Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tried and True Plots

By Mark W. Danielson
Good versus evil, the underdog rises, the lost kid comes home. All are popular themes that are sure to win audiences. For lack of a better description, I’ll call them core plots. In movies, core plots are moneymakers. In writing, they usually mean a series. Romance and western writers rarely stray from their core formulas. Doing so ensures longevity, but it can also get boring and predictable.

I recently watched Real Steel, the first CGI movie I’ve seen in a while, and walked away feeling so-so. Compared to The Help, The Debt, Moneyball, Dolphin’s Tale, and Midnight in Paris, Real Steel melted like butter. Still, it’s been a box office smash and its audience has given it high approval ratings because it’s a feel-good movie about a comeback kid. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this plot before. Pair Rocky and The Little Engine That Could and you’re on the right track. (Pun intended.)

Mystery writers cannot get away with wowing readers with on-screen trickery, though. Their readers demand fresh plots with fun twists. The writers for Castle set the bar on how to do this well. Readers should be turning pages thinking, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” If they manage to figure out the plot one third of the way into the story, then the author has failed.

Every mystery author wants their readers to think they know the plot and then Bam! take them in another direction. How you do that depends upon your writing style, but it all has to make sense so it’s believable. Learning to do this well is the real mystery in writing.

It may not hit you that your story isn’t unique until someone else reads it for the first time. Call these readers The Grim Reaper’s helpers. (Others call them editors.) Because murder can come in so many forms, it is difficult not to duplicate. For example, one day my daughter called me up with a great murder plot – use an icicle to kill someone. That way there would be no prints or means of tracing the murder weapon back to you. I told her it was a great idea except it had been done before and went on to explain its limitations. But what the heck, we had a good laugh over what had come to her in a dream. (Just to be clear, my daughter has no aspiration of murdering anyone.) The point here is the cause of death isn’t as important as the story behind the death. Why did the killer commit the act? What steps did they take to conceal their act? What ultimately led to their getting caught? The answers to these questions must be unique in every mystery. So dig a little deeper and make sure you don’t fall into the tired and true category. It may take a little longer, but your audience will thank you for your effort.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bras and unseemly messages

This one’s triggered by two things. First, a chat with friends – male and female – about the ‘typical’ male obsession with the contents of bras, and second – and related to it – messages on t-shirts. Together, they seem to make it worthwhile posting this. (You may disagree.)

The fact that the Sun newspaper in the UK was a hit from day one because it featured a topless page 3 ‘girl’ every day immediately relegates anyone who admires the curves of breasts to a dark, onanistic underclass. There, we (I’m including myself for the moment because I haven’t yet spoken of my particular POV here) hunch in our shifty, fetid corners, slavering, drooling and unconsciously giving in to Freudian longings and urges centred around deeply-buried memories of contented suckling. We’re primitive, unreconstructed creatures led not by what’s in our skulls but rather by an organ that has little to do with rational behaviour. Along with the ‘obsession’ goes the assumption that we have society’s permission to whistle at the owners of the admired appendages, make lewd remarks and generally be thought of as ‘one of the lads’.

There’s no point trying to deny that the world is crawling with such still-to-evolve individuals. And they make it difficult to articulate a case for the defence. For them, women and their component parts are sex objects, full stop. So how can I say that I find breasts (and many other anatomical bits of women) attractive? I have no urge to grab them, but they’re a source of innocent (yes, innocent) pleasure. It would sound defensive, evasive, even insincere to claim that my response is aesthetic but it’s closer to that than to depraved. I really wish it were possible to tell women one passes in the street that they look good or walk beautifully without fear of being arrested for accosting them and/or making filthy suggestions. Surely they’d be happy to know that they were being appreciated in a totally unthreatening way.

Anyway, this led to the t-shirt messages because, if one’s gaze tends reflexively to drop to chests, one reads all sorts of quips on them and, surprisingly often, they relate to the things which the t-shirt is concealing. Scrawled across two rather large mounds on one were the words ‘I wish these were brains’. Another, which I saw in an illustration rather than on a woman, had a ‘C’ on the front of the right arm and an ‘L’ on the front of the left. The front of the garment carried other specially chosen symbols, to create this overall effect:


You’ve no doubt seen your own (or maybe even have favourites which you wear) so I won’t multiply the examples. (And, for a wee aside, which has nothing to do with the central point of all this, my favourite t-shirt message is one I saw on a man in one of the less affluent areas of Glasgow. He was an ordinary guy but his t-shirt told everyone:


That is classy.)

Anyway, to my final point. On a bus in St Andrews, two of my fellow passengers were biker types – not bikers the way Marlon Brando was a biker in The Wild One, but overweight, unattractive, greasy haired slouchers. They were probably in their early twenties but they didn’t look scary or threatening. Then, when they walked to the front to get off, I saw the message they had stitched across the back of their leather jackets:


It’s a chilling thought that these individuals considered such an idea worth sharing with the world. It doesn’t matter that they were driven to think of it by the number of live girls who’d taken one look at them and said ‘no’, which left them in no doubt about their chances. It was a proclamation born of fear, inadequacy. Let’s face it, you don’t get street cred by confessing to necrophilia. But, for all that these were two sad, nasty individuals incapable of seeing how self-defeating their boast was, it left a nasty taste in my mouth and a sadness which soured the rest of the day. And, in the end, I wonder whether the innocence I claim for my appreciation of how women look isn’t after all on the same spectrum as the bikers’ message. I really, really hope not.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Writing Books around Seasons

By June Shaw

Have you written any mysteries around a holiday or season?

Have you picked up any books to read because they were centered around a holiday theme or a season?

Lots of books seem to come out each year centered around Christmas. Quite a few take place around Thanksgiving.

I've seen a number of books centered around Fourth of July. But what about Flag Day? Can you come up with an idea about that?

Mother's Day? Any story has to be filled with conflict. What conflicts could arise during that supposedly happy weekend?

