Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Exporting American Pop

By Mark W. Danielson

I love traveling the globe. It’s wonderful seeing the world through other people’s eyes, exploring different cultures, and experiencing new things—but there is no escaping America’s influence overseas. Working in the cargo industry as I do, it’s clear that we import more than we export. The exception to this is our exports in entertainment and fast food. In foreign cities large and small, it’s rare to escape Starbucks, McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Coke and Pepsi are household names in any language. Movie stars appear on enormous billboards. Even Tommy Lee Jones has his face on Japanese vending machines, promoting a beverage called BOSS. Regardless of how other countries may disdain our politics, they still crave our movies, TV, music, and fast food. Some even dress to emulate their favorite stars, such as the Japanese urban cowboy I saw, boot-scooting his way through a crowded Osaka sidewalk.

Some protest that these American fast-food chains are corrupting other cultures and hurting local businesses. While this point has some credence, there is no turning back. After all, if this food wasn’t fast, cheap, and tasty, it never would have succeeded in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. Besides, city planners had to approve each of these franchises, so don’t blame us. It’s up to them to decide how much is too much.

Disney is everywhere. Goofy, Mickey, Minnie, and Donald Duck greet visitors to Singapore’s airport, inside and out. Disney theme parks are now in Paris, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. In Osaka, the Cinderella Chapel Hotel boasts a twenty foot Cinderella statue atop the building. I also noticed Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stickers on a strip club’s window as I walked by, though I have no idea as to their significance. Osaka also has a Vegas-style Hotel LOVE, with The Hotel Miami right next door. Curiously, neither of these hotels caters to American tourists.

American rock and roll is being played in bars and fast food joints around the world. Even my hotel in Penang had a 1960’s American music radio station. In the bigger cities, some outdoor televisions play American music videos. American TV shows and movies are dubbed in numerous languages to accommodate foreign audiences. Sadly, the few English speaking channels often broadcast our worst TV shows, such as Jerry Springer in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I’m not sure who decides what to put on the air, but clearly what is being shown does not represent the United States any more than CNN’s limited stories represent other countries. Sadly, most news stories tend to portray nations in a negative light, which means it’s up to each citizen to accentuate the positive.

My intent here is not to cause an outcry, but rather to identify our successful overseas exports. For better or worse, it’s nice to know that the United States offers the world something that makes people happy, and for that, I’m grateful. As much as it appalls me that our fast food chains are everywhere, kids around the world always smile while chomping their burgers and fries. For them, life is even better if they can eat while watching Sponge Bob Squarepants. So with that, I wish everyone a safe and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Overwriting Is Just That

By Chester Campbell

Early in my novel-writing career, if I may be so bold as to call it that, I signed with a large New York literary agency. I had submitted my third book to them, the last in a three-book post-Cold War trilogy, as yet unpublished. The first two novels had agents who fell by the wayside, but this one was written so it would stand alone.

After sending off the manuscript, I received a letter saying they liked the story but it needed a line edit by a professional editor. The main problem was “overwriting.” At that point, I had no idea what overwriting meant. And I had no clue about where to find a professional editor or what a line edit involved. I talked to the agency and was told the manuscript needed cutting. It was too wordy. Among other things, I indulged in too much description. As best I recall, it ran well over 600 typewritten pages.

I didn’t find a professional editor, but I sat down and started cutting. Whole chapters at first, then pages, then paragraphs, sentences, and, finally, words. I sliced it down by about 150 pages and re-submitted the manuscript. That’s when they accepted it and sent me a contract. What happened after that is another sad story. Suffice it to say they never sold the book (plus a couple of others I sent them), and I asked out of the contract.

What I gained out of the experience was an understanding that too many words can be a bad thing. I know, some big name mystery writers get away with describing everything their characters observe in great detail. And a few do it with such lyrical prose that I enjoy it. But very few.

When most writers get carried away with their descriptions, I start skimming. In writing the Greg McKenzie Mysteries, I honed my style to tell stories using only enough detail to paint a clear picture for the reader. I try to keep my dialog short and pithy. Such measures designed to avoid overwriting have resulted in shorter, faster-paced books. Page turners, as they say.

Overwriting also requires getting rid of duplicate explanations that sneak in when it’s necessary to clue in another character on a past event. Do it the easy way by saying something like she told him what she had learned from the visit to Mr. X. Another point I learned from my editor on the first McKenzie book was not to underestimate your reader. It isn’t necessary to explain every little point when you’re dealing with stuff they should already know.

Chris Roerden has a good chapter on overwriting in her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I wish I’d had it when I submitted that manuscript back in 1992.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Rattle Rattle

by Ben Small

Fooled you. You thought this was another L’il Ella story, didn’t you?

Au Contraire.

Yesterday, some friends and I visited a couple of rattlesnake hunters. How’s that for a different experience? Heck, if you’re gonna write a mystery where someone gets bitten or terrorized by a rattlesnake, you’d better learn something about them, eh?

Enter John and Sandy Weber, two Rockford, Illinois transplants, one of whom (John)
I worked with for a few years. Seems John got tired of corporate life and retired early – somewhere around 1977 or 1979, John can’t remember which – for a life in the desert.

Don’t think this is so strange. Wyatt Earp and his wife, after they left Alaska, spent three quarters of every year living in a wagon in the desert.

The Webers have improved on that a bit. They have two trailers, one for a shop, where snake-stuff and rocks are sold, and one for living. Both are a little beat-up, maybe, but John and Sandy don’t care. From the ever-present grins on their leathery sun-dried faces, they’re having a ball.

Finding their shop isn’t the easiest thing, and a GPS may not help you much, as I’m not sure their road, really a two mile driveway, is on the map. They’re located just south of historic Tombstone, off Gleason Road. All that tells you they’re there, except for a steady stream of traffic from people who found it once and are returning, is a dark wood sign.

The museum is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of John and Sandy’s activities. Through some thirty years of networking with ranchers, townspeople and targeting certain areas with metal detectors, John and Sandy have managed to pick up a wide variety of antique implements and weapons. Rusted mining tools, Tombstone gun barrels – wouldn’t you love to learn the story behind them – ancient plow shares, cameras, axes, pitchforks, bull blinders, saddles, and other historical items, plus rifles and pistols adorn their yard, centered by a fire pit and chairs. Looking at the surrounding mountains and rolling hills, and listening to the sounds of the desert, one can only imagine the peace and tranquility John and Sandy must experience in the evenings, except during August.

August is hunting season.

John and Sandy spend most of their August evenings from six to nine, searching for rattlers. And find them they do, the largest so far having reached eight feet. They use a three foot long snake-catcher. “Hey, I’ve got one of those,” I said, my chest swelling with pride, “except mine’s ten feet long.”

They laughed at me. “Three feet’s all you need,” John said. He turned to Sandy. “Ben’s turned into a city-feller.” And then they laughed again.

We talked quite a bit about snakes, how to find them, what to expect, the length of their fangs, how far they can stretch with a full-blown strike, and of course, how to catch them. But John and Sandy don’t do all the hunting. They know all the ranchers in the area, and the ranchers trade them snakes and items for the museum in return for some of John’s goods.
He and Sandy do good work. Need a snakeskin hat band, watch band, bracelet, belt, knife sheath or other snakeskin covered item, they can fix you up, and at prices you won’t believe. And they’re not limited to rattlesnakes, although they dominate the collection. There are also items covered with python skin, coral snake skin, and other varieties, often acquired by trading. Very quickly one realizes, John and Sandy don’t do this for money. They charge for their goods ― the museum is free ― but their prices are low. Besides, I know where John worked; he has a pension. They do this work because they love it. And after seeing their operation, I don’t blame them.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a happier couple.

So next August, I’m going snake-hunting...

Please come visit me in the hospital… And bring some money. Anti-venom is expensive, I've been told.

Check out John And Sandy's website at

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Publishing: Iceberg Ahead

Photo: Café Pirouette Art Print by Michael L. Kingl,

By Pat Browning

Listening to NBC-TV news with one ear, I heard a familiar name: Leonard Riggio. There he was on the screen, looking like a big teddy bear of a grandfather, not at all like the chairman of a powerful bookstore chain and a noted philanthropist.

Riggio is CEO of Barnes and Noble, and donated $20-million--the largest philanthropic gift from a single individual--to rebuild homes in New Orleans, an effort known as Project Home Again.

Riggio built 20 homes, creating an entire neighborhood for families whose homes had been lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Families were given free rein to pick out their furniture. All they had to do was walk right in and start living in their brand new homes.

