Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writing Outside the Comfort Zone by Sandra Parshall

Sandra Parshall writes mysteries featuring Virginia veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger. Her debut book, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The latest entry in the series, Under the Dog Star, was praised by Kirkus Reviews for "spine-chilling tension from cover to cover." Sandy is active in Sisters in Crime and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two cats.


Writing Outside the Comfort Zone
by Sandra Parshall

Mystery writers know the drill: You may maim, mutilate, and murder the people in your stories, but if you want to keep your readers you'd better not hurt a child or an animal.

I've witnessed the nasty fallout that greets authors who disregard this "rule,"  reading the comments about Nevada Barr's Burn on Amazon might make any author vow never to write about abused children, so I had plenty of misgivings when I embarked on Under the Dog Star. The plot features a family in which the children endure emotional neglect, but not physical or sexual abuse, so I thought I was more or less safe there. The dogs in the book are a different matter.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am passionate about animal welfare. I don't want to use my books to preach,  they're mystery/suspense novels, and their main purpose is to entertain,  but I made Rachel Goddard, my protagonist, a veterinarian so I could include animal issues in the stories. In the first book, The Heat of the Moon, Rachel rehabs and releases a hawk and confiscates a red bat from a man who has the crazy notion of keeping it as a pet. Animals also have roles in the next two novels, and in Under the Dog Star the issues of abandoned dogs and illegal dogfighting move to center stage.

I almost gave up many times while I was writing the book. I told myself I should write something that would be less stressful for me as well as safer in terms of reader reaction. After all, I don't have the buffer of bestsellerdom to ensure that offended readers will come back for the next book if they don't like this one. But I couldn't stop thinking about the plight of pets whose owners, after losing their jobs and homes, have dumped the animals in the countryside to fend for themselves. Rachel lives in the kind of place where people would take their pets to turn them loose and the abandoned dogs form feral packs. She would be as horrified as I am,  and she'd do something about it. I would have to pretend the real world doesn't exist at all if I allowed Rachel to ignore this effect of the economic slump.

The Michael Vick scandal reminded me that Rachel also lives in an area where illegal dogfighting is a fact of life. I grew up in the south, and I've always been aware of dogfighting (as well as cockfighting). I knew that Vick's arrest and the rescue and rehabilitation of 51 dogs from his operation wouldn't be the end of illegal dogfighting in Virginia or anywhere else. It's still going on. It will go on as long as its proponents can get away with it. But in my fictional world, where I'm in control, I can have the satisfaction of shutting it down in one community.

The book has no extended graphic scenes of abuse or dogfighting, for the simple reason that I couldn't bear to write them. I tried to be honest without overwhelming readers with sad images. I kept in mind that this was, first and foremost, a murder mystery, and it had to be entertaining and action-filled, not preachy.

It's a fine line to walk, and I know some readers will feel I went too far in one direction or the other. I'm braced for their reactions. All I can hope for is that most readers will be caught up in the story, cheering Rachel's efforts to save the dogs and absorbed in Deputy Tom Bridger's investigation of the murder. And maybe, after turning the last page, they'll consider making a donation to an organization that's working to help animals that have suffered at human hands.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Life as a Book 2011

I have to jump in with my friends Christine (Pop Culture Nerd) and Michael (It Rains . . .  You Get Wet) and play this fun meme.

If you want to play, please join us.  All you have to do is fill in the blank with a book you've read this year. 

My Life as a Book 2011

  1. One time at band/summer camp, I: met "Three Weird Sisters" (Eleanor Brown)
  2. Weekends at my house are: spent "In the Woods" (Tana French)
  3. My neighbor is: living in "The Forgotten Garden" (Kate Morton)
  4. My boss was:  "A Live Wire" (Harlan Coben)
  5.  My ex was: "A Dead Connection" (Alafair Burke)
  6. My superhero secret identity is: "A Deadly Cliche" (Ellery Adams)
  7. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry because: I become "The Most Dangerous Thing" (Laura Lippman)
  8. I'd win a gold medal in: finding "A Pizza to Die For" (Chris Cavender)
  9. I'd pay good money for: "Silent Mercy" (Linda Fairstein)
  10. If I were president, I would: spend "Sundays at Tiffany's"  (James Patterson & Gabrielle Charbonnet)
  11. When I don't have good books, I: would rather be in "Georgia's Kitchen" (Jenny Nelson)
  12. Loud talkers at the movies should be: expecting "Poetic Justice" (Amanda Cross)
Want to give this a try?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Youth by Leighton Gage

 by Leighton Gage

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

When I was twenty-three years old, I gave up my employment in New York, flew to Europe and bought a bicycle.

I left a plum job, the kind most kids in my college graduating class would have killed for. My bosses at ABC-TV told me I was crazy. And so did my mother.