Winter has attracted many mysteries with its imagines of things dying. So has snow which covers bodies. But what about spring? New birth? And a death or two?

Graduation--commencement--the beginning. I used that happy time to center my first mystery, Relative Danger.

Taking a cruise--yes--what pleasure--unless people you know start dying. And then there's your class reunion--what fun--unless one of your good friends is a killer--and you need to find out. I had so much fun with that concept with my newest mystery, Deadly Reunion.

While you're coming up with a place for your story to take place, maybe you'll want to give more thought to the occasion or season in which you set your story. Doing so can sometimes give it extra dimension.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Conversation with Allison Brennan

by Jean Herny Mead

New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan has published 13 books and three short stories during her career. A former senior consultant for the California State Legislature, she's the mother of five who writes three books a year.

Allison, how does a mother of five manage to write three novels a year?

I don’t sweat the small stuff. Like any working mother, I prioritize. I write when the kids are in school and I write after they go to bed. When I’m close to deadline, I often go to Starbucks after dinner and leave my husband in charge. I have no life outside of my family and writing! But honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love both.

How did your former FBI agent, who became a crime novelist, come about?

The Prey was my fifth book, and my first sale. I started the book years before I got serious about my writing, then like everything else I’d begun, I set it aside. At some point, I found it on my computer—it was 300 incomplete pages of garbage. Great premise, but nothing behind it.

I thought about Rowan Smith, my heroine. Why did she leave the FBI? Why did she start to write crime fiction? At about the same time, I read an article about a murder-suicide. A man who killed his family, then himself. His neighbors and colleagues were stunned—they couldn’t reconcile the man they knew with a killer. I then played the “What if?” game . . . what if one of his children survived the attack? What would she be like? What would she do with her life? How would her past affect her? She became Rowan Smith.

I ended up deleting all but the first two chapters of that first draft, and wrote it fresh.

Do you have a background in journalism or law enforcement? If not, how do you research your novels?

I’ve always been an avid reader. Before I sold, I relied on books for my research. I’m not shy, so I’m always willing to ask questions of people who know more than I do about something I’m interested in. I’m sort of the “Jill of all trades” – I learn a lot about a subject, write about it, then promptly forget most of the details.

Through writing, I’ve found many experts—cops, doctors, criminalists. It’s really a matter of being diligent, double checking, and ultimately, realizing that my primary purpose is to entertain my reader. I just need to know whether a scenario is plausible. It doesn’t have to be probable, just believable. If I can reason it out, I’ll write about it.

I’ve been very lucky now that I’m published to have greater access to experts, and bring in a greater realism to my books. For example, I met my primary FBI contact during research for my eighth book, Tempting Evil, the second in the Prison Break trilogy. I had a secondary character, fugitive apprehension specialist in the FBI, Mitch Bianchi, who was tracking a convict who’d escaped during the earthquake that totaled San Quentin in Killing Fear. Mitch tracked the fugitive to Montana. I was working on revisions and had a few questions that my regular contacts couldn’t seem to answer, so once Washington cleared me, I was given access to the media relations special agent (PIO) in the Sacramento FBI.

I sent him a long list of specific questions and learned real quick that my entire set-up was wrong. Mitch would never have tracked the fugitive through multiple jurisdictions. If he had information that the fugitive was in another state, he would contact that jurisdiction and they’d follow up. This was not good news. I was on a tight deadline—I was working on editor revisions, the book was DONE, and I was just cleaning it up. I couldn’t change his character because that would change the whole book. I asked the PIO a bunch of questions, trying to dig myself out of the hole I’d written (thank you television—NOT!) and then hit on the right question.

“Well, if an agent disobeyed orders or broke the rules by tracking a fugitive into another jurisdiction without following established protocols, what would happen?” The answer? Anything from a reprimand to termination. I love shades of gray!

Not only did this work for the book (and saved me a major last minute rewrite) but it worked for my character. Mitch doesn’t play by the rules, he’s been reprimanded many times and gone before the Office of Professional Responsibility more than once. He’s also smart, dedicated, and decorated.

So at the beginning of Playing Dead, Mitch is off the case because of his blatant disregard of direct orders in Tempting Evil, and is confronted with another difficult choice—if he works the case, he’ll be fired. He’s run out of chances. I had not only established his character, but his primary conflict. It worked so well you’d have thought I’d planned it!

I am truly blessed to have so many resources. In the past three years, some of my research excursions included participating in two SWAT training exercises (with another scheduled in March); touring the FBI Academy at Quantico (going back in October), visited FBI Headquarters in D.C.; visiting Folsom State Prison (with the amazing bestselling thriller writer James Rollins); and two trips to the Sacramento County Morgue–once for a tour and to observe an autopsy, the second time to learn how they preserve evidence. If you really twist my arm, I’ll admit being a non-ambulatory victim during SWAT training was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time . . . which shows you what a boring life I lead! In fact, on Tuesday I’m participating in another SWAT exercise. Not for any specific purpose, but simply to internalize what happens and try to put myself in their shoes . . . and the bad guy.

I’m going back to Quantico this fall--perfect timing to start writing Lucy Kincaid #5, which takes place at Quantico while Lucy is at the FBI Academy. Sometimes, I think I shouldn’t be having so much fun researching . . . but that certainly doesn’t stop me!

Tell us about your Seven Deadly Sins Series.

An evil occult releases the Seven Deadly Sins from Hell as incarnate demons in order to gain eternal youth and beauty. My heroine, Moira O’Donnell, is a former witch who is trying to stop her mother, the occult leader, from fulfilling her agenda. The Seven Deadly Sins is a supernatural thriller series that asks the question, what is your deadliest sin? If your conscious was stripped bare, what sin would you be vulnerable to?

What kind of consulting did you conduct for the California State Legislature?

I was a senior consultant responsible for constitution communication—essentially, I managed the constituent databases for elected officials as well as wrote communication pieces. For example, I would read and analyze legislation and then summarize it in one page or less.

