Friday, August 24, 2012

Confessions of a Teenage Republican

Deep, dark secret that only one or two folks know about me: I was a Teenage Republican.

Not that I had much choice. Our high school didn't have a Teenage Democrat Club. Back then in our town, Democrats were encouraged to leave. Or stay behind closed doors, preferably on election days. You couldn't get a job at the courthouse if you weren't registered with the GOP.

So my choice was to join or not to join the Teenage Republicans. The mom of one of my best friends was a councilwoman, making said friend interested in politics. She didn't want to go to the meetings alone, and my social life being what it was (ie, no different than now), I joined the acned version of the Grand Ol' Party.

To tell the truth, I don't remember a thing about the club. I don't recall actually doing anything. Yet I think it did me some good in that I started following the issues, and have voted in every election from the moment I reached voting age. And if you pay attention to politics, you can't help noticing that politicians have traits that lend themselves nicely to certain characters in mystery novels.

I was always a lousy liar, I think because I grew up around science geeks. Yes, truth has gray areas, but certain facts can't be denied. The sun rises over different points on the horizon, but always in the eastern sky. So I'm fascinated by people who can bend the truth like they're pulling taffy. A skillful politician, if it suits his agenda, might tell you this month that the sun rises in the north. It's before the fall equinox, so he'd be right. Northeast sky. Doesn't matter if, in a month's time, the sun will rise in the southeast. He's scored his point, having convinced you today. When he draws you further from the facts next time, you're more likely to trust him.

Take a villain in a mystery, or any characters with secrets to hide (and really, every suspect worth his alibi will have a secret). Give those characters some ability to spin the truth and you'll fool the reader every time.

I like to think I learned from the best, since Richard Nixon was president when I was a Teenage Republican.

I must say, though, that the current batch of GOP politicians is disappointing. They just lie. No finessing the truth at all. They don't start from fact and pull you into their scam from there. Too lazy. They merely pick their own alternate reality and stick to it, repeating untruths ad nauseum in interviews, until they sound like scratched CDs and look ridiculous. I mean, seriously, you can admire a great con man. He's a pro. But do we really want to elect people so inept that they can't even lie convincingly?

If you're thinking of running for public office, do the fiction writers of this world a favor and master the basics of verbal manipulation. We're depending on you for inspiration.

For everyone else, make sure you're registered to vote. If you're in one of states (like I am) that insist on trying to suppress your vote, make sure you have the proper ID. And don't be, as Mr. Lincoln said, one of those people who can be fooled all or even some of the time.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Pat Montella Is Laughing At Me

Pat's the protagonist in my Possessed Mystery Series. When I was developing her character, she needed a hobby. Cooking, I decided--the kind of necessary but creative past time someone doing drudge work for corporate America could delve into at the end of a frustrating workday.

This wasn't a matter of write-what-you-know. When I penned the first book, By Blood Possessed, my repertoire in the kitchen consisted of brewing tea, nuking frozen dinners, and frying up the occasional French toast.

My mom had been the quintessential Italian cook. So was her mother before her. My brother Tom not only took after them, but figured out the art of great homemade bread. They weren't gourmets, mind you, but I grew up well fed. I never needed to learn to cook. For Pat's gastronomic creations, I had my family recipes to draw on.

In 2008, I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. All of a sudden, my diet had to be cleared of wheat, barley and rye products, and of anything else processed with those grains. I lost my major food groups: pizza, pasta and Italian rolls. My brother's bread was taboo. No more cake, donuts or other baked goods. No more of my usual breakfast cereals. Nothing breaded. No beef or turkey gravy. No Philly cheesesteaks or hoagies.

After a frantic couple of months wondering what I could safely put down my gullet, I made my mind up to learn how to cook and, especially, bake without gluten. At first it seemed like alchemy--like I was trying to make gold from inferior metals. Slowly, though, I learned about flours made from other grains: rice, tapioca, etc. I learned to mix them to make a better baking flour than wheat. I learned to change the mix or add specialty flours like buckwheat (not a wheat grain) for really great new tastes. I even learned to use xanthan gum, which Pat had actually made fun of in the first book.

I found out that I love cooking and baking. Oh, I still have a lot to learn. I haven't mastered yeast bread yet, for instance. But I can happily spend an hour throwing together quick breads or cookies or biscuits, and my gluten tolerant friends tell me they're better than most wheat baked goods. Last month, I made my first cake from scratch, something my mom was a whiz at and I thought I'd never do. I've even posted a bunch of my gluten-free recipes at Sparkrecipes.

The main reason Pat's laughing at me is that this month I'll be teaching cooking classes. Me, who five years ago couldn't do much more than boil water. If you're interested and are in my area, classes will be August 20th and 27th. For more info, go to the Really Cooking With Robin website

And look for Pat to be learning gluten-free cooking herself soon. I can't let her have the last laugh.

Buon appetito!

Monday, July 30, 2012


I feel today like I haven't a creative bone in my body. Or I suppose "cell in my brain" is closer to anatomically correct. But I also don't have a critical bone in my body today, so correctness isn't a high priority either.

The highlight of my existence right now is harvesting herbs. Not an event I'll be talking about for weeks to come. I keep thinking a real writer would already be tossing around ideas for a mystery titled Death By Dill or Poisoned By Pesto, yet nothing occurs to me.

My car went through its annual state inspection and oil change last week. Did that inspire Inspector Tierod and the Corpse in the Corolla? No.

The trash container that I use for overflow from my rain barrel sprung a leak after an epic thunderstorm. The Mildew At The Bottom Of the Can? Be Worried In The Rain? The Perp in the Puddle? Nope. Sigh.

Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You" was the first time I encountered the word "ennui." Leave it to the French to make being bored and listless sound romantic. Too cool a word for such a horrible case of the blahs.

Writers need brain stimulation. So next week, I've decided to go find some. Going to load up my car trunk with it, bring it home, freeze it. That way, I can thaw a package of stimulation when I need it during my winter doldrums next January.

Meantime, I'm leaving the A/C off. Maybe I can work out a plot to Witness For The Perspiration.


Thursday, July 19, 2012


Purple peppers, one of this year's experiments.
I think I mentioned before that my Santangelo granddad was a farmer. He was also did shoe repair and, at the end of his life, owned a little neighborhood grocery store, but he still kept a vegetable patch in his backyard and considered himself, first and foremost, a farmer.

Most of grandpop's children also grew food of some sort in their yards, though only one son became a farmer. Two of that uncle's sons also followed the family vocation. One of them became a professor of agriculture.