The values of their generation were forged in the Great Depression and tempered by the Second World War.  For them, you didn’t waste your college education by going off to bum around Europe. College educations weren’t about learning. They were the keys to the door to the good life.

But this was the sixties. Young people were in revolt. And so was I.

I ignored their advice – and went.

The cheap way to get from the U.S. to Europe, in those days, was to fly Icelandic Airlines. Their aircraft were Lockheed Constellations, prop planes that stopped in Reykjavik to refuel. After what seemed like an interminable journey, I landed in Luxembourg.

I bought my bike there, and struck out, first, for Amsterdam. Then back through Belgium again, and through France to the Mediterranean coast. Arriving in Marseilles, I bordered the water, through Cannes, through Nice, through Monaco into Italy. I kept going south through Rome and Naples to below Sorrento. Then I crossed Italy to Bari and went North, to Trieste, and into Yugoslavia. From Yugoslavia to Austria. From Austria to Germany. All by bicycle.

A year after I started, I ran out of money in Munich.

I sold my bicycle for money to eat.

I worked in a laundry, worked in a distillery, drove a truck. I enrolled in the Goethe Institute at night and became fluent in my first foreign language, German.

And, when I’d saved up enough money, I went off to Spain and hitchhiked around the country.

Arthur Frommer had published Europe on Five Dollars a Day a few years earlier. That, for someone on a two week vacation might have sounded cheap, but, to me, five bucks was an extravagance. I seldom spent more than two-and-a-half.

And I never spent more when I was in Spain. The peseta was at sixty to the dollar. You could get decent wine for four pesetas a liter and very decent wine for six. Of course, you had to bring your own bottle.

Or bota.
Ever drink wine out of a bota? If you never have, my advice is – don’t. To make sure they don’t leak, they’re sealed with tar. I kid you not. Tar. If you don’t “cure” them by pouring away your first liter or two, and if you don’t drink the wine you replace it with very  quickly, it tastes dreadful.

It used to be the custom to toss botas into the bull ring to salute a matador after he’d made a particularly skillful kill. The matador would take a drink and then toss the bota back to the owner. I don’t think it’s done anymore. Too many matadors gulping too much bad wine.

I remember one time, in Aranjuez, when I tossed a bota to El Cordobes. And the poor guy drank from it. From the look on his face, I remain convinced he would rather have confronted one of Don Eduardo Miura’s finest.

But I digress.

Between hitchhiking and a bicycle, I recommend the bicycle. Not so much because you can control your own progress, although that’s also true, but because touring bikes tend to have very narrow seats of hard leather, and even for a well conditioned derriere they get to be pretty darned uncomfortable after twenty or thirty kilometers.

So you’re always looking for a good excuse to get off.

And, moving slowly as one does on a bicycle, there are always exciting things to find.

Those cherries in the tree next to the road.
That little café hidden in a side street of that little village.
The stream of clear water where you can lie prone on some mossy stones, stick your face into the water and drink your fill.

Things that sustain the body.
And things that sustain the mind.

I remember an abandoned Jewish cemetery, below a dyke in South Holland, where the dates on the tombstones abruptly stopped in 1943. I was standing there, in the high grass, deciphering the others, when the impact of that came home to me.

And there was that other stone I saw, half-hidden in more grass, near a small town in France. I would surely have missed it had I not been on a bike. The inscription told me that on the 13th of May, 1944, on that very spot, seventeen people had been shot by “the cowardly bandits of the SS”. (I’m translating that from the French.) One of them was thirteen years old.
Languages opened worlds to me.

I learned Dutch from my first wife, taught English to my second.

One of the great frustrations of my mother’s life was that she couldn’t communicate with her grandchildren when they were very young. My first three kids were raised speaking Dutch, the last two speaking Portuguese. And those are languages we still use among ourselves to this very day.

When I first set foot in Europe, I intended to stay “away” for about six months.

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another -- likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.

I wound up living “abroad” for most of my life.

And I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that ignoring the advice of my elders, and following my own inclination, might well have been, in a life of good things, the single best thing I’ve ever done.

Which is why, these days, I’m always cautious when I give advice to my children.

The passage that begins this piece is from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken; the one near the end is from Rudyard Kipling’s Sestina of the Tramp-Royal.

Leighton Gage lives near São Paulo and writes crime novels featuring the Brazilian Federal Police. The New York Times has called his books “top-notch”, “entirely absorbing”, and “irresistible”. His fifth, A Vine in the Blood, will be launched in hard cover, in the United States, in December. It’s already available in most other places as a Kindle book, on Amazon.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Having Fun, Raising Money for Charities, and Naming Names by Chris Grabenstein

Chris Grabenstein’s 4th book in his Anthony & Agatha award-winning Haunted Mystery series for middle grades readers, THE BLACK HEART CRYPT, was published this week by Random House. The third book in the series, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, was recently released in paperback. His new caper series for young readers RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS will be published by HarperCollins this coming April. He also completed writing THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S RIDICULOUSLY BRILLIANT LIBRARY for Random House Children’s Books, which is scheduled for a Fall 2012 publication.

