Monday, September 29, 2008


by Gina Sestak

In my screenwriting class last week, we talked about building character. [Of course, I mean building character in the sense of creating believable protagonists, antagonists, etc., not increasing your moral fiber.] Movie characters, like those who populate a novel, should be believable. [Honest. I'm not making this up.] Characters need to grow and change over the course of the story. They should seem real, with relationships, goals, and a past. And, in order to make them believable, there are three things you should know about a character:
  • idea of fun
  • pet peeve
  • secret (something people would be surprised to know)

To these, I would add a fourth: what would make that character laugh? Would she lose bladder control over a knock-knock joke? Would the sight of an injured puppy bring on Peter Lorre giggles? What we laugh at reveals who we really are.

So this is my quiz for today:

  • what is your idea of fun?
  • what is your pet peeve?
  • what would people be surprised to know about you? [caution: speaking as a lawyer, I have to say, NEVER CONFESS TO A CRIME UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE CAUGHT!]
  • what makes you laugh?

For myself, I find it fun to go to court {honest}. I detest anyone talking during movies in the movie theater. People might be surprised to know that I was homeless and selling blood plasma to survive when I was younger -- well, I guess you folks who read my posts wouldn't be surprised by that. You've read all about it. And, I think this youtube video is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I only wish I could figure out how to embed it in this post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Finding Inspiration in Failure

Kathie Shoop

While I’m sure most Working Stiffs blog readers are well aware of Joyce Carol Oates’s book called The Faith of a Writer: Life Craft, Art, I just became acquainted with it last month.

Like a friend dropping in with the perfect supportive words when I’m feeling down, this book really spoke to me and lifted my glum perspective on publishing.

I’m querying my historical fiction novel again and I have to say I wasn’t too pleased to be back in that position. But, as my father said, “The book won’t get published by not submitting it.” I soon got back to work on a new query, synopsis and first chapter. Having that plan really made a difference in my attitude and Oates’s book helped, too.

Two chapters in particular were powerful for me: Notes on Failure and Inspiration!. Notes on Failure was wonderful—especially Oates’s timeline for James Joyce and his string of “failed” novels before publishing Ulysses. She surmises that “...James Joyce was protected by the unpopularity of his work. He enjoyed, as his brother Stanislaus observed, that ‘inflexibility firmly rooted in failure.’” Though I understand I’m surely not Joyce, I am very sure I understand the state of “inflexibility firmly rooted in failure.” I know my latest book, the historical fiction one would not have been written—at least not in time to be my breakout novel (see I’m still a little confident)—if my previous women’s fiction manuscripts had been published. Oates’s analysis of failure in this way has renewed my spirit in countless ways.

The chapter called Inspiration! was fabu. Oates discusses moments, epiphanies, and thunderous inspiration that results, sometimes, from ordinary life. For example she details how John Hawkes's, The Passion Artist, came to be. Hawkes was in a depression, unable to write. At lunch with a friend, the friend told him a story. A few images from the tale embedded in Hawkes’s mind and his story exploded from there. Again, not that I compare myself to Hawkes, but I do compare my experience. I’ve had those explosions, they’ve become entire novels.

Oates, like other authors who’ve written books on writing (or those who kindly offer their words over blog, email or phone), provide a gift beyond their fiction. Knowing that even in the black hole of failure lies the possibility of success is worth way more than the $11.95 I paid for the book and someday, I hope to return the favor.

Where do you find your inspiration and how do you view your failures?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Commercial Annoyances

by Joyce

To me, there aren't too many things more annoying than commercials. I know commercials serve a purpose--they pay for the shows we watch, or songs we listen to, but it would be nice if those of us in the intended audience were treated more like valued customers and less like gullible schmucks.

There are a few commercials that I've heard on the radio lately that drive me absolutely nuts. Yes, I know. I don't have far to go. I'm not going to mention the products because I don't want to take a chance that someone will decide to fall for their line of BS. And I'd like to avoid a lawsuit.

One commercial played over and over on the radio is for an at-home business that sounds great at first. There's usually someone talking about how they wanted to spend more time with their children, or they wanted to save for retirement, and now they're earning beaucoup bucks with this "plan." Out of curiosity, I called the number to see what this "plan" really entailed and listened to a recording. It's basically a multi-level marketing business (which is usually just a nice name for a pyramid scheme--not always, though) selling some weird kind of juice. Now really. How much juice can you sell over the phone?

Another commercial that bugs me is the one that tells listeners they can have an internet business selling products that they never see, never have to store, and get this--never have to pay for! How does that work? For the life of me, I can't figure that one out.

There's another commercial, that when it comes on, I end up yelling at the radio. It usually begins with a woman talking about how her child was defiant and wouldn't listen to her. (Kind of reminds me of the people who call the police because their kid won't go to school.) But she bought this guy's CD and now her child is a wonder-kid/angel/straight A student/future President--whoops, got a little carried away there. You get the idea. The guy selling the CD then says he can make any child listen in six minutes or less.

Yeah? I can do that too, and it doesn't take me six minutes. More like six seconds. Most of the time all it took was one look.

How about you? Which commercials make you yell at the radio or TV? Or maybe you like commercials. I'd like to hear about that, too.

Along for the Ride

Part 2

by Annette Dashofy

Let me begin this second installment by mentioning one of the cool things I learned. The police vehicles’ unit numbers have meaning. For instance, we were unit 3125. The “3” stand for police. The fire department would have a different number. The “1” was for Zone 1. Oddly, cars with the “2” as the next number indicate a single officer on patrol. Cars with a “1” such as 3111, indicates two officers in the vehicle.

After the burglary in progress, the next call was for a domestic dispute in one of the public housing units. A mother reported her 20 year old on was out of control. I was permitted to participate in this one, provided the mother agreed. She did. After talking with her outside and getting her story, we entered the apartment, asking her to stay outside. Divide and conquer.

The young man had his own version of the events. He strutted and gestured and felt he was right and didn’t understand why the cops had been called in. I kept quiet and just nodded when he directed his extremely sincere diatribe in my direction. Officer Parker calmly asked questions and explained the legalities of the matter and the choices to be made. In the end, nothing was really resolved, but the volatile situation had been cooled. Mother and son made promises to each other. In the car, Officer Parker said he’d most likely be back. None of the promised changes would be made. But for the moment, peace had been restored.

