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?

Thursday, July 9, 2009


The most-asked question of authors is "Where do you get your ideas?"

Give a kid a large empty box and it becomes a cave, a clubhouse, maybe even a spaceship. Kids have no trouble taking something as ordinary as cardboard and creating whole universes.

We all did this when we were young. A towel pinned to the shoulders becomes a cape (Batman phase). An old tennis racket becomes a guitar (Beatles phase). My bike was once a bobsled (I marvel that I survived my Olympic phase). The alcove behind a neighbor's garage was, for eight of us one summer, a detective agency (and no, I never outgrew that one).

What do adults call play? Our games are structured, with fixed rules. Our fantasies become private. Like lions, who as babies wrestled each other to learn how to kill, adults use their old play skills for gain--flirting, scamming, and playing mind control games with bosses and kids.

But in writing--actually, in any creative activity--you get to be a child again, playing "what-if" with whatever happens by. Like the child, the writer's imagination won't be sparked by every little stimulus. Surrounded by toys, a seven-year-old might whine "There's nothing to do!" I feel exactly like this when trying to come up with a story (I try to keep the whining to a minimum). Agatha Christie described the feeling as "broody."

I can never predict what my imagination will grab hold of. I've tried to introduce subjects to it. Other people have tried, too: "Why don't you write a book about such-and-such?" This doesn't work for me. Conscious planning is a left-brain activity, creativity is right-brain. Stories aren't carefully blueprinted and built, like houses. They grow, like living things. And often they grow from tiny seeds, not real ideas at all. No more than glimmers, nudges.

A month before I began BY BLOOD POSSESSED, I had a vague notion that I might write a mystery with a ghost. The whim had a "been done" feeling, though, so I couldn't get started. The seed was a dare from my brother Tom to write a book with two first-person protagonists. I thought it might work, if the two were never in the same scene together and the narrative voices were unique. I played "what-if": What if one voice was contemporary and one historical? What if I tie the modern and historical stories together using the ghost? What if I make the canvas bigger than just a haunted house? Et cetera. The concept went from simple "been done" ghost mystery to a novel about families and war that I had to write.

Idea-growing shouldn't take place at a computer keyboard. The notions need to come together in your head first. Most authors admit that they create stories while doing something boring: driving or doing laundry. Walking seems to help me. Or doing jigsaw puzzles. Christie said she wrote best while washing dishes.

So, where do writers get story ideas? They simply make spaceships out of cardboard boxes. Any child can do that.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Serve With A Fine Whine

The Monday after a holiday weekend is enough of a drag without a serious blog to read. I hope this will brighten someone's day.

I've been writing parodies and silly poems since high school. Not long ago author Polly Whitney (if you haven't read her, you should) and I spent the better part of a year lobbing pig parodies at each other. I don't remember who or what started it. Here's one of mine:

(apologies to Cole Porter)

You're the chop
You're a prime kielbasa
Raised on slop
For Bob Evans's casa.
You're a Boar's Head honey-basted and spiral-cut,
You're a footlong Coney, a ring baloney, a Boston butt.

You're no sham
You're a lunchtime charmer
Like a ham
In a can from Armour
I'm the grissled chew in the dog's dish you will drop
But if, baby, I'm the butt roast, you're the chop.

You're the chop
You're a Hilshire patty,
You're the chop
Whether lean or fatty.
You're a weiner made by Oscar Meyer, Inc.
You're a Smithfield ham, a can of Spam, a breakfast link.

You're the meat
In a pork chop suey,
You'd be sweet
Cooked up cordon-bleuy
I'm the school lunch plate your kids will hate and swap
But if, baby, I'm the butt roast, you're the chop.

Check out my website for more parodies:

Happy Monday,

Friday, July 3, 2009

DOG Street Ghosts - The Pasteur & Galt Apothecary

I've had a request to talk about my research in Williamsburg, where my 3rd novel, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, was set. That particular research had so many facets, this could turn into a dissertation, so I'll just tell you about one at a time.

Williamsburg seems the ideal setting for historical fiction. In fact, one of my favorite novels, Barbara Michael's Patriot's Dream is set there. So when Barbara Peters (Poisoned Pen) suggested that I set a Pat Montella mystery in Williamsburg, I thought "Sure, I could do that." 18th century America is my favorite time and place, history-wise, and I'd already been to Williamsburg five times.

My Pat books (a.k.a. The Possessed Mystery Series) all have two plots, one historical, one present day, and they're connected by a central theme and at least one ghost. In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, for instance, the central theme is the effect of war on family. At the time I began planning POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I was feeling the need to avenge myself upon certain doctors and the healthcare system in general. The theme of the Williamsburg book, I decided, would be medicine, then and now. So the first place I headed when I ventured south to Williamsburg for research was the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary on Duke of Gloucester Street (called DOG Street by William and Mary's students).

The interpreter I found inside was a pleasant woman in trim colonial dress. What warmed me to her was her expression when I started asking questions like "What were mercuric salts prescribed for? What was the normal dose? And are they toxic enough to kill a man?" She smiled as if to say, "You'd better have a really good reason for asking."

I gave my standard spiel about being a mystery writer, etc. and to her credit, she still didn't look as if she believed me, but she took down my address and we exchanged email addresses.

What I didn't know at the time was I'd hooked up with Kris Dippre, one of the foremost experts on medicine in early America. A week after I returned home a large envelope appeared on my doorstep containing chapters from a Domestic Medicine: or The Family Physician, published in Philadelphia in 1774. From this, I was able to bend my brain around contrary 18th century beliefs on the causes of disease, and to give one of my ghosts a distinguishing feature: scoliosis of the spine, from being put into stays at too early an age.

Kris continued to answer my questions via email. Of everyone I contacted at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, she helped me most. I sent her a copy of POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY as a thank you and, a month later, received a copy of another book which had just seen print -- PHYSICK: The Professional Practice of Medicine in Williamsburg, written by Kris and the staff of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary, which I recommend to anyone researching the topic. (Wish I'd had it two years earlier.)



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