Tell us about your latest series featuring FBI recruit Lucy Kincaid.

In my sixth book, Fear No Evil, Lucy Kincaid was a happy-go-lucky high school senior waiting to hear about college acceptances when she was kidnapped by an online predator. Now, she’s a resolute graduate waiting to hear if she’s been accepted into the FBI Academy at Quantico, haunted by the events in Fear No Evil—where she was kidnapped right before her high school graduation. Lucy has been a favorite of mine since she first walked on the page. I wanted to write a series around her, and was thrilled when my publisher agreed. So many series begin with an established detective or agent in the middle of their career; with Lucy, I start at the beginning, before she’s in the FBI Academy. She’s weeks away from her 25th birthday when Love Me to Death begins.

This book started with the character—I knew I was writing Lucy’s story. I also knew that while I wanted it to tie into her past, I also needed to make sure that the story stood on its own. I wondered what Lucy would be doing now, six years after she was raped and almost killed by an online predator. She’s done many things—college, internships, applying to the FBI—but it’s her volunteer job with a victim rights group that lands her in serious trouble at the beginning of Love Me to Death when she learns that the predators she thinks she’s helping send to prison are ending up dead.

One of the most interesting--and depressing--presentations was from the Supervisory Special Agent in charge of battling child pornography. And it is a battle. The Internet has made child pornography so widespread and virtually unstoppable. If every cop in the country—local, state, and federal—spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week pursuing on-line predators for a full year, they wouldn’t be able to stop even ten percent of these horrid crimes. And this only includes crimes against children under 14.

The SSA told us that no one lured in by Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” program, at that point in 2008, had been arrested or convicted as a result of being “caught” on the show.

And I wondered, what if? What if Lucy found herself in a “catch a predator” type plan . . . but the predators ended up dead? What would she do? I began to think about vigilantism in general, and motivation in particular. The idea opened up more research into average sentences for sex offenders, recidivism rates, and statistic on early release programs. No one thing gave me the story—it was a variety of threads I spun together.

The second book in the series, Kiss Me, Kill Me, also started with an idea I got through the FBI citizens academy about underage prostitutes. While KMKM has nothing to do with prostitution, the online element of underage girls voluntarily engaging in online sex chats came from what I learned. I wondered what would happen if the girls agreed to meet some of these guys. I read an article about underground parties, then in the course of my research about that found an online photojournal and contacted the photographer. I had a bunch of questions, and he graciously answered. I then decided to set KMKM in New York City with abandoned warehouses and underground parties as the backdrop.

And now, for book three in the series (If I Should Die, December 2011), I’m researching closed mines in upstate New York. While I can’t travel to the Adirondacks before the book is due to my publisher, I’ve made contact with the owner of a mine here in California to help me with some of the details.

What are the most difficult and most enjoyable aspects of writing for you?

I love writing. I love getting into the heads of my characters and seeing how they react to whatever situation I put them in. I love both writing and revising, editing and proofing. The whole process.

Difficult? I want to make each book better than the last, and because I fear I won’t be able to write stronger, better stories, I tend to panic. I’m constantly worried that what I’m writing is mediocre, that I’ll disappoint my editor and my readers.

How did you acquire an agent?

The old-fashioned way: blind queries. For the first four books I wrote, I received over 200 rejections. For The Prey, I had a feeling I had finally found my voice, that this was “it.” I queried 12 agents and had seven requests for full manuscripts. I ultimately went with an agent at a major NY agency, who sold me to Ballantine and negotiated six contracts for a total of 17 books.
Last year I went through another agent hunt (long story) and the benefit of being a published author means that I could call agents on the phone and most would talk to me and read my work. Out of six agents I spoke with, three offered representation. While just as stressful as my unpublished agent hunt, it was still easier.

Advice to fledgling writers?

Write. Revise. Learn to self-edit. Learn to discern good advice out of all the crappy advice you get. Learn to be self-critical without destroying your confidence. No one is a master out of the gate; even the masters practiced for years. Be smart about the business, because publishing is a business first. Write because you love to write, not because you want to be published. Write because you can’t imagine not writing. Writing is a business, but it’s also creative, and thus unique. You have to love what you write because if you sell, you’ll be writing that type of story potentially for years. Don’t write to trends, because trends change, but write what you love—then position it to fit the market. And while some rules are important—such as punctuation—don’t get hung up on arbitrary rules. Write boldly and with passion, because that’s what it takes to stand out in this tight market. But mostly, write with the love of writing, because even when you curse the computer and your lack of imagination and your fear of failure and your fear of success, even when you think you’re writing total garbage, deep down you love it because it’s you.

Thank you, Allison. You can visit Allison at her website: as well as her blog sites: and
At Facebook:
and Twitter:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


by Carola

This is where I'm writing about at the moment--part of the setting of my third Cornish mystery, Valley of the Shadow:

Monday, October 17, 2011

10 College Pranks That Resulted in Criminal Charges

by Carol Brown*
Pranks are a time-honored tradition on college campuses, with practical jokes between roommates and football rivals found at colleges everywhere. Most are harmless, or at least start out that way, but not all pranks turn out for the best. What might have started out as something funny cooked up over a few rounds at the keg party can quickly turn into an incident that leaves those involved in hot water.
Here, we'll take a look at 10 such pranks, ones that may have started out with good intentions, but ended up with criminal charges. Although pranks are a fun part of college, take these stories as a cautionary tale to really think about the implications of your joke before putting it into motion.

    In May 2009, Matthew Dortch and Patrick Robinson at Central Connecticut State University put together a prank that we're sure sounded funny as they planned it, but was really pretty scary from the start. The two burned bags of popcorn in a dorm microwave, filling the dorm with smoke and causing a fire alarm to go off in the middle of the night. If they'd stopped there, this story might have been harmless, but they enlisted the help of a third prankster, former student Christopher Scifo, who tied the doors of many dorm rooms shut so that students could not get out. Although there was no real danger at any point, and no one was hurt, the three created a situation of panic and fear for the students in the dorms, rather than a funny prank meant to get some laughs. They were suspended, arrested, and charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief for their actions.

