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.



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