His seventh mystery for adults in the Anthony Award-winning John Ceepak series, FUN HOUSE, will be published this May. To keep summer going into the fall and winter, he recently reduced the Kindle and Nook price of the first book in that series, TILT A WHIRL, to 99 cents for the month of August only.

His website is


Having Fun, Raising Money for Charities,
and Naming Names
Chris Grabenstein

When THE BLACK HEART CRYPT came out earlier this week readers got to meet a crypt full of thirteen evil-doers known as the Icklebys.

The book also features three cats named Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants plus a cameo appearance by our hero’s classmate Sammie Smith.

And of course, the stars from the first three books in the Haunted Mystery series, Judy Magruder and Zack Jennings, are back for another spooky, funny, action-packed adventure. 

But where did they all get their names?

It’s one of the questions I get asked all the time, especially when I go on author visits to schools.

Which is exactly where the Icklebys got their name.

In those school visits, I have fun improvising a ghost story based on suggestions from the assembled students to teach about story structure, protagonists, and antagonists.   During one of those exercises, in front of an auditorium packed with 300 fifth and sixth graders, when I asked for a good name for a villain, one of the students shouted out, “Ickleby!”

I made up a fun ghost story featuring the evil Mr. Ickleby and made a mental note.  What a great name for a bad guy.  It has the rhythm of Nicholas Nickleby plus the ghoulish “Ick” factor!   The fifth grader who shouted out the suggestion, whose name I don’t know, is thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.

(BTW: For information about arranging a school visit, please check out this page of my website:

And the evilest Ickleby of them all is Barnabus Ickleby.  Because, as a kid, I watched a lot of Dark Shadows episodes on TV.

Sammie Smith?

She’s one of my loyal readers.  Her dad sent me this photo of her devouring THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, finishing it in one sitting on a flight from Seattle to Michigan.

Another source of names, especially for the minor characters and walk-ons, is my e-mailing list!

My hero, Zack Jennings, was named after two people.  One was a guy I knew at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee -- Jack Jennings.  The other was a fellow editor on my college newspaper -- Zack Binkley.

I always thought Zack was the coolest name.  It was like Jack but just a bit edgier.  So I put the two together and came up with my young protagonist.  Recently, I was thrilled to learn that my nephew and his wife named their son Zach Grabenstein.   Even though they spelled the name wrong, I’m looking forward to Zach being old enough to read about Zack.

Which brings us to Judy Magruder.  She is based on my wife, J.J. Myers.  (Get it?  J.M.) In fact, for you adults, the story in THE CROSSROADS, the first book in this series, is, in a way, a love song for my second wife, J.J. 

She came into my life after my first wife had passed away from a four-year bout with cancer.  J.J. showed me that there might be a happy new life further up the road, if I had someone fun to share the next part of the ride.   That’s really what the book is all about; coming to a crossroads and, instead of calling it quits, moving ahead.  So now you all know our little secret.

This makes having J.J., who is a terrific voice-over performer, be the narrator on the audio books even more fun.  She’s reading a story about a character named Judy Magruder who is, actually, her!

Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants came to the book via one of my favorite ways to find names: a charity auction.  J.J. volunteers with a local animal rescue group here in New York City called The Artemis Project.   When I realized that Zack’s three weird aunts needed cats, we held an on-line raffle to raise money for the charity. 

We charged ten dollars a virtual-ticket and then had our own rescued cats, Parker and Tiger Lilly, nudge names out of a big bowl.   We raised one thousand dollars and Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants won eternal fame in the pages of the book!

Every once in a while, names are added and then changed to protect the guilty. 

The bully who beats up Zack in the first book, Kyle Snertz, was originally named something else: the name of the bully who, in sixth grade, used to beat me up in a very similar fashion.

The author when he was Zack's age and being picked on by bullies.

I was all set to finally, forty years later, have my revenge, a dish best served cold, or after forty years, frozen.

But then my mother called.

And told me that the real bully’s mother loved my books.  Read them all, two or three times.

I could not give this now elderly woman a heart attack by revealing her son’s wicked past.

And so, Kyle Snertz was born.

His name, I just made up because it sounded like a noise a pig might make rooting in the trough.  Snertz.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Past Revisited by Margaret Maron

Born and bred in North Carolina where the piedmont meets the sandhills, I grew up on a modest two-mule tobacco farm that has been in the family for over a hundred years. 