About 90 square feet of my small yard is devoted to growing vegetables each year, with another 15 reserved for herbs. Each year as I till the soil, I wonder how many more years I'll be able to handle the physical torture involved. I wonder if it's worth it. A month or so later, I taste the first lettuce, then around July 1st, the string beans. This past week, I've had the first bell peppers and tomatoes. It's worth it.

But beyond the obvious gastronomic rewards, I enjoy a kind of scientific fascination with the process of growing. I experiment with different soil additives, different growing techniques (like putting screens over my lettuce to keep the plants cooler), different seeds. I'll plant more than one variety of tomatoes and peppers, observing which grows better in my conditions and which produces more. If I find great tasting veggies or herbs, I try to dry the seeds for next year. Sometimes my experiments work, sometimes not, but the learning process is fun. Farming is never boring.

All good farmers do likewise. You can't farm exactly the same way each year. It's not good for the earth or the food supply. You have to constantly adjust. For centuries farmers have been sharing what works and what doesn't, and even sharing plants and seeds. In my family alone, many of the plants in my garden originated as cuttings from the gardens of my aunts and uncles.

I heard yesterday that Monsanto is now trying to patent seeds. They claim that they've genetically modified them, so they've therefore "invented" them.

Consumers hear the words "genetically modified" and panic, but that's not what's scary here. Mankind has been genetically modifying crops since we switched from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. That's why there are 7500 varieties of apples worldwide instead of only the wild apple that originated in west Asia (the Garden of Eden, whichever you prefer).

The scary part is the thought of seeds as intellectual property, that any one entity can claim ownership to the very root (so to speak) of our food supply. Monsanto isn't about to share what they've learned, plus, if you dry the next generation of seeds produced, they could sue you (despite the fact that the next generation would again be genetically modified, simply because pollinators like bees aren't fussy about what pollen is stuck to their butts, and because natural mutations occur).

The thing is, the genetic makeup must keep changing for healthy crops. Adaptability is how life works.

If you want a writing analogy, free seeds, flowing among writers without restriction, is also necessary for the creative process. Imagine if someone had slapped a copyright on "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" back when it was first used as a plot.

So, I'm going to keep farming as long as I can, and supporting my local farmers. I don't want corporations owning my food supply and saying what I can and can't grow.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Night Lights

Night sky over Devil's Tower, Wyoming

When I was a kid, my mom used to leave our 15 watt hall light on at night (so none of us would take a header down the stairs en route to the bathroom). Since I was afraid of the dark, I'd sleep with my bedroom door open to let in all the luminescence I could from that dim bulb.

I created a character who's afraid of the dark for my Twins series. In researching it, I found that achluophobia is defined as a fear of the dark severe enough to be pathological. That implies that lesser fears of the dark are considered by society to be normal. Makes sense. We're taught from an early age to associate light with goodness, security and clarity. Darkness is seen as dangerous and evil. When we enter a dark room, even if it's a familiar space that we know with eyes closed, our first instinct is to turn on a light.

I recently heard an NPR program called "Lost in 'The City Dark'" about light pollution and the loss of the night sky. These days streetlamps, digital billboards, and flood-lit buildings and bridges have made it impossible to see stars in cities around the world.

My dad, brother and I used to stargaze a lot. From our backyard on very clear nights, you could see a faint, fuzzy Milky Way crossing the sky over our house. My brother had a small telescope, so we could check out the craters of the moon, rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy and the teeny nebulae of Orion. I bought a Scholastic book about constellations and learned to identify every one I could see from my yard. We'd stay up late for meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and the occasional comet visitation.

My current neighbors all have big spotlights. The streetlamps have brighter bulbs. The shopping malls on either side of town create a permanent glow on the horizon. All but the brightest stars are now veiled.

I just heard about an exhibit at a large botanical garden not far from me. They've set up colored lighting fixtures--I guess you could say light sculptures, in some cases--all over the grounds for night tours. A few of my friends have oohed and aahed about it, but my first thought was to morn the fact that no one will be able to see the lightning bugs, or moonlight on the blossoms, or, of course, the stars.

I've gotten over my fear of the dark. In fact, I like it. Darkness is energy-efficient. And as Charles Dickens said, it's cheap--always welcome in this economy. Yet we overdo lighting--we keep wasting fuel to keep our childhood fears away.

When I evoke memories of the most memorable night lighting displays I've seen, I think of the starry sky over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and over Badlands, and over the little out-of-the-way-town of State Line, PA. I remember the first time the sky was so clear I could see individual stars of the Milky Way, at Kiwanis Girl Scout Camp. I remember my first night hike, when I found, to my surprise, that starlight was all I needed to see the trail after my eyes adjusted.

As filmmaker Ian Cheney on NPR program said, we don't raise our heads and look up anymore. We look down, at our phones, at our artificial lights. Cheney makes the case that "in losing the night sky, we're not only losing something beautiful, we're losing this reference point, a sense of perspective. And to think that most kids now will grow up without that perspective, without a sense of our place in space."

If you've got kids, please take them stargazing, and often.

Elena (who still has and uses that Scholastic book)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Did the Comma Ever Do To You?

Last week I was musing aloud about blog ideas in front of my brother. He told me to write about commas--about why you don't see them much anymore, and about why, at times, you NEED to see them more.

My thought was "Been done." Everyone gripes about the sad state of what amounts to bad editing of the published word.

Then I visited Lubriderm's website, to send them a note asking why their "Fragrance Free" lotion smells. I tried to be informative about the problem, explain that the scent wasn't as strong as the regular lotion. I asked if this was an error in the batch or if they'd changed their formula. I had a limit of 500 words to use in my complaint, and I said what I had to say, politely I thought, in less than 100. I hit "SEND."

A little red warning came up: "Illegal character used in comments."

Huh? I checked my wording to make sure I hadn't mistakenly inserted "&" or "#" or "}." No, everything looked fine. To be sure, I took out the one contraction I'd used, in case the apostrophe was the problem. Hit "SEND" again. Same message.

Then it occurred to me that they might mean commas. I went into denial. How could a comma be called an illegal character? Who wrote that law?

Yet, sure enough, when I went back and ethnically-cleansed the comments of commas, retyping them in short sentences that sounded as if they'd been written by 4 year-old, the complaint was accepted.

You must to be kidding, Lubriderm.

Or I suppose, to get through to them, I'd have to say "You must be kidding Lubriderm."

Which means something completely different.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Give Me A Nice Locked Room

After the last week, a padded, soundproof cell sounds heavenly.  But actually, this blog is about locked room mysteries.

Mystery fans know I mean the kind of story where the corpse is found alone in a room with limited access, and that access has been cut off from the outside with a lock or other means. The fun of solving this kind of enigma is figuring out how the murderer got in and back out again.

Back in the 5th century, Herodotus told of a headless robber whose body was found in a sealed chamber. What we think of as the first "modern" detective story came from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in The Rue Morgue, published in 1841. This was also a locked room mystery and no doubt inspired variations on the plot that followed--Collins' The Moonstone, Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and several Sherlock Holmes tales such as The Sign of Four and "The Speckled Band."

During the Golden Age of detective fiction, locked room mysteries were some of the most popular, and it seems like nearly every author of the genre tried their hand at this kind of plot. Dorothy Sayers set one outdoors--a recent corpse found in the middle of a wet beach, yet with no footprints in sight (Have His
). Agatha Christie used a whole island as her locked room (And Then There Were None). Christie used the technique in other works as well. One of my favorites is her short story, "The Blue Geranium."

Authors are still writing locked room mysteries, but they're hard to find these days. Maybe the pressure put on authors to churn out novels in a hurry discourages the creation of intricate plots. Or perhaps the trend toward action-oriented thrillers discourages plots based on mental puzzles. It seems a shame, now that we have all kinds of technology--surveillance cameras, motion detectors, ID card, fingerprint and retina-scan door openers--that could make for the ultimate locked room.

So, to kick off the next locked-room renaissance, I wrote the novel TWO-FACED (available only (for now) on Kindle and Nook). Any authors out there wiling to give it a try?

Do you have a favorite locked room mystery?


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Getting Cozy with Poisons

Anytime a group of mystery fiction lovers get together eventually the discussion will get around to hard-boiled vs. cozy novels.

The former is the grittier type of novel, taking place on mean city streets, as told by policemen or private detectives. The novels have more physical action, more violence, and more gore. The bad guys tend to be organized crime, serial killers, even terrorists.

Cozy mysteries are named after the tea cozy, used for keeping a pot of tea warm. These stories usually take place in small towns, with bodies often found already dead, and not too messy. The protagonists tend to be amateur sleuths (though not always--think of Christie's Poirot). The bad guys are usually amateurs as well--cases involving domestic murder, embezzlement, secrets that need to be kept quiet.

In hard-boiled mysteries, you'll likely find guns, bombs, knives, and blunt instruments like lead pipes. The bigger the weapons, the better, so big powerful cars are also to be expected. No one in a hard-boiled drives a Smart Car or a Mini Cooper.

Cozy murder victims typically succumb to more genteel methods. Oh, guns aren't out of the question, but they won't be assault rifles or police specials. Maybe an antique musket, or a lady's derringer (I used a Brownie in my last book). A blunt force weapon is more apt to be a fireplace poker or a bust of George Bernard Shaw. If the victim is drowned, it's in the garden pond instead of the East River.

Poisons, though, have always had their place in classic cozy mysteries. One of the experiences that shaped Agatha Christie's career was learning about toxins when she worked in a medical dispensary during World War I. The traditional mysteries are chock full of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide.

I love garden settings: all someone has to do is mention the foxgloves or oleander in the yard and you know Cousin Horace isn't long for this earth. And certainly the shed out back contains a container or two of rat poison or pesticide.

Like food? Beware of the mushrooms or special herbs Aunt Betsy added to the soup. Or the berries in the tart. Or even certain shellfish harvested in the wrong month.

And let's not forget the exotic poisons--the venom of certain snakes and spiders, the excretions of certain frogs, even poisonous gases that leave no trace. And everyone's favorite, the untraceable poison discovered by a primitive tribe somewhere in the Amazon.

Poisons, somehow, aren't seen as macho enough for tough guys in hard-boiled crime novels. I'm not sure why. The Borgias were the Sopranos of the Italian Renaissance. No one called them wimpy for using poisons. Not to their faces, at least.

So give me a nice un-gritty mystery any day, where you never know what might have been added to the liquid in that pot under the cozy.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day Isn't Just For Citizens

I've put a bit of this story on Facebook the last week, so if you've already read some, I apologize. But here's more of the story.

My mom's father was named Guiseppe Ciccocioppo. A mouthful, right? He immigrated here from Abruzzi, Italy in 1912. In five short years, he was a private in the U.S. Army and his messmates were calling him Joe Chicco.

After his training, he was on a train slowly traveling through the south, at one point through a watermelon patch. Joe jumped off the train, grabbed a watermelon under each arm and let his buddies pull him back aboard. The incident earned him the name Watermelon Joe.

The army must have been impressed with his food procurement skills, because they made him a cook in the 154th Depot Brigade of the 2nd Training Battalion. Joe was sent to a new base built as a training facility, Fort Meade. No one ever remembers the regular soldiers who do the work at boot camps. In this case, the new recruits who went through Ft. Meade in 1917 ended up in the trenches of France. One of them, at least, remembered Joe Chicco afterward. His name was James Ronca.

After the war, James Ronca was at home when his younger sister brought home a prospective beau. James took one look at him and exclaimed, "That's Watermelon Joe!" Which apparently made the approval process go smoothly.

But the point of this blog is that Joe only became a citizen of the United States after the war, when he legally changed his name to Chicco and married Jenny Ronca. During his time as a soldier, he was still an immigrant.

Twenty plus years later, during World War II, Joe's two sons and most of his nephews were in the armed forces. One of his nieces, too, as an Army nurse. Joe walked the five blocks to the train station every day that he could, to welcome any military personnel coming home on leave. If they were from his neighborhood, he'd walk them home, carrying their duffels for them.

When Joe died in 1948, the VA provided a footstone for him with a flag holder attached to the side. For more than 60 years, that stone stood 4 inches above ground and every Memorial Day a flag was placed in the holder. This year, the cemetery decided to sink all footstones to ground level, so they could get riding mowers over them. They buried Joe's flag holder.

I contacted the VA to get a new one. They asked if I had Joe's discharge papers and death certificate. I didn't, but I took a photo of the footstone, and that was accepted as proof of his service and death. So today, I'll put the new WWI flag holder and flag on my grandpop's grave.

Occasionally, PBS reads off the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of those names are Latino. They are perhaps recent immigrants, or at least, the sons and daughters of immigrants. Their families deserve better than random traffic stops asking them to show proof of citizenship and other harassments.

American immigrants quite often do the work no one else wants to do, including fighting our wars. We need to remember that.

Happy Memorial Day,

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slipper Lust

My Favorite Moccasins
Go to and search on the words "shoe lust" and you'll get pages of photos of footwear, 99.9% of which are women's shoes with heels so high your ankle has to bend backward at an anatomically impossible angle for you to be able to stand straight in them. I traced a few photos to their web sources and the average prices for most of pairs seem to be around $750.

I've never quite understood this footwear fetish some women have. It's a relatively new phenomenon, I think. Oh, styles of women's shoes have come and gone forever, but I don't ever remember hearing about footwear obsessions before 1986, when Imelda Marcos, on fleeing the Philippino Presidential Palace during their revolution, was found to have left behind something like 2700 pairs of shoes. Sort of like Marie Antoinette, except the message here was "They can't afford platforms? Let 'em wear pumps."

After that, all of a sudden, you couldn't have a female character on TV or in movies and novels, who didn't salivate at the thought of a new pair of shoes. The characters eventually seemed to morph into a stereotype with the message: If a women doesn't crave shoe shopping, or wear outlandishly high heels (even when  chasing down criminals or lounging around her house), she isn't a real woman. Or at least, not a sexy, desirable one. I'm not dissing my friends who like shoes, but I'm kind of fed up with the stereotype. We've all admitted that Barbie's body measurements are a dangerously unattainable goal for our daughters to strive for, but we've never really let go of those oddly misshapen plastic feet of hers.

Okay, maybe this is no more than the grouse of an old fogey. My formative years were spent back when barefootedness was the summer norm for every young person, and when "in" foot coverings included earth shoes, desert boots and flat leather sandals that molded perfectly to your sole. My favorite shoes now are
slippers. Maybe I'm not sexy and desirable, but my feet totally love me and I'll stay faithful to them.

Not romantic, you say? I disagree. Here's the first draft of a poem by none other than Lord Byron. (He changed it slightly before publication, to read "She walks in beauty like the night....")

She walks in booties late at night,
In soleless shoes that have no ties;
All comfy warm and not too tight
Due to the slightly larger size;
Thus mellow'd more than in daylight
When dressy heels do agonize.

Upon those feet, and under go,
So soft, so warm, so excellent;
She smiles as she sips her cocoa,
Forgetting hours of groaning spent,
Her toes all crushed in stiletto--
In booties now, she's so content.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Eagle-Eye View

When I was in grad school studying music composition, my teacher, Alice Parker, told us that beginning a new piece like being an eagle circling high above the earth. The metaphor works for writing as well.

At the outset of a project, your idea seems very far away. Your mental image is something like a blurry aerial photo. Then as you work on the piece, you circle lower, picking out details, seeing how parts of the landscape relate to other parts. At last you reach a point where you can identify buildings and cars and maybe even people, but you're still far enough away to see the big picture. You see how everything in that aerial photo makes sense together. Most importantly, you understand why that photo exists and why you need to share it with others. You start writing.

The problem is, in order to write it, you need to zero in on details and get them right. You circle lower and never see that big picture again. You have to rely on the memories of that snapshot to keep you true to your original vision. If you don't, you're likely to forget that first epiphany that got you inspired and excited enough to start writing the work in the first place.

I began a children's novel more than a year ago. The project was a departure from my usual mystery stories. Great fun at first, but I quickly became hopelessly stuck. I simply couldn't seem to make it work. I talked through the story with my brother and one of my writer friends. I changed some major plot points, but that only made things worse. Last fall I finally surrendered and moved on to other projects.

This week I was staying with a non-writer friend who I don't see very often. She asked what I was writing, and instead of telling her about my current work-in-progress, I found myself talking about the kid's book I didn't talk through the plot as I had before, but only gave her the basics. Sort of an elevator pitch, assuming
the lift was slow and headed for the penthouse of a skyscraper.

As I described the story, I found myself getting more excited about it than I'd been since last summer. Somehow, I'd recreated that "big picture" snapshot. Now I've got a better feel for what details and tangents led me away from my original vision.

So, back to work.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Multiple Author Syndrome

I attended the Malice Domestic conference last weekend. Malice is for mystery fans who love the "traditional" mystery, the kinds penned in the style of authors like Agatha Christie, usually with non-cop sleuths and small town settings. I've been to more than a dozen Malice weekends over the years. Probably a lot more. I've lost count.

This year they had a tribute to Barbara Mertz, who writes under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. I'm a big fan of all of her works. Her paranormal Barbara Michaels suspense novels certainly were a major influence on my Possessed Mystery series. Among the authors presenting the tribute to Barbara were Joan Hess, Dorothy Cannell and Margaret Maron.

Watching them, I remembered the first time I'd seen them together in the same room. The four of them plus Charlotte MacLeod and Sharyn McCrumb had come to my local independent bookstore for a signing. I was a yet unpublished writer, and here were some of my favorite authors, so I'd taken a long lunch hour from work to go see them.

I was struck immediately by the fact that these women weren't simply writers traveling together on a book tour. They were good friends.

Since then, I've done signings of my own. My book tour buddies are most often Robin Hathaway and Caroline (Charles) Todd. And yes, we're good friends. When you share hotel rooms and meals and long hours on the road, as well as a love of good books, it's inevitable. I have other writer friends, too, with  whom I've done local mystery panels and presentations. We all support each other's work, and we love to get together and talk shop, which is important in a profession that requires you to be home alone most of the time. The friendships writers develop while hawking books in unison are precious, and as Barbara, Joan and Dorothy reminded me last weekend, often lifelong.

In the last 15 years or so, I've noticed a definite decrease in multiple author events at bookstores. Some stores seem less willing these days to deal directly with authors, but only want to set up events through the publisher. And some publishers seem to keep a fairly tight rein on their authors' promotional activities, insisting they go through their publicists, discouraging their writers from appearing with authors from other publishing houses.

For many authors, especially new ones, it never seems to occur to them to try to schedule signings with other writers. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. More than one author at an event can generate larger audiences and more excitement. Fans attending to see one author are more likely to take a chance on the others. I've always sold more books at multiple author signings. And I can't name one big name author, on having to share space with a newbie, who has complained that his or her sales suffered.

At that signing years ago with Barbara Michaels, Joan Hess and the rest, I bought six books. One was the first novel I'd read by Margaret Maron. I've since read all in her Deborah Knott series. If only one author had been in the store that day, I might not have bought more than one novel, and possibly never discovered Margaret's work.

Happy fans, happy writers, happy bookstores.

Happy reading,

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Living on the Wind

I've been trying to write an Earth Day blog all week, but frankly, I keep thinking everything I write will fall on deaf ears. Americans care less about the environment now than they did 3 years ago. Even my friends who are rabid liberals and complain about anti-environment legislation all the time don't seem too concerned about how much energy they waste personally.

So today, instead, I'm just going to brag about my electricity provider.

I signed on with the PA Energy Cooperative a couple years ago. PECO still delivers my electricity, but the Energy Coop provides it. I chose them because

1. They're non-profit. I pay dues ($15/household/year) and become, essentially, one of the owners. The dues can be waived for low income households.

2. They give me the option of 20% or 100% sustainable electricity. Their 20% option is LESS than what PECO charges. Their 100% option is, at the moment, about a fifth of a cent per kilowatt hour more than PECO.

3. For their sustainable energy, they use wind power generated in Pennsylvania. No fuel from foreign countries, no getting power from across the US. The energy is generated locally. It's not only good for the earth, it's good for my state and local economies.

I use an average of 231 kwh per month, so it only costs me an extra 44 cents a month to go with the 100% sustainable energy option. (I might also point out that my kwh usage is less than the national average per person. I save about $15 per month just being a bit stingy about how much electricity I use--but that's another blog).

If you live in Pennsylvania, I definitely recommend the PA Energy Coop. Other Energy Coops are springing up across the country. Check them out in your area.

Happy Earth Day,

Thursday, April 12, 2012

National Library Week!

Kansas City, MO Library. I love this building!
First, the news: I'm happy to announce that ALL my novels are now available on Kindle and Nook. BY BLOOD POSSESSED and HANG MY HEAD AND CRY were both released as ebooks in the last two weeks. Only $3.99. These novels are also available in print.

So, here it is, National Library Week. I'll be spending the day at two local libraries. This afternoon from 1 to 4 pm, I'll be chatting with readers at Wissahickon Valley Library in Blue Bell, PA at their Author's Day. Tonight, I'll be discussing what goes into a great mystery novel with mystery writers J.J. Murphy, J.D. Shaw, Sandra Carey Cody, Kathleen Heady and Augustus Cileone at Tredyffrin Library in Strafford, PA at 7:30 pm. All are welcome to attend.

Last month I traveled down to Philly to spend an afternoon at the American Library Association convention. I was reminded that librarians are the coolest people on the planet. I've never met a librarian I didn't enjoy talking to.

But I was thinking this week that I don't get to libraries as often as I used to. Most of my research can be done online these days. I don't have as much time to read as I once did. Yet, when I walk into a library, even one I've never visited, I always feel at home there. The part of my brain that derives comfort from certain foods and certain books also comes alive when I spend time at a library. Lots of great childhood memories. Lots of good feelings from that many books under one roof. Lots of hope for the future when I see parents bringing their children in, especially when race inside, excited to be there.

Even with the increasing prevalence of the Internet and electronic books in our lives, we can't let libraries become obsolete. They're so much more than just a public storehouse for books. They're a kind of canary-in-a-coal-mine indicator of the health and development of their local communities. Even if we library patrons never speak to each other, we all know we're there because we love learning and exploring and imagination. In this day and age, the affirmation that we aren't alone in our quest for these things is essential for the growth of humankind.

Go visit your library.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Controversial Clothing

The last several months I've been working on a new book called The Todd Chronicles, in which Todd MacBride, a quirky, creative undergrad at the University of Arizona, self-appoints himself to chronicle the case files of his criminal psych prof, Gen Ziegler. He sees himself as Watson to her Holmes. I'll tell you more about the book when it makes its debut later this month.

I admit, it's been a while since I went to college, so I had to do all sorts of research into current college life. For instance, in my day, I'd dined at a dismal college cafeteria. The U of A has two student centers with food courts, ethnic restaurants, etc.

Arizona is a fairly warm place, but it can get chilly at night, especially in the winter. In one scene I had Todd stopping at his dorm to don something warmer before going back out for the evening. I googled images of college students in outerwear. Most were wearing sweatshirts. So I went to the U of A store site to view their selection. Out of 18 sweatshirts, 12 had hoods. I recalled that every college student I'd known for the last ten years had at least one hoodie in their wardrobe. I wore one in college, for that matter, though we just called them sweatshirts at the time. And a hoodie seemed to absolutely fit Todd's character.

Then came the Trayvon Martin murder, along with the inane comment by pseudo-journalist Geraldo Riveria that African-American parents shouldn't let their teens wear hoodies lest they be mistaken for criminals. Which is like saying that if you allow teenage daughter to let her belly button show, she might be mistaken for a hooker, or if you let your teenage son wear his pants low, he might be mistaken for a plumber.

But suddenly the hoodie became a symbol for, depending whose side you're on, the urban perp or racial profiling. I asked myself if I should change Todd's cool weather clothing of choice to something else, instead of saying "hoodie" and risk pulling my readers out of the story. My editor, on reading the manuscript, voiced the same concern.

In the end, I decided that Todd would keep his hoodie. It was right for the college setting of the book. It was right for his character.

But, hey, if the reader stops to remember Trayvon Martin a moment, I don't think that's a bad thing. Better we shouldn't forget too soon.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Occupy Greed

   I was in my high school band. Every 3 years, our district participated in a band exchange with another district. We'd travel to the other school for a weekend, do a joint concert and stay in their houses, then they'd come to our area a weekend or two later. Our exchange was with Hewlett High School on Long Island.

Talk about culture shock.

Back then my school in Norristown, PA about 30% African American, 30% descendants of ethnic immigrants, 30% Pennsylvania Dutch. Our student body of 2000 were primarily middle-class and poor students.

Their school's population was closer to 700, and at least 600 of them were rich white kids.

When we visited Hewlett, I was housed in a mansion with servants, an indoor Olympic-sized pool, and the biggest Great Dane I'd ever seen, named Sir. My guest room was larger than any room in my house, had its own bath and walk-in closet, and had never been slept in by a member of the family.

I grew up in a semi-detached home where 5 people shared a bathroom. We didn't have guest rooms. We could only accommodate one Hewlett student and only because my brother was away at college.

Skip ahead to this year's Malice Domestic Convention next month. I've been assigned to a panel titled Occupy Malice: When Money is the Root of All Murder. All of the authors on the panel have set their stories during bad economic times. I'm on the panel because half of my novel, FEAR ITSELF, takes place during the Great Depression. In thinking about the topic, I realize that all my Possessed Mystery novels are about poor and/or unemployed characters, and all take place during difficult economic times.

Why have I done that? Well, they do say "write what you know."

This week I heard a man named Charles Murray interviewed on PBS. His theory is that the wealthy are morally superior to the poor. He points to a lot of statistics that show that the majority of crimes are committed by poor people. My answer to that would be that poor people are more likely to be arrested and convicted. If we look at the amount of money stolen by men like Bernie Madoff, or by the mismanagement of the banks and investment firms that caused the 2008 depression, I'd guess it far surpasses the amount taken in crimes like convenience store robberies over the same period.

IS money the root of all evil? No. People are. Evil people exist at all levels of the economic spectrum. Greed isn't a matter of how much you have, but how much you want. The big problem comes when evil people take their greed to a national scale, have too much power over the government, and suck in taxpayer money.

I can't help remembering those Hewlett students. They taught us how the other half lives and how to drop 'R's from the ends of words. We taught them what it was like to go to a diverse school, and about cheesesteaks and shoo-fly pie, and to pronounce "water" as "wooder." We made good music together. We had fun. As their bus pulled away to take them home, they waved and called out the windows to us, and we waved and laughed back.

They were good people, and so were we.
I hope we all still are.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Drill, Baby, Drill

...or, How is Rewriting Like Having a Dental Crown Replaced?

But first, a word from our sponsor:

DOUBLE CROSS, 2nd novel in the Twins Mystery Series, featuring Gen and Sara Ziegler, is now available for Nook readers (and, of course, is still on Kindle). Watch this space for news of the third offering, THE TODD CHRONICLES, coming soon to an e-reader near you.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

A few weeks ago, I was noshing scrambled eggs when one of my dental crowns popped out. This particular crown had always been a troublemaker. I suspect it wasn't done well in the first place. The dentist who checked it (different from the fellow who put it in) pretty much confirmed that when he said the crown didn't have a good hold on the tooth and he had to drill.

Not a word any dental patient likes to hear.

The last couple weeks, as I've been walking around with a temporary plastic crown in my mouth, I've been doing rewrites. I've realized that fixing the rough spots in a manuscript is a bit like doing dental work. You have to drill a little deeper to make each change take hold and cause no further trouble.

For instance, one proofreader had crossed out the word "or" and inserted the word "of." The sentence was something like this:

I spent my afternoons in the parking lot or the store.

You can see where "of" might make sense, yet "or" was correct. I could have simply left it alone. In fact, when I've edited short stories, about 80% of writers would leave it alone. However, my feeling is, if the sentence stopped one reader's eye, it might be distracting to others, too. This problem was easily remedied by the insertion of the word "either" between "afternoons" and "in."

A more complex example involved a reader who became confused about a character, and had to go back to read earlier pages to see if she'd miss something. Never, ever, should your readers need to backtrack. 90% percent of this problem was solved by simply adding the character's maiden name to her married name with a hyphen. It made her relationship to other family members more obvious. But I had to ask myself, what made the reader miss the first mention of this character? In rereading those pages, I realized that this character actually said and did nothing the rest of the scene. She'd become wallpaper. So I rewrote those pages. Then I came across a paragraph later in the story where the name change caused another potential misunderstanding. In other words, I couldn't do a simple find-and-replace. I had to make sure that the change became seamless.

For novice writers, when proofreaders and editors send comments back to you, don't get defensive, and don't waste time explaining to that one reader why you wrote a passage a certain way. The reader is always right, though they sometimes can't tell you exactly what stopped their eye as they were reading. The fact is, though, that their eye did stop, so rewriting needs to be done. Don't ignore their comments, or slap down a quick  band-aid. Drill a little deeper. Marry the fixed segment to the rest of the story.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robin Hathaway's Short Story Tips

My guest today is Robin Hathaway, who writes the Dr. Fenimore mystery series and the Jo Banks mystery series. Both feature medical professional sleuths battling crime in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area. Robin is the winner of the Malice Domestic St. Martin's Press Contest and an Agatha Award for her novel The Doctor Digs a Grave. Besides her novels, Robin has had many short stories published and that's her topic today.  Visit her website at


The following tips are just that. They are not rules, but suggestions.

1.  Know your ending before you start writing. This is not necessarily true when writing a novel, in which the ending may evolve gradually as you write. But with a short story, I usually write backward, with the ending clearly in mind from the beginning.

2.  Economy and precision. These two things should be foremost in your mind when you are writing a short story. You must choose your sentences carefully, making each one count. There is no room for lengthy descriptions of setting or characters. You must choose exact details that say what you mean, rather than generalizations. Be precise.

3.  Limit your characters to 3 or 4 at the most. A large cast of characters is unwieldy and confusing in a short story.

4.  Have your plot clearly in mind before you begin, if possible. If you know your ending this shouldn’t be too hard.

5.  Read some good short stories before you begin, by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, etc. and sample some contemporary authors in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. Study how others succeed.

6.  Have fun!

Robin Hathaway

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Cornered Poet

On occasion, two of my favorite PBS shows--The News Hour and Moyers & Company--will interview a poet. I love that someone in the media gives poetic art a spotlight now and then. Poetry gets a bum rap in our society. People who appreciate it are often considered elitists. Like opera and symphonic music, it's not associated with the masses. Yet a mere century or two ago, it wouldn't be uncommon to receive a letter with a couplet or more penned just for you. Show of hands: when was the last time you received a poem in an email?

Thinking about this today, it occurs to me that poetry started becoming unpopular about the time that TV took over our lives. Is there a connection?

Yes. Poets should never, EVER be allowed to read their own works aloud on TV. Or anyone else's poems, for that matter. For Pete's sake, PBS, if you want to show America how nifty poetry can be, hire an actor to read those lines, will you?

90% of the poets I've heard all read in the same horrible, pseudo-dramatic monotone voice, stressing each word equally, pausing where it makes no sense. And they all read from a page or book, no matter how short the poem, so rarely do their faces show delight or sadness or joy or any other emotion.

Most writers of prose are no better at reading aloud, yet authors are often asked to read from their works. I, for one, know my lack of acting skill is going to cost me book sales, so if I must, I only read a few paragraphs. Even if I get through it without stuttering, I end up sounding self-conscious or self-important, all the while completely conscious of every restless movement and cough from the audience.

Once on a panel of authors, where we were supposed to read excerpts, I suggested we read each other's. Much easier to do justice to a friend's work. But I was voted down. Two authors read whole chapters. The audience yawned and looked at their watches. Hardly any books were sold that night.

So please, don't judge a book or poem by the author's reading of it. Instead of asking the writer to read, ask what was so intriguing and exciting about the subject or theme or plot or idea that made the author need to write it. Then go read it yourself.

I'll end with a bit of poesy, part of a parody of Shakespeare's Sonnet #80, to all my favorite authors. If you read it aloud, skip the bad Lawrence Olivier impersonation and just have fun.

O, how I curse when I sit down to write,
Knowing a better talent doth use your name,
And when I read your stuff late in the night,
I wake up tongue-tied, typing words so lame...
Your least e-mail is poetry afloat,
Whilst I behind a wordless screen doth hide,
And being stuck, I snarf choc'late and quote
Him of Puck's jest and Hamlet's homicide...


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Caroline Todd On Short Story Ideas

My guest today is Caroline Todd, half of the formidable bestselling writing team called Charles Todd, authors of both the Inspector Rutledge and Bess Crawford mystery series, set during and after World War I. Their Rutledge novel A LONELY DEATH was an instant bestseller. Bess Crawford's A BITTER TRUTH made its debut last summer.
Caroline and I have worked together on many DEATH KNELL short story anthologies. As our Sisters in Crime chapter hatches plans for a fifth DEATH KNELL, I asked Caroline to share her expertise in the short story realm for our Sisters. I pass along her wisdom here..

Short Story Ideas
by Caroline Todd

Everyone says that short stories are harder to write than a novel.  I can tell you from my own experience that it isn’t true.  The real difference is the plot.  Some plots are best in a novel, where there’s ample room for character development and red herrings and lots of action, etc.  If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can see why it took not one novel but several to follow Harry as he learned to be a wizard.  Other plots have no need for greater development.  They can be told in 1/10 the number of words.

Look at a sit com, for instance. There’s one story line and one set of characters. The problem, whatever it is—getting a date, preparing for the in laws to visit, looking for a job—can be dealt with in one half hour show.  LAW & ORDER  has more convoluted plots, more characters, and it needs an hour.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if you went off to work one morning, and  the small apartment building’s outer door is locked as usual, but there’s a body lying by the mailboxes?  Once your shock is over, and the police have gone, would you start to worry about the other residents—and whether one of them killed the man?  Would you look at them differently? And would you see suspicious behavior in several of them?  Maybe one of them had already seen the body, but for personal reasons didn’t want to get involved, and so he went back upstairs instead of calling the police.  Maybe the young woman in Number 6 who used to smuggle her boyfriend in so that the other people in the building wouldn’t know she was having an affair with a married man, had a falling out with him and stabbed him.  When you try to talk to the older woman in Number 5, she nearly bites your head off.  And then someone comes to your door that night and tries to get in. What do you do? 

Plots like this can start out in so many different ways.  First person, third person, it depends on what fits the story best.  And what kind of story is it—traditional, police procedural, suspense, horror?  For instance a horror story would have a dead former resident coming back to kill the present apartment owner.  Procedural would take it from the point of view of a new policeman on the block, not one of the apartment folks.  Traditional would let the woman who found the body solve the crime.  Suspense comes with the knock on the apartment door. What did you do last week?  Take your car into a garage for work? Go to the dry cleaners? Have dinner in a small new restaurant?  Walk along the Brandywine River?  Any one of those apparently harmless errands could lead to a tidy little murder. And not everyone will see them in the same light.  Another way to deal with a short story is to take one of your favorites and outline it.  Not to copy but to analyze.  To see how a published author took a single idea and turned it into a very interesting story. 

Writing is like knitting or running marathons or cooking an Italian dinner or anything else you love.  It takes a little work to do it well. And here you have a chance for your first publication!  Handed to you by your local chapter! Did you know that when the first Death Knell came out, most of the authors weren’t published?  Did you know that some of them went on to win awards and see their novels published? If you want to try to write, there’s no better place to start out than with your Sisters, who will help you, advise you, and never laugh at you, however rough your first attempt.  Nobody can ask for more than that.

Caroline Todd

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Dumb Do You Think I Am?

Last night a guy came to my door at supper time, just as it was getting dark. He said he was finishing up a job in my neighborhood and... That's where I rolled my eyes and shut the door. One of the oldest scams in the book is a guy saying he has materials left over from another job so he can give you a great deal if you want the same work done on your home. You pay him half up front and he never returns. Or he's just looking for a peek inside your house so he knows if it's worth coming back to break in.

If you insist on trying to scam or rob me, give me a good original plot line.

Our neighborhood's had a rash of these shady visitors lately. Hey, times are hard and a person has to make a buck. Why not turn to crime when people seem to be getting more gullible everyday?

I get email constantly from folks who write fiction just like me. They simply don't come out and admit it. Today a guy said he was writing from a bank in the United Kingdom, telling a long (and I mean LONG) involved tale about me being heir to 8,375,000 pounds. Yesterday, a nice terse note from a different sender said I'd inherited a mere 5 million pounds. That was the poor side of my family, no doubt.

Does anyone actually BELIEVE these emails and answer them?

Apparently lots of spam emails are believed, because friends of mine have forwarded me all kinds of Internet threats, "true stories" of "real people," and political "facts" meant to push all my emotional buttons. Most I've already seen and I can reply, saying "This isn't true" -- stopping myself short of saying, "You of all people ought to have seen through that." Even when I haven't seen the story before, usually one quick search on tells me I've once again been hit with, to put it politely, an urban legend.

One email last week even had a P.S. at the bottom saying the original sender had checked it out on Snopes and the story was absolutely true. I clicked on his Snopes link, which took me to the Snopes search summary page. The summary did indeed begin "...this is true." It was a quote from the email being send out as spam, nothing else. If you clicked on the summary, it took you to the real Snopes page, which told you the story was a mixture of true and false information. The main statements and conclusions were false.

On Facebook the other day, the page for my town's chamber of commerce posted a warning that cell phones number would be handed over to telemarketers within days. That false rumor's been going around the Internet since 2004, yet here it was, coming from a source most people would consider reliable.

Between that and all the political lies and distortions (from both parties) being flung around, not only on ads but on network news and even PBS, I've decided that truth is pretty much obsolete, if it was ever popular at all. So I think I'll start listing my novels as non-fiction. Like Dan Brown, I'll start each with the word FACT, then say something that isn't true. Yeah, that'll grab 'em.

I'm not making this up.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mouse Turds on the Cheese

(and Other Disgusting Historical Details)

I'VE spent the last two weeks in the 17th century.

My Possessed Mysteries are half historical, with a different era in each novel. That means starting historical research from scratch with each new project. Until I understand the world in which my period characters lived, I can't begin writing.

Think of it this way, human beings make lists. When we wake in the morning, we have in our minds what has to be done that day. Fridge getting a bit barren? Grocery shopping. Last pair of clean undies? Laundry. Car has less than a quarter tank? Get gas. And maybe a hope for something enjoyable when work is done--a nice meal, a walk, a movie, a good book.

Before my historical narrators open their mouths to speak, I need to know what kind of lists they wake up with. I've realized that, until now, most of my main historic characters have lived in circumstances where they depend on others to provide for them or at least, tell them where they need to be each day. For instance, in BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my protagonist is in the Confederate Army. Being a pawn moved around a  battlefield, the character can't plan for food and clothing, and needs be alert and resourceful in supplementing the meager army supplies. Which leaves the mind more free time to plot revenge.

For the fifth book, though, I'm picturing a woman living on a farm along the Chesapeake around the year 1700. What she did and didn't accomplish each day might determine in part whether or not residents of the farm survived. Her head would be filled with chores that needed to be done: daily chores like mucking out animal pens and milking cows, weekly chores like making bread, and seasonal chores like sowing the garden. Sure, I've done living history and I plant my own garden each year, but there are so many details, like butter making, that are completely foreign to my experience. And frankly, I'm having trouble getting into the head of someone who has to be that organized simply to stay alive.

So this past week, besides reading up on recipes and clothes and diaries of the period, I watched a 12 part BBC series called Tales from the Green Valley. Five historians lived on a 17th century farm on the Welsh border for a year, running it as it would have been run in 1628. This was an excellent series, filling in many of the details necessary for writing historic fiction (some of them truly gross--for example, using fermented urine as a stain remover). I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who likes history.

I now have 30 pages of notes and more questions to look up, but a believable character is emerging at last, along with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the period.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Historical Eating

My Possessed mystery novels are half-historical, and feature a present-day heroine, Pat Montella, whose chief hobby is cooking. It stands to reason that Pat would eventually become fascinated with historical recipes, and that I'd have to delve more into that branch of research for each book.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, Pat learns what goes into elaborate 18th century dinner parties. You have to love an era that believed in two dessert courses. Research for this involved not only studying colonial cookbooks and experimenting with recipes, but eating out at Philadelphia's City Tavern and all of Historic Williamsburg's taverns. One must suffer for one's art.

But it's not all fancy viands. Pat's latest adventure, FEAR ITSELF, takes place partially in 1933. I had to research what immigrant Italian families on the poor side of town ate in the midst of the Great Depression. My parents were my main resources here.

My dad and his brothers' did odd jobs for the macaroni factory down the street and were paid in pasta and Parmesan. Not having meat, their mother varied her tomato sauce each night--sometimes adding onions or lentils or peas, or whatever beans were on sale that week. Once in a while his dad would bring home a chicken for Sunday dinner. One chicken to feed a family of 10.

My mom's family was smaller--only 5--but also poorer. My grandmother would scramble an egg or two in tomato sauce to make a sort of lumpy stew. (My mom used to make this for me for lunch sometimes. With decent sauce and grated cheese, it's actually a great warm meal on a winter's day.) If they could get bologna, my grandmother would fry it with egg to make it go farther. My grandpop eventually got a job at a bakery. I'm guessing he brought home bread, but my mom only recalled the warm donuts.

Just this month, I found a great blog on the subject of eating through history called Four Pounds Flour. Historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman covers topics from importing in the early 19th century to the roots of the Jello shot. Once in a while, she bravely engages in culinary living history, such as eating like a poor 1877 tenement dweller for a week, or her "Drink Like A Colonial American" day.  I highly recommend this blog, especially for all you historical fiction writers out there who spend tons of time researching wardrobe, vehicles, houses, etc., but take food for granted.

Besides, food research is fun.

I think I'll have go have eggs in tomato sauce for lunch. Find the recipe on Miss Maggie's Facebook page.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Musings Stirred Up By a January Wind

I'm sitting in an old farmhouse in rural New Jersey. When I left home last Tuesday, the streets of my town were lined with greenish-brown Christmas trees, put out for the trashman. Here, right across the road, are rows of live evergreens, part of a veritable Christmas tree ranch, its herd of spruces and pines grazing under the winter sun.

Back home, when I gaze from my window, I see a fairly constant parade of cars, pedestrians and neighbors' pets. Here, a vehicle passes by maybe five times a day. Otherwise, the only movement on the landscape is created by the January wind, swirling the big rhododendrons beside the house, quaking the shriveled, black leaves that cling to shrubs by a thread, making the tall brown grasses over in the tree pasture billow like the ocean.

Back home my nearest neighbors are on the other side of a cinder block firewall. Here, they're a quarter mile away.

Mulling over these comparisons recalls to mind two things. First, a conversation I had with the editor of Double Cross. She grew up in the city and her feeling was that a small town placed in the middle of the wilderness (which I used as a setting in the novel) automatically has sinister overtones because of its remoteness. I didn't agree.

The other memory is from last week's reading matter. I was researching old Celtic and newer Wiccan beliefs for my next Pat Montella book. Much of what I read stressed the view that humans are a part of nature and shouldn't try to master it or fight it. While reading these materials, I was reminded how much I used to love hiking and bird-watching and star-gazing and rock hunting, even simply sitting by a quiet stream listening to the water. I used to love nature and spent a little time each week enjoying it. I realized, except for working in my garden, I hadn't spent many hours outside in the last few years. So one of my New Year's resolutions is to change that and get back to nature. Which, at least, should help me write the novel.

Sitting here, I suppose I can understand why someone might think this house—a good distance from its neighbors and remote from the nearest town—might make a sinister location for a story. But I think man brings all things sinister with him. This place is lovely and peaceful, which seems to be good for my imagination.

In fact, I can almost picture tree cowboys riding in to roundup those evergreens next fall, to drive them northwest to Philly for the Yuletide season. That would be a sight to see.

Yep, I definitely need to get out more this year.

(and thanks to Robin Hathaway for sharing her solitude)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Luck in the New Year

If you're eating a piece of toast and a dental crown pops out, it's a minor nuisance. You have to interrupt your week with a dental appointment. You brace yourself, in case the dentist tells you the crown has to be replaced, turning the incident into a major nuisance and unscheduled hit to your budget. Still, you take care of it and move on.

BUT, let that crown pop out on December 31 or on the following day or two, and the event morphs into an omen for the coming year. Me? I started the year with a crater where a molar should be. Bad karma seems inevitable, right?

I realized how pervasive this kind of superstition is when I heard friends and kin view the bad or good occurrences of the last few days in the same portentous light. My brother's oven blew a circuit New Year's Day (despite the fact that he was cooking good luck foods like pork and sauerkraut). Had it happened next week or 2 weeks ago, all he'd have is a broken appliance. Happening when it did, it could portend 52 weeks of, I don't know, undercooked food or something.

Traditional bad omens on New Year's Day include an east wind (which brings famine and calamities), carrying anything out of your house (I took brownies to a party, curse it), doing laundry (no problem there), and failing to make loud noises at midnight (to scare off evil spirits). The tradition of noise making for good luck has been around for thousands of years. In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I showed the colonial American version, which was shooting off guns at dawn (also done on Christmas morning). My neighbors shoot off serious fireworks, ensuring we'll all start the year deaf, at least. I ring jingle bells, being more musical.

For good luck in 2012, you should have filled your larder and stuffed your wallet full of money (I wonder if it matters if it's someone else's money?). You should have paid all your debts before midnight December 31st, and seen the year in wearing a new garment. The first person you let into your house should have been tall, dark-haired and male (I wish).

You can read more good and bad New Year's omens at If you know of any others, put them in the comments below.

Wishing you peace in the New Year,


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors