Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

 I'll be taking a hiatus for a few weeks.  Let's call it research.  I'll tell you about it when I get back.  But, before I go, one last parody to bring in the New Year:

Should auld acquaintence be forgot
If not found on the 'net?
I've searched on Facebook, LinkedIn, too,
And haven't found one yet.
I've friended all my neighbors' kids
Though one of them's a brat;
I've "liked" my plumber, TV shows,
And photos of a cat.

So here's my url, my trusty friend,
Give me an url of yours,
Then we can meet in cyberspace
And play at Mafia Wars.
I'll read your blog if you read mine,
I'll post some family pix;
We'll reconnect through tweets and such
And share our YouTube flicks.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010


For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

A Visit From St. Nick
by Elena Santangelo

Final Installment

Led him to the kitchen and served up a plate,
He tasted it, snarfed it, then said, "Gee, it's late!
Just wrap up the rest‑‑I'll take it along."
His hands had stopped shaking‑‑he broke into song:

"The heck with the elf pipe, I've found a new vice,
God bless this falafel, it's sheer paradise."
I gave him the pot and a clean plastic spoon,
Then watched him fly off by the light of the moon.

The very next day I set up a website
For selling falafel, called "St. Nick's Delight,"
A homeopathic cure for addiction,
As well as every other affliction.

Now I'm so rich, an estate I inhabit,
And all from that night I broke Santa's bad habit.
Though I wonder if he didn't fake the whole thing‑‑
If this was the gift he'd intended to bring‑‑

So herein I thank him for my new career:
Merry Christmas, St. Nick, and a Happy New Year!

Happy Christmas to all, and to all,
Good Night,


Wednesday, December 22, 2010


For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.

A Visit From St. Nick
by Elena Santangelo

Part 3

Then from behind me I heard St. Nick swear.
"You've ruined my pipe, and I don't have a spare.
I've only just started my work on this night,
And without my smokes, I can't make the next flight."

His hands started shaking, his gestures all jerky;
I regretted at once making him go cold turkey.
Not that I cared if small tots got their toys‑‑
They get bored too soon and make much too much noise‑‑

But one thing was sure if St. Nick called it quits:
There'd be no exchanges on day twenty‑six,
And the country's economy was already stinking;
This fat elf must finish his work, I was thinking.

I said I'd run out to Walgreen's for a patch,
And some Nicorette Gum‑‑I'd buy a whole batch,
But Santa said 'twasn't a nicotine fix
He needed; the elves made a herb mix:

"One pipeful can keep me alert through my trip
And make me quite hyper, to 'round the world zip,
But now the pipe's gone, so I'd much rather doze‑‑"
At that point, another smell entered my nose:

The scent of falafel that's done through and through;
Asked Santa to join me‑‑the least I could do. . . 

Come back for the last installment on Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 20, 2010


For those of you who haven't read Part 1 yet, click here first.

A Visit from St. Nick
by Elena Santangelo

Part 2

I presumed 'twas St. Nick by his costume and hat,
And his sack full of toys, and the fact he was fat.
From a pipe in his teeth, a dense smoke, it arose,
So I couldn't see much of his eyes or his nose,

But his white beard was stained a nicotine‑yellow,
And ditto his teeth when he bid me "Hello!"
But worse was the odor, which hit me full force,
For the smoke from his pipe was the absolute source.

The green swirling fumes did set me to choking,
Yet I managed to gasp, "Santa!  What are you smoking?
Not that it matters, nor why you should do it,
You can't smoke in here‑‑That's all there is to it!"

And snatching his pipe from his droll bottom lip,
Away to the fish bowl, with breath held, I zipped;
I tossed the pipe in, then yanked my hands back,
So my pet piranhas could not on them hack.

The fish were unhappy with this new seaweed
And I promised them fresh meat in tomorrow's feed...

(Watch for Part 3 on Wednesday.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I'll post this in installments, every other day for the next week, so if you want the whole story, you have to come back.  And no, I won't apologize to Clement Moore.  I think he would have liked this version.

A Visit From St. Nick
by Elena Santangelo

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Came odors pervasive, like a day‑old dead mouse,
And stockings in need of a wash in some Tide,
And body parts soaking in formaldehyde.

My five cats were nestled, all snug in my bed,
Breath smelling of tuna and goose pate spread,
But all that was normal as I in my cap
Settled my brain for a long winter's nap‑‑

When into my room came an odor so awful,
It gave me a craving for Truckstop Falafel.
Away to the kitchen I flew like a flash
Tore open the chick peas and fried up some hash;

While it was sizzling, I opted to go
And find what that smell was‑‑I just HAD to know.
I looked out my window‑‑no skunks did appear,
But with my flamingos grazed tiny reindeer,

And a miniature sleigh was blocking my drive,
Which meant that St. Nick was soon to arrive
Or already had, so I ran to the den
Where my stocking hung next to the pit bull's playpen;

I hadn't a hearth; my chimney went straight
To my furnace‑‑heat rising through each hot air grate;
But that wasn't all that on this night arose,
From below came that odor to tickle my nose;

Then the grate was pushed back by an arm sleeved in red,
Which was followed by feet and a rump and a head...

(Stay tuned for Part 2.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Ravin'

I'm late posting this month. Truth is, I've got a medical procedure scheduled for right after the holidays (I won't say more, other than, for a mystery writer, it's a very appropriate procedure), and right now I seem to be getting every virus that comes along. So I've been too preoccupied to write, or even to do much Christmas decorating and shopping. For my blog this month, I decided silliness is my best option. Enjoy!

(apologies to Poe)

Once upon an Advent dreary,
While I wandered bleak and bleary
Over many a crude and crowded mile of department store,
As I wrest a roll of wrapping, energy within me sapping,
Tired of fighting all their trapping‑‑
Trapping me to spend some more.
"I won't buy but this," I muttered,
__ "wrapping at this blasted store‑‑
Only this and nothing more."

Only then did I remember 'twas the fourth week of December,
And each separate day did number‑‑to my horror‑‑twenty‑four;
No time could I beg or borrow,
Christmas day would come tomorrow,
Think how great would be my sorrow‑‑sorrow if the toys I bore
Failed to awe my radiant children‑‑
Would they think my gifts were poor
And so hate me evermore?

Suddenly my guilt grew stronger; I could shop a little longer,
Though to add debt to my credit cards already I'd foreswore;
Yet, I'd buy more than this wrapping:
PC games, opponents strapping;
Robot dog with ears a‑flapping, lapping water from the floor;
And a doll that does the mambo, for my youngest to adore.
That was it, though, nothing more.

Back into the maelstrom turning, all my guilt within me burning,
Soon again I heard the tapping as the sales clerk tallied more,
"Surely," I said, "surely this is...
Something in your store amiss is,
For, you see, each price that's here is
Twice as much as 'twas before."
But the sales clerk simply shrugged and
Waited for me to fork o'er;
Stood and shrugged, and nothing more.

Open there I flung my card fold,
Then retrieved my Master Charge Gold,
Warm still from my day of shopping,
Buying Christmas gifts galore,
Swiped my card the clerk then did he,
Shook his head, but not in pity,
Said my card was maxed out, that I couldn't use it, furthermore,
Stood and said, "I need another card
Or cash...or there's the door."
Told me that, and nothing more.

