Sunday, February 28, 2010

Healthcare Mayhem

No, I don't mean Cherry Ames.

Informal poll: How many fictional sleuths can you name who worry about their healthcare?

Think about all those "realistic" fictional detectives who are self-employed, down on their luck, and getting beat up/shot at/Mickey-Finned on a daily basis. Shouldn't their writers mention how these tough guys pay their healthcare bills? Aren't chronic concussions a pre-existing condition? Are the Sam Spades of the world even insurable?

In my Possessed Mystery Series, my protagonist Pat Montella doesn't worry about her healthcare; she has panic attacks over it. In book one, BY BLOOD POSSESSED, paramedics ask her if she wants to go to the hospital, she says no, not because she's feeling great, but because the hospital is in a different state than her insurer and she knows getting preapproval will be next to impossible.

Then she's laid off and her Cobra coverage runs out by book 2, HANG MY HEAD AND CRY. The plan she's forced to take up is the kind President Obama calls Acme Insurance--cheap, high deductibles, and doesn't cover much. By book 3, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, Pat's starting to have odd symptoms, which she ignores because she knows going to a doctor about them will cost more than she can afford. And ironically, her symptoms are caused in part by poor quality healthcare, bordering on medical negligence.

Fiction? Nope, research. Millions of Americans go through this breed of healthcare crap every day. All Pat's experiences are based on my own or on members of my family.

You want healthcare fiction? Listen to politicians who say we've got the best healthcare in the world and that the majority of Americans like the system as it stands. Now that's fiction.

And if you're a mystery writer and you don't want to deal with the reality of healthcare woes these days, better write historicals, or make your sleuth a U.S. Congressman.

Stay well,

Monday, February 22, 2010

Random Thoughts on Agatha Award Nominations

Exactly 10 years ago this month, I received an email telling me that my first novel, BY BLOOD POSSESSED, had been nominated for an Agatha Award. My heart started thumping and the adrenaline rush gave me a headache for 3 days. Agatha nominees are chosen by the folks registered for the annual Malice Domestic Convention, so it's very much a people's choice award. This means that, rather than a small committee judging my book, a big bunch of mystery fans had read it and deemed it award-worthy. I can't tell you how reaffirming and encouraging that feels.

The same morning I got that email, I was scheduled to teach public school students about mystery plots and historical research. Distracted as I was, I still had to do an hour commute and focus on the day. You can't walk into a classroom in a daze. Kids figure out the art of pack hunting in second grade. You can't come across as a maimed gnu.

Fast forward to a few nights ago, when I received my second Agatha Nomination communication, this time about my latest book, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS: An Agatha Christie Short Story Companion. Heart started thumping again. First thought: SOMEONE ACTUALLY READ MY BOOK! Second thought: ohmygosh, I have to lose weight and buy new clothes by May!

Since this call came at the tail-end of a major blizzard, I still had to deal with getting my car down an alley of 5-inch thick, crater-ridden ice the next morning, so I could get to my day job and earn the money to pay for healthcare--and for a new PC monitor, because that same day, my screen took on a pink tint. And I still had to make sure entries to my uncle's WW2 blog got posted daily. And finish rewrites to my last project. And dig out a path to the cellar door for the electrician coming to fix my basement lights. And I HAD get to a grocery store because more snow is predicted for this week.

In fact, when that call came the other night, after the week I'd been having, I was definitely in "What NOW?" mode.

Polly Whitney is a fellow author, dear friend, and someone who also knows what it's like to wear that "Agatha Nominee" ribbon at Malice Domestic. She told me to remember how Julia Roberts, when accepting her Oscar, told the band to shut up because who knew when she'd be at that podium again.

This week, I feel like asking the chaos in my life to shut up, so I can savor the moment. But it won't. And it shouldn't. Because what would I write about if it did?

To the fans and registered attendees of Malice, thanks, not only for DAME AGATHA's nomination and for the other great books you chose to be honored this year, but for reading and loving mystery books and short stories. We authors are bupkis without you.


Sunday, February 14, 2010


Is it me, or is the world becoming ridiculously melodramatic?

"Melodrama" comes from the Greek words for melody and theater. Literally, it's the use of music to heighten the emotional drama of a story. The word has come to be used for overly-emotional stories with one-dimensional characters.

I was at a writing workshop last fall where the presenter said there ought to be drama on every page, and that the protagonist ought to experience worse and worse dangers, right up to where you think, this is it, nothing worse can happen...and then it does.

What came to my mind was "Perils of Pauline"--a series of silent films done in 1914 and remade a few times since, where the heroine is a damsel in constant distress from an assortment of evil stock villains. Thing is, none of the remakes I've seen (and according to my dad, not even the 1933 version) was ever considered anything but satirical comedy. I'm guessing the original silents were comedies too. I mean, by the time Pauline, in the space of a half hour, has gone through enough dangers to give a normal human being PTSD 20 times over, you can't help but laugh at the absurdity. Not to mention the fact that she keeps doing the same stupid things over and over. This kind of melodrama can be great entertainment, but was never meant to be taken seriously.

The presenter of that workshop got me thinking about books I've read lately and TV shows and movies I've seen. Too many of them are too melodramatic and take themselves too seriously. And true to form, most of the visual media come complete with sappy background music. I usually reach the "Oh, please" limit fairly quickly. I'm never pulled into the story. I change channels or switch books.

Come to think of it, I'm a long time Star Trek fan, but stopped liking it when they changed the background music to angst-ridden brass chords (in the middle of Deep Space Nine season 2, if I remember correctly). Each year the writers would come up with more evil unbeatable foes. No more great imaginative plots like the one with the Groundhog-Day-like poker game that replayed itself 4 times. I loved that show.

Don't get me wrong--I don't object to melodrama. I just object to every single thing that attempts to tell me a story these days being sated with emotion. The sameness is BORING. Frankly, even the newscasts have gotten too dramatic. The last decade on local newscasts, I think I've heard the words "something went horribly wrong" more than 1000 times. After the 2nd time, it stopped enhancing the emotional drama. It became annoying. Kills me that their copywriters earn a living for being that unoriginal.

A story that needs that much drama to keep my attention is a poorly told story. Maybe not even a story worth telling. Don't put drama on every page, put a great story on every page and tell it in an engaging manner. The world has enough angst.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pat Montella in the Kitchen

Snow is blowing sideways past my window at the moment. We already have a foot of the white stuff on the ground and the storm won't be over for another 10 hours. Yesterday at noon, our local TV news showed the masses of humanity in the grocery stores, loading up not only on Super Bowl munchies, but on milk, bread and eggs. Something about the thought of being snowed in makes people want those 3 items handy. A friend of mine deduced from this that snow=french toast.

The news made me do my own inventory. Lots of eggs, but only 4 slices of bread and slightly more than a cup of milk which was beginning to develop enough of a personality, I knew I'd be throwing it out today if I didn't use it up (I made pudding last night). Did I rush out to the store? No. A few days, even a week, without milk and bread isn't going to kill me. Milk and bread aren't worth fighting those crowds.

But it got me thinking about food. Frankly, it doesn't take much to get me thinking about food.

My protagonist, Pat Montella, loves to cook. When I began the series, I wasn't much of a chef myself. My mom was supreme and undisputed empress of our kitchen when I was growing up. Once in a while, she'd indulge me if I wanted to try a recipe, but I never got those urges often. Why should I when she was such an amazing cook?

But when I was developing Pat's character, I knew I needed to give her some creative outlet for stress and boredom. She couldn't just slog back and forth to her dead-end job each day and watch TV at night. She'd be as dull as she thought she was.

I considered hobbies I'd done first, simply because I knew about them--needlepoint, embroidery, macrame, woodworking, music. Nothing seemed to be a good fit for Pat. Cooking kept niggling at the back of my mind, but I resisted it. For one thing, since Pat was Italian-American, it seemed stereotypical. For another, I'd have to do RESEARCH. You can't make someone sound like a good cook if you have no clue yourself.

I didn't decide for sure until I was writing Pat's first scene with Miss Maggie. All of a sudden, Miss Maggie asked if Pat could make tomato sauce and Pat said yes. That recipe, Grandmom Montella's Zucchini Sauce, I got from hanging over my mom's shoulder at the stove, taking notes as she made it, writing down her measurements for ingredients--that is, a palmful of oregano, a fistful of basil leaves, etc.

My mom died a couple years ago, and about the same time, I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance (meaning a lot of packaged foods are taboo), so I had to, at last, learn to cook. I found out that I love it as much as Pat. I now have some of my recipes online. You can view them at (or just google Sparkrecipes ElenaSan).

As I get time, I'll be putting Pat's recipes up on the site, in a virtual cookbook titled "From the Pat Montella Mysteries."

As for today, I plan to make a big pot of chicken corn soup. I also remember my mom saying how her mom would lean out their window, scoop fresh snow off the porch roof, add vanilla and sugar, and voila, Italian water ice. Well, the snow on my porch roof now is already up to the window, so....

Who needs milk and bread?



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