Monday, October 31, 2011


by Gina Sestak

What scares you?  Really scares you?  Do you spend your nights alone, crafting terrifying stories in a room lit only by your computer screen?  Or do you, like me, sometimes need to grab the cat and sit outside until the menacing vibes inside the house are gone?    Are you a coward when it comes to ghosts?  I know I am.

So why do I watch scary movies like this one?

Ghosts aren't the only frightening things that come around this time of year.  The flocking of our feathered friends may well portend disaster, too.

Then there are the myriad dead and undead.

If you watch closely, you may see me as a zombie extra in the mall portion of this movie, Dawn of the Dead.  I was thinner then, but since we filmed outside in the dead of winter (no pun intended), that is hard to tell because I was wearing 5 sets of clothes.  Between takes we zombies would all huddle around the lights, trying not to freeze.

Sometimes the scary things are aliens, able to take on any form in an instant.

And sometimes, the scary things come out of games . . .

I saw this film, Ra.One, yesterday afternoon at Loew's Waterfront and it is awesome.   Thrills, stunts, special effects, tragedy, and humor, all wrapped around the touching story of a game-designer father trying to win his gamer son's respect.  It's lots of fun to watch, so catch it while you can!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Working Stiffs of Classical Athens

Today we welcome guest blogger Gary Corby!

Working Stiffs of Classical Athens

Thanks to Working Stiffs for asking me drop in!

I write murder mysteries set in classical Athens.  That's 2,500 years ago!  So given the rather intriguing name of our gracious host, I thought I'd write about the real working stiffs of the ancient world. 

If you went back to Athens in 460BC, which is when western civilization began—and when my stories begin—you'd find three classes of people: citizens, metics, and slaves.

Reputable citizens were either landholders (definitely the preferred option); or craftsmen or artisans (definitely the most common occupation); or they might be a mercenary soldier (killing people for money was only slightly frowned upon).

Metics were resident aliens with permission to live and work in Athens.  Think of them like green card holders in the US, and you won't be far wrong. 

The metics had no say in how the city was run, but nor did they care as long as they were making money.  And they made a lot of money.  In those days Athens was the economic powerhouse of the world.  (Things may have changed slightly since…)

So metics ran businesses.  But it was considered shameful for a citizen to indulge in trade.  Which didn't stop it from happening; they just didn't talk about it at parties.

Citizen  A (as he sips fine wine imported from Chios):  "So, what do you do for a living?"
Citizen B:  "I import fine wine from Chios in my shipping fleet."
Citizen A:  Gasp!  Drops wine cup.   Backs away from disreputable individual.

Money, you see, had nothing to do with how your reputation stood. 

My hero, Nicolaos, is a citizen; but his girlfriend Diotima is a metic.  Which makes for a slight problem, because while marriage between citizens and metics isn't illegal, it isn't exactly encouraged either.  The Athenians discouraged cross-class marriage by declaring a law that to be a citizen, both your parents had to be citizens. 

You might think the slaves were the worst off—and if they got assigned to the silver mines, then they certainly were—but in some ways, slaves were better off than poor citizens.  At least the slaves were guaranteed to get fed.

These days, most of us get up in the morning, go to work for some big company, and then come home at night.  The standard daily grind, right?  Something a lot of people don't realize is that, historically, this is really strange: for one citizen to work full time for another is a very recent system. 

We often call ourselves wage slaves.  Well, in the ancient world, if you were working permanently for one employer, then you almost certainly were a slave.  For real.  They were the ancient world's working stiffs.

Permanent employment was the essential difference between a slave and a citizen.  The slave had it and the citizen didn't.  Your average middle class citizen was like what we'd call an independent contractor.  And if you suggested he take a permanent job, he would have punched you in the face, because that would be demeaning.

This leaves my investigator-hero Nicolaos with a problem.  How does he describe his own work?  There were no such things as policemen in the ancient world to compare himself with.  He's surviving from one job to the next, like an artisan, so in his world, that makes him…a craftsman of crime.
Nicolaos, the ambitious son of a minor sculptor, walks the mean streets of Classical Athens as an agent for the promising young politician Pericles. Murder and mayhem don't faze Nico; what's really on his mind is how to get closer (much closer) to Diotima, the intelligent and annoyingly virgin priestess of Artemis, and how to shake off his irritating 12 year old brother Socrates.

