Monday, February 28, 2011


by Gina Sestak

We want it in our novels, right?  Conflict, that is.  We pit our characters against each other, against themselves, against nature, against circumstances, against God.  Makes for a good story, but in real life . . .

I had some of that real life conflict this past week.

The snow began on Monday afternoon.  By the time I got out of my Pittsburgh Filmmakers class at 9:00, it was several inches deep.  I drove the two miles home very slowly, slaloming around the slow-covered streets, narrowly missing parked cars and on-coming traffic, and began to relax when I reached my house.   I was reluctant to park on the street for fear of other sliding cars, so I tried pulling into my snow-covered driveway.  Big mistake.  The car slid sideways and came to rest with its front in my barberry hedge, its middle blocking the sidewalk, and its rear sticking out into the street.  I tried to back it out, rock it out, put it in neutral and push.  I shoveled the snow around the car, threw down some salt, and tried again.  Nothing worked.  I conceded defeat and went inside to call AAA.

That began another conflict.  I really needed help getting my car out of the hedge.  By blocking the sidewalk, it was forcing pedestrians out into the street, the realm of sliding cars.  I didn't want to be responsible for anybody getting crushed.  AAA was busy, though, with stranded drivers and fender benders on the highway.  The operator didn't want to send a tow truck to someone whose car was parked at home.   After some discussion, I was able to convince her that my car wasn't parked at home.  It was wrecked at home.  She finally told me, "90 minutes."

I waited.

After nearly an hour and a half, the phone rang, and a man explained his tow truck driver hadn't been able to get up a hill and so they couldn't reach me.  I suggested an alternate route.  He expressed reluctance to respond to a car parked at home.  I went through my story again - the car isn't parked at home.  It's wrecked at home.  He agreed to send somebody.  I wasn't sure if he was really going to do it or if he just wanted to get me off the phone.

I waited.

Another call.  The tow truck had arrived.  A nice young man managed to get the car out of the hedge and positioned it against the curb.  I found the hubcap embedded in the hedge and he put it on the wheel.  All done, right?

Not quite.  The car looked fine the following day, so I drove it to an afternoon class at Pitt.  It looked okay when I came out, but by the time I got home the right front tire - the one that had spent most time in the hedge - was flat.  Another call to AAA.

I waited.

Another nice young man showed up and replaced the flat tire with a funny looking spare.  I took the tire to be repaired.

All told, this conflict ended well.  No one was injured and the damage was minor.  Even the tire survived, a cheap fix ($20).  Now that the car has been removed, the hedge appears to be okay.  And I have a bunch of new experiences to draw on in my writing.

So, how has your week been?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lyrical Language

Christmas brought an unexpected gift. Lyrical language. I received a Kindle. If you are a voracious reader like myself, a Kindle can be a wickedly dangerous device. After all, it's a direct connection between my bank account and that of one Mr. Jeff Bezos. With a simple, need I say unconscious press of the index finger, a treasure instantly downloads onto your device, and my money? It fattens the shareholders of Amazon.

As a small child, I used to check out seven books each week. When I discovered my mother limited me to the number of books, and not the number of pages, well, you can imagine the heft of each book. There's no such limitation with the Kindle.

The Kindle is much more delightful than a stack of library books. The mysterious device lives in my pocketbook, never more than two feet away from my ready grasp. At the coffee shop, while waiting patiently for clients or dentists, although I confess I've never opened the slim cover at a stop light, I have enraged the odd flight attendant or too by not closing the device as landing approached.

But the lyrical language?

Oh, that's right. I promised you lyrical language. But didn't I also promise you the truth? The truth is I've discovered reading in 2010 is very different from my childhood. While up to my eyeballs in Mark Twain's autobiography, I found a lengthy story about General U.S. Grant's autobiography. Two clicks of the Kindle, and voila, a free version of General Grant's autobiography was safely on its way to my happy hands.

Hiram Ulysses Grant, enrolled at West Point by his sponsor under the name Ulysses Simpson Grant, possessed the gifts of clarity, vision, and truth. His words, the lyrical language he chose, rattles around in my brain, even while I sleep. On revolution he said, “Now the right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, either by withdrawal from it, or by overthowing it and substuiting a government more acceptable. But any people or part of a people who resort to this remedy, stake their lives, their property, and every claim for protection given by citizenship – on the issue.”

Given the recent events in the world, these words struck my heart like a steel anvil. Read the quote again. In today's language, we might be tempted to say, “Love the player, hate the game.” You can spin this statement in many different directions, depending on your point of view, the stakes, and sadly the outcomes.

But what I've found compelling in Grant's words are the cautions he gives to countries, generals, and individual citizens. And to think, I would have never found this treasure, save for a curious mind and the easy of access provided by my electro-mechanical book. Grant has more words of wisdom that I'll be sharing today on my twitter feed (clphillips787).

But back to Mark Twain. Twain it seems, had a knack for spotting true character in an individual. He knew Grant well enough to know that the man would make a poor business deal by hooking up with the first publisher that made him an offer.

To hear Mark Twain tell the story, the writing and publishing business wasn't much different than today. Can you believe that General Grant, ex-president Grant, a man of many accomplishments was so unsure that anyone would read his autobiography that he nearly went with the first publisher, a small house that thought they could sell 5,000 copies. Sound familiar? But what does that have to do with lyrical language you ask?

Mark Twain knew a story when he read one. After reading a couple of articles Grant wrote for a magazine and knowing the subject matter, the Civil War, Twain knew a blockbuster when he saw it. He encouraged General Grant to entertain offers from several publishing houses. His memoirs were published in 1885, shortly after his death. More than 300,000 copies were sold, the exact number that Mark Twain predicted.

The man had a story, more than that, he had a gift for lyrical language. The rare combination of vision, clarity, insight and truth. As as the reader, he pulls emotions from you. Even after 120 years.

May you discover lyrical language in what you read today.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Boy in the Box

by Joyce

Since tomorrow is the anniversary of when the Boy in the Box was found, I thought it was appropriate to re-post this. It is still an active homicide investigation.

On February 25, 1957, the body of a young boy approximately 4 to 5 years old, was found in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia by Philadelphia Police officer Elmer Palmer (Note: Elmer Palmer just passed away in January 2011). Police had received a call that there was something inside a J.C. Penney bassinet box that someone had thrown away.

 The subsequent autopsy showed that the blond haired boy was undernourished and had been abused. The cause of death was head injuries.

For the past 50 years, investigators have been searching for this boy’s identity. They thought the case would be solved quickly, but the boy was never even reported missing. Investigators have followed thousands of leads over the years. It is still an open case, now handled by Homicide Detective Tom Augustine, who first became interested in the case as a child when he saw the posters of the boy that were displayed all over Philadelphia.

The boy’s murder has been featured on America’s Most Wanted and 48 Hours, but most of the leads generated by these shows have failed to produce anything. One tip from an Ohio woman in 2002 seemed the most promising. The woman appears credible but investigators have so far been unable to corroborate her story. The boy’s remains were even exhumed in 1998 and an independent lab was able to obtain mitochondrial DNA from a tooth, but as long as he remains unknown, there is no one to match it to.

The sad death of this boy has generated interest all over the world. There is a website dedicated to solving the case and finding his identity--America's Unknown Child. This site has the entire case history, photographs, information on witnesses, etc. It is run by volunteers whose sole purpose is for this boy to rest in peace.

It is also being investigated by the Vidocq Society, which is an organization comprised of retired detectives and others, including a forensic sculptor who has made a bust of what the boy’s father probably looked like.

I think what intrigues me most about this case is the dedication of the investigators involved. Some of the retired detectives working on this case were the original officers assigned to the investigation. Many of them have worked on their own time studying evidence, looking through hospital records and interviewing witnesses. These seasoned cops remember this boy as if he belonged to them--and in a way he does. Fifty years later, they still attend memorial services at the gravesite.

How would you have this story end? Will there ever be justice for The Boy in the Box?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Almost Heaven

by CJ Lyons

Thanks to Joyce and everyone here at Working Stiffs for inviting me back! You guys  know how much I love it here!

(so much so that I'll be coming back to Pittsburgh in May for the PennWriters conference and giving my Master Class on Character Driven Plotting, so be sure to sign up, spots are going fast!)

Joyce asked me to talk about my new project with Erin Brockovich. Of course, I couldn't refuse since our first book together, ROCK BOTTOM, comes out March 1st.

ROCK BOTTOM is set in Scotia, West Virginia, a fictional town near the New River Gorge based on a town I spent a lot of time in when I was young.

I remember those days spent in my "Scotia" as fondly as I do my days spent in Pittsburgh or growing up in central PA. Warm sunshine, the cool shade of trees, pine needles underfoot, wide, wild mountain vistas that made you suck in your breath and realize that Someone Up There was a heck of a lot smarter and more creative than any mere mortal could ever be.

Then, one day when I was flying to Toronto to teach a Master Class, I flew over those same mountains…..only they had vanished. Replaced by dark ugly raw scars where trees were wrenched from the earth and the tops of mountains literally bulldozed onto what had been verdant valleys and riverbeds.

The sight was so disturbing that I wept. Yes, tough as nails ER doctor me, weeping as I stared out the plane's window.

I felt sick. As if we'd been catapulted through some space-time warp into another universe where nothing made sense. Because who in their right mind would do something like this? It was psychotic, disturbing on a deep, primal level.

A few weeks later, Erin's publisher called to invite me to join with her in creating a new suspense series focused on environmental themes. Erin liked the strong women characters I'd populated my Angels of Mercy medical suspense series with--especially how those women weren't superheroes but rather human and flawed even as they found the courage to change the world.

After a loud fan-girl squee of delight that you guys probably heard up here, I said yes. When Erin and I brainstormed story ideas I told her about that flight that had left me in tears.

And she said, "CJ, we need to tell that story."

That was the birth of ROCK BOTTOM.

The good news? The EPA just a few months ago placed a moratorium on all mountain top removal mining….not sure if Erin and I had anything to do with it, but we sure were happy about that!

So tell me, what was your favorite childhood "almost heaven" place to escape to? How has it fared over the years?

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about.  In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker. 

Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller. 

Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, URGENT CARE and CRITICAL CONDITION) is available now.  Her newest project is as co-author of a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich.  You can learn more at and for free reads, "Like" her at

Monday, February 21, 2011

Enjoying the Weekend

by Wilfred Bereswill

I'm sorry for the short post this Monday morning, but you all are the victims of a busy and beautiful weekend in St. Louis.  On Saturday morning I woke up to several emails that needed to be tended to.  My day job never seems to carry regular hours.  In addition, the emails promise to add a little spice to Monday morning.  After that, we spent most of the day with our youngest daughter, Kaitlin who is a nursing student at Mizzou.  She is in town this weekend to see her boyfriend who is an engineering student at West Point Military Academy.  I've mentioned before that my wife and I are adjusting to an empty nest.  So it's nice to spend time with the kids.  As I write this, she is packing to return to school.

As far as today, Sunday, well you have Mother Nature to blame.  It's 73 degrees out and we just got back from cruising around topless.  One of my favorite pastimes.

I need to cut this short because I need to kiss my daughter and send her on her way back to school and then we are heading to the deck with a cooler of beer to grill some pork steaks for the in-laws and my oldest daughter & husband who will be arriving soon.

When you read this Monday morning I'm sure to be in meetings discussing those emails I mentioned at the top of the blog.  Then I will be preparing to take a quick trip on Tuesday and Wednesday to Chicago, so I'm not sure how much time I'll have to check back in.

I hope you had an enjoyable weekend recovering from the rough winter weather we all seem to be having.

Friday, February 18, 2011


by Pat Gulley

Guess who is texting these days? Me! Shocking as my phone and it’s ‘press twice for the letter B’ is a dinosaur compared to everything advertised on television—not TV these days. And I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blogs about editing and spelling lately, so it occurred to me that maybe it would be easier if I learned all those ‘texting’ words I see so often.

So, I found this site:

And after I laughed for several minutes, I decided it was like learning codes. I spent almost 40 years in the travel industry, codes are a given, every city and airport has a 3-letter code, every airline has a 2-letter code—everything is in code, so I could do this.

30 minutes later, my eyes blurred (okay the cataract surgery had something to do with it) and it occurred to me that many of these----things (words?) stood for things I would never say. I would never use them, and couldn’t expect anyone I texted to understand them, so why bother to learn them? I’d have to print them out to remember them.

I can understand some abbreviations that have come into usage: LOL is so widely used I expect to see it on one of those lists of things that needs banning, but it is understandable, as is OTOH and JMHO. But ‘u’ for you, ‘lite’ for the small spectrum the human race live within—not so much. And has anyone really figured out how lite applies to food? More confusion than exact information—not info. BFF is the most nonsensical one for me, but will allow that if it stays with the group under the age of 20 it is okay—not OK it suits the teen time.

Well the long and the short of it, after texting several times with my fat fingers I discovered that if I kept this phone it would be best to grow my thumbnails longer because the letters on my keypad are about the size of a grain of salt. Meaning learning to type hasn’t done me a bit of good because I’m back to one-fingering, I mean, one-thumbing it. And, yes, all those abbreviations would come in handy, but only if I said things like that. Are we expected to form a new way of talking too? And that is when, this time for some good, a little guilt set in. I’m a writer, editing is a major part of my daily routine and good spelling and grammar counts for a lot. I should never concede to this form of spelling or usage or talking. It would ruin my voice, my style. So, I’m texting and taking more time than seems right to write what should only be a quick note. I know I’m taking way to much time, because the return responses barely give me time to put down the phone and raise my coffee cup or wine glass to my lips.

Any ideas? I know, I know, get a new phone. Well, I have gone into the stores to look. Mind boggling. I leave with an even bigger headache and no new phone.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Welcome, Sara J. Henry

Thanks to Paula for hosting me here. For this post I’m answering a list of questions a reader posted over at Murderati, which I cheerfully lifted for an occasion such as this. [Sara is another debut author I met on Twitter. Y'all have got to read the first chapter of Learning to Swim--link's provided below. This book really drew me in!]

What about getting a blurb if you’re a first-time novelist?

You ask the authors you’ve met at Bouchercon or in Backspace or via blogs, and one who shares a publisher and genre with you (thank you, Lisa Unger). Some offer without your asking (thank you, Reed Farrel Coleman, JT Ellison, Daniel Woodrell).

What about questions like, ‘what do you really do for a living?’ or ‘how much do you make?’

This is easy:

1. I’m a writer.

2. More than I made as a bicycle mechanic.

What questions do you ask of your beta readers or critique groups?

Read this and tell me what you think. I ask them to mark anything that they like or that makes them wonder about something or that confuses them. I’d rather too much be marked than not enough – I can always ignore it.

How detailed is their feedback?

It varies greatly. But it’s all useful.

How formal is pitching a book to an agent at a conference?

I’ve never pitched a book to an agent at a conference, and if that were a requirement, I’d likely never be published, because I would say Uh, uh, uh, and that would be the end of it. Thank goodness for query letters, where I can seem calm and confident.

How intense is editing – tweaking lines and scenes – or actual rewrites of each paragraph, like recreating the novel?

I edit like mad, and I edit every time I see the manuscript. Sometimes it’s changing a word or a line. Sometimes it’s deciding a scene is in the wrong place. On my first novel, part of this was because I was learning to write better as I went, and I’d improve part of the book and then another part would be out of sync.

What are typical comments from editors and how much of their suggestions must you take?

This scene doesn’t work for me. I’d take this out.

Mine also didn’t like my propensity to say “police” instead of “the police” – apparently this is a southern habit.

You must take at least 87% of their suggestions. (This is a joke – I shared it with my editor, and he’s still speaking to me.) I took the suggestions that made sense, found alternate ways to solve some of the issues, and one, at least, ignored after trying for half an hour to reword a sentence.

How do you take out a subplot or add one in to a complete manuscript?

Very carefully. Seriously, this I’ve done.

Sara J. Henry’s first novel, Learning to Swim, has been called “emotional, intense, and engrossing” by Lisa Unger and “an auspicious debut” by Daniel Woodrell. It’s available for pre-order and will be in stores Feb. 22 – you can read the first chapter here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conference Yoda

by Annette Dashofy

Can it possibly be two whole years since I served as Pennwriters Conference coordinator? Where does the time go?

Yes, here it is. 2011 and the conference is once again to be held in Pittsburgh. I, however, have very little to do with it this time. Once was enough for me, thank you very much. This year, we have TWO conference coordinators, which I think is fabulous. What I wouldn’t have given for a co-coordinator. Or a clone.

Meredith Cohen started out in the job as a solo artist. But then she had the “huge misfortunate” to sign a book deal with all the required re-writes and edits that come along with these things. Rather than let her step down, Pennwriters offered her a partner in crime in the person of Julie Long.

And not wanting to simply throw them into to the deep end of the pool without a lifejacket, I took on a different role.

Conference Yoda.

I sit in my cave in my swamp and help them, I will.

I like it.

They email me questions. I email back answers or suggestions. Meredith has become Skywalker. Julie is Han Solo.

The force is definitely with them. They’ve lined up New York Times Best-seller Jennifer Weiner as Friday’s keynote speaker

and multiple Bram Stoker award winner Jonathan Maberry as Saturday’s luncheon keynote.

Not too shabby.

And they’ve rounded up a nice little group of literary agents and book editors. Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary will be back. (It remains to be seen whether the Victim of the Query Shark puts in a return appearance!) New to the conference are Denise Little (Ethan Ellenberg), Jason Pinter (The Waxman Agency), Barbara Poelle (Irene Goodman), Marci Posner (Folio Literary Management) and Victoria Skurnick (Levine Greenberg Literary Management). Headline Books’ Cathy Teets and Ginjer Buchanan, editor-in-chief of Ace/Roc Books will also be there.

Our own Ramona DeFelice Long will be there again, as will C.J. Lyons. And joining us for the first time will be Becky Levine.

I’m excited! The Pennwriters Conference has always been like a big family reunion, and it still is. The family just keeps growing!

