Friday, December 30, 2011

Potato, Potahto, Spud

I was pondering what sort of end-of-2011 blog to write when one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an article titled "10 Words You Mispronounce That Make People Think You're An Idiot." His posting touched off a longer, more involved discussion than most political posts do.

I had several objections to the article, the main being that the very idea that a person should be judged an idiot simply by how he pronounces certain words and not by the content of what he's saying is offensive. But of course, that's how humanity does these things -- judge a person by what they wear or how they comb their hair, rather than what they stand for and what they've accomplished.

Beyond that, the writer's entire viewpoint revolved around himself, his background and pronunciation he'd been taught in school. He obviously knew nothing about the history of words and speech, or about usage in regional dialects.

He didn't know, for example, that "sherbet" and "sherbert" originally had 2 different meanings, the first being a cold fruit drink of 17th century Persia and Turkey. "Sherbert" was more often used to describe ices made with milk, egg white and gelatin that became popular in the next 2 centuries. Now both spellings are used interchangeably to mean the ice, and can be pronounced either way (at least, according to most dictionaries, including my Merriam-Webster's). Sherbet is actually more often pronounced with the "r" in most regions.

Speaking of "often," this word was pronounced with a "t" through the 17th century. Probably because of regional dialects and popular orators dropping the "t" sound, the more common pronunciation became "offen" in the last few hundred years, but many dialects continued the old pronunciation, and it's experienced a comeback in the last thirty years. This doesn't mean it's wrong. And since the word's meaning doesn't change, no matter which way you say it, your neighbor pronouncing it differently from you shouldn't be a motive for murder.

The beauty of language is, I think, in it's flexibility and ability to evolve. The bottom line is that our language allows us to communicate. Sure, we have rules of grammar and spelling, and yes, pronunciation, but the rules are there merely to facilitate communication, and shouldn't restrict us or make us judge one another for the way we speak. We need to allow a bit of leeway for everyone's unique voice, which to my mind is one of the most beautiful of human traits.

If you're interested in the evolution of language, I recommend an excellent article in the November 19, 2011 Science News called Darwin's Tongues.

In 2012, I'd love to see everyone (myself included) make an effort to listen to each other -- to the meaning of words, instead of just the sounds. Concentrating on substance might allow us to see through the pretty soundbites of all those political speeches we'll be hearing the next 11 months.

Peace in the New Year,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Favorite Story

I'm often asked to name my favorite author. The first name out of my mouth is always Agatha Christie, not only because my writing's better for having studied her work. I can, and have, read her novels and shorts over and over, and still enjoy them.

But the second name I mention is Charles Dickens. I do, after all, write ghost stories, and he was a master of them. He wrote several, though most readers are only familiar with his most famous one. He was also a master of mood-setting description and, believe it or not, humor.

People ask me to name my favorite book, too, and I have more trouble. How can I name just one? But I had an epiphany a few nights ago. My absolute favorite story of all time is Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Not simply the book either, though I love it and read it every December. No, I love the story itself.

I first encountered Scrooge when I was 6 years old. My parents tuned the TV to Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. I didn't know then that the ghosts were out of order. I had no clue the cartoon was based on a literary classic published in 1843. I only knew that Marley and the Ghost of Christmas "Future" scared the bejeebers out of me to the point that I had nightmares, and that I loved Tiny Tim and his rassleberry dressing.

The next year (because of the nightmares) my parents weren't going to let me watch the show, but I insisted (closing my eyes during the scary parts). I watched it every year thereafter, then began adding other versions: Mickey's Christmas Carol with Scrooge McDuck, the old Alastair Sim film, Scrooge the Musical, the George C. Scott version, The Muppet Christmas Carol, An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler, Scrooged with Bull Murray, etc.

I was in high school when I read the original for the first time. It was an abridged version, but I loved hearing the story in Dickens's own voice. I later read the unabridged and found out my earlier version had cut out all the funny lines. I'm still wondering why.

As I said, I read it every December, but I still watch the movie and TV versions, and I'm delighted to find a new (to me) retelling. As long as the strong bones of the story are intact and the nasty main character satisfyingly undergoes a transformation into a good guy, I'm a happy camper. I've had this story told to me for nearly 50 years and haven't tired of it yet.

Which is a lesson itself in what makes a story great.

What's your favorite TV, movie, or even radio version of A Christmas Carol?

Merry Christmas,
and God Bless Us, Every One!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Please Support Your Book Farmers

Most of us have been busy shopping for gifts. This year, I've heard lots of folks say they're boycotting the Corporate America sellers in favor of "Main St." If it's true, they're helping to strengthen their local economy, right?

Only in part.

In my neighborhood is a mom-and-pop produce place. I love that store. Besides being part of our local economy, their goods are usually the same price or cheaper than the supermarket. There's one catch. Much of their produce is pre-bagged, so I can't choose my own pieces and I have to take 4-6 of each. But, hey, if I can save 50% on Florida grapefruit or Mexican bell peppers or whatever, I don't mind checking the bag carefully and taking a set quantity. And it feels good to support a local store.

However, I still buy some produce at the supermarket. Why? In the summer especially, the big market carries the harvests of farms within a 50 mile radius. They even list the farms who provide the produce. Supporting local farmers is as important to me as supporting local indie stores. If my little indie store sold more local farm produce, I'd be absolutely faithful. But in my mind, the farmers have to come first. If they disappear, our local food economy disappears.

How does this translate to the book industry? I find lately that the prevailing opinion is "Indies good, box stores and Amazon evil." The people spreading this simplified view of the economy are only looking at the retail level of it. No one seems to be stating the publishing-level equivalent--"Small presses good, corporate publishers evil." And no one is mentioning the workers who actually manufacture the product, your friendly self-employed book farmers: the authors.

The majority of writers (at least the vast majority I know) are truly the sweatshop laborers of the industry. For the months of work put into a novel, even from authors who can write quickly, the average amount earned over the time that book remains in print is almost always less than minimum wage. If you add in the hours an author spends on promotion of that book, and subtract expenses for travel, advertising and the rest, sewing stuffed animals in China starts to sound like lucrative work.

I know truly amazing indie stores who support authors in all kinds of way. They not only stock my books (or are willing to order them if a customer asks), but they also aren't afraid to deal with legitimate small presses. They have a pile of books waiting for me when I do a signing. They ask me to sign a couple copies for the store before I leave. They publicize my appearance. They talk about my books before I arrive and after I leave. They do this for all their local authors and ones passing through on tours, and in return, the authors send customers their way.

In the last 5 years or so, though, I've come across an increasing number of indies who seem to order books only from big corporate publishers, even if they've scheduled an author event or are a dealer at a conference. The majority of authors I've appeared with at signings in the last year have had to schlep their own books to events. What's up with that? I realize that some small presses play fast and loose with industry standards, but mine doesn't. Yet many bookstores won't even call to ask questions.

Amazon, evil empire that it is, at least gives all authors a little shelf space and a page on which to promote our wares. Amazon might be huge and making profits hand over fist, but right now, they treat authors better than the rest of the industry.

