Thursday, December 24, 2009


"In comes I, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome? Or welcome not?
I hope Father Christmas will never be forgot!"
I'm from the Philly area, and when somebody mentions mummers around here, we all picture big burly guys wearing pink feathers as they strut down Broad Street on New Year's Day. I mean, doesn't everyone?

Actually seasonal mummery goes back probably to the Dark Ages or earlier. The word mummer at first denoted someone who performed stories in mime while wearing a masked costume. These masquerades were immensely popular during the Renaissance all over Europe, including Harlequin in France and the Italian Comedie. In the British Isles, the art form took a life of its own. These plays were performed at the turning of all seasons, symbolically showing, say, the death and rebirth of the year, or the return of spring, or the reaping of the harvest.

A favorite Yuletide mummer plot was about a king or knight (almost always also a saint) who slays an evil beast, then is himself miraculously brought back to life. The most familiar characters were St. George and the Dragon from England, but in Cornwall, the saint might be King Petroc, and in Ireland, you might find St. Patrick fighting the Wild Worm.

The "mime" was eventually replaced by rhyme, usually in couplet. As poetry goes, this stuff isn't prime, though it tells the story, and once in a while, you'll find some decent wit as well. All mummers plays tend to have similar characters and plots, but as they evolved through the ages, each generation put their own spin on the words, with political and topical references. If the actors are ham enough, they're always entertaining. You can still find mummers plays throughout England, and in many places settled by Englishman, like Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and even in the Carribean, where mummers take to the streets on stilts.

In my novel POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, the mummers are typical of Colonial Virginia, where they may have used grain sacks for masks and substituted King George III for the Dragon. By the 18th century in America, mummers were usually working class or poor who did their best to get a charity handout from richer folk, sometimes even forcing their way into houses at gunpoint (emboldened by drink, of course--see my last blog on wassailing). This practice became so commonplace by 1800 that most American cities, like Philadelphia, passed Masquerade Acts forbidding anyone from walking the streets wearing a mask.

Things were quiet until the 1840s, when a few neighborhood leaders in Philadelphia approached the city council to ask permission to do a little mummery at Christmastime again, just to keep the tradition alive. The city finally compromised--each mummers group had to vow to keep track of their members and be responsible for their actions, and the groups would be allowed to have a parade only, and not go into people's houses. So, Philadelphia got its Mummers Clubs and New Year's Day Parade.

A Philadelphian moved to Atlanta soon after and organized his own neighborhood mummer club, and from there, someone else took the tradition to New Orleans, where it merged with the local culture's Carnivale tradition and became Mardi Gras.

"Our play is done, we must be gone.
We stay no longer here.
God grant you all, both great and small,
A happy, bright New Year."

Peace and Merry Christmas,

NOTE: I'll be taking a little hiatus from my blog through New Year, but I'll be back for Twelfth Night. Don't take that Christmas tree down too soon!

Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight I'm going Christmas caroling at a local hospital with a group of my friends. This is our 33rd year. I only missed once, about 6 years ago, when I had the flu, but my friends came and sang for me that year. In a way, caroling for the sick is especially appropriate, once you know the roots of the tradition.

I doubt if the Vikings who invaded England a thousand years ago ever wished that island's inhabitants a "ves heill!" In Old Norse, it means "Be healthy!" or "Be whole!" Still, Middle Englishmen eventually picked up the salute, converting it to "waes haeil!"

These same early Englishmen already had a slew of rituals and superstitions designed to keep their crops healthy. Liquor-producing crops where specially prized, apples for cider in particular. With the coming of the frosts, bonfires were lit in apple orchards, dances performed around the trees, and cider applied both internally and externally (to both trees and people), to beseech any entities who might protect the trees through the winter, bring blossoms in the spring, and a good harvest the next year.

By the 13th century, the spelling "wassail" had appeared in print and was used not only as a good wish for human beings, but for their crops as well. The imperative became a noun that described the revelry in the orchards and elsewhere. Within another hundred years, the word had become a verb, meaning "to drink to the health of." In many dialects, it meant specifically to drink to your neighbors' health at year end.

Then came the discovery of the New World. Spices were brought back, many of which complimented the taste of the cider beautifully. Spices were expensive, though, and usually saved for rare occasions. Since the year-end tradition of cider drinking had already been established, the word "wassail" took on a new meaning: a special concoction of cider, spices, sugar, and baked apples, served at Yuletide. As the recipe spread down through Europe, wine and other fruits were substituted.

By the early 1600s, for those who could afford it, fashion dictated that a special, festive bowl be brought out for the custom, and so "wassail bowl" entered the language. About the same time, Yuletide revelers came to be known as "wassailers."

At first, wassailing took place in private homes and taverns, but more enterprising fellows began going door-to-door, singing and drinking to the health and prosperity of each household, preferably with punch supplied by the host, or at least, in exchange for a few coins or food. Some combined this custom with mummery--meaning they presented pantomimes or plays as well (I'll talk more about that in my blog next week).

During Victorian times, when Temperance Leagues abounded, wassailing morphed into the type of Christmas caroling we see today, done by church and school groups, and families. The practice usually has with no connection to drinking unless you're talking hot cocoa and warm sweet cider.

But we still sing the old blessings:

"God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress, too.
And all the little children
That 'round the table go."

To everyone this season, be healthy, be whole.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Floating Islands & Pease Pudding

Being of Italian descent, I can't think of holidays--any holidays--without thinking of food. My protagonist, Pat Montella, has a similar background. In her opening scene in POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, she's stuck in traffic on her way to Williamsburg on Christmas eve, pondering how she'd normally be at one of her aunt's houses eating seven fishes or sausage, with cannolis, pizzelles, and ricotta pie for dessert. Other times in the book she mentions Sicilian advent biscottis and a family reunion with a big pork roast and tomato pie on New Year's Eve.

Pat's experiences were all taken from my experiences. So you can imagine the culture shock to both of us when I plopped her into a Christmas setting where dinner would be in the American colonial style.

In the 18th century, assuming you had the money to afford it and your religion didn’t forbid the extravagance, big dinners were enormously important to the celebration of the Yuletide. The poor ate whatever was usual for them—most likely somewhere between gruel and a pottage (a stew). Middling folk, like Mrs. Carson in the historic part of POISON, may have tried to add a few special items to the menu that time of year: mince pies (made with apples and currants unless you could afford a bit of meat too), pease pudding (peas—the last saved from the harvest --boiled, mashed and whipped with butter), a punch of some sort (probably with hard cider or wine gotten locally or made yourself). Perhaps a pheasant or wild turkey brought back from a hunt if you were lucky. Or like Mrs. Carson, you made a bit of bacon and a few squabs go as far as you could.

But much of what we know of early American meals comes from the diaries and letters of the more wealthy—men like John Adams, who once wrote in great detail about a dinner party he attended while he was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. These lavish parties (at any time of year) were usually 4 courses, and not the courses (soup, salad, etc.) that we think of today. Imagine a long table set with 30, 40, 50 platters of food, arranged in perfect symmetry, each one presented with artistry. No whole turkeys in the center, no sir—the slicing would have been done in the kitchen and all sorts of edible garnishments added. And no one entree. You might have roast beef at one end, baked ham at the other, boiled beef to one side, turkey to the other, oysters, eggs, venison pie, pheasant, plus a variety of fancy vegetables (imagine beets cuts into the shapes of fishes), breads, relishes...well, you get the idea.

And that’s only the 1st course. Then came the “remove”—when guests would follow their host to another room for some sort of entertainment (a short concert or play perhaps). The servants, meantime, would remove the 1st course and reset the table for the 2nd. A different symmetry of platters, but just as many. Perhaps some of the same foods (the ham this time might be cooked with cabbage, the turkey stewed with a rich gravy) or, depending what was available, different offerings—turtle, veal, lamb, shad roe.

Another “remove” and then the first dessert course. Yes, I said the FIRST.

One cake? A couple of pies? Don’t be silly. Like the opening courses, you’d have variety. Desserts using alcohol and whipped cream were popular. Syllabubs were sort of a parfait made with cider or wine. A floating island was rounds of crusty bread, layered with jellies, floating in a bowl of liquored whipped cream. You might also have sweet omelettes (Pat helps to make one—an apple tansy, one of my favorite desserts—a link for the recipe is below), cookies and small cakes, ices (like sherbet), fresh and dried fruit (depending on the season or if you had enough money to import in wintertime), candied flowers and fruits, nuts. And naturally, dessert wines. George Washington, for instance, was very fond of Madeira.