To learn more about Gary and/or Nicolaos, visit

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Not In The Spirit

by Joyce

I am quite possibly the only person in the world who hates Halloween.

Everywhere I go I see skeletons, monsters, giant spiders, vampires, you name it. My neighbors have a severed hand and cobwebs on their mailbox. Another neighbor up the street has a giant blow-up combination pumpkin-ghost thing with a stomach that has things flying around like a snow globe. Who the hell thought that one up?

I didn't used to mind it so much. Back when I was a kid in the dark ages, we dressed up and went trick or treating as soon as it got dark. We'd grab a pillow case and only went home when it was full. We'd walk for miles (or maybe it just seemed like miles). The candy would last until Christmas.

When my own kids were small, hubby would take them out and I'd stay home and give out the candy. And their costumes were always home made. We had a Smurf, a dice, a cowboy, a crayon, Batman, Ninjas, Power Rangers, and some I've forgotten. I'd have to get out the photos. The best costumes were the Union and Confederate uniforms they wore one year. I vowed to never sew another costume after that. They about did me in.

It seems to me that Halloween has lost its spirit. And I don't mean the ghostly kind. It used to be a fun time when people would use their imaginations and come up with clever costumes. No one wanted to have the same costume as anyone else. We put hours and hours into the planning, and more hours into making the costume, all the while never breathing a word of it to our friends because we didn't want it to be copied. Now people just go into any store and buy the same thing that hundreds of others are wearing.

People must be making up for the lack of imagination in choosing costumes by going over the top with their decorations. I don't get how anyone thinks a skeleton hanging from a tree draped with purple and orange lights does anything to boost their curb appeal. What's wrong with just having a nice fall welcome plaque and a plain old pumpkin, like I have?

Do I sound crotchety? Good. I am. Or maybe I'm missing the good old-fashioned Halloween. The one where kids actually said "Trick or treat," before you dropped a candy bar into their bag. Or gasp! Actually said "Thank you," when you did.

There is one consolation though. I don't have anyone calling me on the phone asking when Halloween is.

How about you? Has Halloween lost its spirit? Have you lost yours?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Many Crime Writers Does It Take...

Have you ever wondered how many women crime writers does it take to break into a house?

Last weekend, I found out the answer: six.

More on that in a bit.

We arrived in Confluence last Friday afternoon. I’d pretty much given up on any idea of outdoor activities, since the morning had dawned gloomy, dreary, and rainy. But by the time I pulled up in front of the rental house, blue skies were winning the battle against the clouds.

Two minutes after I arrived, Colette Garmer and fellow Working Stiff Martha Reed pulled in behind me. We lugged our gear inside, and I gave them the tour of That Dam Yough House. Bedrooms were divvied up. And Colette settled in while Martha and I headed out for a bike ride. The mountain air was brisk and clear. The breeze made any thoughts of maintaining a decent hairstyle a waste of time and effort. There’s a sense of freedom in giving up the battle to look good.

Once we returned from our ride, we made a grocery list, called and ordered a couple of pizzas, and then Martha and I jumped in my car to do some food shopping. By the time we made it back, the others had arrived. The kitchen counter was laden with goodies. The refrigerator stuffed.

We gathered around the table to share our first meal of the weekend. We also shared a “conference call” with our absentee president Tamara Girardi, who was home with her newborn son. Ah, speaker phones. Technology does come in handy sometimes.

Friday evening, we gathered in the living room for a group critique session. No tears were shed. In fact, I find it amazing how much talent we had in that house.

Somewhere in the course of the evening, I broke out the chocolate wine. Yes, you read that right. Chocolate wine. Think Yoo-hoo on steroids.

At one point I had an idea that was nothing short of genius, if I do say so myself. Chocolate wine in coffee. Don’t laugh. If you haven’t tried it, you really must. It’s like mocha with a kick.

Saturday morning was the start of the workshops. As the presenter, you’d think I didn’t learn anything. But the fact is going over the material in preparation to share it reminded me of some key points I’d forgotten.

And it was extremely gratifying to see my “sisters’” eyes light up when they had an a-ha moment.

We didn’t just “work,” although there was plenty of that. We took walks. I took everyone on a pair of driving tours to the dam and around the town I consider my second home.

Last year, when we were there during the flood, it was hard to show off the place. This year, the weather was perfect and, with the autumn colors in full bloom, Confluence had on her best party dress.

Saturday evening, we walked the short distance to the River’s Edge CafĂ© for dinner. Everyone had mellowed nicely by then. Discussion varied from a report on this summer’s manuscript boot camp to “what made you become a writer?” On the walk home, the stars sparkled overhead. Good thing I know my way around, because Confluence doesn’t have street lights. Thankfully, they don’t have much in the way of traffic either.

But when we returned to the house, we made a startling discovery. The keys we had didn’t include one for the front door. Nor did they include one for the deadbolt on the back door, which someone who shall remain nameless (Colette) had latched. No one answered at the phone numbers we had. And Mary Sutton needed to use the facilities.

Which brings me back to the question about how many women crime writers does it take to break into a house?

Mary and her urgent needs motivated us to take action rather than simply wait for the landlords to pick up their phone messages. One plan involved hoisting petite Jennifer Little-Fleck up to the second floor where Martha had left her bedroom window open. Meanwhile, Colette searched the perimeter and found a first-floor window that hadn’t been locked. However, the screen on the outside of it presented something of an obstacle. Martha managed to pry it loose, but couldn’t quite get it all the way out. I jumped in and figured out how to release it from its bindings. Then Martha gave Jennifer a leg up while someone (Colette, I think) held the wooden blind out of the way. Jennifer slid right in and opened the door for us. Lee Ann Dawson was involved in the break-in, too. So that makes six.

And since the weather wasn’t providing any challenges, we now had our annual story to tell to the folks back home.

Sunday morning’s workshop on Social Networking turned into a group discussion with those in the know helping those who wanted to know. We sat down to lunch before saying our good-byes. I think I can truthfully say a good time was had by all. If there were any complaints, I didn’t hear them. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing and Writer's Groups

By K.M. Humphreys

         Writing has been around for centuries, dating back to at least 3100 BC in the area of what is now modern day Iraq.  Soon after were the Egyptians.  Egyptian hieroglyphics are what most people think of when they think about early forms of writing.  They were a form of storytelling.   The Chinese script was developed around 1600 BC and still exists today, and was used to develop the Japanese language as well. 
Writing has developed over the centuries to become a powerful form of communication.  From sending information to telling a story, it is used in everyday life.  In today’s high tech society, communication is often abbreviated, such as LOL. 
                I first remember writing when I was in sixth grade.  I worked hard on many manuscripts that never saw the light of day.  They are still stashed somewhere.  They were written at a sixth grade level for sixth graders.  Writing was a passion all through middle school and high school and as I got older and had less and less time to write as I pursued one career, and then another. My love for writing never completely left me and within the last few years I’ve been writing so much more and learning more about the writing process such as planning, outlining, critiquing (it’s not a bad thing) have made me think more about my writing.  My husband has been a big supporter of my getting back into writing. 
                I decided to join some writing groups soon after I got back into writing.  It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  When I first joined, I really didn’t know if these groups would help me, but decided to give it a try anyways.  I first joined Sisters in Crime and soon learned that a lot of them were also involved in Pennwriters.  So, I joined Pennwriters. 
                Since joining these groups I have learned a lot about the craft of writing.  I mentioned at the beginning of this blog about writing being an art.  These groups showed me just how much of an art it really is.  Everybody thinks in different ways and because of that, everybody has a different process and writes differently.  There really are no two writers who are exactly alike.  They may be close, but there will be differences.  These differences allow writers like me to learn different techniques   I keep trying different ideas that I think might work for me.  I know I will find a technique and process that works well for me. 
                Writing is a way of expressing oneself.  The writing groups I have joined allow each individual to share ideas, thoughts and concerns.  We help each other through times when we’re having difficulty getting writing time in and brainstorm with each other.  They are supportive of the creative mind, and we understand that mind thinks in different ways than non-creative people.  Writers understand that and encourage it.
                If you are truly serious about writing, and becoming part of the history of writing, you should seriously consider joining a writing group.  They are there to support you and keep the art of writing alive.

* The early dates of writing I obtained from

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nanowrimo, anyone?

by C.L. Phillips

Even in Central Texas, there's a whiff of autumn in the air.  I can't imagine how beautiful it must be in Pittsburgh with the colorful trees bidding adieu to their leaves in preparation for ...NANOWRIMO, National Write a Novel in  Month.

Who's in with me?

In my quest for the perfect system to quickly write books, I'm doing something new this year.  I'm starting with the title, my template, and two days of pre-planning (October 30 and 31).  Then it's "heads-down" for the rest of November.

My goal :  to cover the ground from Once upon a Night to THE END, namely a completed first draft.  I did this over the last six weeks on another project, so I thought I'd report what I've learned.

Getting down the bones of the story takes between 55,000 and 60,000 words.  Going back and adding in the details of additional scenes, cool research on undeveloped ideas adds another 10,000 words.  Fine tuning the character development, conflict, and setting adds another 15,000 words, bringing the total to 80-85,000.  Buff and polishing subtracts another 5,000 words.

So my plan for NANOWRIMO?  Create the core 55-60,000 words.

Who is in with me?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fiction vs Facts vs Do Whatever You Want

by Pat Gulley

A recent discussion about research with a bunch of writers from all genres led to an out and out argument over having correct facts in your work vs. making them up.

No, no one was hurt, it may have been an argument but there were a lot of belly laughs too. Needless to say, the science fiction and historical writers lined up on one side while fantasy and romance were on the other. I’m glad to say the mystery writers stood in the middle and jumped back and forth as we saw fit—thus all the laughing.

We had a good time at the expense of the SF writers as they wanted good sound facts and science in their work. I brought up a quote by Harlan Ellison (that led to a ‘I never heard of that” or “no it was Steve Barnes or it might have been David Brin”—whatever, it was some famous SF writer) “I going to tell you something that is impossible or unproven or not real, and I expect you to believe it while I weave this very interesting story.” And so, they gave us space travel long before Sputnik went up, and (my favorite) wormholes to get to other galaxies long before they were discovered to only be blood vessel size. The fantasy writers had a great chuckle out of that one, which gained the response that it was only a matter of time before WE (get that egomania at work) figured out how to enlarge them for space craft. And besides, they argued, that is science at work, not invention from nothing of something unheard of. Instead of sneering at the fantasy writers they rolled their eyes at the romance writers, who fought back with the reality of human interaction and more importantly LOVE.

            We mystery writers (well me) brought up the use of minimal facts, nothing long winded, to suit a story and it was the historical writers who had a fit over that one. We all agreed that it was unfair to make up things and call them facts in history or science, but if history and science are not the main ingredient of the story, say it is a romance or a mystery, then a light dusting of true facts should only be needed. Grumbling from SF and History writers, but okay, after all you are ‘only’ mystery and romance writers. (If only an evil eye could sting like a wasp.) But we got even by pointing out that historicals and science stories were far more interesting and not so dry when a bit of of mystery and/or human romantic relationships were added.

            So, as usual, nothing was accomplished except for all having a very good time. We did settle on agreeing that if you were going to write cross genre stories, you have to lead with your main genre when describing the story. A romantic/mystery is going to be about the romance or developing romance of two people and some kind of mystery revolves around this love affair. However, if you are writing a murder mystery that takes place on the moon and two people seem to be interested romantically in each other then (according to the SF and mystery writers) it has to be a SF/mystery. The romance writes demanded an explanation. And the following is a convoluted mash of what SF and mystery came up with. In the romance/mystery the reader wants to know about the developing love story and couldn’t care less about solving the mystery, doesn’t look for clues, just assumes the answer comes at the end as the marriage will. In the mystery on the moon, SF lovers will probably choose to read it because astronomy and space travel are involved, they’ll watch for accurate facts, they’ll enjoy the mystery, look for clues and won’t care a hoot about the romance between the couple as long as the two protagonists get laid.

            What can I tell you, that was what we came up with. Again, another night of agreeing not to agree while having another glass of wine. Nobody said we were geniuses, just writers. Do you worry over getting the facts, science, or history into your stories? WHY??

Oh and have a Happy, Spooky, Overeating, Good Halloween.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


by Barbara Poelle

(From Paula: Wow. You guys are in for a treat today. Welcome back to Working Stiffs, Barbara!)

Yay! Fall is here! October brings two of my favorite things: excellent running weather and Halloween. I seem to be able to be faster when running around Halloween, mostly because of all the lurching, emaciated undead in the streets, But enough about the fashion district (RIM SHOT!) did anyone watch the premiere of THE WALKING DEAD this weekend? I am very interested to hear what people thought. 

I have always been a fan of horror, and am totally on the hunt for a Young Adult horror novel. (Remember Christopher Pike? Yeah, baby.)  I have read pretty much everything Stephen King has written- I mean if that dude jotted down the recipe for ice, I would read it for hours. Sadly, I haven’t been able to dip into as much horror this season as I would have liked. The good news is that so many of the mysteries and thrillers I have been reading have at least something horrifying in them, so I am not reduced to rubbing my gums and standing in a dark alleyway saying, “Scare me for 10 bucks, Mr.?” (Uh, Ew. Let’s never have THAT happen.)

That being said, what I caaaaan do is resort to a little bribery to scratch my spooky itch. I smell CONTEST! And PRIZES! And HOLLY ROOT! (Oddly enough, she smells like vanilla extract and rage. Sort of like really angry cookies.)

Let’s do a little cross-blog pollination with this one, so this contest will start on the 21st over on agent Janet Reid's blog.  Read this carefully to note when and where to post your entry:

Write a Halloween themed story in 100 words or fewer using the words:







(Bonus points if you can also use the word INSALUBRIOUS)

Post the story in the comments section of Janet’s Reid’s re-post of this contest at .  Contest will open on 10/21 at noon and closes at 10/22 at noon. All times are Eastern Standard.

ONE winner will receive a critique of the first thirty pages of your manuscript (any genre) from Barbara Poelle

ONE random winner will receive copies of UNFORSAKEN by Sophie Littlefield  

ONE random winner will receive a copy of DEADLY COOL by Gemma Halliday

ONE random winner will receive a copy of THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab

ONE random winner will receive a copy of GHOST COUNTRY by Patrick Lee

Barbara Poelle and Holly Root will review the entries.

Janet Reid will be the tie-breaking vote!

If you need a mulligan, delete your entry and repost. One Entry Per Person

All decisions are entirely subjective.

Oh my gosh, this is gonna be soooo fun! I can’t wait until Holly and Janet hear that they are doing this. Someone should tell them. Good thing with all of my training I can outrun both of them.

Also, if you win the critique but want to give it to a friend in the spirit of Halloween (dude, witches share newt eyeballs all the time) that is allowed!

Other than that, if any of you watched THE WALKING DEAD, love to hear from you in the comments on this blog. Otherwise, see you and your 100 word spooky tale, over on Janet’s on October 21st!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Real Life Crime that Gripped You

by C.L. Phillips

Time for a confession.  I've been reading the crime pages of all big newspapers of late.  Don't know why.  Guess I'm looking at story a different way and considering how real life impacts the stories I'm writing.


What's the one true crime story that impacted your way of looking at the world?  Changed what you believe?  Made you reconsider what you write?

This post is a bit of an intertwining of the questions I asked recently about whether you believe what you read in the paper, and Ramona's gripping post about whether you know a killer.

I'll give my example, very close to home.  My assistant coach for a kid's team (sport unnamed) was caught lifting funds from another sports organization to the tune of several thousand dollars.  The person I thought I knew could have never done that.  And the economy wasn't even bad. The opportunity presented itself, a rationalization appeared and bingo - welcome to crime city.  Another example, someone I knew in a non-profit organization helped herself to several hundred thousand dollars over several years.  The good news?  She was stealing from a politician.  Does that make it any better?

The amazing part?  The woman who stole less than ten thousand dollars did more time than the woman that stole *much* more.

What about you?  What stories hit close to home for you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Birds of a Feather

By Martha Reed

Last weekend I took advantage of a Writer’s Retreat sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. The Retreat was held in Confluence, Pennsylvania. This was a bold decision since we were trapped for two days by rising floodwaters the last time we tried to pull this off.

I’m happy to report that all went well. The rental house was a surprise and a delight, the food was homemade, the workshops were insightful. What I want to talk about today though is what happens whenever writers flock together.

I’ve seen a good bit of this the last couple of months. First was Bouchercon in St. Louis, when there were 1,400 of us. That was terrific but it was like partying in a mall. It was so big there was no sense of intimacy – or if there was, it happened privately, behind closed doors.

The Retreat was different. There were only six of us and two were complete newbies. Do you remember the feeling you got the first time you discovered a gaggle of writers and you realized you had finally found your people? This weekend Jennifer said: “I’m so glad to know I’m not crazy. You really do talk about stuff like this.” And all of us wise (older) ones nodded. Yes, yes we do. We talk about imagination. And feelings like anger, betrayal, love, devotion, angst. Sometimes we discuss bizarre ways to murder people. Sometimes we hear voices telling us what to do and when we mention hearing voices the other writers in the room chime in with: “You’re so lucky” instead of calling for the men with the nets.

The sense of community extends beyond monthly meetings or discussion groups. One of our members is going through a rough patch right now. I heard three different women tell her “Don’t forget, we’re sisters. Call me if you need me.” And they meant it.

Writing can be a lonely profession. Silent contemplation is a big part of what we do. I think that’s what makes writers so wise. We tend to think things though. But if you’re feeling a bit adrift right now, try connecting with another writer. Call someone up. Make plans for lunch or a bike ride or share a bottle of wine and look at the stars.

Take a break and enjoy the craft. For once, the edits (and the laundry) can wait.

PS. This is awesome. Birds of a feather flock together:

Monday, October 17, 2011


by Gina Sestak

It's that time of year again.  The days are getting short and nights are long and Halloween is just around the corner.  It's a time for ghost and ghouls and who-knows-what to roam at will . . .

To illustrate this post, I had intended to insert movie trailers like I usually do, but was astonished to find that neither you-tube nor offered trailers for some of my favorites.

My search wasn't totally in vain.  I found this one:

Must be the whispering that does it, but The Other really gets to me. The book is scary, too.

The Other is horror at it's finest, but even really stupid movies can be scary.  I remember watching The Horror of Party Beach - one of the most idiotic films ever made - with my ex-husband.  We were afraid to go to sleep!  Something about it creeped us out sooo much . . .

Having been a zombie extra in Dawn of the Dead, that genre of film doesn't really scare me much.  I'm more likely to admire the make-up, so I'll leave George Romero out of this post.

I wanted to include a trailer for Beloved, one of the creepiest things I've ever seen, but I couldn't find any.  If you've never seen this film, watch it!  Thandie Newton gives an amazing performance as the (maybe) daughter returned from the dead.

If you've been following my posts, you expect me to include at least one Bollywood film, so here it is.  No trailer available, unfortunately.  Paheli is more intriguing than terrifying - it's a tale about a spirit who impersonates a young bride's husband while the real husband is away on business . . .

Have you ever written any horror stories?  I have quite a few mouldering away unsold.

Have you ever written anything so terrifying that you scared yourself?

Friday, October 14, 2011


When I was a junior in high school, I dated a Very Nice Guy who was a senior. We went to the usual high school events--ball games, parties, school dances, movies, the Prom. We often double dated with his Best Pal, also a senior. Best Pal was dating a sophomore. Her name was Connie.

We hung out at my house sometimes, but my mother didn't liked Best Pal. Something about him rubbed her the wrong way. Being a teenager, I just thought she was crazy.

As a foursome, we didn’t have much in common. My boyfriend was adventurous and wanted to see the world, so after graduation he joined the military. Best Pal stayed in town and worked at a grocery store. I went away to college.

And Connie? Later, my mother would say, “All Connie ever wanted was to get married and have kids.”

She did. She and Best Pal married in the fall. It was football season (Geaux Tigers!) so I didn’t  attend. In fact, I never saw Connie or Best Pal again. Everything that follows here comes via my mother and her sources at the beauty parlor, or old newspaper articles, or legal websites on the Internet.

After I moved away, I called home once a week. My mom reported on the local crowd. She told me when Best Pal and Connie had a baby, a little girl. A few years later, they had another daughter.

And then one day: “Connie ran off with another man. She didn’t take her kids with her. Can you believe it?”

This was in 1984. Connie was twenty-three.

Best Pal claimed Connie left him. A few days later, Connie’s mother received a letter saying Connie had met a man named Ted and she was starting a new life with him in Florida. She was writing while “on the run” but promised she would come home someday. Oddly, the letter bore a local postmark and was incorrectly addressed. Later, it would be proven the handwriting wasn’t Connie’s.

We all know where this is going, right? When a wife disappears, the police look at the husband. Connie’s parents contacted the sheriff’s department. Best Pal gave statements in 1984 and again in 1987. Some details didn’t jive. He admitted to a relationship with another woman. Deputies told Best Pal if they found any evidence of foul play, he’d be their top suspect. But there was no evidence of foul play. Connie had vanished.

A year after Connie’s disappearance, Best Pal obtained a divorce and married his amour. They split up and he married again. All the while, he lived in the house where he and Connie had lived, raising his daughters.

In 1991, eight years after Connie vanished, Best Pal sold his home. The new owners decided to replace the sewer lines. They consulted Best Pal about the old system. He advised them to avoid the spot covered by a small cement slab. He said it was left over from an old greenhouse, and the area was full of tree stumps.

You know what happened. The slab was dug up. And there was Connie.

“They got in a fight, because he was running around on her,” was my mother’s summation. “He pushed her and she hit her head on the fireplace. He panicked and buried her in the back yard.”

That was the local consensus when Best Pal went to trial for second degree murder in 1994, ten years after Connie disappeared. The prosecutor’s office had been very tight-lipped about the evidence. Everyone thought he’d killed her by accident.

At the trial, forensics testimony was given about perimortem trauma. Perimortem means at or near the time of death. Connie’s remains included a hinge fracture to the skull; trauma to a thigh bone, shoulder blade and two vertebrates; a broken finger and several broken ribs. Also, the blouse she was wearing contained one or two holes surrounding by lead particles.

My mother’s sources got it wrong. Connie vanished after Best Pal beat her up, fractured her skull, shot her, buried her in the back yard, covered the spot with cement, and told everyone she’d left him for another man.

You’ll notice I’ve used only one proper name in this post. I didn’t want to ID my old boyfriend because I haven’t seen him since high school, and why drag him into this? Best Pal is currently serving a life sentence in Angola State Penitentiary and, to be honest, I don’t want someone who knows how to use Google alerts to tell him I’m writing about him.

Why did I call Connie by name? Because she’s the victim, and the victim is too often forgotten.  

Now for the twist. A few years into Best Pal’s prison years, when I was a struggling writer, my mother called. Best Pal, she said, had written an essay for some book about prison life. It was reported in the town newspaper, which called Best Pal a convicted murderer--and a published author.

I found the essay. In it, Best Pal whined wrote about the difficulties of being a single parent from behind bars. He moaned described the pain of not getting to see his girls grow up. Some gall, huh? No wonder my mother never liked him.

Before writing this post, I dug out a photograph taken on Prom night, complete with formal dresses and wrist corsages. Looking at it, I could hardly believe that Connie was doomed to a violent death at the hands of the boy in the baby blue tux with his arm around her. Unlike my mother, I never  glimpsed anything untoward in him. And all I see in the photos are two young couples enjoying a highlight of high school.  

Have you ever known a murderer?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

City of Secrets

Working Stiffs welcomes back our good friend, Kelli Stanley!

First, I want to express my appreciation to Joyce, Bente (who is in all of my Miranda books!), Annette, Paula and all my friends at Working Stiffs for letting me hang out! You guys rock, and I consider myself lucky to get to spend some time with you! :)

I’m actually just popping in between different weeks of a book tour ... the CITY OF SECRETS book tour, as a matter of fact. CITY OF SECRETS is the second Miranda Corbie book (following CITY OF DRAGONS, which I’m thrilled to say won a Macavity Award at Bouchercon last month!) We’re continuing to celebrate while traveling, and next week I’ll be in various cool places from Scottsdale to Thousand Oaks, California.

So, the title of my newest book begs the question: what kind of secrets? San Francisco secrets? Secrets about Miranda Corbie, the broken idealist and hardboiled PI of the series? Or secrets about 1940 and the American past that we didn’t learn in high school history books ...

The answer is all of the above.

Miranda Corbie is working the opening day of the second  San Francisco World’s Fair, held on beautiful Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay. Stage hands find her in front of Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, where she works security, protecting the girls behind the glass wall from everything other than eyes ... to use those, you pay a quarter. Use anything else and you have to deal with Miranda.

Shaking in shock and horror, the stage hands from Artists and Modelsanother peep show near Sally’s, in which young women posed “tastefully” for people with cameras or sketch pads, in pseudo-artist model style—inform Miranda that the opening act, a young blonde named Pandora Blake, seems to be ... dead. Miranda finds the young girl with a long, deep stab wound, the kind made by an ice pick. Blood trickles slowly down her white skin. And on her stomach, written in blood, is a word: an anti-Semitic epithet.

Miranda is plunged into a secret San Francisco that she—and many people today—didn’t know existed. A San Francisco in which an organization of domestic terrorists and racists can meet in a bar off Union Square, express their sympathies for Hitler and hatred for Roosevelt and plot violence against the government.
The fact is, San Francisco and the West Coast were home to many such groups in the 30s and early 40s. 

Long before “right-wing militia” became a term in the 70s and 80s—long before Timothy McVeigh was born—there were people who believed the United States was becoming degenerate, too big, too encompassing, and too tolerant. That the government was far too liberal. That the dictatorships and totalitarian regimes were on the right track, and that Adolf Hitler was a man to admire.

And they were willing to back up their beliefs with violence.

These groups weren’t Nazis. They considered themselves patriotic Americans, with names like Defenders of the Christian Faith or The Musketeers ... which is the group Miranda investigates.

And so she does, uncovering more secrets. Secrets about eugenics, and the dangers of California’s sterilization laws ... which in turn inspired Hitler. Secrets about the bucolic and beautiful Napa Valley, and the sleep little town of Calistoga, where claims of rejuvenation and health were made for the mud baths and spa treatments at Nance’s Sanitarium. And even secrets about herself, as echoes of the past reverberate unexpectedly through her investigation of two murders.

The background is a world at war. Belgium falls and France is falling. And through it all, Miranda’s at war herself, chasing shadows, leafing through the forgotten belongings of a dead girl, playing a mean game of roulette, and ultimately facing her darkest decision while on the track of a vicious, anti-Semitic killer.

Real people make appearances in CITY OF SECRETS ... Sally Rand has a cameo in chapter one, and threatened to walk away with the entire book. The second real person is a surprise  (no spoilers here). The settings are real—from Nance’s to the Club Moderne to a nightmarish, castle-like mansion in the Napa Valley.

It’s a frightening, dark and thrilling noir, and the events of CITY OF SECRETS will reverberate through future books. What isn’t a secret is how much I love to write this series, and how I hope to continue writing Miranda forever.

So, Working Stiffs ... what I want to know is this: have you uncovered any secrets you want to share? Or do you have any questions you want to ask? Let’s play a blog version of truth or dare, and let ‘er rip! :)