Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

By Chester Campbell

I’ve always heard that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I’ve decided to flatter that upstart browser known as Mozilla Firefox. Have you read about the marketing campaign they’re doing for the launch of Firefox 3.5 today? It’s billed as “the fastest Firefox ever” and they’re out to knock our socks off worldwide with a buzz event called “Shiretoko Shock.”

My answer is a campaign for the re-launch of The Surest Poison 1.0 (that’s number one in the Sid Chance series). There’s no doubt that it’s the fastest-paced Chance mystery yet. My buzz event is called “Awe Shocks” (pronounced “aw shucks”).

Borrowing again from Firefox, here’s what you and all my other millions of fans need to do. Tomorrow, on July 1, set your alarm for 1:00 p.m., which corresponds to The Surest Poison 1.0. If you use the 24-hour clock, that’s 1300. At precisely 1:00 p.m. CDT, the Awe Shocks will start in Nashville and move westward around the world. When it’s 1:00 p.m. in your local time zone, you’ll tweet away on Twitter, fiddle around on Facebook, space out on MySpace, blog, flog, whatever, making sure all mankind knows about that great new Nashville mystery.

When the round robin makes its way across the globe and back to Nashville 24 hours later, we’ll touch off the Super Awesome Shock. At precisely 1:00 p.m. CDT on Thursday, July 2, everybody around the world will inundate the web with blogs and tweets and posts and whatever else you can think of to cap off this massive rally. Don’t forget, it all happens at:

Thursday, July 2—
• 2:00 PM Eastern (New York)
• 12:00 PM Mountain (Denver)
• 11:00 AM Pacific (San Francisco)
• 8:00 AM Hawaii (Honolulu)
• 7:00 PM London
• 10:00 PM Moscow

Friday, July 3—
• 3:00 AM Tokyo

Get ready to howl!

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the Firefox plan, click here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Blues...

by Ben Small

Do you write when you're blue?

I can't do it. No focus, only shades of blue. Feel the pain, they say, express it, pull it onto your page from deep within your soul. Much like you'd use the old laundry crank dryer, me thinks. Squeeze those emotions out; crank, crank, crank that handle. Reload, take a breather. When you're ready, squeeze-crank that color through once more.

Taste the salt yet?

Expression is soothing, you're told, a purging of demons... cathartic... a mental yoga.

Well, hooey. The last thing I want when I'm blue is to vomit my misery onto a bloated printed page. Embarrassed, I guess. Macho-not. I'm a Mr. Fix-it guy, a closed room problem solver according to Grays' Mars and Venus theories. I think John Gray was biased: He should have had a female co-writer. He's probably afraid of his wife.

Back to my Blues... No, I can't write when I'm blue. If you're reading this, you already know that.

Some writers play the Blues for mood, and maybe that's a pathway to your characters' inner motives. I go for classical, as I drift into a deeper consciousness when I'm enraptured by the intricacy, depth and emotion of a complex composition and an able conductor. Or maybe some opera. Pavarotti is my Go-To-Guy.

But most writers probe their memories, mine them, and then hurry to put words to paper, so eager are they to exorcise these demons once again, maybe back to Lake Averno this time.

Burn, baby, burn.

Or they cheat and buy a newspaper. Jump into somebody else's pain. [Yes, dear, I know that's not cheating. Charter rule: Hedge your bets, babe. What if their newspaper's better than mine? Or what if they've got a Michael-Jackson pain angle on a character? Or what if Rev. Al and Jesse get involved? Dangerous ground here, competitive. Leave room to maneuver.]

Other writers wallow in their pain. Paint and layer it, they say. Apply it like Coppertone: thick and often. Tears slip onto their keyboards: bubbling, rolling, streaming, all to a fingertap beat.

Okay, so I can't get that deep. So what? I can write blue... occasionally... well... maybe when nobody's looking. But when I do it, I do it in a marathon session. Get that scene done. Playback is a bitch.

So, yes, the Blues play important roles in our writing. Our characters must live, and if they live, they get the Blues. Count on it.

So how do you touch the Blues?

Me, I don't write. Not when I'm blue...

We don't really remember pain, you know...

We live it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer Shorts

Pistol Packin’ Mama pin-up by Albert Vargas, Esquire magazine March 1944; Mississippi John Hurt, from the Web; Doc Watson, stock photo from the Web.

By Pat Browning

“Oh, she kicked out my windshield/
And she hit me over the head/
She cussed and cried and said I lied/
And she wished that I was dead/
Oh, lay that pistol down, Babe/
Lay that pistol down/
Pistol packin’ mama/
Lay that pistol down.”
----Al Dexter, 1943-43

This was the first official week of summer, time to let the body relax and the mind wander. Eyeballing the Oklahoman’s version of a TV guide I find nothing but reality shows and crime show repeats on the networks. Great blocks of CSI shows. No repeats of my favorites, “Life On Mars” and “Raine,” both long gone. “NCIS” repeats running in three places. I watch new episodes but they don’t wear well.

I’m stuck with repeats of “Castle” and “The Mentalist.” Or the new “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS. Comme ci, comme ca (French). Com se com sa (Portuguese). In either language, I haven’t heard that expression in 40 years. It just popped up. That’s what happens when the mind wanders.

“Matlock,” “In The Heat Of The Night,” “Cold Case,” “48 Hours Mystery,” “Boston Legal” -- what is this obsession with crime? Now ABC-TV has a new series called “PrimeTime Crime.” The promos are beyond gory.

Oh-well, wait a minute. It’s not really new. Some of the most revered blues, folk and pop songs are about killing and dying. A jealous lover is usually involved. Some things don’t change.

“Pistol Packin’ Mama” was one of the most popular gals around during World War II. Versions of the Vargas pin-up were nose art on B-17 and B-24 bombers from Hell to Breakfast. The song was all over the radio. There’s a great video of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters on You Tube. The photos are still but the sound is great. See it at

“I grabbed my gun and broke the barrel right down/
Grabbed my shotgun and broke that barrel right down/
I put my honey six feet under the ground/
Then I cut that joker so long, deep and wide/
Oh, I cut that joker so long, deep and wide/
But I’ve still got the blues and I can’t be satisfied.”
---- Mississippi John Hurt, D.C. Blues: Library of Congress 1928 Recordings

Every guitar player in the world seems to have a Mississippi John Hurt video on YouTube. My favorite version of “I’ve Got The Blues And I Can’t Be Satisfied” is a video featuring Doc Watson, his son Merle, and Michael Coleman. They do three songs, the last being “Satisfied.”

Doc Watson, born in Deep Gap, North Carolina and blind from birth, is a legend who was “discovered” during the folk music craze of the 1960s. Merle, who died in a tractor accident a few years ago, was also an accomplished flat-picking guitarist.

The YouTube video was filmed live before a large outdoor audience. At one point, Doc pulls out his harmonica. I can’t see what it’s attached to – something in his shirt or around his neck – but it’s in the best jug band tradition of a musician who can do it all. Doc is now 86 and in poor health, but he still performs at an annual festival dedicated to Merle.

“Gentlemans of the jury, what do you think of that?/
Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat/
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee.”

----Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording of “Stack O’Lee Blues,” a folk song also known as Stagger Lee / Stag-O-Lee / Stagolee/ Stack-A-Lee / Stack O'Lee.

The song, in infinite versions, is said to be based on an 1895 shooting in St. Louis, Missouri. It has been recorded by every blues singer, folk singer, and rock ‘n’ roller to come down the pike.

Mississippi John Hurt was called a “front porch” singer. He never left
Avalon, Mississippi and after a couple of recordings he lapsed into obscurity until the 1960s folk revival. He went from obscurity to Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress.

My favorite of the few real Mississippi John Hurt’s recordings on YouTube is a number called “I’m Satisfied.” His acoustic guitar picking is as gentle and hypnotic as a lullaby.

That’s Nice But Is It A Folk Song?
No two people, not even the professors, have been able to agree completely on a definition of folk music. The Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore lists many, which only partly overlap each other.

One definition says: “A folk song must be old, carried on for generations by people who have had no contact with urban arts and influence. A folk song must show no trace of individual authorship.”

At the other end is the definition of the late Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer. He was asked if a certain blues he sang was a folk song. "It must be," he replied, "I never heard horses sing it."
----Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York, NY, 1972, p. 62.
Quoted at

“Frankie took aim with her forty-four/
Five times with a rooty-toot-toot/
He was her man, but he done her wrong.”
---- “Frankie and Johnnie,” traditional song, origin disputed.