Tobacco is no longer grown on the farm, but the memories linger - the singing, the laughter, the gossip that went on at the bench as those rank green leaves came from the field, the bliss of an icy cold drink bottle pressed to a hot sweaty face, getting up at dawn to help "take out" a barn, the sweet smell of soft golden leaves as they're being readied for auction. Working in tobacco is one of those life experiences I'm glad to have had. I'm even gladder that it's something I'll never have to do again.
After high school came two years of college until a summer job at the Pentagon led to marriage, a tour of duty in Italy, then several years in my husband's native Brooklyn. I had always loved writing and for the first few years, wrote nothing but short stories and very bad poetry. (The legendary Ruth Cavin of St. Martin's Press once characterized my verses as "doggerel. But inspired doggerel.")
Eventually, I backed into writing novels about NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald, mysteries set against the New York City art world. But love of my native state and a desire to write out of current experiences led to the creation of District Court Judge Deborah Knott, the opinionated daughter of a crusty old ex-bootlegger and youngest sibling of eleven older brothers. (I was one of only three, so no, I'm not writing about my own family.)
We've been back on a corner of the family land for many years now. My city-born husband discovered he prefers goldfinches, rabbits, and the occasional quiet deer to yellow cabs, concrete, and a city that never sleeps. A son, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters are icing on our cake. 

More about Margaret here:

The Past Revisited
by Margaret Maron

Once upon a time in the not-too-far past, publishers used to have warehouses where they stored their print overruns and bookstore returns.  It was not unusual to keep unsold books for 25 or 30 years before finally sending them to that great pulp mill in the sky. 

Then, in 1979 Congress passed an inventory tax law.  Its aim was to close a corporate tax dodge and make it more expensive to carry a large inventory from year to year.  As with so many of Congress’s laws, there were unintended consequences.  Congress had not meant to destroy publishers’ warehouses or authors’ backlists, but that’s exactly what happened.  Despite heartbroken pleas to exempt publishers, the tax was applied to them, too, and you know what happens when bottom lines crashes head-on with the public good.  The warehouses emptied out and backlists went into oblivion.

With the advent of electronic readers such as Kindle, Nook, and the iPad and SmartPhones, however, the backlist lives again.  No longer does an early book have to vanish down that bottomless rabbit-hole, never to be seen again.

My first novel, One Coffee With, was published in 1981, an astonishing (to me, anyhow) thirty years ago. It introduced Lt. Sigrid Harald, NYPD, 5’10, mid-thirties, single, skinny, hair worn in a frumpy bun, no clothes sense, uncomfortable in her skin, and totally incompetent when it came to personal relationships. But she had a wry sense of humor few people suspected, cool silvery eyes, and an unerring knack for solving murders. 

The eighth and last in the series, Fugitive Colors, was published fourteen years later—fourteen years for me, but only one short tumultuous year for Sigrid.  She begins in early April and ends the following April.  During that year, she learns to accept herself and the possibility of love, she cuts her hair, she buys a book to learn about makeup (typical Sigrid behavior), she gains a gay housemate who wants to pick her brains so that he can write a mystery, and she learns the true story of her father, who died when she was barely more than a toddler.

Leif Harald was a police detective, too, and was killed in the line of duty.  At least that’s the official story.  The circumstances surrounding his death form a mystery that arches over the entire series, with the reader learning a little more in each book. 

When they were first published, the books got good reviews, but never seemed to find their audience.  The average reader tended to take her at face value, to see only the surface and not what I had hinted was underneath. They went out of print as quickly as they were published.  Now, fifteen years after the last one saw daylight, they are going up online as eBooks and I am delighted with the feedback as my readers have finally begun to “get” her.  (One wrote to me, “I began the series not  liking Sigrid because she was so different from Deborah Knott, your other series character, but I finished the last book in tears because there are no more.”)

In getting the books ready to be digitized, I have had to re-read them and it’s been an odd experience.  A writer is seldom happy with the finished product.  As someone once said, “a creative work is never finished; it’s abandoned.” There were patches of roughness I wanted to correct, motivations I wanted to strengthen, and outdated attitudes that jumped out at me. It was a real temptation to rewrite and bring everything up to date. But you start down that road at a perilous cost and in the end, I contented myself with smoothing a couple of cowlicks and tucking in a shirttail or two.

Over and over, I kept bumping up against things that have changed.  Thirty years ago, a female officer would find it tough to take over a homicide squad, male chauvinism was rampant, and secretaries were still expected to fetch the coffee, and tattoos were definitely not the norm for “nice” people.

When the series begins, Sigrid is typing her reports on a typewriter, by the last book it’s on a computer, yet we never see her taking a computer class during that single year.  Pregnant women smoked and drank alcohol without anyone waving a finger at them, she couldn’t know the sex of her unborn baby unless a doctor stuck a needle in her abdomen and drew out some of the amniotic fluid. Cell phones were nonexistent in that first book.  No Internet. No CDs or DVDs. People could buy airline tickets and board at the last minute without having to go through security or show a photo ID.

