Sunday, November 30, 2008
Okay, so your friends and family have read it. They heap on the praise and it makes you smile; gives you that briefest of moments that gets you back behind the keyboard. The little things that keep you going on your work in progress. Those little praises don’t really make your work any better, but most of us need our ego stroked now and then, so in that aspect they serve their purpose.
Then there are those honest critiques. Either from critique groups, a professional colleague, a freelance editor, or wherever. They can sting. Hurt the pride. Bruise the ego. But, they can make that work better, more polished. A good critique can make your work sing. It takes a thick hide to listen to those negatives, but once you gain the right perspective, you realize those voices, negative as they might sound are on your side. They are the brave ones, willing to tell you what they know will hurt to make you better. Kudos to all those that have stepped up and put their selves out there to make me a better writer.
But all this time, somewhere deep down we have doubts. After all, literature IS extremely suggestive. No doubt, whatever you write, someone will love it and someone will hate it. But we all fear those negative comments. As if somehow they are an attack on us; on our souls. Who we are. We have a hard time separating ourselves from our writing.
So how does all this tie in? Here is the story. The small press that published me skips the Advance Reader Copy (ARC) stage of the publishing process. They go from proofs to print. So, what does that mean? It means that advance copies are not sent out to various publications for reviews prior to publishing. Many publications will not review a book after it is released.
Soon after it’s release in July, I had my publicist send a few copies out for review, with no luck. Then about a month ago, the Book Editor of the Post put up a blog, titled “Why don’t we review every local author’s book?.” In the blog, she went on to explain how publications across the nation are cutting out their book sections and how the Post has precious few inches for reviews. Competition for those inches is huge. Much of the space has to be dedicated to the big names.
I added a short comment to the blog thanking her for the explanation. A few minutes later, I received an e-mail from her thanking me for my comment and a request for another copy of my book for a possible review. She explained that she must have misplaced the earlier copy. So, a quick trip down to the Post Dispatch building downtown and another $13 investment and I was in wait mode once again.
This past Saturday morning I received a Google Alert. There was a hit on my book title’s search. I glanced at the link. It came from STLToday.com (the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s website.) The very brief link description said “REVIEW.” My throat constricted, a huge lump formed in my stomach and that undeniable feeling of my breakfast revisiting came over me. One part of my brain willed my finger to click the link (no doubt the masochist in me), while another part (my ego) screamed, “NO!”
Seems silly, right? After all, I’ve received considerable fan mail and from people I don’t know complimenting the book. But this is a book reviewer. An expert. The holy grail of critiques.
Well, on Sunday, right next to a review of Clive Cussler’s new book, Arctic Drift, there it was. “Local Writer Holds Own With Fine Thriller.” The lead sentence, With “A Reason For Dying,” St. Louis’ own Wilfred Bereswill has written a thriller with a dandy plot and fine characters.” The link above takes you to the on-line version. The review is already clipped and ready to go into the scrapbook. And I’m having a nice ending to the long Thanksgiving Holiday.
Friday, November 28, 2008
I love the turkey photo from yesterday's post!
Of course, like many Americans, I tend to block out the image of the plump, LIVE, orange and brown bird that children draw and companies mimic with enormous tissue-papered versions that serve as mantle or center-pieces.
Not to mention the fact that by every Thanksgiving we have at least 25 turkeys visit our yard daily. And then there's my son's friend--his house is adorned with the carcasses of turkeys wrested into submission by his father's gun!
All in all the turkey as food, back when you had to catch and process everything you ate on the spot, must have been a darn good feast--as it still is today.
So, in thinking about what I am thankful for--besides the big brown bird--I have to say it's the little things.
The woman down the down the street who owns the gym I go to, who manages to be supportive yet not domineering--when I see her, I don't have to feel guilty for missing a day. She's a genius.
My husband for all the hard work he does for our family.
My family, for just being there.
My kids for making me laugh and see the best in the world.
For the feeling of optimism that although things might get worse before the get better, they will get better.
Hope you all had a great day yesterday--anyone head out for shopping today?
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
My house has a serious case of “bah humbug.” Just in time for Black Friday and the season of joy and shopping, when we are all beckoned to rush to the stores and spend money we don’t have on gifts for everyone we know and love, everything in my house is conspiring to empty my bank accounts before the first gift has been purchased.
My TV is trying to die. Basically, it’s on life support. I turn it on, it shuts off. I turn it back on, it shuts off. This goes on sometimes six or seven times. Sometimes I decide I didn’t really want to watch TV anyway. Hubby is more inclined to play this game than am I.
This is all because I spent the money a couple of months ago to buy a digital converter box. I should have put that money toward a new television. But at the time, there was nothing wrong with it.
A week ago, my vacuum cleaner’s carpet attachment went POOF, accompanied with an acrid odor. The machine is at least twenty years old and has been rebuilt twice, so there is no shame in its death. However, Handy Hubby tinkered with it and fixed it. For now. I may squeeze a few more weeks or months out of it or maybe even longer. Okay, that one didn’t cost me any money. Yet.
Neither did my car. Two lights on my dashboard have been teasing me for more than a month. On one moment, off the next. But I decided winter is not the time of year to tempt fate. I took it to the dealer before the car quit. And before my warranty ran out. The problem was diagnosed and repaired at no cost. I love my Saturn.
Monday night, I discovered a pool of water in a container under my sink. The drain had pulled apart leaving a mucky mess. Handy Hubby to the rescue again. Some new pieces have been purchased and the white plastic pipes have been slapped together with glue and a little duct tape.
Hubby does not guarantee his work, so the repairs may hold or they may not. Time will tell.
Other small appliances have died recently. Others are limping along. Burnt toast anyone?
All of this has led me to consider the lifespan of electronic and mechanical devices around my house. We’ve been here for almost 26 years and are on the third refrigerator, the fourth or fifth TV (soon to be sixth), second (and third, if you count the laptop) computer, second stand mixer, second furnace, and third hot water heater, and fourth washer and dryer. I can’t count how many toasters and Hot Shot beverage maker thingies we’ve gone through.
What truly amazes me are the two gadgets that are original equipment. My Roper range was a new purchase when we got married (as opposed to the variety of second hand appliances we mooched to save money). That Roper range is one fine piece of equipment. All four burners work and I’ve only had to replace one of the oven’s heating elements in all this time.
And my little Kenmore microwave, a Christmas gift shortly after our wedding, is still heating leftovers and popping popcorn like a champ.
I can hear the jokes now. No, the stove and microwave are not still running because I never use them. I cook. A lot. And I microwave a lot.
So what makes some products last forever and others barely make it ten minutes past the expiration of the 90 day warranty?
And what I really want to know is why they all quit in the same month…the month when I’m trying to use my money for Christmas gifts instead of household stuff?
Maybe it’s a scheme to fuel the economy.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Only Thing I Know Is I Don’t Know Anything
I had lunch yesterday with a writer friend who has finished her first novel and is now contemplating her second. She said something in particular that I found very interesting: that as she shops her novel to the agents and publishers and it takes longer and longer to find a print source it becomes less and less important to her if it ever gets published because she’s already started on her new work and she’s convinced it’s going to be so much better than her first one that she’s almost lost interest in it.
I told her she’s in a very lucky and wonderful place if she’s convinced that her current work in progress is that much better; that means she’s learned something from writing the first one and she can take her creative work to the next, higher level. I could see, too, that she’s become more confident in her ability to frame and tell a story, and she’s relaxed into it; she doesn’t have to worry about finishing it – she knows she can.
We laughed a bit at the place we found ourselves in at that table; both of us wishing for the magical three book contract and eager agents and I gave my phony acceptance speech for my Oscar Best Picture screenplay. We both hoped that someday our writing endeavors might pay us enough to scale back to working part-time but even that seemed almost childish – like wishing on a star or blowing out a candle on a cake. We are both writers and we will continue to be writers long after every other role life has pressed on us has passed. Will fame and fortune ever be ours? The question seems pointless as long as we keep doing our best work – that is what truly matters. The awards are great, don’t get me wrong but they don’t help one bit when you sit your butt back down and get to work on Chapter 12.
She asked me what I knew of the publishing world lately and I had to admit that everything I knew has changed – again – since the last time we met. Publishing houses have merged, agents have migrated, small and mid-size presses have gone out of business, POD has acquired a nasty backlash, query letters and agent pitches seem to be more in vogue than getting any actual story written. Not to mention that if your story has a vampire in it you may have missed the boat. Let me save you some rewriting and change your vampire to a werewolf now because even Frankenstein’s monster has been done to death.
We also decided we were in a wonderful place regarding time. We both work day jobs and the jobs pay our bills. That gives us the freedom to write when we want – and write what we want. I don’t have to cough up 500 words on Significant Pittsburgh Architects and she doesn’t have to construct an article on Single Parenting On A Budget. So what if it takes me three years to write my next novel – get over it, that’s just how long it’s going to take. I think it’s time for authors to push back – we’ve been patsies for too long. Who’s the talent here?
In the end we discussed writers with contracts who have to produce two or even three novels a year and I’ve decided I don’t want to take that path. In my previous life I took a passion – Arabian horses – and turned it into a profitable business but the problem with business is that the bottom line is it’s work. I don’t want to turn my passion for writing into just another job. She agreed with me. Of course, show us the money and we might just change our minds.
Monday, November 24, 2008
THIS TIME OF YEAR
In traditional farming communities, this time of year was set aside to celebrate the harvest and give thanks for the earth's bounty. Or maybe for the winter winds that froze the ground and gave folks a brief respite from the back-breaking labor of agriculture.
For those of us who live in cities and work year-round, it's sometimes harder to find a reason to be thankful. Nevertheless, I have compiled a list of things I'm thankful for this year.
1. I am thankful that the presidential election is over. May I never see another attack ad or receive another robo-call from Ed Rendell.
2. I am thankful that I still have a job, at least as far as I know. [Once down-sized, twice shy.]
3. I am thankful that I have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards.
4. I am thankful that my health is okay, knock on wood.
5. I am thankful that my two old cats are still hanging in there with minimal veterinary intervention. [But if Taffy hacks up hairballs on my shoes one more time . . .]
6. I am thankful that global warming hasn't totally screwed up the climate yet.
7. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to write, even if the getting published part of that equation leaves a lot to be desired.
8. I am thankful for the communities of writers and dreamers in which I participate.
9. I am thankful for modern technology, through which so much is possible.
10. I am thankful for books and movies that manage to express great truth within the ancient art of telling stories.
And finally, remember, every day is a gift -- that's why we call it "the present."
What are you thankful for this year?
Thursday, November 20, 2008
I’ve been in a sour mood lately. Beside the cold that suddenly crashed down on me last night, there’s the drama of my day job that has been going on for over six months now. Some or all of you know I work as an Environmental Engineer for Anheuser-Busch. Opps, I mean A-B Inbev. The deal is done. I now work for the biggest brewer and the 3rd largest consumer products group in the world. Problem is, I don’t know how long I’ll be working for them. The axe is poised and ready to lop off a large number of employees. The have to eliminate 1 ½ Billion dollars in operating cost over the next three years to pay back some of their debt. YES, that’s BILLION with a “B.” So it may not be a very happy holiday season. Not only that, but every day we hear another rumor and a different date for D-Day. In fact, as I write this, my wife returned from her bible study and informed me that she heard that 800 people will be laid off tomorrow.
I’ll survive. I’m not writing this in a plea for sympathy. The bigger problem is that this six month drama has pretty much sucked the creativity right out of me. I sit in front of the keyboard trying to finish a story I started over a year ago and my mind wanders to how I’m going to make a living and keep my family going. As much as I’d like to dream about it, making a living off my writing is not realistic right now. It won’t pay the mortgage, the car payments, college tuition, the utilities... Well, you get the picture.
So, two nights ago I decided to kill a bunch of people.
Relax. I finally finished a scene I’ve been trying to write for a while. I told myself to just do it. In two nights I wrote 5,000 words. I would have continued tonight, but I had a talk to give to the St. Louis Writers Guild.
The body count isn’t in just yet, but a number of FBI agents and a bunch of bad guys are now statistics. The scene starts with my antagonist trying to sell a deadly virus to a terrorist cell. Bad guys doing business with bad guys. I figured not a lot of trusting goes on there. Would you trust a bunch of terrorists to hand over 5 million dollars for a package that could easily be faked with no real way of verifying the authenticity? I wouldn’t. So it took a lot of thought to figure out how to make this work.
Throwing in the FBI complicates matters even more. You’ll all have to wait to read the finished product, but I’m pretty darned happy with the way this is working out. The next scene will find my Protagonist, FBI Agent Laura Daniels captured by my antagonist and her savior turns out to be a person she’d never expect. Plus a main character may be taking his last breath.
So, I found that killing people can bring me out of a funk. What do you do when you find yourself mired in depressing thoughts?
Never Underestimate the Danger
Annette's post yesterday and the news about the FBI agent shot and killed here in Pittsburgh yesterday got me thinking about how dangerous law enforcement can be. Most civilians take that fact for granted. We were lucky in the department where I was a secretary for ten years that we never had a fatality. The guys I worked with never took dumb chances and they could always count on each other for back up--even the ones who didn't get along.
Yesterday morning, FBI Special Agent Sam Hicks and members of a multijurisdictional drug task force stopped at a home in Indiana Township to serve a warrant on Robert Korbe. Agent Hicks was shot and killed by Christina Korbe, Robert's wife. Hicks was the first FBI agent killed in the line of duty while serving in Pittsburgh. (Several agents from Pittsburgh have been killed elsewhere, including Martha Dixon, for whom the Pittburgh FBI building is named.)
According to statistics released by the FBI, of the 57 officers feloniously killed in 2007, 55 of them were killed with firearms. (Note: according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund website, this number is 68.) On the the website Policeone.com it states that of these 55, "38 were killed with handguns, nine with shotguns, and eight with rifles."
The only thing deadlier than guns for police officers is traffic fatalities. In 2007, 83 officers died in motor vehicle accidents.
We had the following posted on the bulletin board in the squad room where I used to work:
THE TEN FATAL ERRORS THAT HAVE KILLED EXPERIENCED LAWMEN
1. Your Attitude - If you fail to keep your mind on the job while on patrol, or if you carry problems with you into the field, you will start to make errors. It can cost you or other fellow officers their lives.
2. Tombstone Courage - No one doubts that you are brave, but in any situation where time allows, wait for backup. You should not try to make a dangerous apprehension alone and unaided.
3. Not Enough Rest - To do your job, you must be alert. Being sleepy or asleep on the job is not only against regulations, but you endanger yourself, the community and all of your fellow officers.
4. Taking a Bad Position - Never let anyone you are questioning or about to stop get in a better position than you and your vehicle. There is no such thing as a routine call or stop.
5. Danger Signs - You will come to recognize "danger signs"--movements, strange cars, warnings that should alert you to watch your step and approach with caution. Know your beat, your community, and watch for anything that is out of place.
6. Failure To Watch The Hands Of a Suspect - Is he or she reaching for a weapon or getting ready to strike you? How else can a potential killer strike but with his or her hands?
7. Relaxing Too Soon - The "rut" of false alarms. Observe the activity, never take any call as routine or just another false alarm. It's your life on the line.
8. Improper Use or No Handcuffs - Once you have made an arrest, handcuff the prisoner properly.
9. No Search or Poor Search - There are so many places a suspect can hide weapons that your failure to search is a crime against fellow officers. Many criminals carry several weapons and are able and prepared to use them against you.
10. Dirty or Inoperative Weapon - Is your firearm clean? Will it fire? How about ammunition? When did you fire your weapon last so that you know if you can hit a target in combat conditions? What't the sense of carrying any firearm that may not work?
(The above was published by the National Association of Chiefs of Police.)
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Citizens' Police Academy: Firearms Tracking Unit
(With special thanks to Detective Jill Smallwood-Rustin of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Firearms Tracking Unit for her assistance with this post.)
The new class of Pittsburgh’s Citizens’ Police Academy is in session and I dropped in to pick up a segment that wasn’t offered last time. Detective Jill Rustin spoke about the Firearms Tracking Unit.
In Pittsburgh at the time of her presentation, the Pittsburgh Police were investigating 69 homicides. Of those, fifty-five are gun related, mind you this number can change on any given day at any given hour
While we may assume that the criminals on our streets are attaining their weapons from gun traffickers, the stunning fact is that the vast majority of confiscated weapons are traced back to local owners from the City of Pittsburgh and on a larger scale from Allegheny County. Most of these owners failed to handle their guns responsibly by keeping them secure and then report their guns lost or stolen when they discovered this fact.
Perhaps a family member steals a gun. The parent doesn’t want their child to be identified or possibly arrested so they don’t report the theft. Many of the guns stolen from within a household are kept in private locations that only a family member or loved one would know about.
Often, a burglar will break into a house looking for money, jewelry, or small electronics but, stumbles across a gun, it's like hitting a Jackpot! They may or may not keep the gun for themselves or they will trade or sell it for money or drugs.
Detective Rustin told of one woman who moved from Pittsburgh to a new home near Seven Springs. A confiscated gun was traced to her. When located, she said she simply had to "get out of there" so she moved, left her old home AND two firearms which belonged to her, with no regard for where they might end up.
Currently, there is no law in the Commonwealth of PA requiring citizens to report lost or stolen firearms to the police. As a result, only about 10 percent are reported to the Pittsburgh Police Department. Members of our local city council are introducing local legislation to address that very problem and will do so at post agenda meeting on Tuesday, November 18, 2008.
Which leads to the subject of straw purchasers. This is when one person buys a gun for someone else, concealing the identity of the true purchaser or possessor of the firearm. Straw purchasing is a common method for felons to attain weapons. The purchaser walks into a federally licensed firearms dealer and passes the background check before paying for a gun that will not remain with the purchaser. This is a felony violation for both the straw purchaser and the ultimate possessor.
During a slide show, Detective Rustin offered photographic evidence of the damage bullets can do to the human body. One slide showed a residential street where close to 20 casings were scattered about from a reckless person(s). And it’s about more than lives lost. Lives are changed forever. The detective told of a 14 year old girl who was shot and paralyzed at a church carnival. Not only will she never walk again, but she and her family have been forced to move from their multi-level home with its narrow doorways and hallways. The entire family’s quality of life has been forever altered.
Want some disturbing statistics? For the Pittsburgh Police in 2007, 66 of those arrested for gun violations were 16 years of age and under. Two hundred eighty two arrestees were 17 to 24 years old. In the 25 to 34 age range, there were 156 arrests made. And 104 arrests of those over 35.
At one time, the rites of passage involved having your first drink at age 21. Today, it appears to be acquiring your first firearm at the age of 21.
The police can only do so much. It’s up to us citizens to do our part, be responsible with any firearm you may own or plan to own. Here are some additional ways we can help:
Inventory all firearms you own. Record all information, such as make, model, and serial number.
Purchase a gun safe or gun cabinet (and not the type with the glass front).
NEVER store your gun in your vehicle.
Have a conversation with your family about your feelings concerning guns in the house, about guns your or they own.
Help seniors secure, sell or turn in firearms they no longer want. And make sure you do this through a licensed dealer.
Take a gun safety course to enhance your familiarity with your weapon.
Monday, November 17, 2008
I can’t write about the impact the global economic and fiscal meltdown is having on the publishing industry. Let’s hope little--maybe in troubled times people escape into fiction. I do know from my obsessive reading of the news that some businesses have caught a bad cold (retailers, construction, even some law firms) while others have succumbed to fatal heart attacks (Lehman Brothers, Mrs. Fields, Sharper Image, etc.).
This week, the company that gives me a paycheck every two weeks caught a bit of a cold. It was rather sudden. Just two months ago we were celebrating our biggest revenue-producing year ever. Everyone knew an economic bug was floating around, but the powers-that-be reassured us that we were positioned to weather the fast-spreading fiscal disease.
Well, so much for reassurances. Yesterday, we learned that 50 of our fellow “associates” (a weasel word if there ever was one) had been “laid off” (another euphemism, rather like saying “passed away” for “died”). The corporate leaders took a significant pay cut (though we grunts were spared that, for now), and certain financial goodies were cut or reduced in size.
Well, so much for reassurances. Yesterday, we learned that 50 of our fellow “associates” (a weasel word if there ever was one) had been “laid off” (another euphemism, rather like saying “passed away” for “died”). The corporate leaders took a significant pay cut (though we grunts were spared that, for now), and certain financial goodies were cut or reduced in size.
For a few hours after the announcement, the offices were eerily quiet, making the numbing sub-roar of the white noise flowing out of the HVAC system only that much more irritating. Then, by quitting time I heard something that sounded suspiciously like laughter. I should know today if that was a fluke or if we’re over the shock and getting on with life.
Who knows how long this new “normal” will last. Apparently, one of the company’s biggest clients—a major
So, what’s all this have to do with my WIP? Little, I hope. After all, in the great scheme of things, my company’s woes are less than the bat of one eyelash. But it is one more distraction I don’t need after coming off several months of obsessive fascination with the presidential campaign. I do know that watching my characters grow and develop and get in and out of trouble on the computer screen is blessed break from the litany of bad news coming out of Wall Street and newspaper headlines, and now our corporate offices. So, for that I’m thankful.
by Jeri Westerson
There's nothing like a little hands on investigating. For the most part, I do my research for my medieval mystery, VEIL OF LIES, in books and in the papers I can dig up in archives. But sometimes this just won't do.
I am very interested in medieval weapons. I own a few at home. Some are fairly authentic and some not so much. It's just fun to have them around. For instance, I own a sword. This is a pretty authentic piece in terms of weight and length. I doubt it was forged (not for what I paid for it), but more likely cut out of a piece of steel and then finished, polished, and sharpened by hand. A sword is a wonderful thing. It speaks of the Middle Ages to me, for all it represents: knighthood, chivalry, the movement of troops across Europe, borders changing, religion, class levels in society. It's only about 40 inches long and weighs three pounds, and yet this single object has moved mountains and populations.
I also own a small battleaxe. It's about the size of a hammer and can do some damage if you sliced someone over the head or across their neck. Likewise the flail I own. It is a metal ball with spikes hooked to a chain which in turn is fastened to a wooden handle. Swing that around and smite someone in the face with it and they stay smote.
I also have a dagger. A small, but very sharp dagger. Too small to use in a sword fight, it would be for closer association. Perhaps a sinister woman using it to kill her unfaithful lover.
All great stuff. And there would be plenty of opportunity for my villains to use such instruments to dispatch their victims. But then I began to wonder, with my sharpened objects, what it would be like to actually stab someone. Oddly enough, I couldn't get any volunteers for this. So I went to Costco.
Now it's not easy picking out your victim, although it's a little easier when you look for him in the meat section. I got myself the biggest slab of beef I could get. I couldn't get one with ribs, so I bought those separately and planned to make my own Frankenstein's monster.
I chose my victim who was already conveniently encased in plastic and hauled him home. I wanted ribs so I could get a sense of what it felt like for the steel blade to glance off bone and I also wanted to see what it would be like to take my sword to it.
When I brought it home, my victim's body was already prone, lying there innocently on the butcher block. How to attack it properly? There was no help for it. I needed the fellow to be upright and the only way to do this was to take him outside and nail him to the wooden post of my son's swing set.
I first must explain that my son wasn't home. No one was home but me and my meat victim. I only hoped that the neighbors weren't peering out of their windows into my yard when I decided to get all CSI out there.
First thing I did was attack it with the dagger. It is so sharp a blade it went in cleanly. I tried the fattier parts because at this point, we aren't going through skin, so I was trying to mimic as closely as I could what my characters might be experiencing. Of course, Sir Loin of Beef was not struggling, but that was okay. I could extrapolate the rest. Next I wanted to feel the blade against the bone. The ribs were nailed up behind the slab. I lunged. Very hard. Lots of spine chilling scraping there. Yes, very tough if you had a small blade like this and managed to catch a rib.
After stabbing it a few more times at a few more angles, it was time for the sword!
Now I had used the sword before to slice off the scalps of pumpkins. You see, the blade isn't sharp at all and I thought it best to keep it that way with the sword hanging on the wall in the living room. When my son was a teenager and had his friends over the thing was a boy magnet, to be sure. I never thought I would hear myself say, in my best Mom voice, "A sword is not a toy!" But there you have it. So I wanted to see what kind of power it took to use a dull blade to lop off the scalps of something head-like, even though our pumpkins didn't have skulls inside of them (but that would be way cool if they did!) and I also wanted to get the feel of really swinging the thing (because broadswords are not rapiers or foils. You generally do not use them for stabbing. You used them for chopping and swinging). It didn't take much to do it to the pumpkins. It was pretty easy, in fact, even with a dull blade.
But now it was time for Sir Beef.
I cocked back the sword one-handed and gave it a good whack. Right through the bone on the first go and into the wooden post. Wow. That was fun. Another! Yup. This guy was dead. Really dead. Really most sincerely dead.
It was a good day.
What happened to my hapless victim after I hosed off the post? I had to hide the body, after all.
So we ate him.
Jeri Westerson grew up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles and so always had a thing for noir. She also always had a thing for the middle ages. It was a natural fit. She tried her hand at acting but real life auditions were too brutal. She turned her attention to her other interest of art and design and became a successful graphic artist in L.A. and Pasadena in the mid '80s and early '90s. After becoming a mom, she directed her passion again to writing and embarked on the long, slow goal of publishing her growing body of historical fiction. But when she switched to writing historical mystery, she found success. Veil of Lies; A Medieval Noir is her debut novel. Jeri has had various careers in the meantime: a luggage salesperson, winetasting host and tour guide for a winery, choir director, travel insurance agent, secretary, ceramic studio manager, and journalist.
She is married to a commercial photographer, has a son in college, and herds two cats and a tortoise at her home in southern California.
Friday, November 14, 2008
The Territory Ahead
At my in-laws’ the Saturday before last, my husband headed to the attic in search of old Hardy Boys mysteries, which our firstborn, Griffin, has been reading like crazy of late. He only found one, plus Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Griffin, age 11, dove right into The Mystery of the Haunted Fort, but I snatched up the dusty old copy of Huck Finn.
“Sean,” I said to my 9-year-old, “we have to read this book together. I love this book. You’ll love this book. Huck Finn is like the original Junie B. Jones.”
(For those of you without grade-school-age children, Junie B. Jones is title character and first-person narrator of a series of books by Barbara Park, my hands-down favorite of all the children’s books I’ve read with the boys.)
Sean and I snuggled into Grandma’s recliner and started to read:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
We were rockin’ and rollin’, taking turns reading the pages, until we hit the fifth page of the book, which was my turn to read.
Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim…
My eyeballs about popped out of their sockets, and I snapped the book shut.
“Hey! Why’d you do that?” Sean asked.
I think I read Huck Finn when I was about 12 or 13. I remembered that I loved it and why, but apparently I hadn’t remembered everything about it. I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it – to say that word aloud – to my child.
But it was a good book. A great book. It was definitely not a racist book. Quite the opposite, from what I recalled. And what did refusing to read it make me – some kind of Nazi book burner?
I opened the book again. “Okay, Sean, listen. This is a very bad word. We NEVER say this word. But this book was written something like 125 years ago, and it’s set even before that, and things were different then. So we’re going to read it, but we’re not ever going to use this word other than when we’re reading this book. Got it?”
Sean nodded, so I read on, cringing as I read the n-word over and over and over again.
A few minutes later, Sean tapped me on the arm and whispered, “Mommy, who are the niggers?”
Oh my. The poor child had never heard the word before – and thank God for that – but if he didn’t even know what the word meant, he could hardly be expected to follow the story, let alone get the point.
I closed the book again. “You know, we probably need to talk about some stuff before we read any more of Huck Finn.”
So we talked. About slavery and the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about what it meant that 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial – which we’ve watched together on U-Tube – we had a black man running for President of the United States. When we were done talking, we went back to Huck.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking I couldn’t be the only person in the modern world who loved Huck Finn but had a hard time reading it aloud to a child. So I did a little web-surfing and found out I was right.
Some high schools have just plain old removed Huck Finn from their English curriculum. And I can’t blame them, because I have a hard enough time reading the n-word to my own child in the privacy of my own home. My heart quails at the thought of reading it in a classroom full of both white and black children.
But a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, didn’t cop out. Instead, they formed a multicultural task force to study the issue, which resulted in the development of both a Villanova University workshop for English teachers who wish to teach Huck Finn and a whole accompanying curriculum that focuses on black history and racism in America to teach along with it. You can read about it here.
Banning the book would be a lot easier, of course, but it occurs to me that a class like the one they teach in Cherry Hill could change a child’s life in a more profound way than simply understanding the literary significance of a single novel. Even if it is the novel about which Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. …All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
A class like that could make a child a better person forever. I think Mark Twain would be pleased.
Here and now, Barack Obama is President-Elect. Sean and I are still reading Huck Finn.
Like Huck, we’re all “lightin’ out for the Territory ahead…”
God bless America.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
I Want One Too!
By now, everyone knows the economy isn't the greatest at the moment. The stock market is way down, 401ks are in the toilet, and unemployment is up--but give me a break already!
The recent gazillion-bazillion dollar (or whatever the figure was) bailout of the finance industry was bad enough, but now politicians are talking about bailing out the auto industry. This is the same industry, who has for years, thumbed their noses at car buyers by manufacturing vehicles that, to be kind, weren't quite what they should be.
Since the 1970s or maybe even earlier, consumers cried out for better vehicles. Vehicles that didn't rust after a couple of years. Vehicles that ran for more than 50,000 miles. Vehicles that got more than 15 miles per gallon. Instead of listening to the car buying public, domestic automakers kept doing things they way they always had. Improvements in safety, mileage, etc., were usually only done because the government forced them into it. I'm sure they figured people would keep buying whatever they put on the market.
But they were wrong.
Consumers got fed up and started buying better quality cars made by companies like Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. When the domestic automakers realized these customers weren't coming back, they started doing something about it. While domestic vehicles are much better than they used to be, they should have been good all along. It should not take losing sales to make a product better.
I don't think the government handing the big corporations big dollars will do anything to help them. In the long run, no matter how much money the government throws at these companies, there will always be competition. And they haven't learned to be competitive in today's marketplace. No amount of money can teach someone that.
It might actually be a good thing for these companies to file for bankruptcy and restructure. No one bailed out the airline industry, and the last time I looked, there are still planes in the air.
I've come up with a plan, however. So far, the government has bailed out the mortgage and banking industries, and would like to do the same for the automakers. I say it's time for writers to ask for a bailout. After all, who makes less money than writers? (Okay, maybe clerks at Walmart, but even they make more than I do.) And don't you think our product is much better than a hunk of steel and plastic? Not to mention the fact that mystery writers pretty much know every way there is to kill somebody. Can we put that in our proposal to Congress?
The publishing industry has been crying the blues for awhile now. They need a bailout too! And what about bookstore owners? Especially the independent ones? Bailout, I say!
I think we're on to something here. Okay, who's with me on this? Is there anyone else you can think of who needs a bailout?
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I’ve always been lured by the occasion odd job. Maybe it goes back to being a kid picking up some spare spending money by doing a little work for Grandpap on the farm. These days, my designated odd job usually takes the form of critter sitting.
However, this weekend, I picked up another odd job. I became a proctor for the City of Pittsburgh. The opportunity arose in the form of a bulk email that went out to all graduates of the Citizens’ Police Academy asking if anyone would be interested in serving as a proctor for the police recruits’ written exam. Payment was involved and since I’m still waiting for that elusive book contract, other sources of income are always welcome. Besides, anything that takes me inside the workings of the police sounds like a good chance to do some research.
I emailed back that I was interested.
After calling to confirm my interest, the Proctor Coordinator mailed me a packet of information and instructions. Eight pages of instructions, to be precise. Page One began with “The following instructions are very important. Be sure you read and know these instructions thoroughly before reporting to the Convention Center.”
What was I getting myself into?
But I dutifully spent Friday night studying the pages.
Saturday morning, attired in the comfortable clothes recommended in the instructions and my trusty New Balance sneakers (suitable for five hours of walking on concrete floors), I drove into the city, successfully avoiding the massive construction projects that were going on this weekend.
When I arrived at the testing room on the second level of the David Lawrence Convention Center, I was asked to fill out some paperwork and then I received a blue apron and a name badge. Considering the stern nature of the instructions I’d been studying, I was surprised and relieved at how friendly everyone was. My supervisor and I finished setting out the testing materials with enough time to spare for me to locate key points of interest: The snack room and the restrooms.
At 9:30AM we all gathered at one end of the hall for our orientation. Basically, it was a review of the instructions and procedures. We were told that they had no idea how many would actually show up for the test although roughly 1,300 had applied. When the recruits entered, they would be directed to the rear of the room to fill up those rows first. My row was in a section near the front. It was possible there wouldn’t be enough recruits to fill our section. In that case, we would be “extras.”
Just before 10AM, we were ordered to stand by our rows. “Battle stations,” I whispered to the fellow who headed the row next to mine. Our supervisor pronounced us ready. The doors opened the sea of recruits marched in.
They were a cross-section of society. Many more men than women, but they were large (some very large) and small (dare I say SKINNY), young (one girl looked to me to be about 12, but that may say more about my age than hers) and old (well, older than I expected, some appearing to be well into their 40s). Note: Hey! I’m 49. I’m not saying 40s are old, but for a police recruit…yeah.
There were a few that looked and dressed like good choices to go undercover in the gang unit. A couple of guys were clean-cut to the max and wore suits and ties. Bucking for captain, perhaps?
The rows in the rear filled in. The rows on the sides, too. But the tide of recruits dwindled to a trickle and ended before they reached the three front sections, including mine.
Several supervisors and the cop who was the main recruiter all powwowed, counting filled tables. It seems there was a betting pool going on about how many would show. I did not hear who won. We ended up with a few more than 720. And I ended up as an extra.
My first task was clearing my tables of testing supplies and turning the booklets and blank answer sheets back in to the supply table. Then my supervisor handed me a stack of surveys the recruits had just filled out. Several of us sat down and tallied the results to indicate where they had learned of the test and how they had been recruited. The results were interesting. The largest number by far came from the city’s website. Many more had been told about the test by city employees and family or friends. Quite a few read about it in the Post Gazette. Nice to know folks still get information from the newspaper.
With that chore completed, I spent the rest of the time circulating the room, filling in for other proctors so they could take a break, or just being an extra set of eyes. This gave me a chance to get a closer look at some of the varieties of people who have dreams of becoming a cop.
There was the skinny kid with short flame-red hair. He wore long sleeves, but had some impressive tats on his hands and fingers. One girl wore red boots, red belt, and a sharp black and red outfit complete with plenty of bling. A very large fellow wore a head-to-toe brown velour sweat suit. I walked behind one seated test-taker who, I can only assume, was a plumber. After that, I avoided that row.
One of the guys from my Citizens’ Police Academy class was there, taking the test. He was so intent and focused, I didn’t dare disturb him to say “hi.”
In fact, I saw quite a lot of nerves in that room. Bouncing feet seem to be the most popular indicator of stress during a test. But some guys appeared ready to rip hair from their heads. I concluded I was much happier being there, doing what I was doing than if I were doing what they were doing.
There was three hours allotted for the test. Some finished in just over one. A handful took the entire time permitted.
So what’s next for these eager recruits? Those who pass this test will then take a physical test. Of those who pass both, maybe the top 200 will be called up when the next police academy class commences. From those, 25 or 30 will actually make it to becoming a police officer.
Sounds like pretty good odds compared to what we deal with when trying to get published.
As for me and my new odd job… I have signed up to proctor for another test next month for potential fire fighter recruits.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I love Fall because it’s time for the harvest. It’s a great time of year to take stock of what got accomplished over the last year, what did or didn’t happen, and then set up a plan for the coming year to either move myself in the right direction or to take a look at what didn’t get accomplished and figure out a new approach to get it done.
Fall helps me reset my priorities. For instance, I’m only half way through my manuscript, so I’m moving it to the top of the priority list for 2009, letting nothing else get in the way of accomplishing that task. Of course, unforeseen things will happen, but I’ve learned that if I keep a constant steady pressure on the top item, moving it back up to the top whenever it gets bumped off, by the end of the year it’s been accomplished.
I had three priorities for 2008: 1) organize a family reunion; 2) master the officer requirements for the local Sisters in Crime chapter and 3) help orchestrate the sale of a house. I took a look at each item last Fall, gave each item a sufficient amount of thought and planning and applied the pressure. A year later, all three items are done.
The ‘lose twenty pounds’ issue does keep falling off the list but I am still working on it. Dieting didn’t work completely but ‘eating with nutrition in mind’ has helped a bit plus I’ve added yoga and chiropractic maintenance to the mix. We’ll see if that helps; it certainly can’t hurt and I will keep the steady pressure on and craft a different combination until I find the one that works.
Last Fall I also decided to prioritize finding a new position at my day job. Truth be told I needed to earn more money – I need to start funding a Roth IRA and my health insurance premium doubled – and I couldn’t accomplish either of those at my current level. Using the same step-by-step process, I identified a new target job, formulated an approach, took extra training, volunteered for standing committees, even wrote business articles for the quarterly newsletter – anything to help raise my corporate profile. The good news is HR called me a week ago and made an offer and I start my new position on Monday.
In writing about this topic I’m not trying to show what I’ve accomplished; I’m trying to show how accomplishments can be acquired. Some folks I know blithely go through life waiting for their next lucky break. Luck is all well and good but I save it for the lottery and the casinos. I’ve learned that focused direct intent and lots of hard work will get you where you want to go plus the end results are more consistent. Maybe this is because I’m a bull-headed Taurus but all I know is, it works!
I invite you to try this approach for 2009. Make a list and identify two or three items you want to harvest next year. Post the list in a prominent place like over your coffeemaker. Each day, reconsider your items and think of what you can do that day to move them forward. If that item just won’t happen, it won’t happen, so move to the next item on your list and keep the pressure on. A year from now, take stock of your results. I think you’ll be amazed at what you can do when you put your mind to it.
Monday, November 10, 2008
GIANTS IN THE EARTH
Friday, November 07, 2008
OK, so I’m gonna take the easy way out this week. It’s been kind of crazy around here, between the book release on Tuesday, the couple of guest blogs I’ve been doing—there’s one on Fresh Fiction today, if anyone wants to stop by and say hello—getting going on book 3, and all the other stuff that’s been going on. When you’re reading this, I’m either on my way to, in the middle of, on my way home from, or sitting in front of the TV watching, my first TV interview. It’s airing/aired on Nashville’s Channel 4 at 12:30 Central time today, and as I’m writing this, I’m terribly nervous, although I’m trying not to think about it.
So “Fatal Fixer-Upper” hit the stores on Tuesday morning, and DH and I hit the stores on Tuesday morning, too, to make sure it was there. Here are a couple of pictures:
My editor at Berkley sent me the back cover copy for DIY#2, which will be coming out in August. This is it:
Avery Baker was once a New York designer, but inheriting her aunt’s old Maine cottage has led her down a new career path in home renovation. Finding a property’s hidden potential has rewards and challenges—especially when a mystery surfaces behind the walls...
Home renovation is never easy, especially when the home's inhabitants are dead. Avery’s hunky boyfriend and business partner, Derek Ellis, wants to flip a seriously stigmatized ranch house where murder occurred two decades ago. It’s a good thing Avery has more faith in her boyfriend than in ghosts.
Their renovations are quickly interrupted when a presence is felt--and it’s not happy with the new alterations. Could it really be that the property is possessed? If they’re going to flip this house, all the outdated fixtures—including the supernatural squatters—must be disposed of, or else this project will haunt them forever…
I’m pretty happy with it. Now all we have to do is find a good title, since the book can’t go to print being called DIY#2. I came up with “Haunted House Homicide” (shades of Scooby-Doo). My agent likes “Bones in the Basement” (shades of Nancy Drew). Berkley suggested “A Skeleton in the Crawlspace” (gives away too much of the story, I think) or “Spooked and Spackled.” I love the last one, but I’m open to suggestions. If you have any, feel free to share.
Meanwhile, I’m starting DIY#3, which actually does have a title. “Home for the Homicide,” courtesy of my ITW debut buddy, the brilliant Kelli Stanley. It’s December in Waterfield, and Avery and Derek are turning an old carriage house into a romantic retreat for two, before Kate’s and Wayne’s wedding on New Year’s Eve. But then Kate’s ex shows up, and ends up dead. I haven’t figured out who killed him yet, or why, but I’m working on it. I have four months—three and three weeks now—to get it done and turned in to my editor. No problem...
So that’s what’s been going on with me this week. What about you?
Thursday, November 06, 2008
What Are You Reading?
Since I'm not prolific enough to come up with two posts in the same week and still come anywhere near my goal of writing 1000 words per day (most days I don't reach it anyway, but that's another story), I'm posing a question today.
What are you reading?
I just finished our very own Jennie Bentley's Fatal Fixer-Upper and I really enjoyed it. Avery is a great character--inquisitive, chatty, and smart. And Derek was the handyman every girl dreams about--yummy.
Before that, I read Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover (talk about two books on the opposite ends of the spectrum!). It was a good read, especially if you like gritty PI novels. Although I do have to say the protagonist gets beat up an awful lot. If he gets hit in the head anymore, he's going to end up with permanent brain damage.
So, read any good books (or bad books) lately?
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I suspect we all know at least one. And I don’t necessarily mean crazy Uncle Louie. I mean those “colorful characters” you see around your town. The ones that when you ask someone else about them, describing them with a few key words, the other person immediately says, “Oh. THAT guy.”
Years ago, when I was working in a kiosk in the local mall, there was a young guy who walked around town with his hands holding an invisible steering wheel. He made car sounds as he “drove” on foot. Needless to say, he was mentally challenged. Everyone knew him as Tommy the Car. Some people eyed him with suspicion and distain. But mostly, everyone watched out for him. And when circumstances demanded that he move into a more institutional setting, we all missed him.
He was a colorful character. No one knew his last name, but everyone knew Tommy the Car.
There’s an old man I pass several times a week. He hitchhikes from one small town to another small town and back almost daily. I’ve never picked him up, but apparently others do. And if you mention the guy who hitchhikes on a certain road, folks who travel that road know who you mean.
I have a bit of a fixation lately on a local colorful character. It’s the crime writer in me who is fascinated with this guy. He hangs out at one of my favorite coffee shops and I’ve spotted him elsewhere. He’s hard to miss. The guy could have been a pro linebacker for all I know. I’ve discretely asked several people about him. All I have to do is give a quick description of his height and his hair and the response is, “Oh. THAT guy.” But I haven’t had much luck getting details beyond that. I admit, I had created quite a story for the guy in my head. Scenarios ranged from rich and eccentric to homeless with an interesting wardrobe. But the comments I’ve received about him include words like “weird” and “notorious.” There was mention of “trouble with the police.”
That last one adds fuel to my curiosity. It also scares the bejeezus out of me. As if being the size of a small sequoia isn’t intimidating enough. Now I make great efforts to NOT establish eye contact. Let’s face it. I may write crime fiction, but I am an unequivocal chicken. I’m curious, but I am well aware of how that worked out for the cat.
So I continue to ask a few cautious questions in whispered tones when this particular colorful character is nowhere around. I’ll let you know if I find out anything. Maybe. Perhaps he reads blogs. Note I haven’t mentioned much detail of his clothing or appearance beyond his size. There’s a good reason for that. He scares me.
But inquiring minds want to know.
Now, tell me about your local colorful characters, past or present. I know everyone has to have known at least one.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
A Small Town Gets Conned
On 60 Minutes Sunday night, there was a fascinating piece about a man who conned a rural police department into thinking he was a federal agent.
The town of Gerald, Missouri has approximately 1200 residents and a four man police department. When Bill Jakob arrived in town one day brandishing a badge and business cards with the Justice Department logo, no one thought twice about accepting his assistance. He told Police Chief Ryan McCrary that he was from the "Multi-Jurisdictional Narcotics Task Force" and was sent to assist the department with the growing problem of methamphetamine labs that had sprung up in the area. The one phone call anyone made to check on Jakob was to a number he provided, and the call was answered by a woman whom authorities now believe was his wife.
Jakob began rounding up drug suspects using whatever means necessary. Residents state that he always used excessive force, brandished a shotgun and never had a warrant. While Jakob contends he got most suspects to confess, he did so without bothering with Miranda rights. When one suspect asked for a lawyer, Jakob refused.
When complaints about Jakob's tactics began surfacing, reporter Linda Trest of the Gasconade County Republican did a background check, something which the police department never bothered to do. A check of public records revealed that Jakob had a record. In 1994 he plead guilty and paid a fine for having sex with an underage girl. In 2003 he and his wife filed for bankruptcy. In 2007, a jury ruled that he pay $600,000 to the family of a 6 year old boy that Jakob hit with his pickup truck (Later overturned and settled for $50,000).
After this hit the papers, the chief and two officers were fired. No charges were filed on the 20 people arrested by Jakob. Some of these people are now suing the town, the mayor, and the police department. One of those suing is an elderly woman who was involuntarily committed to a mental institution when she refused to cooperate.
Jakob has pleaded guilty to charges of impersonating a federal officer and will most likely spend several years in prison. He still insists he was only trying to help.
Here is the entire interview, if anyone is interested.
Sunday, November 02, 2008
The Devil Is In The Details
Do details in a novel bog you down or do they bring your writing alive? Obviously that’s a question of taste, I think. Some people love it, some... not so much. I had the pleasure of attending my second conference as an author a few weeks ago. The conference? Magna Cum Murder sponsored by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. First off, kudos to Kathryn Kennison, one of the loveliest ladies I’ve met and a wonderful organizer. Also kudos to Jim Huang, owner of The Mystery Company in Carmel, Indiana and program organizer. I am confident that next year’s Bouchercon is in good hands with Jim at the helm.
So, I had a lot of time to sit and discuss issues with readers and writers and one of the things we discussed was the level of detail in novels. On the first day of the conference, a group of ladies invited me to it with them and discuss a few things. One of them was detail. And while some liked details and others didn’t, one thing was certain; if you’re going to put in details, get it right.
I prefer some level of detail in my work. I think that details, if inserted correctly bring familiarization to a piece. I’m also not against a certain amount of brand names if done to further the plot or define a character. I believe that the line; “He swung the door to the battered Pinto open, kicking the empty bottle of Wild Turkey as stumbled out to the pavement.” As opposed to the line: “He sat the snifter of Hennessey’s on the bar and called for the valet to retrieve his Porsche.” These are two very different men and using details, we can give you a sense of them in a few words, without slowing down the plot. But the details have to be right.
No one should confuse this:
For this, even in it's best days.
Case in point. I’m perfectly fine with the writer who uses the line, “She pulled out a gun and shot him.” However, if you add detail, get it right. “She pulled out her Glock, flicked the safety off and shot him.” A greater level of detail, but WRONG! I’m throwing this book against the wall.
So, I’m at the Magna conference, listening to a wonderful speaker. She reads an excerpt of her work and everyone is enraptured. Her words flow beautifully... and shades of Emeril, BAM! She loses me and I completely stop listening. What brought me right out of that happy journey that the author was transporting me through? A detail I knew was wrong. She talked about a situation where her young blind brother, a child, climbs into an old 1949 Ford. As he explores the car with his touch, he runs his hands along the steering column and finds the keys in the ignition. WHAT?
My dad had a 1951 Ford Crown Victoria.
The ignition switch was in the dashboard, not on the steering column. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was on the left-hand side of the steering wheel. Okay, maybe there was a ’49 Ford with a steering column/ignition interlock system, but I don’t think so. Regardless, she threw in a detail that pulled me right out of that wonderful story. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter where the ignition was, but in this case, she lost a reader/listener. Judging by the crowd, I was the only one that caught it, but the story was an inspirational one and the details didn’t matter like they do in a mystery, where people are looking hard at the details to solve the crime.
So, how about you? Are you a detail hound like me? Have you ever read a book where a detail took you out of the story?