Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bloody Black Friday

by Felicia Donovan

In these financially trying times, it is understandable that everyone wants to get the best deal for their hard-earned money. I happen to have been one of the crazy people who roused myself out of bed at 4AM to be at the major chain retailer by 5AM to scoop up a 6-hour pre-holiday bargain.

Imagine my shock when I rolled into the parking lot by 4:50AM only to discover at least 200 folks, some of whom had been there for over an hour, lined up and wrapped all the way around the parking lot to the back of the store. I joined the surge of folks just arriving and was politely told by a group of employees who had formed a human barricade, to get to the back of the line. No problem. The others were there first. More employees nourished the cold and sleepy crowd with offerings of free hot coffee and fresh donuts. It was calm. People laughed and chatted with each other about what they were there to buy.

At 5AM, the doors opened and the crowd was allowed in slowly. By 5:05, I was in and headed towards the very mobbed electronics department. Still, people were polite. I quickly located my target - a large gift for a family member. Despite everyone trying to grab their desired prize before it ran out, I had no less than four offers of assistance in getting the unweildly gift into my cart.

I snatched up a couple of discounted video games as well, and made my way towards the front of the store to the registers. The crowd politely gave me room to steer the large box around, sometimes backing up to give me right of way. It was crowded. It was crazy, but it was controlled and calm. Extra workers stood at the front of the store helping customers and checking their register receipts. I received even more offers of assistance in getting the item into my car.

Imagine my shock and disbelief when I read the account of Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year old seasonal Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, NY. According to news reports, the police had to be called around 3AM because the crowd was out of control. A police officer with a bullhorn pleaded for calm.

Tension grew as the 5 a.m. opening neared. By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 became unruly. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in as a result. The crowd surged forward and Damour was thrown to the tile floor. Fellow Wal-Mart employees desperately tried to get to Damour but could not keep back the surging crowd. Four other people, including a 28-year old woman who was eight-months pregnant, had to be taken to the hospital.

I'm all for finding a bargain and I'll admit I saved a substantial chunk of change by going out on Black Friday, but somewhere we have to draw the line between finding bargains and behaving like a bunch of bulls stampeding in the streets of Pamplona.

What in heaven's name has gotten into people?

Kudos to the employees and shoppers of my local Wal-Mart, the same chain involved in the trampling, who maintained order and acted like decent human beings. There's no bargain, ever, worth the cost of a human life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Perfect Place

After so much time spent in coffee shops or holed up in my basement office, I was itching for a new writing venue. Someplace quiet, close, with good light and comfortable seating. I wanted a place away from home, where the distractions of renovations and yard work and my own predilection for tinkering in the kitchen constantly tug at my attention. A place where I didn't have to buy something to eat or drink in order to hang out, a place conducive to work, with free wi-fi and plenty of electrical outlets since my laptop battery is on the fritz.

Enter my public library.

Now, I've always loved libraries. I love that people have access to my books, and they are one of my favorite places to speak. And what amazing services public libraries provide! For one, there are databases galore, full of obscure articles and hard-to-find information. And then there are the people, the talented and skilled librarians themselves, who are always helpful as all get out. Need to know why cottonwood trees sometimes make a popping noise that sounds like a rifle shot in the winter? Need to know how many books by an author you reference in a query letter sold last month? Just walk up to the reference desk -- or make a phone call -- and ask.

The other night I discovered the Ask-A-Librarian feature on my local library's website. I type in: How can I get all the email addresses for libraries in Nebraska? Figuring I'd get an answer in the morning, since I was doing the asking at two a.m., I was surprised and delighted to get an instant response, from a live person!

But somehow I'd forgotten how much I adore the atmosphere inside the library: the hushed tones of patrons, the smell of ink on paper, the sound of rustling pages. After a week of daily trips to the desk in the back corner behind the periodicals, between the window and the potted ficus, I'm still giddy about my rediscovery of the library as a perfect place to write.

Thankful, even.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A 3,000 Year-Old Story of Lust, Sex, Murder, and Redemption

Keith here.

You never know where you’re going to find a compelling crime story.

Saturday I was at the synagogue where we were studying the prophet Nathan. He’s not mentioned much in the Bible, but he does pop up in a key role in a famous story of lust and murder. Whether this is true crime or crime fiction I’ll leave up to you and the theologians, but what a story either way!

