Thursday, July 31, 2008

Confessions of a BBC Addict

I have to confess that whenever I have a mental block or an issue in one of my manuscripts that needs time to resolve in my head, I turn to my tried and true method of escape: I watch BBC period dramas. I’ve been hooked ever since I was a teenager in Australia when of the four TV channels we had growing up (yes, entertainment was that that pathetic in 1980’s Melbourne) the Australian Broadcasting Commission could be relied upon to show all the terrific BBC series. I grew up on a steady diet of Jane Eyre, The Irish RM, House of Elliot, Testament of Youth, and Brideshead Revisited – just to name a few. So now, when I’m sick of my own hero or heroine I turn once more to the ‘Beeb’ to provide my imagination with some good honest stiff upper lip and repressed emotions to get me going again.

I admit to being a romantic at heart (even if I do still enjoy bumping off a few characters in my books!) but I prefer smoldering looks to the ‘bodice ripping’ kind of romance. When I arrived in America imagine my pleasure at being able to watch not only PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery but also BBC America - oh, and not to forget Netflix that can provide me with my ‘Pride & Prejudice’ fix whenever my heart desires it. So, in the midst of my latest round of revisions, I’m finding it very hard not to watch ‘North & South’ (on Netflix instant play – was there ever a temptation like this?!) or to tune in to BBC America’s Robin Hood – sadly, another vice of mine. Although I have to confess when it comes to some of the latest BBC series I find myself yearning for the quality of yesteryear and Robin Hood is a good example of this. The dumbed down, historically questionable melodrama nonetheless draws me in (and the leather outfits and ripped Gap T-shirt effects are always a hoot). I find myself shouting at Marion “Go for the evil Guy of Gisborne you dolt! Robin’s a wimp!” But still, in the best BBC tradition, the smoldering looks of Richard Armitage are enough to keep me tuning in.

I write historical mysteries so I guess it’s natural that I’m drawn to Foyle’s War rather than CSI Miami but still, I sometimes feel like it’s a guilty secret of mine. My husband knows that things must be really bad when I’m sitting in front of the TV with a cup of hot tea (with milk of course), a slice of Battenberg cake, and Dorothy L Sayer’s ‘Gaudy Night’ on DVD (sigh, how I love Edward Petherbridge’s Lord Peter Wimsey). I recommend this to anyone wishing to revitalize the spirits and escape 21st century pressures. It’s also comforting as only a cup of tea and the BBC can be.

So what do you do when inspiration grows thin? When you want to escape into another time and place? Do you, like me, resort to the tried and true BBC period dramas, or are you more progressive?

Clare Langley-Hawthorne was raised in England and Australia. She was an attorney in Melbourne before moving to the United States, where she began her career as a writer. Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, has been nominated for the 2008 Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Macavity award. The second in the Ursula Marlow series, The Serpent and The Scorpion, is due out in October 2008. Clare lives in Oakland, California with her family.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cold Etiquette or Germaphobia?

by Patricia Smiley

I recently recovered from a virus that began as a cold and morphed into a sinus infection and then a cough. For approximately one month, all I wanted to do was stay in bed under the care of a kindly nurse and an around-the-clock Hot Toddy IV drip.

Colds used to be a minor annoyance when I worked in a “real” job, maybe because working there made me feel crappy even without a cold. Now I’m a writer with deadlines and book tours, and feeling crappy is a major problem.

However, at some point I had to resume my life. So, I doctored up with over-the-counter medications and off I went to my various book events, snuffling, coughing, and praying I wouldn’t sneeze on anybody’s signed first edition. At each affair, I followed proper cold etiquette. You know what I mean: obsessive-compulsive hand-washing and dabbing my proboscis daintily with a tissue. I even carried the regimen one step further and only blew my nose solo, because—you know—the sound is really icky.

I also nixed hand shaking, forewarning everybody that I had a cold. My Miss Manners behavior produced a cascade of responses from “Screw the cold. Gimme a hug” to the most disconcerting reaction of all—the speechless guy who backed away in horror, hands clutching his throat as if he was auditioning for the title role in “Aliens Redux.”

I was curious how other people dealt with nose etiquette, so I scoured the Internet for kindred spirits. Here’s a pithy pearl of wisdom from pediatrician Corinne Taylor, MD, of Emory University and Emory Children's Center, Atlanta. She said, "I make my child recite the three rules every day before preschool: I will use Kleenex, I will wash my hands, and I will stay away from anybody with snot."

Words to guide you through a cold-free life.

As a culture, we are obsessed with hygiene. We supply our bathrooms with individual guest towels because—God forbid—two people with clean hands might use the same towel. We hang charms around the stems of our wineglasses so our guests won’t drink from someone else’s goblet. Our grocery stores supply disinfectant wipes to scour our shopping carts (Don’t people wash their tomatoes once they get them home?). I once loaned my new lip-gloss to an acquaintance for a quick touch-up and afterward—based on a dire warning from a friend—threw it away.

A school of thought that maintains we use too many chemicals to kill germs in our world is gaining traction. Not long ago, I was visiting a home in Scandinavia occupied by a family with a one-year-old child. I watched as he played on a less-than-immaculate kitchen floor and ate kibble from the cat’s dish. I was aghast. The child’s mother noticed my discomfort and informed me she had recently uncovered research proclaiming that people had become too fastidious. Not only were they killing good germs but they were also exposing their children to excessive chemicals. If we continued, she warned, we would challenge our ability to fight infection. As a footnote, she told me her child had never been ill.

Where do we draw the line between caution and germophobia? Should we adopt a more laissez faire relationship with “bugs” or is there a drug-resistant killer germ luring on that innocent-looking guest towel, biding its time…waiting…watching.

I’ve been healthy for several weeks now. A couple of days ago my husband started sneezing and coughing. Did I say to him, “Screw the cold. Gimme a hug”? Or did I have an “Aliens Redux” moment? Let’s just say, somewhere out there is an Oscar with my name on it.

Happy Wednesday!

Patricia Smiley writes the Tucker Sinclair series about an L.A.-based amateur sleuth with a sense of humor and a nose for trouble. Her novels include FALSE PROFITS, COVER YOUR ASSETS, SHORT CHANGE, and the recently released COOL CACHE. Patty is also a Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, currently assigned as a Burglary/Theft investigator. For more information, please visit and (blog).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Yin and Yang

by Mike Crawmer

Rushing around to clear up last-minute details the day before the start of vacation is not a good time to get some bad news. But that’s what happened earlier this month during my search for, of all things, travel-size shampoo I needed before leaving for a weeklong bicycling/camping trip.

Listening to NPR’s Fresh Air that Friday afternoon, I was surprised to hear that one of my mystery writing idols had died. Somehow it had escaped my notice that Janwillem van de Wetering had exited this earthly realm more than a week before. The news shocked and saddened me; I put my search on hold while I listened to an interview Fresh Air’s host conducted with van de Wetering in the early 90s.

Van de Wetering hooked me with his detecting team of Henk Gripstra and Rinus de Gier (just pronouncing their names was a delight), characters who seemed more real than fictional. And his stories were set in Amsterdam, a city that still fascinates me 39 years after first visiting it.

The author’s own life reads more like fiction than reality. He lived through the Nazi occupation, bummed around the world, studied Zen Bhuddism in a Japanese monastery for two years, worked for his father’s business in South Africa, and toured around on a motorcycle. He eventually returned to Amsterdam where he worked as a police officer before chucking it all to write the Grisptra/de Gier series, the last few written in his final home in a small town in Maine. No less an admirer than John Leonard wrote, “He is doing what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skull.” (Bet you're not surprised to learn that Simenon and Camus are idols of mine too.)

Needless to say, when an opportunity to meet the writer came up, I jumped at it. It was a mystery writing conference in Philly. Van de Wetering was a guest speaker. I was content to absorb his words of wisdom and maybe get up the nerve to ask him to autograph a hardback copy of his latest mystery.

What I wasn’t prepared for was meeting him, all rumpled six-feet-plus, between morning sessions in the hallway, where he handed me his glass of bourbon over ice so he could loudly and ostentatiously blow his nose. He had a cold, he explained in heavily accented, and nasally, English, and was treating it with booze (could’ve been Scotch, but since I don’t drink Scotch and do drink bourbon, I feel better thinking it was bourbon). I was able to manufacture a brief conversation with him, then he was off. Later, I heard him speak (sorry, don’t remember a word he said), and got him to sign my book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his best book, and I believe it was his last.

His obituary in The New York Times was disgracefully short, but at least he got a headline and a few paragraphs. NPR said he was 71 when he died of cancer; the Times gave his age as 77. For me, Janwillem van de Wetering has no age; just his books, which I look forward to reading again and again.

In keeping with the title of this entry, time for a bit of dark humor. Check out this truly unique shower curtain. Surely a must for every writer of mysteries and thrillers or Alfred Hitchcock fan. Perfect for your guest bathroom. Certain to make every guest visit a short one!

Adventures in First Hand Research

by Annette Dashofy

My husband absolutely hates it when I blog about him. However, considering I have spent the past few days at the hospital—driving him to the emergency department and then visiting him—and as such, have nothing else to use for material for this blog, he’s outta luck. If you don’t want to be the subject of my blogging, quit doing stupid shit. Darling.

Flash back to Thursday afternoon. I was minding my own business, fixing dinner, and getting ready to go teach two yoga classes. Hubby rolled in from work followed by a buddy who was buying the leftover heating oil from our old furnace (the new heat pump is on back order, thank you very much). The two of them started loading 50 gallon drums of oil onto the buddy’s trailer when something went awry. Hubby came to the door, calling my name in a tone that sounded rather odd. He stood there with one hand wrapped around one finger of the other hand and announced that he had smashed his finger between the drums and broken it.

Sweetheart that I am, my first inclination was to tell him “drive yourself to Med Express. I have to teach yoga.” Then he opened his hand, revealing the finger in question. You know how a ripe grape pops open when you squeeze it? It was kind of like that. Only bloody. Very. Bloody.

Okay. Maybe driving himself to the doctor wasn’t such a good idea.

I whipped out the first aid kit, complete with all the goodies including popsicle sticks for splints. I barely managed to get a couple of gauze sponges around the smashed finger. When I reached for the splinting material, hubby ordered me to just put some tape on it and let’s go.

Later, in the emergency department, they commented on the ugly bandaging job. In my defense, it was the best he would hold still for.

I made some frantic phone calls to line up a substitute yoga teacher and to confirm from Med Express that the hospital was, indeed, the place we should go. Then, after shutting off the stove (no time for supper), we drove to the hospital.

Have I mentioned that I used to be an EMT? Or that my protagonist in my current WIP is a paramedic? Honestly, I don’t need help from my hubby to do the research. I’ve spent plenty of time in the ER (ED, these days…department, not room). However, the doctor was more than happy to let us look at the injury while he cleaned out the excess blood and gook, although he offered some concern that one or the other of us might pass out. Not a problem. It was actually rather interesting.

Bottom line: the middle bone of his left ring finger was in four or five pieces and the tendon was split. He’s had surgery. He’s home with the bones pinned and the finger splinted and bandaged. And he has discovered the joys of Vicodin.

And me? I have a drugged hubby hanging the house for the next week or so. He can’t get that bandage wet and he only has one useable hand. Any suggestions for activities that he can do that will get him out of my hair so I can do some writing?

(FYI, if it was me, I’d be reading, but he’s not big on that particular pastime.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Don't Quit Your Day Job, Honey

by Beverle Graves Myers

Oops! I already did. In the mid-90’s I gave up a perfectly secure, generously compensated position to write mysteries full time. Crazy, huh? Since I was a psychiatrist at a public mental health clinic, I’d prefer the diagnosis of confirmed optimist, or perhaps wild-eyed romantic. My transformation didn’t happen overnight. Actually, I had to do a lot of planning to make my long-held dream of writing as a career happen.

I’d started several novels that went nowhere, mainly because I couldn’t spend sufficient time or energy on them. Trying to dictate as I drove to work, writing for twenty minutes at lunch or in between beeper pages on weekends just didn’t work for me. I realized I was one of those writers who need long swaths of uninterrupted time to produce anything worthwhile. My first thought was to reduce my clinic work to two or three days per week. Unfortunately, the powers that be needed a full-time doc, and moving from our rural area to a city with more opportunities wouldn’t be an option until the kids were through high school.

Deciding that doing what I loved was more important than possessions, I took steps to get our financial house in order. Downsizing was the order of the day. Smaller home, one car instead of two, penny-pinching extraordinaire. Nitty-gritty details aside, readying our household to exist on a smaller income turned out to be easier than other changes that forced me to re-evaluate my goals and self-concept, my strengths and weaknesses.

I was accustomed to my workday being organized around staff meetings, patient care and psychiatric emergencies. As an employee of the state, I had very little control over my schedule, which often resembled barely controlled chaos. On day one as a mystery writer, I sat with fingers poised above a keyboard in my home office. It was very quiet. No one handed me a list of patients who needed to be seen; there were no stacks of charts calling out for diagnoses and signatures. I was total mistress of my writing fate. Scary stuff!

After several false starts, I eventually found the discipline to focus on a setting and protagonist for my planned series. I loved historical mysteries, particularly Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptian archeology series and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder of ancient Rome, so of course, that’s what I wanted to write. Unfortunately I was interested in so many potential scenarios that it took months for me to settle on the musical world of 18th-century Venice. Then, the research was so much fun I didn’t want to stop. I realized I was in danger of becoming an expert in castrato singers and early opera without generating even one chapter of a mystery.

Making my own schedule came to my rescue. Instead of following my nose anywhere and for as long as I wanted, I set limits and goals and stuck to them religiously. I had to enforce my writing time with other people, too. I suppose it’s natural that working at home seems somehow less of a serious job than driving into town every morning. Friends didn’t understand that I couldn’t drop everything to have lunch. Family thought it was great that I’d be able to provide rides to doctor’s appointments or perform other errands. I learned to defend my working time like a mother lion protecting her cubs. Barring emergencies, my writing time was off limits. Which brings me to another issue: career identity.

What was I, anyway? I’d graduated from medical school and completed a residency in psychiatry. Though the profession and I were not a good mix, I’d been involved in medicine for twenty years, and it was a big part of my career identity that was hard to give up. I also had to contend with those helpful souls who assured me I was making a terrible mistake, as well as depriving the community of a badly needed physician. So, how to answer that perennial question: What do you do? A writer writes, they say, but I hesitated to call myself a writer—or … gasp … an author—since I was not yet published. The actual moment of money changing hands had a profound effect on my sense of career. Though I received only ten dollars for my first publication, a mystery short story that appeared in an ezine, that was the day I began calling myself a writer rather than a retired psychiatrist.

From there, I proceeded in a way I’d encourage for anyone who’s fed up with her day job and wants to move her writing to another level. I learned as much about the current state of the publishing business as possible. Ditto the mechanics of operating a home business and the basics of marketing and promotion. Joining Sisters in Crime, and later, Mystery Writers of America helped me acquire this information and also provided a very welcome sense of community. Compared to the busy mental health clinic, writing was a solitary business.

One thing I did pack along from my former profession: strong work habits that would spell success in any field. I persisted in writing and submitting despite many rejections. With short stories, I gave myself twenty-four hours to polish and submit a rejected story to another editor. When I discovered that some of my writing skills were a little rusty, I sought out writing conferences and workshops. I wrote for approximately a year and half before that first short story was accepted. It was another couple of years before INTERRUPTED ARIA was released by Poisoned Pen Press.

I’ll be checking back here all day, so if you have any questions about my midlife career switch or comments on escaping the day job, fire away. I love to chat with other writers.

Beverle Graves Myers enjoys melding music, history and intrigue in her Baroque Mystery series set in the waning days of the Venetian Empire. INTERRUPTED ARIA introduces castrato singer Tito Amato whose cruel mutilation impels him to pursue justice in a corrupt society. In PAINTED VEIL, Tito matches wits with a masked killer who terrorizes the Jewish ghetto; CRUEL MUSIC plunges Tito into the political intrigue swirling around a papal election in Rome; and THE IRON TONGUE OF MIDNIGHT sends the singer-sleuth to a country villa where corpses start turning up at the stroke of midnight. Bev’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies and have been nominated for the Derringer and Macavity awards. Check out Bev’s website for more information, reader’s guides and other goodies:
Bev also blogs on traveling to Venice, 18th-century films and a number of other topics at

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It Bites

by Guest Blogger Nancy Haddock

No, I’m not talking about vampires. Not even about werewolves, or the hickey fiend I dated in college a bazillion years ago.

I’m referring to something else entirely. Something I loathe. Something I despise. Something I abhor.

What could Nancy with-the-laughing-face-Pollyanna-Positive-Spin Haddock hate that much?


Yes, I said packing. And I must do it soon in order to attend the annual RWA conference. (Cue the creepy music and see me shudder.)

My packing issues have nothing to do with the new airline rules (though those bite, too). It’s not even that I don’t know how to pack, or know how to make packing easier. I do know how. I’ve read and followed the advice of every how-to-pack article that’s come to my notice for - lo! - these many years of attending conferences. In fact, I read yet another fabulous article by Marcia James on the subject just recently.

Nope, knowing how to pack efficiently isn’t the problem. The trouble is, I hate packing at all.

Oh, I start with the best of intentions. I even begin the task armed with lists and some measure of confidence. I assemble items, check them off my lists, and then, knee deep in clothing and toiletries, I panic. Am I bringing too much, too little, clothing too warm, clothing too hot?

For years I’ve fantasized about packing only my favorite hairbrush and flying off with nary a carryon in hand. At my destination, I’d go shopping for shampoo, makeup, clothing and accessories. Then, before leaving to return home, I give everything but my favorite brush and the clothes on my back to charity. Let me tell you, I’ve got this fantasy embellished to Disney proportions complete with cute wildlife as my singing and dancing backup.

My alternate fantasy is that I’m Samantha Stevens, and with a twitch of my nose, I either (1) conjure outfits from the ethers, or (2) teleport home to change.

But, alas, the fantasies dissolve when I remember two things. I’m not Samantha, and I hate to clothes shop even more than I hate to pack.

Can I be the only woman in RWA who thinks schlepping from store to store, from tiny cubicle to tiny cubicle, undressing and re-dressing for hours at a time is a drag? Say it isn’t so!

Now that you’d listened to me grouse about shopping and packing, you might ask why I put myself through the angst. Is attending the RWA or any conference worth the effort?

Well, yes. Seeing friends, attending fabulous workshops, networking, doing the whole writer-bonding thing is a high. This year will be even more special for me because I’ll be signing my debut book, La Vida Vampire, at the "Readers for Life" Literacy Autographing, and at the Berkley signing event. Wow, my first time to be on the author side of those long rows of tables! That alone is worth facing the dreaded suitcase.

I think.

So tell, me, do you dread packing? Hate to shop? Suffer from suitcase stress? Share your stories – and dish on how you deal with your travel issues! All tips are welcome!

And, if you want to travel to the beach without ever packing, come visit my web site and click on the Beach Party page for a little virtual fun in the sun!

My sincere thanks to Annette for inviting me to guest blog with the fab Working Stiffs. Y’all rock, and I’m honored to have been a temp here!

Nancy Haddock’s debut book, La Vida Vampire, launched a new series from Berkley, and was released in April 2008 to rave reviews, including a 4 1/2 star Top Pick from Romantic Times BookReviews magazine. Though this book is her first published work, Nancy has written articles, comedy sketches, screenplays, children’s picture books, poetry, and has tried her hand in a number of genres.

For this tale of paranormal romantic mystery, Nancy drew on her long experience with things-that-go-bump by day and night, and on the historic wealth of St. Augustine, Florida, the Nation’s Oldest City. She lives with her husband a blissful block from the beach, and is a dedicated resident-tourist who never gets tired of exploring the sights of her new hometown.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Make Great Things Happen

By Martha Reed

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something.
Thomas A. Edison

I had the great good fortune to spend most of last weekend with my niece since her parents went to Kansas City for her Mom’s high school reunion. It was quite an eye-opener, living with a child. I had to play parent and she had to deal with a 50-year old never been married childless writer aunt who suddenly discovered that she needed quite a bit more quiet down time than she had planned on. Fortunately, Bug is an easy keeper and she loved the fact she got to watch endless episodes of The Sweet Life of Zack and Cody every time I collapsed into a chair for a nap.

Keeping up with a pre-adolescent isn’t easy and growing old ain’t for sissies.

Bug was openly curious about How I Lived My Life and her questions made me take a pause and look at what I’d been up to lately. The real surprise – to me at least – was that this year I seem to be making things happen. What I’ve been doing isn’t really difficult – church bazaars, family reunions, steering committees, short stories – and it’s not even about being especially organized. I think the genesis of my success this year is that I’ve served as a lightening rod for decision-making. I take a stand and own my decisions and that alone seems to be getting things done.

For example, consider the preplanning of an event. First and foremost is which date? Nowadays, with everyone so busy and schedules so hectic, it’s hard to find a date everyone can agree on. That’s where I come in – I pick a date, initiate a preliminary discussion and then PICK ONE. Of course, some folks will have conflicts and there will be a certain amount of gruff grumbling but amazingly enough once you pick a date the other planning details fall in line.

Another key item is that I seem to have migrated away from the naysayers. Honestly, I don’t know how much of this is just due to age; I simply do not have the patience I once had and if you’re going to whine about doing something I’d much rather just dig in and get it done and move on even if it means you get left behind. If you’ve reached this point in your life I hope you realize that it’s an important threshold because once you begin to identify the people, places, or events that are holding you back you can very politely and gently move them out of the way. I’m not advocating that you clear the decks and toss everyone overboard but it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn when to decline a distraction and sit down guiltlessly to get some creative work done.

There’s a Hollywood cliche that says you’re only as good as your last picture. I’m borrowing that phrase now and taking it to mean that you’re only as good as your last project. Even if your last project was a complete disaster it wasn’t a failure if you learned something from it. Who was it that said it doesn’t matter how many times you fail as long as you fail forward? Every time you try something new you can learn from it and learning from it will make your next attempt even better. And isn’t that what we do when we edit our manuscripts? Keep on trying until the day the magic happens and the end result, looked back upon, takes your breath away?

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.
Thomas A. Edison

Monday, July 21, 2008


by Gina Sestak

We -- each and every one of us -- create fiction in our dreams.

Earlier this month, I had the great good fortune to participate in the 25th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams [IASD] in Montreal, Canada. IASD is an eclectic international group that includes MDs and shamans, psychologists and writers, clergy and artists and others who share a common interest in dreams.

It is difficult to condense the all-encompassing experience of the conference into a single blog post. My days often began before 7 a.m. with a short peaceful walk in Maisonneuve Park across the street from the hotel before beginning the steady stream of lectures, seminars, panels, workshops and social events that continued to 11 p.m. or so. There were usually seven activities going simultaneously; I decided that I didn't really want a wand -- I wanted a time turner so I could participate in all of them! [FYI, wands & time turners are featured in Harry Potter.]

Here's a sample:

At 8 a.m., there was a choice between nine dream study groups and a yoga class. I participated in a group led by an Anthropologist. [Last year, I picked the one led by a Jungian analyst.] We worked one person's dream each morning, using a method developed by psychiatrist Montague Ullman. Monte was a long-time participant in IASD who died recently in his 90s. In the Ullman method, one person describes a dream. Other participants discuss the dream by saying, "If this were my dream, I would think . . ." No one imposes an interpretation on the dreamer. In the end, the dreamer may choose to share his/her thoughts and feelings about the dream and whether anything said by the other participants rang true.

One panel discussion led by our own Cynthia Pearson focused on Dreams as We Age and included one of the pioneers of modern dream-work, Robert Van de Castle, who kept reminding everyone that he was the oldest living person in the room. He's 80. There were younger people at the conference, too, of course, including several graduate students presenting papers.

Highlights included an art exhibit that featured artwork inspired by dreams, a costume ball, and an awesome dance performed by two members of the World Dreams Peace Bridge which, as many of you know, is an international internet peace group in which I participate.

I could describe the various lectures I attended -- biblical dreams, cultural considerations in working with dreams, creating artificial dreams through cinematography, normal and pathological dreaming, dreaming in color, healing dream in Welsh mythology, histories of dream research and of IASD. I analyzed my dreams in workshops by using tarot cards, pretending to be my car, and writing a short story.

I could describe the audio performance art piece, or the dream telepathy contest, or the wonderful Universal Dream Dance Circle.

But I think I'll stop here and pose a question: Has your writing been influenced by your dreams?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer of the Fairies

by Cathy Anderson Corn

Many years ago, I heard Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., speak at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. (She's now a well-recognized psychologist, medium, and author for Hay House.) The room was half filled, darkened, and hushed, the crowd listening intently as she spoke of angels, how to contact them, and how they will help you with your life challenges and everyday cares if you call on them.

As she stood behind the podium, a tall, vibrant lady looking mainstream with her long, blond hair, and beautiful enough to be a homecoming queen, I saw a green cloud, misting and irregular in shape, forming above her head. For a second, I enjoyed this sight until I realized it was some weird, psychic vision, and panic set in.

And "poof," it disappeared.

Later I decided this was an angelic energy that I wasn't ready to see. Doreen could see things like that, and a whole lot more, but my glimpse scared me.

I was entranced by Doreen Virtue's books on angels until Hay House published the one about fairies. I read it, and decided she should take a vacation. The idea of fairies as real, living creatures was so far-fetched that I nearly gave up on Doreen altogether.

Meanwhile, I wrote a novel about a divorced woman living in a town house with her teenage daughter who's helped through job woes, angst with her daughter, and the love labyrinth by her guardian angel. ("Lighten Up, My Beloved," but don't look for it--it's under my desk.)

Somehow, though, the fairy energy seeped into my body over the years by osmosis, and I grew closer and closer to nature (fairies are nature angels who watch over the animals and plants). I always loved animals and had even hugged a tree or two, but this was different. When I saw a tree service taking down a huge, perfectly formed maple or oak tree from a yard in my house plan, I felt pain. The day a doe hobbled by on three legs, the other leg injured and held tightly against her body, I wanted to help her and all the little hurt woods creatures.

Then, four years ago, I decided to write a novel featuring fairies, and I've been evolving along with the story ever since. My sensitivity grew stronger, as well as my closeness to creation. The final draft is nearly done (by my standards), and so I'm not surprised at the latest plot twist in my own life.

At dusk, several weeks ago, I commented to my husband Alan about the "rain" outside. I saw white streaks of movement around the trees. He saw it, too, but we soon discovered all was dry out back. We walked in the trees, saw the streaks (which weren't bugs or the Aurora Borealis), but no mist or raindrops fell from the sky.

Yes, it was the perfect time and place to see fairies--the tweens (between day and night, between forest and cultivated lawn). We decided the white streaks are fairies, which makes me very happy, so if you have a scientific explanation, write it down and lose the paper. This time, it's not that scary that the sight goes "poof."

Maybe our retinas are detaching and, no, we weren't drinking or drugging. We believe that enchantment exists in everyday life if you know how to seek it out. And if you think this is totally crackpot and outrageous, I agree with you, because that's how I used to see it. But have you ever talked to that wise old oak in your front yard?

Has your own writing introduced you to worlds you didn't believe in or understand? Has it expanded the perimeters of your universe? Does your writing invite the plot of your life to take on unique twists and turns?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

You Put What in the Blender?!

by Kelli Stanley

A long time ago, I wanted to be a chemist. A “Cosmo-Chemist,” in fact, and never mind the fact that I sort of realized that dream once Sex and the City came out.

No, this was the icky kind of chemistry, the kind with yellow sulfur and blue cobalt and a Bunsen burner sticky with residue from botched experiments … all courtesy of Sears and Roebuck (have you noticed that good ol’ Roebuck dropped off some years ago?) and their super-duper chemistry set that I received as a Christmas present when I was eight.

In fact, I’ve got a confession to make to my fellow working stiffs (no, my day job isn’t as a chemist) ... just between us, I once mixed a few things together that sort of “bloomed” once I heated them up. A giant, smelly, blue mass started growing and bubbling and actually crawling out of the beaker. I was terrified!! Think Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein screaming “It’s Alive!”

So I grabbed a pot holder and ran to my back yard. And buried it. And soon after, we moved …

Which means that somewhere in San Jose, California … it’s still there. Brrr.

Now all this is a roundabout way of saying that I like to mix unusual things together. I like to think that with cooking and writing, though, I’ve learned to do it with better results. :-)

This Friday, July 18, my first novel – a decidedly unusual mixture – debuts. Nox Dormienda is a combination historical mystery-thriller and classic 1930s hardboiled style. One reviewer described it as a make-believe collaboration between Lindsey Davis and Raymond Chandler … Ken Bruen calls it Ellis Peters rewritten by Elmore Leonard. I think of it as Roman Noir. It’s the first of a series, so hopefully the concoction will catch on … just like a Cosmopolitan!

Anyway, you get the idea. It’s new, it’s different, and I’ve tried to make it, above all else, worthwhile and entertaining to read. Accurate, too. There’s a lot of student debt in that book!

And to make me feel like I’m not alone in my passion for an unusual combination, I’d love to hear about your own experiments – successful or un – that you’ve tried … cooking, writing, cocktail mixing, clothing, relationships … whatever worked or didn’t! Because chemistry can be pretty damn exciting!

Thank you for hosting me on Working Stiffs! A fabulous blog, with fabulous people (and a shout out to my fellow ITW Debut Author and buddy, the incomparable and amazing Jennie Bentley)!

Now, what did I do with that Cosmo …?

A few ITW Debut Authors: Jordan Dane, Kelli Stanley, Julie Kramer, CJ Lyons, Laura Benedict.

Kelli Stanley lives in San Francisco, earned a Master’s Degree in Classics, is published as a scholar, and likes to wander in the fog. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found at bookstores, speakeasies and classic movie theaters.
Her debut novel, Nox Dormienda, is the first of a new series and new genre of mystery fiction: Roman Noir. Kelli is currently working on a novel set in 1940 San Francisco.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stalking An Author Photo

by Julie Kramer

I don't especially like having my picture taken. So it's probably best my day job is as a freelance television news producer, a behind-the-scenes gig where you don't have to wash your hair each day. Same thing with novelists.

But my publisher wanted an author photo. And that does seem to be the norm. As I checked the back cover and inside jacket flap of numerous published books, some authors even appeared to be enjoying their photo sessions. Probably because they're best selling authors. I'd smile too if STALKING SUSAN hit the New York Times list. But we debut novelists are a nervous, insecure lot. Physically as well as editorially. And I'm at that bifocal age.

I appealed to a television cameraman/friend, who also did still camera work, to try to make me look pretty. I thought I'd relax better around someone I knew. Because I'd written a thriller, my photog pal, Garrett Young, posed me in the back of an alley in a leather jacket and decided we should try for an Urban Grit look.

Not wanting to blow my big chance, I'd also hired Liz Zilka, a makeup artist who does face wizardry on television anchors and politicians. She airbrushed me. And when I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked beautiful enough for Hollywood. Or at least high definition television.
But that's no guarantee of a good author photo.

Garrett claims he took hundreds of shots. (He is a patient man.) He blamed the results on his model and not his skill as a photographer. He said producers aren't good at relaxing or taking direction and that luckily he caught me in an unguarded moment. I looked at the numerous digital images and agreed he had a point. In many, I looked strained and uncomfortable.

I really had only two to chose from. He'd also taken another photo series indoors with me wearing an off the shoulder sweater. He used a Magic Ring Light that supposedly hides the subject's facial flaws. And I was tempted to go with one of those pictures because I thought it made me seem young and cute. But a girl friend told me it looked like a high school graduation photo, and a thriller writer needed to look edgy, not adorable. So I settled on the Urban Grit look.

Except when my website went up to promote STALKING SUSAN - a thriller set in the desperate world of television news where a reporter discovers a serial killer is targeting women named Susan - no one said I looked "gritty" or "edgy."

Friends and relatives started teasing me I looked "kind of hot," and "sultry," even "a babe." Things they never say when they see me in person with my unwashed hair. And it wasn't like I was showing cleavage or tongue. I started to get snickering emails about my "sex, naughty girl" look. One called me "sultry and saucy in leather." So when I was signing arcs at the PLA Conference and a librarian told me I looked much better than that photo, which was plastered on a poster by the Random House booth, I wanted to hug her.

My favorite author photo might be Linda Fairstein's on the back of DEATH DANCE. Smiling, showing off her dancer legs. Not your cliche author pose in front of bookshelves.

So here's some questions for you cyber buds - Does anybody even care about an author's photo besides the author? Does an author's photo sell a book? Did I pick the right photo? Or should I have gone with the cute, adorable runner up? How about sharing your own photo shoot story?

Julie Kramer is a freelance news producer for NBC's Today show, Nightly News, and Dateline. Prior to that she was a national award-winning investigative producer for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.

Julie grew up along the Minnesota-Iowa state line, fourth generation of a family who raised cattle and farmed corn for 130 years. Her favorite childhood days were spent waiting for the bookmobile to bring her another Phyllis A. Whitney novel. An avid reader, she tired of fictional TV reporters always being portrayed as obnoxious secondary characters who could be killed off whenever the plot started dragging. So her debut thriller, STALKING SUSAN, features a TV reporter as the heroine and takes readers inside the world of television news. She lives with her husband and sons in White Bear Lake, MN.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sending the Dogs Out to Hunt

By Martha Reed

Writing is a curious endeavor. You spend hours sitting in a room by yourself, muttering to the walls and hoping something fantastic will connect. Every writer has a different way of getting started: I start my day by massaging the previous day’s pages as a warm-up, flexing my mental fingers and then digging in and trying to push the storyline forward. I average about a page a day. Sometimes I leap too far ahead and then I have to go back and fill in a transitional gap, but usually I find that just writing slow and steady and reworking and retyping the sentences as I go along works best for me.

I’ve mentioned writerly superstitions on the Working Stiffs blog before and I recently turned up another one that I like to call: Sending the Dogs Out to Hunt.

When I’m working on a novel, and I know I’m going to have to put in a couple of years crafting 80,000 words in the right order, the sheer size of the task can get overwhelming and daunting, so I came up with a subterfuge, a cunning ploy that cuts my fear of finishing the project right off at the knees. I always keep a short story, something small - around 7,000 words - in current play. That way, as I slog around the 100 page quarter turn and enter my new novel’s backstretch, I can think of my short little sprinter piece way out there somewhere in front of me and hope that it crosses the finish line before I do. Thinking of my short story out there hunting for a new home keeps me hopeful whenever I take a break to check the mail and every once in awhile it surprises me and finishes first.

This little trick is how I keep my writer’s balance, by keeping something fresh and active out there, and I found myself pulled up short last month when my last story got unexpectedly accepted and I had nothing else to send out. I shrugged and thought I would be okay with that – after all, I was still writing – but I was wrong, and as I started losing sleep and experiencing separation anxiety I knew I needed to come up with a replacement story pretty fast. In a near panic I dug through my very, very, very old hopeful short story folder looking for a scrap of something I had already started that I could craft into something finished and new.

(This is exactly why I tell new writers to not throw anything out – you may not need it now, you might not even like what you wrote now, but who’s to say you might not change your mind in a decade?)

I retrieved a couple of faded paragraphs that still had the power to make me laugh out loud and I started writing furiously, putting in twelve hours a day and not coming up for anything but my day job and food. After a back-to-back set of working weekends, I had two new stories eagerly waiting in the starting gate and I was ready to re-establish my balance. A quick trip to the post office and ahhh…they’re off! Now it’s time to go back to my novel and wait for the self-addressed stamped envelopes to arrive in the mail.

Good dog. Fetch. Bring it home.

PS. I love this picture but look into the dog’s eyes. That dog is not smiling.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Modern Day Ghost Town

by Annette Dashofy

I grew up in the Age of Malls. I remember when South Hills Village was a big deal. A shopping Mecca. And then the Washington Mall opened. A shopper’s paradise close to home. The place proved so popular that a few years later, they had to add on.

As a teen, I hung out at the Washington Mall. We went to movies there. J.C. Penney was my favorite department store. I shopped for groceries at the Giant Eagle, first at one end of the mall, and then, after the expansion, at the other end. One of my earliest jobs was working at the Wonday Photo Center where I took in film for processing (pre digital by a couple decades) and sold cameras and darkroom equipment.

A few years back, the owner decided malls were a thing of the past and made plans to bulldoze the Washington Mall and replace it with a strip mall. One by the one, the tenants left. Then, with only a handful remaining, plans changed. The strip mall plan was nixed. But by then, it was too late. The tenants who had left had already found new locations. Those who remained were a tad miffed by management jerking them around, so they moved out, too.

J.C. Penney remained for a time. However, the lure of a new strip mall just down the road called to them. The Foundry, as the planned shopping center was dubbed, would continue the growth already happening in two other adjacent plazas.

Without J.C. Penney, the Washington Mall virtually died. It still houses Rite Aid at one end and JoAnn Fabric at the other, but in between, vacant store fronts flank empty hallways. In the winter, there is no heat. In the summer, no air conditioning offers relief.

Where the aroma of hot dogs and nachos once wafted through the corridors, only a stale, musty stench remains. Instead of the chatter and laughter of shoppers and their families, silence echoes throughout. A small handful of “mall walkers” do their laps for exercise without needing to dodge crowds.

It’s spooky. I spent a large part of my youth there. I shopped, dined, and met friends there. Now it resembles nothing quite as much as a modern day ghost town.

The new J.C. Penney in the Foundry closed a few weeks ago. The other stores in the strip mall had closed a week or so earlier.

When the developer started building the new shopping center, they had a valley to work with. They brought in fill and created a hillside. They built a spectacular wall, one of the largest in the state, to hold the hill in place. They rushed to put up buildings for their new tenants.

What they did NOT do was give the new manmade hillside time to settle. But, of course, it settled anyway. And as it settled, the earth beneath the Foundry shops dropped. When I was there last winter, I’d noticed cracked cement and small sink holes in the parking lot. Apparently, they were only a precursor.

So thanks to the stupidity and greed of developers trying to build more stores to make more money selling stuff to the citizens of Washington County, we now have two largely vacant properties within a mile of each other.

Oddly, the old Washington Mall appears to be in much better condition than the spanking new (sinking) Foundry shops.

And there is talk that J.C. Penney MAY move back into their old space in the Mall.

Display cases sit empty, ready to be filled once again with jewelry and perfume and cosmetics.

I guess I just want someone to explain to me why newer is better. And why build more and more storefronts when the economy can’t support the retail establishments we already have? Somehow I doubt that this is a phenomena isolated to Washington County, Pennsylvania. Tell me…what’s happening in your area? Are the stores all filled and prospering? Or are boarded up windows turning other shopping centers into ghost towns, too?

And does anyone else smell a fantastic location for a murder mystery here?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A New Chapter

by Joyce Tremel

Although at the time I write this, I haven't heard anything officially, I am pretty sure I'm no longer the secretary for the Shaler Township Police Department. Apparently a couple officers took offense to some things I wrote in my blogs and took it up with the township manager. He seemed to think that I painted the township in a bad light, and I was suspended.

I'm still flabbergasted (cool word, don't you think?) that anyone could possibly take offense to anything I wrote. I was always extremely careful not to mention anything confidential. On the rare occasion I wrote about a case, I made sure it was something that was public knowledge and had already been written about in the media. Any joking around or teasing was done in the same way you'd tease a sibling. I thought these guys were my friends. Apparently I was wrong.

That really bothers me. I know some of these guys have read my blogs before--I sent them links--and they never once had anything bad to say about what I'd written. A couple of times I actually got a comment that they liked it! But now? Not a peep out of them. Not a phone call. Not an email.

To me, this is a First Amendment issue. I've never written anything detrimental to the township. On the contrary, I've brought them free publicity. Many people outside of law enforcement think cops are power hungry jerks. I've tried my best to paint them as caring human beings, who have the same foibles as the rest of us. My blogs are written to give (mostly) writers a glimpse into the world of law enforcement. I don't think I've done too badly with that.

So, I'm onto a new chapter. I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. I might do some freelance work if I can find it, and I'll probably apply for some jobs doing something a little less stressful than working in a police department. For now, I'll get caught up on things around the house and do a lot of writing. And I'll definitely keep blogging.

The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

by Lisa Curry

I love July for the same reason I hate July: It’s all-star baseball month for my sons, ages just-turned-nine and just-about-to-turn-eleven.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to watch my kids play ball more than just about anything else. And all-star baseball is the best baseball to watch – faster, more exciting and more competitive than regular-season baseball, with fewer fielding errors and none of those guaranteed outs when you reach rock bottom in the batting order.

But having two kids in five tournaments in three weeks becomes a bit wearying. We might as well just pitch a tent at the ball field, because when my husband and I aren’t at work, that’s where we live. Except that I’d need a tent with a washer and dryer to support my habit of staying up half the night making sure the all-star uniforms are clean and presentable for the next day’s game. If my tent also had a stove, I could buy some real food during my emergency Gatorade runs to the Giant Eagle, so we could eat something that didn’t come from McDonald’s or a ball field concession stand for a change.

My older son’s team just finished their first tournament with a second-place trophy Wednesday night. Last evening was blessedly baseball-free – a chance to catch up on laundry and grass-cutting and eat a home-cooked meal, albeit at ten o’clock at night. Both boys’ teams have games tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, so I expect to work on my baseball-fan tan (all on the front and none on the back) and develop bleacher dents in my butt. Depending on how their teams fare over the weekend, they may have a semifinal Monday or Tuesday evening and a championship game Wednesday.

Still, I wouldn’t trade all-star season for a cruise in the Bahamas. So I’ll leave you with a photo that’s a good representation of my life during July. I came home from work one evening about two weeks ago to find my hanging basket in this condition. When I asked what in heaven’s name had happened (as if the baseball still nestled inside the potting soil with little root tendrils dangling around it wasn’t clue enough), my firstborn said, “It was an accident, Mom.”

Yeah, I guess, ’cause who’d have ever thought you could put a perfect hole in a plastic pot with a baseball? Meanwhile, I still haven’t found time to repot the poor plant – I’ve been too busy at the baseball field.

But my kid’s got a heck of an arm, don’t you think?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Cool Birthday

by Annette Dashofy

Tomorrow is my birthday. Yeah, yeah. Big whoop-tee-doo. How old will I be? Let’s just say I’ll be as close to 50 as possible without BEING 50. In other words, I’ll be 49.

What a blah kind of birthday. Now, NEXT year, look out. Those round numbers somehow elicit a huge demand for celebration. And heckling. But the years BEFORE the round numbers get no respect. And very little attention. Frankly, I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m considering cancelling all future birthdays. Really. Who needs ‘em.

In case you’re wondering what I’m getting for my birthday (yeah, I know you really don’t care), I’m getting a heat pump installed in my house.

Okay, we were getting it anyway. Hubby was rather grateful that I let him off the proverbial hook, since we will have no money once we pay for the thing. The way I figure it, a woman pushing fifty has certain needs in life. Central air conditioning is one of them.

The two dinky little window units we’ve been using are fine. As long as you happen to be in either the bedroom or my office, which is where they are located. But the rest of the house resembles a sauna. Plus, I can’t stand the rumble, rattle, and hum of the window unit when I’m trying to sleep. So we shut everything down and throw open the windows before bedtime. Within an hour, the humidity has crept in and I can’t sleep anyway.

I think a heat pump with central air is a terrific birthday present. I don’t need anything else.

Plus we went away for a few days over the Fourth of July and had to leave my cat at home. I closed all the blinds and curtains and prayed for cloudy weather. Goodness knows we’ve had enough of it lately. But of course, the sun came out, the inside temperature soared above 80, and poor Skye was one cranky little cat by the time we walked through the door. As soon as I fired up the a/c units and the house cooled off, she bounced back to her usual happy, if psycho, self.

The next time we take off for a few days, we’ll have our new air conditioning up and running, so the furry one will be cool and comfy, too.

Of course, Hubby isn’t even slightly concerned with the cat’s comfort. He’s concerned with his bank account. We currently have a twenty-five year old oil furnace. The first year we had it, we paid 67 cents per gallon for oil in the summertime. Because we only had one tank, we ran out mid winter and had to pay close to 90 cents per gallon to refill it. By the next year, we had a second tank so that wouldn’t happen again. We would wait until June or July when the oil prices dropped to their lowest to order our winter supply. For years, we never paid over a dollar a gallon. Last year, we paid over two dollars a gallon. This year, it’s well over four. And climbing. So the decision to replace the aging oil furnace NOW and use our winter fuel stash as part of the down payment seems like a no-brainer. If anything, we should have done it sooner. Like for my forty-seventh birthday.

So bring on 49! Bring on 50! Hit me with your best hot flash. I will be languishing in my air conditioned glory. Happy Birthday to me!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Your literary autobiography

by Kathryn Miller Haines

At my day job, we’re currently hosting an NEH Summer Institute for Teachers, teaching them how to integrate music into their classrooms. One of the first things we ask them to do as a way to get to know them, is to have them present a musical autobiography, which consists of a few “artifacts” that help explain the role music has played in their life (an important album, a favorite song, a concert t-shirt, the scars left by your overly-zealous piano teacher.)

I love the activity because it really forces you to think about the way music shapes you as a human being and the various roles it plays in your existence. I was wondering if the same thing couldn’t be done with books. So I propose we use today’s blog as a way of sharing our literary autobiographies. What are some of the books and stories that have shaped who you are as a reader and a writer? Are there other writing and reading related artifacts that you’ve collected that help tell the story of your literary life?

(P.S. I’m a Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Pittsburgh’s Southside tonight reading and discussing The Winter of Her Discontent at 7:00. If you’re in the area, come on by! I’ll have cookies:))

Monday, July 07, 2008


by Gina Sestak

A few weeks ago (June 23), I wrote about some of the places I lived as an undergraduate. I had intended to pick up the same theme today, continuing on with descriptions of all the horrid little apartments and sleeping rooms, not to mention the time I was homeless, but the more I thought about it, the more I remembered that my housing crises hadn't started when I entered college.

Although I was born in Wilkinsburg, PA, we moved to Detroit when I was a baby. My father spend most of his working life employed by Westinghouse, which at that time meant he was often out of work -- on strike or laid off. He'd managed to find a job in a Michigan auto plant, and so my mother and I moved there to join him. I don't remember anything about Detroit except being in a train station -- our mode of transport. I also have a vague recollection of looking down at a train running through a valley, which may have been near where we lived. We came back to Pittsburgh when my mother's father was terminally ill.

The first place I can remember living with my parents was at my Grandmother's. My Grandfather had died and we shared a two bedroom house with my Grandmother and an aunt. My Grandfather had built the house himself and, although it was in the city, the residential lane had homes on one side only. When my mother was growing up, a dairy farm had occupied the hill across the lane but it had burned down. When I lived there, the former farm had gone back to nature and was just "the woods." The federal government built a mental hospital on top of the hill, and we children were forbidden to go into the woods for fear of encountering a wandering patient.

I have a vague recollection of living someplace near Highland Park. I don't remember much about that place, except going to the zoo and asking the stork to bring me a baby brother. The request must have worked. My brother Johnny was born around this time, when I was three years old.

We moved back to Wilkinsburg, to a second floor apartment in a house. Our landlords live on the first floor. I started kindergarten at the local public school, then first grade, with a religious education class once a week at the more distant Catholic school. That was my first encounter with the Sisters of Charity, who later made my high school life a living hell, but Sister Olga seemed nice enough. This was the McCarthy era, though. We were taught that, when the Communists came, they would ask if we were baptized. We would say, "yes," then they would kill us. We would be martyrs for Christ. This was my first crisis of conscience -- while I thought I would willingly die for my faith (and get to go to Heaven with Jesus and all the saints and other martyrs, of course!), I didn't want my little brother to be killed and so worried that I might be tempted to lie and say he wasn't baptized. This worried me no end. I also managed to get my family evicted. The landlords' little girl, Shirley, was a year old than me. One evening she and a neighbor girl, Eleanor Jean, trapped me outside and wouldn't let me go home. It was getting dark and I was terrified. I bit Shirley. Her parents got angry, calling me a "little animal." We moved out.

My final childhood home started as another second floor apartment in a house, but this time we lived above another tenant. The landlord lived across the street. The thermostat was in the first floor apartment and the woman who lived there kept it set so low that our bedrooms on the third floor had little heat. We would sleep in the second floor living room -- my mother on the sofa, my newest little brother Joey in a baby buggy, and Johnny and I in Joey's play pen. My father worked nights. When complaints to the first floor tenant didn't work, my mother finally told the landlord and he moved the thermostat into the hall. That woman moved out, and a family moved in, a woman with several children whose husband was in prison. When they left, my family rented the entire house.

It was an old house, brick, the last house on the left on a dead-end street. A really dead end - the street stopped at a cemetery fence. Between our house and the cemetery there was a dahlia field -- our landlord also ran a floral business. He grew some plants outdoors and, behind our house, there were greenhouses, all white washed glass and steamy interiors.

The house was haunted and so, even with heat, I was often afraid to sleep in my third floor bedroom, preferring to sack out on the couch. I lived there until I left for college.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Riding and Writing

by Brenda Roger

Cooking and cleaning
Washing and ironing
Pruning and weeding
Cutting and sewing
Wining and dining
Painting and decorating
Riding and writing
Perhaps the most unlikely pair,
But I will spend my summer there
In the saddle and in the chair.

I've decided to take a break from blogging. The exhibition to which I have been devoted for over a year, opened this weekend, and it seems like a good opportunity to take a much needed break from as many activities as possible.

Thank you for allowing me to participate, and for leaving such lively commments.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Good food, good friends, good times...

By Jennie Bentley

Happy 4th of July, y’all!

As most of you know, I spent a couple weeks in Norway at the beginning of the summer. Taking my kids to visit my dad, seeing family and friends, eating yummy local delicacies like salty licorice and vafler.

We cruised the fjord in a boat, visited one of the little islands that are part of the city of Oslo, splashed in the sea, checked out the Folk Museum and the Gustav Vigeland sculpture park and the Holmenkollen Ski Jump and Akershus Festning/Fortress – and on, and on, and on!

Pictures here.

And that’s all the writing I’m going to do today, because it’s the 4th of July, and I’m not expecting a whole lot of company here on the Working Stiffs this morning. Enjoy the holiday and the pictures, y’all, and I’ll see you next time!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Noble Lies and the Perfect Martini

The Working Stiffs are delighted to host author Charles Benoit today. An insatiable traveler and occasional scuba diver, Charles continues his worldwide quest to find the perfect martini. Noble Lies is his third novel, following the Edgar-nominated Relative Danger and Out of Order.

Welcome, Charles!

First, thanks for inviting me over for the day. I’m a big fan of visiting new and exotic destinations and this blog site definitely qualifies.

My wife and I are busy making plans for our summer vacation. Well, that’s not accurate. She’s making the plans. In our family, Rose worries about the small details, like booking flights, paying bills, managing our investments and keeping the house maintained and standing. I worry about the big stuff. For example, did you know the sun will go into a Red Dwarf stage in less than 6 billion years? Is anyone doing anything about this?

Anyway, our trip—we’re off to Belize and I’m excited for a lot of reasons. We’ve never been to Central America (although we did live in Trinidad for a year and did a lot of island hopping), the scuba diving is legendary and there’ll be no Internet connections so that means no email or work or news updates to disturb us. But most exciting of all, Belize is the setting of Donald Westlake’s High Adventure.

Most people know Westlake as the author of the Dortmunder series. A smaller, more hard-boiled crowd knows he’s also the man behind the Parker books. The smallest crowd of all knows that he’s also the man behind a pair of outstanding adventure novels – Kahawa, set in Uganda, and High Adventure, set in Belize. It’s no exaggeration to say that these two books changed my life. Before I read them I hadn’t traveled outside of North America and the only fiction I had written were glowing comments on students’ report cards. These books changed everything for me. After I read them, I knew I had to get overseas and, for the first time in my life, I wanted to write. Not just any book, as if that weren’t enough. No, I had to write the kind of book I had read, a book with dashing (if at times floundering) heroes, exotic locations, beautiful, sultry, quick-witted women, and dangerous villains. I knew I wanted to write an adventure. But then I thought, shouldn’t you have one first?

So Rose and I set off to see the world, me in search of that adventure, her in search of the best poolside bar and Pad Thai Chicken. What I found is that the world I thought (hoped? dreamed?) existed wasn’t really there anymore. There were no tramp steamers pulling up to steamy ports, unloading cases of bootleg whiskey by moonlight as jungle monkeys chattered, and half-dressed vixens went shot for shot at the bar with square-jawed leading men in sweat-stained fedoras, while in the background Dooly Wilson’s grandkids played gin-soaked jazz on tinny pianos. And if there were, they weren’t on the tourist maps.

But the world I found was just as exotic, only in a different, semi-sanitized way. Sure, I didn’t meet any rum-running, cheroot-smoking drifters with a tale to tell about a wrinkled map and a lost treasure, but I did find salaried office workers in Jaipur who knew how to keep a 1974 Xerox copier working using parts they’d salvaged from a wrecked 2001 Tata sedan. I met shop owners in Bali who could get their hands on DVDs of movies that were still in production. I had drinks with an Egyptian crossword puzzle fanatic and Gene Autry fan in a “Hard Rick CafĂ©” in Syria the night before Ramadan started. And I watched the sun set in Grenada with a group of busboys dressed as pirates, overlooking a bay that once saw the skull and crossbones of Captain Morgan’s fleet. My world was different from the one Westlake wrote about, but I found my adventure. And I put it in my books.

I was introduced to Donald Westlake at the Edgar’s Award Banquet the year Relative Danger was nominated for Best First. I meant to tell him how much his books inspired me, how his writing changed the way I saw the world and shaped the way I told a story. What I ended up saying was, “er, uh…um…gosh…er, you’re…a…uh…”

I hope he understood.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Resting in Peace

By Annette Dashofy

Lately, in an effort to get into shape, I’ve been doing a lot of walking. Since the fields around my house are loaded with ticks, I find other places to stretch my legs. One of the most convenient spots is an old cemetery a few miles from my house. It’s quiet and mostly deserted except for the occasional deer. And many of my ancestors are buried there. I rather like the sense of calm.

Last week, on my stroll, I noticed a grave with several floral arrangements perched on the stone. One of the plastic vases had fallen over. There are other graves with upended tributes, but for some reason, I diverted from my path and knelt to straighten this particular one.

Besides the flowers, a pair of tiny ceramic angels flanked the marker, which was covered in pennies, nickels and dimes. The name and date on the flat granite slab sounded familiar, but it took a moment or two to sink in and then I remembered the story.

Seven-year-old Tausha Lee Lanham lived her sad, short life in Burgettstown, about five miles from my home. At birth, she weighed only 2 pounds and 5 ounces and she suffered an assortment of health problems. But the bulk of her suffering came at the hands of her mother, Michelle Sue Tharp.

Tausha weighed less than 12 pounds when she died several months shy of her eighth birthday. She had not eaten for days.

According to witnesses, Tausha’s mother kept food from the child for a day or more at a time. She did however feed the girl’s two siblings. Tausha would spend many nights confined to a room to prevent her from searching for any tidbit in the kitchen, where she sometimes ate from the garbage can. Other times she might forage scraps from the pet bowls.

CYS tried to help, but Michelle Tharp missed appointments and refused to open her door to them. When they did visit, Tharp hid Tausha out of sight.

One morning, nearly ten years ago, Tharp discovered Tausha’s dead body in her bed. Instead of reporting it (for fear of having her other children taken from her, she said), she put the body in her car seat and drove to her grandmother’s to call off work and to drop off laundry. She swung by a lake before stopping to buy garbage bags. Later, she and her boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger, wrapped Tausha’s tiny body in a sheet, placed it in a garbage bag, and left it atop a large bush in the woods of West Virginia. They then reported her missing from a mall in Steubenville, Ohio, where they said she’d gotten lost.

The jury at Tharp’s trial deliberated for less than three hours before returning a guilty verdict. She was sentenced to death and sits on death row at the State Correctional Institute of Muncy.

And there, the story should have ended. However, Michelle Tharp is now being featured on a website known as muncys3amigos, where she and two other inmates give their one-sided account of life behind bars. I would include a link, but the thought of pulling that site up makes me ill. But if you want to read a local account of the story, go here. It originates from London, England and the webmaster, Joanne Rayston heads an organization called Friends for Muncy Death Row, an anti-death-penalty group. At some point, the three women were moved to a different section of the prison. They complained that their new lodging was “loud, unsanitary, and simply miserable.”

Forgive me if I fail to feel pity for them. Especially Tharp.

As for Tausha, her grave, at least, is everything her mother’s accommodations are not. Quiet. Lovely. Peaceful. And from the looks of the flowers and angels, her final resting place is getting considerably more care than the child received in life.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Getting The Job Done

By Martha Reed

I have these fabulous vintage metal kitchen cabinets and the only excuse for keeping them is that I can use magnets to stick pictures and articles up all over them and make a sort of living inspirational collage.

Most of the pictures and articles are about artists and writers who say something particularly pertinent during an interview; something that strikes a chord with my current work in progress. Once a month I pour a big cup of coffee and I go through the collection and winnow them down and throw the old ones out but there are a couple that have been displayed so long the type has faded to gray and the highlighter has turned tan. The collage has even attracted certain notoriety among my friends who make a beeline for the cabinets whenever they come to visit to see what’s new.

I believe my cabinets have mutated into an exterior bulletin board for my ongoing internal dialogue.

Last weekend I added an article about Nantucket artist Joanna Kane. Joanna has the kind of striking face that makes you swear you knew her in college, but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure. She has just switched from painting decorative furniture to abstract canvas and I think what she says about painting can also apply to creative writing:

“To get to that surprise I need to walk in the dark for a while. I don’t know where the painting is going, and I have to be fine with that.”

That was one of the hardest initial writerly tools to learn, to trust yourself and your writing enough to follow it blindly. Remember that marvelous feeling? The A-ha! moment when your first draft finally knits together and the complete story is revealed?

“In art school they told us that we wouldn’t mature as an artist until we were 50, and I think they said that to weed out those of us who weren’t serious.” … “But I happen to believe it’s the truth. When you’re young you wait for the surge of energy to create something, but at my age you just work. You don’t wait for inspiration.”

I think you have to be middle-aged to truly appreciate this statement. Youth is too exuberant to appreciate the stamina of grinding the work out. And yet there is a beauty, a satisfaction in reaching the grind it out stage; I’ve eliminated the peaks and valleys of useless enthusiasm and just get down to work, every day. There’s no more nonsense, no more distraction, no wasted idle time. My desire to write and my energy level are in harmony to just get ‘er done. Nowadays, if I stay up all night or put in ten hours on a good day I get a text hangover; but if I stay with writing a little bit every day, strong and steady, it’s pretty amazing what can get accomplished over the course of a year.