Startled by the words he'd spoken
(Could my credit line be broken?)‑‑
"Doubtless just a glitch of software
In the network of this store."
This I said to stem disaster, then to show him I was master,
Handed over Visa card‑‑its limit was a little more‑‑
Thinking, after holidays, I'd no more shop this horrid store.
No, never, nevermore.

Then the clerk commenced his swiping, as my brow I was a‑wiping,
Hoping that consumer confidence to me he would restore,
But the Visa was no charmed card‑‑
Sales clerk, summoning an armed guard,
Told him to politely discard me at nearest exit door;
Told him to remove my derriere from this department store;
I could come back nevermore.

Only now am I admitting, as bill payments I'm remitting,
Possibly my Christmas shopping went a little overboard;
With my credit, I'm not clever‑‑I'll be paying this forever,
Learned my lesson now, however, and will charge things nevermore;
(Yet the After‑Christmas sales are so good, how can I ignore?
Just this once‑‑then nevermore.)

Merry, merry,

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Getting Your Books Out There

Both my computer and I were out of commission last week, me with a stomach bug and insomnia, the PC with a sticky switch, a bad memory, and other age-related ailments. I take comfort knowing that something in my house is showing more signs of age than I am. Anyway, since writing wasn't an option, I worked on publicity.

Many unpublished writers imagine that the end of the writing process is seeing their books in print. Or if they think about selling their books at all, they imagine book signings where all they have to do is show up and smile. Someone else, surely, will make posters and do the advertising. And the readers would love nothing better than to skip a night of vegging in front of the TV to meet an honest-to-Pete author, right? They'll show up in droves.

Nothing is more discouraging to the finishing of a second novel than the realization that hardly anyone is buying/reading the first one. And chances are, as a first-time novelist, folks who've never heard of you aren't going to go out of their way to help you get that book under the noses of readers (at least until they read it and love it themselves). You've got to start thinking in terms of advertising, marketing, incentives, and name recognition.

I'm no expert on publicity. Even after 4 published books, I find I'm still experimenting with what works. Yet, I could probably write a year's worth of blogs on the subject. One thing I do know--you have to get out and meet your potential readers. Join your local Sisters in Crime chapter. Team up with other authors to do joint book tours and signing events. Volunteer at your local library or senior center to speak on a topic you know well. Go to one or 2 book conventions a year if your budget can stand it. Go anywhere you think potential readers will congregate.

Remember, readers hang out in cyberspace all the time. Join listserves like DorothyL. Get yourself a Facebook profile, at least, and actually post to it once a week--don't just let it sit there idle. You don't want readers who do find you to give up, seeing that the last time you posted was Christmas 2006. Network through it with other writers (though, be friendly--stalking will NOT sell your books). You can also list your events there and link them to your website. Put a Facebook badge on your website so you can be found.

Write a weekly blog on a topic you know well. Link it to your website and have it send an update to your Facebook page each time you blog. Use the site to list your signings, then link that to your website.

These are just a few avenues of publicity open to the writer and these won't break the bank. They DO take some creative time away from your writing, but unfortunately, marketing isn't a luxury. The more creative you can be about it, the more you can keep to your budget and the more you sell.

My project this week? I put up a fan page on Facebook for my most popular character, Miss Maggie, called "Miss Maggie (Magnolia Shelby) & Friends." My intention is to post recipes from the books, my signing and speaking events, news about my next book, a link to this blog, and whatever else I can think of that might be interesting or series-related. The more entertaining I can make it--and the more active I keep it--the more fans I hope to pick up. If they haven't read my books, maybe they'll give me a try.

If you'd like to take a look at Miss Maggie's page, click here or on the badge in the lefthand column. You don't have to be a member of Facebook to browse through it.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

THEN & NOW: Cholera & Other Lessons

The novels of my Possessed Mystery series all have 2 plots: one modern mystery and one mystery set in some era of history. The stories are somehow related and come together at the end of each book. I've been asked why I do this rather than write straight historical mysteries or straight modern-day mysteries. I've actually be penalized for doing so--I'm told that my books don't qualify for awards given to historical novels. And publishers' marketing departments hate them, because they're not like what everyone else is writing, making them difficult to categorize.

I also put ghosts in my novels, and some readers assume the second historical plot is there to accommodate the paranormal aspect of the book--to explain the ghost's background. Matter of fact, the reverse if true. The ghost is there to connect the two stories, and to help teach a little history in a way that's more fun than a recitation of dry facts.

So why go to the trouble of two stories?

Last night, PBS News reported on the Haitian cholera epidemic and how many Haitians are blaming U.N. Napalese peacekeepers, saying these foreigners brought cholera to their country. Some of their protests have turned violent.

My first thought was: Duffy's Cut.

In late June 1832, Irish immigrants, some no older than teenagers, were hired at the docks and brought to Chester County, PA, to work on the construction of the railroad. Their foreman, Phillip Duffy, was in charge of filing in a ravine between two hills so that track could be laid. 57 of them were assigned to live in a single large shanty. Within 6 weeks, all 57 were reported dead of cholera.

Three years before, a cholera pandemic had begun, probably in India. It spread west through Europe to America, reaching New York by 1832 and the Pacific by 1834. Philadelphia was hit hard the summer of 1832. Many fled the city for the surrounding countryside. At the time, no one knew cholera was caused by bacteria in contaminated water. As shown on the 1830s notice above, the disease was thought to be caused from excesses of alcohol and from eating raw vegetables and unripe fruit. In addition, to the Protestants of the Philadelphia countryside, Irish Catholics were believed, not only by nature of their assumed drinking habits, but by their very religion, to be agents of infection.

Back to the young men of Duffy's Cut. Considering their deplorable living conditions, and with a pandemic of cholera already hitting the Philadelphia area, it's no wonder that by mid-August, a few of the workers came down with the disease. The rest of the workmen left the shanty, seeking food and shelter at houses up on the hills. Reports said they were all turned away and they returned to the ravine, where it was said that they all contracted and died from the disease. Most were buried in a mass grave. The niggling loophole in this story is that cholera never kills 100% of its victims. Like any pandemic, some people have better immunity than others.

Just recently, an archeological dig in the area has unearthed the remains of several of the young Irishmen and the forensic evidence tells a different story. Many died from violence. At least one skeleton showed signs of being attacked with something like an ax. Another has what might be a bullet hole in it. The current theory now is that the inhabitants of those hills did more than turn away the Irishmen. Given their fear of the disease coupled with prejudice against Irish Catholics, its likely that the residents violently forced the men back down into the valley, and possibly murdered the survivors.

So last night, when I listened to reports of Haitians blaming foreginers for their epidemic, and getting violent about it, I see the same mix of fear and prejudice. I see a repeat of history--a lesson unlearned.

A historical story can be fascinating. A modern story touching on the same human failings gives the historical story relevance. Juxtapose the two and hopefully we learn something. That's why I do it.

By the way, I first heard of the story of Duffy's Cut through an old local legend that said the ghosts of the workmen had been seen dancing a jig on their grave. Interestingly enough, the Immaculata University prof who spearheaded the excavation did so after seeing odd lights that looked like human beings jumping around one night downhill from one of the college buildings. He didn't realize it at the time, but Duffy's Cut was located at that spot.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Variety: the Herb of Life

We had our first frosts in the last couple weeks, so I harvested my herbs in a hurry and now they're drying on the dining room table or spread out on trays in the freezer. Good crop this year: basil, oregano, peppermint, spearmint, chives, sage, and coriander seeds.