There must be 300 versions of this song. Some claim it is based on a real-life shooting. Some claim it goes back to the 1800s. According to Wikipedia, “What has come to be the traditional version of the melody was also published in 1912, as the chorus to the song ‘You're My Baby’, whose music is attributed to Nat. D. Ayer.”

“Now, bring round your rubber-tired buggy/
And bring round your rubber-tired hack/
I'm taking my man to the graveyard/
And I ain't gonna bring him back/
He was my man, but he done me wrong.”

So what is it? Part of our DNA? Some vestige of memory from the time when we lived with giant predators? It must have been a real rush to outrun a dinosaur.

For an answer, I turn to author Michael Malone’s “letter” on mysteries. It was included in the Advanced Reading Copy of his novel FIRST LADY. The novel, without the letter, was published in 2002 by Sourcebooks, Inc. I was so impressed by his explanation of our fascination with mysteries that I saved it in my computer.

Malone wrote:
“We are private eyes searching for clues to our connections. Safe in fiction, we are testing our hearts … Because murder is the highest crime against our shared humanness, it is to murder that the community responds most collectively and dramatically.”

The key words are “safe in fiction.” Ghosts, vampires, spies, serial killers -- we lock the doors and close the shades. We make ourselves comfortable in an easy chair, a cup of tea or coffee at hand. The family dog curls up at our feet. Now we’re ready for a little bedtime reading.

A horrifying book is like a real-life nightmare. The nightmare scares us out of our wits but we know it’s just a dream. Even when a book is gory and gruesome, we know it’s just a book, and we’re safe -- “safe in fiction.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Exploring Our New Neighborhood

by Jean Henry Mead

Although we haven't yet moved into our new home, we decided to explore the neighborhood. No better way to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary than to ride 40 miles on our quads. That's me crossing one of the many streams, creeks and mud holes during our trip.

Along the way we encountered boulders that defy description although the one below looks like a fossilized dinosaur egg. I tried out my new camera by taking a picture of my husband, who has always loomed large in my life, but Mother Nature has a way of putting things in perspective.

Wildflowers abound along the trail, especially sunflowers and lupins. We stopped to take in the sweet scents following two weeks' worth of rain that left everything green and fragrant.

There are plenty of interesting rock formations and huge banks of clouds that seemed to pose for the camera wherever we stopped along the heavily rutted trails.

Lush green meadows backed by the rugged Laramie Mountains made us pause to drink in the unparalleled beauty of nature unspoiled. I'd like to return with easel, canvas and paint box to capture this scene forever.

All too soon it was time to leave the trail. I can't wait to take in all this beauty each day from our deck which faces other mountain peaks. There's no better way for this mystery writer to retire.

© 2009 Jean Henry Mead

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Interloper

By Beth Terrell

With poor Maxx sharing the trials and tribulations of a foo-foo dog who gets no respect, it seemed like a good time to share the latest news on Luca the papillon (a.k.a., His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness, Light of a Thousand Suns).

Lately, Luca has seemed a bit subdued, maybe even a bit depressed, a condition Mike and I attributed to loneliness during the workday. With Karma gone, there's nobody to keep the little guy company while we're out earning the kibble except Edgar the cat, who is a lovable boy, but not, in His Lordship's estimation, a suitable playmate for a canine of such elevated esteem.

Of course, being the loving parents that we are, we decided that the solution to Luca's problem would be a little brother or sister. Even though there is still a Karma-sized hole in our hearts, we found the perfect playmate, a twelve-week-old papillon female we named Willow. She is a love. That's Luca on the left and Willow on the right. Don't they look like they were made for each other?

Their first meeting went very well, and His Lordship was every bit the gentleman (despite having to overcome a badly executed summer haircut). He looked slightly askance when she rummaged through his toybox but didn't assert his royal prerogative until she overstepped her bounds and went for the highly favored beef throat. He seemed to enjoy having her company, though she is a bit boisterous for his delicate sensibilities. Then, today, he seemed to come to an appalling realization: she wasn't a guest. She was going to live here.

Here, in his very own house, with his very own people, this rowdy little ruffian with the Ethel Merman voice was digging in for the long haul. Oh, he's still mostly a gentleman about it, but his company manners are beginning to slip, especially when the little interloper pulls on his tail or--oh, the horrors--his ear fringes. Fortunately, their first session with Brigitte Sclaba (our freestyle trainer) has already been scheduled, and Willow will be attending a class in good manners with our other trainer, Peg Harrington (of The Happy Hound).

As for me, I'm embarking on a whole new adventure. Mike has always been a wonderful dog daddy, but I look back at some of the mistakes I've made in the past and hope I've become a better dog owner with each one we've lived with. I've loved them all with all my heart, but Luca has taken me to a different level. Working with him has been an absolute delight, teaching me so much about positive training methods. I'm improving my timing with the clicker and working at keeping my energy level high enough when I train. Now things are going to get really interesting. How many hands am I going to need? If I'm trying to capture a behavior and one dog does something cute, how will they know which one is getting the click? I have a million questions, and the most pressing is this: how do I give Willow everything she needs without diminishing my bond with Luca?

Before I got Luca, I had the usual anxiety dreams--forgot about an important exam, did a perfect Act I only to realize we've never practiced Act II, suddenly realized I've gone to a class in my underwear. After I got him, all my anxiety dreams were about him. I'd turn around in a crowd and realize he was gone, then catch sight of him in a sea of people about to tromp him, or he'd be weaving among the feet of a herd of Clydesdales, or we'd be at an aquarium, and giant frogs would be trying to eat him. My friends laughed and said they had the same kind of dreams when they first had their children. The dreams lasted for several months, and finally, they stopped.

Then, last night, I dreamed that I was in a labyrinth that I later discovered was some sort of ultimate Wal-Mart. One minute, Luca was with me, and the next, he was gone. I spent the remainder of the dream searching for him, catching occasional glimpses, but never actually recovering him safely. I don't have to delve too deeply into the old subconscious to know what that means.

Love and loss are hopelessly entwined. In every beginning is its end. But maybe that's part of what makes it so sweet. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Confessions of a Conehead

Hi everyone. Maxx here. I’m filling in for Dad this week because he’s become rather frustrated with me. Why, you ask? Well, have you ever heard the expression, “What a pisser?” I’ve been doing a lot of that lately – inside the house. But it’s really not my fault. After all, I never asked to wear the Cone of Shame, and I’m quite sure I didn’t ask to get neutered. So if I’ve been a little lax with my restroom manners lately, it’s because it’s a lot easier to sniff the smooth floors in the house than the grass outside. I mean, come on – outside, whenever I lower my head to find the perfect spot, bang! – my stupid cone hits the ground and jams into my neck! Now that really ticks me off – just not enough to relieve myself. No, sir. So, until this doggie megaphone comes off, I’ll keep using the indoor plumbing. (Sorry, Folks.)

Now, don’t think that I’ve gone completely mad. After all, I’m only six months old, and I do use the pee pads most of the time. Frankly, I think that’s rather considerate of me. But what’s really funny is when I poop in the house. Get this – I work all day creating these presents and go to great lengths to leave them in obscure spots. So, what do you think Mom and Dad do when they find them? They bring me over there and show me – as if I didn’t know where I left them – and then tell me not to do that inside the house. Their lectures can be pretty amusing, too, considering how limited my vocabulary is. Thank goodness I know how to type! Otherwise, you’d never hear my side of this story.

I’ve been wearing the Cone of Shame for six days now, and I’m pretty sure I get it off today. If that happens, I’ll gladly start peeing and pooping outside again. Maybe not 100% of the time, but I promise I’ll make a concerted effort.

Oh, as long as I’m whining, let’s talk about my parents’ name-calling. Let me tell you, they can be pretty hurtful at times. It was bad enough when they called me "Foo-foo", but now that they’ve decided to nickname me "King Fuafuapepepupu", I can’t help but growl. How they came up with this, I’ll never know – especially since I’ve never even been to Hawaii. Just wait, Mom and Dad. One of these days I’ll grow up and then – okay, I’ll still be Foo-foo, but at least I’ll be a man! What? Neutered means I’ll never be a man? You mean I’ll always have this squeaky voice? You say the Vienna Boys Choir is hiring? Yip, yip! Who knew life would be so hard for a little pup?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meriwether Lewis, Suicide or Murder

By Chester Campbell

One facet of my new mystery, The Surest Poison, is hot in the news these days. The opening paragraph of Chapter 2 tells about PI Sid Chance’s former job as police chief in the small town of Lewisville, TN, “named after explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis died nearby on the Natchez Trace. Some say he was murdered there.”