    Traveling for college sports can sometimes get tedious, so while students from the Morrisville College field hockey team were traveling in vans together, student Stephanie Smith pulled a prank that not everyone thought was funny. As the vans passed each other, the students played jokes, and Smith played the role of a kidnapping victim, putting medical tape over her mouth and holding a sign reading, "HELP I'VE BEEN KIDNAPPED." The team obviously knew the truth, but others on the road did not get the joke. In fact, several people noticed Smith and called 911 for help, resulting in the stopping of both vans. Smith was arrested for her actions on the charge of disorderly conduct, making this joke between friends not really funny at all.

    Kidnapping seems to be a popular prank among college students, with plenty of kidnapping jokes and hoaxes. This particular incident was a planned fake kidnapping among friends that went wrong after onlookers saw what was going on. The prank was over before it even started, as observers saw students pull on black ski masks in preparation for the prank, and called police, who intervened before they were able to "kidnap" their friend. Even though the prank failed to launch, the two are still in hot water, facing disorderly conduct charges for the incident.

    At Miami University, computer science major Benjamin Field sent out an email announcing Green Beer Day, and canceling classes. Field's email was supposed to be from Miami University President James Garland, but obviously, was a hoax. Most students realized immediately that it was fake, but it sure was funny. However, the university was not laughing, calling it a "very serious matter," resulting in disciplinary action and possibly even dismissal. He was charged with a fifth degree felony with the potential for up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. Upon search of Field's apartment, police also found marijuana and drug paraphernalia, giving him two misdemeanor drug offenses to deal with on top of the prank.

    Although most of these pranks are something that everyone can appreciate as pretty funny on some level, this incident is deadly serious. When Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, asked his roommate Dharun Ravi if he could have the room to himself, Ravi and a friend Molly Wei spied on him having sex with another man using a webcam. Not only that, Ravi and Wei streamed the cam live online, sharing it with others. Presumably, Ravi and Wei did not mean to be malicious, but rather poke fun at the unsuspecting Clementi, but Clementi did not feel the same way. He killed himself after finding out what had happened. In this serious case of roommate pranking, one ended up dead, and two others, Ravi and Wei, were charged with invasion of privacy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. They dropped out of Rutgers.

    What's more fun than stealing a giant sheep? Actually getting away with the prank. Unfortunately, Angelo State University students Thaddeus Geagley and Randall Key, along with former student Scotty Marsh enjoyed a brief amount of fun with their sheep, but were caught and charged with criminal theft. The three stole a huge fiberglass sheep — known as the Freedom for Me and Ewe sheep — early one Sunday morning, and took it back to their apartment about a block away. We're sure they were laughing about it the whole way home, but things got a lot less funny when authorities found the sheep and arrested everyone in the apartment. They were charged with felony theft, which is punishable by 180 days to two years in jail, with a fine of up to $10,000.

    It's often not a good idea to do things you see in movies, especially if that movie is Wedding Crashers. But University of Wisconsin student Luciana Reichel made the mistake of mimicking a prank she saw in the movie, putting Visine drops in her roommate Brianna Charapata's water bottle. Of course, Reichel didn't do it just once, and in fact, she tainted her roommate's water with Visine on "numerous occasions," leading to sickness. Chaparata's doctor was not able to explain her symptoms, and Charapata did not find out what was going on until Reichel told another student about the prank, who shared it with Charapata. Reichel did not seem to be bothered by her actions, and on one occasion, even decided to add more Visine to her water bottle to see what would happen after she had heard that the eye drops had been making Charapata sick. Although Reichel was once a star swimmer on the university swim team, she was charged with a felony count of placing foreign objects in edibles and faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison.

    When you're running for public office, nothing is private, including your email. Sarah Palin found out this fact firsthand when her email was hacked as a prank by a college student. University of Tennessee student David Kernell hacked into and reset the password for Sarah Palin's Yahoo! Mail account, posting messages and photos online for all to see and chronicling the breach on 4chan. Kernell's defense attorney called his actions a college prank with no criminal intent, but Palin and prosecutors did not see it the same way, charging Kernell with felony obstruction of justice, misdemeanor unauthorized access to a computer, wire fraud, and identity theft. The charges stuck for all but wire fraud and identity theft, but federal prosecutors may retry him. He faces up to 20 years for obstruction of justice, and an additional year for misdemeanor unauthorized access to a computer.

    When Arizona made the controversial decision to allow police officers to ask for immigration paperwork from suspects, a few college students thought it might be funny to take advantage of the situation. At Arizona State University, two students posed as undercover plainclothes cops at the main building on campus, asking at least 10 people to show their identification for immigration. They were arrested when one of the students they questioned called in the authorities. Although it sounds like they intended the prank as a funny political joke, the students were charged with impersonating a peace officer, which is a very serious felony offense.

    Everyone is familiar with college rivalries, and most people can appreciate a little good natured ribbing among schools; sometimes, though, things go too far and can result in criminal charges. After the Auburn Tigers beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, fan Harvey Updyke Jr. poisoned the iconic 130 year old Toomer's Corner trees on the Auburn campus. Updyke had called into a sports radio show to brag about his mischief, but later admitted he was sorry for his actions. Nonetheless, he was charged with criminal mischief, which has the potential for a fine and community service.
    * Editor's note: Carol contacted me asking if I'd be interested in using her post. I read it, thought it better than what I'd prepared, so decided to run it instead. All thanks to Carol for her very interesting article.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Master Gardener

by Leighton Gage

Brazil is blessed by more varieties of plants than any other country.
So is it any wonder that Brazil produced one of the world’s greatest landscape architects?

His name was Roberto Burle Marx.

He intended to become a painter, but his mother had, from his earliest days, imbued him with a love of gardening, and he began to recognize the artistic potential in the shapes, sizes and hues of flowers and plants.