Care to join us? The conference runs May 13-15, with day-long and half-day-long intensive workshops to be held on the Thursday (May 12) prior to the main event. Registration opens March 1st. For more information, check out the newly updated website at

(The pre-conference seminars on Thursday cost $125 for members and $150 for non-members for the whole day; $65/member and $95/non-member for half day. The three-day conference package cost $240/members and $290/non-members. For Friday-only attendees, registration costs $130/members and $185/non-members, and for Saturday-only attendees, the package costs $175/members and $215/non-members. Friday evening dinner with Jennifer Weiner costs $55/members and $75/non-members.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Maintaining Some Perspective

By Martha Reed

I managed to discombobulate my MAC over the weekend so out of sheer restlessness I went to my bookcase and picked out the thickest book I could find to keep my mind busy: Vanity Fair by WM Thackeray. I’ve been reading my way through English Literature (Literature with a capital “L”) and I expected a slow slog. What I discovered instead was an engaging read full of well-drawn characters plus some unexpectedly funny editorializing by the narrator in a fully developed modern novel.

Having somehow missed reading Thackeray before, I went online to find out more about him. First off, he epitomized British culture at the time having been born in Calcutta. I tend to think of English authors all living in drafty Vickerages or out on some lonely moor like the Bronte sisters. I forget that these people, especially the active middle-class that gave rise to so many Victorian authors, were international.

The other thing I tend to forget is that these writers wrote for a living. They serialized their novels for popular magazines. (Hey, where did the capital “L” go? What happened to LITERATURE? Grubbing for living?) And it wasn’t just Thackeray; Dickens used to do this, too. He invented the cliffhanger to keep his magazine readers panting for more. Of course, he needed to; he had a wife and 10 children to support.

All of this served as a reminder that the publishing world has been adaptive from the very beginning and that there is nothing wrong with striving to earn a living by writing popular fiction that may occasionally transcend to ART. Now, if I can just get my MAC back up and running, I’ll get back to it!

Monday, February 14, 2011


by Gina Sestak

So much information coming at us all the time.  So much controversy.  Print on demand or traditional publisher?  Paper back?  Hard cover?  Kindle?   Agent or do-it-yourself?  Critique group?  Paid editor?  Facebook, twitter, a presence on the web?  Launch parties at bookstores.  Word of mouth marketing.

OK.  It's a business.  I know that.  I try to pay attention.  Honest.

I try to read like a writer, analyzing word choice and sentence structure, plot points and genre.

But I'm happiest when I forget all that and get caught up in the story.  Any story.  It can be short.  "Veni, vidi, vici."  It can be long - I slogged through an uncut translation of Les Miserables last summer.   I look for  plot and action and compelling characters  everywhere - in books, in movies, even casual conversation.  What happened?  Who did it?  Why?  I often fail to see the point of literary fiction, thousands of beautifully chosen words formed into perfect sentences, all meaning absolutely nothing.

Maybe my tastes are too simplistic.  In a world full of deep depressing books, I keep rereading Harry Potter.   I know how it ends, but I still love to read about how everything comes together, following the way Harry obtains bits and pieces of information until he knows enough to out-guess Voldemort in the final confrontation.

I like the positive message of the books, that love can overcome evil.  [Remember that.  It's Valentine's Day, after all.]

I forego "serious" films to watch hours and hours of Bollywood, mesmerized by the music and dancing and unexplained costume changes.   And the good strong stories, compelling characters and plots (often about serious subjects) and satisfying endings.

Maybe that's all it takes:  An intriguing beginning, a compelling middle, and a satisfying end.

I know that is enough for me.

I can't help but focus on the story.  I can't help thinking that the most powerful four words in the English language may be, "Once upon a time . . . "

Friday, February 11, 2011

Twelve Average Citizens

by Ramona DeFelice Long

On a Tuesday night in a small town, three men plan a drug deal. For the purposes of this post, I will call the three men the Driver, the Passenger, and the Shooter.

The trio rendezvous with a dealer at McDonald’s, but the deal goes awry and a gun is fired. The local police get a 911 call. Two officers respond and there’s a chase through downtown. Finally, the getaway car pulls over.

The Driver sits alone in the front seat. The Passenger and the Shooter are in the back. As the police cruiser pulls alongside, the Shooter raises a 9mm pistol and fires one shot through the open side window. The bullet hits the face of the police officer in the passenger seat. A fragment hits the neck of the officer who is driving.

The Driver jumps out of the car, runs across the street and darts into the nearby woods.

The Shooter also runs. He takes the gun with him while the wounded second cop places a frantic officer down call.

The Passenger stays at the scene. He moves the getaway car forward, opens the door of the police cruiser and helps the badly bleeding officer out onto the grass.

Soon, the area is inundated with law enforcement and citizens drawn to the chaos. The town is surrounded and virtually shut down while a hunt for the Shooter and the Driver begins. Heavily armed officers knock on doors; a K-9 unit struggles in the dense woods while a state police helicopter with heat sensors flies overhead.

Before long, the Shooter is captured at a nearby residence—the home of strangers who allowed him to use their telephone. The 9mm is in his possession when the police find him. While handcuffed, the Shooter falls off the front porch of the house. In the mug shot taken that night, the Shooter’s face is bruised and swollen.

The manhunt for the Driver continues for days. He finally turns himself in at the urging of his mother.

At the scene of the shooting, the wounded first officer dies in the arms of a stranger.

This is not a work of fiction. This is a very simplistic account of September 1, 2009 in Georgetown, Delaware, and the killing of Patrolman Chad Spicer and the wounding of his partner, Shawn Brittingham.

Seventeen months have passed. The trial for this case began two weeks ago. The Shooter is charged with, among other things, capital murder. The Driver is charged with a slew of serious but lesser crimes. The Passenger is charged with nothing at all.

I am writing this on Tuesday morning. The case rested yesterday afternoon. Right now, the jury deciding the fate of the Shooter is—literally—still out.

Delaware is a small state. It would be hard to find anyone unfamiliar with blond, smiling, home town boy Chad Spicer, or his adorable three-year-old daughter Aubrey, or his distraught, devastated parents. Images of flowers, balloons and “Rest in Peace” notes near the spot where he died, and of Vice President Joe Biden covering his face and sobbing into his hands at the memorial service, are heart-rendering reminders of that night.

During the trial, graphic autopsy photos were shown. Expletive-filled text messages about drugs and money were read. Veteran police officers choked up on the witness stand. The Driver and the Passenger testified, as did the drug dealer. The Shooter did not.

Hard questions were asked about the Shooter’s bruises and the chain of custody for evidence. Gunshot residue found on both the Shooter and the Passenger was hashed over. The credibility of witnesses, the absence of charges, the making of deals in exchange for testimony were all discussed.

And through it all, the family of Patrolman Spicer sat in the courtroom.

I have followed this case closely, and one thing has become very, very clear.

I would not want to be on this jury.

Last year, I was called to jury duty. I blogged about the experience, which was both enlightening and encouraging. I assume the jurors in Georgetown want to do the right thing.

The title of this post references a famous play about a jury that tries a case in the deliberation room. That’s fiction. Jurors are not supposed to solve the crime. A real jury is only to consider the evidence presented.

As I read accounts of the Georgetown trial, I realized that the mystery writer in me would find that a challenge. How fairly could I weigh just the evidence when my day job requires me to look deeper and be creative and imaginative? Could I look at the defendant and believe only what is told to me? Could I not wonder about his motivation? Do I pretend I never heard the yuk-yuk “he fell down the courthouse steps, Your Honor”? Is it possible to turn all of that off?

A verdict may come at any time, and I cowardly admit that I’m glad I’m not deciding it.

Can a mystery writer be a fair juror? Could you? I never wondered this before, but the trial in the killing of Patrolman Chad Spicer has filled me with more than reasonable doubt about it.

Addendum: A short time after I finished writing this post, a verdict was delivered. The Shooter was found guilty.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Home Cookin'

by Joyce

I like my own cooking.

This revelation came to me one Friday afternoon when hubby asked me, "Do you want to go out to eat tonight?"

I thought about it for three or four seconds and said, "Nah. I'll make something." It had nothing to do with the fact that it would require me to shower, fix my hair, put makeup on, and wear something besides nylon workout pants and a t-shirt.

Two of my favorite restaurants are Max & Erma's and the Hofbrauhaus. I've never been disappointed at either place. It's been a different story at some other restaurants.  

I'm not going to officially name any of the bad places, even though I should--as a warning to unsuspecting consumers. It all started a couple of months ago when we went to one chain that serves burgers, sandwiches, and might just have a bird in their name. It was the absolute worst meal I've ever had. I should have known we were in for a bad experience as soon as we walked into the place. The entrance area was packed. Misbehaving little monsters were running rampant while their oblivious parents chatted. The hostess said there'd be a ten minute wait. We were finally seated a good half hour later.

It got worse. We were seated about six inches away from a family with four children under the age of ten. This wouldn't ordinarily be a problem, but the little girl in a high chair seated closest to us was a true demon child. I almost suggested we go somewhere else, but we'd already waited so long, I figured we should stick it out. Bad decision.

After another long wait, our waitress finally showed up and we ordered a couple of beers. Just when I was wondering if she was brewing the beer herself, she came back. Hubby and I ordered fish sandwiches. While we waited, said demon child kept throwing things onto our table. Every once in awhile her mother would say she was sorry, but didn't do anything to correct demon child. Okay, maybe she said, "Honey, don't do that." She should have picked up her precious one and given her a good swat on the backside. Maybe she was afraid the kid's head would start spinning or something. It wouldn't have surprised me.

Believe it or not, there's more. When our food finally arrived I bit into my fish sandwich. IT WAS STILL FROZEN. As in ice particles underneath that crispy fried batter. I took my fork and poked at it. Yep. FROZEN. While hubby ate his unfrozen sandwich, I waited for our server to come back. Ate a few french fries. Waited some more. No server. I finally flagged down a passing waiter after he served another table and told him. He took the sandwich and brought me a basket of fries. When he finally brought a new sandwich, I couldn't eat it. Just the thought of frozen fish turned my stomach. All this time, our waitress was nowhere to be found.

I'll cut to the chase. When it was time to pay, we handed our waitress (who had finally come back) our credit card. Another wait. The credit card machine was broken. She asked if we could pay cash. Um. No. She came back with a manager who stated she'd try to run it the old-fashioned way. Another wait. Finally, the manager said the meal was on the house because she couldn't figure out how to run the card. So, we got a free meal, not because it sucked, but because their credit card machine didn't work. Needless to say, I'll never go there again.

And that's not the only bad meal I've had lately. We went to another chain and I had a hard time picking something because there were too many weird ingredients in things. No, I don't want cranberries, pecans, and who knows what else in my salad. No, I don't want the chicken dipped in Caesar dressing, breaded, fried, and topped with cheese. I want an ordinary grilled chicken salad. Hold the fries. It's not that hard. Sheesh.

I got the message. I'm cookin' at home.

Next time we go out I might have to stick with beer and dessert.

They're my two favorite food groups anyway.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"They took my hat"

By Pat Remick

While lounging in the sun on the deck of Holland America's M/S Eurodam last week, I seized the opportunity to listen to some of the dialogue around me because even though I was on vacation, I believe in taking advantage of any opportunities to enhance my writing and also that "it's all novel material."

But by the time the loudest of the ongoing conversations in my vicinity finally concluded, I was ready to act out my own murder mystery involving one of the participants -- a woman who announced in a nasal New York accent that "they took my hat" and then proceeded to discuss this development with a female companion for at least another 43 minutes straight.

"They" was a cruise ship employee who, according to the story, likely scooped up her black and white cap obtained during a cruise to Bermuda and did so when he removed a used towel from her chair after she went to the restroom. Her husband, Meyer, apparently was supposed to have been guarding said hat but also didn't notice the incident precipitating the crisis, which eventually involved chasing down several deckhands, trying to gain entry to the cruise ship laundry, and making two trips to the ship's main desk. I know all this because it was recounted in excruciating detail, with every other sentence repeated for emphasis. The other woman's role in the conversation seemed to be to mumble "really?" at appropriate moments.

I wanted to scream. I imagined how the other passengers might react if I leaped up from my deck chair and yelled, "Just go buy another hat, lady. It's gone. Give it up. Hell, I'll buy you another hat if only you will just please, please shut up!" But instead, I kept my eyes closed and prayed that Meyer's wife would disappear like her hat.

Then I thought about some of the other mundane and sometimes seemingly endless conversations I had eavesdropped on during this cruise -- in the buffet line, on the elevators, in the hallways, etc. and it reminded me again that much of what people say to each other is extremely boring to those not involved in the immediate discussion (but sometimes also to the direct participants, as well).

And yet, when we write our stories and novels, dialogue plays a key role and we work hard to make it realistic. But we really don't want it to be realistic, do we? Who would want to read the entire conversation about Meyer's wife's missing hat or that Ellen should not be eating eggs for breakfast or the details of how the Eurodam's onboard casino compares to every other casino in America?

Even most of our telephone conversations are too boring for our books: "Hi, is this Jack?" "Yes, it is." "Well, Jack, this is Joan. How are you today?"  Who wants to read that?

When it comes to dialogue, we're told to use only the good stuff and only if it advances the story. But that's not how people really talk, is it? 

On the other hand, have you ever overhead a conversation that you felt you absolutely must steal for your work in progress? Did you whip out a notebook and jot the must-have phrase or conversation down?  What about the boring conversations ~ are any of them useful to your writing?

By the way, I spotted Meyer's wife at the beach in the Bahamas a few days later and she was still hatless. I'm wondering if Meyer threw it overboard in the hope she would spend the rest of the cruise searching for it and therefore, leave him alone. And maybe it was all a nefarious plot designed to send her into the ocean after it, which he might have hinted at in a conversation with a fellow traveler who turned out to be his mistress.

Now that's a conversation I would have liked to have overheard.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Diary of a Super Bowl (defeat)

by Annette Dashofy

Since Will isn’t able to be here today, I’ve volunteered to take his slot and post about the Super Bowl. Since I usually like to have my posts written and ready to go the day before, and since I knew I’d be spending the day before THIS post watching the game, I thought I’d write it DURING the game, as it happens. So what follows is my diary of a Super Bowl game.

Let me begin by saying I’m scared. But this isn’t an omen of anything. I’m always scared. I want to see a blow out, but my affectionate nickname for the Steelers is the Cardiac Kids. Sometimes I can’t even stand to watch the game until the fourth quarter. That tends to limit the strain on my heart. But this is the Super Bowl. I feel obligated to watch the whole thing, for the commercials if nothing else.

6:30PM Coin toss. Green Bay wins the toss. Steelers will receive. Game on!

But it was an inauspicious start. Both defenses have shown up to play. And the referees have jumped into the game, too. Less than six minutes into the game, and two penalties on the Steelers already. Sigh.

The Packers offense is playing well. Oh, no. This is about the point where I start proclaiming “we’re gonna lose!” I think I’ve made that statement during just about every game we play, so it’s not an omen either.

Ack. Packers score a touchdown! Okay, let’s not panic. Not so long ago we were down by 14 points at the half and we came back to win it. Cardiac Kids, remember?

Oh, crap. Ben is intercepted. Packers run it in for a touchdown. We’re seriously screwed. Can I put in a DVD and watch a movie for a couple of hours?

More penalties against the Steelers. Time to go make some popcorn. I need something for nervous munching.

Ben goes down and comes up limping. Next play: he runs for a first down. I’ve seen him do this so many times, I wonder if he fakes the injury to throw the other team off! No touchdown, but we do at least come away with a field goal. It’s 14-3.

Let me take a commercial break here to say: So far the commercials suck! Everyone seems to be trying to out-stupid each other.

Jeez. We finally make some forward progress and get hit with another penalty. More progress! Ack! Intercepted again! This is bad. Time for some chocolate. I’m again considering watching a DVD. Strongly considering it.

Packers get a third touchdown. Weeping. Okay, that’s it. I’m tuning out.

After watching a DVD, I return at just the right moment to see Mendenhall run into the end zone to bring the score to 21-17. Even better, when they cut to a commercial, it was for Pirates of the Caribbean! I love Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Next up, Harrison sacks Rodgers to force a punt! The Steelers look like a different team. But the Packers defense is still strong and Ben gets sacked.

Steelers’ 52 yard field goal attempt isn’t even in the right time zone.

Both defenses are strong. Steelers stop the Packers. Packers stop the Steelers. Frustration is evident on both benches.

A challenge goes our way. Packers are penalized on a punt, giving Steelers excellent field position. At the end of the third quarter, the tide seems to have turned.

And I’m still scared!

Ack! Packers force a fumble and recover it. Now besides being scared, I’m also feeling sick. Thinking I need to put in another DVD.

Packers on the one yard line. DEFENSE! Argh! Packers touchdown. This is depressing. We’re giving this game away.

Distraught, I once again tune out for a while. I come back just in time for a Steelers 2-point conversion and the score: 28-25, Packers. A three point game! Rodgers is sacked again. Packers pull another 5-yard penalty. But then a huge Packers completion. My heart sinks back to my feet. Momentum is shifting back the other way. Not good. They’re heading for the end zone. And the clock is running down. Only 3 minutes left. Steelers hold them to a field goal. With 2:07 left to play, the score is Packers 31, Steelers 25. On the kickoff return, we get hit with a personal foul penalty. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot. It will take nothing short of a miracle.

And it comes down to :56 left and fourth and five. And an incomplete pass. Green Bay wins the Super Bowl.

I have to say, making it to the Super Bowl only to lose the big game is more painful than losing in the playoffs. Or not even making the playoffs. Maybe because the Steelers franchise has won nearly all the Super Bowls they’ve played in. But tonight, the better team won. And that team was the Green Bay Packers.

Footnote: Had the Packers been playing ANY other team, I’d have been thrilled they won. My dad was a longtime Packers fan…and he loathed the Steelers. Don’t ask me why. He took his sports reasoning to the grave. So I’m appeasing my wounded Steelers pride with the knowledge that Dad is smiling down on Dallas right now. Congratulations, Green Bay.

Friday, February 04, 2011

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

by Jennie Bentley

I’m in a bit of a scramble right at the moment. I’m leaving for Norway on Monday, to spend a few days with my family – minus the kids, who are in school – and I didn’t realize how much I had to catch up on until I had only one week to do it all. I had to have the dog groomed, and I had to visit the chiropractor – who wants to travel halfway around the world with a bum back? – and I felt compelled to e-file the taxes before I left, and then there are a few things going on with the writing, as well, that I’ve had to stay on top of.

DIY-4, Mortar and Murder, was released a month ago, to much rejoicing and glad cries. It debuted at #3 on Barnes and Noble’s mass market paperback mystery list – my best placement yet; I hit #5 once before, but no higher – and at #27 on the big B&N list of all their paperbacks, not just the mysteries. The editor was thrilled, the agent was thrilled, I was thrilled... there were thrills all around.

DIY-5 – Flipped Out! – is already written and scheduled for release in October, but now it seems there’ll be another book after that, too. I sent my editor an outline a week or two ago, and I have been told an offer should be forthcoming shortly. And for those of you following my debacle either on Facebook or Twitter, it seems the baby skeleton in the steamer trunk stays. At least I haven't been told otherwise yet.

When you’re a cozy writer, you have to adhere to certain conventions of the genre. Cozies are traditional mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie and the other classics, with an amateur sleuth, no graphic violence, no bad language, and certainly no graphic sex. Admittedly, I fudge a little on the language – some people curse, y’all, and if I’m gonna write about them, I feel I ought to portray them accurately – but I stay pretty true to the rest of it. Yes, Avery and Derek have sex (in case you wondered), but I don’t show it. They don’t talk about it much, either. And graphic violence creeps me out, so there’s no hardship there.

No, where I have the problem is with the cozy subject matter. Cozies tend to have a small cast of characters in a limited geographic (or otherwise) setting. A small town, a neighborhood within a bigger town, a college, a traveling acting company... I’ve got the small town, so no problem there either. But in the classics, the murders tend to be – for lack of a better word – very insular. It’s Cousin Freddy killing Aunt Alice for her money, or the seemingly devoted husband slowly poisoning his invalid wife so he can marry her sister. It’s all very small, very much rooted in the human condition, but not in a psychological thriller type of way.

And that’s great, if – as someone once said – it’s what blows your skirt up. The human animal is infinitely fascinating, no? I just find myself naturally tending toward somewhat less cozy subject matter. In DIY-2, Spackled and Spooked, I tried to murder two little girls, and had to rewrite. No children get hurt in cozies. In DIY-3, Plaster and Poison, the poor doggies locked in a room upstairs in the killer’s house caused some concern... until it became obvious that they weren’t dogs at all, the noises were made by a kidnapped woman. Then, suddenly, it was fine. But no animals get hurt in cozies, either. I was amazed when I got to tackle human trafficking in Mortar and Murder. You can’t get much farther from cozy than human trafficking and the sex trade. Of course, I did have to skip lightly over the sex part...

So when the baby in the steamer trunk idea hit me, I knew I had to do some fancy footwork to get it past the powers that be. I’m happy to say it seems I succeeded. DIY-6 will be about a big, old Craftsman Bungalow in Waterfield Village, a tiny baby skeleton in a steamer trunk shoved into a corner of the attic, and two old biddies who know more than they will admit. Other than the dead baby, it's actually pretty cozy.

But that’s a book in the future, and as of yet just a gleam in my eye. I’ll leave you with the brand new back cover copy for Flipped Out! coming in October. Here it is, straight from the horse’s – AKA my editor’s – pen:

Avery and her hunky handyman boyfriend Derek Ellis are renovating another house in Waterfield, Maine. But it’s not just any house. It belongs to local news anchor Tony “the Tiger” Micelli—and it’s a quaint cottage with limitless possibilities. Even more exciting is that the makeover is going to be filmed as part of a home renovation TV show.

Unfortunately the road to cable TV fame is a bumpy one: this DIY spins into a DOA when Tony’s corpse is found at the cottage, flat on his back and not from natural causes. Turns out there were a few people who wanted Tony dead, and that the murderer might have his sights set on a few more Waterfield residents. That means it’s up to Avery to nail the killer. And fast.

Have a great February, y’all! Play nice without me!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Welcome Guest Keri Stevens

Paula here. I "met" our guest blogger on Twitter the time she reluctantly became the midwife of a very pregnant stray cat. Keri was looking for help and guidance in her sudden predicament. Fortunately, Colleen Lindsay--whom I follow on Twitter--came through 'cause I sure didn't have a clue. Keri's cat adventure prompted me to follow her. Yay, social media! Keri, welcome to Working Stiffs!

Welcome to my Delusion
By Keri Stevens

If a book in the digital bookstore never gets downloaded, does a tree falling in the forest hear it?

In 2008 I was taking an Oriental dance week-long intensive workshop in Manhattan. At the end of six to eight hours of sweating through Tunisian folkloric classes, I'd trudge back to my tiny hotel in Chelsea, clean up, and go play all night. By the fourth day, I was beyond exhausted, so when I looked up at a carving of the North Wind above a shop doorway, I shouldn't have been surprised that he spoke to me.

"I wonder what you've seen in the last few centuries?" I asked him . He sent me back to the hotel garden to figure it out. Notebook in hand, I sat near the small statue of the Virgin Mary and said, "I bet if you could talk, you wouldn't be nearly as placid as you look."

"Oh, honey," she answered. "I could tell you stories." And from those notes, Stone Kissed was born.

Delia, the heroine, speaks to statues--and they talk back. The bust of Athena (which is mounted, of course, over her chamber door) bickers with the carved Roman matron in the corner of her living room. The dancer on her store shelf gives Delia advice about her love life. The Green Man hanging on the kitchen wall thinks no man is good enough for her.

In the process of creating my secondary characters, I visited museums and graveyards and poked around in the corners of other people's homes, whispering to alabaster pigeons and heroes on horseback in the town square.

But I didn't expect the conceit of the book to spill over into my readers' daily lives. My neighbor admitted to apologizing to her St. Francis lawn statue for the small crack running through his face. Another reader e-mailed me to say she'd begun chatting with other people's funerary figures when she visits her father's grave. Someone else turned a carving on her mantel around because she felt it was staring at her. and I laughed gleefully to hear it.

A book without a reader is a diary (and even then, most diarists imagine the future reader who will find them posthumously). I write so that I may be read (and in the digital age I'm pleased to save some trees). I want my fantasies to infiltrate yours, and share the faith that no matter how weird we think we are (or how weird we are), each of us can find lifelong love.

And I, like most authors and artists of every stripe, love to hear about it when my book connects you to me.

Has a book ever moved you so much that you've changed your behavior because of it? Have you ever felt compelled to contact the author and say, "See what you've done?"

Read a FREE excerpt of Stone Kissed now!

STONE KISSED ISBN: 978-14268-9101-4

When Delia Forrest talks to statues, they talk back. She is, after all, the last of the Steward witches.

After an arsonist torches her ancestral home with her estranged father still inside, Delia is forced to sell the estate to pay his medical bills. Her childhood crush, Grant Wolverton, makes a handsome offer for Steward House, vowing to return it to its former glory. Delia agrees, as long as he’ll allow her to oversee the restoration.

Working so closely with Grant, Delia finds it difficult to hide her unique talent—especially when their growing passion fuels her abilities.

But someone else lusts after both her man and the raw power contained in the Steward land. Soon, Delia finds herself fighting not just for Grant’s love, but for both their lives…

KERI STEVENS was raised in southern Missouri and has lived in Germany, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky. Along the way she acquired degrees in writing and German, a romance hero of her very own, three sons, two miracle cats and a mutt who licks her when she speaks German.

Her husband gave Keri her first romance novel to read, which unleashed a passion. Several years and a couple thousand novels later, Keri took up her laptop and began writing her own books.
By day, she is a mild-mannered yoga and Oriental dance instructor. By night she creates mayhem and magic in small-town paranormal romance novels like her award-winning debut, Stone Kissed.

Find Keri online at:
Main site and blog:
My Friends Yahoo group:

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Steelers Mania

It’s early February, which regardless of the number of days in it, is the longest month of the year. Cold. Gray. Snow, slush, and ice.

Today, of course, is Groundhog Day, but I’ve written way too much about that damnable rodent in past years. Let me ruin the suspense for you. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, there will be a month and a half. There. Save yourself the trouble of watching the news.

In this corner of Pennsylvania, unless you’re into skiing or other winter sports, there’s only one other thing going on this week.

Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl!

I know not everyone here is a football fan. And not all our Working Stiffs are Pittsburghers. But I’m a long time Steelers fan, so, yeah, I’m excited.

My personal Steelers mania goes back to the days of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Mean Joe Greene and John Stallworth. Later, it became even more personal when I worked at Lowry’s Western Shop where many of the Steelers shopped for Western hats and boots. Mike Webster, Jon Kolb, and Mel Blount, just to name a few, were regulars. Everyone at the shop knew I had a crush on Mark Malone. Okay, he may not have been the best quarterback in the league, but he was seriously cute. So one day I was in the back, eating my lunch, when one of the sales girls came back to order me out front to wait on a customer. Yep. The customer needing assistance was none other than Mark Malone. It was one of the few times in my life I’ve been speechlessly star struck.

I can’t claim to have met anyone on the current Steelers roster. I fear if I were to run into Troy Polamalu, I’d be even more star struck than I was all those years ago.

As for the big game? I’m not going to rant and make claims about a huge victory. Frankly, I’m scared. I’m always scared when the Steelers play a big game. They’re too fond of keeping things close. My heart can’t stand it.

My hubby has to work on Sunday, so I’ll be watching the game alone. My cats have learned it’s wisest to vacate the premises when I’m watching football. I guess I do tend to scream at the TV, jump on couch when we score, and pull my hair when we shoot ourselves in the collective team foot. Felines prefer calm. Calm is not a word I’d use to describe me on a Steelers Sunday. Especially this one.

While I may be physically alone, I will be on Twitter. I discovered the fun of Tweeting with fellow Steelers fans during the play-offs. If you’re on Twitter, feel free to follow me @Annette_Dashofy. My joy and my agony (hopefully more joy!) will be out there in Twitterdom for all the world to see on Sunday night.

FYI, if I had to make a prediction, I’d go with the Steelers by 3 in overtime. Just because they like to make me suffer until the last possible moment.

And if you haven’t seen this yet, check it out. Even if you aren’t a die-hard Steelers fan, it’s a really cool tribute to Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Very Superstitious

By Martha Reed

Rabbit, rabbit.

What does that mean? Well, while we were growing up my youngest sister had a superstition that if you said ‘rabbit, rabbit’ first thing the morning of a new month then you would have exceptionally good luck for the whole month. She used to tape notes on her bedroom door and on the bathroom mirror reminding her to say ‘rabbit, rabbit’ before she ran into any of the rest of us.

We, of course, her loyal, loving family did everything in our power to get her to say something completely different and blow her luck for the month. Families are like that. It’s how we show we care.

But thinking of this superstition (because today is the first day of the month and of course thirty-five years later I still have to say ‘rabbit, rabbit” dammit who can take a chance on a months’ worth of bum luck?) made me stop to think if I had any others.

Here’s my list:

  1. Touch glass (window) when going under a railroad trestle in a car.
  2. Touch the the roof of the car if there’s a train on the trestle overhead.
  3. Read the signboard on the LEFT side of the Smithfield Church downtown because whatever is written on it is a direct message from God. I'm not joking. And it has to be the left signboard, too, not the right. Evidently, according to my superstition, the right signboard has absolutely no divine meaning whatsoever.
  4. When playing poker, if early in the game I pull an inside straight (a bonehead move that drives my poker rival Meg frantic) then I will continue to pull hot cards and have a winning night.
 How about you? Superstitions, anyone?