank coffee and took the deponent out of the room on occasion to provide advice but -- and this is crucial -- whenever inappropriate questions were asked, I would object. Different jurisdictions handle deposition objections differently. In some places, I've heard, you can go directly to a judge for a ruling. Our local judges don't want to be bothered. Around here, you simply put the objection on the record and, if the deposition is used at trial, a judge rules then.

I also did a lot of research, writing briefs and other legal documents. That, too, is fun in its own sick sort of way. The trick is figuring out what the law is. Oh, I know we say "the law" as if it were a list of dos and don'ts, like the ten commandments. In reality, "the law" consists of thousands of federal statutes and regulations, thousands of state statutes and regulations, and the thousands of cases in which judges have applied and interpreted them. Not to mention the hundreds of rules that govern how, when, and where each issue can be raised. Research can be mind boggling. I must admit that I don't find the law itself as fascinating as the facts. I briefed one marital dispute over cows who were in utero at the time of separation. I can't remember how the Divorce Code regarding them, but the phrase "after-born cattle" has stayed with me.

I freelanced for a few years, mainly for a small group of customers. Although the income was irregular, the work was interesting. What more can you ask than that?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Promotion: A Full Time Job For a Writer

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Elizabeth Zelvin today!

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I haven’t been a working stiff since I left my last day job, directing an alcohol treatment program on the Bowery, in the fall of 1999. Or have I? One of the mystery writers’ e-lists I belong to recently had a thread about what everyone was currently writing. I was not the only one who said, “Who has time to write? I’m hip deep in promotion.”

When I dusted off the existing first few pages of Death Will Get You Sober back in 2001, I was already sitting at the computer. I had just launched my online therapy website at and embarked on a major professional journey: building a practice, treating clients all over the world, and making all the mistakes as a website novice that would help me not make them when I launched my author website at several years later. Being an online therapist can be a fulltime job, as can being a writer, though in economic terms both are vocations about which everybody advises, “Don’t give up your day job.”

When I completed the manuscript in 2002, two more jobs awaited me: writing the next one and trying to find an agent, then a publisher. The many tasks included learning how to write a query letter and a synopsis, then expanding and contracting them according to the moment’s needs, polishing them till they sparkled, then fine tuning and fine tuning and fine tuning them. That process still goes on. Did I mention revising the first draft? I made the neophyte’s mistake of sending it out right away and learned about critique and revision the hard way.

Networking with mystery writers and mystery lovers in general was another delightful but time-consuming task. I couldn’t have reached this point without the New York chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and their respective e-lists; Sisters in Crime Guppies and its subgroup AgentQuest; e-lists DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise; and later, the online social networks CrimeSpace and MySpace, which I’ll get to in a moment.

So it’s Chanukah and then Christmas, 2007, and I’m finally on the homestretch toward publication of my book in April 2008. And how come I’m working harder—more hours per day, seven days a week—than I have since I got my master’s in social work (60 credits in two years plus three days a week working full time for free, first with severely mentally ill clients and then with alcoholics) more than twenty years ago?

Here’s some—by no means all—of what I’ve been up to:


Sent individual holiday messages to my then 900 Friends on MySpace and 800 on CrimeSpace, greeting each by name and NOT mentioning the book.

Sent holiday cards to the 100 closest friends I send them to every year—with a letter asking for their help in spreading the word about the book, explaining about sales and computer modeling and why I can’t give any copies away, and listing everything they could do, from asking for it at the library to getting their book club to invite me to speak.

Added an address label and a handwritten note to a postcard for each of the 1300 people whose postal addresses I have—some will come back undeliverable, as I’ve been collecting them for 30 or 40 years as I waited to have something to tell them about my dream of publishing a novel.


Set up the book tour. I’ve hired an outside publicist, but can’t afford to turn it all over to her, so I work closely with her and my publicist at St. Martin’s by email, pore over lists of mystery and indie bookstores, make endless virtual trips to their websites and to Mapquest to check the distance between towns and make sure I can get from one gig to the next in time. Do you know that the state of Florida is as big as England? And Dayton, Ohio is not as close to Indianapolis as my publicist assumed it is. The book tour job also requires me to turn travel agent and book flights, hotels, and cars all over the country.

Subscribed to Consumer Reports and did comparison shopping for a GPS. Bought the GPS.


Set up the virtual tour, of which this visit to Working Stiffs is a part. This involved writing numerous guest blogs as far in advance as I could, always striving to hit the requested word count and deadline, to keep it lively, and not to repeat myself; and participating in numerous interviews. Actually, I enjoyed both these tasks. Writing blog pieces (as a guest or doing my weekly stint on my own group blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters) makes me feel like a journalist, and the interviews give me unprecedented license to go on and on about myself—what bliss!

Sent individual Valentine’s Day messages to my 1100 MySpace Friends and 800 CrimeSpace friends, again not mentioning the book. This kind of networking is its own reward: back-atcha messages are still trickling in from Valentine’s Day and even Xmas, every one putting a big smile on my face and convincing me that all these folks in cyberspace really are my friends who wish me well and might even, some of them, buy the book one day.

Learned how to use the GPS. Started to get used to it. Sent it back to the manufacturer for repair because it stopped talking to me.

March—well, you get the idea. There are now new bookmarks quoting the early reviews instead of the author blurbs and new postcards to alert people about the book tour in May and June instead of inviting everyone to the launch party on April 15 at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. (Yes, you are all invited.) There’s endless recording of every stock signing and podcast: on two or three calendars, on my website (can’t believe I’ve learned enough HTML not to have to prod my webmaster to make the almost daily updates), on my MySpace and CrimeSpace pages, on the spreadsheets I keep so I won’t lose track. I have to keep reading all my groups because you never know when someone will offer a crucial tip or contact on DorothyL or Murder Must Advertise or CrimeSpace or EMWA or Guppies or SinC or MWA-NY or SinC-NY or MWA-Breakout—or the addictions and online therapy lists I still belong to. There’s the small matter of needing a new agent at this crucial phase of my career.

So there you have it. Network network network. Schmooze schmooze schmooze. Full time job. And you know what? I love it!

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, will hit bookstores April 15. Library Journal called it “a remarkable and strongly recommended first novel.” Her short story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet" has been nominated for an Agatha for Best Short Story. Liz is also one of the bloggers on “Poe’s Deadly Daughters” You can visit Liz’s website at Elizabeth will also be at the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA on April 28th.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Seeking Wisdom, Finding Nothing

Kathie Shoop

I'm not a politician nor am I a religious theologian. But I am interested in both and I'm equally disgusted by both. I might be easily confused compared to the rest of the world, but I don't see how trying to keep up on the issues means that you actually derive any sort of wisdom that might inform my life decisions.

Who do you believe? There isn't a person in the world, scholar, religious leader, or hack who can withstand the scrutiny of newscasters/critics/Joe Blow. What are we doing here, making every single person who has an opinion on one thing or another out to be a complete moron? It's possible, I'm convinced, to take the most intelligent person on the planet look like he/she's just graduating from kindergarten. Likewise, no one is without bias, we need to understand the perspectives of people who are experts and have influence on the world stage and make decisions accordingly.

Now, the fact that the political arena is a mess and in my opinion, much of religion is just steps behind in its messiness is no excuse for me to throw my hands up and stop trying to figure things out, to opt out of the pursuit to understand. But, I have to admit, there's a part of me that doesn't want to care about anything outside of my own circle of life. Wouldn't things be easier to just tune out all the news, watch a little Nick with the kids, write my novels, and just wait for things to happen?

Perhaps the rest of the world isn't so confused...happy election year, everyone!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Q & A

by Joyce Tremel

By special request, I'm doing another question and answer day. Post your questions in the comments and I'll try my best to answer them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Report from Week Five: Citizens' Police Academy

Is your automobile’s inspection sticker up to date? If not, beware of the Pittsburgh Police’s Traffic Enforcement Division. They look for those things.

Thankfully, I’d just had my car inspected Monday morning before going to this week’s Citizens’ Police Academy class.

Before the motorcycle officers from traffic spoke, we had a chance to learn about the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s Citizen Police Review Board courtesy of Board Member Elizabeth Pittinger who spoke passionately about the board and its duties. They investigate individual complaints of police misconduct and make recommendations regarding the Bureau of Police. With their help, training and systemic problems get corrected, often without the need to go to court. Formed after the police involved killings of Jerry Jackson and Johnny Gammage in 1995, the board consists of seven members. Four are appointed from a list of candidates offered by city council and the other three are direct appointments of the mayor. Two are law enforcement professionals. The other five have no requirements other than being city residents. They employ two full time investigators and average 500 complaints a year. The CPRB protects good cops from bad citizens and good citizens from bad cops.

One tidbit of information that you might find useful in your writing or in any dealings you have with the police, an officer MUST give you his name and badge number if you ask for it. If he says it’s on the citation, well, it is, but that isn’t good enough. Writing can be illegible. He must GIVE you that information if asked. Otherwise, you have a right to complain to the Citizen Police Review Board.

Elizabeth went on to tell us about a recent incident when a child was struck by a car. As police and medics tried to do their jobs, family members milled about along with a growing crowd of onlookers. One of the stressed-out cops at the scene made an unfortunate rude comment, which was overheard by the victim’s grandmother and several other family members. The grandmother made a complaint to the CPRB. The officer deeply regretted making the statement and agreed to meet with the family. He apologized in person to the grandmother, who had had a few run-ins with police of her own. The officer did not let the grandmother’s history color his remorse. Instead of this incident becoming a public relations nightmare, the board facilitated a scenario in which public trust in the police was built.

Following the presentation on the CPRB, Sean Pindel and Jim Miles, motorcycle officers with the Traffic Division spoke of their duties and fielded dozens of questions.

Traffic is broken down into smaller divisions including Collision Investigation, River Rescue (not really a separate division, but some of the Traffic Officers take on the specialized training required), Intoxilyzer Unit (does the breath testing…blood and urine tests are conducted at the hospital), Motorcycle, and Truck Safety Enforcement.

On the topic of Truck Safety, I have always been intimidated by tractor trailers. Now I will give even more thought to that big rig following me down the highway. When a tractor comes off the lot, brand new, already the brakes are only functioning at 70%. A rush-job to repair an on-the-road break-down could cut that to even less. I always knew they couldn’t exactly stop on a dime, but now…I think I’ll just pull over and let them pass me next time one is tailgating me. Fines for trucks are steep. In the city, if a truck driver is caught crossing one of our many little bridges over gross, fines START at $5000. Officers would then do a full inspection, which would likely rack up even more fines.

Currently, Pittsburgh has only 23 motorcycles after once having up to 45. Those numbers may very soon be going back up. Motorcycle officers work demonstrations, making sure they remain peaceful. They escort dignitaries to, through, and out of town. And they deal with the day-to-day stuff as well. Like speed enforcement.

Did you know that only the State Police are permitted to use Radar? But that leaves plenty of other options for local police to nab speeders. VASCAR can be used in a variety of ways, but requires hours of training and even more hours of practice before an officer even takes the certification test. Our two officers made no effort to disguise their preference for Accutrak, a small, handheld device similar to stopwatch. Used with those white lines painted on the road, an officer clicks once when a predetermined part of the car (say the left front tire) crosses the first line and then clicks it again when the same part of the car crosses the second line. Accutrak then does the math and displays the car’s speed. Another type of time/distance speed measuring device is ESP.

ESP involves a three-piece unit. Two pieces sit across the street from each other and emit a beam that is broken by a car passing between them. Those two units are wired to a third piece, a module in the police vehicle which displays the speed.

Similar to ESP, but wireless, is ENRADD.

There is also a laser gun, similar to a radar gun, but any department can use it. All of these require that the officer be certified to use the equipment EXCEPT the Accutrak.

Terminology check: It is “speed enforcement” NOT a “speed trap” as we tend to call it.

By the way, an officer cannot issue you a ticket for speeding until you have gone 10 miles over the limit. And often they give you 15 miles. The exception to this rule is school zones. There, you will get busted if you’re going 16 mph. If you are eleven miles an hour over the 15 mph limit, the fines start at $500.


Terminology check #2: There is no such thing as an “accident.” It’s a “collision.” In collision investigation, an officer will take statements from all parties involved including witnesses, but does not include his opinion as to who is at fault in his report. HOWEVER, he may issue citations for violations that have occurred. Those citations may then indicate what caused the collision (not accident).

Phew! There was a ton more information given to us this week. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this for now. Want to hear more? Attend the next Citizens’ Police Academy! It’s well worth your time and effort.

Next week: The Emergency Operations Center. FIELD TRIP!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Sweet Reward

By Martha Reed

I’m constantly struggling with nutrition and trying to eat right. It’s not that I eat bad food, I’m just lazy, and I’d rather grab a handful of something quick than actually cook something nutritious. I am getting better at it – at this age I need to, and I have seen some health benefits recently. But Easter! That holy week where candy is celebrated even more than on pagan Halloween – Easter is my downfall. Damn that bunny!

To honor the spring solstice then, I’ll take a pass on the egg white omelets and field green salads this week. Give me jelly beans and speckled malted eggs, white chocolate rabbits and pink and yellow Peeps! What hallucinatory madman ever invented marshmallow rolled in colored sugar and then cut into the shapes of cute baby animals? In my mind I imagine some Johnny Depp-like character, a mutant hybrid of Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, perched atop a can of Hershey’s syrup and directing his mob of loyal sugared-out zombie followers using a long-handled spoon dripping with caramel.

See what happens when I dip into the sugar? Somebody, please, cut me off.

In defense of the holiday, I have to admit I love three day weekends. I get so much done with that extra day off – the pile of laundry, a clean kitchen floor, and it gives me three full glorious mornings to write. That is the real treat to my Easter weekend – three six hour chunks of uninterrupted time to really put some thought into my creative work.

The good news is I finished Chapter Seven on Saturday. That is good news, because this chapter is critical to my new novel and it required hours of detailed research that probably won’t even make it to the final cut. That’s the irony in creative writing – all that tremendous, interesting knowledge gets cut out because it slows the actual storyline. I believe that’s what William Faulkner meant when he wrote: ‘kill your darlings’. It doesn’t matter how great your writing is; if it interrupts the story, hit delete.

Even sugar (or evil twin sister caffeine, for that matter) can’t compare with the euphoria I feel when a chapter is successfully rounded to an end. I know some writers use outlines, but I don’t, my process is more organic; it has to develop and grow. I do have some idea of structure. I know, going into a chapter, approximately where I want the chapter to go, and what points in the storyline I’d like to hit. Sometimes this works, and sometimes, when I try to push it, the storyline breaks down and I have to reconsider what it is that I’m trying to do. That’s all part of the process, and I don’t sweat it at this stage of the game. But once I have the general framework in mind, I draft it out, and then I rewrite it, and edit it again, and polish the paragraphs to be the best they can be just like Marines, when I get to that point, and I can see that the story has been built and that it will stand on its own, that is truly, truly sweet.

And then I have the big blank ahead of me and I get to do it all over again.

But it’s worth it, because of the magic. Once you start to pile one chapter on top of another and the book begins to mesh, and it’s not just ideas and words anymore, its whole paragraphs and chapter headings and descriptive detail, and really, really funny bits of dialogue; and the characters begin to come alive and you hear them speak to you and to each other, and sometimes they wave and sometimes they flip you off, and you learn then to ask another character that particular thorny question because obviously George doesn’t want to answer it, and you get to watch as the story grows.

That’s the sweetest reward – the end result. You have a new book in your hand, and it is yours, and it is good.

Monday, March 24, 2008


by Brenda Roger

Have you ever tried to trace one of your ideas or personality traits back to its origin? While listening to the curator of the 2008 Carnegie International talk about specific artists, I heard mention of a Cabinet of Curiosities, and realized that this early form of a museum was present in the earliest memories of my childhood.

The Cabinet of Curiosities originated hundreds of years ago and was originally a cabient of natural history specimens and other curious things. Also, it was frequently a room, not necessarily a cabinet. I've always found the idea of a mish-mash of things that are simply interesting to look at very appealing, but never really thought about why. Some people can't stand the clutter of seemingly unrelated objects.

My maternal grandmother has always had a hutch in her house with small niches in it, each only about four by six inches. It is to this day filled with curiosities; little porcelain dolls, postcards, photos, glass bottles, animal figures of various materials, and frequently little scraps of paper with makeshift labels typed on them. It was positioned, in her tiny country house, next to the kitchen table, and I would stare at it and examine the objects for something to do while the grown-ups were talking. The mish-mash made perfect sense to me. It was a record of my grandmother's life and memories. It is a personal museum.

The idea of keeping a bunch of old stuff for people to come and look at it is sometimes completely foreign to the students that visit the museum. It is an idea they have to get used to before they can surrender to their curiosity. The idea has always made perfect sense to me, so I do what I can to win them over.

So what about your life's work can be traced to an early memory?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rebounding (Finally)

by Brian Mullen

Well, for the past four weeks, my household has been striken with the worst flu virus we've ever seen. I was the proud owner of it for the first two weeks, my wife and I shared it for week three, and now I am recovering while my wife is fighting the major symptoms as we speak.

If you have had this strain of flu, I don't need to tell you that it is one tough bugger. It did not respond to antibiotics (as most viruses do not); however, the symptoms also were highly resistent to treatment. I tried four different leading brands of medicines that supposedly eased symptoms - not one of them had any noticable effect.

As a result, I have already depleted my year's supply of sick hours; my wife adamantly refuses to waste her hours and has gone to work every day and been sent home by her boss three times now.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent some of my time focusing on my writings as I have very little to show for my days spent at home. It is hard to concentrate and work when you're feverish and coughing every other breath, but the absence of writing has had an effect nonetheless.

Having several hundred channels on cable television and the time to watch it is eye-opening. You'd think with all those channels that at any given time, something good might be on. You'd be wrong. We also have "On Demand" which allows us to watch select programs any time we wish and I must say that I have found great interest in HBO's series "John Adams" starring Paul Giamatti as the eponymous forefather. I've seen the first two episodes so far and it has captivated me. So much so, in fact, that I've decided to spend some time reading some of the biographies of our founding fathers. My mother has also put me onto a favorite book of hers which is "Founding Mothers", a book on the wives of the founding fathers written by Cokie Roberts (whom I know from National Public Radio). The HBO series clearly indicates that John Adams' wife was a trusted consultant/adviser to him during both his legal and political careers and she seemed to be not only the lynchpin of the family but the anchor/rudder that kept John Adams where he needed to be.

The series will be comprised of seven episodes, I belive. Two have already been aired. That finally gives me something on television I can look forward to. What a novel idea!

Friday, March 21, 2008

True Confessions of a "Medium" Watcher

by Cathy Anderson Corn

For several seasons now, my husband Alan and I have watched the NBC series "Medium." We enjoy the supernatural and the Dubois family pictured in the show (the lovely Patricia Arquette, Jake Weber, and the three blond TV daughters they raise). Yes, it depicts violence, murder, and dead bodies, but that's balanced by family love and a dash of humor.

For some reason, Allison Dubois, the psychic, receives her extrasensory information via dreams. She wakes up breathless and rattled from the latest brutal killing or clue in her sleep. She rarely receives impressions in any other way. This works on TV, but real psychics don't operate like that. Real psychics do readings with clients, see symbols, smell or hear things that aren't there, get impressions from touching items, and so on. Maybe it's cheaper to film the show using dreams, or maybe the writers don't really believe in mediums or they're lazy.

Besides this, the real Allison Dubois, upon whom the series was based, has done over 1200 readings in addition to working in a district attorney's office (like the TV Allison until this season), and has worked as a research psychic (scientific testing of psychic powers). Perhaps the inaccurate TV depiction of a medium has more to do with an individual reading--very dramatic for the person being read, but not that exciting for anyone else.

My first reading followed a chaotic period of my life when the man I was dating became critically ill, was admitted to the hospital and lost consciousness. His mother and sister, who didn't know me, accused me of being a "tramp," had me evicted from the hospital, seized his car and dog, and changed the locks on his apartment. The nurses called me about a week later and sneaked me into his room to see him the night before he died. The entire saga screams "soap opera," but it really happened. I felt a little confused after all that. I went to a psychic.

The psychic reassured me and helped me make sense of the ridiculous, and I've gotten readings ever since then. The whole process fascinates me.

In fact, last Sunday Alan and I attended the Spirit Fair at the Rex Theater sponsored by the Open Mind Bookstore and Journeys of Life. Lately, I've noticed the readings usually emphasize something I've already been considering. The information propels me forward in a direction I've already determined.

Paul Meidinger, my reader, first gave me information about my healing work that verified my thoughts. Then, he said I'm becoming a character, like some people in those old black and white photos who stand out.

I take that as a compliment. In my former life as Miss Goody Two Shoes, RN married to a minister, I strove to be sweet and caring and helpful, nearly perfect in every way.

BORING. Who wants to be that kind of protagonist, let alone read about her? It's those imperfections and well-developed personalities that set our characters apart.

I asked Paul about getting my latest work, Once in a Blue Moon, published. He said it will be published, but I need to put more time into marketing and submit to a wider market.

Put more time in? Hey I already knew that. I must be psychic or something.

How about you? Have you any experiences with psychic readers, or even psychic experiences? Does the whole idea turn you off? Do you think it's a scam? What's your take on "Medium?"

Have a wonderful Easter holiday and pass the jellybeans, please.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Confessions of a Debut Crime Fiction Author

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Jordan Dane, who has not ONE, but THREE books being released this year. The first, No One Heard Her Scream, is scheduled for release on March 25. The second, No One Left To Tell will be released in May, and the third, No One Lives Forever in June.

Confessions of a Debut Crime Author

by Jordan Dane

“Hi. My name is Jordan. And I’m a … ” I bite my lower lip and grimace, but push through the first step of my recovery program. “I’m a crime fiction author.”

Oh sure, some might think this isn’t a big thing to admit. Some may even envy my position, but I’m here to confess that as a crime fiction author, I’m not a well person. Bad men speak to me in my head—and I like it. I visualize a bloody crime scene and all I can think about is, “Does viscera have a ‘C’ in it?” When I say, “I’m cracking open a case” I’m not talking Heineken, people. And making a good impression in my world involves shoe prints or tire tracks. In short, what makes some people squeamish puts me on the fiction happy train.

That’s because crime fiction authors don’t think like normal people. We have a warped sense of reality and of what’s funny. If a man is killed from poisoned chickpeas, this is tragic certainly, but I’m thinking it’s a solid case of hummuscide. And I play deviant games of “what if” scenarios in my head, like what if tupperware could kill? What if coffee shops dispensed mind-altering lattes or espresso was discovered as the sole source of global warming?

Nothing is sacred, literally. I called my mother one day saying, “Yo Mom, I’m putting my Catholic upbringing to good use. I dumped the body in the church.” I waited for her reaction and only heard a deep sigh, a familiar sound by now.

On the less flippant side of the coin, I also try to capture what courage it takes to run toward a gun shot instead of racing away like a sane person. I have respect for those in law enforcement and hope that’s reflected in my writing. And real crime stories influence me. Author Lee Child said that it’s not about writing what you know but rather writing what you fear. So whenever I imagine the pain of losing a loved one to violence, it’s always a soul-searching experience.

I know by now you’re thinking I really love what I do. I’m conflicted, I suppose. Weighing the consequences of becoming a crime fiction author hasn’t been easy, but I’m optimistic I’ll eventually find the right balance in my life—or be forced to find a new set of friends.

So tell me, if you’re a writer, how has writing mysteries and crime fiction affected how you look at the world or how the world looks at you? And if you’re a reader of crime fiction, what draws you to this genre?

Avon/Harpercollins bought Jordan Dane’s debut suspense series in auction and is launching this trilogy in a back to back publishing event April through June 2008. “We are pursuing an aggressive release schedule,” says Avon publisher Liate Stehlik, “because we believe strongly in this author. Jordan Dane is poised to be the ‘next big thing’ in the romantic suspense genre.” Publishers Weekly called Dane’s NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (Apr 2008) a “dynamite debut” and compared Dane’s intense pacing to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag—romantic suspense that “crosses over into plain thriller country”. NYT bestseller Allison Brennan recommends, “Read it in the daytime and have a tall glass of ice water handy.” For more, visit

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Week Four: Firearms

By Annette Dashofy

The topic of this week’s Citizens’ Police Academy session was Firearms Safety. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d learn much. Having married into a family of hunters and gun collectors, I’ve heard the lectures before: Assume all weapons are loaded. Never point a gun at something unless you plan on shooting it. And so on and so on. That is not what the session was about. If someone walked into class Monday night and expected a dose of that stuff, they’d have been greatly disappointed. I, however, was not.

Our instructor for the night was Rob Harrison. His voice was a little raw from teaching recruits all day. Those trainees will receive anywhere from 80 to 100 hours of firearms training in upcoming weeks. Marksmanship is only part of what they will learn. They’ll also learn things like drawing their weapon efficiently and using good judgment. Being a top-notch marksman is no good if you shoot at the wrong target. Trainees will be made to run sprints, do push-ups and other physically demanding tasks until their heart rate gets to around 130. An elevated heart rate will mess with the mind and body. At that point, the trainees are given a situation and asked to react. This simulates the real-life stress they will be under when asked to identify a threat, or possibly more than one threat.

Rob mentioned that breathing exercises help counter the effects of stress.

I knew that. Yoga 101.

All officers are required to qualify annually with their firearms. In-service training consists of one hour of classroom time and three hours of shooting. An example of one of the drills they may encounter is shooting at the center of a circle from three yards away and then placing the second shot in the same spot. This demonstrates to the instructor a good trigger press and an understanding of their sights.

By the way, Pittsburgh trains using sighted fire as opposed to unsighted fire. Want to guess what that means? Of course. Sighted fire means using the front and back sights to aim. Unsighted fire is point and shoot.

Also, officers are NOT trained to shoot to kill. Or to shoot to injure. They are trained to SHOOT TO STOP THE THREAT. And, yes, they aim at the body mass, not the leg or arm. They want to hit their target. A miss not only means they haven’t stopped the threat, it means they have a stray bullet out there that might hit the wrong target.

To answer Joyce’s question from last week, NO, we did not get to use the simulator, although it was mentioned and tales of the days when CPA students DID get to use it were shared. It would have been fun, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that I’d have made a fool of myself. One thing I’m learning through this experience is that I’d never have made it as a cop. I’m also learning an even greater respect for those who do this work day in and day out.

And one last bit tidbit for anyone writing about someone whose vision is not 20/20…

Our instructor told us about a recruit who came to qualify with her firearm wearing glasses after not having them for all the training. When he questioned her on it, she said she couldn’t see the target. He pointed out to her that you don’t need to see the target clearly. The FRONT SIGHT should be the clearest thing in your vision, not the target. As someone who just got her first pair of bi-focals, I found this fascinating. And as someone married to a competitive shooter who complains CONSTANTLY about no longer being able to see both sights AND the target, I smell a character in my future with aging eyes.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Confessions of a Quote Collector

by Mike Crawmer

I collect quotes. Most end up in a ever-expanding computer file. But some go public. One quote serves as my screen saver on my home computer. Others decorate my cube walls at work. Some quotes make me laugh. Most make me think, which I appreciate, especially on those days when I’m depressed with the state of the union or the latest drop in my battered retirement account.

My quote collection doesn’t include ads or commercials. While quotable, these snappy lines were created by professionals paid big bucks to think creatively. The quotes that strike my fancy were not created to sell a product. Rather, they capture an idea or mood or some truism. They may be inspirational but they’re not preachy. Pithy helps, but that’s not a prerequisite.

I use the word “inspirational” with caution. The powers-to-be at work decided long ago that the employees would benefit from a daily dose of “inspirational” quotes, displayed on wall-mounted monitors located on every floor. (A bit 1984-ish, but I suspect very few people, if any, even notice them anymore.) These quotes tend to be inane or insulting. Here are two recent ones:

· “Executive ability is deciding quickly and getting someone else to do the work.” J.G. Pollard (Who? And why would our quote-meisters think this would inspire the staff, 98-plus percent of whom do the work the executive won’t--or can’t--do!)

· “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than the ability to decide.” Napoleon Bonaparte (long-dead, unsuccessful emperor)

I am a fickle collector. I keep them or toss them out as the mood strikes me. Here are a few that have withstood the test of time, what I call my “keepers”:

· “With or without religion, good people will do good, and evil people will do evil. But for good people to do evil, that takes religion.”—Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

· “Yet it is often the trivial that hurts the most, inside the monastery and out.”—from The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton

· “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”—Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright

· “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.”—Babe Ruth

· “When things are going well, reflect. When things are going poorly, be brave.”—Korean proverb

· “The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.”—Rachel Carson

· “Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle; old age a regret.”--Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister and writer

One of these is my computer’s scrolling screen saver. Can you guess which one? The last quote I’d like to use in my next book. It fits the story and characters perfectly. So, what are your favorite quotes?

Monday, March 17, 2008


by Gina Sestak

Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, or so they say, but some of us are just a bit more Irish than others. Myself, I might be more Irish if a few things happened to prevail:

I might be perceived as Irish if I wasn't such a feminist, in which case I would have started using my ex-husband's name when we got married and continued using it after the divorce. His name is Terry McNeeley, you see. Definitely Irish.

To go to the other end of the spectrum, I might be Irish if we were a matrilineal society. [For those of you who didn't learn kinship terminology in Anthropology class, "matrilineal" just means tracing descent through the female line.] My mother's mother's mother was an Irish lass named Eleanor Donovan, which would make me Irish, matrilineally speaking.

Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about Eleanor Donovan. She died before I was born and my half-Irish grandmother, her daughter, didn't speak of her -- at least, not to me. One can only wonder what went on in that family, although I suspect that taking my grandmother out of school in the fourth grade to help at home, then sending her to another state to live with relatives and get a job when she was 14 years old might have led to some estrangement.

I know that Eleanor Donovan was in America when she married Mathew Bader, a man of German descent. She gave birth to eight children, one of whom died in childhood after being dropped by a baby sitter. At least, that's what I've been told. My mother's family is full of tales of children who who were fatally injured in one way or another, and I never knew for sure which were true and which were (I hope) fictional cautionary tales. In addition to the little boy who was dropped, there were:

- the boy who ate watermelon rinds he found on a neighbor's back porch and got a stomach ache and died.

- the boy who wore his new shoes, even though they rubbed his feet and caused blisters, which got infected and killed him.

- the girl who caught her dress on fire with a sparkler and ran screaming through the alleyway between the houses -- she might have lived, had the hospital not left her near an open window during a rainstorm, which led to her getting wet and contracting pneumonia. She died.

- the boy who was cursed and was so fragile as an infant that he had to be carried around on a pillow. He would have died if a Gypsy neighbor hadn't removed the curse. [I never found out who had cursed him in the first place, but my grandmother described her neighbor removing the curse by bathing the baby in clear water, which grew cloudy with something white.]

See what I mean?

But today is a day for celebration, not for telling strange family stories. Or is it? That, too, is Irish.

So lift a green brew to toast the saint, and share your comments about odd Auntie Maura or weird Uncle Sean. I look forward to reading them.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Little of This, A Little of That

By Lisa Curry

The Curry Brothers as the Blues Brothers

Last February, I blogged about my younger son’s performance in “The Talent Show.” A couple of weeks ago, both my sons were in this year’s elementary school talent show. They actually listened to me for once – bestill my heart – and performed as Jake and Ellwood, the Blues Brothers, doing Soul Man.

They were fabulous and funny and highly entertaining, and, yes, I’m sure I’d still think so even if I weren’t their mother. If you don’t believe me, ask all the other parents who sat through the dozen little Hannah Montana wannabes before them.

The funny thing I realized after the talent show is that a scorchingly embarrassing performance like last year’s makes for a much more interesting blog than when you’re proud of your children. Go figure.

Being of Sound Mind and Body

On the subject of those little charmers, my husband and I stopped procrastinating after only 10 years and had our will done. Now if we kick the bucket, at least we’ve made provisions for the care of our offspring. And what an interesting exercise that was. So interesting that it would have made a great blog topic unto itself, as long as I didn’t mind dissecting the characters of all my relatives and in-laws in a public forum.

Suffice to say that there are people I’d entrust with my children and people I’d entrust with my children’s money, but none of them are the same people. It’s not that I suspect that any of them would steal my children’s money, but I do fear they might let the kids buy Ferraris with their college fund. So in the end, we named one of his relatives guardian of the children and one of my relatives custodian of the children’s money.

During the will-planning process, it occurred to me that this would make a great exercise for writers to undertake with their characters. So tell me, if your main character had a child, whom would he/she name guardian in his/her will? If your character has a variety of perfect choices, may I suggest that you’re making life too easy on said character? His/her circle of friends and relatives – your cast of secondary characters – ought to be at least as odd and complex as my real-life family.

Emails, emails, emails…

Speaking of odd relatives, I have a couple who puzzle me with the emails they send. They do not appear to use email for any real, personal form of communication, but simply as a means to pass along emails they receive from others just like them – and apparently these others like them, who have nothing better to do than forward emails, are legion.

Two of these people have me on their lists. One of them sends me messages telling me George Bush is a saint, Hilary Clinton is a Communist, and Barack Obama is part of some jihadist Muslim plot to take over America (I can’t figure out if this person doesn’t know I’m a Democrat or actually thinks to convert me to the GOP with these emails), along with warnings about nefarious scams being perpetrated to rape, rob and kill people just like me – which always turn out to be urban myths.

I’m not exactly sure what the other one sends, because she and her friends have the nasty habit of forwarding emails as attachments, and I can tell from the subject lines (“This is soooo cute!!!!”) that the pay-off (a picture of a puppy?) won’t be worth clicking through eight layers of emails, so I don’t bother.

What I want to say is, “Quit clogging up my inbox with your crap!” but these people are related to me – or married to people who are related to me – and I hate to hurt their feelings. Do you know people like this, and if so, how do you tactfully ask them to remove you from their mass email distribution list? Or should I just keep gritting my teeth and hitting the delete key?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Neighbor and Yours

by Joyce Tremel

I couldn't narrow down what to write about this week, so this post is likely to make no sense whatsoever (the first person who says "what else is new?" gets a virtual smack upside the head). I thought of doing something on the gross injustice of the verdict yesterday in the civil trial of the two PA state troopers, but I'm too angry and would probably get myself in trouble. Then I considered writing about Cyril Wecht's trial, but that's turned out to be boring. Even the colorful Dr. Wecht can't liven that one up. I supposed I could write about work--it's been busy this week, but it's all dumb stuff. No big crimes to report on. So that was out.

I browsed the newspapers some more until I found the perfect topic: none other than my neighbor and yours, Fred Rogers. Why Mr. Rogers? you may ask.

Well, why not? I happen to love Mr. Rogers. And I met him once on an elevator when I worked at Allegheny General Hospital. I can tell you he was exactly the same in person as he was on television. Very soft spoken, deliberate, and kind.

Next week in Pittsburgh we're celebrating "Won't You Be My Neighbor Days." Fred Rogers would have been 80 years old on March 20th, so just about every venue in the city is celebrating. March 20th has been designated Sweater Day. Everyone everywhere is being asked to wear their favorite sweater that day.

Personally, I think there should be a 24 hour Mister Rogers channel. All Fred, all the time. The world would be a much better place. There would be no more fighting, no more wars, everyone would get along just like in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. (I know they didn't always get along, but by the end of the show everything was just peachy.) Who could go against the cool logic of King Friday the XIII, or the beauty of Queen Sarah, or the just darn cuteness of Daniel the Striped Tiger? Even the mail would be on time because of Speedy Delivery! And wouldn't you rather ride that red trolley instead of a Port Authority bus? Thought so. (But I could do without Lady Elaine. I always thought she was a little bit scary.)
For those of you who can't deal with all the sweetness and harmony of Fred, maybe you remember Mr. Robinson and his neighborhood. I don't know if it's true, but I read somewhere that Mr. Rogers liked this skit.

So next week, I want everyone to break out the cardigans and join me in a rousing chorus of "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Then ask yourself, WWFD?

You guessed it--What Would Fred Do?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Report from Citizens' Police Academy

by Annette Dashofy

I used to think that research was a challenge. Almost painful. That was before I learned how much fun it can be. When I was working on my veterinary/racetrack mysteries, I hung out on the backside (barn area) of Mountaineer, hotwalking the horses, grooming them, chatting with trainers and other horsey people. Loving horses, this kind of research was nothing short of heaven.

Now, I’m working on a new novel. One in which one of the main characters is a rural police chief. I may have spent several years working in emergency services, but I’ve never been a cop. And let’s face it, CSI and Law and Order may be entertaining television, but they’re not good reference material for how the police operate.

So I have enrolled (along with fellow Working Stiff, Gina Sestak) in Pittsburgh’s Citizens’ Police Academy. Once again, research is entirely too much fun.

Each week, a different officer speaks to us on various topics. It’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes version of the real Police Academy—without the demands of whipping our bodies into the kind of physical condition required to chase and take down thugs on the street.

On week one, we met a number of the city’s police elite, all promising that we were going to have a wonderful time. We also heard a lecture on the history of police. Not just our police. ALL police, going back to 2100B.C. I admit I was more interested in more recent local history. Did you know that the first bank robbery in Pittsburgh happened in 1818 and the thieves got away with $108,000.00? A hundred and eight thousand dollars! In 1818!

Week two introduced us to the criminal justice system. We learned about misdemeanors and felonies and what the police can and can’t do in the way of arresting suspects. Did you know that a police officer cannot arrest someone who has committed a misdemeanor unless he was actually present to witness the offense? (Okay, these questions aren’t for Lee or Joyce. I know you guys already know this stuff). There are some exceptions to this rule however, such as cases of domestic violence, drunken driving, and (get this) scattering rubbish. (???) Any of our resident cops want to explain THAT one?

The discussion then wandered into the realm of how a citizen should deal with crime in their neighborhood and specifically, when a person is justified in using deadly force.

For a look at the Pennsylvania Crime Codes regarding deadly force, click here.

This was week three and the topic was use of force, specifically getting an actor to comply with the officer and how to handle him if he doesn’t. Our instructor for the evening, Dave Wright, demonstrated a few wrist locks on some of the younger academy attendees (thankfully, NOT on me) and also demonstrated how to place someone in a position of disadvantage in order to handcuff them. All of this was underscored by a video he showed early in the evening involving a “routine” traffic stop that went horribly wrong for one officer.

Here are some statistics to mull over: An average of 55 officers are MURDERED per year nationwide (53 in 2007). That’s not counting things like traffic accidents or heart attacks during foot chases. That’s MURDERS. Of those 53 in 2007, 37 of the officers never had a chance to pull their weapon. These killings generally happen at a close range (within 10 feet). The average murdered officer is 35 years old with 10 to 12 years of service behind them. And the killing usually involves a handgun. At one time, it was usually the officer’s gun, but not so much anymore. Texas and the south are the most violent areas with 30 of the 53 deaths happening there. Only six occurred in the northeast.

On the other hand, the police kill an average of 355 people per year. However, if you calculated in the amount of times an officer would be JUSTIFIED to use deadly force, the numbers SHOULD be in the thousands.

The average killer is 26 years old, in good shape, and is UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

It’s amazing how fast things can go bad. That video we saw on Monday night will haunt me for a very long time.

Next up: Firearms safety.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Nature of the Beast

By Martha Reed

I live next to a ballpark and one of the first signs of Spring is when the Canada geese start stopping by. For the first few couple of days I hear them honking high overhead and then, about a week later they start landing. Taking a break, I guess, and even in mid-March that ballpark grass must look pretty green from two hundred feet up.

When I don’t feel like writing, or when a time constraint is on me and I don’t have a full hour to sit down and work, I stare out my window and think about writing. I’ve been in my house for twelve years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in one place – and when I think about it, I guess I can say I’ve written one and a half novels and four short stories while staring out this window. Last month, my sister the realtor wanted to show me a cute brick bungalow on the other side of town and I considered it, until I decided that I’d miss my view. I’ve been watching this hillside for over a decade and I can even show you a spot where I think a wild pear tree is growing, halfway down the slope. At least I think it’s a pear; the tree blooms bright white before any of the maples or oaks, and it must have been planted by a bird, because there’s no way a human being could have scrambled down that shale and survived to tell the tale.

When I’m watching the geese over in the ballfield, there’s always one goose who keeps her head up and her eyes on the horizon while the other geese are busy cropping grass. I think I understand that goose. As a dues paying member of Sisters in Crime, keeping alert is pretty much what I’ve been doing lately.

Publishing is a crazy business, and I speak from experience. I’ve been involved in publishing since 1980, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Fresh out of college, I took a job as a financial typesetter – setting legally required documents like prospectuses and annual reports for mutual fund companies. During my rookie year, I worked for Pandick Press, the first print company to use ‘cold type’ – i.e. desktop publishing – when our main competitor was still pouring hot lead to make press plates. I remember how they laughed at us and at the amount of money we spent on technology since desktop publishing was going to prove to be such a passing fad.

Guess who’s extinct?

The next print shop I worked for spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to develop a software bridge between their in-house publishing process and commercial software easily available straight off the shelf. “The clients still need us!” they cried. Oh, how they cried.

Bye-bye, dodo bird.

If anything, the modern pace of change has picked up, not slackened, and what interests me is that the next generation of readers may not even be interested in text. I see it in the kids now: they’d rather learn from images.

To meet this new demand, there’s been an explosion of graphic novels lately, the kind of half-written, half-drawn material my Dad would have called fancy comic books. Even Hollywood, traditionally late to every party, jumped on the bandwagon in 2006 with the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. With a worldwide gross of $456 million, 300 generated a lot of interest in the graphic novel genre. It’s not a bad idea to follow the money, and that may sound cynical, but it’s the nature of survival: adapt or perish.

Personally, I think the foundation of modern storytelling has already mutated with the advent of an accessible Internet and its amazing, rapidly changing graphic interfaces. Reading words and translating text into imaginary images takes a higher brain function that just watching bright, loud pictures. Video is so much easier to enjoy and you don’t have to process a lot of complex thought to do it. You just react, and reacting is a fundamental human response. Look! A tiger! Run!

If wordsmiths are going to compete with advanced graphic programs and train the next generation to be text readers, we’re going to have to use any technology that connects authors to their readership. So, if the future means online e-zines, e-books or Kindle, so be it. Post sample chapters in PDF format on author websites? Great idea, have at it. What we can’t do is spend one more minute hanging on to an outmoded publishing paradigm from our golden, glorious past. That sun has set, that train is gone, Elvis has left the building.

It seems that in all the discussion of how to define modern publishing, we’ve forgotten an important, fundamental truth: how good is the story being told? It shouldn’t matter in the slightest which type of technology is being used to tell the tale. Firelight, candlelight, gaslight, it’s like arguing about the borders of a country that doesn’t exist anymore. If the current publishing paradigm doesn’t work, scrap it and move on. The winners in our brave new world will be those authors and publishing houses – regardless of size – who work the edges to develop new ideas into new processes and then adapt that process to the mainstream. They will be the ones who attract new readers and develop a loyal paying audience. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the crew at DreamWorks sure did.

Mac or PC? I say, why not both? Whatever works, as long as a great story gets told and you’re not the one left holding the bag of BetaMax tapes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

No Grappling, Please

by Brenda Roger

The last Carnegie International was supposedly about “grappling” in a post-9/11 world. Four years later, I’m still not sure what I was looking at. The exhibition did not speak to me. Also, I hate the word grapple. It is the art world’s “proactive."

The 2008 Carnegie International is less than two months away and I am breathless with anticipation. The theme of the 2008 International is well-formed and complete, even though it is one giant question.

The curator, Douglas Fogle, explained his mind-set when he was forming the exhibition. For the first time in the history of the Carnegie International, the exhibition has a title, “Life on Mars?” which is meant to be a rhetorical question that causes us to examine what it means to be human on the planet earth in 2008. The exhibition title comes from a David Bowie song by the same title, which appeared on his 1971 album Hunky Dory. It is actually a sad song, and the main character may never know the solution to the mysteries of the world, like whether or not there is life on mars.

The other idea floating around in the theme of the exhibition is the story of the Pioneer 10 space probe. The Pioneer 10 is often considered the first object to leave the solar system. It was launched into space in 1973 (the year I was born, how cool). The critical fact about the Pioneer 10 is that it bears a plaque that is meant to be a message to extraterrestrials. It contains a drawing of a male and female human as well as a diagram of our place in the universe. Until about ten years ago, the signals from the Pioneer 10 were still reaching earth. The Pioneer 10 epitomizes the human need to connect, to make contact with another being, human or not.

The art in the 2008 International is about the basic human need to make contact with others. So I've been thinking, wouldn't it be mind-blowing if we got scientists to send a signal into space from the Carnegie Museum of Art for the duration of the exhibition? What if, art about making contact with others (of any kind) was the thing that actually made contact? I could just sit and think about this for hours, and I haven't even seen most of the work in the show yet.

Best of grappling!


by Gina Sestak

Serving on Common Pleas Court arbitration panels is one of the more interesting things I get to do as a practicing lawyer. In fact, I'm scheduled to do it this morning, and I am psyched.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, certain civil cases, primarily those seeking $25,000 or less in damages, must be tried before a panel of three attorneys. This is called Compulsory Arbitration. As a member of an arbitration panel, I get to participate in deciding these cases. It's like being a judge for a day. If any of the parties is dissatisfied with the decision of the arbitration panel, the case can be appealed for trial before a real elected Common Pleas Court Judge and, if requested, a jury.

Hearings are held in Room 523 of the Allegheny County Courthouse. All cases are scheduled for 9:00 and are heard on a first come, first served basis -- as soon as all parties are present, the case will be given a number. There are six small rooms around the perimeter of Room 523 in which the arbitration panels sit. Hearings are informal -- the panel sits across a table from the parties and their lawyers, if they have any. Many of these cases are pro se, meaning that the individuals involved elect to represent themselves. No court reporters are required, but sometimes parties will bring a court reporter on their own. That is allowed.

Those of us who hear these cases take our responsibilities seriously. For one thing, we are required to be sworn in each and every time we serve:

"We do solemnly swear that we will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that we will discharge the duties of our office with fidelity."

I don't know about you, but I love oaths (and not just the cussing kind). That's why my favorite duty on an arbitration panel is administering the oath to witnesses:

"You do solemnly swear, before Almighty God, the searcher of all hearts, that the evidence you are about to give in the cause now being heard shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as you shall answer to God on that last great day."

Wow. In other words, lie to us and you are going straight to Hell!

An arbitration panel's power is limited. Our decisions must be based upon the law and the evidence and testimony that's presented to us. We can't just decide to do something because it seems fair, much as we might want to in some cases.

Once all of the evidence and argument has been presented, and the parties have provided us with self-addressed envelopes in which our decision will be mailed to them, the parties leave. The door is closed so we can deliberate in private. Most cases are decided by consensus, with all panel members coming to agreement after discussion. If agreement can't be reached, the case will be decided two to one, with the dissenting member noting his or her dissent on the decision. Unlike cases tried before a judge, arbitration panels cannot be required to write opinions explaining our decisions.

On a given day, an arbitration panel may hear anywhere from one to ten or more cases, depending upon how long each takes. All of the panels continue to sit until every case has at least begun to have a hearing. On rare occasions, a panel cannot hear a case because one of its members has a conflict of interest -- such as working for the same law firm as a party's attorney, or knowing one of the parties. When that happens, the case is sent to another panel.

All in all, this system works well for justly deciding a large number of cases at minimum cost to taxpayers. Panel members are paid $150 per day and, although that day may end before noon if the cases are heard quickly, sometimes the day can stretch into the late afternoon. Since arbitration doesn't break for lunch, this can make for a long, long day. So if I don't respond to your comments in a timely fashion today, you can guess that it's because I'm busily dispensing justice.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


by Kathy Miller Haines

For some reason, since the start of the New Year, I’ve been doing more and more things that are outside of my comfort zone.

It started with making press contacts for a trip I was taking to Houston. I'm terrible about self-promotion, it just feels so weird to me, but I decided that I needed to stop being a git and pick up the phone. Not only did I set up a signing at a great indie store, but I scored a radio interview to promote my book, which is something I'd never done before. I was petrified, but the host was awesome, the on-air time mercifully short, and my mother only took 85 pictures to capture the moment.

My next adventure was a new show my dinner theatre company was launching. It required two things of me: that I do an impersonation of an iconic performer and that I sing, both of which are things I don't exactly excel at. The night of the first show, I was nauseous with fear, convinced that I would forget my lines, fudge my lyrics, and the audience would mock my poor impersonation and rotten voice. Despite the overwhelming terror, it went okay and eventually doing the show got easier. While I’m not going to win any awards for my performance, I don’t have the familiar pit of dread in my stomach before each show either.

This week I decided to do something even more daring: I went to an acupuncturist. This is all part of my ongoing effort to conquer an issue I’ve written about before. At the urging of friends and family members, I decided it was time to veer off my beaten path and try something new, despite my crippling fear of needles.

Just like with the new show, I deliberated about doing this every waking moment before my appointment, conjuring the worst case scenarios that could befall me. It would hurt. I couldn’t afford it. I’d be the one person in the world for whom acupuncture would do more harm than good. The needles would be dirty. The acupuncturist I’d selected would be a nut who got off on disturbing my chi. A ceiling tile would fall on me, pushing in the needles deep into my…

Er…you get the idea. But I still went. And for two hours I was poked and prodded by a woman who seemed to have no nefarious intentions. And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was pleasant and relaxing. And I felt pretty darn satisfied with myself for making a plan and following through with it.

In the past I would’ve avoided all of these experiences entirely, sending out no press releases, deferring to another actor and conveniently losing the number for the acupuncturist. I’m a fear procrastinator which has an insidious way of affecting my writing as well. I get so caught up in the work I have ahead of me (research, revision, figuring out why that blasted scene just doesn’t work) that I look for ways to avoid doing the work or – worse – I submit to doing a half-assed job because I’m afraid to try something new and radical because it’s just not familiar to me.

But those days are behind me now. Now that I’m not making excuses in my daily life, I find that I’m not making nearly as many of them in my writing either. After all, I’ve had needles in my forehead and lived to tell about it.

How about you? How do your choices when you’re not writing spill into your writing process?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bright Ideas

By Jennie Bentley

I’ve been tossing book ideas around lately. Being up to my eyeballs in DIY – revisions for book 1 were due this week, the completed manuscript for book 2 is due July 1 (I’m about ¼ of the way through), and then I have book 3 to write by the end of the year – I’ve felt the need to think about other things once in a while, just for a change of pace. And because I get my kicks from coming up with ideas and titles for books, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Where do these ideas come from? Funny you should ask.

One of my all-time favorite authors, the brilliant MPM – Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters AKA Barbara Michaels – claims to buy all of hers from a small general store somewhere in – I think – Nebraska. (It’s one of those questions that best-selling authors get asked all the time, I believe, so it must be tempting to come up with an answer like that. I wouldn’t know, since I’m hardly best-selling. Not selling at all, yet.) Other people say they get theirs on e-Bay or from a secret website just for writers, where we auction them off to the highest bidder.

My first book – the one my agent loves, but that no one wants to publish – came about because of a career change. I had just gotten my real estate license and was starting to practice. As I walked into empty house after empty house, often in the company of some guy I didn’t know from Adam, any number of scary scenarios presented themselves to me. Dead bodies inside, or the guy beside me being a homicidal maniac; or a homicidal maniac inside, while the guy beside me was an undercover cop... That’s why, in the first chapter of A Cutthroat Business, my protagonist, new-minted Realtor Savannah Martin, is at first afraid to leave her car when confronted with her new client, and when she goes into the dilapidated house he wants to see, they find the butchered body of another realtor, throat cut from ear to ear, on the floor of the library. I’ve been there, done that. The only dead bodies I’ve found have been those of roaches, rats and birds, admittedly, but that’s where the idea came from.

As far as the DIY-series goes, the idea for Fatal Fixer-Upper was pretty much forced upon me. My editor asked, “Would you like to write a series about a renovator?” and I thought, you’ll pay me? Then sure. There had to be a house, obviously, and because of the kind of book it is, there had to be cutesy tips for projects, and a hot handyman – what’s a DIY-book without a hot handyman? – and because it’s a cozy, there had to be cats. The background for the mystery came from doing research on Maine Coon cats. Interesting animals, they’re either descended from Norwegian Forest Cats that the Vikings brought over when they explored Vinland, or from the cats of one Captain Coon, who used to sail up and down the coast 300 years ago, or maybe from Marie Antoinette’s cats, when they were brought over from France in 1794, after a botched attempt to rescue the Queen from Madame la Guillotine. Take your pick.

When we visited Pittsburgh last year, we had to take the kids for a trip on the Monongahela Incline. It was an early morning during Easter, with no one around, and there was a very creepy guy on the incline with us. “What if,” I said to myself – a big question, what if! – “someone walked into an incline car first thing in the morning, and found a dead body...?”

So what about you? Where do you get your ideas? Do you have a hard time coming up with them, or are you like me, so full of ideas you’ll never be able to write about them all? Would you subscribe to an exclusive site for writers, where we can post our ideas and auction them off for extra cash when royalty checks are lean? How much would you give me for Inclined to Murder? And since I’m eagerly awaiting the first time someone asks me, “Where did you come up with the idea for this?!” – how about some help figuring out what to say? Because somehow, saying that ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be scooped up by the handfuls, doesn’t have the same ring to it as saying the idea was hand-made and mail-ordered from a small convenience store in Nebraska...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

This and That

by Joyce Tremel

One would think that by working in a police department I'd have all kinds of things to write about. I mean, there was a robbery at Walgreen's last week and a bank robbery in the neighboring township. The problem is they're not really as exciting as they sound. The police report for the Walgreen's robbery was only two paragraphs long. The store manager ended up with a bump on his head, but if you watched the 11 o'clock news that night you would have heard he was "brutally beaten." That sounds much more exciting than just getting whacked on the back of the head.

There's been one annoyance after another this week. The people causing me the most
grief this week are senior citizens. Now, don't get me wrong. It's not everyone. It's just the ones who have this attitude that you should drop everything and do their bidding. I've run into an overabundance of that type lately. For the record, I know I'm going to be old someday (no wisecracks from you youngsters!), but would someone just shoot me if I turn into anything like these people?

There are volunteers doing taxes for senior citizens in the training room upstairs in the township building. They're not affiliated with the township or the police department in any way. I have no idea who these saints are. The problem is I get at least three or four calls a day from old people asking what time the tax preparers will be there, what days, etc. And they won't take "I don't know" for an answer. Here's a conversation I had last week:

Me: Shaler Police, can I help you?
Old lady: Are they doing taxes today?
Me: I don't know, ma'am. They aren't affiliated with the police department.
O.L.: Well, I need to get my taxes done. When will they be in?
Me: Ma'am, this is the police department. We don't do taxes here.
O.L.: I know that. But I need to know if there's anyone upstairs doing taxes today.
Me: I have no way of knowing that.
O.L.: Well, I'll hold on and you can run upstairs and see if anyone is up there.
Me: I am not doing that.
O.L.: Maybe one of the policemen can do it then.
Me: They're all out on emergency calls right now.
O.L.: Okay. I'll call back later.

It's been like this every day. Yesterday I gave a call to one of the officers because the woman wouldn't take no for an answer. She wanted someone to go upstairs and tell her husband to call her. She wanted him to pick up something at the store on the way home.

In addition to all that, you take your life in your hands walking through the parking lot. Yesterday there was a car parked in a handicapped spot that should have been parallel parked. Instead the driver was parked head first with the entire back half of their car out in the traffic way. Today when I went out to go home for lunch, there was a car parked so close to mine that I couldn't open the door wide enough to get in--I had to use the passenger door.

As far as I'm concerned April 15th can't get here fast enough!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Express Yourself

By Annette Dashofy

Some people try to get through life unnoticed, anonymous. The rest of us feel a need to let the world know who we are, what we’re about, and what we believe. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. Blogging, of course, is one. Writing books, another.

However, I have noticed recently some other methods people have used to get their individual message across and I sometimes wonder if what they’re putting out there is really what they’re aiming for.

Example: a while back, I sat in traffic behind a Chevy S-10 Blazer. The entire back of this small, older vehicle was plastered with decals and stickers. There were several of those buxom naked lady silhouettes that usually adorn tractor trailer mudflaps. There were also a wide variety of confederate flags and some rather repulsive (I’m sure he thought they were funny) bumper stickers. I never got a good look at the driver. But I wonder if he realized that his SUV was screaming “I am a racist, sexist, redneck and proud of it!”

Cars seem to be used as a platform for their owners’ opinions quite frequently. Remember how after 9-11, every car sprouted an American flag? And when the local sports teams are hot, their banners fly from at least every third or fourth vehicle. How many of you have one of those magnetic ribbon things stuck on your mode of transportation? I like the ones that say “I support the troops.” Well, DUH. Don’t we all? Even if you don't support the war, you support the troops fighting it. Bring those boys home!

Speaking of anti-war…

The other night I was driving along Second Avenue. This road is bordered on one side with an ancient stone wall. Someone decided to use this long wall as the medium for an extensive, very anti-war message. There was also a segment about “Kill your TV” which I don’t quite get, but that’s beside the point. The message was SO extensive that the author apparently ran out of paint. After several color changes, the words just fizzle into nothingness. Lesson: if you’re going to make a statement, make sure you have enough supplies. This is why I keep several back-up ink cartridges in my cupboard.

Another faded sign (spray paint on plywood) I spotted along the road a couple months ago read “PARTY! Food/beverages. Saturday the 22nd.” There was no mention of a month or year and the sign looked almost permanent. Do these people throw a party every time the twenty-second falls on a Saturday? When does that happen again? Let me check my calendar. Hey, there’s a Saturday the 22nd this month! Let’s all head over there. Apparently, everyone’s invited!

So, if you really think about it, what does your car or your house or your yard say about you? And have you seen any examples of other folks attempting to express themselves lately?

Monday, March 03, 2008

How To Be a Great Guest Blogger

by Nancy Martin, whose book is published today!

Keeping a successful group author blog running can be a real drain on creativity--the creativity perhaps best kept for writing the books we write for a living. So now and then, group blogs supplement the work of "the regulars" by inviting guests authors or experts to provide content.

Truth is, some guest bloggers are like the house guests you wish you'd never invited for the weekend. You know who I mean--the ones who drop wet towels on the bathroom floor, eat all the food and leave dirty dishes in the sink. Maybe they even insult the neighbors while they're at it.

A good house guest brings a hostess gift, plays the role of raconteur at the dinner table, pitches in with the dishes and leave the bathroom tidy.

A good guest blogger? Well, if you want to be invited back, here are my suggestions:

1. Bring eyeballs. Email your friends, colleagues, listserves and fans to alert them you'll be a guest. Ask them to drop by. (Provide a link!) A guest blogger who brings new people to our audience is guaranteed another invitation. On a daily basis, we're trying to build our readership, and you can help. But if you use our blog simply to tap into our audience, what's in it for us? Don't expect another invitation.

2. Respond to comments. Our blog's purpose is to create a community of readers who will buy our books when the time comes. In the meantime, we want to keep them entertained and connected. To do that, we facilitate "the backblog." On the days we blog for ourselves, we keep the conversational ball in the air. If you drop our ball, it takes a while to regain the readers who have gone off to join somebody who's more interactive. So find ways to plant multiple questions in your piece so the audience feels moved to respond.

3. Entertain. This should go without saying, but you might be surprised how boring some fiction writers can be when they try their hand at a short personal essay. Send us your most sparkling prose, your wittiest ideas, your most thought-proviking material. If you're boring or muddled or repetitive (the most common error) our audience isn't going to remember you, or worse--they'll actively avoid you in the future. It helps if you read our blog for a few days to understand what our perspective is, too, so you're not lecturing about something we've already covered ages ago or bringing up one of our forbidden topics. (Diets, for instance.) If you can't be funny, be very personal. Or educational. Or try to sway your audience with a clearly argued personal opinion. Be that scintillating dinner guest who knows he's supposed to sing for his supper.

4. It bears repeating: Entertain! Don't use our blog as a billboard for your book. We don't blatantly advertise our own books because we've discovered obvious promotion turns off our audience. Buy ads in magazines or online book review sites if that's what you want to do. Or do an online interview with someone who promotes books. But for us? Write something entertaining.

5. That said, we know you're guest blogging to plug your book, and we don't really mind. (Heck, it's why we created our blog in the first place!) But be subtle. Write about a topic that's tangential to your book. Provide links to your website and to bookstores that stock your book. Why not link to some reviews, too? Provide a short bio we can include at the beginning or end of your post. Make it lively--not the same bio you send everywhere else. Include an amusing tidbit about yourself. Or an outright lie!--As longs as it's entertaining. That's as much advertising as our audience can stand.

6. Keep it short. If you check our posts, you'll get a feel for how long a blog should be. An ideal guest blog for us is 600 words of pithy, witty, orginal ideas. (We don't post material that's been seen elsewhere on the internet, by the way.) Some blogs write much shorter. If you drone on for 1500 words, you lose your audience. Believe me, I learned this the hard way--by experience.

7. Have I mentioned bringing eyeballs? Help us help you. We'll share out audience with you if you reciprocate. Nobody succeeds in the blog world by snubbing everyone else. If you don't link to others, how can you expect to build your audience? Online networking is the key to reaching readers and growing the number of people who get to know you and your books.

I know there are more points I could be making here, but I suspect you know them as well as I do. What kind of blogs do you enjoy? How do they keep you coming back? And does blatant adertising work for you? Or turn you off?

Nancy Martin is the author of MURDER MELTS IN YOUR MOUTH (in stores today!) She's also one of the Book Tarts who blog at The Lipstick Chronicles.


by Gina Sestak

My Sadie Hawkins Day comment here joked about wanting to use the blog to propose to my favorite actor -- it would be necessary to propose on the web, since I've never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, nor do I know of any way to get in touch with him directly. But this post is not about him.

This post is about the true love of my life -- learning.

Those of you who've been following my many posts about former jobs know that many of those jobs were part-time gigs I held while working my way through school. What you may not know is why I went to so much trouble -- working multiple jobs, selling blood plasma, being homeless. It was so I could go to school. I want you to know that I had no ambition whatsoever at the time. I wasn't thinking about a degree or a career. I was living my ideal life -- a life in which I could go from class to class and book to book, finding out all kinds of fascinating things about all kinds of fascinating subjects, solely for the joy of learning.

I am happy to report that I've once again assumed that way of life, albeit in a limited way. I'm participating in a 15-week Citizen Police Academy through the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and, since I'm over 55 and semi-retired, I am eligible to take classes through the Osher Life Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. Due to my present three-day-a-week job, I cannot audit any of the undergraduate courses Osher offers, but I've been able to take a hands-on class at the Pittsburgh Glass Center (in which I made a disappointingly ugly square thing) and a film class, in which we watch movies and talk about them -- none, alas, featuring that favorite actor. In a few weeks, I'll be learning to recognize birds.

OK. That's what I love. Now, fess up. What do you love?