In time, he came to regard landscape design as an art in itself, not as a backdrop or decoration to architecture. And he decided to specialize in it.

His aesthetics were nature based.

He never mixed flowers of different colors.

He preferred large groupings of the same specimen.

And he had a preference for plants that were natural to the regions in which he worked.

Burle Marx had a hand in designing some parts of Brasília, including its hanging gardens, but among Brazilians he is best known for his many projects to beautify the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio’s largest park, the Aterro do Flamengo, built on reclaimed seafront just southwest of downtown, is an early example of one of his signature projects.

But for sheer sweep, nothing surpasses the promenade of Copacabana, with its rippled sidewalks, clusters of palms and colorful abstract stone mosaics. From the upper floors of the hotels that line Avenida Atlantica, one appears to be looking at a single canvas four kilometers long.

Burle Marx’s most elaborate and time-consuming effort was the abandoned estate he bought in Guaratiba, near Rio, in 1948.

It was here that he established his garden, nursery and tropical plant collection. Functioning as his workshop, laboratory and office until his death, in 1994, at the age of 84, it is now owned by the Brazilian government. The Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, as it is now called, houses over 3,500 species of native plants. And has become a Mecca for landscape architects throughout the world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Powerful Image

By Mark W. Danielson

This isn’t my photo. I borrowed it from a Facebook friend. I’m posting it here because of the powerful images it provokes. Better than the best prose, this picture speaks volumes because it captures our hearts. Why is that? Is it because of the eagle, the cemetery, or both? Let’s start with the eagle.

More than a symbol of the United States, the American Bald Eagle is perhaps the most majestic bird in existence. A master of air and fierce hunter, one cannot help being in awe. We normally see this bird soaring or attacking with its talons out. Perhaps this is why it is so heartbreaking to see it perched atop a tombstone in a veterans’ cemetery.

Even without the eagle, this cemetery photo is chilling as we imagine the young faces of those buried in the endless rows. Futures denied and future generations lost because of war. In the background, the mist and low sun forge a solitary setting. Add the perched eagle and eyes start to well.

What makes this photo especially interesting is how the eagle hides the veteran’s religious affiliation. Without realizing it, this bird demonstrated that people of all denominations die in the name of the sword, but in the end, dead is dead – at least in our dimension. No political rhetoric or medal can change that for these veterans, but even death cannot strip them of the honor. This is what these cemeteries are for -- to pay homage and honor their memories.

If I was teaching a writing class, I would ask my students to write a short story about this photo. No doubt some would share tales of their loved ones while others might debate politics. Certainly whatever stories they share would be extremely personal and touching. I would than ask them to write a brief description of this this photo. Some may pronounce it the bite of approaching winter while others may pray for eternal peace for those who died for their country. But since I am not a professor of creative writing, I am opening this up to our blog readers. What, exactly, do you see in this photo, and can you describe it in a sentence or two? The challenge is yours.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If you’ve never yet been to Paris, stop what you’re doing immediately and go. The song praises ‘April in Paris’, but you could substitute any month, with the possible exception of August, when the Parisians themselves are on holiday and the place is taken over by foreigners (like me). Paris is magical – it has beauty, history, romance, freedom, love, art, architecture, nobility, humanity – as well as excellent food and even better wine.

I want to share just one of the days my wife and I spent there on our last visit. After breakfast at a terrasse looking onto the Luxembourg fountain, we wandered through the Jardins du Luxembourg. London boasts (justifiably) of its parks but those in Paris are of a different order. Dappled shade, all the usual impressionist stuff, trees and open spaces. People everywhere but no sense of crowding. On the pond, model boats, especially two magnificent schooner rigs. Bizarrely, one guy preferred his submarine. It was big and painted the usual sinister black. He launched it; it set out across the pond then it submerged. I need someone to explain to me what pleasure he got out of that. It had a mast thing (presumably an aerial for the radio controls) on the conning tower. On top of that was a tiny green square of material. And that was all you could see, moving along about two inches above the surface. There were the ripples of the wake but no sign of the boat.

All around the edge of the water, very young kids perched and leaned, their parents either deep in chat with friends or welded to a mobile (cell phone) – an obvious demonstration of the French passion for individual freedom. ‘If le petit Bertrand, aged 2, wants to topple into the pond, that’s his inalienable right.’ None did.

Everywhere under the trees – nearby and in the distance – groups of slowly moving Taekwondo practitioners wove their moves. Others performed slow rituals with actual swords, sliding them so close to their bodies that I was surprised the ground wasn’t littered with ears, slices of buttock or other, even more important organs. There were donkeys, ponies, families, couples, readers, joggers, walkers. People sat on the hundreds of chairs spread around the place – so much more inviting than fixed benches. The sun was hot and ‘le tout Paris’ was there enjoying it.

We wandered away, down the rue Bonaparte and past a shop I always need to look at. This time in the window there were letters from Louis XIII, the Empress Josephine, Zola, Montesquieu, Sartre and others. Then along the Seine past the Museé d’Orsay, across the river to the Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli. There, as we stood waiting to cross, two young French women asked us the way to the Louvre. We were able to point to the building opposite and say that’s it. I’m not implying they were dumb or anything. It’s just that, around the back and sides, away from the glass pyramid and the amazing approach to the Palais du Louvre, it looks like everything else.

But it still makes Buckingham Palace look like a shed. When I look at the vastness and the glory of the construction, with all the statues and columns and gothic frilly bits, I have conflicting feelings. First, it’s a triumph, a glorious demonstration of what humans can do. Second, it was all built so that one individual who got lucky because the right sperm and egg fused could say ‘Hey, look how cool I am’. On this day of sun, however, the guy’s hubris was forgiven. The palace that people had built for him looked magnificent.

I forgot to mention that, at various points in our meanderings, we’d stop and marvel at the number of significant places we could see around the skyline. Paris is stuffed with them – our particular count on this trip was the Panthéon, the Eiffel Tower (of course), Notre Dame, the Tour St Jacques, the Grand Palais and even, way up north, the Sacré Coeur.