I'm not saying shopping at indies is wrong. Far from it. I do my best to support the good ones. I have a link on my website to help readers find indie bookstores near them. All I ask of indies is that they support authors in return. We can help you sell more books. Really.

All of us as readers need to take a closer look at who's taking our money and where it's going from there. The economy doesn't only exist on the retail level. How many bucks are making it back to the guy down at the bottom? I've known too many authors who've quit writing the last 5 years because they just can't take the frustration and inability to make ends meet. And that breaks my heart.

We have to support our book farmers first. If they disappear, bookstores disappear.

Go read,
Elena (who's getting too old to schlep books)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

New Holiday Mystery in the (St.) Nick of Time

Here it is, December, and lots of mystery readers are looking for novels with holiday settings.

Last summer, when my first Twins mystery, TWO-FACED, made its debut, I was about halfway done the sequel, DOUBLE CROSS, which takes place in the four days leading up to Christmas. I never thought it would be out for this season, but everything went smoothly and I'm happy to announce that DOUBLE CROSS is now available for Kindle (and cheap, too, only $3.99).

DOUBLE CROSS continues the story of Gen Ziegler, a young criminal psychologist just starting her career. She's been estranged from her twin sister, Sara, but now Gen's moving back home during winter break. She and Sara are driving Gen's U-Haul trailer cross-country from Arizona to Pennsylvania when they're forced spend a few days in a tiny West Texas town right outside Guadalupe Mountains National Park. They find that the area is full of secrets, a few wanted outlaws, and of course, murder and danger, seemingly behind every sagebrush. Not an ideal situation for sisters just looking for a quiet holiday and a chance to heal their dysfunctional relationship.

I put extra information about DOUBLE CROSS on Shelfari. Also, watch this blog for a DOUBLE CROSS contest in the near future (you have to read the book to find the clues before entering, though).

Happy Holiday Reading,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Listening For Ghosts

Last weekend I visited a haunted house. I don't mean the commercial kind that springs up in your town before Halloween. This was Selma Mansion, an 18th century house with a long history of unexplained phenomena. In fact, the building's been studied by 3 different paranormal investigative groups.

Last Saturday, to raise funds for restoring and maintaining the old landmark, the Norristown Preservation Society ran historical tours of the place, followed by presentations by the Pennsylvania Underground Paranormal Society (P.U.P.S.).

Now, I admit, I do believe in ghosts, the same way I believe in God and the afterlife and black holes and other things I haven't seen. But I also believe in scientific method and the kind of good deductive reasoning you find in a great murder mystery, so I'm likely one of the biggest skeptics of what constitutes "evidence" of ghosts.

I tend to ignore photos of "orbs" (what looks like bubbles of light). In my experience as an amateur photographer, orbs are always cause by odd light angles and reflective surfaces in just the wrong spot. I was glad to hear P.U.P.S. say they didn't bother with orbs.

They did play some recordings that sounded like wood cracking. Yeah, in the silence of an abandoned house in the middle of the night, a loud crack of wood can be pretty unsettling. Yesterday morning at about 4 am, I heard a loud crack out in my hallway. Not a ghost, but the wood of one of the balusters on my stair railing, contracting as it cooled. My stair treads and some of the floating panels on my doors do the same thing. In an old house, especially after several layers of paint make it hard for wood to naturally expand and contract, cracking sounds are every day events. So I wish paranormal investigators would ignore them, too.

They showed some infrared videos. Except for one film, I either couldn't see the extra shadows or lights they claimed were there, or I thought they could be attributable to optical illusions. One did show a light that seemed to go on by itself. That was cool.

What did fascinate me were the digital audio recordings. I have pretty good hearing and, trained as a musician, I think I can separate individual sounds out of cacophony fairly well. On some of the recordings, I wasn't convinced that the "ghost voices" P.U.P.S. said were present really were. However, on a lot of their recordings, I distinctly heard faint words, some even seeming to answer direct questions. Assuming there was no hoax involved (and I hope there wasn't, because the investigators all seem to be genuinely nice people), this was impressive. The house also contained old servants' bells and buzzers, all disconnected, but I could hear an occasional tingle or buzz on the recordings as well.

Whether or not these recordings prove the existence of ghosts at Selma (or elsewhere where similar voices have been recorded), I have to say I was completely intrigued by the visit. And of course, it's fodder for my writing.

Paranormal investigation of Selma Mansion will be featured in the coming weeks on the Ghost Detectives TV show.

Happy Haunting,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Quest for Saints and Scoundrels

Pat Montella, the protagonist in my Possessed Mystery Series, mentions her gene pool quite a bit. Coming from a huge Italian family, researching her family tree was a survival tactic. I know because I resort to the same tactic when trying to keep straight my 32 first cousins and their families, and at least double that number of second cousins.

The knowledge also comes in handy as a functional database of hereditary health problems. It's an affirmation, too. Looking over my kin and our ancestors, I find good storytellers, musicians, science geeks, and kind, caring people.

Ancestral surprises are a recurring theme in of my Possessed novels. Pat found new branches on her family tree in both By Blood Possessed and Fear Itself. Other series characters like Miss Maggie and the Lees, were enlightened about their ancestors in Hang My Head and Cry and Poison to Purge Melancholy.

That's the intriguing thing about genealogy. Surprises are fairly common because so few of us know much about our families before our grand- or great-grandparents. For a writer, this can also be a great story fodder.

A month ago, I was amazed to learn that my family likely has heredity dwarfism in our DNA. Simply put, it's a pituitary growth deficiency, and sometimes it only affects parts of the body. I always knew we were short--my dad and his brother Charlie, at 5'4", were the tallest of their siblings. Their mother was 4'8". But this may explain why every dentist I've visited in the last 25 years has told me I have tiny teeth. One cousin said she could picture us coming from a race of court jesters. I'm not sure. If our progenitors told jokes as badly as our family does now, they would have been beheaded before they could procreate. Still, I can believe I come from a race of hammy actors who could sing, tell a yarn and do acrobatics.

I've read that amateur genealogists come in two flavors: those searching their family tree for famous or heroic kin, and those looking for scoundrels and black sheep. I'm not sure which I am. I think I'm simply in it for the stories.

If you've explored your family tree, what was your motive?

Elena (short and proud of it)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My New Favorite Toy

If you like reading stories about crime, deception, betrayal, murder and the human nature associated with such things (and what mystery fan doesn't?), you'll find an impressive, searchable source for these tales at

That's right, Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court. Their archives, from 1674 through 1913, have been digitalized. On the righthand side of their home page, just drop a keyword into the search box and see what comes up.

My first search was on the word "witch." The first result, pictured above, was the proceedings for the trial of 60 year-old Jane Kent, accused of practicing witchcraft and the "Diabolick Arts" in 1682 after one man's pigs, wife and 5 year-old daughter fell ill and the little girl died. A woman who supposedly searched the prisoner swore that she had a "Teat on her back" and unusual holes behind her ears.

And that was just a random search.

You can use the Advanced Search function to find trials by, say, offence or punishment. I searched on death by burning and discovered that it was the go-to sentence in the 17th century for coin clipping (that is, shaving or clipping silver from around the edges of coins. Isaac Newton was the dude who came up with the idea of putting ridges around the rims of coins as a way to detect clipping).

I found this website from an article in Science News dealing with one of the site's creators, Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertsfordshire. One of his analyses showed how guilty pleas soared from less than 3% to nearly one third around the year 1825. At the same time, the length of a third of the trials dropped from about 5000 words to less than 100. The concept of "plea bargaining" had been born.

If you're writing historical crime fiction that takes place in England or the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this site is an amazing primary source.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the Jury found Jane Kent not guilty. Still, I can't help but wonder if that growth on her back eventually killed her.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Buy a Book, Feed the Poor

Learning history isn't much good if you don't apply the knowledge to today's problems. That's the whole point of my Possessed Series. Each novel has two mysteries, one historical, one present day, and hopefully a bit of insight about what we've learned, or haven't, between the two eras.

I set FEAR ITSELF in my hometown simply because my best historical resources were here, namely people who were alive in 1933 and willing to talk my ears off about it. I couldn't include every story, but I think I got a handle on what life was like in a poor Italian neighborhood in Norristown, PA during the Great Depression.

This week I found myself wondering if I'd done justice to the modern day setting. While running some errands, I drove along a street I haven't been down in a while. At one intersection, I saw a long line of people. I remembered there was a food bank in that building. Never had I seen a line that long at that food bank. This was the early afternoon, so that also meant those folks didn't have day jobs. It reminded me of the bread lines I'd seen in 1930s photos while doing research for FEAR ITSELF.

Also this week, I heard that an "Occupy Norristown" protest is scheduled for Saturday. My first reaction was to wonder what there was to protest against in Norristown. We don't have a financial district. In fact, for a small city of 30,000 residents, we have pitiful few bank branches left in town. We had more in 1933. That goes for Main St. businesses too. Back then you had your choice of 5 movie theaters, 2 five-and-ten stores, 2 department stores, at least 4 large food markets, as well as two shopping districts of stores with every kind of goods and service imaginable. After FDR took office and the economy picked up, we had a slew of local factories and mills who started hiring again. Today most of the large businesses have closed. The rest moved out of town, most nowhere near public transportation. We do have some small independent stores on Main St., but our downtown is a ghost of its former self.

I'm pretty certain the richest 1% of America can't be found my hometown.

From researching my town's newspaper archive, I know that, as bad as things were in 1933 here, everyone tried to pitch in to help anyone poorer and hungrier. These days at least two of our Congressmen are talking about slapping the poor with higher taxes.

I've decided, to do my small part, I'm going to give10% of my FEAR ITSELF royalties (including ebooks) the local charities in Norristown that seem to be doing the most good for our poorest residents--like that food bank with the long line. This town helped my ancestors weather hard times in the Great Depression, so I'm giving back. If you want to help
Find a local Independent Bookstore and help your own economy.
Order from Amazon.
Order from Barnes & Noble.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Here lies NICE

(and other epitaphs from the Graveyard of Overused Words)

Last week I taught writing workshops to 4th graders. One classroom had a terrific bulletin board display titled "The Graveyard of Overused Words." The board was covered with cut-out tombstones with epitaphs like
Here lies NICE, cold as ice.

Around the sides of the stones were synonyms that could be used instead. Samples of other epitaphs:

REALLY is buried here, along with his brother VERY.

This is the grave of COOL, who died a fool.

The teacher told me that her students were allowed to use these words only once per writing assignment. This got me thinking of words I tended to overuse and epitaphs I'd add.

Here lies IT.
We don't need you. Git.

Do you have a favorite (or anti-favorite) overused word? Add an epitaph for your word under comments below.

Peace, (Serenity, Tranquility),

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Case of the Broodies

Agatha Christie stated in her autobiography that she'd get a "broody" feeling when she was between books, or when her writing wasn't going well.

The last month, I've had a serious case of the broodies. I was working on the last 3 chapters of DOUBLE CROSS, the second novel in my Twins mystery series. As I was tying up loose ends, I discovered a few loopholes.

Writing a book is like building a house. You need a good structure and you need a floor plan that flows. The rest is cosmetics and can be changed once the first draft is complete. But if you're putting on the roof and realize walls need to be moved around or eliminated, it's easier (for me, anyway) to go back, make decisions on plot changes and implement them right away.

What brings on the broodies is losing momentum. Momentum is what keeps a story's energy level high. Most writers handing out advice will tell you to keep writing no matter what. Save rewrites until your first draft is complete. Absolutely sound advice, yet for me, it only works for cosmetic changes. Easy enough, once the house is built, to adjust the paint color, or even move non-load-bearing walls. Structural repairs are different. I can't keep working on a building in danger of collapse.

Going back to fix problems is part of the craft. Sometimes it's a pain, but more often it's a good challenge, even fun. You see a better way to tell the story, and that's always satisfying.

The good news is, the loopholes are gone and yesterday I finished the first draft. I celebrated by turning off the PC, making a big pot of soup and watching a Ghost Whisperer marathon on TV. Now I'm ready for rewrites.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's in A Dream?

In my new mystery series, beginning with the novel TWO-FACED, I created twin protagonists: two young sisters who both go into the same field--psychology. My main sleuth, Gen Ziegler, is a personality psychologist who does criminal profiles (making it easier for her to become involved in murders). Her identical twin Sara, to satisfy my own interest in the subject, specializes in dream psych.

My fascination with the world of dreams was renewed last January 6th. That's when I woke out of one of the most pleasant dreams I've ever had to realize I was being wheeled out of an operating room after having my thyroid ousted. The nurses were yelling at me that all had gone well. I mentally cursed them for bringing me back to the world of medical discomfort.

By the next morning, after being allowed to resume my slumbers, then having viewed three or four more episodes of sleep sitcoms, I realized that I hadn't remembered a dream in years. Given certain symptoms before the operation--lack of focus, inability to concentrate for very long--it was likely I hadn't had adequate REM sleep in quite a while.

Since then, I've returned to a more or less normal-for-me writing schedule. And I've experienced REM sleep almost nightly, even in double or triple features--sometimes scary, sometimes off-the-wall, sometimes downright comic. The other night I dreamt about the setting of a twins novel I'm writing (working title, DOUBLE CROSS). When I woke up, I realized I was singing a song about the Spanish.

I don't speak Spanish. Nor do I have any plans to turn the book into a musical. But it sure was funny at 3 in the morning.

Sweet dreams,

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Book Industry Could Learn a Thing or Two in Collingswood

I was at the Collingswood Book Festival this past weekend and I noticed that the attendees bought less books than in the past. At first glance, you'd think this was due to the bad economy. Yet, they seemed to be buying plenty of ice cream and pizza. This trend does not bode well for America's wars on obesity and illiteracy. (Okay, I admit, I too bought ice cream. You can't be that close to the Pop Shop in Collingswood and NOT get ice cream.)

The other years I've manned a booth at this festival, people would stop by and talk about books or ask about writing. Even kids did this, which made the long day of fighting Philly traffic, schlepping books and worrying about the weather worth the trip.

This year, only a handful of folks struck up a conversation. Most tried to walk by as far from the booth as possible, without making eye contact. Of the few that slowed down to read my poster, if I said "hello" or "Do you like mystery books?", I often earned an anguished "Please don't speak to me" look in return. Other reactions included a wrinkled nose expression of disgust, as if I'd offered to put live slugs on the slice of pizza in their hands. One woman went off into a long-winded tirade about how she hadn't brought cash and none of the vendors would take her MAC card. (Most of the booths were occupied by authors or authors' organizations.)

However, I gave out more business cards than in past years. Some said they'd look up my books in the library, which is fine by me. If I did my job right, after reading one novel, those people will seek out another. But also, the next morning I saw that my digital sales had spiked. I'm thinking that this is the trend most worth noting.

I'll end this with a description of one customer who walked up to my table wheeling a small cloth rucksack behind her. The sack was stuffed to the ripping point with books. She patiently listened to my elevator series synopsis, then said she'd run out of money. I'd heard this as a rebuff from other potential readers, so I wasn't surprised when she walked away. But fifteen minutes later, she was back to buy a novel--she'd gone home to drop off her load and grab more cash. She said she was going away for 3 days (days!) and was afraid of running out of things to read.

In the book world, this is like meeting a living saint. God bless those readers, every one.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

You're Probably Wondering Why I Called You All Here

In the last few weeks, whenever a friend asked how my writing was going, my stock answer was "I hate denouements."

A denouement is the part of a mystery novel where the clues come together, the puzzle is solved, everything's explained and the loose ends are tied up.

As I approach the denouement, I'm always reenergized. I've mentioned before that writing a novel can be likened to swimming across the ocean. Once I've planted the last clue, it's like looking up and finally seeing the opposite shore. I can pick a landing spot and head for it. Problem is, I'm tempted to sprint, forgetting about all the writing equivalents of shoals and riptides.

Explanations in and of themselves are pretty boring. If you've ever had a college lecture course, you know what I mean. Doing a simple quick explanation will only tempt the reader to skip ahead to the ending, then it won't be satisfying for them.

Few writers have the skills of Agatha Christie, who could pull off the type of denouement where all suspects are gathered together and the detective goes through the motives and opportunity of each one. Christie always saved several twists for these scenes, to keep the denouement interesting. Not that she didn't play fair. She probably told you the vital clues in chapter one and promptly misled you so much, you forgot them.

Most writers I know combine the denouement with the final suspenseful confrontation. The villain spills his guts while trying to kill the hero. Or the villain is smart enough not to spill his guts, but gets caught in the act. Or the hero makes the last connection in time to save an innocent life.

Regardless of how the denouement unfolds, it must keep the reader turning pages while providing a fair and satisfying solution. The best ones are dragged out just enough to make the reader beg for more.

I've read tons of writing advice about spending serious time on first chapters, getting them right, so you irresistibly draw the reader into your books. I think denouements are even more difficult to write, and it's so hard to go slow on those last few chapters. Hence my grumpy mood right now.

Still, by taking time to do the denouement well, you draw the reader into your next novel.

'Scuze me, I'm nearing the breakwater.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Story, Bad Book

All writers need editing. I've said that before, but every year, it seems, I read more and more books that are poorly edited, if edited at all. I just finished one—a really good story, so I saw it through to the end, but the lack of copyediting and of things like mixed-up character names drove me nuts. On top of that, the galleys had apparently never been proofed because I saw formatting errors like hard returns in the middle of paragraphs. That publishing house so obviously didn't care about the quality of their product that I may never buy another of their books.

Editing can make or break you as a writer. Yet editors are traditionally so invisible that, in these days of self-publishing-made-easy, we forget editors exist for good reasons. Readers and most unpublished writers (and some published ones) have no idea what a good editor does or should do for a book. Here's what I've learned from the good editors I've had the pleasure to know:

1. Good editors don't let you settle. They point out your manuscript's weaknesses, coincidences, lame plot devices, loopholes, bad structure, and questionable research. They can zero in on those parts of the novel you slapped together (at the last minute, on too little sleep, to make your deadline) like flies zero in on garbage.

2. A good editor will ask you to change anything that makes you sound as if you don't have a command of your native language and a decent vocabulary. They'll say things like, "You used the word 'though' 187 times. Change a few of them." They won't let you use 200,000 words when 70,000 will do.

3. Good editors will tell you when your characters are out of character or wooden or just plain stupid. Editors should have a sixth sense that knows the page at which your average intelligent reader will get fed up with the hero and hurl the book across the room.

And here's what I've learned about good editing from bad editors:

1. A good editor will never, ever make changes in a manuscript without the writer's permission. I had one editor take colloquialisms out, until I was left with no narrative voice. I only found this out when I was sent the first proofs. I just heard of another writer who had this sort of thing happen at another house.

2. A good editor knows punctuation, spelling and standard text formatting. You'd think I wouldn't have to say that, but it's truer now than ever.

3. A good editor makes the writer fix his or her own wording, plot problems, etc. Mild suggestions are acceptable, but the editor has no business doing the writing. Too many editors seem to want to mark their territory this way. And too many novice writers would rather leave the rewrites to someone else. What you get is a book by committee.

This is why, when I decided to do an original series on Kindle, I sought out a good independent editor for the books. And I use several proofreaders for every story and novel I write, even before an editor picks it up.

Too many writers simply want to be published. A good piece of writing should be published well, with some level of integrity. Authors ought to care about that integrity more than anyone else. After all, check out whose name goes on the cover.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New and Unexpected

Back when I was in high school, I remember half-waking up in the middle of the night, thinking I heard the window make noise. I blinked at the room for maybe a second, then fell back to sleep. Next morning I heard we had an earthquake. I live on the East Coast. Once in a lifetime experience. I was bummed that I'd missed it.

Yesterday at 1:50 pm, I was in my 2nd floor office, sitting at my PC, writing, totally in the zone. The rest of the world didn't exist.

Some independent part of left brain heard what sounded exactly like someone running up my stairs. The house is old--running up the stairs shakes the floorboards. Didn't faze me until I realized I ought to be alone in the house. Noise stopped, but the vibration increased until it felt like someone wiggling my desk chair from behind. That brought me out of the zone. Heavy truck going by? Explosion across town? The desk moved under my hands.

The vibration stopped abruptly. I was turning in my chair when it began again and this time, the room swayed. The Venetian blind rods moved, my bobble-head moose nodded, my PC monitor was wiggling like it was made of Jello. Now I knew an earthquake was passing through. But I sat frozen. And geek that I am, my first thought was "How cool!"

All this lasted maybe 4 seconds. I went outside, not because I felt unsafe--I only wanted to ask the neighbors what they felt. I was fascinated.

Of course, by now I was so out of the zone, I gave up on writing for the day. But it got me thinking about how often we mystery writers put our characters in new and unexpected situations.

In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, someone shoots at my protagonist. She's not expecting it, she's never been shot at before. Like me in the earthquake, it takes her a moment to realize what's happening, then she freezes. I think I got her reaction right in that instance. After yesterday, though, I'm not so sure of other scenes where she experiences something new.

Reactions, of course, must be personality-driven, but no one should react to a new experience with perfect reflexes, even characters with emergency training of some sort. Yet, I've read too many novels where the protagonist reacts instantly, somehow instinctively doing the right thing. To me, that's the fastest way to dehumanize a character.

Last night quite a few of the people I heard from said they never wanted to feel an earthquake again. Me? If no one gets hurt and no property is damaged, I wouldn't mind another chance to observe the experience.

Like I said, I'm a geek...and a writer.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Apple Butter and Water

 I don't have sisters, but I've been lucky enough for most of my life to have a few close friends who've been like sisters to me. Most of them are Pennsylvania Dutch.

When I decided to create a new mystery series with twin sister protagonists (first novel TWO-FACED), I knew I wanted them to be different than my Possessed series protagonist, Pat Montella.  Pat's a lot like me. All Italian, a refugee from corporate America, and the same age I was when I began writing her series—late thirties.  She's a better cook than I could ever be, but I've learned from her in that respect.

Gen and Sara Ziegler are lousy cooks. They're also products of the academic world and ten years younger than Pat. But probably the biggest difference is their background.  They're half Pennsylvania Dutch, raised in the Schwenkfelder church. If you're asking what a Schwenkfelder is, you're not alone.  Only a few of their churches survive, all in southeastern Pennsylvania, most at the northern end of my county. I learned about them through my best friend, Linda, and her sisters, who were raised in that tradition.

Casper Schwenckfeld isn't as well-known as other founders of the German Reformation, possibly because his philosophy was easy-going. He preached that ministers shouldn't tell their flocks what to believe, that everyone had to discover what to believe in their own hearts. His followers were therefore fairly tolerant of other sects. When they came to America in the early 1700s, they didn't settle in a segregated block like so many before them, but fit in and around other settlements, wherever there was room.

The main group of Schwenkfelders landed here on September 22, 1734, and two days later held a service of Thanksgiving. Since then, Schwenkfelders have observed this Day of Remembrance by sharing a simple meal of  bread, butter, apple butter and water.  (Side note:  Schwenkfelders make the best apple butter in the universe. No lie.)

So, making Gen and Sara Schwenkfelders meant creating a fictional hometown for them. I set Mount Ebal, PA up amid the rolling hills of my county, where there's still (for now anyway) more farms than development. The setting gives me an excuse to go to the Central Schwenkfelder Country Fair each year, where I can load up on apple butter, jams, and other Penn Dutch goodies, and call it research.

The other half of Gen and Sara's genetics? I couldn't resist giving them a mysterious Sicilian side. They are, after all, my kids.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Forgotten Man at the Bottom

Even if you only catch national news on the fly while switching channels between ESPN and Disney, you probably noticed that this week everyone's talking about the economy and whether or not we're headed for another Great Depression.

The historical part of my novel FEAR ITSELF is set in the first week of March, 1933. The main reason I chose that week was the infamous "bank holiday" that officially began on March 5th and shut down all U.S. banks. In my mind, I pictured that as a really scary thing--no credit cards, no ATMs, no way to access your money. No knowing how long that would be the case.

Then I asked my parents about it. "We didn't even notice," Mom said. "We didn't have enough money to put in the bank."

A difficult concept to wrap my brain around: No savings, except maybe a few bucks squirreled away behind a picture frame now and then. More likely only the coins in your pocket to get you through each day.

That's not to say that poor people weren't affected by the Depression.  This is where the theory of trickle down economics has any validity at all--not in times of prosperity, but in times of loss. When speculation bubbles burst, the loss gets passed down the ladder to the poor. They're the first to lose their jobs, their means of transportation, and their homes. And because they have so little, the percentage of what they do lose is huge. Less workers, less mortgages, less loan payments all mean less profit, so eventually the wealthy also lose money and the situation, at last, can be called a Depression. Someone finally takes a look at the economic structure and finds the weak links.

In 1933, banks were some of these links. No computers then. At best, this meant human errors often went undetected. At worse, lack of consistent record keeping made corruption and fraud easy. FDR called a "bank holiday" so Federal inspectors could audit bank records. Once a bank passed audit, they could reopen. Since Saturday March 4th was the president's inauguration, many banks were persuaded to close early on Friday the 3rd, giving the inspectors a long weekend to get started.

As some of you know, I start my historical chapters with period quotes. Here are a few of my favorites from FEAR ITSELF:

"All the really important millionaires are planning to continue prosperity."
 Arthur Brisbane, Nov. 26, 1929

"These really are good times but only a few know it."
Henry Ford, 1930

"There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America."
Will Rogers, Nov. 1931

"These unhappy times call for the building of plans...that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."
FDR, campaign speech, April 1932

So, are we headed for another Depression now? Don't ask the bankers or Wall Street. Ask the forgotten people at the bottom of the pyramid. Many of them will tell you we're already there.


Sunday, July 31, 2011


The novel I'm currently writing takes place in December.  The location isn't the coldest place in winter, but daily highs average 59 F and lows average 38 F.

In the past two weeks where I live, afternoon temperatures have been between 85 and 103, and nights between 67 and 83. Sitting here in my shorts and sleeveless shirts, it's not easy to remember to put jackets and gloves on my characters. It's hard to recall what a winter breeze feels like on naked skin. Or to picture little white puffs of breath while people talk.

I had a similar situation while writing HANG MY HEAD AND CRY. That story takes place in July in Virginia, during a heat wave and drought. I wrote much of that novel during the winter.

Still, I believe in getting the weather and climate right for whatever setting I'm using.  I think I mentioned once in this blog a book I'd read in which a family from Florida goes to Virginia for the Christmas holidays. The author had put far too much snow on the ground for the location. The characters were forever doing things like sitting under a tree for a half hour with no sign of discomfort, or walking on top of the snow without sinking in or slipping. One character said she'd forgotten her gloves, then went on to help build a snowman. The author was a Floridian. I suspect that, since she had no clue snow was wet and freezing cold, her only experiences with it were through visual media.

These days, it's easy to Google monthly average temperatures and precipitation for just about anywhere on earth. Writers researching historical novels can use weather descriptions in dairies and local newspaper archives. I did this with FEAR ITSELF. My 1933 characters had to deal with messier weather, but I had the satisfaction of knowing it was authentic and much more interesting than relentless nice days (which is rare for March in Southeastern Pennsylvania).

Weather adds depth and mood to a setting. Yet writers seldom use it except in the extreme, like the blizzard that stranded the train in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

As I finish this blog, the sky outside is turning an ominous dark gray. I can hear thunder from the southwest.

Think I'll go enjoy the impending show.

Stay cool,

Saturday, July 23, 2011

EBOOKS: Fear Itself and Two-Faced

If I had any doubts about the future of electronic books, they were laid to rest by one question I've been relentlessly asked the last 3 months:  "Is FEAR ITSELF available on Kindle?"

I'm happy to announce that, at last, FEAR ITSELF, the 4th book in the Pat Montella series, is available in both Kindle and Nook formats, at a better-than-reasonable price.

In addition, for those of you ebook fans who are completely insatiable, I've begun a new Kindle-exclusive series.  The first novel, TWO-FACED went live today and, best of all, it's cheap.

TWO-FACED introduces my Twins Mystery Series, featuring forensic psychologist Gen Ziegler and her mirror-image twin, Sara.  If Pat Montella and Miss Maggie could be considered my Poirot and Miss Marple, Gen and Sara are definitely my Tommy and Tuppence. They're young and more adventure-prone.  I can throw all sorts of danger at them without worrying about things like osteoporosis.

Gen and Sara also let me show-off a bit of my local Pennsylvania culture.  They're half Pennsylvania Dutch, half Sicilian, and they were brought up in the Schwenkfelder Church (only a handful of these churches are left in Southeastern PA).  Apple butter and pizza sauce flow through their veins.

So go check them out and let me know what you think.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Retreat, Regroup

As I'm writing this, I'm sitting on a screened porch, enjoying my last hours at my second annual writing retreat.  I think I mentioned last year that the location is so remote, my host has to lead me to it, a half hour in from the main road.  No Internet access here, and this week, thanks to Verizon's efficiency (yes, that's sarcasm) not even a land line.  A cellphone signal can be had if you've got a decent carrier and don't mind walking down the driveway a bit.  With the phone out, last night's gorgeous full moon and the murder of crows that hung around all week, it's been rather like living inside a Hitchcock movie.  Perfect mood for mystery writing.

The week was filled with lovely walks down farm roads, good food, and wildlife sightings (songbirds, bunnies, deer, a huge family of wild turkeys (mom, dad, 6 adolescents and 8 babies), and my first close-up look at a bald eagle).  Evenings were spent listening to old radio plays.

But, of course, the purpose of the retreat was writing.  While it's nice to have a quiet place for uninterrupted work, I find the real benefit of a retreat is for the thinking writing demands.  At home, with all the distractions, it's hard to find time to step back from your project to ruminate on why a scene isn't working, or whether the book is flowing properly, or should the story take a whole new direction?  Walking seems to get the creative juices flowing.  Country air clears the mind.  Ice cream at the end of the day rewards the soul.

That's the kind of mental rejuvenation these retreats offer.  Honestly, I could use one 4 or 5 times a year.

Now back to reality.  But I'll arrive home with loads of fresh Jersey produce and fresh ideas for my writing.  And a great memory of a bald eagle sighting.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Doodle Comes to Visit

No writing yesterday.  Sprout TV was filming scenes from two episodes of the children's show Noodle and Doodle right in front of my house.  I camped out at my front window with iced tea and munchies.

I hadn't heard of N & D so I Googled it.  It's an online show for preschoolers,  featuring Noodle, a muppet who teaches kids how to cook healthy meals. The other title character is Doodle, sort of a cross between an Etch-a-Sketch and an iPad (really he's a hand-held blue screen that's later animated back at the studio). Driving these two stars around in a double-decker bus is human host Sean.  The bus and Noodle were absent.  Too hot for them perhaps. It was humid and 88 degrees in the shade where my thermometer hangs. They were filming in the sun.  They hung white scrims overhead to diffuse the light, and had cases of bottled water and a big fan, but it must have been stifling out there.  But Sean and Doodle were present, along with a production crew of about 30 people.  I have to say, they were all very nice and friendly, apologized for making us all move our cars and closing off our street, and at the end of the day, they cleaned the whole block so it looked better than when they began.  In my prior experience with film companies (I was an extra in Twelve Monkeys), this isn't always the norm.

They use different preschoolers on every show, and yesterday's certainly weren't seasoned actors (what 4 year-olds are?).  The directors both deserve Emmys just for coaching the tots through take after take (for instance, fifteen minutes of shooting them saying "Bye, Sean!" and waving, when their attention spans lasted no more than 5 minutes). One little boy simply stopped doing anything.  One little girl relieved her rising boredom by getting more creative, running into the street instead of stopping on her mark, waving her stuffed animal instead of her arm (and hiding her face in the process).

Here are some of photos of the shoot:

Setting up scene 1.  More interesting than actual shoot.

Sean holding Doodle. Sean spent a lot of time down on that knee.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reading 'Mid Chaos

I had a Murphy's Law kind of morning yesterday.  First, while watering my veggie garden, I stepped in dog poop.  I had on the sneakers that I'd need to wear an hour later, to catch a train into Philly for a voice therapy appointment.  The shoes had to be cleaned instead of answering work-related emails that really shouldn't wait.

When I arrived at the station, a train was pulling out as I got out of my car.  I was 13 minutes early, so I deduced that the 9:03 was late.  But my train, the 9:23, never came.  Turns out that SEPTA changed the schedule 9 days ago.  I called the therapist and asked if I could come in a bit late.  The gist was, it was my dime, I'd get a shorter session for the same price.  My voice needed the workout, so I took the next train.

I'd brought a new paperback to read on the commute.  As I took a seat and opened the book, my mind was flitting from the work I'd wanted to get done that morning, to how short a session I'd be paying full price for, to "What else could possibly go wrong today?"  My blood pressure was definitely above par.

Halfway through page two of the novel, I realized it just wasn't pulling me in.  I decided, if the book wouldn't help me forget my troubles, I'd forget them by analyzing why the opening wasn't working for me.

Oddly enough, the story didn't begin at the beginning.  The first scene was really the 3rd, then 2 chapters of flashbacks were needed to bring the reader up to speed.  I saw why the author chose to start with that particular scene.  It contained the essence of what made this murder different from every other one on the market--a character study of the victim presented through a description of the victim's house.  The prose was well-written.  Problem was, though, not much happened in those first pages.  They were mostly descriptive detail.

I think most authors (myself included) like to imagine their readers sitting beside a cosy fire, with no place to go and nothing to do but read.  We envision readers who come to our works with receptive minds, ready to sink into and mentally participate in our tales.  We like to picture our novels being read straight through, so the reader only need be pulled into the action once. We don't envision hectic commuters, or people passing the time in doctor's offices and grocery lines, or even sleepy folks only awake enough to spend a chapter with us at bedtime.

I learned yesterday that I need to think of the reader as an outsider, peeking into my strange world, with the many concerns of their own world tugging them away.  What are they looking for? Possibly just a few moments of escape.

You can't invite visitors into your garden, then insist they look at every pedal and leaf immediately.  No matter how proud you are of your garden, that's no way to treat your guests.  Make them comfortable and show them something interesting, with the promise of more to come if they stick around or come back later.  Start with story, not details.

By the way, on my way home, I got soaked by a downpour.  Today, I'm hiding out under my bed.


Sunday, June 19, 2011


THIS week I attacked the weeds in my flower garden.  The word "weed" conjures in most American minds the image of dandelions (or marijuana, depending on your perspective).  Like Miss Maggie in my novels, I don't mind dandelions, or the white blossoms of clover, or purple of ground ivy in my lawn.  Adds interest to the relentless green of grass (much of my grass is off the crab variety, but it is green).

The worst of my weed archenemies are

-- morning glories - sure, they look pretty, but they cover the shrubs like kudzu, until every leaf below their canopies withers and dies for lack of sunlight,

-- deadly nightshade - while an appropriate vine for a mystery writer's garden, like the morning glories, it gets out of hand quickly.  I'd also rather not tempt the neighborhood kids to taste the pretty red berries,

-- ragweed - the most vile and evil of my weeds.  It lurks below ground, waiting until your back is turned, then sends up shoots that hide beneath, well, morning glories.  Their pollen makes me miserable from August through late November each year, so even if I let the morning glories and nightshade grow, the ragweed must
be evicted, the sooner, the better.

This past week I also worked on rewriting an old manuscript.  Weeding and rewriting are similar processes--the pulling out of the bad, ugly, and harmful to keep the flowers alive.  Yet many of my writing students have no patience with rewriting.  They think they're done right after planting.

What weeds can be found in a manuscript?  The first choice of many people would be "adverbs."  I liken adverbs to dandelions.  Sure, they can be annoying, they can be rampant, but they aren't going to kill a piece of writing unless you let them take over.  A reasonable amount of adverbs can even lend interest to your prose.

Poorly drawn characters are the morning glories of a story--characters who are, at best, unlikeable, and at worst, uninteresting.  A reader who doesn't care what happens to the protagonist will put the book down.  Bad characters can overshadow and kill an otherwise great work of fiction.

The ragweed of writing, in my opinion, is boring prose.  Very rarely will you find one small, lackluster patch of narration in a book.  Drab prose, allowed to take root, will often infest every page.  Lots of writers will banish snooze-inducing paragraphs from their first chapters, yet don't weed as meticulously as the book continues.

I can't simply sell my house and leave every time the ragweed in my garden give me fits of sneezing.  Readers (and editors) will walk away from a manuscript infested with weeds.  Rewriting is necessary not only to the aesthetic beauty of the final product, but to its health and longevity as well.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Just Visiting

 I had a nice spontaneous visit with a cousin the other day.  Unusual for me.  I don't get out much.

When my writing's going well, I lose track of time.  I spend hours in front of my PC, or sitting with a notebook on my lap, getting words down.  Even when I go out to an appointment or planned event, I'm anxious to get back to my writing.  When I'm away, I feel like I'm slighting my Muse and to get revenge, she'll go catch a bus for Vegas or something.

When my writing's not going well, I feel like I ought to chain myself to my desk chair until I produce something.  Even after my left brain overcomes the guilt and gets me out of the room, I usually don't go farther than to work in the garden or take a walk or grab a snack.  Again, I feel like I don't want to be away if my Muse shows up ready to work.

Lately, the only times I've traveled farther afield is for grocery shopping and other necessary errands (which I try to do only one or two days a week, to save gas and carbon emissions).  In this economy, vacations are few and far between.  In the long run, though, I know this is counterproductive to writing.  My best ideas are seldom found close to home or while staring at a computer monitor.  Routine errands are, well, routine, with nothing to make me stop and say, "That needs to go into a book."

The latest novel in the Possessed Mystery Series, FEAR ITSELF, is set in my hometown.  I was a bit wary of setting it there, in so familiar a setting.  One's own backyard is rarely a place of discovery and a good story is, at its core, one person saying to another, "Listen to what I just found out."  I purposefully went around my town "visiting" places I'd been to before, snooping here and there, seeing things I hadn't noticed before.  For the Montgomery Cemetery chapters, I took several tours of the place, learning lots of history, legends, and terrific grave-robbing tales.  I was especially grateful to our historic society for their moonlight tour of the cemetery last year so I could make my night scenes in the old burial ground authentic.  The photo at the top of this blog is from that graveyard.

If anyone reading this is within driving distance of Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, PA, they've got a tour scheduled on Sunday, June 26th at 2 pm, and a concert of Civil War songs on June 12th at 2 pm, to kick off the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  For more information, click here.

As for me, I know I need to get out and visit places and people more, to keep my writing fresh.  This month, that includes being a guest on other mystery blogs as well.  Here are the links if you want to check them out.

Buried Under Books Blog:  Don't Know Much About History

I'll be at the "Birth of a Novel" blog next week and will post the link on a future blog.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Farm, Therefore I Am (a Santangelo)

Bean plant and edible wild purslane
You may have noticed, my May blogs were scarce.  I can blame this partly on FEAR ITSELF.  The first month of a book's life is filled with signings, library talks and the like.  But my May blogs were scarce last year, too.  May is planting time.

The bell peppers, green beans, Genovese basil and beefsteak tomato plants have been in a week or more.  This morning I finished up by putting in the kumato tomatoes and sweet basil.  The first of the lettuce was harvested on Memorial Day, and my herbs are in decent shape, especially the oregano, chives, and sage (God bless 'em (see my last blog on superstitions)).

Purple sage flowers
Why do I do this?  I could say there's nothing like vegetables fresh from the garden.  It's true.  I could point out that growing your own is economical.  For the price of a pack of seeds per crop, I get a summer's worth of produce.  This year I dried my own sweet basil and tomato seeds, and the lettuce reseeded itself, so the yield from those plants is free.  Plus I give my extra plants to friends.  If everyone did this, we could feed the world.

Really, though, I think farming's in my blood.  On the 1920 U.S. census and on his WWI draft card, my Santangelo grandfather listed his profession as "farmer" even though he also made shoes and kept a small grocery store.  When my father was growing up in the 1920s and '30s, his older sisters sometimes took him to New Jersey in the summer.  They weren't after a vacation at the shore-- they were migrant farm workers, picking blueberries, peaches, whatever. 
Almost all of my dad's seven siblings raised vegetables.  My Aunt Marie also had an amazing concord grape arbor and made jam.  My Uncle Louis was a professional farmer.  Two of his sons still are.  My dad's biggest compliment when I made good in the garden was "Now you're a farmer."

Of all the things I do--writing, singing, accounting, historical research, ranting about politicians--nothing gives me the same solid, wholesome feeling as when I'm growing something to eat.  I feel connected to the earth and to a long line of my ancestors.

Beefsteak tomato
So, even though it means getting up before the heat of the day, to water everything, hoe up weeds, tie up vines, and maybe jury-rig ways to keep the neighborhood cats from digging up my plants, I'll keep up my little veggie/herb patch as long as I'm physically able.

When I farm, I know who I am.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Don't Make A Will Or You'll Die

Note:  I wrote this especially for Friday the 13th.  Blogger was down this morning.  Coincidence?  I think not.
My series protagonist, Pat Montella, would tell you that she inherited plenty of her family's Italian superstitions.  Today being Friday the 13th, it's the perfect day to talk about them.

As you might expect, Pat and I grew up with the same superstitions.  The Santangelos always began each New Year by eating pork the first thing after midnight, to bring us all luck in the coming twelve months.  My dad's folks were farmers who planted their root vegetables on March 19th, so St. Joseph would bless the crop.  And if you ever felt inspired to express your pleasure about someone's garden--"Look at those pretty roses!" or "My, the tomato plants are big this year!"--you always had to follow the comment with "God bless 'em!"  Otherwise the plants might wither and die.

My mom told of how her grandmother would make a cross from silver knives and place it out at the end of her yard in the summer, so lightning would hit them instead of the house.  Silver conducts electricity.  Whether she knew it or not, she was making a lightning rod.  Another thing Mom did was to bring home palm blessed by the priest on Palm Sunday and put a piece in each room of the house.  This also was to protect the house from lightning.  Interestingly enough, lightning actually did hit our house once.  The only consequence was that it short-circuited the bathroom outlet.  The bathroom was the only room with no palm.  Call me crazy but I still keep a piece in each room.

The title of this blog?  Yes, that was one of their superstitions, too.

All this said, my family didn't much believe in the Malocchio (that is, the Evil Eye.  Mom used to pronounce it malorky.  Other Italian Americans I know say maloiks).  One of our neighbors down the block mounted a rack of real bullhorns on her garage.  I never did find out why cow horns were supposed to be protection, but this particular women was certain that one of the neighbors on either side was giving her the Malocchio.  I remember trying to explain the horns to my Pennsylvania Dutch friends.

Someone once gave me a necklace with a horn amulet, which I've even worn together with a crucifix.  Doesn't hurt to hedge one's bets.

Peace, good luck and God bless,

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Do You Choose Certain Authors?

I attended the Malice Domestic Convention this past weekend.  Malice Domestic celebrates traditional mystery literature, the kind Agatha Christie wrote, with bodies in the library and such.  Nowadays, the definition is a bit broader, with bodies everywhere from Cabot Cove, Maine to the mean streets of LA, and around the world, but at Malice, you'll still find more whodunits than dark, gritty thrillers.

I could write pages about all the terrific fans and writers I met.  I found some new authors, like J.J. Murphy who writes about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, and John Cullen, who deciphered Dame Agatha's handwriting and transcribed her writing notebooks.

Instead, I'll mention one discussion that got me thinking about  why readers choose certain authors.  We were talking about law mysteries.  One lawyer friend of mine said she doesn't read them.  She reads to escape and doesn't want to spend time in the same setting where she works.  Then she admitted that she does read Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series, saying "but she's a judge."

I thought about why I read the Deborah Knott series.  Not for the law aspect.  Maron's Carolina settings bring back to me the happy times I've spent vacationing and eating my way through that region.  I like the character of Deborah.  She's intelligent and down to earth, a person with whom I love to spend time.  I like  her big family and all their antics, all the brothers that I can't keep straight.  The mystery plots are always good.  Maron's prose is beautiful.  If you took the courtroom scenes away, I'd still read the series.

Lisa Scottoline's novels have lots of "law" in them, but I read those books more because I feel at home in them.  Mary DiNunzio's family isn't so different from mine.  I understand their notion of food equaling love.  And, having grown up in the Philadelphia area, the settings are familiar to me.  I can even vividly picture the Federal  Courthouse, because I did jury duty there.  Lisa makes the "law" parts of her books interesting, but frankly, I don't choose her novels because of them.

Still, lots of readers probably do read law mysteries for the law in them, just like some readers pick up cat mysteries specifically because of the cats, or cooking mysteries because of the food.  Yet, it's still important for authors to make their characters, plots and settings strong, to win over those readers not otherwise interested in their subject matter.

I had one fan this weekend say, "I don't normally like history, but I like your series," and another say the same thing about not usually liking ghosts in books.

That to me proves that what a lot of readers want is simply a good story.  I'd be interested in hearing your opinion.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's Here!

Yesterday copies of FEAR ITSELF showed up at my door.  One of the high points in a writer's life is holding one of your books in your hands for the first time.  This was an even than I expected because the books arrived a week early.  Of course, for all writers, reality settles in the next day and you have to get back to work selling the things.

To that end:  FEAR ITSELF is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through the bookseller of your choice.  Eventually, it will also be out as an ebook.

In the Never Fear Fear Itself Contest, I handled the final drawing this way.  I wrote all the previous winners names on slips of paper and dropped the papers down the stairwell from my upstairs hall.  The one that fluttered the farthest won.

The winner is Karen Mayers of San Bruno, CA.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Too Many Hats

I think I've posted before about a writer's need to be 2 persons when working on a project.  One has to be creative, uninhibited and a bit zany. That's where the ideas come from, and the solutions, when you've painted your characters into a corner.  The other must be a persnickety, no-nonsense editor, who finds the misspellings, typos and plot loopholes, and who reigns in the creative other half enough that the story stays believable.

When the project's done, even more personalities have to kick in.  You need to be an outgoing salesperson to get that manuscript under the eyes of an agent or publisher.  You need a back-pocket lawyer to assess each contract.  You need a meticulous accountant who logs receipts and knows what goes onto a Schedule C (even if you don't do your own taxes, you have to know which receipts to keep, and be able to decipher a royalty statement).

The personality I've been the last few weeks has been the publicist.  These days, even in the big publishing  houses, no one's going to put many bucks or manpower behind promotion of your works.  That is, of course, unless you're fairly famous already.  THEN they'll publicize you.  Yes, ironic that authors get too little publicity until it isn't needed anymore, but that's reality.

So writers need to do their own promotion.  In recent years, it's become easier to do this online.  First of all, you need a website, which is your homebase.  Besides author, book and short story info, you can post photos, videos, excerpts, poems, recipes, games--anything that might be fun for the readers and can be tied back to one or more books or to you personally.

Sites like Amazon, BookTour, and GoodReads now all have author pages, letting you post your bio, photos, videos, events, and a link for your blog entries.  These are like mini-billboards for your products, and can all be linked back to your website.  I like the fact that I can list my events on BookTour and have them automatically appear on my home page.

Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with fans.  You can post your events there and invite people, giving mere book signings more of a party atmosphere.  You can post photos of your covers and videos of book trailers.  You can have characters come out to play with fans.

Of course, you'll still have all the old-fashioned publicity chores--book signings/tours to organize, conventions to attend, business cards/bookmarks/postcards to have printed.  I like to bring some kind of promotional item to conventions and signings, too.  With my last novel, I passed out little pill bottles filled with M&Ms.  For DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS, I taped English toffees and butterscotch to business cards.  This year, I have mini Champagne bottles filled with bubble liquid.  Within 24 hours, the Malice Domestic Convention ought to look like the set for the Lawrence Welk Show.

So I've been working on all of these things.  When my FEAR ITSELF cover (above) showed up last week, promotion kicked into high gear.  The great thing about doing publicity--updating your online sites, seeing your cover for the first time, hearing from fans that they're looking forward to the book--is that it keeps you excited, and that means you'll carry more energy into signings and to conventions.

The bad thing is that being your own publicist takes so much time away from writing.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors