Monday, April 26, 2010


This time next week the Malice Domestic Conference will be over. All last week I was thinking that my blog ought to say something about DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS, my companion book to Agatha Christie's short stories that's been nominated for an Agatha award, which will be given at the convention next Saturday night. Yes, I'm a mess of nerves. Yes, I have nothing to wear to the banquet. Maybe this is the reason I haven't let my brain dwell too much on the upcoming conference. Too much? Who am I kidding? I've been keeping myself in complete denial.

But, one thing has been on my mind a lot the last week: Earth Day.

Back in 1970, when the first Earth Day organizers were trying to get schools involved, my junior high ran a poster contest. The year before, The Fifth Dimension released "Age of Aquarius/Let
the Sunshine In" as a single, and like everyone else in my class, I knew every word and could sing all the harmonies. For my poster, I got a big piece of black cardboard, pasted a bright yellow and orange construction paper sun in the middle, and in bold red cut out letters above and below pasted "LET THE SUN SHINE IN." Even then I played with words, changing "shine" to a verb. That poster earned 4th place, Honorable Mention. Not too shabby for a school with several hundred kids.

The high school started an Ecology Club and the next year, I helped them clean out part of our local creek. Our group only tackled about a third of a mile of the stream, but we filled a dump truck with the stuff we pulled out, including 24 shopping carts, 4 cars worth of parts, and 100-plus cans. Thinking back on how filthy that water was, it's amazing that none of us (to my knowledge) got anything worse than sunburn and poison ivy that day.

But even before the whole Earth Day movement took hold, one of my favorite pastimes was hiking in the woods with my family or Girl Scout troops. I've loved nature all my life. In second grade, my career ambition was to be an ornithologist. My favorite vacations are in gorgeous wildernesses with no fast food places or housing developments in site. My favorite hobby is gardening.

When I created the character of teenager Beth Ann Lee, before I knew anything else about her--before I knew she was a science geek, or that she played clarinet in band and had a secret crush on a trumpeter, or that she could sometimes see ghosts--before any of that, I knew she had my love of nature. She was the logical character to be an environmentalist--someone who'd grown up and run free in a beautiful forest. Someone who could intuitively understand ecological connections because she'd lived with them since birth.

Earth Day this year brought together all these thoughts. It's been 40 years since I made that poster, yet new "Clean Air" legislation might take away the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. 40 years progress lost. I look at the "Beth Anns" I know now and wonder if they'll be able to clean up our mess.

I hope so.

Make each day Earth Day.

Monday, April 19, 2010


If there's one thing you can count on in most mystery novels, it's that at least one of the good guys -- the protagonist, the faithful sidekick, the innocent but helpless love interest/family member, maybe even all of humanity -- ends up in enough danger that the reader will turn page after page to find out how they'll eventually be saved.

So it behooves us mystery writers to know how to monger fear.

Fortunately, we have no dearth of mentors. Alfred Hitchcock, for instance. Here's a quote:

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

His most famous example (and I paraphrase) is of a couple sitting at a table, talking. A bomb goes off. Everyone's surprised. Maybe the couple narrowly escapes, maybe not. Either way, shocking but not scary.

Same scene, same couple, only now we, the audience, can see the bomb. We know it's set to go off at 1 o'clock and we're shown a clock on the wall that reads quarter to one. We become part of the scene. We want to warn the characters (assuming we like them). As each minute ticks by, the suspense (and with it, our fear) builds. That's good writing.

If you're afraid Hitchcock's advice might be dated, you need only channel surf news channels to see how trendy scaring people is these days. No one remembers hard facts, they remember scary phrases like "death panels." Politicians, political pundits, and even some folks who call themselves journalists have become masters of the art.

Fact is, no one WANTS to remember the truth. We'd rather be fooled if it means being scared. The great majority of Americans, on both the left and the right, would rather hear a slew of conspiracy theories than a sane explanation.

A good mystery writer can come right out and say Mr. X committed the murder early on, then fill the next 350 pages with red herrings and ticking bombs. Readers will be taken in. And enjoy every minute.

As Hitchcock also said:
"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible."

(or was that FOXnews?)


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Planting Seeds

We had summer-like weather last week. I was stuck at home with a cold. I took advantage of both situations by carrying my potting supplies outside so I could soak up some warm sun while I planted basil and tomato seeds.

Once I plant the seeds and place the containers on an upstairs windowsill, I keep the soil moist and watch for sprouts. I'm far from an expert at growing tomatoes this way. My results are always inconsistent and occasionally nonexistent. I never know how many plants I'll get, if any, and if they'll be hearty. Basil's different. Usually I get more plants than I can use and I push off the extras on friends. Still, until I see tiny bits of green pushing up through the soil, I never really believe seeds will grow. Always seems too much of a miracle until it happens.

Writing is like this. I get an idea--a seed. I feed it by playing "what-if." Seed: an unusual tattoo. What if the person who gets the tattoo isn't someone who would normally would? A grandmotherly Miss Marple sort. What if no one knows she has it until she dies? What if the tattoo is found to Egyptian hieroglyph? A letter of the Russian alphapet? An Oriental rug symbol? What if the death didn't seem suspicious until the tattoo was found?

When one "what-if" begins to lead to another, I have a sprout, but I'm still not ready to write. I need a few more leaves before transplanting to the page. Who is the victim? Who's going to decide the tattoo warrants further investigation of the death? And for me in particular, where am I going to plant this story? What's the setting? Where is this seedling going to grow best?

With my basil and tomato plants, come Memorial Day, they go outside in the veggie bed. I protect them from insects and birds and squirrels. I check them each day, watering and weeding. After a while, God willin', I have adult plants established enough that if I go away for a day, it's no big deal. But, of course, I still can't neglect them for long.

Stories in progress are the same. At first I have to keep at them constantly. I'm never comfortable in a book until I reach the sixth chapter or so. If I set it aside too long before that point, I feel like my seedling might die. Even after the characters and plot are more or less established, if I have to go away for a week, I have a dickens of a time getting back into the story and bringing it back to life again.

I've heard would-be writers talk about wonderful story ideas, but really, all they have are packets of seeds. Sometimes the hardest part is believing your seeds will grow. Once they do, you have to commit to the whole nurturing process if you want a good harvest.


Friday, April 2, 2010

How Not to Write A How-To

I've been quiet for a while. The simple truth of it is, doing taxes turns my brain to mush.

Being the daughter of an accountant, I've been doing my own taxes all my life. Okay, yes, I did switch to Turbo Tax when I started having writing income and expenses--mainly to make sure I wasn't overlooking anything--but until a few years ago, I thought I had a handle on what I was doing. Lately though, I've felt like I can't bend my mind around the task.

Have I reached the age where enough brain cells have died that the synapses assigned to taxes need a government stimulus to rebuild the bridges? Is my financial life that much more complicated (short of the war I've been waging with Bank of America because they've made 5 errors in the last 2 years, some of which have cost me money)? The short answer to that last question is "no way."

So why? Well, let's take a look at the history of the 1040 Instruction Booklet.

1982: The booklet was 48 pages which, besides the 1040 and schedule instructions, included a whole page of where-to-mail addresses, an index, and a blank page for NOTES.

1990: 64 pages, not much difference from above, just 33% longer.

1999: 117 pages, 70 of which were the actual 1040 instructions, with schedule instructions tacked onto the end.

2004: 128 pages total. 77 pages for the 1040, the rest for the schedules.

2007: 153 total. 87 pages for the 1040.

2009: 175 total. 103 pages for the 1040. Total booklet now has 265% more pages than in 1982.

175 pages
. That's half a novel. As for content, here's a random quote from page 32:

If you received income from a non-qualified deferred compensation plan or nongovernmental section 457 plan that is box 1 of your Form W-2, or in box 7 of Form 1099-MISC, do not include that income on line 8 of the worksheet. The income should be shown in (a) box 11 of your Form W-2, (b) box 12 of your Form W-2 with code Z, or (c) box 15b of Form 1099-MISC.

175 pages of that.

So here's an idea. DC, are you listening? Take a bunch of writers who listed a loss on their Schedule C this past year (lots to choose from), and put them to work rewriting the 1040 instructions so normal folks can understand them again.



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