The town of Lewisville is fictional, but it sits about where the real Lewis County seat of Hohenwald is located. The front page of last Thursday’s newspaper carried a story about Lewis’ modern-day relatives pushing the federal government to exhume the famed explorer’s body and answer the question did he commit suicide or was he murdered? He is buried in a tiny cemetery at the Meriwether Lewis National Monument along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

A bachelor, Lewis died at the tender age of 35. He had no siblings, but there is no shortage of nieces and nephews with lots of great-great-greats before their names. They have banded together to petition the National Park Service to find out how he died. You can check out their new website at Solve the Mystery.Org.

Educated at what would become Washington & Lee University, Lewis joined the Army and rose to the rank of captain. He was appointed an aide to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and resided in the presidential mansion. After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson planned an expedition to explore a route across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. He chose Lewis to lead the venture. Between 1803 and 1806, Lewis’ pioneering party explored thousands of miles along the Missouri and Columbia rivers and their tributaries.

When they returned in 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had made the two men national heroes. Jefferson was particularly fond of Lewis and named him governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. It appears the bureaucracy and politics in St. Louis proved a bit too much for him. In the fall of 1809 Lewis set off for Washington and a meeting with the president. He planned to travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then around Florida and up the East Coast. After becoming ill around Memphis, he decided to take the land route across to the Natchez Trace and on up to Nashville.

Sick and beset with problems, he drafted a last will and testament during the trip. On the night of Oct. 10, 1809, Lewis and two servants stopped at Grinder’s Stand, a two-room log inn on the Trace near my fictional town of Lewisville. Two shots were heard during the night, and the next morning Lewis was found mortally wounded. He died within a few hours. A traveling companion buried his body near the stable. Covered with chestnut fence rails, it remained unmarked until 1848.

The mystery began immediately, though Jefferson and fellow-explorer William Clark accepted the suicide story. His family contended it was murder. Robberies and killings were not uncommon along the isolated route, and rumors said Lewis was murdered to keep secrets of political corruption. Now nearly 200 distant nieces, nephews and cousins have signed a petition asking that the body be exhumed and examined for forensic evidence.

“What we want is the truth,” 73-year-old Howell Lewis Bowen, a great-great-great nephew, said. “We’ve had one roadblock after another. It’s very frustrating–every time we take a step forward, we have to take two steps back.”

Some historians have criticized the effort, but several archeologists have signed on to help. They include a professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University and anthropologists at Middle Tennessee State University. One archeologist says there’s a chance the real cause of Lewis’ death may be etched on his bones, but the chances are pretty low there will be evidence to prove one way or the other.

Interestingly, the explorer’s death was responsible for the creation of Lewis County. In 1843, the Tennessee General Assembly carved it out of neighboring counties and named it as a memorial to Meriwether Lewis.

According to a local official of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the young explorer had written friends about things he wanted to accomplish after the Washington trip. She believes he was murdered. The Heritage Foundation plans to mark the 200th anniversary of his death on Oct. 7 by dedicating a bronze bust of Lewis for a planned visitor center.

According to Wikipedia, “Lewis observed, collected, and described hundreds of plants and animal species previously unknown to science. The expedition was the first point of Euro-American contact for several Native American tribes; through translators and sign language, Lewis conducted rudimentary ethnographic studies of the peoples he encountered, even as he laid the groundwork for a trade economy to ensure American hegemony over its vast new interior territory.”

It makes an interesting footnote to The Surest Poison.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Unique Kill

by Ben Small

In my ever increasing effort to find a more unique murder weapon than Chester Campbell's smudge pot, and to keep Lee Lofland guessing, I've found this:

The PSEXTech Tac-15 Tactical Assault Crossbow.

Okay, I know anything in black thsee days is called "tactical," but this baby really is. It comes with or without a scope, will fill the same hole at forty yards, and sends a 425 grain steel bolt on its way at four hundred thirty-two feet per second -- the fastest crossbow on the market.

Zowie! Shazam. Take that, Batman.

This beast features a Picatinny rail for scope and accessories, weighs only 6.3 lbs, features a free floated fore-grip/handguard, so hand pressure will not bend the bow and adversely affect accuracy. It features an integrated quick-cocking design with a lever crank, a good thing, because maximum pull-weight is one hundred seventy pounds. One would need to be big, green and nicknamed "Hulk" to pull this tension without the crank. While you may imagine the creaky, clanging of gears pulling up a moat bridge, this hummer is whisper quiet.

Since "assault" rifles, whatever that term means, often are described as "black rifles," I suppose this would be a black bow -- good thing since it's black, huh? Blends into the night.

Heh, heh, heh. Just a whistle and a thud, the body hits the ground.

At this speed and with the weight of this bolt, I'd guess the bolt would pass clear through a body, but if not, retrieval would leave quite a mess. Either way might have Lee scratching his head for a bit.

And it gets better. Since it's designed on an AR platform, the crossbow fits onto any lower AR receiver. So, your perp or protag can choose on the spot whether he can afford the noise of his AR-15 black rifle, or the slippery silence of a dead-nuts bolt. Just strap the upper on your back and off you go with your AR-15, ready for action.

Too bad these bolts aren't wood: Vampires wouldn't stand a chance.

Better yet, this piece of arsenal auxiliary comes from a company in Tucson. Yes, we like our smugglers to have the latest stuff. And bad guys may buy; no NFA clearance or investigation required. Just walk in and plunk down $1200 of dirty money.

Ain't technology grand?

Sure, Lee would eventually figure it out -- he always does -- but this one would have him scratching his head for a bit. Once figured, tracking would pose no issue, at least while this thing is new, but as demand spreads out and used products become available, tracking would become more difficult. And of course, there are other crossbows on the market, just not with the speed and power of this one.

I know, Chester's still got me beat. A smudge pot is hard to match. But I'm trying.

Wouldn't Vlad the Impaler have had fun with this thing...?

Tactical Assault Crossbow

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Living Large

Photos from the top: Rajasthani turbans furnished by the Maharaja of Jodhpur for a soiree in Washington (from www.newyorksocialdiary.com); Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace, now a hotel; another view of the Rambagh Palace; author Rob Walker and his dog, Pongo.

By Pat Browning

News flash: David Letterman makes $32 million a year.
My friend Rob Walker will work cheaper. Here’s his Top Ten List.

Top Ten Things Writers Must Forego:
1. Bubble bath and skin nutrients ... forget about ‘em.
2. Aromatic candles, too expensive.
3. Starbucks coffee ... bring your own in a thermos.
4. Subscription to the New York Times.
5. Subscription to anything.
6. Going out to a play on a date in NYC with your spouse.
7. Snack food of any quality.
8. Lunch meat of any quality.
9. Steak dinners and alcoholic beverages.
10. Gasoline for the car or cash for a plane ticket.

What they can't live without – ink ... lots of black ink ... and workable

Rob’s list is dead on – which just happens to be the title of his new book, DEAD ON, coming from Five Star in July. Meantime, you can download it for free at his web site.


You never know what will pop up on the Internet. The same day I read about Letterman’s paltry salary I accidentally surfed into a web site called New York Social Diary. The big news there was an Indian art exhibition in Washington, with wildly colorful Rajasthani turbans furnished to guests by the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

The who? The what? I thought the maharajas were long gone, but, no, there he was, big as life, a maharaja who traces his desert clan back as far as 1226. Talk about living large. The maharajas of India put everyone else in the shade.

I didn’t get to Jodhpur during my trip to India a few years ago, but I spent some time in Jaipur, another fabled city in the deserts of Rajasthan. As a guest of India’s tourism director I saw a picturesque India that was, in some ways, still stuck in the 19th century.

I felt like a fraud. I’m not much of a writer. I was on assignment for a travel trade journal. But India has a long tradition of respect for writers of all stripes. My tour guides were graduate students and professors. I got the royal treatment.

In Jaipur I stayed in the Rambagh Palace, now a hotel. The last maharani, who is 90, lives in a private home on the grounds. Rajmata Gayatri Devi (the Queen Mother) was the 20-year-old Princess of Cooch-Behar when she married Maharaja Man Singh II, and the Rambagh was their summer palace. Active in politics and charities, she wrote a memoir, A PRINCESS REMEMBERS, in 1976.