The list goes on and on.

Happily, love and greed are timeless and there is always someone ready to kill for one or the other. 

Or for both.

What about you?  Does it bother you to realize that your past is now “historical”? Do the differences between the recent past and current present interfere with your enjoyment of a book?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Old? Old! Maybe. So What?

There's a discussion going on at DorothyL about older women and how they're portrayed in books.

Including some suggestions about how to refer to those of us who might fall into this category.

I'm 62.  I guess I'm now one of those women in this category.

A woman of a certain age.

Whatever - I kinda like that phrase, actually.

Here's a thought.

Refer to us as "women."

Or perhaps even, "Penelope So&So is a 78 year old woman."

Whatever.  Does there really need to be further elucidation? 

All I know is that I've met some women who, at the grand ol' age of 30-something, manage to convey the stereotypical image of "old woman," while I also know some women my age and older who do not convey that image in the least.  

I can truthfully say that at the age of 62, I am happier, more content, more fulfilled than I've been at any other time in my life.  I have joked that I was born to be a retired person.  In reality, that may not be a joke.  I seem to have fallen into retirement with a gusto that has surprised me.  I'm doing things that interest me and having a ball discovering new things that interest me.

Since I turned 60 I've had two essays published in two separate regional anthologies.  I didn't even start writing until I was 60.  I didn't even think I wanted to write until I was 60.

I've treated myself (as a retirement gift) to a new camera.  A Canon G12 which is not an SLR, but a step in that direction.  I'm still learning about the camera, but am having a ball going out on shoots with it, and plan on taking some lessons.  Going for a drive by myself in these gorgeous North Carolina mountains looking for the "perfect" shot is just huge fun for me.  It's lovely having the time now to be able to do this.

And I've joined a gym.  The name of it is The Gym.  (I love that).

I was never an exerciser.  I don't recall running when I was a child.  I vividly recall rolling my eyes and shaking my head when the subject of exercise even came up.  

I am known for eating my words.

And on occasion, that is fine fine fine. 

Now I wish people who might dare call me elderly would eat theirs.  For real.

(I don't even know where I'm going with this.  Pffffttttt.)

Lemme try this.

Some of us are older.  So????

Does that make us less vibrant?  Less interesting?

When it comes to novels, do people really prefer reading about a younger woman than an older woman?  Why?  Is it because she's sexier?  Does that make her more interesting?  Seriously - I'm very interested in hearing how you all feel about this.

But this IS the perfect opportunity for me to squeal about my gym.  The Gym.  Which I love, so thanks!

(me.  Senior Citizen Gym Rat)

What's next for me?

No idea.

But stay tuned!

It could be fun!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life on the (Funny) Farm by Cathy Lee Carper

Cathy Carper, who usually writes under the pen name Lee Carper, is an author who is working on her first manuscript in a planned series about a serial killer investigation team. She holds degrees in social work and pre-med/biology, with a focus on profiling and forensics.  For the past three years, Cathy was a judge for the Thriller Awards, a prestigious award given by International Thriller Writer’s Organization (ITW), and has attended numerous conferences where she continues to learn about the craft of writing.  Cathy was a member of a police  advisory board, and wrote several articles for a local newspaper.  She is an avid reader, writes reviews and critiques manuscripts for fellow writers, and has at one time or another been a member of Mystery Writers Of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters In Crime, as well as several writer/reader sites. 

Cathy has three adult children and many animals. She resides in the beautiful state of Vermont.

Life on the (Funny) Farm
by Cathy Lee Carper

For those who know me, you know I’m rarely at a loss for words.  Well brace yourself… this time is no different.  Ha, bet you thought I was going to say I can’t come up with a topic, right?  Wrong, quite the opposite.  I have so many topics swimming in my head, narrowing them down is proving difficult.  Although, in the interest of self-disclosure, I should warn you I have more than topics swimming in my head… I have voices competing for attention in there too.  Just kidding, but only slightly.  Due to a compressed nerve in my neck, I have enough narcotics on board to medicate an entire patient population of a surgical center.    

Last year I blogged about my strange neighborhood , and now that I’ve moved again, I was tempted to write about my new neighborhood -which amazingly enough, is even stranger than my last neighborhood- but then decided against that topic as I don’t need repercussions if a neighbor “meandered and mused” his or her way onto this blogsite.  These appear to be folks you don’t want to make angry.       
So.  Moving right along… going through the house-selling process almost always means having to fix up a few things.  Um, yeah.  In retrospect – just for giggles, mind you (more like nightmares) - I wish I’d kept a diary of my days at the old homestead.  Thought I’d show you a sample of how it would’ve worked:
Cathy’s Diary:

DAY 1)  We’re here!  What an awesome place.  Can’t wait to swim in pool!  Have decided to nick-name house THE SHANGRI-LA. 

DAY 2)  Pot-bellied pig continues to escape off leash tied to tree.  Fence company contacted.

DAY 3)  Fence installed.  $5,537.40  Whew… good to have that done!  Tomorrow’s errand: Go to bank and transfer funds.

DAY 4)  Upstairs toilet spraying water all over walls and floor (and me).  Plumber contacted.

DAY 5)  Plumber fixed toilet.  $150  Whew… good to have that done!  Better call dad and borrow some money.      

DAY 6)  Went for first swim in pool.  Noticed a funny crack in cement.  Pool company contacted.

DAY 7)  Pool leak fixed.  $1,500 (Hello, dad?)  At least everything is fixed, so now I can finally relax and enjoy my Shangri-La.    

DAY 8)  Have to pound palm over and over onto thermostat to get gas fireplace running.  Broke a blood vessel in my hand.  Electrician called. 

DAY 9)  Electrician came.  Replaced thermostat, but the dude stated all outlets need to be converted to “ground fault” (hmmm… I’m thinking as a backup plan, I should keep the outlets “as is” in case I want to stick a metal fork in there).  But no, poor sense prevailed, and I allowed him to replace all outlets.  $600         

DAY 10)  Downstairs toilet overflowed.  Plumber contacted.

DAY 11)  Plumber came.  He diddled with a couple of pipes (I would’ve liked to diddle a pipe right over his head).  $150 He states I should contact septic company.  SAY WHAT?  (I knew I’d need that metal fork!) 

DAY 12)  Septic guy came, pumped tank.  $350 (time to call dad again)  

… blah blah blah (more of same)

DAY 975)  Failed septic inspection.  Septic system replaced.  $7,600  (Hello, Bank?  Is this the loan department?).  Shangri-La has been flushed down the toilet.  I’ve now nick-named this h*ll-hole, THE MONEY PIT.         

DAY 976)  Failed heater downstairs, cannot be fixed.  New heater installed.  $2,200 (er… um… it’s me again, Dad)

DAY 977)  Awoke to flood in downstairs bathroom.  Ceiling caved in.  Assuming pipe has burst.     Plumber called (time for a glass of Cabernet Savignon).  Plumber came.  Said pipes were fine and problem appears to be a leak from roof.  Roofer called.  (decided to bag my wine glass and drink directly from bottle)

DAY 978)  Roofer states I need new roof.  (darn… I’m out of wine)     

DAY 979) For-sale sign placed on front  lawn

                                                                      End of Diary

Amazingly enough, other than the rapid succession of each event, the above depiction is accurate of my experience.   Worse, is during the “blah blah blah” phase, so many more things required fixing or replacing.  In the interest of time (and saving ya’ll from boredom) I decided not to list the myriad of other problems, but there were plenty.

I think what almost irked me more than the house falling apart, was being dissed by service people.  Makes me wonder how they stay in business.  The following is a great example.  Let’s refer to the electrician as “Sparky”.  By the way, this was a new electrician, as the one who replaced my fireplace thermostat was no longer in business.  Okay, Sparky came to the house to check things out, and said he’d get back to me in a couple of days with an estimate.  You know where this is going, right?  You’re right… I heard nothing.  After giving him a couple more days, I called and left a message.  Again, nothing.  The third time… still nothing.  It had now been about a month, so I finally got in touch with the person who referred Sparky, and that person did eventually get through.  Turns out Sparky neglected to let folks know he had been taking a couple of weeks off for (get this) DEER HUNTING - *rolling the eyes* -  at this point, it was clearly time to find another electrician.  He was my second one, so in the end, I went through three electricians.  I also had a parade of plumbers, lawn-mowers, snow-plowers (I don’t think that’s a word, but it sounds good - *giggle*), and who knows what else.  Selective amnesia I suppose.  Last but not least, don’t even get me started on the cable company (which by the way, I’d considered dedicating an entire blog-article to my cable company - *ARGH!*). 

In retrospect, the absurdity of how many things went wrong in only three short years, is really quite hilarious.  I tried to maintain a sense of humor throughout, and for the most part, did manage to pull it off.  The rest of the time however, was a real thrash.

I can now happily report I’m in a new place, and so far so good.  Let’s hope the only diary I might keep these days, would have page after page filled with fun times. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Nine-Step Program for Saving the Book by Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley is the author of The Last Striptease, a Shamus Award finalist and winner of the PWA/St Martin's Press Best First PI Novel Competition, and the critically acclaimed mystery The Bad Kitty Lounge. Michael’s third mystery, A Bad Night’s Sleep, released on June 21. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “The relentless pacing [in A Bad Night’s Sleep] makes the pages fly by, and the hard-edged prose is bracing.”

Michael teaches literature at the University of North Florida, where he also has published two nonfiction titles, Romantic Geography and Romantic Migrations, along with frequent articles and book reviews. In the past, Michael supervised emotionally disturbed, at-risk teenagers, taught remedial English at an urban-core business college, and worked for a day and a half as a migrant fruit picker.
Michael lives with his wife, children, and obstreperous dog in Jacksonville, Florida.

“A Nine-Step Program for Saving the Book”
 by Michael Wiley

This post says nothing we don’t already know.

Is the book dying? Well, no, not really. Some readerships (e.g. young adult) have been growing fast. Others have been stagnant. Still others have declined. This is the way it always has been.

But books, especially non-electronic books, have taken a lot of body blows lately. Do they need saving? Maybe. Probably. Sure, why not? What can we do to ensure that the books we love stay in the ring for the rest of the fight? In short: buy them; read them; and encourage others to buy and read them. That’s it. Nothing we didn’t already know.

To state more of the obvious: 

  1. Give books as gifts to others. They work especially well for birthdays, religious holidays, Fathers and Mothers Days, Valentines Day, bridal showers, Labor Day, the Fourth of July, Ground Hog Day, baby showers, marriage engagements –

“Sorry, honey, they were out of diamonds, but here’s a nice Michael Wiley mystery”

– Boxing Day, Guy Fawkes Night, Thanksgiving, Halloween, April Fool’s Day, and New Year’s Day, to name just a few book-ready occasions.

  1. Use your library. Check out books. Meet your friends there. Schedule meetings there. Have public sex there. Enjoy the quiet. Check out more books.

  1. Support your library. If funding for your library is threatened (and it almost certainly is), write to the people who hold the purse strings and remind them how important our libraries are. Throw around some big words that you’ve learned by reading books. (Unconscionable is one of my favorites.)

  1. If a book interests you but you don’t have the money (or the desire) to purchase a copy and your library doesn’t have one in its collection, go to your library website and ask the library to make a purchase. If you’ve already read a writer whose book or books you’ve enjoyed, ask your library to buy their own copies for their collection so that others can enjoy them too.

  1. Give yourself the gift of a cloth-bound or paperback book even if you already have it electronic form. Put it on a shelf next to the Waterford vase.

  1. Talk about books the way others talk about sports, politics, fashion, or the weather.

“Looks like rain today.”
“Yep. A good day to stay inside and read a book.”
“I like your shoes.”
“Thanks. I put them on whenever I go out to buy a book.”
“Did you hear about Congressman X?”
“Sure did. I wish he would close his zipper and open a book.”
“You see the game last night?”
“No, I was reading a book.”
“Run for your life! – It’s a tornado.”
“As soon as I finish this chapter.”

  1. Post your appreciation for good books on FaceBook, and re-post information about author blogs there when you think others might take interest. Post your appreciation for good books elsewhere too: on that new Google thing, in the comments section of the blogs you read, in church bulletins, in email messages, etc. Sneak your book opinions into meeting minutes. Don’t be afraid to wear a signboard in public.

  1. Write short reviews of books you’ve enjoyed, and post them on the websites of online book vendors and online book review websites.

  1. In other words: buy, read, and encourage others to buy and read. Nothing we didn’t already know.

Happy reading!

The Puzzlement That is Meanderings and Muses.

 - - - - or

have blogs become passé?

Some people say they have.  And perhaps they're right.


I'm only going to worry about my own house, so to speak.

Meanderings and Muses started on a whim a couple years back and became more than I expected and way more than I hoped for.

And, just when I start thinking perhaps it has "done its thing" and that it might be time for us to hang up our spurs, I receive an email from one of my guest bloggers telling me how their sales spiked while they were here.  

In one case awhile back, someone brand new to the business let me know that I had helped in getting their name out there and not only did their sales go up during their visit, they stayed on a steady increase for about 4 months.  Word of mouth will continue to be a book's best friend, I do believe.  (And a blog's best friend - another topic for another day).

We've always been a place that gets a fair amount of hits.  Some days we get an astonishing number of hits.  But we've also been a place where people don't leave too many comments.  That used to bother me and I'd fret and I'd worry and now I finally realize, "it is what it is."

As long as I get the kind of feedback I do regarding helping writers find new readers, and helping readers find new writers, then I'm doing exactly what I want to do.  and life is good.  

The bonus is that I have a spot where I can jot down my own little scribblings.  I love that.  I can rant, I can post photos I love, I can cry a little, I can give a shout out and virtual hug to someone (or a virtual smack up side the head) or I can do a virtual happy dance in celebration of all good things life has handed me.  I can write.  All things I've done here, all things I will continue to do here for, I hope, a long long while.

But, I'm also thinking quite seriously about exactly what Meanderings and Muses will be next year.  I know one thing for sure - it's going to be a bit different.  But before I fully make up my mind just how different, I'd like to hear from you.  If any of you would like to tell me what you'd like to see here next year, I'd love to hear.  Tell me what you've enjoyed here.  Tell me what you haven't enjoyed.  And in a couple months, I'll let you know what to expect.  Whatever that might be, I hope you'll still be with me.  You've made this a fun and rewarding endeavor, and I thank you. 

So - step through the door, have a seat, tell me what you think . . . .



Friday, August 12, 2011

Aging Dogs by Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy lives in south Florida, where he’s the president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America as well as a college English professor.
Though his own surfing is limited to the Internet, he’s written six mystery novels in the Mahu series, about an openly gay homicide detective in Honolulu who surfs big waves in his free time. He does have some experience to bring to his golden retriever mystery series, though—eleven years and counting with a very bossy golden named Samwise. His website is, with information on his mystery, romance and mainstream novels.


Aging Dogs
by Neil Plakcy

One of the big questions a writer of a crime fiction series has to face is whether or not to age his characters. Some of the most moving books I’ve read have been the last in a series -- No Country for Old Men, by Joseph Hansen, or The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter, in which the series hero faces his aging and mortality.
When I began writing my first published mystery, Mahu, I didn’t know the book was going to expand into a series. But once I finished that book, in which Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka is dragged out of the closet, the character wouldn’t leave me alone. He knew there was more to his story to be told. I made the decision to age Kimo through the next five books, spacing them out about a year apart so that in a traditional publishing schedule I wouldn’t fall too far behind.
One of the important things about Kimo’s character arc has been his gradual coming out process. I often say at events or on panels that coming out isn’t just an event, it’s a process, and one that takes a character through several steps. In Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, Kimo starts to get comfortable with being gay, and makes some gay friends. In the third book, Mahu Fire, he gets a boyfriend, and by the most recent book, Mahu Blood, they’ve moved in together.
All those life events meant that Kimo needed to get older as time passed. That isn’t a problem; unlike some authors, I was lucky enough to start with a character in his early thirties. He’s got a long, productive police career ahead of him.
I faced a different challenge when writing my golden retriever mysteries. In the first book in the series, In Dog We Trust, my forty-two-year-old human hero, Steve Levitan, adopts the year-old golden retriever belonging to his next-door neighbor when she is murdered. Not a problem for him when it comes to a series--but as all dog and cat lovers know, our companion animals have a much shorter life span than we do.
In her “Cat Who” series, Lillian Jackson Braun never seems to age either her protagonist, Jim Qwilleran, or his cats, Koko and Yum-Yum. She’s also never clear about how much time has passed between cases, though a few background details change-- Jim and the cats move to the north country, for example, and eventually into a converted apple barn.
What was I going to do about Rochester, though, my crime-solving golden retriever? I wanted my series to be more realistic than Braun’s. That means a couple of things. First, I wanted to avoid the dreaded “Jessica Fletcher syndrome.” My books take place in a small town in Bucks County Pennsylvania, similar to the one where I grew up. It’s nestled in a bend of the Delaware River, and it’s not exactly a hotbed of crime. How often could I have the dog discover a dead body?
In the second book, The Kingdom of Dog, Steve takes a full-time job at Eastern College, where he has been an adjunct instructor. He’s still bonding with Rochester, so he gets permission to bring his dog to the office every day. Then when the murder happens, Rochester’s right there to discover the body.
That’s an important point for a series involving a big dog-- Steve can’t just bundle Rochester into a shoulder bag and take him around town. The crime and the solution have to occur someplace Rochester would naturally go.
Being a big dog, too, Rochester has a shorter expected life span than a little dog. The Yorkie my partner and I had lived to be eighteen, but our golden, Sam, will have at least a few years less. He’s eleven and a half now, and I can see that he’s slowing down considerably. He’s given up on a lot of the behavior he gave to Rochester, like pulling forward on the leash, jumping around like a deranged kangaroo, and getting into other kinds of trouble.
So I’m confronted with a real problem. If I move my golden retriever series forward year by year, soon Rochester will be too old to do much investigating.  But at the same time, I need to find crime scenes he can visit and places where murder can occur that won’t be too unrealistic.
For now, I’ve been doing that by moving him around Bucks County, which still has enough rural patches that big dogs are welcome. I’m working on the third book now, and Rochester’s going to agility trials, which are a lot of fun to watch (and to write about). The dog show circuit is full of interesting personalities—at least one of whom is bound to wind up dead.
I think about a year has passed during the course of these three books. If I can continue that progression, he’s still got a lot of good crime-solving years ahead of him. But readers have to keep wanting to read about Rochester in order for me to keep coming up with cases for him to solve!