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 If you're rabidly unpublished, salivating at the thought of being in print, realize that this advanced state ruins your chances for do-overs.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!


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