It renewed my earlier insight about psychology classes. I’ve come to believe that police work is less about law or solving mysteries than it is about psychology. Uniformed therapists on wheels.

We were about to begin a circuit of Riverview Park (I did not know of this place when I named the main location of my first mystery novel Riverview Park!) when our third call came in. Report of shots fired. The address was in a less-than-safe neighborhood and someone had been stabbed at this same address earlier in the day. “Revenge,” commented Officer Parker. And we were off, lights and sirens again through the narrow streets of the North Hills.

Other units were on scene by the time we arrived. Officer Parker said that if someone had been shot, it would have been reported over the radio by then, so likely there was no victim. Still, I was happy to comply with his order to stay in the car. Yes, sir! No problem. A group of young men matching the description given over the air stood on a second floor deck with bored expressions on their faces. Ho hum. Cops at the front door. Just another day in paradise. I heard one officer say, “No victim, no crime.” Before long, Officer Parker was back to report that nobody saw nothin’. This is frequently the case in this neighborhood. “They don’t like us much here,” he told me.

Nice to know.

That was the end of our calls for the day. For the rest of my shift, we patrolled. I had a lovely tour of the North Side. From the luxury of the townhouses in Washington’s Landing to the poverty of the projects. Note: while the apartment we were in for the domestic dispute was tidy and clean, Officer Parker told me that often you have to keep moving in some of those places so the cockroaches don’t climb up your legs. Ick!

I have always loved the Mexican War Streets houses. Built in the days before Pittsburgh was Pittsburgh, they remind me of Williamsburg, Virginia. Many have been renovated and are simply beautiful. Next door, however, the windows may be boarded up. The entire zone is one of contrasts.

During our patrol, we talked. I was told that when you see on the news that someone has been arrested on a drunk and disorderly, they really were disorderly. Most cops prefer NOT to arrest someone if they can just get that person to go away instead. Arrests mean too much paperwork.

We discussed the current hot topic of tasers. Tasers, he said, are used a lot. The rare instance where someone dies as a result is because of other circumstances. Usually drugs. He went on to say that when batons are used to subdue an actor, there are bruises and lasting pain. With a taser, while it hurts—and be assured, it hurts like hell—as soon as the current is shut off, it’s done. Over. The suspect could get up and run away if he chose to. No lingering bruises.

I survived my ride-along. It was a fairly average day, from what I gather. Reports of shots fired used to happen mainly after dark. Now they happen any time.

Only much later did I learn about the excitement that went on shortly AFTER my shift. In case you missed seeing the video of the big car chase on Route 28, click here.

I'm still not sure if I'm relieved that my ride-along ended before this happened or if I'm bummed that I missed it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You Get What You Play For

By Martha Reed

I’ve been working steadily on the new novel and something has come out of it that is new to my process – I’m using background music to help me develop my characters. For instance, my new femme fatale is a character named Sally Poldridge who is known among her enemies as The Witch of Wauwinet.

Wauwinet is a small village on Nantucket and it was also the working title of my manuscript until about a year ago when I decided to go with an alternate title because of the difficulty most folks would have in asking for a book with the word Wauwinet in it – a word compounded of a stutter and a bite. That is asking a bit much from the paying public.

I’m not going to reveal the new title until the day the manuscript gets sold. Of course, cut me a check and you can call it anything you want.

Anyway, today, I am going to show you just a little bit of what I’m holding in my hand. It’s a tease, just like Sally is, and as I’m writing her character into the story I listen to the following song on a continuous looping track and do my best to imagine Sally working her evil magic behind the scenes.

I invite you to close your eyes and listen:

This amazing voice belongs to Canadian jazz stylist Diana Krall who happens to be married to Elvis Costello. For someone who managed to survive the ‘80’s, that combo is pretty cool. Someday I’d love to be in a position where this song gets incorporated into a movie based on my book – and isn’t that a lovely dream to work on? Something this good does make it easier to get up every morning at 5:30 to work feverishly on the manuscript before I head out for my day job. Actually, the writing part is so sweet right now I can’t wait to go to bed so I can get up and write even more.

And my dream isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. A couple of weeks ago Charlaine Harris turned up on the red carpet at an HBO premier of her original story TRUE BLOOD. Of course, scoring an HBO series based on your story, produced by Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) is a bit of a stretch, but if we’re dreaming, why not dream big? You get what you play for.

PS. HBO’s TRUE BLOOD has just been signed to a second season and it’s the focus of an immense viral marketing campaign that includes the development of an ARG (Alternate Reality Game), a wiki collaborative Web page and what I am sure was an extremely expensive print/mail campaign that targeted high profile members of social Internetworks. I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for that mailing list!

This is what targeted subjects found waiting in their mailboxes:

Hey! Why aren’t we seeing anything this creative coming from the publishing houses? Actually, let’s be honest. When was the last time you saw anything sent out from a publishing house? Bookmarks, anyone?

Monday, September 22, 2008

True Love

  1. I spent this past weekend co-teaching a mystery writing conference with Hallie Ephron and SW Hubbard. Over lunch, one of the students confided that she’d met her husband on She’d gone into the experience with a very clear idea about what it would take for her to fall in love—in fact she made a list. And in just over a year, she met and married her prince.

    My teaching this weekend was focused on character development, so I had a good opportunity to explore what makes me fall in love—with characters, that is. I thought I’d share my list:

    1. In the case of an amateur sleuth, the character simply must have a believable and powerful stake for getting involved in crime-solving. Mere nosiness doesn’t cut it for me. Because I’m a terrible chicken in the face of physical danger, I want to buy the sleuth's reasons for refusing to call the cops and thereby putting herself in jeopardy. In ASKING FOR MURDER, for example, psychologist Rebecca Butterman is propelled to protect her threatened friend and fellow therapist, all while honoring her patients’ confidences.

    2. Give me a character with a complex backstory. Show me how the family dynamics shaped this personality (I can't help it, I'm a shrink!). A specific emotional trauma often helps drive a character forward (take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who found his murdered prostitute mother.) But a fearsome family history will do the job too. Backstory—and the motivations that emerge from it—should support the character’s “stake” in solving the mystery.

    3. The character of my dreams should be appealing enough that I’m willing to stick with her for 300-odd pages, through thick and thin. My favorite example might be Lisa
    newly minted district court justice, Cate Fante. Scottoline takes only two pages to wind us into Cate’s world so tightly, that when it all unravels through her own recklessness, I was more than willing to follow.

    4. Give me an “R”! Give me an “O”! Give me an “M”! Give me an “A”…you see where I’m going. I like a little romance with my murder! I don’t care if it’s unrequited or
    unfulfilled, but there’s nothing like a little sexual tension on the side. Julia Spencer-Fleming has dragged me through six installments of the forbidden love between her detective and her priest—and I adored almost every page.

    5. Show me the character’s authentic experience rather than jamming her into a plot. (And oh have I wrestled with this one myself!) Imagine your character in the middle of the chaos you've created and then follow her lead--what would SHE feel, think, and say? (Rather than what does MY plot need…) Arthur Plotnick talks about using “stage business” (actions, gestures, and thoughts) to reveal characters’ nuances—this takes a character a distance from the author telling the tale. Read Arnaldur Indridason’s gloomy Icelandic police procedurals to see how effortlessly he carries the reader into his haunted detective’s life.

    And now the doctor is in, waiting to hear from you. Who are your favorite characters and why did you fall in love?

    Roberta Isleib’s third advice column mystery, ASKING FOR MURDER (Berkley,) features Dr. Rebecca Butterman: advice columnist, psychotherapist, great friend, talented cook, tortured soul. Roberta is a clinical psychologist, the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity nominated author of eight mysteries, and the president of Sisters in Crime. Visit her website to read more.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gambling On Research

Let’s talk about research. As an engineer it’s a big part of my life. As an author of crime fiction it’s even a bigger part. For my first book, Reason For Dying, I have an immense amount of research invested in it. No, it’s not a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, but, because it deals with viral outbreaks and the potential sources of those outbreaks, I had to do a lot of homework. I had to be familiar enough with infectious disease research to bring it to life on the page and yet bring it to layman’s terms. We are taught to trust the reader's intelligence, but you need to walk that fine line of explaining too little and explaining too much. Making yourself clear without sounding condescending.

In my simplistic mind, there are three basic types of research. Internet and/or books, interviews and hands-on experience. In order to give the reader a rich experience, I believe the author needs to know and experience the places and situations in their writing. For example, I know that China has a smell to it. You walk down many streets in any city in China and there is an odor. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it follows you, tracks you down and permeates your clothing and hair. Mostly it’s a sour mix of burnt cooking oil, sewage and diesel fumes. Oftentimes it’s very subtle, but it can quickly get overwhelming. I would never know that, except for having been there. And of course, smell is most closely linked to memory.

But what I really want to talk about is that hand’s on stuff, like Annette Dashofy’s Citizen’s Police Academy and Ride Alongs. In my second novel, I start off the story with an explosion in a fictitious Atlantic City Casino. Okay, I didn’t fly out to Atlantic City, because I didn’t have to. The scene takes place IN the casino and that’s what I had to become familiar with. The noises, the atmosphere, the feel. I HAD to go to a casino for my readers. At least that’s what I told my wife. Okay, I’ve been in a casino or two or a few dozen, so I don’t think I actually had to go, but what the heck, seemed like a good excuse and my wife bought it.

So I went to Harrah’s here in St. Louis and I sat and listened to the rowdy shouts from the craps tables; the stink of the cigarette smoke and subsequent tightening of my nasal passages. I wandered through the maze of slot machines and their monotonous melodies, dodging the blue-haired ladies trying to stuff dollar bills into the machines and then slap the buttons with fervor.

I listened to the simulated sound of coins dropping in the tin pot as the machines print payoff tickets instead of dropping coins. I went to the bar and listened to the overly polite bartender work the patrons. And the husbands telling their wives that they are pretty much even for the night. I’ve used that one before. Yeah, I probably didn’t have to drop the $50 at the craps table, but it was burning a hole in my pocket.

So, I came home and put a lot of that experience on paper. (You can read a bit if you’d like by following this LINK.) Then I realized something. In my novel, when the ATF and FBI come and investigate the explosion, they will want to look at surveillance video. By the way, ATF is in charge of investigating explosions.

I could have relied on my knowledge of casino video surveillance gained through watching the TV series Las Vegas, but that would be akin to relying on watching CSI as a primer on forensics. So, I jumped on the internet and surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, there is little to no information about casino surveillance capabilities available. So, the next step, pick up the phone.

I called one of the local casinos and asked for the Surveillance and Security Department and after a short hold, a young lady picked up. When I explained I was an author and I was writing a scene in a novel and had some basic questions regarding the department’s capabilities, I was put on hold. AH, success. This was easy. A few minutes later I found myself being transferred to Public Relations and an annoying recorded message. They never returned my call. The same scenario played out for the other three casinos in the St. Louis area. Now what?

Road trip. I picked a different casino, who by mutual agreement as I’ll explain later, will remain anonymous. I walked in and started looking up at those ominous black domes on the ceiling. They were everywhere. I did a complete loop, sitting at a few slot machines, and feeding in a few dollars here and there. I lost count of the numbers. This was going nowhere. I decided to sit down in the anchor chair at a vacant (meaning no other players) blackjack table and bought in for $50. I played a few hands and struck up a conversation with the dealer. He seemed spooked when I asked about the cameras and like magic, the pit boss walked over and listened in. So, not thinking too much about it, I explained why I was there, showed him my business card (my author card, not my engineer card) and asked him if facial recognition was really used or not.

He said he didn’t know much about the systems, except they could read the serial number off a dollar bill lying on the floor. Within a few minutes, a big man in a suit, tapped me on the shoulder, asked me to collect my chips and follow him. “Uh Oh.”

I asked why, even though I knew why. He merely repeated, “Follow me.” Now my stomach was beginning to churn like when you see those flashing lights in the rear view mirror, even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I was escorted through a door for “Authorized Personnel Only,” where I met another man in a nice business suit. The following conversation unfolded.

The man. “Mr. Bereswill, may I ask what you’re doing here tonight?”

Me. “How did you know my name?”

“You gave the dealer your player’s card when you bought chips.”

“Yeah, right. Well, I’m an author and I’m writing a scene about an explosion in a fictitious casino in Atlantic City. I believe in being thorough about my research and I wanted to know if facial recognition is used in casino security.”

He checked a piece of paper in his hand. “Mr. Bereswill, you arrived at 6:45 PM. Walked over to slot machine #XXX. We noticed you checking out all the cameras. You play $5 in that machine, then at 6:59 you walked to slot machine # XXX, still looking at the cameras and played another $5. At 7:18 you sat down at the blackjack table and changed $50. Now you’re here.”

“Can you tell me about the system?”“No sir, I’m not allowed to discuss it. But it’s designed to capture the facial features of EVERYBODY that enters the casino. There are no dead spots.”“Oh. Facial Recognition like on Las Vegas?”

“I don’t watch Las Vegas. But yes, and now we have a picture to go in this file.” He held up a file folder with my name printed on it. “Mr. Smith here will escort you out.”
On the way to the exit, Mr. Smith suggested I drop a book off when I’m done. He said that the Security Chief never talks about his baby to anyone.

Just a bit about facial recognition. It uses biometrics. Spacing of facial features. Obviously, it has to scour a database to come up with results and it’s only as good as the databases it’s linked to.
So, do you have any good stories about your research?


by Joyce

Over the last couple of days, our local chapter of Sisters in Crime has been having an ongoing conversation on our listserv about thrillers. We started out talking about one thriller in particular that was getting a lot of buzz in the industry, then we got onto the topic of thrillers in general. Some of the chat spilled over into my critique group meeting last night. It's been interesting, and I thought it might make a good blog topic.

So, what exactly is a thriller? It seems like an easy question, but if you ask ten people, you'll probably get more than one answer. It used to be that thrillers were "spy books" or similar books with catastrophic consequences on a global scale, but now the genre covers a lot more than that. There are now serial killer thrillers, domestic thrillers, police thrillers, etc. Some books are labeled thrillers that in the past would have just been called mysteries.

If you walk into any Walmart or Target store, most of the books you see are thrillers. I'm sure there will always be a market for these books, but won't it get to the point where readers are looking for something different? And what can the authors of these books do to distinguish their story from the thousands of others on the market? Some do it by stretching the limits of what has always been acceptable, like using serial killers for protagonists. Some are using graphic torture scenes. Others are writing sex scenes that not only border on erotica, they are erotica.

In my opinion, the best thing an author can do to distinguish their book from all the others is good writing and great characters. If I don't care about what happens to a character, I'm not going to care about anything else. Plot can only take a book so far. I want to think about the characters long after I finish a book.

What does everyone else think? Are some books going too far to be different? How should a writer distinguish their book from all the others?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


By Annette Dashofy

If you’re expecting to read the second installment of my ride-along adventures, I apologize. While the piece is written, it’s also locked up inside my PC. The one in my home office. Where the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through on Sunday night and knocked out our electricity.

I won’t mention that the power went out right at kickoff for the Steelers game. I will mention that the power company says it should be restored this afternoon. Two days ago, they said it would be restored by yesterday afternoon. Some reports say power won’t be on until Saturday.

I’m in marathon mode. No more of that sprint mentality. Oh, certainly the electric will be back on in a couple hours.

We have a generator powering our water pump (the joys of country living…no city water), our freezer, and our refrigerator. Our camper sits in the front yard. Its propane provides hot water for showers and washing dishes. It also provides a working stove and oven.

Our phone lines are down, too. Cell service has been iffy. And, obviously, I have no Internet. I’m posting this from my laptop in a coffee shop.

So, I’m in the dark. Powerless. Literally. If there is anything good about having no access to electricity and Internet, it’s that I’m doing the only thing left…I’m reading! No TV, no radio, no distractions. Currently I’m reading MAD MOUSE by Chris Grabenstein.

Unless Allegheny Power pulls a rabbit out of their hat and restores my service early, I won’t be able to respond to comments. So chat among yourselves. What are you reading? Share your stories about being left in the dark.

And come back next week when I will make every effort to post Part 2 of Along for the Ride.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

That Brave New World Threatens Again!

By Mike Crawmer

I admit it: I watch way too much TV, albeit it mostly of the elevating kind—you know, PBS, Discovery , Science, History channel, FoodTV, etc.

Not much of what I learn from all this watching is very practical. Sure, it’s nice to know that provenance increases the value of your family heirlooms (not that I have any), but what use can I make of the knowledge that it was their mastery of the horse than enabled the Mongol hordes to overrun much of Asia and eastern Europe?

Then, a few weeks ago, a segment of the Science channel’s “Beyond Tomorrow,” a program that showcases cutting-edge technology, got my attention. Now, here was something that could have a real impact on me (and, I bet, some of you, fellow mystery writers).

If what this program predicts comes to pass, CSI, Quincy ME and Dr. G: Medical Examiner will seem as outdated to future viewers as a silent film is to us now. (Needless to say, Kay Scarpetta and others like her will be just as anachronistic.) Why, these future viewers will ask between smirks, did Gil and Catherine and Quincy spend so much time dissecting, weighing, measuring, testing, and analyzing when, as everyone knows, autopsies are done by machines in just a couple minutes?

Yep, it seems that researchers in Sweden have developed a new CT-based scanning system that produces a vivid, non-invasive autopsy. Just slip the body through the special scanner and, voila, a few minutes and 6 gigabytes of information later the investigator has a complete 3-dimensional image of every bone, tissue, sinew, ligament, capillary and organ, what’s right with them, what’s wrong with them.

Just think of it: No more messy lab tables and livers, hearts, brains and stomach contents sloshing around in stainless steel bowls. No more too-eager assistants and queasy detectives rushing out of the laboratory, hand over mouth. No more idiosyncratic MEs peering with their one good eye into a cavity or scratching their manes of unkempt grey hair with bloody fingernails. No more elegantly written autopsy reports with their references to obscure southeast Asian diseases transmitted by the feces of some endangered bat species.

In short, a brave new technological world—all dull and boring and straightforward—where a machine sucks out another bit of the soul of our imagination.

Right now I’m finishing a mystery, set, ironically, in Sweden. Among its cast is a cantankerous forensic pathologist—not quite central casting but almost. He was a character, but of more interest to me was the various detectives’ reactions to him and, to them, his grisly job. That dynamic was grist for the writer’s imagination and skill, providing the author with lots of opportunities for character development and insight.

This new autopsy technology, if it becomes commonplace (and I’m sure it eventually will if only because it’s more economical than the current system), would relegate the pathologist to the dustbin of history. Detectives wouldn’t have to worry about witnessing the next autopsy or fight with the coroner for faster turnaround on vital information. All they’d have to do is drop off the body, sip a decaffeinated latte and munch a granola bar, then, presto, there’s the report they need.

Technology is great, but all these advances threaten to sap fiction of its spirit. Not an original thought, I know, just one more thing—like the collapse of the financial system, the presidential election, global warming, the price of gas—that I can add to my list of ongoing worries.

Monday, September 15, 2008


by Gina Sestak

Sometimes it seems as if all we writers ever do is write. We picture ourselves hunched over a keyboard, minds awash with scenes of murder and mayhem while our less creative, rational brain puzzles out the complex interaction of nouns and verbs. Well, let me tell you something: You can't just write. No matter how great the imagination, every once in awhile a writer has to dip into the real world and do something. We need to venture forth and experience things for ourselves.

Hence the past weekend, which I spend at a gathering in rural Pennsylvania learning folk dances.

That's the real world? you ask.

Kinda. Sure. It's just a step or two removed -- no pun intended!

And folk dance camp is the perfect place for a writer. Think about it -- or rather, don't think about it. Get up and dance. There is something liberating about rhythmic motion. It clears the mind and lifts the spirits. It's even exercise. Plus, it's fun, in that non-verbal way that sliding down a sliding board is fun. Fun like grown-ups hardly ever get to have.

Perhaps I should back up a pace or two and explain. Recreational folk dancing involves doing traditional dances of various nations. People of all ages participate and, since many dances are done in a line (think Zorba the Greek) or circle, you do not need to have partner. You do not have to be graceful enough to avoid stepping on a partner -- as long as you move in the same general direction as everybody else, you'll do no harm.

I've been dancing for several years with a group that meets every Tuesday night in Oakland, the same group that sponsored the dance camp. We spent the weekend dancing in a big old barn in SNPJ, Pennsylvania. Yes, that really is the name of the place -- it's an acronym for the Slovenian words for Slovene National Benefit Society, which runs the recreational center.

So, what does one do at a folk dance camp? you are probably wondering.

Well, you, uh, dance.

There's more to it than that, of course. Two guest instructors, David Vinski and Lee Otterholt, took turns teaching. There was a lot of hand-holding, hopping, stepping, turning, and stomping, with the occasional clap, shout or whistle thrown in, all done to energizing music. There were also meals and parties, drinking and dancing 'til the wee hours.

If you think you might like that kind of thing, why not come dancing Tuesday night?

Or, if you'd rather stay at your keyboard, Yemenite on down and help me plot out "Murder at the Folk Dance Camp." I can almost see it now . . .

Friday, September 12, 2008

I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes

by Lisa Curry

Recently, my husband, Glen, started telling me about a coworker’s pet boa constrictor, which was living in an aquarium at work. Yes, you heard right – in the workplace.

It was about three feet long, but was only a baby, he said, and would grow to be about six feet long by the time it was a year old.

Good grief, rather large for a pet, I thought.

He was really excited the day he came home and told me he got to see the snake eat a live mouse.

The snake was lying on a log in its aquarium. The owner dropped the mouse in. The mouse sniffed around and approached the snake, whiskers twitching.

“Then, BAM!” Glen said. “Before you could blink an eye, the snake grabbed that mouse by the head and wrapped himself around it.”

“Um… wow,” I said.

“The mouse’s little feet were kicking like mad,” he added. “When they stopped moving, the snake ate him. Headfirst. Just swallowed him down.”

I shuddered. “Yuck, that makes me feel sad for the mouse.”

“Well, yeah, me too,” he said. “But it was pretty cool to see.”

Soon thereafter, the snake’s owner, who is European and will return to Europe next month, started talking about getting rid of the snake. The pet store from which he purchased it was willing to take it back – if he returned the aquarium and accessories as well – but would not refund any of his money. He said he might just turn it loose outside, behind the office.

“That’s terrible,” I said when my husband told me. “That snake can’t survive here in cold weather.”

“I know,” Glen said. “I could offer to take it.”

I don’t even like to set foot in the reptile house at the zoo, and he knows it. I pictured a six-foot boa constrictor wrapped around my poor old deaf sixteen-year-old wiener dog, Erma, her little feet kicking like that mouse’s. It could happen in my house. After all, Erma managed to kill my sons’ hamster, Kirby, a few years back. So it might be a case of rough justice, of what comes around goes around, but still… “You must be joking,” I said. “Absolutely not.”

When the snake’s owner went away recently, Glen filled in for weekly snake-feeding duty at work. He went to PetSmart at lunchtime and bought it pre-killed, frozen mice, even though they cost a lot more than live mice. I guess he didn’t really want to be the one to toss a live mouse to its doom, no matter how cool that National Geographic moment might be.

Today he brought the snake home from work with him.

You think I caved, don’t you?

Well, I didn’t.

We delivered it this evening to a teenage neighbor boy up the street. He loves snakes and was thrilled to pieces to have it. His father, who gave permission, seemed quite pleased as well.

I’m not so sure about his mother, who wasn’t consulted before permission was granted. She said, “Gee, thanks, Lisa. And I thought we were friends.”

But she was kidding. She’s such a good pet owner that the hermit crabs her kids brought home from the beach have survived multiple winters in her house – unlike the ones my kids brought home – because she actually bathes them and mists them and keeps their aquarium heated like you’re supposed to. She was talking about moving the snake to a bigger aquarium than the one he came in when we told her he’d probably be six feet long in less than a year.

I think that snake has her charmed already.

They were discussing naming him Slinky when we left. Somehow, being named Slinky makes him seem a little less creepy. I told them to call us when they feed him. The boys and I just might like to come over and see that.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Karaoke and Spilled Beer

by Joyce

I love this line from an article written by Jason Cato in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: "A Beaver County woman claims a Monaca police officer assaulted her last year following a barroom brawl that erupted when a manager hit her with his best shot following a karaoke dispute."

The woman who was allegedly assaulted by the officer, claims he tried to "beat her to death." She was already handcuffed in the back seat of a police car when she dialed 911 on her cell phone. She states when she refused to hand her phone over to the officer, he pulled her out of the car and beat her. She was subsequently arrested for assaulting a police officer.

From years of reading police reports, I have a feeling there's a little more to the story than that. Police officers don't usually charge a suspect with assault if they're the ones doing the assaulting. Sure, it could happen, but I kind of doubt it in this case.

By the way, the woman was hit by the manager after she poured a beer over his head. Enough said.

Speaking of spilled beer, a man in Albuquerque was arrested for his sixth DUI recently. When state police officers asked why he was weaving all over the road, he matter of factly said it was because his passenger spilled his beer. At first, the officer thought he was joking, but when he found four open containers of beer he realized he was serious. The man was too drunk to even perform field sobriety tests.

On a serious note, today is the seventh anniversary of the terroristic attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. Please say a prayer for the families of the victims, whose lives will never be the same. If anyone ever has a chance, go and visit the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA. It is an experience you will never forget.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Along for the Ride

Part One

By Annette Dashofy

When I graduated from Citizens’ Police Academy back in June, I would have shed tears except for the promise that it wasn’t over yet. We still our (drum roll, please) ride-alongs coming up.

Mine was scheduled for Friday at noon. Or at nine. Depends on whether you’re going by the email I received or the schedule at the police station. Either I was three hours late or they were three hours early. But I had my email printout with me, so I remain insistant that I was right. Or at the very least, the mix-up was NOT MY FAULT.

Anyway, cops are used to things going slightly awry, so they shrugged it off and found someone to take me out.

While I waited, I was witness to a little family drama taking place inside the station. A woman had brought her twenty-year-old daughter in to file a harassment complaint. As I quietly observed, the daughter tearfully described how her ex-boyfriend, whom she had been trying to remain friends with, refused to stop calling and texting her. I wanted to jump up and tell her, “You’re sending him mixed messages, sweetie!” But I kept my mouth shut and watched as the police commander, a woman who admitted she had a fifteen year old daughter of her own, calmly defused the situation and explained the proper procedure for dealing with it. From what I could hear through the girl’s sobbing, she much preferred the cops just throw the bum in jail so he couldn’t annoy her anymore. The girl’s mother wasn’t helping much. Or rather, she was trying to help TOO much. The commander explained that Mom couldn’t file the complaint. The daughter had to do it.

Lesson learned: if you want to be a cop, take lots of psychology classes.

When my partner for the day arrived, he took note of my strange (unique?) last name. He started listing the Dashofys he knew from school. Trust me, if someone out there is named Dashofy, they are very likely related to my husband and I very likely know them. In fact, the ones he listed were my sister-in-law and MY HUSBAND. Turns out Officer Parker and Hubby went to school together. We’re talking serious Small World material here.

And it’s further proof that I cannot go anywhere and get into any clandestine trouble because there is always someone around who knows me. Or my family.

The first thing Officer Parker did after finding out who I was, was to run my license number. He did it to show me how the onboard computer works. But I was grateful that I lead a boring life and had nothing to pop up on said computer.

We had barely made it out of the parking lot before the first call came in for a burglary in progress.

I must mention that responding lights and siren in a police vehicle in the North Hills of Pittsburgh is considerably different than responding lights and siren in an ambulance in rural Washington County. The streets in the city are narrow and winding. Did I mention narrow? One thing is the same…people frequently do NOT pull over. We could see one guy chatting on his cell phone, oblivious to the sirens. Laying on the horn didn’t get a response either. I think the guy just happened to glance in his mirror and realized—oops!—there’s a cop behind me!

When we arrived at the scene, the report on the police radio was that the actors had fled. Officer Parker told me to stay in the car until he found out what was going on. As he walked away, he said, “If something happens, run, hide, whatever…”

Gee, thanks.

He returned a short time later to report that the door had been kicked in. The officers had sent a police dog into the building before entering. Officer Parker explained to me that these kinds of situations were some of the most treacherous an officer will encounter. When he goes into a building, he doesn’t know if anyone is hiding in there. The burglar, on the other hand, KNOWS the police officer is there. He commented that he’s always a little worried about opening a closet door or looking under a bed…

The homeowner had been contacted. The units that had arrived ahead of us would stick around to wait for his return. Before we left, a car came screeching up the hill and spun into a driveway across from where we were parked. We both immediately guessed that this must be the homeowner. Officer Parker ran the plates through the computer. While the address was a few doors down, the last name was a match. Probably a relative.

And we were back in service.

To be continued...

Next week: Domestic disputes and shots fired.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Singing for Your Supper

By Martha Reed

One of the secret treats of my summer is to go out for a preliminary walk first thing on Sunday morning while my coffee is brewing and the day is still fresh. The mist is rising off the Allegheny River and sometimes there are some pretty amazing colors – peach, pink, even baby blue – up in the sky.

Aspinwall hosts a flea market and farm to market produce stand in our local municipal parking lot on Sundays and it’s a very entertaining event. A lot of retired people show up to see what’s going on, it’s like a party; everyone knows each other and the vendors are standing around, gossiping. I’ve picked up some pretty nice vintage lace for curtains down there and the tomatoes and fresh picked corn can’t be beat.

Before I leave the flea market I have to wander past the bookseller. He’s a long-haired groovy dude who looks a lot like one of my uncles and he sells hardback books for a dollar. I’ve found a couple of first edition mysteries in his stacks and even with a TBR pile that is threatening to topple over every time someone opens my front door, I can’t say no to a book for a buck so I end up buying more and taking them home.

Last Sunday I got all intellectual and bought Selected Poems by Lord Byron. I seemed to have missed the Regency period in my study of English Literature (Capital E, Capital L) so I thought it wouldn’t hurt me to actually force myself to read this one. The funny thing is that once I slowed down enough to translate 19th century syntax, I actually enjoyed it.

The first thing was I knew he was a Lord, a British peer. I had already picked up that much. I also knew he was a bad boy because my grandfather nicknamed one of my childhood associates ‘Lord Byron’ (his real name was Will) and I was smart enough even at twelve years old to draw the obvious inference. What I didn’t know was that Lord Byron was writing and struggling to make a living at it. His poem Don Juan was pre-sold by subscription:

From CANTO 221

But for the present, gentle reader! and
Still gentler purchaser! The bard – that’s I –
Must, with permission, shake you by the hand,
And so your humble servant, and goodbye!
We meet again, if we should understand
Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample –
“Twere well if others follow’d my example.

I have to put just a bit in here about how really bad George Gordon was. Nowadays we are such “well regulated creatures” that we haven’t had a bad boy Rock’n’Roll star lately. I think Lord B qualified:

“On April 15, 1816, to escape scandal, Byron left England. For the rest of his life his wondered the Continent in self-imposed exile. In Geneva he began a friendship with Percy Shelly, who was there with his wife Mary Godwin (Frankenstein). There, too, he finished the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and had a brief affair with another ardent and aggressive admirer, Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister. A daughter, Allegra, was born of this liaison.

Byron then moved on to Venice to perhaps his most debauched period as well as the beginning of his most creatively productive; in Italy he finished the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, wrote The Vision of Judgement (1822) and the sixteen cantos of Don Juan, considered to be his best and most mature works. In addition to his various semi-permanent mistresses, he kept in his rented palazzo an ever changing harem of Venetian women; by Byron’s own count there were more than two hundred.”

Introduction - Christopher Moore

I’ve tried to imagine the life going on in that Venetian palazzo. It must have been a constant uproar of wife, mistresses, children, servants, mistresses, vendors, priests, English visitors, and dogs. Now I don’t need dead silence to work but I do need relative calm. It’s any wonder he found the time to write!

This last bit is what made me decide the book was worth a dollar. I imagined L.B. locked in an upper room, above all the turmoil going on downstairs and out on the Venetian canals, the noise, the singing, barking, laughing, loving, living distractions, with him sitting at a desk knowing that he needs to pop out a couple more stanzas for those loyal subscribers back home who will then send him enough cash to keep the whole extravagant circus afloat. He settles in, takes a big sigh, braces his shoulders for the task ahead and:


Hail, Muse! Et cetera –

- George Gordon, Lord Byron

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Pros of Cons

Since Annette wrote so eloquently about the upcoming (in May) Pennwriters conference just a few days ago, I thought I’d chime in with my own conference story.

I had occasion to go to a con just a couple of weekends ago, right here in Nashville. (It helps a lot when they’re in driving distance. No plane ticket, no hotel to pay for. Cuts down on costs, and I have lots of those right now, with starting to do PR for FATAL FIXER-UPPER as well as keeping up with two mortgages.)

The conference is called Killer Nashville, and it was, I think, the third annual. I went last year too, although then I went as myself, and sat in the back of the room taking notes. The most significant thing that happened was that I met Rhonda Pollero, who writes a wonderfully funny series of girl-mysteries. (KNOCK OFF and KNOCK’EM DEAD, if anyone’s interested. Suitable for fans of Janet Evanovich or Donna Andrews or Nancy Martin. Light, humorous, fast-paced.)

Rhonda wasn’t there this year, because she had—I think—three or four or maybe five books to write in 2008. Some ungodly number, anyway. So, taking her place on the humor panel was—you guessed it—yours truly. Or more accurately, my public persona, Jennie Bentley. She who has the book contract and the exciting life, while I spend my days hunched over the keyboard pounding out her words.

Cons are different when you’re a published—or soon to be published—author. Suddenly, because you’re sitting at the front of the room instead of at the back, and there’s a book in front of you on the table, you’re significant in some way you weren’t last year. People who wouldn’t give you the time of day then, crowd in to hear what you have to say. The problem, of course, is that you probably don’t know a whole lot more than you did a year ago, and you don’t feel very significant at all.

Case in point:

My first panel was called “Depth Charge—using subplots to create depth.” I know—of course I know!—that it’s possible, even desirable, to create depth with subplots. A book without a subplot or two is too linear. Even romances and thrillers have subplots of sorts, and mysteries, being more intricate, often have several. When it came time to explain the subplot in my own first book, though, I was brought up short. Was the romance the subplot? Or the historical mystery? The relationship between the protagonist and her ex-boyfriend? Or maybe the whole home renovation angle was the subplot? Did I even have a subplot, because frankly, it felt more like I had a tangle of strands, snarled into a cat’s cradle...?

The second panel I did was on beginnings and endings. “Start with a Punch, End with a Bang.” It went a little better, probably because I was warmed up by then, but also because it was my local Sisters-in-Crime sponsored panel, and I knew all the other panelists already. (Note to self, and to anyone else who might find the information useful: Get to know other panelists beforehand next time.) Also, I had recently put together a blog post on what I personally think are great beginnings, so I did know a little about that part of it, if nothing else.

Two days later came the “Humor in Mysteries” panel, and once again, I felt very much out of my depth. I’m not naturally funny. I don’t tell jokes very well. I don’t like it when people look at me. I especially don’t like it when they look at me and laugh. And I was on this panel with some truly wickedly funny people. People who could explain to the audience exactly what was funny about their books. While I had to resort to getting a laugh from saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m sure I didn’t sign up for this.”

All in all, though, I had a wonderful time. I met some nice people, and sat in on some great panels that other people led. More significant people. How to write historical mysteries, writing for children and young adults—I’ve got an idea for a YA mystery series I’m playing with—the art of editing, and the art of the page turner. And of course the sex-panel—every conference has one—is always good for a laugh, although 8:30 in the morning might have been a little early for a discussion about erotica and BDSM. Still, how can you not love a panel where you get to use expressions like ‘the purple python of love’?

So what about you? Are you a conference hound? Do you go to panels when you go, or do you just spend the time in the bar, hanging out and drinking... um, networking? Do you participate in panels? If so, do you have any tricks for helping the rest of us perform well? And which is your favorite panel? Do you enjoy the sex-panel, too?

(And if you’re in driving distance, the Southern Festival of Books is coming up here in Nashville the 10th-12th of October. 30,000 visitors, 250+ writers, three days of workshops and panels—all free! Click here for more info. I’ll be there. Will you?)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Long Eight Years

by Joyce Tremel

Back in the summers of 2000 and 2001, women in the East End of Pittsburgh were afraid to go to sleep. A man known as the East End rapist had viciously attacked four women in their homes and was still at large. On warm summer nights, he crawled through the victims' bedroom windows brandishing either a knife or a screwdriver and raped and robbed them. In one case, he beat the woman causing head trauma, along with some hearing and memory loss. Now a physician, she is afraid of the dark, and states she always will be. The other victims also suffer from the same fear.

Now eight years later, these and the East End rapist's other victims finally have some justice. On September 3, Keith O. Wood, of Highland Park was sentenced to 80 to 160 years in prison. He had been convicted in June by a jury of 6 men and 6 women.

Why after eight years, was Wood finally caught and convicted? The answer to that is DNA. All along, the investigators knew that the DNA left behind in all four rapes came from the same man. They even uncovered another case from as far back as 1988. The DNA match came about when a sample was taken in 2005 when Wood was serving time in a state prison in Cambria County. Because of a backlog in testing, it took until 2007 for a match and an arrest to be made.