Ten years ago, give or take, while I was writing my first mystery and thinking of self-publishing, iUniverse had an excellent chat room going, and one of the guests was Leonard Riggio.

Print-on-demand publishing was just coming on the scene. Mr. Riggio predicted that within a year, give or take, Barnes and Noble stores would have a kiosk out front where customers could dial-a-book and have a cup of coffee while it was being printed and bound.

Hasn’t happened yet, but the furor created by POD publishing seems downright quaint today. Publishing has moved on. First there came Palm Pilot, then Amazon’s hugely popular Kindle, and now, by gar, you can read books on your cell phone. Introducing … ScrollMotion and its Iceberg e-reader.

From Publishers Weekly, 12/23/2008:

****ScrollMotion, a two year old iPhone application development company, has launched Iceberg, an e-book reader for the iPhone with titles from six publishers: Random House, Hachette, Penguin, Counterpoint, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Simon & Schuster.

“What makes the software different,” said ScrollMotion’s chief literary officer Calvin Baker, “is that each book is a self-contained app. You download the book, not a piece of software.” Iceberg mimics the natural reading experience, allowing the user to “flip” the page with a swipe of the finger and uses the iPhone and iTouch’s interface to allow for scrolling, shrinking and expanding text, bookmarking and note taking. **** on the same date released a little more information about e-reading:

****Naturally Scrollmotion isn't the only company rolling out mobile e-book reading applications. Penguin books recently released their Penguin Mobile reader software while Random House has signed a deal with Stanza, bringing Stanza's mobile literary library to over 40,000 titles.
Meanwhile HaperCollins has taken a slightly different route, making classic titles such as those by Dickens and Shakespeare available to Nintendo DS users. … Typically Amazon has kept sales figures under wraps, although predictions estimate that the Kindle might be amounting to as much as 12% of Amazon's overall book sales, suggesting a ready market for Scrollmotion.
Unlike Scrollmotion, the one thing Amazon has at its core is experience. Before Josh Koppel (founder of Scrollmotion) had even graduated from college, Amazon was building up its empire and more importantly, building relationships with publishers. These relationships mean Amazon can sell e-books at around 30-40% cheaper than most other mobile publishing platforms.
Despite this significant strength, there is one major reason why Scrollmotion could stand as a serious threat to the internet giant; Scrollmotion doesn't require an e-book reader. Yes, Scrollmotion requires only an iPod or iPhone and … these have become hugely successful with over 174 million sales for the iPod alone. Although Amazon have yet to release meaningful figures regarding Kindle sales, Scrollmotion can sleep soundly knowing it is nowhere near 174 million.
Although they may have 174 million potential users of the Iceberg technology, Scrollmotion are not limiting themselves to the Apple devises and plan to release the application for Android and Blackberry users as well.
Once referred to as "the Woody Allen of Cyberspace", Josh Koppel is no stranger to the world of online retail. His successful back catalogue of mobile applications as well as support from major book publishers suggests Iceberg could be a very successful mobile application. What's more important is Scrollmotion's ability to transform the iPod into a digital library, which could change the way we read in a very significant way

And so this old year hobbles off the stage, and the spotlight shifts to a brand new year. Sit back. Sip a cup of coffee. Think long thoughts.

Good reading and writing in 2009!

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Visit With A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

by Jean Henry Mead

The Pulitizer winner called himself “Bud” because he thought Alfred Bertram was a “sissy name.” He lived near the face of Montana’s rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range on a 160-acre, sagebrush-covered hideaway with his wife Carol, who was nearly as young as A. B. Guthrie’s spirit.

The newspaper man-turned-novelist had been credited with bringing respect to the Western genre, but his work wasn't always well received by the reading public. A perfectionist, his outspoken criticism of popular Western fiction, environmental issues, and various social problems often left him up the proverbial creek with mainstream America. But those of us who worry about the planet’s future applauded his ominous warnings.

The novelist’s first and highly acclaimed novel, The Big Sky, was followed by Pulitzer winner, The Way West. The later, he said, was written in six months because his publisher was on the verge of bankruptcy. Four novels followed in his Western series as well as four mysteries, a collection of short stories and a children’s book. Three of his Western novels were adapted to screenplays and Guthrie wrote several others without prior experience, including “Shane” for director George Stevens.

Visiting the wise old man of the Western literary mountain was no small feat, but well worth the journey. The trail leading to his comfortable, modified A-frame home in north-central Montana followed a narrow, patched and potholed road to a pair of cattle guards and small metal bridge which emptied into earthen tire tracks. A quarter mile off the road, hunkered down in native foliage, was Guthrie’s Garden of Eden, at peace with its surroundings.

Books were the main source of entertainment there and the Guthries read and talked until two or three in the morning. Television reception was nonexistent in the area, and they debated whether to invest in a satellite dish. Guthire called the receivers “unsightly” so they decided against buying one. Their nearest neighbor was three miles away, but frequent visitors arrived from various parts of the country to talk shop and renew old friendships.

A black toy poodle announced my arrival long before I reached the front door. Greeted warmly by both Guthries, I was invited into the kitchen for a slice of warm, home-baked coffee cake and a cold glass of milk. The author’s wife hovered in and around the interview area, serving, when needed, as her husband’s memory. She also added comments of her own and made it clear that her husband was not in the same league with other Western Writers.

When asked about his heritage, Guthrie said the information could be found in Who’s Who, but when pressed for his own version, he promptly complied. Basically a shy man, nervous man, he revealed a native humor that immediately put me at ease.

(Next week, the interview.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The 12 Tales of Christmas

By Beth Terrell

Christmas Day is winding to a close. The theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas is playing on our stereo; my husband and I are double-stuffed with turkey, ham, pumpkin pie, and a bounty of holiday fare; and my mom and I just finished watching Miracle on 34th Street, the original, with Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and Natalie Wood as the skeptical little girl who learns to believe in Christmas magic. I love this season--the lights, the music, the shiny wrapping paper, choosing gifts for loved ones, the message of love and spirituality. And only 364 days until the next one!

For those of you who aren't quite ready for the merriment to end, here are some mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels that take place around the Christmas Season.

1) Slay Ride is Chris Grabenstein's third published novel. This book is darker and more violent than Grabenstein's popular Ceepak series, but it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads Chris's work, he handles it well, weaving the plot lines together seamlessly. FBI agent Christopher Miller investigates a series of murders by a killer dubbed "The Man In the Moon," who kills cab drivers on the nights of the full moon. Meanwhile, successful young ad exec Scott Wilkinson makes the fateful mistake of calling a cab company to complainabout a driver who gave him a hellish ride to the airport. The driver, a dangerous criminal intent on vengeance, will stop at nothing to destroy Wilkinson. If you like your crime fiction dark (with a splash of holiday flair), check this one out.

2) A Puzzle in a Pear Tree by Parnell Hall features Cora Felton, the feisty protagonist of Parnell's "Puzzle Lady" series. Parnell says senior sleuth Cora is a lot like Miss Marple--if Mis Marple drank, smoked cigars, gambled, and had more ex-husbands than she could count. This light-hearted romp, the fourth book in the series, centers on a small-town Christmas pageant and a killer who leaves clues in the form of acrostic puzzles. The Chicago Sun-Times called this book "“a joy for lovers of both crosswords and frothy crime detection."

3) Christmas is Murder: A Rex Graves Mystery by C.S. Challinor is the first in a cozy mystery series featuring "charming sleuth" Rex Graves, a Scottish Barrister. The story is set in a hotel that was once an old English manor. Those who like Agatha Christie might enjoy this one; the tone and style are similar, and the story, a classic "closed group"mystery, should appeal to fans of the Golden Age mysteries.

4) Visions of Sugar Plums: A Stephanie Plum Holiday Novel
by Janet Evanovitch is a "between-the-numbers" book featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. I have been a huge Stephanie Plum fan for years and devour each new installment as they come out. The "between-the-numbers" books are very different in tone and substance than the regular books in the series and contain fantasy elements that do not seem in keeping with the rest of the books. They are slim books, and if you're looking for the usual Stephanie/Joe/Ranger byplay, you will be disappointed. If, however, you're looking for a quick, fun read with a holiday theme, give it a shot. I found this book pretty enjoyable after I decided to think of it as one of Stephanie's dreams or fantasies.

In Hercule Poirot's Christmas (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) by Agatha Christie, family patriarch Simeon Lee, is murdered during a family holiday gathering at Lee's country home. This is a classic "locked room" mystery that will delight any fan of "Dame Agatha."

6) Sugarplum Dead
, the twelfth book in Carolyn Hart's Death on Demand series, features mystery bookseller Annie Darling and her husband, Max. The plot involves a long-long father, a troubled teenager, and a spiritualist who is more--and less--than he seems. This is a great holiday read for anyone who likes cozies and well-paced, wholesome mysteries.

7) A Classic Christmas Crime
edited by Tim Heald is a collection of short stories from such greats as P.D. James and Peter Lovesey. If a good short story proves that good things really do come in small packages, this book, with its wide range of voices and moods, is a treaure trove of good things.

8) A Holly Jolly Murder,
a Claire Malloy mystery by Joan Hess, takes place during a New Age celebration of the winter solstice. When a follow of the Arch-Druid Malthea is murdered, the Book Depot proprietor and amateur sleuth is determined to discover whether her new-found friends are killers or victims.

9) Cold Light
by John Harvey is another dark mystery. This is the sixth book in the Charlie Resnick series. A cabbie is bludgeoned to death; a social worker goes missing; and messages from the kidnapper indicate that he has killed before--and will again. It will take all of Resnick's wit and resources to find the killer and stop him. But will he be in time?

10 ) The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
by Christopher Moore...A disreputable fake Santa is murdered. A seven-year-old witness prays for a Christmas miracle. The prayer is heard and answered by a intellectually challenged heavenly being. Result: zombies for Christmas. Okay, so it's not a pure mystery, but honestly, who could resist this?

In Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews, a grumpy parade Santa is murdered. Heroine Meg Langslow and Chief Burke must solve the mystery and save Christmas. This is Donna's tenth novel in the "fine-feathered cozy series."

Publisher's Weekly calls Nobody's Child by Janet Dawson a "finely crafted, absorbing adventure." Thus is the fifth book in a series featuring Oakland, California PI Jeri Howard. In this installment, a young woman's body has been found in a burned-out home, and an alcoholic woman hires Jeri to find out if the dead woman is her daughter, who ran away three years ago. It is. Jeri learns that the dead woman had a daughter, who seems to be missing. With Christmas approaching, Jeri searches for the lost girl and tries to solve the murder of the girl's mother. The book explores a nmber of modern-day issues such as homelessness, racial tensions, and HIV infection.

As you can see, Christmas is a popular season for Crime Writers. For more books set during the holiday season, check out,, and

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Night Before Christmas

Mark W. Danielson

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the sky,
Lots of planes were flying, but none too close by.
When all of a sudden, a strange sight appeared,
A jolly old fellow, with a long white beard

Pulled by eight flying reindeer, his sleigh came alongside.
He waved his gloved hand as he wished us good night.
With the snap of his reins, he zoomed ahead,
to deliver his presents while the children were in bed.

My co-pilot and I were startled at first,
On the night before Christmas, a mid-air would be worse.
But magic appears wherever there’s love,
And this always comes from our Lord above

So while I’m spending this Christmas in Dubai,
I hope that peace and love will always survive.
No matter where in the world our loved ones are,
Our thoughts are with them as we gaze at the stars.

Merry Christmas everyone.
(Photo courtesy of FedEx)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Christmas Spirit, Where'd It Go?

By Chester Campbell

It’s just two days till Christmas, and I got to thinking why am I not as excited as I used to be back in the “old” days? Like in the last century (doesn’t that sound old?). Maybe I’ve become too jaded after tromping around this crazy planet for more than eight decades.

Have I been overexposed to all the holiday hoopla? After all, I’ve seen eighty-plus green trees camped out in the living room, and put up most of them myself. Looking at the one sitting across from me now (that's it at right, decorated by live-in grandson, 11), I’m impressed by its myriad of colorful lights, built-in yet. Maybe that’s part of the problem. I miss that distinctive smell of pine or fir or cedar from the days when we put up live trees (except they weren’t all that live by the week after Christmas).

And the shopping. My wife and I try to walk at the mall daily. Despite the economy, the crowds have been pretty good of late. I used to go along on shopping junkets, but my personal gift buying normally took place on Christmas Eve. I don’t do that anymore. It’s gift cards or checks in the mail. With family strewn all over the map, I don’t get to hand everybody their gifts as in the past.

Among the things I miss are the Christmas music sspecials on the TV networks, those put on by the likes of Perry Como and Andy Williams and Ann Murray. The classic movies are still around, at least one a night, but I’ve overdosed on It’s a Wonderful Life and the Miracle on 34th Street so I skip those.

Christmas carols can be heard some of the time, though too often they get drowned out on the Muzak systems by novelty songs that have lost their novelty for me. And the carolers no longer make it up my street. Remember a candle in the window, a carol at the door?

The UPS guy just left a large box on the porch. It’s from my son in Pennsylvania who won’t be here because he has his own granddaughter to play with now. It contains a lot of packing paper plus gifts for his two sisters. We did a gift swap drawing for the first and second generations to ease the economic impact. But the third and fourth generations, which are much larger, of course, remain on everybody’s list

My older daughter will be up from Atlanta tomorrow night, and we’ll have a great time taking turns stirring the boiled custard. Her younger sister will be zipping into town in time for Christmas dinner, along with four of my grandchildren. My other son will be here with one of his two sons. My wife’s two kids, plus three grandkids and three great-grandkids, accompanied by an assortment of spouses, will add to the mix, so it’ll be a fun time around the ham and turkey platters.

I’ll stuff myself like in the old days and open a few presents and listen to lots of chatter. I guess that’ll be excitement enough. I might even pick up some ideas for my next Greg McKenzie mystery, which will take place around Christmas. Indulging in my passion for writing is something I can really get excited about.

So what if I am a little jaded? Like everything else in life, Christmas is what you make of it, and I intend to have a Very Merry one. I wish the same for you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

T'is the Season...

by Ben Small

L’il Ella, our granddaughter, has left, and the wife and I are bereft. Stuck for a few days (until I can return them) with all these toys. Wifey wants them out of the house, and my SUV is the only container large enough to hold them. It seems C batteries never wear out. So now while I’m driving around town, every time I hit a bump, I get the ABCs.

Nice tune, that. I’m singing it in my sleep.

We miss L’il Ella, and I’m sure she misses us. I don’t think she’d ever seen so many toys.

But with Ella gone, we now face the other side of the holidays: party season.

My wife calls me a humbug, but that’s not totally accurate. Lazy, yes, a humbug, not really. I just don’t get a big kick out of Christmas trees and decoration. People who decorate their houses like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation seem to me to be starved for attention. Why else have your house visible from Mars?

Plus, there’s all that work involved in lighting up your house. Manual labor, what I went to school for nineteen years to avoid. To do the job right, you gotta climb up on ladders, expose yourself to the elements, play with light bulbs that will work while you’re attending them, but then will shut down the whole system as soon as you descend. Back up the ladder, turn each bulb, discover which one is loose.

Oh joy to the world. Isn’t this fun?

And in a couple weeks, the lucky homeowner gets to do it all over again…

Okay, so I relented this year. Because of Ella. We got a tree. Not a real one, mind you. I don’t want sticky fingers, eczema breaking out all over my hands, pine needles dropping all over the floor, not to mention a fire hazard. And I don’t want to water the thing.

So we went to Costco, got a bunch of plastic and wire that resembles a tree. Easy to assemble, just stick in the pretend-branches and move ‘em around, and plug in the lights that came with it. Done. And dis-assembly is easy, too. Just unplug, fold up the branches, tie the thing off with plastic handcuffs, and throw it into a box in the garage.

So what else can I complain about? What else might lead me to murder?

Parties. The never-ending holiday party schedule.

Have you ever noticed how much fun the only sober person at a party has? Well, that’s me. I don’t drink much, maybe an occasional beer. I do have friends in Milwaukee I must honor, you know. Still, two beers is usually my limit, if I drink that much.

We went to a friend’s house the other night for their annual Christmas party. The wife is an interior designer, her husband the best Venetian plasterer and artistic house painter in town. Nice people.

You want to feel inadequate: go to a party at a designer’s house.

I do not know how these people did it, but they managed to buy and restore an old run-down Tucson mansion into a spectacular showpiece in just one year. Heck, I’ve been in my house for two years, and I still can’t find my socks.

Don’t these people sleep?

I asked the husband how this all came about. He said, “My wife wanted it done, so we busted our butts and spent every spare moment working on it.”

I wanted to choke him. “Do you know what a bad example you’re setting for our gender?” I said. “No Sunday football, no poker night, no shoot-‘em-up flicks? If your diligence becomes widely known, you’ll ruin things for every male in town. What’s worse, you had to throw a party and show it all off.”

He shrugged. “I’m scared of my wife.”

I saw my wife and a few other women, all sipping generous glasses of wine while the lady of the house was pointing out various appointments that helped make the house look like a Hollywood set for Spanish restoration and holiday perfection. I expected to see a microphone attached to her gown and HGTV cameras poking out from all corners.

My wife looked up and caught my eye. She waved her hand expansively and mouthed something like, “We can do this.”

My wife’s look and silent vow told me all I needed to know. My life was about to become a never-ending hell. I reached into my pocket for my little North American Arms Derringer. Five shots of .22 magnum. All I’d need was one…two if I decided to shoot the homeowner first. Hm… About that… Yeah, I owed a duty to every male in Tucson.

But the gun wasn’t there. I’d left it in the car. Arizona has a law: no guns where booze is served. Okay, so I found one benefit Connecticut has over Arizona: Booze and guns mix in Connecticut.

I broke away and ran to the buffet, where I elbowed my way into line and snarfed all the tamales, Mexican green stew, cheese, stuffed peppers and smoked salmon I could fit on my red plastic holiday plate. Someone bumped me, and one of my stuffed chiles flew off my plate and smacked a woman’s breast, leaving a cream cheese spot in the shape of California. She didn’t notice; she was too busy telling her husband how easy it would be to restore their house. The guy’s face was slack, his eyes locked in a far-away stare. Sweat beaded on his brow.

Shock and fear. I could have dumped a bucket of water on his wife’s head and he wouldn’t have noticed. Like me, this guy was seeing ladders, paint, tile, chisels, grouting, plaster, and window replacement in his future. S’long relaxation, s’long television, bye-bye newspaper, Sunday football and golf with the guys.

A new world order was coming, and this guy, like me, knew it.

At least, I thought, this would be the last one, the last party before Christmas. We could then wind down, eat a quiet turkey dinner, have a roaring fire in the hearth and watch a good movie after Christmas dinner. Ah… just the thought of it calmed me down.

And then the wife hit me with it, a by-product of all this holiday hoopla. No quiet Christmas dinner, no movie, a fireplace fire, maybe.

She’d invited six people to join us for Christmas dinner.

Where was that Derringer? I’d need three shots now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Slicing It Thin

By Pat Browning

Has anyone else noticed that mysteries seem to get longer and longer? It’s as if editors and publishers have decided that longer is better, which ain’t necessarily so.

Unless you’re writing historical mysteries which are dense with detail, you should keep your book as lean as possible, especially if you’re a beginner. Readers recognize rambling and padding when they see it. The book may get good reviews but readers may desert you. Or not. As one of my sisters tells me when I get nervous about what I’m writing, “People will read anything.”

In the years since I wrote my first mystery, I’ve learned to cut and cut, and cut some more. In simple terms, a plot comes down to what the main character wants, and what stands in his/her way. But when I began, I kept going off in other directions. Nearly all of what I wrote was back story. I assumed because I knew the complete details of a character’s life I had to explain it to everyone else.

That’s not true, of course. Aside from leaving a little something to the reader’s imagination, it simply isn’t necessary to tell everything. A line here, a paragraph there, maybe even a page or short chapter, is usually enough.

That’s the modern way, and it’s hard for people my age to make the adjustment. We grew up reading the English classics, Charles Dickens, for example. Dickens was paid by the word for his novels published in installments. Of course he put in everything he knew.

Among more modern writers, even Daphne duMaurier in REBECCA described every leaf, bush, flower and cloud in the sky, furniture, silverware, and clothing. But she was skillful at spinning a web to draw the reader in and she got by with it.

Learning as I wrote FULL CIRCLE, I cut out some very good scenes and chapters because they moved the story backward and sideways instead of forward. They were mostly explanations of what happened years earlier.

For instance, I threw in my travel experiences by putting my two main characters in Paris as college students. I actually took them through some of the cities I visited on my first trip to Europe. Well, heck, I thought, those were interesting experiences, and I had copious notes, so why not? Why not? Because I was trying to write a cozy mystery, and not a travelogue or memoir.

While I was cutting, I cut my entire Chapter 2, which had some good dialogue and interplay among characters but dragged out the beginning. I hung an imaginary banner above my computer: FICTION IS NOT REAL LIFE.

The hardest cut I had to make was priceless, in its way, because it was written from life. I devoted an entire chapter to my protagonist’s mother writing about her childhood for a senior citizens writing class. I had written it 30 years earlier, intending to turn it into the Great American Novel. Didn’t happen, so I filed it away.

Why not slip it into my mystery? I thought I was clever in the way I presented it, and it survived numerous critiques by other writers. At the eleventh hour, one puzzled comment by a professional publicist was all it took to nudge that chapter out. Once again, I filed it away.

In the meantime, I learned to cut extraneous material almost as second nature. I give my years as a newspaper reporter credit for that. When Krill Press came along with an idea for reprinting FULL CIRCLE as ABSINTHE OF MALICE, I cut and rewrote and revised with gusto.

This has been an extraordinary year. Not only do I have a shiny new – or at least different – book, but that piece of writing I saved for 40 years has found a home. Two years ago I revised it as a short memoir and submitted it to a magazine. Rejected. Last year I revised it again and entered it in a contest. Won second place and $50.

This year I rewrote it again, and submitted it for publication in the Red Dirt Book Festival Anthology. It made the cut. The anthology was supposed to be out in time for Christmas, but after 40 years – hey, what’s my hurry?

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Senior Sleuth Market

by Jean Henry Mead

I write senior sleuth novels because there’s a growing market for retirees who like to read in their own age bracket. Years ago I was intrigued by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Periot, who were wise and perceptive, but never seemed to have any fun. That’s not true of today’s seniors who are less inclined to retire to their rocking chairs than previous generations.

Pat Browning, our blog team mate, said a St. Martin's editor gave her a piece of advice she never forgot: ‘Be careful not to turn your characters into cartoons.’ Pat said, “I try to picture older characters as they are--the same people they always were, only older. This is especially true when it comes to romance and sex. For all the jokes about senior sex, it’s a very real part of senior life, and it's no joke to those lucky enough to have a romantic partner late in life.”

I agree. Not unlike Janet Evanovich’s character, Grandma Mazur, who is eccentric enough for a cartoon character, most seniors have the same interests they’ve always had, with the possible exception of roller blading and downhill skiing. On second thought, I once interviewed Buffalo Bill’s grandson Billy Cody, who learned to downhill ski at 65 to keep up with his much younger wife.

Mike Befeler writes what he calls “Geezer-lit.” His first novel, Retirement Homes are Murder, features his octogenarian protagonist, who is short on memory but has a sense of humor and love of life. He accepts his ‘geezerhood,’ solves a mystery and enjoys romance along the way.

My latest senior sleuth mystery, A Village Shattered, takes place in a California retirement village. The plot is generously sprinkled with humor but none of the seniors resemble cartoon characters, although a couple come close, a redneck Casanova and love starved widow.

Another senior writer, Beth Solheim, spent years working in a nursing home and says she loves the elderly and their “humorous, quirky insight to life, love and longevity.” Her protagonists are 64-year-old twins in her humorous, paranormal cozy series, The Fifi Witt Mysteries.

Octogenarian Chester Campbell writes the Greg McKenzie Mysteries. He said, “My friends in this [age] bracket are out going places and doing things. Some, like me, continue to work at jobs they enjoy. I chose to use a senior couple in my books who are long married, get along fine, and do a competent job as private investigators. Greg, who narrates the books, is aware of his limitations from age and makes up for physical shortcomings by outsmarting his adversaries. My hope is to dispel some of the absurdity of the stereotypes about seniors that are all too familiar.”

Like so many other novelists, I write what I enjoy reading. My readers are mainly retirees and baby boomers who number more than 87 million. Some 8,000 boomers are moving into the senior column every day and are the fastest growing potential book buying market on record. We’re experiencing the graying of America. What better subgenre to write for?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Perfect Husband

By Beth Terrell

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm missing the domestic goddess gene.

This week, my project has been cleaning out the spare room. Believe me, this is no easy task, because all during the year, whenever I have to clean another room, I throw everything that doesn't have a place into the spare room, and every Christmas, when we have both families coming over for the annual Christmas bash, we have to spend a week getting it in shape for company. My mother says, "If you would do this every week, it wouldn't be such a big job." Well...yeah.