Jaipur was a dream. I spent one sunny morning in the open corridor café, sipping tea and munching cheese toast (grilled cheese sandwich). Across the lawn from me, two Indians toyed with a cobra and a mongoose. Another morning I took a taxi out to Amber Fort and rode an elephant up the hill to the old palaces, a collection of turrets, arches and inner chambers.

There are windows where wives and members of the court stood to pelt maharajas with flower petals when they entered the main courtyard. In a darkened chamber, my guide struck a match and light danced in hundreds of tiny mirrors covering the walls and ceilings. The image stays with me as typical of India.

Believe it or not, there is a YouTube tour of Amber Fort. The tiny url is

India is an ancient and many-layered society. In 1947, the British withdrew and India became an independent democracy. It was not without problems, however. The people in charge literally drew a line on a map and declared one side was (mostly Hindu) country of India and one side was the brand new (mostly Muslim) country of Pakistan.

The split has been called the most complex divorce in history. The two countries squabbled over assets like a human couple. Pakistan got 17-1/2 percent of the cash, in return for covering 17-1/2 percent of India’s national debt. They flipped a coin for ownership of 12 horse-drawn ceremonial carriages. India got two-thirds of the army; Pakistan got the other third. Rudyard Kipling and Gunga Din must have turned over in their graves.

It took another 30 years to phase out the maharajas. Pakistan is still a mess. Kashmir is in pieces, claimed by India, Pakistan and China, and a hot topic with the United Nations even as we speak. I’m tempted to describe Kashmir as lying in the shadow of the Himalayas, but the geography of the Himalayas is as complicated as the history of India.

India was an assault on my senses, and I caught it like a low-grade fever. For years all I could think of was going back. Many, if not most, of us go through life without knowing what it’s like to live in luxury. I got a brief taste of it twice. Once was at the Rambagh Palace in India. Twice was at the Gleneagles resort in Scotland, but that is another story.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Woodstock and Snoopy

by Jean Henry Mead

I’ve never been overly fond of live chickens. And because I grew up in Los Angeles, I never had the opportunity to acquire one as a pet. That is until recently. The only other writer I know who admits to having chickens as pets is Helen Ginger, who had six of them until her mother reportedly fried them for dinner.

My pet chicken was nearly pecked to death by others in her flock, so we rescued her. We didn’t think she would survive, but placed her alone in a dog run with a small igloo dog house. Somehow she managed to pull through and regrow her feathers. In fact, she did so well that she’s now as fat and sassy as any Rhode Island Red you’d ever care to meet.

We call her Woodstock, or Woody for short, because she and our Australian Shepherd really hit it off. “Snoop Dog” (Snoopy) heads straight for the dog run every morning where she and Woody greet one another like old friends. Woody has tried to dig out from her enclosure with Snoopy’s help from the other side, forcing us to reinforce the border with bricks and large stones. What would happen, we wonder, if one of them actually digs in or out of Woody’s pen?

Last winter we were worried that Woodstock might freeze to death in her doorless igloo, so we covered it with an old, heavy quilt. The quilt was still there not long ago because our spring weather has been exceptionally cool. When my husband went out to feed her, Woodstock was nowhere to be found. Was there a chicken thief in the neighborhood or had one of the neighbors’ cats managed to get inside?

We searched everywhere but couldn’t find a single feather. My husband then thought to look under the old quilt that slid from the igloo and formed a large clump. There she was, sitting on eight eggs that she had managed to hide in a hole just big enough to fit into. She was so glad to see Bill that she pecked him repeatedly. I guess it’s time to acquire a rooster.

Each winter a large flock of small birds makes our backyard home where they live off the chicken feed. Woody allowed them to cohabitate with her in her igloo for a while, probably thinking they were her chicks. But when the tiny birds grew large and fat, she unceremoniously booted them from the nest. It was hilarious to watch as many as twenty birds fly from the igloo with Woody in pursuit.

Now that it’s finally getting warmer, Woodstock hops on top of her igloo to survey her surroundings as though she were queen of the hill. After a few minutes she hops down and goes back to work scratching up her yard as though a farmer preparing a spring crop.

Woodstock's a friendly fowl although some of her breed have been known to attack animals and small children. According to the Wikipedia—I'm a research junkie—the Rhode Island Red is a utility bird, raised for meat and eggs as well as show. And speaking of eggs, I’ve never seen one as large as Woody’s, when she’s not busy hiding them. They're too large to fit into a jumbo egg carton and they rival duck eggs in size. Those giant, brown eggs are the best I’ve ever tasted.

The Wikipedia says that Rhode Island Reds are a popular choice for backyard flocks, so they must be someone else’s featured pets.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Murderous Motivations

By Beth Terrell

One of the most challenging facets of mystery writing is creating believable villains. One key to this is to give your villain a compelling--or at least, believable--motivation.

I've heard that there are only 4 motives for murder: love/sex, greed, revenge, and madness. There are variations on these themes--for example, obsession is a twisted form of love, greed may manifest as a lust for money or for power, and revenge may have its roots in the loss of love or in the loss of self-esteem (personal power) through humiliation--but whatever the surface motive, dig deep enough, and you'll find its roots in one of the basic four. Self-preservation could be added to the mix, but it might be said that this particular motive falls either under love (of self), greed (fear of loss of status or esteem), or madness (if the perceived threat is, in fact, all in the killer's head).

Ed McBain once wrote about a sleuth who was driven by the desire to discover an entirely new motive for murder, one that didn't trace back to one of the basic four. He never did.

P.D. James defined the four motives as: love, lust, lucre, and loathing. It's pretty easy to tie this more alliterative list to the one given above. Love might lead to a jealous rage (a husband finds his wife in bed with his best friend), a revenge killing (a woman stalks and executes her daughter's rapists), or obsession (stalker kills actress because, if he can't have her, no one can). Lust might be lust for sex or power. Lucre might lead to treachery or blackmail. Loathing might stem from the desire for revenge over real or imagined slights.

The FBI defines four basic categories of murder. Almost all (if not all) have their roots in the four basic motivations. The FBI Crimes Classification Manual describes the categories as follows:

1. Criminal Enterprise Murder
2. Personal Cause Murder
3. Sexual Homicide
4. Group Cause Homicide

The criminal enterprise murder includes all murders committed for personal gain (insurance scams, gang wars over turf, inheritance, etc.) and those committed during the commission of another violent crime.

The personal cause murder is the result of an emotional conflict. These homicides include those in which the murderer constructs an elaborate fantasy about his or her victim and will do anything to preserve it--including killing the object of his or her fascination. Other types of personal cause murders are domestic homicides, revenge killings, "authority homicides" (in which the victim is in a position of authority over the killer), extremist homicides (committed because of the killers ideology), and mercy/hero murders (such as a health care worker who acts out of a desire to put his or her victims out of their misery). (There is also what is known as the nonspecific homicide, in which the killer's motive is never discovered, but this does not generally make for very satisfying crime literature.)

Sexual homicides are those in which the sequence of events leading up to a murder have a sexual component. These homicides include children killed by pedophiles, women killed by their rapists, and the stereotypical serial killer for whom murder is accompanied by sexual gratification. Perhaps the worst of the sexual homicides are those committed by sexual sadists, who obtain gratification by means of their victims' suffering.

Group homicides are, as the name indicates, committed by multiple assailants. Motives vary, as in the personal homicides.

The Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime (by Eric W. Hickey) lists a number of possible motivations for murder. Again, all were rooted, to some degree, in the Basic Four. This is an amazing book. It can be purchased for a hefty fee; the ones I looked at started at $154. Some of the motives Hickey lists are:

Abandonment/Rejection - the killer feels unloved and either lashes out in anger (many school shootings) or kills in an attempt to keep the loved one from leaving (Jeffrey Dahmer)
Altruism - mercy killings, saving victim from a worse fate or from a sinful life
Cover-up - destruction of evidence, silencing witnesses
Alcohol and drugs - a type of chemically induced, temporary madness
Protection of self or others - ex.: a woman kills her husband to protect the daughter he's abusing
Fatal Abuse - a habitual abuser loses control and goes too far
Frustration/Anger - perhaps a mother "snaps" and shakes her crying child to death, a man beats his father who has Alzheimer's, or a frustrated, back-alley boxer bites off the nose of an opponent
Greed - committed for personal gain
Escape - the killer feels an overwhelming need to get away (perhaps from an abusive relationship or a hostage situation, but also perhaps from a situation in which the killer is a caregiver and feels like he or she has no other way out)
Fame/celebrity - the killer believes he or she will become famous because of his or her killing spree
Hate/resentment - "Mother always liked you best."; "That jerk got me fired, took my job, and now he's sleeping with my wife. Enough's enough."
Jealousy/rivalry - a motivation as old as Caine and Abel
Sexual property - the killer sees the victim as belonging to him
Unwanted Children - a young mother gives birth at the prom, strangles her baby, and leaves it in the garbage can, then goes out to dance with her boyfriend; Susan Nicole Smith drowns her two small sons after her lover breaks up with her because he doesn't want children.

Sadly, there are probably many, many more. How about your villains? What makes them tick? What makes them cross that most irrevocable line?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Don't Blame the Government

By Mark W. Danielson

No, I’m not suddenly into government themes. It’s just that sometimes things happen that are worth sharing, and although this story pertains to the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, the situation is not limited to this state or governmental agency. The scenario is we purchased a new car, traded in a Honda, and needed to give the dealer the title for our trade-in. The problem is we put the Honda’s title in such a safe place that we couldn’t find it. The solution seemed easy; get a duplicate title from DMV and all would be right with the world. Unfortunately, doing this proved harder than it should have been.

We approached the DMV officer armed with Lyne’s driver’s license and passport because her last names differ on both. Long before her name became an issue, we were advised that even though the Honda’s lien was paid off years ago, DMV keeps no record of such things and their records still showed Wells Fargo’s original lien. We were referred to Wells Fargo to get a statement showing their lien was paid off. After this, DMV would issue a duplicate title, which we would then have to take back to Wells Fargo, they would sign off the lien, and we could drop the title off at the dealer. With a Wells Fargo bank handily nearby, we decided to walk, even though thunderstorms lurked in the distance. All was fine until the bank’s receptionist said they couldn’t help us and referred us to the Wells Fargo Financial office. Eyes rolling, we left, thankful that Wells Fargo Financial was only a few miles away. Still, the changing weather was making time an issue.

Under gray skies, we quickly walked back to the car, constantly surveying the ominous sky. Having had several continuous days of tornado warnings, heavy rain, lightning, and hail, it didn’t seem prudent to continue our trek with the new car. How about putting it in the garage and taking the old one that stays out front? But before we do that, why not re-check our files for that title? Sadly, our search proved futile, but at least our new car was safely tucked away.

Not surprisingly, it was raining by the time we arrived at Wells Fargo Financial. It took the receptionist a while to locate Lyne’s account, but she was able to print out the required letter, notarize it, and make a copy for us. Fifteen minutes later, we were back at DMV. As promised, the agent who had helped us before took us out of sequence, glanced over the Wells Fargo letter, and rejected it because the letterhead differed from what was on their lien. Biting our tongues, we politely left, drove back to Wells Fargo Financial, and explained the situation to the receptionist. Befuddled, the receptionist drafted a second notarized letter stating that Wells Fargo Financial of Colorado no longer existed and that Wells Fargo Financial and Wells Fargo Financial of Colorado were one of the same. On the slide, she mentioned that she had sent out numerous letters like ours and had never once experienced a problem. While waiting, we made small talk about the weather because this office was surrounded by windows. One of the other employees remarked they watched a small funnel cloud drop and then disappear just two days prior. Today’s weather looked like a repeat.

With our second letter in hand, we returned to DMV under even more ominous skies. So far there was no hail or tornados, but anything could happen. (This photo was taken two blocks from our house the day before.) This time our DMV lady was busy assisting a rather difficult client so she referred us to her neighbor, Bill. I couldn’t help thinking how “Bill” seemed an appropriate name for someone who collects money from clients. Thankfully, Bill was exceptionally friendly and equally brilliant. After gladly accepting our Wells Fargo letters, he noticed that Lyne’s first name was spelled differently on the title than on her driver’s license. How could that be, we wondered? Well, mistakes happen. After all, I’m still trying to correct Social Security’s error of missing my birthday by one day. (I may share that story on a later blog.) In any event, Bill quickly handled the discrepancy by printing out a form that showed both of Lyne’s names, had Lyne sign it saying that she was known by both names and spellings, and that was the end of it. After presenting Bill with a nominal check, we were finally out the door with the duplicate Honda title.

So, how much time did it take to accomplish this? Five hours and six trips, to be exact. But don’t blame DMV. After all, we were the ones who misplaced the Honda title, and as hard as it is to admit this, the DMV lady was just doing her job. The Washington DC DMV sign pictured below provides a clue as to the problems these DMV people deal with on a daily basis. Besides, who has ever accused a government agency of being efficient? By necessity, bureaucracy has always been about dotting I’s and crossing T’s. So, the moral of this story is simple: find a safe place to keep your important things and then remember where that place is. Like maybe a safe deposit box. After all, it might save you some gray hairs. As for the crazy weather Denver has had? God only knows.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All You Need to Know About Murder

By Chester Campbell

Today is Education Tuesday. We’ll take an in-depth look at the subject of this often amusing, sometimes contemplative, but always entertaining blog, namely: MURDER.

Let’s start with where the word comes from. Merriam-Webster traces its etymology through Middle English murther and Old English morthor to Latin mort-, mors, death and mortuus dead.

Mysteries often deal with homicide detectives and talk about homicides. Actually, homicide only refers to the act of killing another human being. It can be accidental or purposeful. Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently causes the death of another. Both murder and manslaughter fall under the criminal homicide umbrella.

Murder (sometimes called felony murder) is the unlawful killing of another human being with intent (or malice aforethought), and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide.

Some jurisdictions define felony murder the same as first degree murder, but under the felony murder rule, an offender who kills accidentally or without specific intent to kill during commission of a dangerous felony is guilty of felony murder. Any participant in the felony becomes criminally liable for any deaths that occur. In states with capital punishment, that can make them eligible for the death penalty.

There is also a second degree murder crime that in some states occurs when a premeditated murder occurs without special circumstances, such as those that do not involve a particularly heinous death. Exact definitions of murder vary from state to state.

You are no doubt familiar with some of the many forms of homicide, such as fratricide, the killing of one’s brother or sister, or patricide, the killing of one’s father. But do you know what uxoricide is? Give up? It’s the killing of one's wife. Then there is tyrannicide. Nope, it’s not the killing of a dinosaur. It’s the killing of a tyrant. I guess that’s what Brutus thought he was doing.

Although you probably wouldn’t realize it from watching the nightly news, the murder rate has been going down in the U.S. According to the latest report available, the FBI’s “Crime in the United States, 2007,” there were 14,831 murders that year. Males are much more at risk, with 11,618 involving men and 3,177 women. The report lists 36 as unclassified. I don’t know if they were weirdoes, or there was just not enough left to tell the sex. About half were black, half white or other.

You read a lot about young teen killings, but in 2007 the largest age group was 18 and over, representing 13,013 of the total. The most at-risk group was 20 to 24-year-olds. We of the 75 and over set are least likely to be cashiered by the bad guys.

What lay behind all these murders? Arguments of one type or another represented the largest cause. Romantic triangles accounted for only 105, and gambling 4. If you’ve been worrying about a sniper attack, forget it. There was only one in 2007.

Firearms were the number one choice of evil-doers, with knives and “other weapons” next. A smaller but significant number involved “hands, fists, feet, etc.” I'm not sure how you do someone in with et cetera, but I suppose anything's possible.

If you don’t want to become a murder statistic, what places do you want to avoid? Well, California is the number one state for violent homicides with 2,249 deaths reported. In second place was the wild and woolly state if Texas at 1,419. Your best bet at avoiding a place in the 2009 report is to stick around New Hampshire. It reported only 11 murders in 2007.

We writers always talk about how important it is to make our mysteries as factual as possible. But how realistic is the virtually 100 percent closure rate of our detectives? Well, according to the FBI, in 2007 jurisdictions across the country cleared only 61.2 percent of murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases. Still, that was a heck of a lot better than rapes at 40 percent or robberies at 25.8 percent.

Now that you have become an instant expert on the subject, get out there and put your new knowledge to practice. No, don’t go on a killing spree. Get busy on creating that murder mystery that will confound us all. But you’d better solve it in the end. One hundred percent of the readers will want to know whodunit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How much humor in a mystery?

by Ben Small

Personally, I'm repelled by sleuths cracking jokes while they solve a crime, because murder is serious business, but that doesn't mean there's no place for humor in a mystery, does it? I mean, can't humorous things happen to a sleuth while he or she is on the case, and the mystery still be serious business?

No, I'm not talking about wise-cracking cats or flatulence-causing recipes. I mean like some mechanical or electrical idiot -- like me -- partially frying him-or-herself while trying to cut off an alarms system during a sleuthing episode, or missing a nail with a hammer, both of which can be funny as hell while the sleuth, albeit injured, is deadly serious about what he or she is doing. Or how about a perp trying to shoot a victim, forgetting about a safety. Heck, just yesterday, I was at the range trying to shoot a new Romanian AK-47 only to find normal AK mags didn't fit like they should, making the gun useless.

These things happen to the most serious of people.

I'm reminded of the scene in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, where Bogie is debating whether to reach under a rock where he's hidden his stash, when his two partners saw a gila monster crawl under the rock. Funny to them, not so funny to Bogie, who after sweating and cursing, finally decides it's best to be cautious and trust them. You see him reach, hesitate, reach, hesitate, studying all the while their grinning faces, and then deciding it's not worth the risk. Something like this provides both suspense and humor.

Good stuff. Wish I'd thought of it. But then, I'm not that old. First come, first serving.

Or what about the perp who stabbed Monica Seles in the back being hit by the bounce of an errant serve and having the knife knocked out of his hand. Yes, it could have happened, but alas, it didn't. Sure he would have had to have been behind her, perhaps just ready to leap the wall, when BLAMO, the guy is nailed. Good stuff. Too bad it didn't happen. After all, if I remember correctly, the whacko jumped her in between games. But we as writers aren't limited to reality.

We can make stuff up.

One of the things I love about Harlan Coban books is the humor he lays on as his protag is working through the mystery. The guy knows how to make his protag look foolish even while we know he's on a serious mission and eventually will succeed.

On the other hand, there's James Bond, who's always cracking jokes even while his "package" is about to be lasered off at the hands (pardon the pun) of Goldfinger. How realistic is that?

Don't get me wrong: I love James Bond in all his iterations. But Bond's joking in that situation was just stupid. Or maybe I just think so because I'm a guy...

How about you? What and where do you think humor is appropriate in a mystery?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Who Am I?

By Pat Browning

In today’s marketplace, with a jillion authors hawking their wares and trying to be heard above the cacophony, there comes a small voice saying, “Christine Duncan is a red-headed mystery novelist who lives in Colorado and if you see a black Honda being towed, will you let her know?”

Christine and I go back a long way, back to the halcyon days of iUniverse’s Wicked Company club, group, listserv, bulletin board or whatever it was. We were a bunch of beginners, revving up to dazzle the world with our first books.

I can’t speak for everyone but I was surprised by the wars we unloosed – the POD wars, the self-publishing wars, the e-book wars. They seem pretty quaint now, and I have a few scars to show for it, but I’m still here.

And so is Christine. I came across her blog, Rule of Three, almost by accident, and loved it. Apart from Christine’s funny blogs, the site is unusual because it features three bloggers from three different countries and with three different points of view.

Christine has been on a blog tour. On May 26, she did an interesting Q&A on Jean Henry Mead’s Mysterious People, and explained how her blog site came about:

I met Narelle Bitunjac (the Aussie writer on Rule of Three) on Myspace where we traded stories about our writing experiences. Narelle introduced me to Michelle Birkby who lives in London.

It's funny, because superficially we are not alike. Michelle is single, a social worker, Narelle is a teacher, going back for an advanced degree, married but with no children and then there's me. I've been married forever, got 3 kids and a stepson and I do bookkeeping for my day job--and during the tax season, I do taxes--which Narelle makes fun of. And of course, we all live so far apart.

But recently when I went to see "Star Trek", Michelle was one of the first people I wanted to "talk" to (on Twitter) because I knew she'd love the movie too. We're both S/F freaks. And Narelle and I were both working (separately) on things about domestic violence. We spent the entire month of October last year doing blog posts about it, since October is domestic violence awareness month and those posts still get views every day.

We don't always react the same way to things -- we had one week on the blog where we all did posts on writing sex scenes and it was odd to see our differing reactions. And I often don't know what either one of them are talking about. Sometimes I am sure we none of us speak the same language. But it's been a lot of fun blogging with them and getting to know them better.
End Quote.

Writing a bio is the hardest thing an author has to do. Who, me? Who am I anyway? Here's Christine's
humorous look at the things writers say about themselves.

This Week’s Bio
By Christine Duncan

Writing a bio is sort of like when a new PTA group starts up, and they go around the circle and tell you to tell three things about yourself. My three things tend to be inconsequential stuff like I have red hair (Duh! They can see that!) or just stupid stuff like I think I may have inadvertently parked in a fire-lane.

Theoretically, writing a bio is easy. I can tell you all about it. I just can't do it. The gist of the thing with bio writing is, of course, to leave out the inconsequential and to tell folks only the interesting bits. Most authors tend to go on a lot about their degrees and why they are the one person to write whatever they heck they wrote. It is a wonderful approach. I recommend it.

But I don't have a degree. I went to college for much longer than the currently accepted five year plan so there is no earthly reason why I don't have a degree. Except … that I changed majors more often than I changed colleges. And I changed schools a lot. I went to the University of Florida, San Jose State (CA.), Humboldt State (CA.), and Metro state (CO.)

They were all great schools. I was a biology major; a
library science major; I contemplated an English major until I met an orderly at the hospital where I was working who had a master's in English and realized what that meant about jobs. (Ditto when I found out his best friend and fellow orderly had his master’s in history.) And then I was an accounting major because, of course, bean counters can get jobs, except that the ethics of school didn't translate into what I saw in the workplace so then … Okay, you get the idea.

So I have no real professional credentials for writing a mystery about a counselor in a battered women's shelter. What I know about them comes from my private life which I like private. But for my husband's sake, I will say, I've been happily married F-O-R-E-V-E-R to the same man and it's not about him, folks. The rest of what I know comes from my research. Many people can do research. It tends not to sound interesting.

Some authors include words like Award Winning in a bio. And the first book in the series, Safe Beginnings, did win an award from Inscriptions magazine. It was one of their 2002 books of the year. Sounds a bit dated, don't you think? And then there is the little fact that Inscriptions went belly up somewhere after 2002. Don't ask when. Many people have never heard of them.

I have had friends tell me to just say award winning then and leave it at that, but I have to say, when I see that in some author's bio, I tend to think that means they won a blue ribbon on field day in sixth grade. So I don't want to say that in my bio either.

The last thing I've noticed in many authors’ bios is that they include places where they have spoken, classes they've taught or organizations they belong to. You know the setup: "Jane Someone Smith addressed the U.N. on the Global Economy before becoming a member of the Senate Finance committee, and so on."

I don't belong to much that most people couldn't belong to themselves if they wanted to, so how is that interesting? I've taught more than a few classes on e-publishing and spoken on panels at some writers' cons but again, so what?

So here is the bio I'm thinking about this week. Christine Duncan is a red-headed mystery novelist who lives in Colorado and if you see a black Honda being towed, will you let her know?

Christine says:
Christine Duncan is an Arvada, Colorado mystery writer. She got her start in writing for the Christian market, writing for Sunday School magazines. Her credits include Accent Books and Regular Baptist Press.

Although the Kaye Berreano mystery series is set in a battered women's shelter, Ms. Duncan's husband wants the world to know it's not because of anything he did!

Come visit Christine at
Or at her blog Http://www.globalwrite.wordpress.com

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Silent Killer

by Jean Henry Mead

Is your bedroom furniture making you sick?

I was surparised to learn that forty-six billion pounds of formaldehyde are produced annually and used in the manufacture of furniture, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, plywood, wall paneling, cosmetics, adhesives and other household products.

Formaldehyde is especially toxic in bedroom furniture manufactured in China and other foreign countries. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to buy furniture that doesn't contain formaldehyde. If you can find an American furniture manufacturer still in business, it will cost a small fortune to order a relatively formaldehyde-free bedroom suite.

Formaldehyde is not only toxic and allergenic but carcinogenic. The resins are used mainly in construction materials and are the source of one of the most common indoor air pollutants. At concentrations above 0.1 ppm, formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes. When inhaled at this concentration, it also causes headaches, burning throats, difficulty breathing and asthma symptoms. I know because I’ve suffered them all. We recently got rid of our cherry wood bedroom set, which was manufactured in China where most furniture sold in this country now originates. Pity the poor workers who assemble furniture on a regular basis. Even one of the factory secretaries said that she has to have her eyes checked every three weeks for toxicity.

The problem now is finding a replacement bedroom suite. For $8,000 or more, a furniture manufacturer will build a bedroom suite that contains specially ordered glue and wood that is purportedly formaldehyde-free. However, I was told by a Montana manufacturer that no formaldehyde-free plywood exists. I did some research and found that a company called Eco-Wise in Austin, Texas, produces such a plywood, so I called the furniture company to tell them about it.

I was then told, “That’s just the new California standards that take effect next year. The plywood is not entirely formaldehyde-free. And it’s going to be terribly expensive.” How expensive can enough plywood for the dresser drawers cost at $77.95 to $89.95 for a 4 x 8 sheet? I called Eco-Wise and was told to call back later when the supervisor was in. In the meantime I could research “MDS plywood” online. That was a dead end because everyone I called, and was referred to, had no idea whether formaldehyde exists in their product, but they referred me to suppliers "who might know."

Salesmen, managers and supervisors didn’t know. So I decided to call Eco-Wise again. While waiting for a call-back, I did further research on formaldehyde. The Columbia Encyclopedia says that “Formaldehyde, or HCHO, at standard temperatures and conditions is a flammable, poisonous, colorless gas with a suffocating odor. It’s used in the preparation of dyes, in the production of Bakelike, other plastics and synthetic resins, and for several other purposes. The IUPAC name for formaldehyde is methanal.“

The Wikipedia warns that methanal “is a toxic chemical. Drinking even small amounts can cause blindness.” At room temperature it’s a polar liquid used as antifreeze, solvent, fuel, and denaturant for ethanol.”

No wonder I’ve had blurred vision when getting up during the night. Isn’t it comforting to know that most of us have been sleeping with all these toxic chemicals? I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to replace our furnitute to cut down a tree and build our own.

One good piece of information came from one of my phone calls. The Eco-Wise supervisor told me that those who can't afford a nearly formalgahyde-free bedroom suite can spray or paint their furniture with a product called Safe Seal. The coating seals in toxic fumes at a rate of 90% effective. That's great but something needs to be done at the federal level because manufacturers are either oblivious to the health problems their products are causing, or they simply don't care. Especially sensitive to the toxic fumes are small children and the elderly.

California has taken a step in the right direction with a limited ban on formaldehyde products, scheduled to take effect next year, but much more needs to be done.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jackpot: The Power of Positive Reinforcement

By Beth Terrell

This is Luca, also known as His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness. He's a papillon, (French for "butterfly"). Look at the ears, and there's no mystery about how the breed got its name. See the little bit of white on his ears? It's considered a flaw in the show ring, because it's believed that darker ears most resemble butterflies. If his ears had been dark, his breeder would have kept him to show and breed, and this little ray of shining brightness would never have come to live with us. As it was, she was looking for a home for him at exactly the same time I was being consumed by puppy fever.

Oh, I had no intentions of actually getting a puppy. I was at the dog show "researching breeds." But the minute I saw him, I was in love. I don't know what it was. I had been passing up other adorable puppies for weeks. This one had my heart the second I saw him. He weighed two and a half pounds, and most of it was ears. He still had his puppy coat (not the silky tresses you see today), and he looked like a strong wind might pick him up and carry him off. He literally took my breath away. He still does.

I know I'm hardwired to love him. With his tiny face, big eyes, and round head, he evokes the hormonal rush of adoration we humans are programmed to feel when we look at babies. But there's more than that at work here. I've loved every dog who's ever owned me, but there's an almost spiritual chemistry with this one.

A few days ago, we were clicker training in the living room. If you've never clicker trained a dog before, it's a fascinating experience. Luca loves it. It's a positive training method based on traditional operant conditioning. The idea is that animals (and people) do the things that bring pleasant results (rewards) and avoid the things that don't bring rewards. A reward might be a good feeling, a good grade, praise, or--if you're a papillon--a tasty piece of liver snack. Some people call clicker training "marker training," because the click marks the desired behavior. The click is made by a little plastic device, the clicking end of an ink pen, or even the trainer's tongue. (Sometimes I just use a quick, high-pitched "yes!", but the clicker is best, because it's a very distinctive sound, and the dog hears it only during training sessions.) The clicker is paired with a reward, so that the animal learns that the click means good things happen. (Click - reward, click-reward.) The click becomes a marker you can use to tell the dog, "Yes, that thing you just did, that's what I want."

Timing is important with clicker training, because whatever the dog is doing at the moment you click is what it gets rewarded for, and what gets rewarded, gets repeated. Sometimes you lure the dog into the position or behavior you want, then click the instant you get it. Other times you capture a behavior the dog performs spontaneously. (Luca sometimes rubs his eyes with one paw; he looks like he's a shy boy covering his face. I find this adorable and want to put it on cue, so whenever I see him do it, I click and reward. As a result, he does it more and more frequently. When he is offering the behavior often, I will begin to pair it with the command, "Shy boy." Eventually, I'll reward only when he does the behavior on command. This is how he learns that "Shy boy" means, "Do that cute thing where you cover your eyes with your paw."

Once he's learned that, and once he does it reliably on command, I'll stop clicking every time and go to an intermittent reinforcement schedule. This is the most powerful type of reward of all, because it works on the same theory as Las Vegas slot machines. We know there will be a payout; we just don't know when, so we keep on playing. Same with Luca. Once he knows what he's supposed to do, he gets praise every time, but he only gets the reward every so often, and he's never sure when. Sometimes it's a "jackpot"--a whole handful of goodies instead of the usual tiny bite. Woo hoo! Because he always gets something good (praise) and sometimes gets something really good, the behavior becomes very reliable, and Luca is happy because he's figured out how to make the good things happen.

Today, I realized that being a writer is a little bit like being clicker trained. (I bet you were wondering how I was going to relate this to writing!) Writing is chock full of that powerful intermittent reinforcement.

I write a chapter of tight, compelling prose that holds up to even my sternest inner critic.
Click. I get a warm and fizzy feeling inside. I want more of that!

I struggle to reach my goal of 1,000 words. Nothing sings. The writing is flat. What happened to that warm and fizzy feeling? No reward. Hm. Better try harder.

Someone sends me an email saying they read my book and couldn't put it down. "I'm serious," she says. "I was reading at stoplights!"

Click. Hm. Maybe I really am cut out for this.

Maybe I get a bad review and I'm stuck on the chapter where the villain escapes using a toilet plunger and a pair of his grandmother's support hose. No reward. (Sigh.) The thought of my friend reading my book at stoplights carries me through. Maybe tomorrow will be the day I get...a good review, a top New York agent, a six million dollar movie deal.

No wonder writing is so addictive!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This isn't Socialism

By Mark W. Danielson

These days there is a lot of talk that the United States is approaching Socialism. While government subsidies and bailouts seem to be the focus of correcting our nation’s economic woes, the perception that we are becoming Socialist is ludicrous. Socialist ideology removes an individual’s rights in favor of state control with the notion that everyone will be working for the common good. While this might be possible in a Utopian world, this concept has not been successful in either Communist or Capitalist countries.

Early in our history, our nation sang, “Give us your tired, your poor.” We welcomed immigrants who possessed skills and a solid work ethic. These immigrants worked hard, learned our language, and contributed to the common good, helping create the world’s most prosperous country with the highest standard of living. But those days are gone. Now, few immigrants make much attempt at learning our language. And why should they when our government prints election ballots in countless foreign languages and spends over 12 billion dollars on educating limited-English students? (Source: American Legislative Exchange Council) No other country caters to immigrants like we do. When people do not or cannot work, they rely on our welfare system to bail them out. To continue this trend will prove disastrous.

While everyone seems to be aware of our nation’s financial crisis, no one wants to admit to its cause. While the crimes of a few corrupt businessmen in the insurance and mortgage industries certainly contributed to our economic down slide, other major causes are our lack of welfare and immigration reform, and strong labor unions that raised wages to the breaking point where governments can no longer pay. Sadly, these politically incorrect topics are rarely addressed, and so the money drain continues.

Lately, California has remained in the headlines because of its dire economic situation. A recent Newsweek article stated that every California household will spend $1,000 of their tax dollars paying for immigrant benefits. It went on to say that California welfare recipients are guaranteed to receive these payments for life. Are you serious? Because of its financial crisis, California is raising its taxes on everything. Sales tax in many large cities has already approached ten percent, and the state is tripling the cost of its license plate renewals. Imagine this impact on new car sales.

Of course, you don’t have to live in California to feel the pinch in your wallet, for there are plenty of other states in financial distress. Even credit card companies are jumping on the tax bandwagon, forcing user fees on those who pay their bills on time to make up for those who don’t. Whatever happened to personal accountability? How far will this Robin Hood mentality go before we put political correctness behind us and tackle these issues?

Here’s one solution for all you politicians. How about making every welfare recipient who is physically able work for their pay? I worked for my government check throughout my military career -- why should they stay at home and receive a check without contributing to the common good? How can this country survive if we continue to rob from those with jobs to pay for those who have no incentive to work? Why do we continue to reward mothers for giving birth to unwanted or unplanned children? President Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act was a step in the right direction, but it failed to correct the problems. And while President Obama’s stimulus program may look good on paper, it hasn’t required a thing from anyone who received its disbursed payments. President Obama has publicly stated that our country has no shortage of work that needs to be done, so why are we paying welfare recipients to stay home? Call me old fashioned, but our welfare program needs change that we can believe in.

Based on this, what we are facing today is a far cry from Socialism. It is not the failure of Capitalism, but rather the result of decades of failed bi-partisan politics, the inability to control our borders and budgets, and the belief that everyone is entitled to everything. Truly, this isn't the "American Way" that our forefather's envisioned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Long Goodbye for Publishing

By Chester Campbell

Mystery fans are well aware that The Long Goodbye is a Philip Marlowe story written by the iconic Raymond Chandler. It won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955. Interestingly, it appears in a quite different context in the headline for an article in The Nation by Elizabeth Sifton, a senior vp at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

The article appears under the heading The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes.

There has been a lot said and written lately about the state of publishing, or should I say the sad state of publishing. Ms. Sifton’s article covers the history of the business and the practices that led up to the current scene as well as anything I’ve seen. She has spent nearly half a century in the field, working for several different book publishers as they merged into conglomerates. Re the latter, she had this to say:

“As the megapublishers tightened their grip in the 1980s, I was dismayed to see a number of once good firms of markedly different publishing style or literary taste make foolish, overpriced mistakes; they seemed to be losing their bearings as they paid ever more money for ever more questionable properties, entrusting the sewing up of these sow's ears to not very experienced practitioners.”

She quoted this from one publisher: "Businessmen never learn from their mistakes because they always find someone else to blame for them," he said. "Businessmen only learn from their successes. Except publishers can't do that."

Ms. Sifton says the arithmetic on how publishers calculate their income and outgo has remained unchanged since the middle of the last century. “Of the roughly $10 a publisher took in on a $20 book, say, 10 to 15 percent of the cover price was allocated to the author, leaving only the remaining $7.50 or so to cover the fixed, make-ready costs (coding, proofing and correcting the author's original disk, press preparation and such); the varying paper, printing and binding costs; the cost of sales and marketing; the overhead; and maybe some profit, 4 to 5 percent if all went well. No wonder they longed for bestsellers, the income from which would allow expansion of staff, or staff salaries, or the size of the list--or profits.”

Regarding authors’ royalties, she observes, “Their ever more powerful agents have successfully decoupled the size of the royalty advances they receive from any estimate of the books' eventual earnings, and routinely assure them that if Knopf or Norton or Morrow fails to earn back the upfront money, it's because their masterpieces were badly published, not because the advances were implausibly high.”

After discussing Amazon and Google and the current state of affairs, she bemoans, “I, for one, don't trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order.”

I highly recommend the article, which you can read HERE.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What's the Deal?

by Ben Small

As many of you know, I’m a gun guy. Figured if I was gonna write about this stuff, I ought to learn something about guns. And then lo and behold, I found I enjoy shooting, and carrying a piece gives me a better sense of security in a part of the country where home invasions, car jackings and shootings are on the rise.

But the .380? C’mon. I always thought the .380 was sort of a .38 junior, like a spitball that just tumbles out of a pretend-gun. No stopping power, known to bounce off a thick leather jacket.

Well, evidently I was wrong. (Yeah, it happens occasionally, more than that according to my wife.) Because just about every gun manufacturer is announcing a new .380 these days. And of course, they’re all claiming their little pistols are “revolutionary,” whatever that means. And what does it mean? All these pistols are semi-auto, most are double action, and all contain anywhere from six to nine rounds. So what’s revolutionary about that?

In the last year, we’ve seen old standbys like Sig Sauer, Ruger and even Magnum Research come out with one. And the only one is “revolutionary,” at least in the sense of radically new and unexpected ― the Magnum Research Micro Baby Eagle. What makes this pistol revolutionary is its place in the Magnum Research arsenal. Magnum Research is known for its gigantic pistols, the Desert Eagle being the standard. You’ve seen this pistol, it’s the one that requires a weight lifter to just pick it up. The Desert Eagle is huge, perhaps the largest semi-auto manufactured. You can usually find them in the “used” section of your gun dealer’s stock, or on Gunbroker, which usually means someone’s selling one from his collection. Why? Because the Desert Eagle is no fun to shoot; heck, it’s not even fun to lift. I shot a .50 AE Desert Eagle once, and that was enough for me. It goes bang in a big way, lots of fire and recoil, the gun often pictured in You Tube videos banging some unaware shooter in the forehead because of its massive recoil. I don’t know anyone who enjoys shooting a Desert Eagle, which is why so many are sold used. The gun is so ugly, it’s even sold in a gold version. Just pull this gun out and people start running, maybe the shooter, too.

Okay, so here’s the Desert Eagle.

And here’s the Micro Baby Eagle.

Ugly little sucker, isn’t it? And it only holds 6 +1 rounds of .380.

Now, a little research will show you that the .380 cartridge is nothing more than a .38 in semi-auto style. It’s essentially the same bullet as found in the .38, the .38 Special, the 9mm and even the .357 magnum, but it’s not the bullet size that counts; it the powder and cartridge in which this bullet resides. Not much oomph here. As I said, the .380 has been known to bounce off thick leather jackets.

So why the demand, especially in this day and age when bigger is usually better and when folks want more rounds than just six or seven? Heck, even the tiny Glock 26, the “Baby Glock” and the Walther PPS come in 9mm and hold more rounds.

Here’s the Glock 26. Holds ten rounds, twelve if a mag extension like the one pictured is added. And it’s a 9 mm pistol, more oomph than the .380.

The answer is .380 pistols, being so small, are easily concealed, and with the number of concealed carry licenses being granted during the Great Obama Panic, concealment is important. You can drop these babies in your pocket, and your pants won’t fall down. Or drop it in your purse, and you’ll have room for your wallet. Wear it on your ankle, and it won’t even pull your socks down. There’s almost no recoil, no big flash of flame, and while not as quiet as a .22 lr, this one won’t break your eardrum.

Some cops carry these guns, but usually only as a second or third back-up. And even then, most prefer a 9mm.

But the economy is down, and fear is up, and many newcomers to concealed carry are nervous about doing so. They feel like everybody is looking at them, and can see they’re packing heat. They want protection, but don’t want anybody to know they’ve got it. A comfort factor.

Yes, I carry concealed. Have a permit to do so. But I opted for the Baby Glock. More bang for my buck. And if I carry a backup, which occasionally I do, it’s a tiny North American Derringer, five rounds of hollow point, .22 magnum bang. I carry it in a pocket holster that also contains eight additional rounds, meaning I’ve got thirteen rounds of powerful .22 mag available. My North American Derringer is petite, about half the size of a .380.

So here’s my back up of choice. You can fit this little baby inside your sock.

The .22 lr has always been the mob hit man gun of choice, because up close it will do the job with a bang so soft only the hitter will hear it. Put a .22 lr slug in the back of the hittee’s head, and he’s ready for the morgue, probably with an open casket. The bullet will bounce around the hittee’s skull like a pinball, but probably won’t exit. And the .22 mag is just one step up.

So why the .380, if it’s the smaller brother to the .38, with a little less bang and fewer rounds than its cousins?

Hell if I know. But they’re coming out all over, and each one is being called “revolutionary.” Funny thing, though, all these new .380s, and yet the .380 round is one almost impossible to find on ammo shelves. Go ahead, ask your local gun dealer for some .380 ammo. Watch him laugh at you. Better yet, order some from an online store. At least nobody will be laughing with him, because nobody will see your rejected order unless you show it to them.

So, do I want a .380? You betcha. I’m a gun nut, and they’re “revolutionary.”