Even after his conviction on overwhelming evidence (chances are 1 in 56 quintillion that the DNA belonged to someone else), Wood insisted he didn't do it.

Maybe Wood should take a statistics class while he's locked away.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What was I thinking?

Episode 2

By Annette Dashofy

Back in June, I blogged about the mental illness from which I suffer. The one where I volunteer for things in the belief that if they’re far enough in the future, I’ll be less busy by then and will have the time to breeze through the tasks required.

To be specific, I volunteered in 2007 to be the 2009 Pennwriters Conference Coordinator.

Here it is, September of 2008. I’ve been toiling away since late last winter. And while I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, when I look at what remains to be done…well, let’s just say I’m buying stock in Pepto-Bismal.

I have Lisa Scottoline coming in to be our Friday night keynote speaker. Tim Esaias, poet and writing teacher extraordinaire will be giving the Saturday luncheon keynote. I’ve rounded up agents Lucienne Diver, Paige Wheeler, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, and Uwe Stender to hear pitches and offer workshops. Jane Friedman, editorial director of F+W Publications, will be on hand as will Matthew Holliday, editor of Pennsylvania Magazine.

We’re having two day-long intensive workshops on the Thursday before the conference (May 14) and Marta Perry has agreed to present the fiction intensive. Mary Jo Rulnick will teach the nonfiction one.

John J. Lamb and CJ Lyons are coming to be special guest speakers. And I have a number of local authors and teachers lined up to do workshops, including Nancy Martin.

So far, so good. Why then, am I approaching panic mode?

Because it’s September! Only eight months and 12 days until the conference kicks off.

On the other hand, in eight months and FIFTEEN days, it will be over and I will be FREE.

In the meantime, I have a couple more agents and editors to line up, workshops to plan, menus to select…

Thankfully, I do have a wonderful planning committee behind me. There area a ton of details that I have delegated to this capable group of Pennwriters. And I have a list of willing volunteers waiting in the wings for their assignments.

What I need are attendees. So I want you all to mark your calendars for May 15-17, 2009 (include May 14 if you want to attend one of the intensives!). Make your travel arrangements to come to the 2009 Pennwriters Conference: A Writer’s Tool Chest to be held at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott.

And Pennwriters has a new website and a new conference page where you can find all the bios for the speakers I’ve mentioned. Okay, I’m still working on it, so maybe not ALL the speakers. You’ll just have to bookmark the page so you can come back and check on my frequent updates.

I want to see you all there!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Backseat Detectives

by Kathryn Miller Haines

In the last few years, I have become a true crime junkie. Where once I watched any true crime program I could find, I now follow new cases online and have found myself gravitating to bulletin boards where amateur sleuths congregate to try and piece together evidence.

My recent obsession has been the Caylee Anthony case unraveling in Florida. Caylee is the two year old girl who disappeared in June and whose mother, Casey, didn’t report her disappearance until a month later. Evidence is mounting against the mother, who has steadfastly refused to explain what happened to her daughter. Tests now conclusively show that the body of her deceased daughter was in the trunk of her car.

Online sleuths have glommed onto the investigation since Casey Anthony was an online presence herself, documenting her wild social life on her myspace page and deleting hundreds of photos of her daughter in the days after she went missing. Casey’s uncle appeared on message boards and aired the family’s dirty laundry, including detailed information about Casey’s criminal history. Casey was bonded out of jail by California bounty hunter, Leonard Padillia, whose nephew, Tony, joined in online discussions to explain why Leonard decided to put up the money for her bail and why he was thinking about revoking it. And an Orlando TV station set up a webcam directly in front of the Anthony home to document the family's every movement, including Casey’s parents’ frequent meltdowns in front of the media and Casey’s eventual rearrest last week.

For a while I was on the message boards every day following the theories. But as the ideas grew increasingly absurd (she sold the baby for drugs!) or increasingly cruel (maybe Caylee was the offspring of an incestuous relationship between Casey and her father!) I found my taste for sleuthing dissipating. It started to feel like the worst sort of rubbernecking and I had to wonder about my own complicity in all of it. Were these sleuths helping the investigation,or serving as rumor mongers? Was their interest academic, or had they been seduced by their desire to prove their own intellectual superiority, often condemning the efforts of law enforcement in the process? Unfortunately, I saw examples from every spectrum, both those who wanted nothing more than to put this poor child to rest and those whose primary goal seemed to be able to claim that they were the first to figure something out.

Can good come from it? Absolutely. Recently online sleuths identified a Jane Doe who’d been without a name since 1997, providing much needed closure for her family. But too often online detecting seems to become a weird game for its participants, stripping the victim -- and everyone associated with them -- of their humanity as though they were nothing more than fictional characters in a book.

I’m off to Michigan for the Kerrytown Bookfest this weekend. If you’re in the area stop by and say hi.

And don’t forget: the release party for the marvelous Rebecca Drake’s latest thriller, The Dead Place, is this Friday at 7:00 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Monday, September 01, 2008


by Gina Sestak

[I'm running into problems inserting photographs -- pretend that the big square, above, that will not show the photo or permit me to delete it isn't there. I'm putting the photos in as links, below, rather than stay up all night cussing.]

"Lies flat and in perfect alignment." Those words used to appear on the spiral notebooks I used in high school, but I came to apply them to the desired appearance of my hair. It was the 60s, after all, and most of us wanted our hair to be long and straight, like Peggy Lipton on Mod Squad. To my mother's despair, I was born with naturally straight hair. I could achieve that look without even having to iron it, as so many others did.

Perfect alignment seems to be a thing of the past, at least when applied to the hair of characters in movies. I was noticing that this weekend, while watching Bottle Shock. This is a beautifully photographed film; the opening scene of vineyards is worth the price of admission even if you don't particularly care about wine or international rivalries. Chris Pine's hair, though, is badly in need of a comb. In fact, another character asks him if he has a comb. That character, Steven Spurrier, is played by my favorite actor, Alan Rickman, who looks as if he could use a comb himself, and a razor. Maybe he's just gunshy after what happened to Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd.

Speaking of Sweeney Todd, the Oscar for messiest hair should definitely go to Helena Bonham Carter, both as Mrs. Lovett and as Bellatrix Lestrange.

What do you think? Should these rich and famous actors comb their hair?