Intellectually, I know that, but when the season is over, and I have to do something with a stack of magazines and unfolded laundry before our friends come over to play role-playing games, where do you suppose I will put them?

Don't get me wrong. I really wish I were a Martha Stewart type; I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to keep a spotless, flawlessly decorated house and cook two hot meals a day for my husband and pack him a nice lunch every day--not PB&J, but something exotic, like a prime rib sandwich with honey mustard sauce on a fresh croissant with a fresh-baked blondie for dessert. And, oh yes, with an elegantly penned love note tucked into his lunch cooler. I really wish I were that woman.

Fortunately for me, my husband, Mike, is perfect. (I use my grandmother's definition of "perfect"--nothing worth complaining about.) He is a morning person who tolerates a night-owl who stays up past midnight trying to find just the right words. In fact, he gets up early to take out the dogs so I can get a few extra minutes of sleep. He loves it when I cook but is perfectly content with a bologna sandwich. When it's raining, he braves the elements and brings the van to the door so I don't have to get so wet. When I need help with my computer, he knows exactly what to do and, if necessary, will spend hours getting everything to work right. (Did I mention he's a genius?) He is handsome and longsuffering and dear, and I thank God every day for him.

Once, during a book club discussion of my character, Nashville P.I. Jared McKean, a reader asked me, "Does your husband ever get jealous of Jared?"

"My husband is Jared," I said. Much hilarity ensued, since the group, which was made up largely of women, had been discussing Jared's eligibility and whether or not he might have a single brother I could hook them up with.

Of course, Mike is not Jared, not entirely. Jared is much more flawed. His world is darker and more violent than ours, and his strengths and vulnerabilities reflect that. He is a lover of horses, which Mike can take or leave, and while Mike has never worked in law enforcement, Jared's character was shaped by years on the police force. There are many differences between them.

But Jared's basic decency, his stalwart loyalty, his devotion to his family, his compassion for his animals...those are qualities he shares with my husband. Did I deliberately model Jared on Mike? No, but there is no denying that much of my understanding of what "a good man is" comes from knowing and living with Mike. Jared is a flawed hero, but like my husband, to me he will always be "perfect."

As for me, I'm a long way from perfect, but maybe next year, I can at least keep the spare room clean. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Super Squirrel

By Mark W. Danielson

Recent changes in squirrel behavior were recently explained by the above photo, which was anonymously sent to me. Yes, this snapshot confirms that the US Army has been actively recruiting squirrels. Though this is a good temporary job for the unemployed, once they have served their military obligations, they are being randomly air-dropped into backyards across America, making these once super squirrels, an even bigger nuisance. Personally, I love these furry critters, but their inability to adjust to post-military life has been tough on all of us. So far, I’ve relocated fifteen of them, but there is at least one hold-out who is applying his military training to retain his residence of choice.

These now-mercenary squirrels gnaw at tree branches, and once they’ve gnawed completely around them, (girdled them), the branches die. The Army taught them this tactic to defoliate the enemy’s trees, thus denying them cover. Later, once the branches died, the Army hoped they would fall on the enemy, injuring them, or spooking them into running from their hiding places. This brilliant plan minimized the threat to Army soldiers and squirrels alike because the camouflaged squirrels could evacuate long gone before any tree damage was detected. Unfortunately, the Army has been ineffective at reversing their soldier squirrels’ violent tendencies before discharging them, which brings me back to my backyard problem.

Bear in mind that I own a very simple, yet well-proven squirrel trap. One end is closed, the other is open, and the bait is placed on a rocker panel. When a squirrel enters the trap and grabs the bait, it tips the rocker panel, which then slams the door shut. Afterwards, I relocate him/her to a beautiful lake park where there is a gleeful family reunion, and hopefully the transplant won’t find its way back to my yard. As I’ve said, my trap works fine on everything except Army-trained super squirrels. Unfortunately, these tough little rascals have figured out that all they need to do is push the trap over and they can claim the bait. These super squirrels are so brazen that they let me watch them do it! My counter-attack was to make a cover for the trap that prevents them from sticking their hand inside to spring it, and then baited the trap with peanut butter so there were no peanuts underneath. Sadly, that didn’t work either. Instead, Rambo Squirrel climbed over the trap, sprang it from the other side, pushed it over so the lids flew open, and was happily rewarded with chunky-style Jiffy.

My many appeals to the US Army have been in vain as they deny ever having trained any soldier squirrels. And who can blame them? To do so would jeopardize civilian as well as soldier squirrels. After all, the enemy doesn’t discriminate in such situations. So in the mean time, I must come up with other solutions. Perhaps I’ll make more modifications to my trap, or maybe I’ll set up video surveillance. But one thing is for sure; should I ever catch one of those Army squirrels and get it to talk, I will be suing the government for damages!

On a final note, I know what it’s like to be deployed overseas during the holidays. I salute every veteran, past and present, for their service, and wish them a safe return.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

To Sign, or Not To Sign, That Is the Question

By Chester Campbell

Okay, so it doesn’t sound too Shakespearian. The Bard didn’t have bookstores, so he never faced that problem. There’s a lot of discussion in the mystery world about whether a writer should or shouldn’t do book signings. Some say it’s a waste of time and money. A “tour” takes several days and involves travel expenses. The royalties on books sold will hardly cover the cost.

If you’re with a large publisher that gets your books in all the stores, the idea of skipping the signings makes a little sense. You’ll still need plenty of other promotional efforts to get your name out there so people will pick up your book and look at it.

When you’re with a small press that doesn’t have total distribution, you need to get out there and make yourself known among the book buyers and sellers. You won’t always sell a lot of books, but you’ll meet a lot of people who will remember you later. And you can impress the store staff with your upbeat outlook and warm and friendly treatment of the customers.

I’ve had several instances where a Customer Relations Manager at a Barnes & Noble store recommended me to a colleague. That helps and makes the task of lining up signings a lot easier.

Each author has his or her own method for conducting signings, and you need to find what best works for you. Anyone who’s been around the lists I’m on knows how I do it, but I’ll repeat it here for the uninitiated. It has worked well.

I print small promo folders, two on a sheet, that we use for handouts. You can find detailed instructions for doing it yourself on my website under the ON WRITING link. When we do a signing, my wife, Sarah, stands near the store entrance with a supply of folders. She greets customers with a smile and “Do you read mysteries?” If they do, she hands them a folder and tells them the author is signing books at the table over there.

Sometimes they’ll ask her questions about the books, sometimes it’s “Where is the rest room?” If they make eye contact with me, chances are they’ll come over and talk. I hand them a book and discuss whatever interests them. If they really came in to buy a book and not just browse, I have a good chance of selling them.

Most of those who accept the folder from Sarah take it back into the store. After reading it, some will come back to my table and buy a book. A lot will walk out the door with it still in their hands. Hopefully, they will remember my name the next time they see one of my books.

I don’t do bookstore events. Lacking a good speaking voice and being mostly unknown among the general public, I wouldn’t attract many listeners. With a signing, I have a shot at everyone who comes into the store. What determines how many books I sell is the store traffic that day. If lots of people come, I’ll sell lots of books. If few come, the sales fall off. If nobody shows—well, I’ve never had that, though it’s been close a few times.

As for the travel costs, I do a lot of signings in the Nashville area, where I live. When I go on the road, I try to line up several stores to make it worthwhile. Most of the time I do signings along the way when I’m traveling for other reasons, like visiting family, attending a wedding, or going to a mystery conference.

I have cards for several hotel/motel chains and use them at overnight stops. I usually get enough points to spend a free night a couple of times a year.

Of course, some of the best signing opportunities are not at stores but at book fairs and similar events. I try to hit those whenever possible.

About that photo at the top, that was my signing last Saturday at Mysteries & More, a small independent in a Nashville suburb. Mary and Gregg Bruss, the owners, are great people. They had hot apple cider, dips, crackers, and cookies. And who should walk in but Santa Claus (he bought a book). We were also entertained by a talented group known as the Pizazz Quartet. That’s them surrounding me at the table. It was a great day and we sold plenty of books. Stores like that make signings fun.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Eating Your Young

by Ben Small

I think it was Bob Knight who once responded to a reporter’s question about how his son Pat played in a certain game with the comment, “Now I know why some animals eat their young.”

When I heard Knight make that comment ― I’m a born-and-bred Hoosier who loves his school and his basketball ― I said to my wife, “Wow! What a great comment. Maybe I can use that comment someday.

Guess what? Today’s the day.

As you may know, my son, his wife and L’il Ella, now ten months old, are visiting for a couple weeks. Now Ella is a dream, just the sweetest little girl you could imagine. And what a joy to play with her, babysit, and then when the diapers get dirty, hand her back.

But man, the paraphernalia that comes with managing a baby is daunting. Thank goodness I have a rich friend who has three young grandchildren. He let us borrow everything. My wife and I are at the point where we want to downsize. We’re giving furniture and hand-me-downs to our family members as fast as we can. Simply put, we’ve got too much stuff. Most people our age do.

But having a baby around is a stuff-magnet. Sure, bedding and playpens, or a combination thereof, and diaper and feeding stuff I anticipated. But the toys…

My god, the toys…

I had no idea I’d been so deprived when I was a child. I don’t remember having many toys with batteries. Most of my toys were big plastic bubble space helmets, which probably aren’t even permitted now by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, metal cars and trucks, spinning tops and pop-goes-the-weasel boxes. Oh yeah, I had a wooden map puzzle and some ABC stuff, and of course, a teddy bear, but that was about it.

And we were middle class.

I’d never even seen a C battery before this week. I thought there was a gap between the As and the D, that whopper that powers my ancient boom box and my club-sized flashlight.

What’s a C battery? Does that designation stand for “Child”?

I’m buying these things in bulk this week. They power the toys that have suddenly filled my house. And all these toys flash lights, make noxious noises, spin, tumble, or speak.

Who comes up with this stuff? Some nerdy goofball who figured out that blinding strobes, ear splitting sirens, banging drums, and spinning wheels attract even those with an attention span measured with a stopwatch?

Where’s my Xanax?

Some of these toys come with a seat attachment that allows the little ten month old to spin around the toy table like she’s on an amusement ride. Her little legs are moving so fast, she’ll be toddling in a week.

Another dose please.

These aren’t toys, they’re ingenious machines. Toy companies cannot be paying these toy designers enough. I’d always thought the purpose of a baby’s toys was primarily to keep them distracted, maybe teach them a little something, like maybe the identification of some sounds or pictures.

Hah! Baby toys today will prepare a kid for college and create Olympic athletes at the same time.

Oh boy. I can’t imagine what Ella’s Terrible Twos will be like. I’ll need a Xanax drip.

But I dodged a bullet this time. I didn’t have to buy all this stuff. I was able to borrow it from my friend. Trust me, I’m going to keep this friend close. His three grandchildren are slightly older than mine. I’ll be in the gravy borrowing train for some time. The cost of this stuff, for just one baby, mind you, might fund Detroit’s Big Three.

Thinking about this made me wonder about the next generation of toys, what they will do and how much they’ll cost.

Which brings me back to Bobby Knight’s comment...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A question of style

By Pat Browning

As if it weren’t enough to be creative in writing, there are pesky little style rules to observe. I write in first person POV and can never decide the best way to handle internal dialogue. To the rescue comes Vickie Britton, in an article at Suite 101. I have her permission to reprint it here.

Vickie and her sister, Loretta Jackson, have co-authored more than 30 novels.

Handling Internal Dialogue
By Vickie Britton
Suite 101

Sometimes it is necessary to have a character’s innermost thoughts revealed to the reader. There are several correct ways to indicate that a character is thinking something to himself instead of speaking aloud.

Using Quotation Marks to Indicate Direct Character Thought

Quotation marks are used when a character has a direct thought. The fact that the passage below has not been spoken aloud is indicated by the words “John thought.” Both statements and questions are put into quotes if the word “thought” or a similar word is used in place of “said”. It is punctuated exactly like a spoken sentence.

Example: "I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”
Example: George mused, “Why don’t I ever get a break?”

Internal Dialogue-No Quotation Marks Needed
When a character expresses a thought in third person, italics or quotation marks are not necessary.

Example: John lost the game but believed that he might win tomorrow.
Example: George wondered why he never got a break.

Use of Italics
Italics used to be indicated in a rough draft by the tedious process of underlining. Because word processors can form italics easily, it has become more and more acceptable to substitute italics for quotation marks. However, it is not acceptable to use both italics and quotation marks for the same passage.

Traditionally acceptable: “I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”
Also acceptable: I lost the game, John thought, but I might win tomorrow.
Wrong: “I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”

In some instances, it is also acceptable to use italics to express a character's internal musings without using a tag such as "John thought" after the passage. Italics used in this way can be very effective for expressing a sudden, random emotion. In the example below no qualifier is needed to explain who is afraid because the sentence in between the italics indicates who is the thought is coming from.

I’m afraid. The realization came to Mary slowly. Very afraid.
Though all of these are correct, the example above sounds much more dramatic than these two examples below:
“I’m afraid,” Mary realized slowly. “Very afraid.”
Mary slowly realized that she was very afraid.

Placing an emotion in italics works best when used sparingly, perhaps for a random thought here and there. You don’t want your entire book set in italics.

Three Ways to Express Internal Thoughts
All of the examples below are correct ways to indicate internal thought.

“I can’t believe my good fortune,” Joe thought. “I’ve won the lottery again!”
Joe couldn't believe his good fortune at winning the lottery not once, but twice.
A winner. Joe stared at his second lottery ticket. A two-time winner!

There is more than one correct way to indicate a main character’s internal thoughts. Publishers and editors may have different guidelines that they go by. The key is to be consistent. If you decide to use italics rather than quotation marks to indicate thought, use them throughout rather than switching back and forth.

For more helpful articles on writing go to:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hit and Run

By Beth Terrell

As usual, I was running late yesterday morning. A few too many minutes snuggling with the dogs after the alarm went off, a little too long in the steaming shower, and I was faced with a choice I'd been making all too often lately: take the interstate to work and (if the traffic is no heavier than usual) arrive on time, or take an alternate route and pull into the parking lot fifteen minutes late--ten if the lights were with me.

I took the interstate. It was raining, and the streets were slick and shiny in my headlights. Traffic was heavy, but moving briskly. I needed to cross three lanes of traffic and merge into the far left lane by the time I-24 split off toward Chattanooga. All around me, cars sped up and slowed, sped up and slowed. A gap formed between two cars, and I slipped my little Honda into the next lane over. (I love my Honda. It's black with a sprinkling of blue glitter that can only be seen under certain lights. It's like a beautiful little secret between me and the car.)

I left my blinker on, and the car in the next lane sped up to keep me from merging. (Why do people do that?) I fell back and let him pass. Then another gap appeared, and I made it into the next lane. Only one to go. I put the blinker back on and after a few minutes, merged into the far left lane, what the police officer would later call the fast lane, but which was also the only lane that would take me to I-24. A small dark car was in front of me, a big red pickup truck behind. He was moving fast, and I felt a momentary twinge, but he fell back a little, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I turned off the radio; with the rain and the traffic, I wanted to be at my most alert.

We cruised on toward the split in our little vehicular dance. Then the line of traffic in front slowed and compressed. I eased off on the gas and touched the brake. The gap between me and the car in front narrowed, but I knew I would have plenty of room to stop if I needed to. I glanced into my rear view mirror, where the red truck suddenly looked alarmingly large. I had a single lucid thought: He can't possibly stop. I turned the steering wheel to the left, knowing it was too late.

The impact snapped my head back against the headrest and shot the Honda forward. Somehow, I kept my hands on the wheel. Somehow, I guided the car into the space between the concrete barrier wall and the car in front of me. A foot to the left, and I'd have struck the concrete wall. A foot to the right, and I'd have been accordianed between the pickup and the car in front. I eased the car to a stop, hands clamped to the steering wheel, and all I could think was, "Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Then I looked back into the rear view mirror and saw black. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at the crumpled lid of my trunk through the empty pane where my rear windshield used to be. The back seat sparkled with crumbled glass. I fumbled for my phone and called our site manager. "Um...Steve," I said. "I'm going to be late. Do you happen to know the number for the police? You know, that one you call if you're not about to die?"

After I hung up, it occurred to me that the driver of the pickup should have come over to trade insurance numbers by now. Maybe he'd been badly hurt. I glanced in the side mirror. Funny. I should have been able to see the truck behind me. Surely, oh surely, I thought, he's just somewhere outside the view of my mirrors. Surely he did not just drive away. I dialed the police dispatcher and then stepped out of the car to check on the other driver. No red pickup.

I began to tremble. Not only had the driver not stopped, no one stopped. If I'd been badly hurt, I would have bled to death and no one would have stopped to help me. For a moment, it was the loneliest feeling in the world. Then I told myself that f I had been on the right shoulder instead of the left, or if we had been coming home instead of heading for work, people would have stopped to help. Probably several people. That helped a little.

The emergency responder was wonderful. He stopped traffic, allowing me to get across the interstate to a safer place. The responding officer, Jeb Johnston, and the ambulance drivers were kind, professional, and solicitous. "You were hit by a Ford," said the officer.

"Oh," I said. "Did someone see it?"

"No." He shook his head, a hint of a grin on his lips. "We found his front grill. It's in your trunk."

For some reason, I found this immensely funny.

This would be a better story if the grill had landed there after the impact, but the truth is, the emergency responder picked it up off the road and tossed it into the trunk. Fortunately, I'm a writer, and my mind is already turning this lemon into lemonade by planning a scene in which the protagonist of my work in progress is rammed from behind by a bad guy in a red pickup truck. And in that version, guess where the front grill will end up?

There's a lot I still don't know. My little Honda may or may not be totaled. The driver of the pickup may or may not ever be caught. My insurance rates may or may not go up. But I did not die on the interstate yesterday, and for that, I feel very, very blessed.

Our World Under Construction

By Mark W. Danielson

Recent kitchen improvements unveiled numerous flaws that were previously unknown to me. As I removed drawers and light fixtures, I discovered holes to “nowhere.” One hole was for an electrical conduit until the builders realized they couldn’t run that line where the drawers were. At one time, we had a mouse visiting our drawers and could never figure out how it got there, but it quickly became apparent that this hole granted the critter free access. The drywall holes didn’t create a mouse problem; only time to make the repairs. Bear in mind that these flaws never bothered me until they were revealed, and as frustrating as it was to correct the deficiencies, the finished product was worth it. Upon completing my project, it occurred to me that our world’s leaders also conceal flaws, but in time, they are revealed, too.

Such was the case for Illinois’ governor who was arrested Tuesday morning on federal corruption charges. The FBI described the event as a dark day for politics, and like my cabinet and drywall flaws, it took time to reveal the level of corruption. Federal authorities spent countless hours peeling back his concealed political layers. Their successful investigation will allow Illinois to begin a new chapter. Hopefully their next governor will refurbish its tarnished capitol with clear varnish instead of dark paint.

Of course, flaws are not limited to buildings or politicians. Changes in economic policies have exported many of our jobs overseas. In exchange, we import defective and sometimes harmful products. But we shouldn’t blame any specific country for this. After all, these inferior products are a direct result of our demand for cheap prices instead of quality. So, while the quality of my new light fixtures leaves something to be desired, I will be the only one who notices—and the beat goes on.

Using my home improvements metaphorically is intentional. Wherever I travel, I see a world that is under construction, both literally, and figuratively. New money has brought prosperity to previously impoverished countries, and as such, has created enormous infrastructure and lifestyle modifications. But with these cosmetic and economic transformations come new political policies, alliances, and power plays. Russia is heavily shaping politics for many of the former Soviet Block countries, arms races are escalating, tension is building between numerous neighboring countries, piracy at sea is becoming commonplace, and our physical resources are drying up. It’s a mystery where our world will be in twenty years, but there is no stopping its evolution.

No one can predict how much molding will be used covering up the world’s corruption. No doubt its leaders will have flaws, but as with the imperfections in my home, I am comfortable until they are revealed, so in that regard, ignorance truly is bliss. Thankfully, our world isn’t as bad as the media makes it out to be. This holiday season, I’ll leave it to the political watchdogs to peel back the moldings and set things right while I celebrate all the good in this world. And when I am on the road and need solace, I know I can always find it in a good book.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Time for Curmugeonness

By Chester D. Campbell

I suppose it’s my time to be curmugeonly. I’m about two-thirds of the way through a mystery that has been highly praised by some big-name authors. The main character is quite well drawn and is an interesting mix of tenacious cop heavily flawed by fate and a highly abrasive manner.

He has some serious medical problems that are described at great length. Ditto his personal problems with some ladies. Maybe I’m too jaded, but for me all the personal introspection and excess rivalry slow the story and impede the progress of the mystery.

There’s also the tendency to over-describe the settings. I can do without knowing about every knick-knack that fills a room, whether it be in a home, a bar, or an office. I like to throw in occasional scenes in restaurants and other locales that add color to the story, but I get the feeling this book overdoes it a bit. It’s not alone, I hasten to add.

As I indicated, I readily admit to being a bit of a curmudgeon here, but I’m a fan of the faster-paced mystery. My style is to keep the extraneous stuff to a minimum and keep the action moving.

Perhaps it would be better to call this book a character study more than a mystery. My problem is that though I feel sympathy for the cop, he is too harsh to enjoy a likableness score much above a 2.5. His determination to get to the bottom of the crime is admirable, and I’m sure he’ll make it by the end of the story, but his penchant for laying waste to the landscape leaves scant room for endearment.

I like my protagonists to be flawed. That’s what makes them interesting and believable. But this guy carries a chip on his shoulder the size of a two-by-four. And one other thing. The “f” word is thrown around like a ping-pong ball bouncing about the table. That’s one of my pet peeves. Sure, some cops cuss like sailors. Some sailors cuss like cops. But if you’re not going to tell me every other word they use on a regular basis, why dwell on this one? Use it once or twice and I know it’s in their lexicon. More than that it’s gratuitous trash.

Okay, enough ranting. This, of course, is one reader’s opinion. Others, maybe most others, may differ. They will see the book from an entirely different perspective and probably give it five stars. I hope it does well.

Monday, December 8, 2008

All Hail L'il Ella

by Ben Small

Today is retribution day for anyone on two aircraft who’s ever flown with a baby. Surely you remember the wails as ear pressure adjusts, the embarrassed and helpless faces of the parents. Often the husband will try to pretend it’s not his kid making all the fuss, that he’s just as disturbed as every other passenger. But then momma will ask papa to take the baby, and papa’s cover will be blown.

I’ve been on so many flights that just seeing a baby in the gate area gives me hives.

And Ella can sing. It’s a good thing my son and daughter in law are flying coach. I’d hate for them to pay for all the first class glasses broken by her high notes.

Ella turned ten months yesterday, and she’s a bit advanced for her age. In addition to walking and running, she’s almost got the talking thing down pat, not that she knows what she’s saying most times. But Ella loves to practice. I took her to lunch once, and she cleared the room in about ten minutes.

And Ella’s large, really large. Ten pounds at birth and she’s been growing at a Godzilla rate ever since. She’s in the ninety-ninth percentile height-wise, but only the fifty-eighth percentile weight-wise, so in essence she’s the fifty foot baby running up and down the aircraft aisles.

So glad I’m not flying today.

This will be L’il Ella’s first visit to the desert, so we’re fully expecting her to eat her share of lizards and fall into a jumping cholla. We’ll be watching her carefully, of course, but that will be a full-time, four person job.

Babies are quick, you know.

For a week now, the wife and I have been trying to make our place baby-safe, which means everything we own has been stuffed into the garage. Our house looks bare, like we moved out in a hurry. I fully expect to go out for a walk and find squatters have moved in, thinking the place was abandoned.

But these are the trivial things. Our main problem is what do we do with a little girl? I had two boys, and I know what to do with boys. They love being tossed, wrestling, riding daddy’s back and playing with things that make noise.

What do little girls do? I don’t have a clue. And my wife’s no help. It’s been… uh… a few years since she was a little girl.

It was easy when I visited L’il Ella at her house. Her mother had all her toys set up and she just moved from one to another, chewing, throwing and babbling. But all we have are borrowed toys. We’ve got rich friends who have grandchildren Ella’s age. The grandkids aren’t visiting this week, so we borrowed from them. But we have no idea what to do with all this stuff.

Toys sure have changed since my kids were young.

And what about the Christmas tree? We didn’t put any ornaments on it, for fear of breakage or Ella pulling them off and chewing on them. But what if she decides to climb the tree? Or what if the cat climbs the tree, trying to get away from Ella? Is there room for me up there, too?

Say, do any of you have any free time? Are you available for babysitting?

I don’t think you realize the seriousness of this situation. I mean, my god, I have to put away my laptop. What will I do without a laptop? If you read in the newspapers the next few days that some guy in Arizona went bonkers and invaded a Best Buy store, it’s probably me, desperate for a laptop fix.

And cartoons? I haven’t watched a cartoon since I was a kid. Is Yogi Bear still harassing tourists?

Of course, we have no idea about provisioning. What do babies eat? There’s plenty of beer, but aren’t there laws against Ella getting too drunk? And I hate to mush up nachos. Kinda ruins the taste, doesn’t it?

Hopefully, Ella’s mommy can resolve some of these issues. If not, some of you may be getting anguished calls.

And by all means, if you’re flying today, take ear plugs. Put them on if you see a giant grinning baby slobbering up the aisle.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Not Tonight, Josephine

Photos from library book signing in Yukon, OK.
Top, Pat Browning; Bottom, Jefferson Spivey

By Pat Browning

Thursday night’s group book signing at the library was a washout for ABSINTHE OF MALICE. I didn’t sell a single book. Not. One.

Nobody was selling. There were more authors than customers. Lots of adults with kids, but mostly they were checking out books. The most popular spot of all was the cookie and cider table.

I had a table in front so I got to watch people come and go. A couple of observations: 1) Religious books, children’s books and inspirational/self-help books drew the most browsers; and 2) Every one (all 5 of them) who stopped at my table picked up the book and turned it over to read the back summary and blurbs. Another author actually flipped through the book and read a page or two.

So – although nobody was buying, I’d say they are readers. That’s exactly how I pick up a new book – read the back blurbs to find out what the book is about, then flip through a few pages to get a feel for the writing style.

The author who flipped through the book did compliment me on the cover: “It has character. It’s not generic.”

I should have mentioned: “You can say the same about the book.” Ah, well, too late. Next time.

Nothing is ever a total loss. The other authors went all out to decorate their tables, with posters, souvenirs and giveaways, so I picked up all kinds of ideas for “next time.”
I met an author who is willing to go in with me to do a writing workshop. We bounced the idea off the head librarian, who loved it, but said we would have to wait until spring. Winter in Oklahoma can be brutal and unpredictable. It’s too much work to get a program together, then have to cancel because of snow and ice.

Okay. If I get back to work, I can have Book #2 ready for a spring workshop.
The highlight of the evening was meeting a cowboy who is also a writer and a knife maker. Jefferson Spivey is a legend. He garnered national attention by riding horseback from coast to coast in 1968. In 1984 he rode horseback from Canada down the Rocky Mountain chain to Mexico. In 1986 he rode across the badlands of Namibia, Southwest Africa. Early in his trail-mapping career he invented the Sabertooth knife.

Spivey easily had the most interesting table decorations, and I bought a copy of his book, WIND DRINKER. It’s part journal, part narrative. The photos alone are worth the price of the book. The knives he made are works of art, and collector’s items.

What a source and resource for a mystery writer! His book has all kinds of interesting information about guns and knives. If I have a question, I can pick up the phone or send him an e-mail. He lives right here in town.

Friday, December 5, 2008

An interview with Sarah Cafferty

by Jean Henry Mead

I began my career as an investigative reporter and have interviewed hundreds of people over the years, but never my novel characters. So, taking my cue from Chester, who interviewed his protagonist Greg McKenzie not long ago, I gave in to the pleadings of Sarah Cafferty, one of the protagonists in my recently released senior sleuth novel, A Village Shattered.

You're not the viewpoint character, Sarah, so why am I interviewing you instead of your friend, Dana Logan?

Because nearly the entire plot is seen through Dana's eyes and I rarely get a chance to speak my piece. Don't you think my private investigator's widowhood trumps Dana's claim to mystery novel buffdom? Which do you think takes precedence?

I'm sure you're both equally qualified to solve the murders of your friends and club members. The two of you work quite well together, so why are you upset?

Dana gets to have all the fun while I have to hang around with Micki, whose cooking puts weight on everyone within smelling range. The sheriff paired all us widows in the retirement village when he realized a serial killer was on the loose. Micki's partners keep getting killed or put in jail, so I'm her partner now. I'd rather stay with Dana but her daughter Kerrie showed up unexpectantly and is occupying the guest room.

I would hardly call being locked in a closet by the killer having fun. Dana and her daughter were in danger while you and Micki were doing an unauthorized stakeout, which was also dangerous and could have gotten you killed.

It was boring and we ate a couple of pounds of Micki's world famous brownies before the sheriff found us and ordered us home. He's not very good at his job, you know. The sheriff was elected recently and doesn't know his job very well. In fact, he's bungling the investigation. That's why Dana and I decided to put our crime solving skills to work before we're murdered too. The killer stole our club roster and is killing our club members alphabetically. A for Alice, B for Betty, C for Candice and D for Dana...

If my name were next on the killer's list, I'd barricade myself in my house and not come out until he's caught.

Not my friend, Dana. She's got to be there in the middle of things.

Now, Sarah, we both know that it was you who talked Dana into investigating the murders.

Well, it just made sense. My late husband's investigative tools were just sitting there rusting, and I typed all his reports so I know how to go about learning the killer's identity.

And didn't your great ideas almost get your neighbor killed?

Well, Harold was the logical suspect and how was I to know he would disappear. There are other suspects living here in the retirement village. There's Pat Wilson, an alcoholic womanizer who was married to Betty before she was murdered. He may have killed the other women to cover up his own wife's murder. Then there's John Merino who's married to the psychic and Nola Champion who has her cap set for Pat Wilson. And . . .

Don't give away the entire plot, Sarah. You didn't mention the pea soup San Joaquin Valley fog.

Oh, that. Well, if you've lived in the valley as long as I have, you take that awful tule fog for granted. At least we did until the killer started hiding in it and picking off his victims.

I think we'd better let the readers discover the rest of the story for themselves, don't you?

But, I was just gettting started.

Thank you, Sarah. By the way, folks, I'm currently in the middle of a two-week blog book tour to promote A Village Shattered. I'll be giving away three signed copies of my novel to those who leave comments at the various blog sites. My Blog Tour Schedule lists links to the various host sites.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Timeless Tale

By Beth Terrell

Last week, my friend Allan Barlow flew into Nashville from his home in Seattle, Washington. We've known each other since junior high school, took drama and band together in high school, and kept in touch through college, where he majored in theater. He worked as an actor for the next 26 years, eventually settling in Seattle with his wife and their two lovely daughters, of whom he is immensely and deservedly proud. We exchanged the occasional email, not nearly enough contact with someone I loved like a brother. But like all the best friendships, it was like no time at all had passed, and we picked up where we had left off, as if we had stepped straight from 1983 and into the present. True friendship is timeless.

On Saturday evening, my husband and I went to see Allan perform a one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It was fascinating to watch him slide effortlessly from one character to another and back to the narrator. I laughed, I cried, I saw the whole story in my mind as clearly as if each of those characters had been standing in front of me. I loved it so much I went back the next afternoon and saw it again. Although he has done dozens, maybe hundreds, of performances of various versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, he says he never gets tired of it. Apparently, neither do we.

Actors as varied as George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, and Mr. Magoo have played Scrooge. Henry Winkler, the Fonz, did an Americanized version called An American Christmas Carol. Bill Murray put his own stamp on the tale in Scrooged. The muppets did a version in which Kermit played Bob Cratchit; in the Mickey Mouse version, the curmudgeonly Scrooge McDuck played his namesake; and most television series eventually get around to doing at least one episode based on the well-known tale. The equally timeless It's a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, had its roots in Scrooge's story, as does Adam Sandler's modern fantasy, Click. Like friendship, a good story is timeless.

So what is it about this story that engages us so? Why can we watch it over and over again in all its many permutations and never grow weary of it? What is it about this simple story of forgiveness and redemption that strikes such a deep chord in our hearts? Perhaps it's Jacob Marley's act of grace: he arranges for Scrooge's "reclamation," even though he has no reason to believe he himself will gain anything by it. Perhaps it is the goodness of ordinary men like Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew, Fred, who drink the health of a miserly old man who doesn't deserve it. Perhaps it's because, in Scrooge's transformation, we find hope that we can become better than we are.

Maybe it's just magic.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that in the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Dickens tapped into something every writer dreams of. He must have hoped his words would live on after him, but he could not have known that this simple holiday tale, written in 1843, would still be being told and retold a hundred-and-sixty-plus years later, or that it would become so much a part of our culture. Could any writer hope for more than to touch as many lives and hearts as Dickens did when he created that "tight-fisted hand at the grindstone," that "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" called Ebeneezer Scrooge?