The main character in my novels, Pat Montella, loves to cook. Her 90+ year-old sidekick, Miss Maggie, loves to eat. She also needs a low salt diet (as do I). Pat and I think alike--who needs salt when so many herbs are available and offer so much variety in taste?

Pat and I both like to watch cooking shows. This time of year, as I'm bottling dry herbs and I'm doubly aware of all the wonderful aromas, I'm particularly appalled by the amount of salt TV cooks dump into their concoctions. They all make special reference to it (much more so than they do pepper), and they all have a slew of rationalizations for using it. I'm beginning to suspect that they all take kick-backs from the salt industry. I watch these chefs taste their results and roll their eyes in ecstacy, but all I can taste in my imagination is salt.

Quite a few of those so-called cooking experts only use herbs as a garnish. Me? I'd rather make a great salt-free chicken soup with all the Scarborough Fair herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme), and only garnish it with parmesan cheese. Or tomato sauce with fennel, oregano and basil. Or cheese biscuits with chives and dill. Or pizzelles (waffle cookies) with anise.

In mystery writing, you'll also find lots of so-called experts touting lists of must-haves you need to put into your story. A body on page one (or at least in the first chapter). A shoot-out. A chase of some sort. Sex. More sex. The hero getting beat to a pulp, yet still fending off 6 hulky bad guys. More sex.

Good stories must have energy and action and a bit of drama, yes, but they don't all have to taste the same. An interesting poison is a nice break from shootings and bludgeonings. A battle of wits can be more suspenseful than a car chase. Anything done too much is dull and detracts from the plot--even sex.

The more alike stories are, the more boring they are. Like a diet where all the food tastes of salt.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Learning from the Unexpected

Last week I had a little unexpected adventure, which began when I swooned at IKEA.

I say "swooned" for want of a better word, because I learned from a doctor the next day that "passed out" clinically means that the body completely loses muscle control. You end up on the floor, your head "bounces." His word, not mine. Since my brain still had enough wherewithal to keep me in my chair, I did not pass out. I will never use that term casually again.

But I did lose about 2 minutes of consciousness. I've read in novels where the hero wakes "what seems ages later" (or some such) after being conked out. Me? I didn't think time had passed at all--or maybe a second or two, tops. My first words to the friend I was with were to ask why she was yelling at me. Then I noticed 4 IKEA employees around me. Okay, they couldn't have run over to me that fast, so it dawned on me that I'd missed something, especially when one said paramedics were on the way. I've made 911 calls myself--it takes a little time to answer the operator's questions. I found out the brain doesn't like minutes it can't account for--it muddles the internal clock much like daylight saving time.

After that I had my first ambulance ride, my first experience as a patient in ER, even my first overnight hospital stay. I mentally took notes. Most fascinating, I think, was how different all the hospital corridors looked from a gurney or wheelchair. I've gotten a slew of routine tests done at this hospital, visited lots of patients, and gone Christmas caroling there the last 30-plus years, yet I had a hard time getting oriented. Sure, this was mostly because they took me down staff-only elevators, but I'm sure part of it was my perspective, and my anxiety about what the next test would involve.

You can bet I'm going to use that in a book someday.

A few other observations:

Even hospitals have to be educated as to what constitutes a gluten-free meal.

When you're under orders to call the nurse if you need to get out of bed, why do they keep putting your phone, tray table, books, etc., out of reach?

Who comes up with the patterns on hospital gowns? They are not psychologically empowering. I suppose they don't want your self-esteem to be so good you'll question the nurses' authority, but wouldn't we all heal faster if we didn't feel ugly?

Luckily, my swooning was only a result of a reaction to a medication. Unhappily, the experience will cost me a chunk of my savings. Still, I had the chance to do a little unexpected writer's research.

Peace (and good health),

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Writers Helping Writers

When I began hanging out with mystery writers, the one thing that absolutely floored me was how nice they are. Not kidding. A real bunch of sweeties.

There I was, the complete naive newbie, yet writers like Gillian Roberts, Charles Todd, Polly Whitney, Lisa Scottoline, Elizabeth Peters, and too many others to name here--who didn't know much more about me than that I wanted to write--took the time to point me in the right direction.

They all taught me the most valuable lesson: that writers help each other. I remember Polly Whitney saying, when I'd thank her for advice, "Just make sure you pass it on someday."

This is why I began this blog last year, to pass it on.

I'm a member of Sisters in Crime, an organization of mystery writers, readers, booksellers and others in the business. They've elevated the idea of writers helping writers to a national scale. In my local Delaware Valley chapter, our authors lead workshops for novice writers. We organize book signings and tours and library panels to show off our published authors. Once in a while, we'll put together an anthology of short stories to teach our new writers about the editing process, publishing and promotion.

And frankly, it also helps to hang out with other writers simply to get out of the house, away from your writing and rejections once in a while. A writer's life can be lonely and sometimes discouraging.

If you're a writer, whether published or not, get out and network. Go to conferences, join a local writers' group, or a Sisters in Crime chapter. If you're in the Philadelphia area, check out Delaware Valley Sisters in Crime (or just email me from my website and I'll send you info about them).

Talk shop once in a while. It's good for you. And if you learn anything, pass it on.


Thursday, September 30, 2010


I posted a fortnight ago about the new TV season. Now, two weeks into it, I realized what I love about the show Chuck. The plotting.

The main plot is always some sort of spy story--whodunit, howdunit, howcatchem, whatever. There's always a great moment of epiphany that allows the protagonists to solve the case. We mystery fans LOVE great moments of epiphany. Put in the action, danger and suspense, and that's all you need, right?

But Chuck always has a great comic subplot, too, usually having to with the quirky sidekick, Morgan, and the big box electronics store that's the home base setting for the series. Yes, these comic plots are usually completely off the wall, sometimes bordering on Three Stooges humor, often going off into Get Smart farce. But hey, they make me laugh. And like Shakespearean comedy, they provide relief whenever the main plot and the love story have to get serious.

The love story? An ongoing subplot between the two protagonists, Chuck and Sarah. Several other series characters also have their own subplots. This week, I counted three subplots in addition to the main and comic plots. Five tales, all within 43 minutes of storytelling. And not one of the plots was disappointing or felt like extra weight.

Balancing subplots is a tightrope walk. You have to move from one to the other smoothly. You have to tie up all the extra loose ends created by them. You can't spend too much time on subplots and make the main story weak. One other show last week did just that, trying to catch the viewer up on all the individual character lines, but failing to bind those stories together with a main plot that was suspenseful and satisfying. Even the subplots were anemic in their development.

My Possessed novels each contain a present-day mystery and a historical mystery as main plots, but I'm often asked about the character subplots. Will Pat and Hugh get together? Will Miss Maggie survive her nineties? Will Beth Ann ever become a psychic sleuth in her own right? And since it's fun to give each of my suspect characters a secret, that creates another possible subplots to be resolved. In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I actually had to cut one subplot because the book was getting too long.

As a mystery reader, I hate books that are too thin plot-wise (especially if they aren't physically thin). Give me my money's worth. If I slap down fifteen to thirty bucks for a novel, it had better be stuffed full of good stories. I should come away wanting more NOT because the plate served to me was nearly empty. Rather, a great novel ought to be like a yummy dinner with an array of tasty side dishes. If I enjoy every bite, I'll be back.


Friday, September 24, 2010

A Parody For My Sisters & Brothers in Crime

(Messrs. Bernstein & Sondheim probably had days like this but I'll apologize anyway. Sing to the tune of "Tonight.")

To write, to write,
I don't have time to write;
To write I need at least half a day.
My home's a fright,
My budget's always tight
Things to fix, stuff to clean, bills to pay.

To write I need some peace and quiet,
Good sleep and healthy diet,
(So still my screen is white).

Oh, brain, ignite;
Ignore email and each social site.
Just write!

To write, to write,
When will I ever write?
My day job takes up hours each day,
I'll write tonight,
I'll leave work while it's light
And I'll hash out the plot on the way.

I'll wait until my family's sleeping
Late hours I'll be keeping,
Until this story's right.

Oh, Muse, alight,
Don't make my late night prose sound too trite,
But write!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Writer on TV

Next week a new season of network TV begins. I admit to an addiction to a few good shows: Chuck, Bones, and Castle.

I grew up watching a slew of great mystery/spy shows--Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen (photo), both the Man and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (why was he a "man" and she a "girl"?), Get Smart, The Avengers, MacMillan & Wife, Burke's Law, Ironsides, The Rockford Files, and later on, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I., The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, and Cagney & Lacey.

What did they have in common? A good story, a little (or a lot of) humor, characters, directors and writers who didn't take themselves too seriously, who knew how to play. How to be creative.

But today's blog isn't about those old shows. It's about how mystery writers are portrayed on TV.

In Castle's opening, we always hear how writing pays better than crime. I'm always tempted to hit "mute" on that part. The writer lives in an apartment or condo bigger than most houses, presumably in Manhattan, since he never seems to be late because of being stuck in a tunnel or on a bridge. In Manhattan, living space that size probably doesn't exist, but if it does, you'd run through a cool million each quarter renting it. Even that I can overlook--maybe Castle inherited his bucks from his family--but what's most unbelievable is his lack of books. The writers I know (self included) have books lying around everywhere. Boxes of your own books for promos, stacks of novels other author gave you, stacks of freebies brought home from conventions, stacks of research books, and stacks you actually want to read for pleasure. The realistic thing about him is that he hangs out with other authors. He plays poker while he talks shop. My writer friends and I eat.

Jessica Fletcher and Ellery Queen are probably most like writers I know. Their wardrobes were (for the most part) modest. I don't remember much of the Queen household, but Jessica's digs were small and cozy. But I don't remember stacks of books with either of them, or piles of research materials, or even a handy dictionary or thesaurus next to their typewriters. I do recall Jessica standing in front of a bookshelf for one of her author photos, but the books behind her? No modern mysteries, no torn, sensational jackets, no paperbacks, not even a tome on forensics or bullet calibers or undetectable poisons.

Most true-to-life about all TV mystery writers is how they avoid writing. Of course, they do it by solving murders--the rest of us avoid writing by, say, cleaning out the garage. But the sentiment is the same. Said best, perhaps, on one Castle episode where he answers the phone with something like "Please tell me there's been a murder or I'll have to write."

Happy viewing,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dame Agatha!

AGATHA CHRISTIE was born 120 years ago today. Too bad she couldn't join us for her celebration, but I'm guessing, at 120 years, she wouldn't be able to eat much cake and ice cream anyway. Still, we can raise a glass or two to the legacy she left behind.

Lots of folks will be extolling Christie's novels today. Let me be the one to say a word about her short stories. She wrote more than 160 of them, and some, in my opinion, show her best writing. If you haven't had the pleasure, try these collections:

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION -- A varied collection of stories widely touted to be Christie's best. If you've never read a Christie short, start with these.

PARTNERS IN CRIME -- Sleuths Tommy & Tuppence Beresford learn the art of detecting from the best fictional detectives of the day. Christie's funniest writing.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. QUIN -- Stories with a touch of the paranormal, featuring Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite. The latter went on to help Poirot with a couple cases.

MR. PARKER PYNE, DETECTIVE -- A government statistician turns private consultant. Both Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver make their debuts in this collection.

THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS -- Miss Marple's only full collection.

THE LABORS OF HERCULES -- In my opinion, the best Poirot stories and some of Christie's finest writing.


For a complete list of Christie's short stories and collections, and more information about each story, check out DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS.

Happy Birthday, Agatha, and many, many thanks.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Author As Cover Artist

One of the questions I'm always asked is some variation of "How much input do you have in the cover designs for your books?"

The short answer is, most authors have no say at all. Often we'll get a mock-up of the cover a couple of months before the book is published. By that time it's too late--they can fix a misspelling of the title or author's name, but the art is set.

I saw the cover for the hardback edition of BY BLOOD POSSESSED the day my first author's copy arrived. The cover design I'd been shown earlier--the design that went into the catalog--was very different from what ended up on the book. Thing was, my editor had specifically asked me to change the title to "something that tells the reader this is a mystery novel," and I'd driven myself insane until I'd come up with one. Good thing, because the cover art wasn't mysterious at all, just a person looking out of a window.

In HANG MY HEAD & CRY, the hardback design was much better, with a girl looking out through doorway to a dream image of a Civil War cannon. Problem was, the book wasn't about the Civil War and had no cannons in it.

Bella Rosa Books publishes the trade paperback reprints of the above novels, as well as my Christie short story companion, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS. They do ask for my input and I think their covers are much more indicative of what you'll find inside. DAME AGATHA is, I think, an especially lovely cover and I've received many compliments on it (see photo above).

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I uploaded a previously published short story to the Amazon Kindle Store. I got to the part of the form that said "upload cover image." Whoa! I had to come up with a cover? My first few uploaded images weren't great (though they are suggestive of the story), but I've gotten creative since. Here are a few samples:

My software's primitive and my brain is more geared toward music than art, so I'm not thinking of a new career. But I'm having fun with it. And isn't fun exactly what the creative mind craves? Plus I get a real sense of satisfaction knowing that's my mirror, my locket, and that I took that photo.

So far, ten of my short stories are now available for Kindle, each for less than the price of a dollar hotdog at a Phillies game. Tell your friends to stock up.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Old Faithful

August was the month where I reconnected with an old, dear friend. I've come to realize that I was a fool to shun this relationship, but what can I say? Like so many others, I thought I wanted sophistication. I was seduced by power. I thought more and more money equaled more and more desirability. I was so wrong.

I don't care who calls me old-fashioned, I've returned to my roots. I've resurrected my fondness for...the notebook.

Yes, you heard me. Not the mini-computer of the same name. I mean the kind of notebook with lined, blank pages that just beg you to scribble on them.

Okay, so I'll admit my age here--when I started writing, the only computers were big hunks that took up entire warehouses. One summer--I was maybe 13--I found a pristine steno pad lying around the house. (Footnote to youngsters: a steno pad is a small notebook bound at the top.) My parents said I could have it (if Ma had known what it would lead to, she'd have given me a prescription pad instead). I started writing all kinds of stuff in that tablet--sappy poetry, a corny musical, the beginning of a mystery story.