And on and on.

Then, six o’clock, in the tiny church of St Julien-le-Pauvre, the requisite bit of culture. We’d bought the cheapest tickets for a Chopin recital by Teresa Czekaj. We were at the back and the side and could only catch occasional glimpses of her head as she moved. Needless to say, the performance was astonishing. It’s impossible to create so many complex sounds at such speed with only ten fingers but she did it. But, in my proletarian way and with an eye to which wine we’d try later, I couldn’t help thinking that culture was a bit expensive. We’d paid 20 euros. Then, in the interval, a man suggested we move into some of the empty seats up front. We did so and it was an amazing experience for which I’d have paid twice as much. We moved to a pair of chairs set beside a pillar at the side right at the front. The piano was less than 5 metres away and Ms Czekaj was facing us. The pillar hid the rest of the audience so it was as if she was playing just for us. We saw the music in her face – she was smiling, angry, sad, serene – all sorts of things, and it added a sort of commentary to the music itself, made it even more affecting. And being so near to the Steinway, nothing was lost in the acoustics of the church. The 40 minutes or so of that second half could have been forty seconds or a month – everything was suspended.

Dinner at Balzar and a last wander up the Boulevard St Michel through the still fascinating crowds. Not a bad day.

So if any of you are thinking of buying a place there, I’d be happy to look after it for you while you’re away.

Monday, October 10, 2011


By Shane Cashion

My post today is going to be brief. I’m still trying to make up for the time I lost last week to a computer virus known as Open Cloud Av. It sounds pleasant enough, but I assure you it’s not. When I turned on my computer I got a pop up indicating that it was infected with a virus and that I needed to run a scan with Open Cloud Av. So I did. Four days later I was suicidal. This virus intercepted everything I tried: system restore; antivirus programs, all of the usual tricks were stymied.

What was particularly infuriating is that I’d only had the computer for a few months. I spilled a naked drink chock full of an entire pound of fruit onto my last computer’s keyboard. At the recommendation of a friend I raced to my local Best Buy to let the Geek Squad work their magic on it. To my surprise the tech pronounced the computer “salvageable.” I was certain I’d have to scrap it. Ten minutes later he had it wrapped in a nice little mailing package and advised me to call in about four weeks to check on its status. Four weeks! I didn’t have that kind of time then and I didn’t have it last week either. So I set out to fix it myself.

Since I’m sure I’ve already bored you with this post, I won’t go into the hundreds of things I tried. What I will do is give a shout out to a company called PC Tools. For forty bucks or so I downloaded their antivirus program and ran a full scan of my computer. The program immediately detected the virus and to my excitement claimed to have removed it. It was a lie. When I rebooted the computer the virus popped up just like it had before. Frustrated I found a phone number to this PC Tools outfit and waited on hold for what felt like an eternity until I was finally connected to a person whose name was missing vowels. In my mind’s eye I could see her in a cubicle in a swanky high rise building with her script full of English buzz words and catch phrases while shoeless children, elephants, and mules loitered outside her window looking for food.

Be that as it may, this woman proved to be my savior. Together we must have tried a thousand different approaches, bouncing back and forth from regular boot ups to safe mode, which is unfamiliar and scary and looks like DOS. In the end we laboriously examined file after file until we were able to locate the offending file and remove it from the system. She was amazing. If I was on LinkedIn I’d connect with her forever.

As I was engaging in my rudimentary computer repairs, the oracle of technology, Steve Jobs, lost his battle with cancer. I wholeheartedly believe Jobs and his ilk changed the world for the better, although I wouldn’t call it a slam dunk. I’m old enough to remember when viruses sent you to the doctor not Best Buy, when you could have lunch with friends and enjoy their undivided attention instead of competing with emails, text messages, Facebook, and Internet strangers winking for dates. Perhaps I just need to update my own harddrive and get with the times.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


by June Shaw

Many readers want to know where novelists get their ideas.

Recently I enjoyed getting a new one. I was in the post office with only the two women working at the counter when the door opened and shut behind me.

"I need to mail a shoe," a guy said.

I turned around, big smile on my face. The nice-looking young man held a woman's attractive strappy black heel.

"Okay," I said, "I'm a novelist. You have got to tell me about this shoe."

He grinned and complied, and the women and I enjoyed his story. It seems he'd flown across the country to stand in a good friend's wedding. Afterward, when he was with others from the bridal party at the airport, one of the bridesmaids' suitcases was too heavy. A couple of the guys opened their bags and let her toss some of her things in. They'd returned her things. But he found one of her shoes had remained with him--so now he wanted a box to ship it in.

"Love that story," I said and gave him one of my business cards. "Thanks for giving me the idea for one of my next books. I normally write mysteries, but that one might have to be a romance."

He held up the shoe. "Kind of like Cinderella, huh?" he said, and I agreed.

Okay, so now none of you steal this story. It happened to me, and I'm going to use it in a novel.

I came up with the idea for my newest mystery, the newly released DEADLY REUNION, at my last class reunion. Wondering who my former classmates really were and whether I'd ever completely known good friends at all, I decided I'd write a novel about one. And then setting it on an Alaskan cruise--well, somebody had to do research. And as far as my main character's mishap, I once heard Bette Middler say she strutted across a stage in really high heels and fell and broke her ankle, so...

Now tell us all -- where do you get your ideas?

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Visit with Lawrence Block

by Jean Henry Mead

Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Lawrence Block has won four Edgar and Shamus awards. The bestselling author's wide range of characters: from private investigator Mathew Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, insomniac Evan Turner to assassin Keller have made him one of the most versatile crime novelists on the planet. He's also published four how-to writing books as well as short fiction and articles in American Heritage, Redbook and The New York Times.

Lawrence, what in your background prepared you to write crime novels? Did you hold any writing jobs before writing fiction?

Nothing---outside of extensive reading. After two years of college, I got a summer job at a New York literary agency as an editor. I dropped out of school to keep it, and stayed for a year. Then I went back to college, but I was already writing and selling short stories and novels, and couldn't take school as seriously as it needed to be taken. I wrote full-time, until in 1964 I took a job as an editor with a numismatic magazine in Racine, Wisconsin. After a year and a half I returned to full-time free-lancing, and I haven't had honest work since.

How did your protagonist Mathew Scudder come about?

I developed the character for a three-book paperback original series for Dell, at the suggestion of my agent. Dell didn't do much with the books, but the character remained alive for me, and a few years later I wrote a fourth book and Arbor House published it. A Drop of the Hard Stuff, from Little Brown in April 2011, [is] the seventeenth novel about Scudder, so I've been writing about him for over 35 years, which I find astonishing when I think about it. He's older now, but who isn't?

Your gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr is an intriguing protagonist. How did you feel about Whoopi Goldberg playing the role in “The Burglar in the Closet?”

Whoopi was by no means the worst thing about that movie. The gender change was something the filmmakers had every right to make; it's not their job to reflect and reproduce the novelist's vision, but to make something that works as a film. Unfortunately, what wound upon the screen wasn't very good. Whoopi's a fine actress and could have been good if she'd had something to be good in. The writer/director is the genius who gave us the Police Academy films, so what could we expect?

How did your character Evan Michael Tanner originate and do you plan to write additional novels about him?

I wrote seven Tanner books in the 1960s, then nothing until Tanner On Ice in 1998. Tanner seems to have the life-cycle of a cicada, and I figure the next book is due in 2026. I don't think there'll be more Tanner books, but I've been wrong about this sort of thing before. I never know what the future will offer.

What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring mystery/crime novelists?

Write to please yourself. And don't expect too much.

What’s your writing schedule like and how has it changed over the years?

No schedule. Now and then I write something. Less now than years ago.

How many books of writing advice have you written?

There have been four: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Spider Spin Me a Web, and Write for Your Life. I figure that's plenty.

Have you ever suffered from Writer's block?

Only in interviews.

How do you overcome it?


Which writer(s) influenced your own writing?

I don't know. I read tons of things early on. Jazz musicians talk in terms of influences, because when they begin they try to sound like someone whom they admire. Writers try to find their own voice, which is different.

How would you like to be remembered?

I don't expect to be remembered. The world has a short memory, and that's fine. Those of us who think we're writing for posterity are deluding ourselves. And why give a rat's ass about posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?

I'm sure your work will be long remembered. Thanks for the interview.

Lawrence Block's website:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Get Short

by Jaden Terrell

Joe (J.A.) Konrath has said that short stories are the best advertising in the world for an author's novels. Readers pick them up, like what they read, and decide to try the author's books as well. I've been reading a lot of short stories lately, and while all have been written, edited, or recommended by authors whose books I've already read and enjoyed, I think Konrath is right. (No surprise, since he's the guru of book marketing gurus.)

In the last few weeks, I've read stories from Fox Five by Zoe Sharp, Tough as Leather by Jochem Van der Steen (creator of the Sons of Spade review site), and Shaken: Stories for Japan, edited by Timothy Hallinan. Sharp and Steen have written anthologies featuring the protagonists of their novels, Charlie Fox and Noah Milano, respectively. Fox is a former special forces soldier now working in the private protection business, and Sharp depicts her with a crisp, engaging style that made me want to read more. Milano is a PI struggling to live a good life despite being the son of an infamous crime boss. His past has a way of intruding on his good intentions. There are some disturbing images in Tough as Leather, so it's not for the squeamish, but there are also some touching moments, and Milano is a sympathetic hero. Van der Steen is a Dutch writer, so there are a few awkward phrases, but there are also a lot of very apt descriptions, as when a carpet is described as "a red, fuzzy sory of thing [that] looked like Elmo had been skinned" and some great characterizations. Who wouldn't love a hero who serves his clients' tea in "the good china"--a Power Puff Girls mug and a Garfield mug missing one ear?

The third anthology, Shaken: Stories for Japan, was edited by Hallinan but also has stories by Brett Battles, Cara Black, Debbi Mack, Adrian McKinty, Gary Phillips, C.J. West, I.J. Parker, Dale Furutani, Wendy Hornsby, Vicki Doudera, Dianne Emley, Stefan Hammond, Rosemary Harris, Ken Kuhlken, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jeffrey Siger, Kelli Stanley, and Naomi Hirahara. All proceeds from Shaken go directly toward earthquake relief in Japan. You couldn't ask for a more impressive group of writers, or for a better cause. And yes, I will seek out some of these authors and read more.

Other anthologies I've read lately are Twisted and More Twisted by Jeffery Deaver, and Killer Year, edited by Lee Child. Deaver, I obviously knew about from reading his novels, but some of the authors in Killer Year were new to me.

For me, it seems that short stories can interest me enough to make me look further, but finding them requires an editor or authors I recognize or a recommendation from someone I trust.

What do you think? Authors, do short stories draw in readers for your novels? Readers, do you find new authors through short stories, and if so, what makes you pick up the short story in the first place?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Libraries for everyone

by Carola Dunn

The county I live in doesn't have a county-wide library system. I pay $120 a year for a city library card, because I live outside the city boundaries. But we do have a small volunteer library. I'm proud to say I suggested that they apply for a Sisters in Crime grant, and they won it!

Last year, the local Barnes & Noble put on a fundraiser in aid of our little library. I was asked to sign my books there, and Barnes and Noble donated a percentage of all sales. It was an exciting event...

Yes, Darth Vader and friends showed up (I tried to look scared but it didn't work). Their masks all worked--they breathed heavily and their speech was really hard to understand! Princess Leia was there, too, but she had to leave to pick up her son after a soccer game. Who knew Princess Leia's son played soccer?

Apparently this is a nationwide group of volunteers. They pay for their own costumes and turn up at charity events to draw a crowd. I think more people came to be photographed with them than came to buy my books but it was fun anyway.

Only I've just been invited to the second annual library fundraiser at B&N (Glad it wasn't Borders!), and I can't help wondering who's going to turn up this time...

Harry Potter?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Has William Kent Krueger Written a Cozy?

By Chester Campbell

I just finished reading Northwest Angle, Krueger's eleventh Cork O'Connor novel. It's the first one of his I've read. From comments I've seen on DorothyL, it isn't typical of his series about the former Chicago cop now dabbling in the PI business. Apparently the publisher wasn't sure exactly what to call it. The promotional blurb on the back cover of the Advance Reading Copy ends with this:

"Part thriller, part mystery, part exploration of the human heart, Northwest Angle is a dynamic addition to William Kent Krueger's critically acclaimed, award-winning series."

The title comes from the setting of the book, a remote area of Minnesota that juts out of Canada and includes islands in Lake of the Woods. That is one reason I question whether it could be called a cozy. The normal definition of the subgenre includes the setting in a small community where everybody knows everybody. Although the area of the Northwest Angle isn't really small, it's sparsely populated, giving the same effect as a small community. Everybody gets around on boats.

Cozies are supposed to be short on sex and violence. The only sex here took place before the story began, when a young Ojibwe girl got pregnant. Most of the violence comes about from the forces of nature, a destructive storm called a derecho. Other than that, there are lots of threats but only a couple of shooting scenes. There's no more actual violence than takes place in my Greg McKenzie series, which a few reviewers have called cozy.

Of course, I happen to disagree with that characterization of the McKenzie books and also would not hang that moniker on Krueger's latest. Northwest Angle is mostly the story of Cork O'Connor's family problems and how they are resolved. There is a mystery at the core of it, but the novel is heavily weighted on the characters. It is well-written and suspenseful. Makes me want to go back and read some of his earlier books.

Visit me at Mystery Mania

Monday, October 3, 2011

Revisiting The Catcher in the Rye

by Ben Small

A local bookstore held a Banned Books seminar to celebrate its twenty-fifty anniversary, inviting local authors to select a book and discuss it. I signed up for Salinger's classic story of a depressed sixteen year old boy describing his three day breakdown, which meant, of course, that I had to read The Catcher in the Rye again. I'd read it first during my high school days, when it was a kick to pick up a banned book. I raced through the thing, panting with the pressure of hormones, expecting passages like those found in Lady Chatterly's Lover.  Alas, I had to read it over again. It was not what I'd expected.

Then, twenty years later, I picked up The Catcher in the Rye when my son appeared to be going through some of Holden's angst.

And so, the third time.

And The Catcher in the Rye did not disappoint.

But this time, instead of trying to fully understand Holden Caulfield, I had different thoughts, wondering what would happen to him today, and what likely happened to him back in 1949, when the book is set (Note: Copyright date is 1945.)

In the last passages of the book, Holden won't tell us what happened after his three hellish days, just that he's seeing a psycho-analyst. This caused me to think about how mentally ill people were handled back then.

Electro-shock treatment.

I wondered how a sixteen year old boy, depressed because he's just been tossed from his fourth swanky college prep boarding school would handle electro-shock treatment. If anything, I'm sure such treatment would make Holden more unstable, would eviscerate his self esteem and assure him that he was in fact crazy, as he often tells us.

Holden's father is a high level corporate lawyer, someone who travels extensively and is paid well. Holden doesn't tell us much about his mother. But one can sense that Holden was sent to boarding school to get him out of the house, especially after Holden's little brother died of leukemia three years before. And the timing works. Four schools translates to at least two years at the very least, perhaps more. We don't know how long it took Holden to sink into the dark tunnels of depression. So, it's very possible his parents decided to send him away, perhaps to get him out of the house and avoid the constant reminders how close Holden and his dead brother had been. Perhaps for some other reason. We don't know if Holden's two brothers attended boarding schools.

The basic problem is that Holden didn't fit in at these schools. These are high powered schools, probably located in Connecticut, some of which cost $35,000 per year and brag of such graduates as George Schultz or Henry Kravitz. When Holden is challenged, he gives up, lest he fail anyway. He claims he's just not interested, while we, as readers, know he's covering up for fear of failure. Holden defends his angst by noting the phoniness of his classes, his schoolmates and everyone he meets.

But Holden's not mean. Holden shows compassion for little children and delights in watching them. One senses it's their innocence that he admires. And this innocence seems to inflame Holden because he knows he's lost his. His drinking and the vehemence of his unpopular opinions seem to increase after he's watch children play.

Yet, many of Holden's insights are valuable today. For instance, Holden's take on actors, their phoniness. I chose to read two pages of Holden's rant against actors as he remembers to buy theater tickets for his date with old Sally. I could have just opened the book and read any passage, because one can just about do that and find something meaningful, but I had heard some actor using his bully pulpit to mouth off about politics, something no doubt he knew little of, and something no doubt contrived just for publicity. I especially enjoyed the quote:

"I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that's fun to watch. And if any actor's really good, you can always tell he knows he's good, and that spoils it."

But reading the book also caused me to wonder what would happen to Holden Caulfield today.

I suspect he may be on drugs. I also suspect he'd be diagnosed with all sorts of mental illnesses or learning disabilities, and would probably be secluded from other students under No Child Left Behind -- which may just increase his alienation, solidifying the notion that Holden doesn't fit in -- he's deficient. Holden would probably be on anti-depressants, maybe shot full of Ritalin or other drugs. He may be diagnosed as Bi-polar.

Would any of these diagnoses or drugs help Holden?

It's hard to say. Many of his problems relate to lack of a supportive family involvement, the feeling of being cast off and out. He misses his dead brother terribly, and there's no one to comfort Holden. He's sent away.

I could go on and on about this book, but this is a blog, not a study guide. I will read this book again and again, as it still has relevance today, with valuable insights and issues that haven't changed much despite the passage of seventy-some years.

And, oh yes, I had a red hunting cap when I was young, too.