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)



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