A 3rd “remove” and another dessert course (my kind of dinner!). These parties, alternating dinner and entertainment, usually began in the afternoon and went on for many, many hours.

Even my Italian holiday feasts couldn't top them.

For the Apple Tansy recipe, go to:

Buon appetito,

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Holly Bears a Berry

Since so many of us are putting up trees, wreaths and lights this week, let's talk decorations.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, which takes place in Wiliamsburg, Pat is appalled to find that the house where she'll be spending the holidays doesn't have a Christmas tree. The house is decorated in the 18th century Virginia tradition. Trees are part of the 19th century tradition. (In fact, nearly all the trappings of Christmas that we now take for granted were begun by the Victorians.)

The first American tree was supposedly raised by German immigrant Charles Minnigerode who moved to Williamsburg in the 1840s, though his may have been simply the first publicized tree. The Pennsylvania Deutsch and Hessian soldiers might very well have set up trees in the 18th century, but the tradition was mostly confined to German-Americans and not popular otherwise.

The original tree legend says that in the 8th century, St. Boniface found German natives worshiping a giant oak tree. The saint cut the oak down (cutting down a thriving monument to God's creation doesn't seem very "saintly" to me, but I didn't write the story). From the stump of the fallen oak, a small fir tree grew. Were I those German pagans, I'd have thought this was a sign that the tree gods were showing their immortality, but Boniface's publicist managed to put a Christian spin on it. Somehow, through the years, the tree migrated from everyday Sunday school lesson over to an association with Christ's birth.

The Celtics had similar pre-Christian traditions concerning evergreens and other plant decorations, which is mostly the source of the British customs of the hanging of boughs and "greening" of the house. In an era not at all hygienic by our standards, when everyone was stuck behind closed doors and huddled around the fire for the cold months, some nice-aromatic pine on the mantel must have been as welcome as Febreze is today.

Remember, Christmas wasn't a major holiday in colonial America. Many people wouldn't have decorated at all. Those who did (mainly richer folk, for their dinner parties) probably used natural items like berries, pine cones, or even osage oranges. Contrary to modern Williamsburg decorations, nothing edible would have been used. No one would have wasted food. Very few people could afford to import pineapples, let alone, having gone to that expense, nailed one over the front door. A poor man would have stolen the fruit before the night was out, to feed his family.

Wreaths may have graced a few doors. The wreath dates back to ancient Persia and Rome, where crowns of leaves were made and either given as prizes or worn by high ranking members of society. Later, crowns of leaves and flowers were worn for holiday celebrations like May Day. The supposition is that, after having won a wreath or whatever, people hung them on their doors and windows to show them off. But, again, today's larger wreaths were more from Victorian traditions than earlier.

In Williamsburg in December today you'll see candles in windows and cressets (baskets of burning wood or oil or pitch) along the streets. Probably you would have seen neither in the 1700s. Candles burn faster when placed in a draft and 18th century double hungs weren't at all energy efficient. You'd place candles in the middle of the room, or next to a white wall, to get the maximum light from them. You might have placed a protected lantern in your window, if you wanted to help a stranger find your house easily in the dark. If outdoor fires were lit at all, they'd likely be close to the ground and not in raised baskets. Heat rises, and so, to certain extent, does light. And the wind is more likely to burn fuel faster if the fire is up high.

One Yule decoration that IS mentioned in colonial letters and diaries is mistletoe. They had their priorities straight.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'Tis the Season

I was a proud cast member of The Philadelphia Revels from 1997 until our local company disbanded a few years ago. Each year in December, Revels groups all over the U.S. present wonderful shows filled with music, dance, poetry, and plays within the play, celebrating the solstice, year-end, and Yuletide traditions of different cultures and historical eras. Our local productions ranged from ancient Celtic to Medieval to Middle Eastern to Victorian, but my favorite was our Christmas in Colonial Philadelphia show. I helped to research and write bits of that script, and what I learned led me to set my 3rd novel, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, in post-Revolutionary War Williamsburg during the Christmas season.

This month (and up through Twelfth Night) here on my blog, I figured I'd talk about some of the older, lesser-known Yuletide customs. Wouldn't hurt to remind us all that the season existed, and was just as magical, before electric lights and the Chipmunks. And even, to a small extent, before Christianity.

In the historical half of POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, readers will note that most of the Yuletide trappings are secular, revolving around food, drinking, superstitions, and giving money to those below you in station. By the latter, I mean that servants and workers were given coins by their employers and patrons. Working and poorer classes went door-to-door, wassailing and asking for money. Rich folk threw elaborate dinner parties. No one else much bothered with the season.

Before the 19th century, Christmas was a minor religious holiday. Many Christian sects didn't celebrate it at all, partly because the actual day wasn't specified in the Bible, and also, as the Puritans put it, the season promoted drinking and debauchery. (The Puritans, in fact, outlawed Christmas.) Many stores and markets were open on the 25th. At first, only Catholics held services. Protestant churches joined in after many of their congregants began attending the Catholic masses to hear the special music of the day.

One other thing is the difference in the way we define SEASON. Most Americans now think of Thanksgiving through December 25th as the Christmas season, but that's a recent development. Traditionally, the Yuletide season is December 25th through January 6th (Epiphany--the day the Magi visited Christ). Many cultures still celebrate Christmas on Epiphany, which came to be called "Old Christmas." This is also the 12th day of the Christmas season (you know, 12 drummers drumming?) and both its eve and the night of the 6th have been called Twelfth Night. I'll cover Twelfth Night customs in another blog.

Time for an eggnog break.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009


We gather together this week to be thankful for many things. You writers out there, tear yourselves away from the angst you're experiencing trying to make chapter 3 make sense and join me a moment. If you have trouble coming up with your own objects of thanksgiving, here are a few suggestions:

1. THE HUMBLE ERASER - Whether an old-fashioned pencil eraser or the delete key on your laptop, writers ought to be thankful for the ability we have for do-overs. Not all professions get a break like this. If you're rabidly unpublished, salivating at the thought of being in print, realize that this advanced state ruins your chances for do-overs. Once you charge money for your work, everyone gains the right to ridicule you over bad research and awkward sentences. So appreciate your eraser while ye may.

2. THE PERSONAL COMPUTER - If not for this wonder of the modern world, I doubt I'd have written more than a few silly poems and the occasional letter from Santa to a young friend. I'm in complete awe of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and the like, working with nothing but pen and paper, and Agatha Christie, with a typewriter. I'd have been culled from the herd long ago.

3. THE RIGHT SIDE OF YOUR BRAIN - Without the fantasy centers of your brain, you'd be reduced to writing grocery lists. Even how-to manuals need a little imagination. The majority of Americans, however, only use the brain's right side for things like online dating, road rage, and overreacting to political fear mongers.

4. EMAIL SUBMISSIONS - Used to be, just a few short years ago, writers would say they were thankful for all-night office supply stores that had their printer cartridges in stock and plenty of extra reams of paper because, inevitably, you'd find yourself in need as you printed off that 400-page manuscript that was already 2 days behind deadline. Publishers who take email submissions are, in their small way, saving the planet and deserve sainthood.

5. FLEXIBLE DAY JOBS - Enough said.

6. YOUR MUSE - Whoever inspires you, whether human or divine, somehow find a way to thank that being and often. Bling, chocolates, sacrificial offerings. Whatever it takes.

7. TURBO TAX - Why is it that the less we make, the more tax schedules we have to fill out? Most writers forget they're also business people. Give thanks for your tools--AAA discounts, website hosts, appointment books, etc.

8. GOOD EDITORS - They make us look better than we are. God bless 'em.

9. JOHANNES GUTENBERG - If not for this gentleman, we'd all still be dependant on monks making copies of our books by hand, and nobles and clergy being our only readers. Before JG, selling 10 copies gave you bestseller status. His printing press contributed to the development of the free library system, bringing literacy within reach of everyone. So, why exactly ARE we cutting library budgets and electing politicians who seem proud of the fact that they rarely read?

10. READERS - Without them, we're nothing.

That's it for 2009. Next year I'm hoping I can give thanks for a healthcare reform package that will allow American artists to give up the wan Bohemian stereotype. None of us want to be Mimi in the final act.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Words, Words, Words

Dear friends,

I was thinking this week how cheap words can be. A total bargain. You don't even need coupons. We spend words every day, but how many of us really get their meaning's worth out of them?

IT, for instance. This pronoun is nothing more than empty calories added to an otherwise healthy sentence, and can be downright misleading. I'm convinced that the word IT was invented by an ancient evil empire who sent this wee germ into the Forces of Good camp to spread misinformation. The evil empire died out because they weren't careful in their deployment and use of IT spread around their own cities like H1N1. But, to this day, people sprinkle their sentences with IT like a bad chef uses too much salt. People get confused as to which noun that little troublemaker is supposed to modify. The last non-living thing in the sentence? The object of the paragraph? Writers, do us all a favor and lay off IT.

The paragraph above also applies to the word THERE. Unless THERE is being used to describe a specific place, don't go THERE.

Then we have words that are kidnaped and their true meaning locked away in a dark dungeon. The words themselves are made to mean other things, usually to the point where the word is completely devalued. The perps of this particular crime tend to be people in power--politicians, corporate executives, car mechanics. Take the word LIBERAL, for instance. By the dictionary definition, I think most of us might want to describe ourselves as liberals. Either that or admit we're close-minded stick-in-the-muds. We all want our spouses to have a liberal point of view when we come in at 4 am. We want our traffic judges to be liberal when deciding that little DUI charge. We most certainly want St. Peter to be as liberal as possible when we stroll up to the Pearly Gates.

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year for 2009? UNFRIEND. Rumor has it this is actually an old word, at least 17th century, that had pretty much gone extinct until Facebook sent the spark of life into its DNA and brought it back to life. I'm not sure I'm in favor of resurrecting archaic words. Did anyone think to find out why "unfriend" fell into disuse in the first place? Why not do CPR on a more positive word like "twixt" or "skybosh" instead?

Still, in honor of the rebirth, I felt a nice 17th century-ish sonnet to UNFRIEND was due:

Wouldst thou unfriend me who shares all thy posts
And always tags thy face on other's pics?
I so live for thy idle status boasts;
Each day this is the way I get my kicks.
Send not I to thee my Farmville requests,
And push my views political on thee?
Along with all the Harry Potter tests,
As well "Which Twilight character are ye?"
Thy causes I espouse as if mine own;
Sending my bucks to most unworthy folks.
Thy fan clubs all I join from my cell phone,
And clicketh I on "Like" for all thy jokes.
Wouldst thou explain? I haven't got a clue,
O friend who wouldst unfriend a friend so true.

Your friend,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In my Possessed series, I have one character who is never seen and never speaks, and yet he's been mentioned in every book and plays a more important role than I ever imagined him playing. Is he some evil mastermind, controlling dark forces from afar? Or the opposite? Like the guy who makes the recordings for Mr. Phelps in Mission Impossible?

No, my character is a mental health patient, Miss Maggie's son, Frank. When he came home from World War II, his demons followed. He's been living with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since 1945. His family has, too, because that's the nature of the condition. Miss Maggie's a strong, forthright woman, but if you asked her about having a son like Frank, I'm guessing she wouldn't tell you her feelings straight out. Watching PTSD destroy a loved one's life isn't something most folks can talk about--one of the reasons it's taken this long in history to even give the disorder a proper name and submit it to serious medical study.

People say "write what you know" and in this case, I did. Frank is based on my Uncle Joe Chicco. I dedicated BY BLOOD POSSESSED to his memory. He died not long before the novel was published, after suffering fifty-five years with chronic PTSD. My grandmother took care of him most of those years and yes, part of Miss Maggie is Jennie Chicco, her strength not the least of all. After my grandmother died, my mom and her other brother took over. My mom sent Uncle Joe meals and groceries, kept after him to take his meds, and got him to his doctor and mental clinic appointments. She called him every night to make sure he was okay. When he didn't take the meds--usually when some change came to his life, like when my grandmother died--he'd have relapses. So for 19 years, quite a bit of each week for my mom and by extension, our family, was spent trying to keep Uncle Joe's life as predictable as possible.

In my book, Miss Maggie has the same sort of burden, though she at least has the aid of the VA Hospital in Richmond, which is how she's got time to solve mysteries. But Frank is still a huge part of her life and she plans her schedule around her regular visits to see him. Because her son can't deal with change any easier than my uncle could, she knows she's better off keeping that part of Frank's existence stable.

I've realized lately that characters like Frank are what keep me writing. No matter how bad the market is, no matter whether mysteries aren't selling, I keep writing because people like my Uncle Joe need their stories told.

What got me thinking about both Uncle Joe and Frank Shelby was a special Veterans' Day presentation of Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS this past week, in which he aired a documentary called THE GOOD SOLDIER. You can watch a portion of this at

and if you'd like to learn more about PTSD (which can hit not only soldiers but all kinds of victims of traumatic events and long-term stress), the absolute best website is the National Center for PTSD:

We're fond of saying that death is the ultimate sacrifice of war. I won't argue that it's a great sacrifice, but at least there's rest for the fallen and closure for the family. Military personnel like my uncle, and their families, continue to sacrifice for their country long after the war is over, sometimes for the rest of their lives. On top of that, all too often, society and fellow vets treat them poorly.

If we're going to keep sending people to war, we need to get a clue.

Happy Veteran's Day,
and above all

Friday, November 6, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

For those of you looking for a writing blog this week, go read Nancy Pickard's about writing being like free-falling. I can't say it any better.

As for my week, well, standing in a long line to get a seasonal flu shot--and being told they're close to running out, an hour early, and that the rest of us might not get it--this kind of stuff leads to morose thoughts about our society and how we Americans really aren't great at caring for each other.

I did get my shot, but I think I was in the last dozen or so. Many more than that in the line behind me. You might wonder why all these people wouldn't just go to their doctors for shots, but my town of 30,000 has a big percentage of low income, out of work, under- or uninsured families, so I say God bless our county health system. At least they get it that not only the rich ought to be protected from infectious diseases.

I asked about the H1N1 vaccine, because I have a whole slew of 20-something friends who've had flu symptoms the last month so we all know swine flu has arrived (reported cases in 48 states actually). The county people say they can't get the vaccine yet. I'm less worried for myself than all the kids and young people. Supposedly if you were born before 1957, you've got a good chance of having already encountered similar flus and having antibodies that will work as well on H1N1. Then again, they say the overweight and obese are at a higher risk, and doesn't that include quite a lot of Americans right now?

But here's the thing. I have a friend in Australia. About 6 months ago, she got an H1N1 shot. In fact, everyone in Australia who wanted one got one. FREE. Now, granted, Australia has a smaller population than the US, but in this country, we had a half year more lead time. You mean we couldn't at least have developed enough vaccine in that time for, say, all of our school age kids?

One of the reasons the Roman Empire declined was the plague. I wonder if, a few millenia from now, people will say the "American civilization" died out because of infectious diseases? Or because, as a country, we didn't make the health and fitness of our citizens any kind of priority? That we, essentially, committed a kind of national suicide by not seeing that Americans had the tools to survive.

And by the way, those people in the future? They'll likely be French. They have the best healthcare system in the world.

Bonne sante!

Saturday, October 31, 2009


In the last week, the enemy has been a leaky bathroom faucet. Not the faucet itself, actually, but the need to deal with it--to call the plumber, squeeze his appointment onto my calendar, find someone to be here to let him in, and make sure the bathroom was presentable enough for a level 3 guest (level 4 being family, 2 being dinner guest, 1 being overnight guest).

No sooner did the plumber leave than I had to deal with the county health department canceling a flu shot location and a doctor postponing an appointment. This week I also dealt with a tire store that had a warped idea of how retail sales are normally accomplished, so that I came away with no tires, an hour wasted, and the need to still deal with finding 4 new tires for my car before winter sets in completely.

I once heard a writer claim that he only made dental appointments in the first week of a month, because if he flipped the calendar page and saw that appointment looming in the third or fourth week, he wouldn't get anything written all month.

Dealing with life stuff is the true enemy of the writer.

This is where non-writers will point out that everyone deals with all these sorts of things and work gets done regardless and the world keeps turning. Haven't we writers ever heard of time management? Yes, but for writers, time doesn't need to be managed as much as parts of our brains. Dealing with plumbers and dentists and car mechanics has to be done in the here-and- now, you have to be pragmatic, you have to be savvy.

Writing--fiction writing, especially--takes place where the imagination resides. You need to create your own world, where plumbers don't exist unless you want them to. Writers will say they don't feel like they're in control of their characters or events, but frankly, I've never read a book yet where the protagonist had to stop the action to go buy tires before a car chase. Novels would be intolerable if our characters had to deal with life stuff as much as real people do. Bad guys would never be caught.

For me, the place in my brain where I write feels like a room with a big vault door. It's got windows, sure, but I only see what I want to see outside them. No clock either. When I write, losing track of time is a given. Time belongs to that other part of the brain, where appointments are made. I find it very satisfying to close that big door and simply write. And when the writing's going well, I hate having to open the door for less than the smoke alarm going off. An interruption itself isn't the problem--it's the need to make the journey over to the practical, real-life part of my brain to deal with the interruption. Dealing, then trying to get back to writing, yanking that vault door open again, re-shutting out the world, figuring out where I left off--that's what saps the energy out of creativity.

Looking at my appointment calendar for October, I had a total of 3 completely free days this last month. I haven't spent nearly enough time in my little room. I'm (as Agatha Christie would say) broody.

On the bright side, I don't have a dental appointment until December.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

To my fellow authors from Bouchercon

Home from the book con.
Home from the signings.
Home from the travel by cars or airline-ings.
Home to our pets, to the fall breeze so gentle
(too soon come the cold Arctic winds detrimental).
Home now to read and to write and to nap,
To post to our blogs both the shrewd and madcap.
Home now to ponder life's mysteries so deep,
Or maybe just catch up on two weeks of sleep.

Too nice out to create
So writing can wait.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Out of Indy

Here I am, back in New Stanton, PA. In the last several days, I've attended a writing workshop, spoken on a panel about writers like Christie and Allingham, sung "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm" in the authors talent show, and sent 50+ of my books out into the world to work for the forces of good.

The Weird Sisters are all tired. And we still have to chip thick frost off the car this morning for the ride home. But it was a fun week. And I came away from Bouchercon with a whole list of possible writing topics for this blog.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


When I was about 8 years old, our family took a vacation that led us through Ohio into Kentucky to see Mammouth Cave. We stopped at what is now Hopewell Mounds and my mom's reaction was, essentially, "We came all this way to see bumps in the ground?" I thought the mounds were kind of cool.

I've been back a couple times and driven through 4 and a half times now, and Ohio still tends to evoke both those responses from me. I can understand why those prehistoric peoples put up mounds to break up this landscape. Not that it's boring--it isn't. Just relentless at times. Hours of driving take longer here than anywhere else in the world except Antarctica. So sure of that fact am I that I give Snapple permission to print it under their iced tea lids. Why do people go to Ohio? Duh--to buy buckeyes (a chocolate and peanut butter confection that looks like the nut that gave the state its motto).

We stopped at the rest area just over the PA border to get a map. Caroline asked if they had any information about our destination, Preble County. The answer was no, and you got the impression they hadn't heard of the place. Preble County is the last one you go through on I-70 before hitting Indiana. We were there to visit the library branch in Eaton. On a personal note, I was there to meet in person someone I'd talked books and politics with online for the last 10 years or so (hi, Suzanne!).

Something those folks back at that eastern rest area could tell people: Eaton has a really good Skyline Chili. Skyline Chili is an Ohio chain--I'd eaten at one in Cincinnati and was underwhelmed. At the one in Eaton I finally found out why people love their food. Another reason to go to Preble County? The people are super nice, especially the folks who work in the library system. If anyone from Preble County is reading this--you've got a gem in those libraries. Support them.

On to Indiana today.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mystery Lovers Bookshop

I've wanted to visit Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA for the last 10 years and last night I finally got there. Long overdue. This is a wonderful store! Well-stocked, and the owners are gracious, generous and knowledgable. They have a nice little cafe in front, too, so you can munch while you read.

The event was inspired--a big Italian feast where the 3 of us (Robin Hathaway, the Caroline half of Charles Todd and I) sat at different tables conversing with the Monday night Book Club. We switched tables halfway through. Mystery book speed dating. Such fun!

Then the 3 of us talked about our books, then fielded questions. So nice to talk to people who know their mystery books.

Today, onto Ohio. (and Go Phillies!)


Friday, October 9, 2009

The Weird Sisters Do PA, OH & Bouchercon

Next week is the World Mystery Conference, aka Bouchercon, which this year is in Indianapolis, IN. I'll be there so I won't be here--I'm lugging enough along without a laptop, too. Though, if I find any Internet access along the way, and have any observations I think are worth posting, something may pop up on this page.

I'll be traveling to Bouchercon with 2 other mystery writers: Robin Hathaway (author of the Jo Banks and Dr. Andrew Fenimore mystery series), and the Caroline Todd half of the Charles Todd writing team (the Inspector Rutledge series). Our book tours are usually called something classy, like "The Three Ladies of Mystery." We call ourselves The Weird Sisters. Rather than throw ticker tape, money, or rotten tomatoes at us as we pass through your communities, I suggest you come meet us at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA on Columbus Day (Oct 12) at 6 pm, or on October 13 at 6:30 pm at Preble County District Library on N. Barron St. in Eaton, OH.

Since I write ghost stories and Caroline writes history with a psychological twist and Robin occasionally writes about pirates and the BEST short horror stories you can imagine, our talk at the library will have a Halloween theme (unless, of course, we go off on a tangent. We sometimes do. No guarantees. But we're always entertaining).

At Mystery Lovers Bookshop, to honor the little Genoa gent whose day it is, they're having a big Italian buffet. Italian food and books. My kind of party. Reservations necessary--go to .

If any of you are planning to attend Bouchercon, my panel is Thursday afternoon, Oct 15 at 3 pm, called MYSTERY OF A LIFETIME, where I'll be pleased to be doing time with authors Jeff Marks, Craig McDonald, Julia Jones, and Leslie Klinger.

Thursday night at 9:30, at the Gameworks down the street, I'll perform in the Author Talent Show. Mine's a sing-a-long, but strong drink will be available for those who wish to bolster courage.

Otherwise, I intend to relax, have a blast, and talk to fellow authors and to lots and lots of mystery readers like myself. I know authors who don't go to conventions, some because they don't like crowds (I don't either, but this crowd is fun) and some because they don't feel like they need to go--they're selling well enough, or their publisher gives them tons of publicity without conferences. My answer is, anyone who creates needs contact with the folks they create for, composers with musicians, playwrights with actors and audiences, authors with readers. You can't work in a vacuum. Art is a partnership.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


I've been watching the PBS Ken Burns series on the National Parks and it's stirring the travel bug in me again.

I started collecting National Parks early. I think I was about 4 years old when my parents took me to Lexington and Concord. We did the Virginia Civil War parks maybe 2 years later. They also took me to big scenic parks: Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia. I finally got out west in my twenties. As of today, I've been to about 75 National Park sites, not counting parkways and national heritage areas, and counting all the DC monuments as one. That still feels like a drop in the ocean, out of all the hundreds of park sites. I've got no fewer than 15 on my see-before-I-die list. In my opinion, all Americans ought to visit at least 3 National Parks in their lifetimes--one major scenic park, one major historical park, and one of their choice. And they ought to bring their kids. The parks are OURS, folks. One of the perks of democracy.

If you're a writer, you owe it to yourself to go to a park and wake up your brain.

The Parks are responsible for my choices of settings in my stories. I think of my fiction in two phases: Before Yellowstone and After Yellowstone. Before I visited Yellowstone, my writings were filled with generic settings. Most inexperienced writers do the same thing. TV teaches us to picture Hollywood backlot housing developments and city streets. Yes, you can tell a good story in these kinds of settings, but how much richer in a real, and possibly unusual, place?

My trip to Yellowstone began with a crosscountry train ride. I slept in a berth out to Chicago, where I switched onto a huge doubledecker train. I'd never crossed the Mississippi before--I was used to the East where everything is small scale. Suddenly I was seeing miles of lakes, then not only amber waves but a vast sea of grain. Bluer sky, and more of it, than I'd ever seen from anyplace back home.

We got off the train in Montana and took a bus south. The air was dryer and clearer than I knew air could be. And in Yellowstone itself--well, they didn't call it Wonderland in the 19th century for nothing. Steam comes out of the ground. The hot spring terraces look like cave formations turned inside out. Mud boils like tomato sauce. Geysers go off like scalding unruly mall fountains. Pools from in-ground springs are all azure blue or rainbow-colored. Add to that a deep canyon of red-streaked yellow rock, waterfalls, mountains, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, rivers, forests of evergreens and aspen, and a colossal sapphire blue lake. And everywhere animals--elk, moose, buffalo, deer, birds, bears, snowshoe hares, marmots, ground squirrels. The place has dozens of different smells, from flowers to pine to the rotten egg odor of sulphur. The temperature can range 40 degress F. in one summer day. The night sky is inundated with stars. Storms seem more epic, thunder louder, lightning streaks, brighter and longer. I experienced all of that in one week.

The most beautiful and scariest place I'd ever been. I HAD to write about it.

Thing was, my writing skill hadn't yet gotten to the point where I could do the setting, or anything else in that tale justice, so the book was never published. But the experience taught me that setting ought to be specific. I now can't write a story without trying to make the place into a character.

I realized, watching PBS this week, that I want to return to Yellowstone someday. Maybe rewrite that Yellowstone novel, too.

And I want to get moving on my see-before-I-die list.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


Most people know I'm a history buff. Kind of obvious from the books I write. But I'm also a science geek. I read Science News. I watch NOVA on PBS. I grew up with the Franklin Institute practically in my backyard. I've been known to get up at 3 am to watch a meteor shower. And once I poked a pin hole in a Xerox box, held it up in front of a sunny window, and showed everyone at my office job a solar eclipse.

The geek genes came from my dad, who used to take us rock hunting, stargazing, birdwatching, you name it. Back when America was gearing up to go to the moon and our local library had a weekly kids' program about NASA rockets, he'd bring us and sit in himself. When Star Trek made its debut, he watched it along with us. And family lore says that he and his brother Charlie had a respectable turtle skull collection. As I clean out the house (see my blog on Clutter a couple weeks ago), I expect to find that collection in the cellar.

When I created the character of Beth Ann Lee, I didn't plan on her being a geek. She simply was one, from the start. Part of it, I suppose, came from my own frustration at seeing so many girls turned away from math and science at a young age, merely because someone thinks females aren't supposed to be good at those subjects (Hello! Marie Curie! Jane Goodall! Sally Ride! to name a very few).

I've been asked why, if I like science all that much, do I put something as unscientific as ghosts in my books? I've been asked this by folks who fancy themselves scientific thinkers.

Okay, call me crazy (lots of people do), but isn't the whole point of science to try to explain the unexplained? So my standard answer, when asked if I believe in ghosts, is that I believe in the possibility of ghosts--just like I believe in the possibility of life on other planets and undiscovered life forms on this one. Ghosts aren't out of the question, just not proven or for that matter, disproven. I can bend my brain around ghost theory a lot easier than I can string theory (if you don't know what that is, picture something a physicist might dream up after eating hallucinogenic mushrooms).

I've been reading up about ghost hunters who do their research armed with electromagnetic field meters, infrared and ambient thermometers, motion sensors, digital voice recorders, cameras and other serious technical equipment. I applaud their collection of data, but frankly, most of them need to think more scientifically. They point to an "orb" (what appears to be a ball of light in a photo) and call it a departed human being. I'm not saying it isn't, just that I don't see a clear line of evidence and logic between the phenomenon (the orb) and the conclusion. I could offer other theories. I said I believed in the possibility of undiscovered life forms--maybe that's what an orb is. Or, like the aurorae, an effect of solar wind on Earth's magnetic field. Or simply a trick of light and humid air.

No ghost hunters I've met seem interested in explaining the physical conditions that creates an orb. Why wouldn't ghosts be subject to the same laws of physics, even if they exist in another dimension? (String theory says other dimensions are possible--or maybe you just feel extra-dimensional after eating those mushrooms.)

Anyway, will some scientist out there please work on ghost phenomena? Stop wussing out because you think the world will laugh at you. I'm guessing there's a Nobel Prize in store for the mind who cracks this mystery.

To answer the question: Why do I put ghosts in my books? Ghost tales are probably the oldest form of storytelling. No civilization known to history has been without ghost stories. People like them because they're entertaining. Me? I write ghost stories because I like them. And I put science in my books because I like that, too. They can go together.

Oh, and to my cousins, Uncle Charlie's kids? When I find those turtle skulls, you're entitled to half. Only fair.

Live long and prosper,

Friday, September 18, 2009

CONGRESS -- Comity or Comedy?

"The recent fist fight in the United States Senate, precipitated by Senator Tillman of South Carolina, is one of the most disgraceful episodes that ever took place in the upper branch of Congress."

That's a quote from the New York Times, March 2, 1902. Senator Tillman punched his fellow South Carolina senator in the nose. What IS it with these South Carolina congressmen?

In 1850, during heated debates, Senator Foote from Mississippi nearly shot Senator Benton of Missouri while Benton was having a caustic exchange of words with Vice President Millard Fillmore. Foote was wrestled to the floor and disarmed.

You can find a fairly long list of politicians killed in duels at . Congress, however, didn't pass an anti-dueling bill until 1839, after Representative Cilley of Maine was killed by Representative Graves of Kentucky. The bill was introduced by Henry Clay. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Cilley's graveside memorial.

In June 2004, while members of the Senate were having their photos taken on the Senate floor, Vice President Cheney and Senator Leahy had a heated argument in which Mr. Cheney gave the gentleman from Vermont instructions using the F-word as a verb. Since Senate wasn't technically in session, the rule against cursing and obscenity on the Senate floor didn't apply.

As you can see, U.S. Congressmen have been acting like small spoiled children throughout most of our history. Last week Joe Wilson of South Carolina was merely upholding a long-standing American tradition when he broke congressional decorum rules by heckling a speaker (the rule covers any speaker, not only the President). In Joe's defense: at least he was paying attention. Decorum rules also forbid the use of cell phones or personal computers while someone is speaking, yet I saw a few members texting that evening. They weren't admonished. At least, not by anyone but me.

Joe Wilson did apologize to the President, though when interviewed, he said he did it because the Republican leadership thought he should, and he's since refused to apologize to his co-workers in Congress and to his employers, the taxpayers. I'm not sensing a lot of remorse here. He broke the rules of his workplace. The rest of us would be on unemployment, or at least on probation, if we did that.

What's this got to do with my books? I write historical mysteries set in different eras of American history. Lately I've been reading the political commentary of Will Rogers (for my Great Depression Pat book) and Continental Congress transcripts of 1777 (for a Rev. War thriller). Whatever decade I'm researching, I'm finding that many members of our Congress--our employees--really haven't done good work nor acted as we'd want our employees to act. And yet we let them give themselves raises and award themselves the best benefits, at our expense. Who else would give their employees that kind of power, especially if they only do so-so work and create conflict in the workplace? Okay, maybe baseball team owners. But who else?

In the 1850s, despite the anti-dueling law, Representatives Cutting of New York and Breckinridge of Kentucky decided to settle their dispute with Western rifles at 3 p.m. seven miles outside Washington. That morning, however, they were on the House floor for a vote and accidently met face to face. After a moment of strained silence, Breckinridge said, "Cutting, give me a chew of tobacco!" Without missing a beat, Cutting pulled a plug of tobacco from his pocket and offered it to Breckinridge. That evening Breckinridge returned the favor by having Cutting over to share a bottle of wine. The duel was forgotten.

Those two could teach a lesson to both sides of the current congressional aisle.

"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer." Will Rogers

Still true today, Will.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flowers Shouldn't Always Be Red

I've been teaching writing workshops for fifth through eighth graders at different schools the last few years. One of my lesson plans for 6th grade is this: using the who-what-when-where-why-how approach, each class comes up with the seeds for a short mystery story about a missing object in the school. We write the beginning and end while I'm there, then their teachers can help them flesh it out and polish it later on.

The experiences have taught me scads about creativity and the writing process. Each class has a completely unique personality. Some let their imaginations soar--we've encountered closet monsters and secret passages behind lockers. Some get totally into the "how" details (hiding things in suspended ceilings is a biggie). Some love planting clues--one class used fingerprints, footprints, and a tool box with the initials "MM" (because they could also be "WW" upside-down, though they decided the tool box was bought on E-bay, so the new owner didn't have those initials after all).

Another part of personality, of course, is extrovert-introvert. At one middle school, I had a sixth grade class full of extremely creative extroverts. They wanted to talk out all their ideas, but had no patience with writing them down. Another class, though not as creative, were whizzes at focusing their ideas and putting them into words.

Most of the time, I come home from these adventures feeling extra-creative myself, re-energized for having been exposed to the playful innovation of youth--a reminder that the writer in me never grew up, and never should.

However, once I had a different experience. The class I was teaching was predominantly extroverts, so they talked a lot. Not a big problem, and at least they were talking about the story, but their ideas were scarce, random and mundane. Nothing held together--no idea built on the one before. Then one student suggested that we make one of the suspects a substitute teacher. All of a sudden, all hands shot up--everyone wanted to participate. Their ideas were still mundane, and a tad malicious, but they were creating, and finally making some sense. A story was taking shape.

As they were jabbering, and I was shushing them, their teacher said, "That's enough. Stop the silliness."

I'd never had a teacher interrupt a workshop before. Without thinking, I said, "No. We need the silliness. That's what writing is." Then, realizing I'd just stepped on his authority in front of his class, I added, "What we can stop is the discussion. I need you to think." The kids did stop talking, but except for a few, they also stopped volunteering. Their attention wandered--one kid played with his shoelace. Finishing that story was hard work. The only bright spot was at the end when they decided that ALL their suspects were in it together and they got to send them off to jail for ten years.

At lunch the teacher told me that there had been a "situation" with a substitute teacher and he didn't want them using that idea. He told me, "There are things you don't understand." I was tempted to inform him that I'd been teaching while he was still a grade school student and that what I did understand was that his class hadn't learned a thing that day. But I also want to be invited back to that school, so I kept my trap shut.

Harry Chapin wrote a song called "Flowers Are Red" about a child who wants to use every color while he paints. His teacher tells him to make his flowers red and his leaves green, until the boy is afraid to be imaginative. By the time I got home, I realized I'd had an encounter with a "Flowers Are Red" teacher. This was why his class had been afraid to use their imaginations in the first place, and why, after he spoke, they all crawled back into their shells.

Did the "situation" with that substitute teacher give him the right? How many characters have I created from a real person I didn't like? How many stories have I written to sound off my feelings about the injustices and ugliness I've experienced? Those kids were doing exactly what I do, expressing themselves about their frustrations. Exactly what I'm doing right now by writing this article.

On occasion, when I've tried to encourage wannabe writers to pen stories based on personal experiences, I've had writers say something like, "I can't write about that! I'd get into trouble!" They seem to think that they'd write too close to the truth, that others involved in the situations would sue them. They don't trust their imaginations enough to take them beyond reality. Just like that teacher didn't trust his students' imaginations.

As a society, we seem to be rejecting creativity altogether. Look at the "reality" TV show craze. And consider the glut of current crime novels that have little original prose or plotting between their covers (I don't call them "mysteries" because there's nothing mysterious about them.) I wonder how many editors, or at least marketing people, had "Flowers Are Red" teachers in school?

A decade from now, the kids I encountered this month may enter adult life with no clue how to imagine. No creative problem-solving. No healthy, therapeutic fantasies. No play and no silliness. Not one novelist in that bunch, and probably no fiction readers either. Then they'll raise kids of their own.

Me? I intend to practice wanton creativity. And pass it on every chance I get.


Friday, September 4, 2009

To My Favorite Gas Miser

Time to cut back to one post a week for a while. Been a fun summer, but now the Writing Muse calleth.

Here's a parody for those traveling this holiday weekend:

A Sonnet To My Favorite Gas Miser

Shall I compare thee to a Chevrolet?
Thou art more peppy than the Cavaliers.
Rough winds do make Berettas go astray;
The dealer's lease lasts only for three years.
Sometime too hot the wheels of steering get,
And always will the coolest paint job fade
'Neath bird poop plopped upon a slick Corvette,
Plus drops of sap from parking in the shade.
But thy strong drive shall not depreciate,
Nor lose a muffler on a mountain curve,
Nor move too slow upon the interstate
When in the passing lanes. (They have their nerve!)
So long as pickups leave me in their dust,
So long may your fair chassis never rust.

Peace (and drive safely),

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Purge For Our (Healthcare) System

As I was writing book 3 of the Possessed series, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I found myself dealing with the realities of healthcare in America both personally and as a caregiver to my parents. Writers tend to sneak in elements of whatever is on their minds as a story comes together (not to mention sometimes needing a nice safe way to get revenge), so I inserted one 18th century doctor and an apothecary into the historic plot, plus 5 modern day physicians and a pharmacist in Pat's end of the story. I not only had fun playing with poisonous "physicks" and deadly prescriptions, but I could point out the problems of healthcare as I observed them firsthand.

Now, years after that book was published, medicine in America seems to change for the worse almost daily. If Pat lived in the real world today, as a self-employed person with a pre-existing condition, she'd almost certainly have her insurance canceled. Even if not, on her income, she wouldn't be able to afford it or the non-covered costs which seem to at least double each year. I know because I can barely afford mine. (Your favorite authors may soon become extinct if we're all forced to go back to work full-time to get health benefits.)

One of my reason's for writing POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY was to ask the non-musical question, "How far has medicine come since 1783?" Sure, we have more sanitary conditions and anesthesia and antibiotics now, and we have machines that can look at our innards. All great things, I won't deny that. Still, part of me secretly longs for the good old days, when you could go to your health professional the moment you feel lousy, without having to wait 3 weeks for an appointment. Your health professional, of course, would be your apothecary, not a doctor (unless you could afford the extra shilling consultation fee). Then again, if you were really ill, the doctor or apothecary would come to you, bringing nifty non-FDA approved drugs, like quicksilver (yes, lovely poisonous mercury) to calm an upset tummy. Or you could self-medicate with the plants in your garden. Like putting onions on your feet to bring down a fever.

That may sound funny, but frankly, the last few prescriptions I tried didn't work, made me sicker, and cost a minimum of $2 per pill. Onions I can afford. And I love them stir-fried with bell peppers on just about anything. Want garlic with that? Go for it--garlic helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

So what did I find in my research? Yes, modern medical technology is more advanced, but without insurance, none but the rich can afford it any more than most early Americans could afford a doctor. Many of this year's new drugs don't work any better than the drugs they're replacing, they just cost more. We understand medicine more now, but as a society, we're less concerned than our 18th century counterparts with wanting to make patients well than with making money.

Depressing? Not to worry. You can purge your melancholy with licorice root, which contains compounds that are MAO inhibitors, just like some anti-depressants.

Or read my book. Ask your doctor if POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY is right for you.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I used to think my mom was a packrat. She never threw anything away. As my parents aged and became ill, every once in a while I'd look around their house and think: Someday my brothers and I will have to clear the 60 years of junk out of this place. Now that we've actually begun clearing, the enormity of task is overwhelming, all the more so because we're not finding 60 years of stuff. We're finding 70 or 80 years of stuff. And I'm not talking valuable antiques. I'm talking things like newspaper clippings about indelicate medical conditions.

What's this got to do with writing? Tons, and on all sorts of different levels. Clutter is the enemy of all creativity. And lately, I've become an expert on house clutter, desk clutter, brain clutter and life clutter. I could write a book on it, you might say. Just not a creative book. Because of the clutter.

I said I USED to think Mom was a packrat. I'll be living in my parents house now, and can picture the back bedroom as a great office. My brothers are all supportive of this dream, so we got together and started pulling things out of bureau drawers and cabinets. My brothers, bless them, took away boxes of things for themselves, or to donate to various charities, but still left me piles under the heading Stuff Elena Has to Go Through.

Last week I finally stopped procrastinating and started sorting. I made piles of my own: Definitely Throw Out (like a pair of latex gloves that looked unused but who knew?), Recycle (mounds of yellowed Dear Abby columns, old greeting cards and religious junk mail), Give Away (a hardly-used pocketbook), Keep (my dad's Army Good Conduct Medal), and THINK ABOUT LATER. Onto this last pile went Stuff Too Good To Ditch, Stuff Too Sentimental To Ditch, Stuff Too Interesting to Ditch, Stuff Either Brother Might Want That They Missed The First Go-Round, and, my favorite, Stuff I Might be Able to Use Someday (my dad's influence there--we're big jury-riggers). The THINK ABOUT LATER pile was everything that I thought deserved more than a quick decision, but I didn't have the energy or time to invest at that moment. This was also my biggest pile.

That's when I had the epiphany about my mom. She wasn't a packrat. The whole house was simply her THINK ABOUT LATER pile. She'd had better things to do with her life than spend it thinking about what to keep and what to toss. So she kept. Easier that way. And here was I, just like her.

Clutter is a waste product of the extreme ends of brain function. Your right brain wants to keep everything with heart value--photos, letters, greeting cards, worthless plastic knickknacks, now brittle with age, that bring back memories of a vacation, birthday, first date, etc. Your left brain wants to keep anything that appears useful--a gift sweater you never wore because it doesn't quite fit but you keep telling yourself you'll lose the weight, or books you might want to reread someday, or an unopened package of blank Styrofoam balls, or cameras, TVs and software that all work perfectly but technology has made them obsolete. My vice is empty containers. Some part of my brain is certain it can find SOMEthing to put inside, thereby organizing myself more, so I keep them.

Back to writing. Clutter comes with the process. You collect research materials, you jot down ideas. Your brain gets crammed with characters, details, plot lines, clues and potential loopholes. You fall in love with your gorgeous prose. When it comes time to tie up all those loose ends, eliminate the loopholes, tighten prose, or fix that explanation that seemed to be pure logic but that half your proofreaders didn't get, well, lately I've been handling this like my back room project. I toss it all onto a THINK ABOUT LATER pile in my brain and go find a bowl of ice cream instead.

The lesson here is, I've got to stop thinking that I need to think. The clutter has got to go, both mentally and physically. Or else my THINK ABOUT LATER piles will continue to grow until I can't write at all and can't get out of the house.

If you're thinking of giving me anything, make it perishable.
Ice cream would be good.

Peace, Elena

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Choosing the Setting-Hang My Head & Cry

The historical part of each of my first 3 books takes place near or at the end of a major American war. By Blood Possessed was set in 1864, after Virginia had already been torn apart by years of battles. I chose 1783 for Poison to Purge Melancholy, when America was first experiencing its newfound freedom. No one was quite sure what to do next and England, with all its trade embargoes, wasn't making the birth of our new nation easy. I suppose I settle into late and post-war eras for my stories because those times are rife with conflicting emotions and motives, and with people simply trying to reorganize their disrupted lives.

Few places and times were in as much upheaval as the post Civil War American South, where my second novel HANG MY HEAD & CRY was set. I chose early July of 1871. Here was America celebrating Independence Day only 5 years before the 1876 Centennial, yet with the strongest polarity of opinion about who should get what rights. Former Confederate soldiers who refused to take a loyalty oath lost their right to vote. Freed male slaves who were of age gained that right. Former politicians, other leaders of the Confederacy were forbidden to serve in any position where they were required to take an oath to defend the Constitution. Some of these vacancies in legislatures and local governing bodies were filled by former slaves. The white South saw their power slipping into the hands of the very people they'd held dominion over for so long. The hatred born of this overturn of power would have developed even if everyone had been the same race. The physical difference only served to build higher walls between the factions.

Women, of course, had no voting rights at all. Black women in particular were on the bottom rung of society's ladder. Most still worked at whatever jobs they'd done as slaves, for very little pay, while trying to hold together what families they had left. Many tried to find children traded before the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a writer, I'm a sucker for this sort of drama. Hatred, helplessness, frustration, vengeance, and pure stubborn heroic determination all make great mystery book fodder. Since the point of my Possessed series is to juxtapose historical conflict with modern day issues, a book set in this era was just asking to be written.

I should mention that in 1872, confederate soldiers and leaders were given their rights back, and after 1876, despite Rutherford Hayes' platform supporting black equality, his administration allowed the South to pass one loophole law after another to take voting and other rights away from former slaves. Took us until the 1960s to fix the damage with the Voting Rights Amendment, but, even now, every federal election has had reports of people trying to deny voters their rights.

Edmund Burke said "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." In the case of any kind of intolerance, though, simply knowing history isn't enough. You have to want to learn from it.

Peace, Elena

Saturday, August 15, 2009

To Stay, Perchance to Sing

Doing book signings, going on tour, uttering a humble dramatic reading when coaxed, waxing poetic about your particular Muse--these are the usual success fantasies of the wannabe novelist. You picture lines of adoring fans, all gushing compliments, talking about the brilliance of your words and, naturally, buying copies for every member of their extended families.

The reality more often turns out to be a lonely table, little or no publicity (unless you do it yourself), and only a handful of potential buyers, most of whom only wanted to ask you where the restrooms are. One sympathy sale, if you're lucky.

Writers, be frank--while waiting for your public to show up at a signing, do you

a) play with your pen?
b) read someone else's book?
c) paint your fingernails?
d) memorize Wyoming's tax code?

When potential customers walk into the store (or at a convention, within spitball distance), do you

a) play hard to get, shyly averting your gaze?
b) continue to read someone else's book?
c) look hopeful?
d) grasp their collars, push your book in front of their noses, give them your rehearsed 5 minute spiel, and afterwards wonder why they called security?

At convention signings (where a groups of authors are seated in one room for maybe an hour at a time), I've actually seen writers pack up and leave their posts early. Not me. I always stay to the end. Someone has to entertain all those people in Lisa Scottoline's line.

The point is, once we convince bookstore managers, convention organizers, and librarians to actually give us a little stage and possibly an audience for an hour or two, what do we do with it? Being writers (whose idea of a good time is hours spent in front of a computer each day), we tend to sit there and look pretty darn boring. Worse yet, sometimes we're asked to speak or read. Given all that time at the PC, what social skills do you expect us to have? Really, it's a wonder no one asks us to leave early.

What we need is motivation for better entertainment. I propose signing performance awards similar to the Tonys. Some possible categories:

Best Costume
Best Choreography
Best Special Effects
Best Dramatic Use of Pen
Best Comic Use of Food Projectiles
Best Reenactment of Book's Murder Scene
Best Country Song About Signing At Walmart
Best "Performance Art" Using Book and Two Cats

I'm sure we can come up with more categories. Come on, mystery fans, what would bring you out for a signing?

Elena (who only leaves store signings when they turn out the lights and who is currently rehearsing eighteenth century tavern songs for her next book tour sing-a-long)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

More Than 5 Hour Energy

Every successful work of art needs a high level of energy. As a musician, I know that the more energy I channel into my singing, the more the audience enjoys it. When I'm on the other side of the footlights--say, when I shell out money to go to a play--I don't want the actors to be lethargic, either in how they deliver their lines or how they move, or fail to move, across the stage. Visual art is the same--a great painting or sculpture will always capture your attention, then lead your eye to explore it in detail. A work with no energy, or "pop" as I've heard artists call it, is passed by. Mona Lisa has "pop."

A novel is no different. Energy is what gives readers their money's worth. The story has to have momentum, intricacies and twists, and the prose has to be fresh and lively. And perhaps, most of all, the book can't take itself too seriously. An earnest book, like an earnest person, is usually a complete bore. The message to the reader should be "Come out and play." And if you're going to ask someone to play with you in chapter one, don't wuss out, pick up your marbles and go home by chapter 3. The author has to sustain high energy through to the end.

Giving a book the right amount of energy is a tightrope walk. You have to put in enough detail to create a full, rich image, without bogging the story down with too much trivia. Details are like carbohydrates. The right amount gives you energy. Too much or too little makes you feel tired. The same goes for timing and suspense. You can't tell your readers too much too soon, but you can't lead them on too long either. And as in a healthy diet, you have to balance everything: action with information, narration with dialogue.

For me, though, dull prose is what slows a book down most. As a reader, I think the publishing industry should do us all a favor by putting ingredient information on the back covers. I'd be more likely to buy a book with, say, "30% more descriptive verbs" or "50% less author indulgence."


Tuesday, August 4, 2009


(sing during 7th year of sentence stretch)

Take me out with an Uzi,
Take me out with a Glock,
Hack me to bits with a butcher knife;
When I am dead, go and strangle your wife,
And then root, root, root for some toadstools;
Cook and serve to your kin;
Oh, it's one, two, three bowls, they're out
As the cops come in.

Take me out with curare,
Take my life with a dart
Blown through a large plastic drinking straw;
No one will see that you're breaking the law,
And then wipe your prints from the plastic;
Hide the evidence well,
Or it's one, two, three years to life
In a prison cell.

(apologies to baseball fans like myself)


Friday, July 24, 2009

Writing Addictive? I Can Stop Any Time I Want

This past week my to-do list involved calling or going to see a doctor, lawyer, hotel chef, insurance agent, electrician, department store, and as many as 4 banks. I also had to squeeze in the usual laundry, food shopping, and vegetable garden tending, exercising, part time work and sleeping.

I heard a writer say once that the only reason he could imagine for not writing is death. All I can think is that he must work in a divine vacuum--no family, no friends, and none of the physical demands of a normal human body for food, rest and the occasional obligatory primal scream.

Life doesn't always let me write. Sometimes it doesn't even let me think about writing. And if I can't write, I become antsy or, put mildly, psycho.

My name's Elena and I'm an addict.

What we writers need is for some of you dedicated fans to pitch in and, say, drive our kids to piano lessons, or do our taxes, or go argue with the mechanic about that oil leak in the car that didn't materialize until after he last worked on it. Do that for us and maybe we can all write in blissful peace and keep churning out those books you love so much.

Think about it, will ya? I'm getting the shakes.

Next week I'll be traveling to the Windy City (only way I could think to accidently lose my Yankees cap without offending the person who gave it to me), so I won't be posting a formal blog (then again, this one isn't exactly white tie and tails).


Monday, July 20, 2009


For some reason, my unmarried friends come to me for advice to the lovelorn. You'd think it would have dawned on them by now that they need advice because they've been listening to people like me. Anyway, below is my gem of wisdom on how one should avoid linking up with an axe murderer. Women, take heed.

Axe murderers are EVERYWHERE these days. Axes, after all, are fairly cheap and available at every Walmart--just ask the author doing a signing over in Hardware next to the wing nuts.

So what do you do? Sure, it might help to avoid guys who are obvious cut-ups, plus those with chiseled features and furrowed brows, but prudence dictates that one view every new beau as a likely psychopath. However, this need not restrict your social life. After agreeing to a date, simply follow these precautions:

1) In your purse carry a hand-held metal detector and a supply of tourniquets.
2) Insist on a restaurant that puts no sharp implements on the table (Chinese is usually safe).
3) Don't order chops.
4) If you're keeping company with a computer techie, avoid the subject of hacking.
5) If he's a plastic surgeon, don't let him talk cleavage.
6) If he's recently been laid-off, don't ask about his severance package.
7) After dinner, miniature golf is not recommended, especially if your escort has a tendency to slice.
8) Bowling might be better, as long as your date never gets a strike.
9) Always carry enough change to call a taxi, because the last thing you want to do is ask your date for quarters.

Peace (as opposed to "piece"),

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Vacation Recommendation (for real!)

The photo on my banner above is of Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Seemed appropriate, considering my Possessed Series novels are semi-historical ghost mysteries. Cemeteries can evoke thoughts of ghosts and mysteries, and this particular burial ground is as historic as they get. Also, Montgomery Cemetery plays a significant role in my 4th (and yet unpublished) novel--titled FEAR ITSELF.

Like my protagonist, Pat Montella, I had kin (a grandmother, 2 uncles, an aunt, and 4 cousins) who lived within a block of Montgomery Cemetery. Their street ended right at the gates. As a kid, the graveyard seemed ancient to me. Derelict, too. Stones were toppled, the grass was always high. I never saw anyone venture inside. My relatives, as far as I was concerned, lived beside the mysterious ruins of a bygone civilization. How cool is that?

Fast forward a few decades, to when the Historical Society of Montgomery County took charge of the cemetery and began restoring the grounds and giving free tours. Main reason for today's blog--their tours continue this weekend and I highly recommend them. See info at the end of this article.

Before about 1850 in America, public burial grounds were usually potter's fields, that is, cleared land used for burying anyone who had no connection with a church, no burial plot on their family's property, no money for a funeral, or for anyone who died while traveling and had no family nearby. Sending a corpse home was a rare occurrence. Embalming fluid didn't catch on until the Civil War. These fields often had few or no markers.

Mid-19th century, the idea of "garden cemeteries" became popular. These were public parks where you could come to picnic on a Sunday afternoon while paying respects to your deceased loved ones. Montgomery Cemetery was founded in 1847 with this concept in mind, although it's laid out in a formal pattern instead of meandering like many other garden cemeteries (West Laurel Hill near Philadelphia, for example). Montgomery was actually one of the first cemeteries of its kind and has one of the largest collections of underground vaults in the region. (An underground vault is essentially a subterranean mausoleum--a room with shelves, usually accessed by ladder through a slab on top.)

If you're a Civil War buff, you shouldn't miss this place. Montgomery was the final resting place of 5 Union generals, the most famous being Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock, said to have "saved the Nation" at the Battle of Gettysburg, before going on to become a candidate for U.S. President in 1880, losing by a very narrow margin to James A. Garfield (who was shot only 4 months later). Hancock's funeral in Norristown was attended by thousands, and his pallbearers included Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Buell, and Secretary of State Bayard.

The other generals buried in Montgomery were Hartranft (the officer in charge of the Lincoln Conspiracy prisoners, who gave the final order for the first execution of a woman in the U.S.--he went on to become governor of Pennsylvania and welcome the world to the state during the American centennial celebration), Slemmer (who fired the first Union shots of the war), Zook and McClennan.

The cemetery is chock full of other historic personages, plus fascinating stories, like the huge mound that supposedly marks a witch's grave, and the tale of Charles Hunsicker whose skull was stolen by grave robbers. Legend has it that the robbers all went on to became victims of some form of accidental decapitation. Besides all this, Montgomery's tomb architecture is amazing--worth the trip all by itself.

For more info on Montgomery Cemetery and the free tours, go to


Monday, July 13, 2009


The hot buzzword at the last mystery conference I attended was "crossover."

Let me first explain that the mystery genre has for years been dissected into increasingly more minuscule sub-genres by publishers and book distributors. Their logic was, if you group mysteries by like attributes--say, all those that have tough private eyes versus all those in which cute old ladies outsmart local constables between sips of tea--then readers who like private eye books won't accidently be subjected to old ladies or cats or ghosts or, heaven forbid, souffle recipes.

Lately, though, some smart marketing cookie noticed that readers aren't accidently buying books they might not like, and since people not buying books is a bad thing, the concept of "crossover" was born. A "crossover" mystery novel is one with elements of two or more sub-genres, published in hopes that it will appeal to a broader slice of the market, and therefore sell more books. Publishers and distributors salivate at this notion, just like Pavlov puppies.

If you're a yet unpublished writer, or perhaps a not-published-in-way-too-long writer, you may want to consider converting your current project into a crossover novel. Here's how:

Let's say you're writing a book in which a body is found in the library. Said body has been done in by a "blunt object" (that bust of Great Uncle George would be ideal). A cat is present. Aforementioned little old lady with blue hair solves the crime after having a lavish tea with crumpets, cakes and cress sandwiches, all described in great detail.

First, "library" is not an acceptable gumshoe novel location. Still, readers do like books. Warehouse" is acceptable (has an "On The Waterfront" feel, doesn't it?), so change "library" to "book warehouse." As a personal favor to me, please insert a well-executed forklift chase to take out their stock of bad female-in-jeopardy thrillers.

Instead of Uncle George's bust, the blunt object should be something that calls to mind mean urban streets. A stoplight would do, or a stale soft pretzel, or the fender of an SUV, especially if the SUV is still attached.

Since black is the clothing color of choice for P.I.s and spies, all cats should be black with markings reminiscent of tattoos. Tough-looking tattoos, mind you, that say things like "Born to Shed." Body piercings for cats, however, might be considered bad taste.

I don't think the blue-haired old lady is a problem. One only needs to research what turns your standard little old lady into a psycho. The paper boy missing the porch every day? The bowling alley running out of donuts at Senior League? The Feds cracking down on Canadian pharmacies with the lowest nitroglycerin prices? Stuff like that. Oh, and make her blue hair match her Harley.

Food is the biggest challenge. No self-respecting P.I. would touch a crumpet. Still, at a minimum, I think chocolate needs to be mentioned, perhaps as a slippery coating poured on a mountain road to make the murderer's Jag spin out.

Think about it.

Elena, who was writing crossovers before it was fashionable. For my next, what do you think of the title GANG WAR GHOSTS IN THE CAT'S SOUFFLE?


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