David, the charismatic King of the Jews, is taking an afternoon stroll on the roof of his palace. He spots a beautiful woman bathing and sends “someone to make enquiries about the woman.” The man reports, “She is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam [and] wife of Uriah the Hittite.” (2 Samuel 11:3)

David sends for her. Bathsheba has just finished her period (yes, the Bible lets us know that). They have sex and she sends word back to the King that “I am pregnant.”

Then David recalls Bathsheba’s husband Uriah from the wars. David asks him how the fighting is going and then tells Uriah to return home. When David finds out Uriah did not go home, he investigates. Because his fellow soldiers are still on the battlefield, Uriah asks, “How can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?”

David takes the decisive step then. He tells his general to “place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed.” Uriah is killed in battle. Bathsheba laments over her dead husband. When the period of mourning is over, David marries her. She has her son.

God is displeased with what David had done (no kidding!) and sends the prophet Nathan to the King. Nathan tells a parable of a rich man with many sheep stealing the one lamb of a poor man. David says the rich man should die. Nathan says “That man is you.” Through Nathan, God says to David, “I gave you the House of Israel and Judah.... You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and had him killed....” God curses David and says “I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun.”

Because David owns up to his sin and repents, God shows some mercy. Still David is told his son with Bathsheba will die as punishment.

The story is told in barebones, Dragnet (“Just the facts”) fashion. We need to draw our own conclusions. Why are we told Bathsheba had just finished her period? So that when she becomes pregnant, she and David (and the reader) know it is David’s child. Why did David want Uriah to go back home? So the pregnancy can be attributed to Uriah. Because that scheme doesn’t work, David turns to murder. The loyalty of Uriah to his king is repaid with death.

Now to me, a crime fiction writer, this all seemed reminiscent of a James Cain novel. In his Double Indemnity Phyllis Nirdlinger uses her sex appeal to manipulate an insurance salesman to fix her husband up with an accident policy then murder him so they can collect $100,000. (If you’ve ever seen the movie of Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck twisting that Fred MacMurray around her finger, you’ll understand why the poor sap had no chance.) Couldn’t the story of David and Bathsheba be seen the same way? What was Bathsheba doing in the bath in clear view of the palace anyway? Why not move up in the world and beguile the king and get rid of that husband who was holding her back? David is so bewitched he doesn’t even know that he’s done something wrong till Nathan breaks the spell.

When I spelled out my theory, my friend Sylvia gave a contrasting interpretation. She figured Bathsheba was rousted from her bath by royal procurers and hustled over to the king’s. How could she not accede to the most powerful man in the kingdom? Even if force was not used, David’s sleeping with her was tantamount to rape. To Sylvia the story of David and Bathsheba was a story of male power and oppression. And I had to admit that her theory was as good as mine.

We know what happens to our adulterous couple. They have another son, Solomon, who inherits the throne and builds the Temple in Jerusalem. David is to be the ancestor of the Messiah and for that reason the gospels of Matthew and Luke take time to show that Jesus is descended from him.

So what do we have here? A three thousand year-old story of lust, adultery, murder, and redemption. Not bad, considering the shelf life of even a bestselling crime novel today is measured in weeks and months.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Teleplays

I am addicted to House. In fact, I consider Sunday nights date night with my television because a double-header of House reruns are on USA Network, and Hugh Laurie always puts out. Actually, it's the series' writers who always give me what I need. The show is consistently uncomfortable, intelligent, funny, and original (though I've noticed an over-reliance on chelation in season 4). It's the best detective show on the air, and millions of people, like me, can't get enough.

The genius of the show is the central character, Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie. (My friend Julia Buckley says she has a hard time adjusting to his American accent but we both agree that he is perfectly cast.) His character is eminently unlikable and doesn't care, which makes him fascinating. He doesn't run with the herd yet he manages to succeed, and we all want to know why.

During a recent Sunday House juggernaut, I was flipping stations during a commercial and ended up on the Discovery channel, which, as usual, was covering something really gross. I watched long enough to get the gist and flitted to E!, which was airing The Girls Next Door. One of the ladies was having a problem due to her enhancement surgery. I switched back to House, which was now on, and an idea began niggling at me. There was a thread connecting these three shows. So, I turned back to the Discovery channel, back to The Girls Next Door, back to House, back to the Discovery channel, back to The Girls Next Door, and voila: I had a thrilling idea for a House episode--there'd be the central medical drama thanks to what I'd just seen on Discovery, continued character development in line with the direction of the series, and the humor that holds the show together, inspired by the "issue" I'd caught on The Girls Next Door (thanks, fake boobs). Talk about a strange stew.

As I sketched my ideas, I started to imagine what it would be like to write words that other people act out, to create characters that real people slip into like suits. I'm a novelist, and the words I write are meant to stay on the page, a note from me to you. But to write a script? I was taken with the idea. The television writers I have heard speak and those writers I know whose books were lucky enough to be turned into movies grumble at the experience--too many cooks spoiling your broth--but I thrive on collaboration.

So I've begun a teleplay for the House episode burbling in my head. I own one book on writing teleplays, penned by Lee Goldberg, and in it, he assures me I'd have better luck turning water into wine than selling a teleplay on spec, but that's true of any fiction writing, right? It's not a business venture for the practical.

In that vein, anyone have advice for me on writing teleplays, or the phone number for David Shore, the head writer and showrunner for House?

Friday, November 21, 2008

It takes a village, people

One of the most important page in our books is the acknowledgements. There we pay homage to those who have helped us along the road to being published. Our critique groups. Our agents and editors. Our mothers.

Today, I’d like to acknowledge those who are helping me now. Helping me marketl my books, find a fan base and along the way, create my career as an author. Last weekend, I drove 400 miles down to Southern California to sign books. I’m amazed at the number of people that were required to make it happen.

So thanks go out to:

My friend, ML, who introduced me to her in-laws, Dr. and Dr. G, who put me up for the weekend. The three of them fed me, sheltered and supported me in all ways great and small. Every artist needs a patron and lucky me to find two with a fabulous wine cellar.

The shop owners. Mary at The Fabric Patch in Montclair didn’t know me at all when I called up and suggested she might want to have me sign books in her store. In this economy, heck, in any economy, it takes a leap of faith to spend your inventory dollars on an unknown quantity. Mary took that leap and we sold many copies of WILD GOOSE CHASE and OLD MAID’S PUZZLE.

Joan Bunte of Stamp Your Heart Out in Claremont jumped on the bandwagon early and put me on her schedule before STAMPED OUT was released. She ordered several dozen books. We sold out and had an exciting afternoon, with stampers and writers.

The employees, who set up cookies and snacks and made sure the customers were happy and having a good time. A special shout out to those who'd read the book and were enthusiastically recommending it to all within earshot.

I stopped at several book stores and found copies of my books on hand and gratefully signed them. It was evident everywhere I went that shop owners were being cautious. I thank the book buyers and owners that have my book on their shelves.

The fans, of course. One gentleman had taken three buses and a train to get to a signing. Yet another, Simmy, came just hours after having evacuated from the Chino Hills fire. Safely.

These are some of the people who made that weekend possible. Everytime I do a signing, there are a legion of people working to make that happen. For those past and present events, I say thanks.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

BITE ME

As my colleague JB Stanley pointed out a while back, vampires are everywhere. Three (or is it four) of the top ten bestselling books in the country feature vampires. The TV series based on Charlaine Harris' delightful books is the new Sopranos in terms of HBO revenue. Underworld was a great action movie with vampires and werewolves, not to mention Kate Beckinsale in a skintight leather suit. And who doesn't love watching reruns of Buffy?

Crime fiction also has its share of the undead these days. I just read a terrific novel by Mario Acevedo featuring a vampire PI, and the confidence of the writing made me think that perhaps all the fuss about vampires in popular culture isn't because they are a timeless literary archetype, but simply because maybe vampires are real — just go with me on this — and they're not just living and working among us, they're controlling the media.

How else do you explain their longevity, the insane surge in popularity, the diversity of portrayals or the sheer empathy of today's vampire characters? The villains of yesterday's gothic literature are slowly and deliberately winning us over, opening our hearts and minds to the prospect that maybe they're not so bad after all. That way, when they actually reveal themselves, we'll welcome them as old friends instead of monsters thirsting for our blood. We'll take the crosses from around our necks, leave the wooden stakes in the vegetable garden, and invite them into our homes...just as we're bringing millions of them into our homes right now through books and movies and TV shows.

Being undead has some advantages, and changing into bats or wolves must be cool, but if you want real power today you control the media. I can personally think of several people in the publishing business who like fresh blood, and everyone knows Hollywood is full of vampires. And I'm sure there's a TV producer or two filing their incisors even as you read this.

It's just a matter of time before a formal announcement is made, so keep the garlic in the cupboard.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pay No Attention to the Fake Behind the Curtain

By Deborah Sharp

With a whopping month of signings and book appearances under my new-author belt, it seems like a good time to pose the question: When do I stop feeling like a pretender?

Case in point: I appeared last weekend at the mega-huge Miami Book Fair. My panel was stuck in a building that Miami Dade College actually calls "The Garage,'' but that's another story. Even if they told me to speak in a spot they call "The Bathroom,'' I would have been grateful for the invite.

My co-panelists bandied about hilarious anecdotes about Hollywood, and movie options, and musical superstars who call them at home at midnight. I told my story about the constipated reader who told me how he likes to pass time on the toilet with Mama Does Time.

Now, I did get a laugh. And these much-more-experienced authors were perfectly warm and gracious to me. (Okay, maybe one wasn't perfectly warm). Still, I felt like I was at the Book Fair under false pretenses. Like I lifted a pass to this super-exclusive clubhouse when the real owner wasn't looking. I mean, when I lunged for the last lemon poppy seed muffin left on the breakfast bar in the Authors' Hospitality Suite, I reached right past Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie!

I'll admit, I'm not the most self-confident person on the planet. And, yes, I was on Today (thanks, again, to my slightly pushy TV reporter hubby). But the fact I was on that show somehow makes my raging insecurity worse. The expectations are even higher now. And I'm waiting for the moment the curtain is pulled back to reveal this faker pushing buttons and yanking levers, trying to magically create an author's cloak that fits.

So, two questions: Anybody have the name of a good therapist?
And, if it isn't just me, what was your most insecure moment as a newbie author?

Riding with Lady Luck

Those of you that follow this blog know that music plays a significant role in my writing.  And as I finish Under the Skin, my current work, I've found a certain playlist has organically grown up around it.  And at the heart of this playlist is one Tom Waits.

This tune was covered by The Eagles some years later, but I still like the original gravely version from the guy that penned it.  So without further ado, I give you Tom Waits and 'Ol 55.  



So tell us about your playlists.  You've got one, I know you do....

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's With All The Vampires?



All the tweens trick-or-treating in my neighborhood were dressed as Bella and Edward from “Twilight.” The frenzy over the movie release has grown to nearly epic proportions in my local Barnes and Noble and is reminding me of the hullabaloo surrounding the release of a new Harry Potter novel/film.

The difference for me is that I loved the Harry Potter books. I thought they were very well written and absolutely unique. Still, even though I didn’t enjoy “Twilight,” I lift my coffee cup to Stephenie Meyer for coming up with a YA version of hot vamp fiction and for cashing in on it. I prefer to see authors rising to the top over, say, professional athletes out of jail on parole!

Even after Halloween, I’ve been noticing just how “hot” vampire themes are right now. There’s a ton of buzz about the HBO series True Blodd, which is based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. I have recently discovered these books and am tearing through them. Again, I’m thrilled for Charlaine and I think she’s a talented writer. After all, I don’t usually read paranormal fiction, but I adore her characters. They’re like small-town cozy characters with fangs….and paws, and fur, wings, etc.)

So who started this vampire craze? I guess it was Anne Rice. I’ve read all of her books with the exception of one or two that have been in the TBR stack for years, but I think her Interview With the Vampire propelled the undead into the bestseller spotlight. And then the movie - Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst!

What do you think? Are you a fan of the vamps? Of the shows/movies they’ve inspired?

If not, which genre would you like to see make a comeback?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Plot, Place, Character?


In searching for a subject for this morning's blog post, I was glancing through Speaking of Murder—Interviews with Masters of Mystery and Suspense published by Berkley Prime Crime, way back in 1998. I stumbled upon an interview with Elizabeth George where she speaks about her deep "psychic" connection to England. She goes on to say how she starts with the merest kernel of a plot then spends about a week at the location of choice (a spot in the U.K.) to allow the seed to germinate. She often goes back later, as the story develops, to soak up more of the region.

She particularly likes writing about a foreign country because she notices every detail. She goes on to say that when writing about U.S. locations, she doesn’t pick up the same info on her radar. The nuances of every day life, like the type of raincoat a person wears, the food one orders, the newspapers one reads, all are so familiar, the tiny things get lost in the shuffle.

So this started me thinking, how much do you think a sense of place has to do with your story?

I know that most of the authors that post regularly on this blog write series mysteries, so the question of place is often answered in advance. Not always, though. And sometimes, just like similar plots or the same core characters go stale without a new twist, a writer needs to shake things up a bit with their sense of place.

I believe this is why, as a series goes on, we often see characters from a small town take a trip. You see it all the time on TV.

Lucy and Ricky and Ethel and Fred loaded up the car and went to Hollywood. Later in the series, they even bought a country inn. And then, look at "Murder She Wrote." Cabot Cove having beaten out Detroit and Washington, D.C. as the town with the most killings per capita, Jessica Fletcher split for greener (or more bloody) pastures just about every week. But, I think it's safe to say, by that point in the series, the sense of place established by the series traveled with her. Maine in that big black purse, ah-yup.

And take a look at the CSI TV shows, talk about a sense of place! NY, Las Vegas, and Nevada, ne'er the twain shall meet. (Except that one time when Horatio flew to N.Y. He seemed so lost without his shades, but don't get me started!)

When Midnight Ink first considered my book, BrigaDOOM, they asked if I would move the Kate London Mystery Series from the western Michigan coast to Cleveland. Cleveland??
After I finished gasping and got up off the floor, I took a deep breath and explained how inextricably linked a small, blighted town on Lake Michigan's shore was to the characters' sense of self, the stories, and the series in general. The frustrations of an 'almost tourist town' that is unique to that part of Michigan, the feeling of a peninsula, the shortest of summer seasons, the dunes, so many things would change or be lost. I grew up not far from Cleveland, and a person not from Michigan might argue that they are close enough, take it from me, they're not.
Midnight Ink, thankfully, agreed.

So, how strong is the sense of place in what you write? In what you read? What would happen if you moved your protagonist to another town?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just say no

by Joe Moore

731 I was a guest at a recent writer’s event. I got to discuss my new book, THE 731 LEGACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes). Afterwards I took part in a meet-and-greet with the audience. Among the questions, someone asked me: What was the most important advice I could give a new writer? My answer was to realize that you can just say no.

I explained that publishing is a manufacturing industry. But unlike most other industries, publishers don’t manufacture anything. Instead, they have an endless tsunami of writers constantly beating down their doors with pre-manufactured product. Yes, they have to know what the customer is looking for. And yes, they need to edit, package and market it in a professional and appealing manner. But publishers will never run out of product because there will always be writers wanting to be published.

New writers want to be published in the worst way. Unfortunately, their journey to publication can turn over time from excitement and enthusiasm to desperation and fear. You write a book, send out queries, start getting rejections. But you don’t give up. You revise your query, send it out again, and get more rejections. So what happens? You become desperate. You think that maybe you’ll never get published or never find an agent. Never see your precious work on the shelves of Borders or B&N.

Out of fear, you become so desperate that you are ready to take the first offer that comes along. Because when it does and you don’t, you may never get another shot.

Then the call or letter finally comes and someone is willing to issue a contract. What do you do? You jump at it without a moment’s hesitation. You just want to be published. And you finally got an offer. You go for it.

Now, stop and consider this. Did you marry the first person that asked you out? Did you buy the first car you saw for sale? Or the first house?

When that offer to publish finally comes along, ask yourself: Is this publisher perfectly matched to my writing? Will this publisher put in place the appropriate marketing and distribution to get my book to the correct audience? Do they have the expertise? Do they understand the genre? Will I get the quality and personalized service I need? And most important, do they have the ability to help me grow my career as a writer?

Remember that desperation is not a reason to say yes. It’s a reason to stop and realize that you can say no. Because getting married is blissful, but getting a divorce is not. Always remember that you can just say no.

What is the most important advice you can give a new writer?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh, Say Can You See?


For the past eight weeks I’ve been traveling across the country, watching the odometer on my car flip past 100,000, eating too many Combos (cheddar is my favorite), and sleeping in too many hotels. (Correction: Trying to sleep. I’ve been awakened by folks pounding on the door next to me because “Jennifer” forgot to set her alarm and was about to miss the shuttle, by a smoke alarm, and by a hotel staff who forgot to re-set their clocks to Daylight Savings Time.)

And what have I seen?

A glorious, panoramic vision of our country. From the Appalachian mountains where my vehicle went up and down and round and round like a child’s toy, to the waving wheat-filled plains of Kansas, to the big muddy river defining the state borders, to a huge restaurant in Sikeston MO where they throw hot, yeasty rolls at the diners…this is a land so vast, so great that my heart has ached for the love of it.

Today, being Veterans Day, I pause to give thanks that we are free. My mother’s father fought inWWII—she still owns his service revolver. My other grandfather was one of 704 who survived the bombing of the USS Franklin by the Japanese—I have his handwritten account. My husband’s father served on a base in Germany—we still have a collection of Hummels he bought for his bride. My father served on planes during the Korean conflict—he send home a tiny kimono for me.

Perhaps the most poignant service was one I nearly overlooked. I own a grainy “Brownie” snapshot of my uncle in uniform in Korea. For years I’ve admired how handsome Uncle Dick was, with his profile and features so much like a young Johnny Carson. Then I decided to enlarge the photo and use it on a scrapbook page. That’s when I discovered that the “wall” he was standing in front of was actually a bunker made of sandbags.

Suddenly, I saw that image in a new light. I realized my uncle planned it as a “goodbye” photo, a last image in case he didn’t survive.

Often in life we think we “see”. We believe we know what’s what. Who’s who. How it’s hanging. But a slight shift of perspective can open our eyes.

Let me offer a suggestion: A week ago, voters waited seven hours at the polls here in St. Louis. To honor all our veterans, why not make Election Day a national holiday? When we lived in England, our neighbors were shocked that our country--which touts free and fair elections—does NOT give our citizens the day off. Instead, we make it difficult to cast a ballot. Wouldn’t that be a better way of honoring all those who served our country? Who fought and died to make sure we have the right to choose our leaders?

That’s how I see it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kinderbooks

Used to be when an invitation to a baby shower appeared in the mailbox -- or the inbox -- I'd hie me to the Babies R Us and indulge in tiny socks and stuffed animals and the inevitable pack of onesies for the expectant mother-to-be. Or rather, her progeny. I don't have children, so these infrequent forays were kind of fun, though my selections were safe to the point of blandness because I had little idea of what new mothers and their babies really needed.

Then I was called upon to actually organize a baby shower for a colleague at work. Ugh. So not my thing.

Luckily, this woman was down-to-earth, smart and not given to cute games or silly party themes. What would I want if I were in her practical shoes? Well, that was easy: books.

Everyone who attended the shindig brought brightly wrapped, rectangular packages, and we piled them high on a table. She had a blast opening them, and her new baby was well supplied with reading material until at least the age of five. They ranged from cushy pillow books the infant could sleep with to chapter books Mom and Dad could read to an older child. Many were classics: Mitten the Kitten, Dr. Seuss, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Goodnight Moon (okay that's a relatively recent "classic"), Maurice Sendak.

Since then I always give books when a wee one is on the way, and if I'm visiting a household with children, there's inevitably a book for them in my suitcase. Last Thanksgiving I gave my two-year-old cousin, Peyton, Skippyjon Jones. I was then called upon to read it to him. Conversations around the house stopped and family drifted into the living room where we sat. I admit I may have gotten a little carried away, with my wild gesticulations and bad Mexican accent, but the big grin on Peyton's face was well worth the embarrassment.

Recently, I visited a friend in Nashville who has a ten-year-old son. Artemis Fowl for him this time around. His parents have read to him every night since he was old enough to listen, and now, in addition to baseball and soccer and football and science camp, he reads whenever he can. He's gone through all the Harry Potter books, the Chronicles of Narnia, most of the Hardy Boys mysteries, Michael Chabon's Summerland, and a host of others.

Of course, I also give books to adults. Lots of them. I've been knows to check off my entire Christmas list at the local indie bookstore -- these days it's The Readers Cove. And it's getting to be that time of year again ...

Who do you give books to? And how do you encourage children to read?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Mustache Mystique

Yesterday we went to a fun store in our neighborhood because my son wanted to buy a novelty eraser (all the kids had one, so naturally it had become Graham's obsession).

Once there, we were distracted by all the cool stuff, and Mom, never a frugal shopper, decided to buy our traditional "good report card" treats. Graham got a Futurama T-shirt and Ian an Iron Man.

At the check-out counter, though, as I was about to pay, I felt a little hand on my arm. Graham, eyes glowing, was pointing to an odd display by the register.

"Mustaches!" he said.

Graham has long been a lover of disguises, and I figured a mustache couldn't cost more than about fifty cents (I was very wrong about that). But since they had one that matched his hair color, I couldn't resist.

Now, as I watch my ten-year-old sporting a lip warmer all over the house, I am wondering again at the mystique of the mustache. What is the appeal of this fashion?


In the world of Magnum P.I., the mustache was a macho thing--something that somehow increased Tom Selleck's virility. He looks like a whole different guy without the 'stache, and I can't imagine the show, now, without a mustachioed Magnum.

Remember all of the creepy roles played by Vincent Price? His mustache had an entirely different effect, in that it seemed to highlight the sinister nature of the characters he played. (I don't think he had the mustache in Laura, but in many flicks he did).

And what about the 1970's Mark Spitz? His face on my Wheaties box would not have been recognizable without his telltale mustache--something that I came to connect with Olympian prowess. Today Spitz doesn't sport the mustache, and he looks like an entirely different man. The mustache creates a strong persona that the absence of a mustache somehow diminishes.






Then there are the famous waxed mustachios of the great Hercule Poirot. Hercule is fiction, but he's been brought to life by many actors, including David Suchet (seen here) and the great Peter Ustinov. Poirot's mustache was all about vanity. He saw these carefully tended hairs as a reflection of personal pride and attractiveness.





The mustache is a slippery symbol--it had the effect of creating a memorably handsome Clark Gable, a notoriously evil Fu Manchu, and an affably hunky Burt Reynolds.
Perhaps it is its diversity that makes the mustache a great disguise. One can use it to create an image--better yet, to create a red herring. If one sees the mustache, one won't necessarily see what is underneath it. That can come in very handy for a spy, a criminal, a lothario.
My son's mustache allows him endless fantasies, but it is oddly authentic, as though he is the shortest adult in our family. He also looks more like his father than ever, since his dad does, in fact, have a mustache. I imagine he'll ask for more of these hairy treats in his Christmas stocking. They come in all colors, and that will allow Graham to take on more personas. He can add the mustaches to his growing disguise collection: the false nose, the long beard, the fake glasses. And, of course, the endless array of hats.
Maybe in the future, when my son is in the CIA (let's hope it's the CIA and not the Cat Burglar's association), he'll trace his fascination with disguises to the little brown mustache he bought at the age of ten.
Who's your favorite mustached man?









Murder and Mayhem in Muskego












Tom Schreck, author of TKO



Well, tomorrow morning I’m off to Wisconsin for “Murder and Mayhem in Muskego.” It’s an unbelievably cool two day conference with about 30 authors, a day long conference at the great Muskego library, a cocktail reception the night before and a lot of partying with all the authors and the great people like Penny Halle, queen of all librarians, and Jon and Ruth Jordan, the first family of mystery lovers, who put this thing on. They’re flying us out there and putting us up at the ultra cool Iron Horse Hotel and chauffeuring us around all weekends.

Dennis Lehane, Sean Chercover, Reed Coleman, JA Konrath, Marcus Sakey, Tasha Alexander, Blake Crouch, Michael Black, Chris Grabenstein are just a few of the names there.

That’s the good part.


I’m facilitating the first panel of the day called “Characters Welcome” and I’m on with Simon Wood and Michael Allen Dymmock, both who I haven’t met but I’ve read their stuff and they’re dynamite.

Here’s the bad part.

The problem is the other two panelists; Maleeny and Combes.

Geez.

Have you met these guys?

Oh boy.

Combes has his Phil Riley mysteries that take place in the Caribbean and he’s been compared to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He gets rave reviews for his books but in person, well…

Then there’s Maleeny.

His Cape Weathers series gets nominated for awards about every half hour. I can never keep track of which ones but I think he’s been up for “The MacAvity,” or maybe it was “The Ippy” no wait, I think it was “The Jaffarian.” It doesn’t matter. In person the guy is intolerable to be around.

Here’s the problem—both of them have the social skills of an orangutan.

You know, I’ve suffered through conversations with both of them at various conferences and they’re duller than a 60 Minutes outtake reel of Andy Rooney plucking his eyebrows.





So, I got 45 minutes to try to get them to say something that’s even marginally interesting.

And as for their books… There’s no basset hounds, no Schlitz, no Polish jokes, no boxing, no obscure social work references—none of the stuff that instantly propels a mystery onto best seller lists.

I mean, what the hell am I going to do?

Maybe I’ll bring the Andy Rooney video just in case.

www.Murderandmayheminmuskego.com

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The New New Deal

by G.M. Malliet

I'm in the Netherlands at the moment, and I can tell you it makes a nice change (speaking of change) to see how excited and happy the Dutch and all Europeans seem to be about this election.

Everywhere we've visited, it's been a variation on the same theme: "So, this must be an exciting day for you Americans!" The first time this happened my husband, confused and jet-lagged, replied, "Well, yes, it's our anniversary. Thank you." But we quickly caught on. The election has been followed here perhaps more avidly than in the US. Even though they realize and we realize change isn't going to come overnight, they see this election as a sign America is becoming more European. I hope they're right.

Universal healthcare coverage, anyone?

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Widow Josiah Taft Votes

by Felicia Donovan

Did you know that in 1756, a woman by the name of Lydia Chapin Taft was, for the first time, allowed to vote in New England Town Meetings? Her husband, Josiah Taft, was one of the largest landowners in the town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts. When Josiah became ill and died, the town voted to allow the "Widow Josiah Taft," as she was known, to vote by proxy on whether or not to appropriate funds to support the French and Indian Wars. Thus, the "Widow Josiah Taft" set her place in history as the first woman to ever vote in the nation. Lydia Taft's historic vote would precede the 19th Amendment in 1920, by 164 years.

One-hundred and sixty-four years. Think about that for a moment. votes-womenThink about the struggle for women to have a say despite their contributions to the household, their hard labor and trials under often deplorable conditions. Women managed households and budgets, raised children, educated themselves - and often did all of it alone while their husbands were away at war or killed in war - but still, they were not entitled to vote.

Let's not set ourselves back, Ladies. Over two-hundred and fifty years later, we have an opportunity to cast our votes and make sure that women continue to have their rights addressed. This election is more important to women than any other election in our history. No matter what your political leanings, let's never forget that there are many nations that to this day, still do not recognize a woman's right to vote. Let's make the Widow Josiah Taft proud and get out to vote in honor of the millions of women who still don't have that freedom.

One final note - in a small town like my own, voting is akin to a social event during which friends catch up with each other while they wait in line, opinions are proudly rendered, gossip is exchanged, and hunters catch up on how many deer they've bagged thus far this season. Local scout troops sell hot cider, coffee and cookies to satisfy voters as they wait. Civic groups distribute flyers for the upcoming Tree Lighting ceremony downtown to support merchants. It's all quite amicable and pleasant. You know you're a local when the registrar recognizes you and crosses your name off the list without even asking you for it. And for the first time I can ever remember, we'll vote in a new location - a former school - because our Town Hall is not large enough for the anticipated turnout. What are your polling places like?

Tired of Waiting? Something to Pass the Time

Today I’m waiting. Waiting to hear of the reaction to my latest manuscript. Especially waiting for the election returns tomorrow night.

I figure some of you are waiting rather than working as well. So, I’ve come up with something to help you pass the time.

Here’s a list of first sentences from some favorite works of crime fiction. Put the title and author in a comment below. (Spelling counts!) The first commenter to get them all right wins! If no one gets them all, the person with the most correct answers by Friday at noon Pacific Time wins. What does the winner get beyond prestige and adulation? Well, the best I can think of right now is a personally inscribed copy of Dot Dead, but maybe I’ll come up with something better.

Good luck. VoilĂ .

1. After creating the heavens and the earth, God produced, in his own image, the first man, and named him Adam.

2. In the shadows of the John F. Kennedy Expressway, surrounded by warehouses, factories, and auto-body shops stands Villa d’Este, a family-run restaurant, that serves generous portions of decidedly untrendy Italian-American food at reasonable prices.

3. The warm glow from the cabin’s window told a lie.

4. The smile was famous.

5. Have you seen us?

6. Halfway to Christmas, Forchetti stated the obvious: “You can’t teach for shit.”

7. Cougar flipped through the trail log.

8. My weekend was D.O.A....dead on arrival.

9. In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

10. Mas Arai didn’t believe in Jesus or Buddha, but thought there might be something in bachi.

11. Cape Weathers just wanted to know what time it was before he died.

12. It took just minutes for Dr. Emil Varga to reach the old man’s room.

13. I’d seen him angry plenty of times.

14. “Is this payback?” I said as I jogged along a powder blue hearse, wearing a zippered black jumpsuit and Reeboks and panting in the eighty degree heat.

15. I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.

16. It happened every year, was almost a ritual.

17. The headline made me sit down when I read it, that and the picture next to it, and the article that spilled out over to columns underneath.

18. Josh Ryder looked through the camera’s viewfinder, focusing on the security guard arguing with a young mother whose hair was dyed so red it looked like she was on fire.


19. Swirling snow bit his cheeks, snapped at his blinking eyes.

20. Marilyn Crier peered in the window, and I knew the past was about to kick me in the ass.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Inkspot News - November 1, 2008

Talk about your Halloween treat: Deborah Sharp reports that, with some major spousal assistance, she snagged an appearance on NBC's TODAY Show to chat about Mama Does Time. (What to wear, what to wear?) She'll be on Tues, Nov. 4, sometime between 9:30-10:00 am, barring any Election Day meltdowns.
Mama Takes Manhattan?