When I filled that pad, I procured another (I don't remember how). I kept writing. I switched to sidebound, college-ruled notebooks, so I could fit more inside, but I still liked the small size. By high school, I had one notebook for stories and another for poetry and adolescent angst (i.e. venting about life). My favorite places to write were out on the porch on nice days or up in my bedroom before sleep. In college, I kept at least one notebook in my nightstand all 4 years.

As soon as I got a job after graduation, though, even before I bought a car, I treated myself to a Commodore 64 (to youngsters: It's a computer. Really. 64 stood for "K" RAM. No hard drive.
Hamsters probably have more mental capacity). I never admitted it to anyone, but I bought that sucker so I could write more. I pictured pretty printouts of my stories and no writer's cramp.

But I STILL kept a notebook. No way could I lug the 64 with me everywhere I wanted to write. I still loved working on the porch. I belonged to a swim club and, despite the splashing and noise, I wrote there. Evenings, I'd type my notebook scribbles into the 64. I actually finished two novel-length mysteries (albeit definitely student works).

Even after I switched to a PC, I kept to my notebook method. For my first published novel, BY BLOOD POSSESSED, I'd get up early, and write in my notebook for 2 to 4 hours. Then I'd get breakfast, go upstairs and type in what I'd written, doing a first-pass edit on it. Sometimes I'd do research in the afternoon and evenings, or I'd write more in my notebook. I kept a steady flow of words going this way and got that first draft done in a little under 4 months.

A few years ago, I got a laptop. Okay, I thought, now I can write anywhere. Thing is, I didn't. My writing slowed down considerably. I just couldn't seem to visualize and get the story down. I felt like I had less time to write, and when I did have time, I couldn't seem to be creative. At the same time, I was dealing with things like aging parents, so I diagnosed the problem as stress.

A couple weeks ago, I went on a writing retreat (see my blog RETREAT). I had to bring my laptop, of course. While I was grocery shopping for food to bring, I saw and fell in love with the puppy in the photo. And the cool thing was, he was on the cover of a small, college-ruled notebook that cost a mere buck, forty-nine. I adopted him on the spot.

On the retreat, I went back to my notebook-first method. And I averaged about the same number of words per day as I did on BY BLOOD POSSESSED.

Since I've been home, I'm not quite as prolific, but when I make myself use that notebook, I find I'm writing more and better. Something about a plain lined page and mechanical pencil stimulates my mind more than a keyboard and glowing screen.

I named the puppy Scratch.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Worthy" of Publication?

Another question from a pre-published writer:

How do you know if you have a story worthy of bringing to a publisher? What steps should be taken prior to contacting publishers?

The first is a question rarely asked by writers. I mean, isn't everything we write brilliant? Why bother going to the trouble of writing it down if it's unworthy? And hey, in our own minds, at least, it's better than half of what's on the market, right?

Any story that really is a story--that has a beginning, middle, and end, where the characters are changed and developed by what happens--any story is worthy of being shared with others, regardless of whether you bring it to a publisher or spam your friends' email with it. What makes it unworthy isn't the story itself, but the way it's presented.

1. BORING IS BAD - I've said before, good storytelling is vital. Create a great narrative voice, don't be trite, don't be lackluster, don't use drab words.

2. SLOPPY IS BAD - Check your spelling and grammar and punctuation. Format your manuscript so that it follows industry standards and is easy to read (see my June 8, 2010 blog on formatting). If you have to hand in a printed manuscript, make sure it's CLEAN--no printer splotches, no coffee stains, no crinkled pages.

And, under the last heading, let's also consider research. With the Internet and a little common sense (like not believing everything you read on Wikipedia), there's no reason anymore for sloppy research. The last thing you want your readers or a potential agent or editor to realize is that you don't know what you're talking about.

3. INCONSISTENCY IS BAD - This goes with sloppiness, but covers everything else. Spell your character and place names the same on every page. Don't put three steps up onto the porch in one scene and four in another. Don't start your narrator with a Southern accent only to have it morph into a British accent. Make sure the headings of each chapter look the same--that is, don't capitalize some and not others, and make them the same number of blank spaces from where the text begins each time.

What steps should you take prior to querying a publisher? Proofread your manuscript for all of the above over and over again. Have at least two other proofreaders do the same, people who'll be 100% honest with you--not just love ones who don't want to hurt your feelings. If anyone comes back with the comment, "Your story," recognize that this is NOT a

Only when your story is spotless and tight and engaging should you even think about a publisher. Then you need to research which publishers are right for your work, and which editors at each publisher handle your genre. Find out if they only look at agented manuscripts. If so, you have to research which agents represent your type of work. Fortunately, you can find directories of publishers and agents at almost any local library and on the Internet.

Next you need to write a query letter to the agent or editor to pitch your story and tell who you are and what experience you have. The query letter also can't be boring or sloppy or inconsistent. In fact, the query needs to be even more exciting than your story. Your letter is often one out of maybe hundreds that an editor will read in a week. You have to stand out.

This sounds like too muck work. Why do we writers keep torturing ourselves this way?

Peace (and good luck),

Saturday, August 21, 2010

RETREAT? Or Charge Ahead?

I wrote this yesterday morning. I did take a walk this morning. We'll see how long that lasts.

I’m sitting here, on my last morning of summer camp.

One of the authors I know has a small house down near Delaware Bay, surrounded by preserved farmland and tiny villages that haven’t changed in over two hundred years. You can’t get a cell signal here, or connect to the Internet, or even tune in the Phillies games on the radio. The sound of a car on the road is rare. The chorus crickets and locusts, with an occasional by songbird or bullfrog solo, are often the only sounds for miles.

This friend invited me and another writer down to her place this past week for a sort of writers’ retreat. Most mornings, I got up with the sun and took a quiet walk down the road (nice and flat, with no tiring hills like my neighborhood). We all spent mornings and afternoons writing, getting our own breakfasts and lunches, then we’d cook supper together (no slackers we— for example, chicken with peppers and apricots one night, fresh ratatouille and lean grilled burgers another, and no dearth of yummy Jersey tomatoes and ice cream). Evenings usually meant another walk, or a chat out on the screened in porch, then more writing before bed.

I got loads of work done, easily ten times my usual output over 5 days. But now I’m about to go home.

I saw a item on the news a week or two ago about a drug rehab clinic in one of the worst neighborhoods of a city. The guy who ran the place said he noticed that when people from his neighborhood were sent away for rehab, most did fine until they came home again. Then they’d get in with the same crowd and revert to all their old bad habits. So he opened his clinic right in the middle of the neighborhood, to help his patients deal with every day life.

I was thinking this morning that this can apply to all sorts of other activities besides drug rehab. People used to go to spas to diet and improve their health, only to come home and get stressed all over again, and rip into Sara Lee cheesecakes for breakfast.

Me? Well, I’ll bring home a slew of good intentions to walk each morning and write for hours, but once the distractions start—phone, email, Internet, bills to pay, plumbing mishaps, family issues, etc.—how will I not revert to my old habits of reacting to life as it hits me rather than being at least somewhat in control of it?

So maybe a writers’ retreat right in my own home wouldn’t be a bad idea. Though don’t ask me how it would work.

Still, it was a lovely, lovely week.

Read Robin Hathaway's books. She deserves it, if only for playing host to me. (Although they ARE good books.)

Thanks, Robin.


Friday, August 13, 2010


I'm posting this a few days early. Next week I'm unplugging myself from the world to concentrate on writing. With any luck, I'll get some work done. Or I'll figure out new ways to play with my pen. I'll let you know.

Meantime, here's the question of the week:

What do you believe are the basics, or necessities, for a good story?

First and absolutely most important, you need a good storyteller. Whether you write in first or third person, your narrator is your connection to your reader. No, more than that--the narrator should take the reader by the hand and lead him or her into and through the story. That means your narrator has to be completely engaging and trustworthy. Readers will not suffer fools much past page 50.

The narrator must be a skilled actor, the kind who could act out a fairy tale you've heard hundreds of times, yet keep you enthralled right up to the inevitable happy-ever-after. Unlike an actor, though, your narrator can't use gestures or facial expressions. Everything relies on language: words and the way they're used. The narrator's voice needs to be unique and command attention. In other words--and I've said this before on this blog--the narrator should NEVER be the author. Even if you're writing in third-person omniscient, that mysterious, godlike, all-seeing narrator ought to be a character with its own perspective and opinions. And hey, a sense of humor never hurts.

Of course, a great storyteller could read a shopping list and keep the audience interested, but will they come back for more?

So, second, you need a story with a beginning, middle and end. You need to say who your characters are, then what happens to them, then how they're changed by what happened.

Say two people meet for dinner and have a conversation. That isn't a story in itself. It shouldn't even be a chapter. BUT, what if the conversation becomes more like a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs, witty banter one moment, argument the next? If this conversation changes each character significantly--in the way they feel about each other, or about their worlds, or in what their next actions will be--THEN you have a story. If the story makes the reader think a little, so much the better.

Now, sure, add great characters and a nifty setting and a completely surprising twists throughout and you've got a great mystery novel. But the necessities are storyteller and story.


Monday, August 9, 2010


I received a chain email this morning. Unless they're incredibly funny, I never pass them on, regardless of topic. I think chain letters are the poorest form of communication. Not only do we use another's (usually a stranger's) words to speak for ourselves, the letters often prey on everyone's superstitions, fears, hopes, weaknesses, and that all too human temptation to play whisper-down-the-lane.

This one, however, stuck with me like a flu bug, so I decided I had to respond. At first I thought I'd just hit reply-all, but what I want to say ought to be said openly, so, although I rarely use my blog as a blatant soapbox, this was important to me.

The chain letter began:
"Great grandfathers watched as their friends died in the Civil War.
"My father watched as his friends died in WW II.
"And I watched as my friends died in Vietnam."

I can't reproduce the entire letter--it's too long--but here are some other statements:

"I'm standing up because the hundreds of thousands who died fighting in wars for this country, and for the American flag."
"Let me make this clear! THIS IS MY COUNTRY!"
"This statement DOES NOT mean I'm against immigration!"

First of all, I have to admit, none of my great-grandfathers watched their friends die in the American Civil War. (At the same time, none were slave-traders, nor did they slaughter Indians and run them off their lands.)

However, here's the story of my great-grandpop, Carmen Ronca. In the 1880s, he worked in the marble quarries of Italy, which was dangerous and back-breaking. He could read. So he wanted to come to America, then bring over his wife and children. He didn't except streets paved with gold; he just wanted a better life and more opportunities for his family. He was poor, so when a chance to work his way over to America in the boiler room of a Portugese steamer came up, he jumped at it. What he didn't realize was that the steamer's crew took advantage of his enthusiasm and ignorance of their language. The steamer landed, not in North America, but in South America.

Carmen was able to work his way north as far as Mexico and tried to use his papers at the Texas border. The officials told him no, he had to go to Ellis Island. He didn't have the money. Meantime, the U.S. railroads were hiring Mexicans (because, gee, they worked cheaper and would do work Americans were unwilling to do in conditions Americans wouldn't touch), so Carmen was hired as a Mexican to build and repair America's railroads. Technically, he was an illegal immigrant. After a year or so of this, when he was in Pittsburgh, he was told they were sending him back to Mexico. He showed his immigration papers, and some sane official processed him through Brownsville, PA. He got a job in coal mine, in even more horrendous working conditions, but was finally able to bring his wife and family over to America. After a few years, he move to eastern PA to be near other relatives. He worked in the limestone quarries. Limestone, Carmen said, was at least easier to cut than marble, and he was out in the fresh air.

Carmen never became a citizen, but he flew both the American and Italian flags over his house every day of the rest of his life. His sons fought in World War I, and his grandsons in World War II. Somewhere in the U.S. Army archives is a photo of Richard Ronca holding the Nazi flag after his unit liberated the town of Colmar, France. Major Robert Ronca served in Korea, then led the first air mission over North Vietnam. A few weeks later he was killed in action when his plane was shot down.

One other story: my grandfather, Giuseppe Ciccocioppo, came to America in 1912. Even before becoming a citizen, he served in the U.S. Army in World War I. He kept his Army nickname, Joe Chicco, because Americans treated him better. During World War II, Joe would walk down to the train station each day to see off or welcome home troops. His son Francis served in the Army in Europe. His other son, Joe B. Chicco, served in the Navy aboard the USS Mobile in every major naval engagement from August 1943 to the end of the war. You can read this son's WW2 diary at As a result of his service, Joe B. also suffered from severe chronic PTSD until the day he died.

I get a little tired of folks like the person who wrote that email, who seem to think immigrants have nothing to do with America's war sacrifices. Take a look through the database at -- of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, most don't have your basic Sons of the American Revolution names. A big percentage are Hispanic, and a huge percentage of those are Mexican.

Whoever wrote that email had an ancestor who was an immigrant--doesn't matter how far back in time you go. Yet, in saying he's not against immigration, he shows that he sets himself apart from, and obviously in his own mind, superior to, immigrants.

He says this is HIS country. Well, no sir, it isn't. America is a democracy, which means none of us can lay singular claim to it. We share ownership, and stewardship. And all of us are descendants of immigrants.

Please don't let people like this spread hate and division. The world doesn't need any more of either.


Zee Nom De Plume

What are some of the pros & cons of using a Pen Name?
Would you recommend the use of a Pen Name?

1. Say you write more than one type of book for more than one type of reader, maybe a children's mystery series and adult sci-fi. Using a pen name for one series will keep your readers from getting confused and buying the wrong books. And it will help distributor sales reps, bookstore owners, and librarians put the books on correct shelves.

2. Use a pen name if you have any reason not to have your writer's life overlap your real one. A kindergarten teacher who writes steamy romances? A minister who writes vampire stories? A prominent scientist who writes poetry?

3. Lots of women writers use a masculine pen name or, at least, initials instead of a first name. If the genre has a good percentage of male readers (thrillers, westerns, sci-fi, action/adventure), it can be more difficult to sell books by an obviously female author. Usually, the reverse isn't true--romance by a man can sell as well, or better, than women authors.

4. If you have a real name so much like another recognizable name--say, Michael Jackson--that using it might give you negative publicity or, at least, attract the wrong readers, consider changing it.

5. If you have a really hard to pronounce or remember name, you might consider a pen name. My brother, Bob Santangelo, who pens non-fiction articles and books, writes under the name Bob Brooke. Why didn't I change mine if "Santangelo" is a potential problem? I kept telling myself Lisa Scottoline is doing okay with a long Italian name. At least my books are shelved near hers. And frankly, I'm proud of my family name.

1. If you change your first name, realize people will actually call you by that name. You have to sign books with your pen name. That's not an easy thing to adjust to, especially when friends and family still call you Bessie or whatever. You have to learn how to be two or more people without batting an eye and without therapy.

2. I was at a mystery convention once in a city where President Clinton was speaking at a dinner. He stopped at the hotel for a few hours to freshen up and put on his tux. The rooms of his floor were searched by the Secret Service and a friend of mine had to explain why she was registered under one name, yet her major forms of ID were another name, and a credit card under still another. Can be a big hassle, especially when flying.

3. Taxes, bank accounts, and other business matters are a bit more confusing. Filling in an IRS Schedule C is bad enough with just one name. You need to add your pen names to your bank account because someone is bound to write a check to your fake name no matter how careful you are telling them not to. Plus there are copyright and trademark issues. I don't know all the legal ramifications since I don't use a pen name (yet), but try Googling "pen name legality" to find out more.

Elena (yes, really)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Learning to be Creative

I've had more questions sent my way, which makes writing this blog easier, so keep 'em coming.

What is the best way to avoid currently public story lines from integrating into your work?

I'm going to assume that by "public story line" you mean something detailed and recognizable like "Boy finds out he's a wizard, goes to wizarding school and battles evil archenemy." Because something like "Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy" has been done over and over. Every modern romance is based on that plot line. Nobody's going to hang you for using it. Even recognizable stories like Romeo & Juliet and Pygmalion have been redone as West Side Story and My Fair Lady (and Pretty Woman).

My theory is that human beings instinctively learn storytelling, character development, narrative description, et cetera, through stealing.

As we grow up, we hear stories, read books, watch TV and movies, and go to plays. We latch onto, say, certain authors or TV shows that fire our imaginations more than others. Most children cook up stories involving their dolls and stuffed animals. If a youngster goes on to dream up tales starring their favorite book characters, or imagines friends or fictional characters in an existing TV story, chances are that youngster's going to be a novelist or playwright someday. I used to write parodies of fairy tales with my friends in the main roles, and I still write parodies of songs.

My point here is that this kind of stealing is how we learn to trust our imaginations. Creating every aspect of a novel from scratch is too overwhelming for most beginners. If you start with an established framework--a story or characters that you already know will work--you can let yourself play what-if with the other aspects of the tale, until you work out all the kinks in the writing process. This is a great way to learn the craft.

If you're going to steal plots for works you intend to sell someday, though, stick with the tried-and-true. Read the classics, both in literature and mystery fiction--Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, et al. Not only are these stories public domain, they've stood the test of time.

Interesting that you can bake a cake using a mix or someone else's recipe, sell it at a bake sale, or even in a bakery, and no one will bring you to court over it.

But you can't do the writing equivalent. So just steal enough to learn each aspect of writing--characters, plots, settings, dialogue--then start trusting your own imagination. Start baking completely from scratch.


Monday, July 26, 2010

A Parody That's Good For The Heart

Time for a break from my usual yawp about writing.

My protagonist, Pat Montella, loves to cook. Since so many other authors have food-related blogs, I feel obligated to add my voice to the cacophony.

Here's something Miss Maggie likes to sing while Pat's whipping up a batch of fagiole. The song is from that famous movie Gentlemen Prefer Beans:

A beet in the pan may be quite continental
But legumes are a cook's best friend.
A beet may be canned but it won't taste like lentil
in a three-bean soup,
Or navies in brown sugar goop.

Meat goes cold and meals grow old,
Even cheese will grow mold in the end.
But lima or kidney, from Stockholm to Sydney,
Legumes are a cook's best friend.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Last question:

4. Any advice for someone wanting to write a mystery for today's market.

My advice is DON'T. Never, ever, ever, ever write for today's market. Chances are good that today's market will change long before you're done your first draft. Maybe even before you're done your first chapter.

Instead, write something you're passionate about. Tell whatever story is in your heart and soul. Write the kind of mystery you love to read.

Writing for the market is like being a cubicle slave for a mega-corporation who doesn't know your name and doesn't care. And writing pays worse, with no benefits and no 401k. Writing for the market will never bring you job satisfaction.

If you hone your craft until you can communicate well, and if you believe wholeheartedly in the story you want to tell, you have all you need to produce a book people will want to read.

You're a writer. Be your own boss. Don't let anyone else try to tell you what to write. Writers and readers ought to shape the market, not vise versa.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

For the Insomniac

As stated in the last 2 posts, this month I'm answering a friend's questions:

3. If you couldn't sleep, which author's books would you read and why?

Actually, when I can't sleep, I read non-fiction. Something like Science News magazine. It puts interesting facts into my brain while lulling me into slumber. I don't read exciting fiction or I'll be up all night.

If I can change the question to, what author do I enjoy reading at bedtime? I can't pick just one. I almost never read two books in a row by the same author. But if I could pick a few, I'd say Dorothy Gilman, Agatha Christie, Barbara Michaels, Alan Bradley, Robin Hathaway, Polly Whitney, Gillian Roberts, Irene Fleming, Dianne Day...Have I gone over my "few" allotment? I could name at least a dozen more.

Why? These authors write well. They're great storytellers. They're entertaining. They're intelligent and so are their characters. They don't waste my time.

Right now I'm reading Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha by Dorothy Gilman. I should also add that I'm a very poor bedtime reader. A couple paragraphs and I'm out. I'm more of an afternoon reader.

The only fiction I won't read at bedtime is horror and ghost stories. Then I REALLY wouldn't be able to sleep.

Sweet dreams,

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Let Me Check My Crystal Ball

As I said last week, I'm answering some questions from a friend of mine. Here's her second question:

2. If you could see into the future, where do you see women's mysteries going in the next 10/20 years?

Depends where the mystery book industry goes. Technology and buying habits are changing so fast, it's anyone's guess. The cost of traditional publishing is skyrocketing. Probably less people are buying paper books. I say probably because some folks vehemently deny this is true. The publishing industry is more secretive about their business than the Pentagon. My opinion? I see less people in bookstores. And less mysteries on the shelves.

More people have electronic readers like Kindle and the prices of those are expected to come down until electronic readers are as ubiquitous as cell phones. That said, if you go anywhere people are waiting (train terminal, doctor's office) or relaxing (beach, cruise ship, lunch hour), books made of paper are still the pastime of choice.

Given the pace of Western society these days, readers may very well move toward shorter novels. More and more writers will likely jump on the self-publishing bandwagon, though probably only for a book or two before they find out how hard it is and how fast it drains their bank accounts. The more the big publishers merge and remain rooted in their 19th century ways, the more small presses will spring up to siphon their markets. A fraction of those small presses will avoid bankruptcy and they'll print some truly great mysteries.

I'd love to see more authors take their out-of-print short stories and put them up on the Internet in Kindle format for downloading. Maybe we can start a short mystery Renaissance.

If you mean content, my answer is "Who knows?" Ten years ago, no one was publishing vampire mysteries, now they're everywhere. New York will barely touch a cozy mystery these days, but at least 50% of mystery readers actively seek them out. When my novel BY BLOOD POSSESSED came out in 1999, no one heard of a cross-genre mystery, combining paranormal, history, or what have you. Now they're the big thing. (Note: I did it first. HA!)

My opinion? Predicting trends 10-20 years out is impossible. Trends can change every 6 months. If you're a writer, trends should be the last thing you think about. Writers ought to concentrate on writing good stories and nothing else.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Case of the Missing Mystery

A friend of mine is writing a thesis titled "The Shifting Trends in Women's Mysteries in the Last Eighty Years" and she sent me some questions. I'm going to answer them one at a time here on the blog over the next few weeks.

1. What would you like to see more of in today's mysteries?

I want to see more mystery.

I noticed at 2 writers conferences this past month that the term "crime writer" is becoming more prevalent than "mystery writer." A lot of books I've come across the last five years have a body on page one, a straightforward (bordering on boring) investigation, and a solution in the last chapter. They're crime novels, yes, but they don't have much mystery in them. No intriguing clues, no seemingly impossible puzzles. Not even very much in the way of mysterious settings or moods. Danger, perhaps, but too often predictable danger.

I've been told (as an explanation) that these are character-driven novels. I'm not sure what that means, other than that I seem to have to plow through usually too many scenes about the main character's love/sex life or cats or drinking problems or financial woes or dysfunctional family sagas between scant paragraphs pertaining to the crime story.

Think back to all the times Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot found an apparently inconsequential clue: for instance, rye grain in a deadman's pocket. The police ignore it. Yet, that kind of clue is so intriguing that I'll keep turning pages to find out how it fits in.

I've actually heard authors scoff at putting what I think of as "mystery" back into mystery novels. The feeling seems to be that the genre has now matured and that grown-ups don't want silly clues like that in their books. Grown-ups only want violence and sex and gritty reality.

Bunk. Reality neither stimulates my brain nor entertains me. I read to escape reality. If that means I'm not mature, I don't ever want to be.

Elena (still a "mystery" writer)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Perception of Truth

This past week I took a photography tour of the Bay of Fundy. Many of you know I'm a musician as well as a writer. Few know of my truly dismal talents in the visual arts. I can't even draw a convincing stick figure.

Still, I've been taking vacation photos since the age of six when my Dad gave me a Kodak Brownie. After college I bought myself a Minolta SLR, adding different lenses as I could afford them. I used that camera for 20 years, until they stopped making the light meter battery. Right now I've got a very unfancy Olympus digital whose limits are finally forcing me learn something about visual composition.

I took the tour mainly because it promised to visit all the kinds of natural places I love, not because I'm a serious amateur photog. Yet I did pick up some great tips from our guide, Lance Timmons (check out his cool portfolio at Beyond that though, he talked a bit about the perception of truth in a photo, which got me thinking how that applies to writing.

People assume photos are truthful little moments frozen in time. Or at least, snapshots used to be truthful, before Photoshop, right? Well, no. Photographers have always shown us only their interpretation of scenes. Before digital technology, they could manipulate photos in the darkroom during processing, or by posing what ends up looking like a spontaneous shot, or even simply by cropping out details so the viewer sees only what the photographer wants them to see. Regardless of the technology, a good photographer can sway the viewer's sympathies to each photo.

When I write historical fiction, I do my best to make the history factual, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm not showing everything. For one thing, I'd have to do a decade of research for each chapter. Writers don't have that kind of luxury of time. Even if I did, I don't want to show that many details. Like a good photographer, I need to zoom in on the subject and crop everything else. Too many historical writers spend too many words showing off their research. Do we really need a minute description of 1860s ladies' undergarments in a book about the Civil War? No. It stops the story. Only show what's necessary to bring the era and the story to life.

Also like a photographer, the details I do show ought to sway the sympathy of the audience. In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my goal wasn't to present the Civil War from a North or South point of view. I wanted to show how war, any war, effects families. In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY, I was aiming for a perspective of Reconstruction through the eyes of a nine year-old freed slave.

The above applies to any kind of writing, not just historicals. You have to look through a viewfinder at the world you're writing about. Move around, back up, zoom in, until you have in the frame only what the reader needs to understand the story. And even after you write it, chances are you'll need to do further cropping.

The photos with this blog are from my trip, taken with my dippy little Olympus digital (the rubber ducky is my first mate, Smee).

So maybe I learned something.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Discouragement, Then & Now

I was at a writer's conference last weekend and I noticed a few things.

Fifteen years ago, unpublished writers could either keep sending out queries to agents and editors until somebody gave them a break and published something, or until the writers died, or they paid vanity presses to publish their books. Young writers were warned and warned about vanity presses, the way little kids are warned not to take candy from strangers. Writers who go with vanity presses, we were told, lost all their money, ended up with a garage full of unsellable books, and were never heard from again. This was usually true, except some of the writers never got the books they paid for. I saw one contract's small print that stated the press wasn't obligated to ever put the manuscript in print.

Then again, we were also told that getting a legit book contract had worse odds than winning the state lottery (which I think was about 1 in 100,000). Easier to win a million in the lottery and buy a small publishing house for yourself.

These days writers are still querying agents. Most editors no longer accept non-agented mystery fiction submissions. Publishing houses have merged, so less of them exist. Writers are warned and warned about self-publishing--you spend your savings and never break even, you end up with a garage full of books, and you never have a chance at a real writing career because no one will take you seriously.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Except that self-published writers using a legitimate press can be reasonably assured of receiving books with which to fill their garages. I haven't heard the current odds of getting a novel published, but it's still worse than winning a lottery. My guess is that now that lottery is Powerball (1 in 5,138,133 last I heard).

Oh, and one more thing I heard this weekend. Less books are being sold than fifteen years ago. (Legal recorded sales, I mean. This does not include under-the-table deals done in the street outside authors' garages.) Even if you do get a contract, your book will likely be out of print fairly soon. No guarantee you'll ever sell another manuscript. An author used to be considered "established" after four published books. No more. You can become a has-been overnight.

At the conference last weekend, between regular rose-colored-glasses sessions on how to improve your writing and get it into publishable shape, all these extremely depressing topics were thrashed out in detail. You could feel the frustration.

Yet, out of the hundreds of writers at that conference, how many will actually throw in the towel? Surprisingly few. For most of us, despite the fact that we know our works probably won't be bestsellers--that they may not even pay for a month's worth of bills each year--that they may never even be published after the months and years we spend on them--despite all that, we're still writers.

Writing's a calling. An obsession. An addiction.

We can't stop.

And so, my fellow writers, keep writing. And keep playing the lottery. First one of us who wins a million buys the small press and publishes the rest of us.


Thursday, June 10, 2010


Dame Agatha has been turned on her ear again. At the risk of sounding monotonous...

has been nominated for a Macavity award!

The Macavity is named for T.S. Eliot's mystery cat from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The award looks like a sleeping cat lying atop a stack of books and is given each year in the fall by Mystery Readers International, an organization of readers, writers, and anyone else in the business.

I've been in way too much shock over all this, and so have been downright rude in not congratulating my fellow Macavity and Anthony nominees. Cheers to you all.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors