Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Writing and promotion. Work and fun. Family, job, creative pursuits. Home crafts, research, gardening, friends. House renovation. Volunteer work.

Just a few of the things we all have to juggle. Lately I’ve been thinking about how to keep a sense of balance in the day-to-day. It's an ongoing challenge, but at least I'm getting better at it.

At least I think so.

I love my life, which is very full and extremely varied. I make time for what’s important, but often I have to pull back and objectively reassess what's important. I want it all, but know better than to think I can have it all NOW. Sometimes priorities change. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary. So far it’s never it's been my writing, and I can’t imagine that it ever will be.

How do you balance the demands in your life? How do you make sure there’s always time for writing? Is it easier for men than women? What sacrifices do you make?

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Paean to P.A.

Keith Raffel here.

Sunday morning, weather in the 70’s, sky cerulean, breeze whispering, #4 and I took a bike ride around my Palo Alto neighborhood.

Then Sunday afternoon I headed to the synagogue for our annual meeting. A wood and glass homage to the tents of the ancient Israelites, the sanctuary sits on a knoll in rolling hills. When I was a boy, it was in the boonies, completely isolated and one of the few Jewish institutions in the area. Now an interstate highway is nearby, high tech buildings crouch across the street. And Jewish life in Silicon Valley is flourishing with the establishment of a Jewish day school and high school, a new Jewish Community Center going up, and a Stanford Jewish studies department that’s one of the tops in the world. I don't want to give the impression that Palo Alto is turning into a ghetto (in the original meaning) though. In my neighborhood, first generation immigrants from China, France, India, and Israel are all buying houses and making Palo Alto one of the most ethnically diverse places around.

From the synagogue, I went to pick up my dad for a quick bite at Peninsula Creamery downtown. My parents picked up and moved here from Skokie, Illinois over fifty years ago. I wonder how different my life would be if they had not. I love living in my hometown, just eight houses away from my parents' place. #1 graduated from Palo Alto High, just as I did. She wanted to get out of here bad, just as I did, and is now attending college on the East Coast, just as I did. #2 is at Paly High now and, thanks to her, I have discovered I remember very little sophomore chemistry.

Then after dropping off Dad, I headed over to Stanford to listen to one of the giants of Hebrew literature, A.B. Yehoshua, being interviewed over at Stanford. I found a seat with some literary-minded friends and listened to her tease out insights camouflaged by the speaker’s heavy accent. Yehoshua answered the question of who the biggest intellectual influence on him was by naming David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Can you imagine anyone naming an American president as an intellectual inspiration? Yehoshua said that when B-G went to England he always stopped at Blackwell’s in Oxford (my favorite bookstore in the world). An intellectual in Yehoshua’s definition is not a professor who’s an expert in one subject. (That engendered some appreciative chuckles from the university audience.) It’s someone who transcends disciplines, who integrates thoughts across subject areas. Another insight of Yehoshua’s I appreciated: Jewish history over the past 2000 years has been primarily a story of crossing borders. Zionism, he said, is a big change in that it is about living within borders.

I so enjoy going to hear other authors speak. Stanford, Kepler’s, and M is for Mystery attract visiting writers like bears to honey. Despite what people say (see here for example), you can be a writer without living in Brooklyn. And the Bay Area has its share of authors including those of the crime fiction persuasion I bump into here and there like Cara Black, Cornelia Read, Lora Roberts, Mark Coggins, and so many more.

Downtown Palo Alto boasts the Stanford Theatre, probably the best repertory movie house in the country thanks to the generosity of David Packard. They recently finished three months of Hitchcock which included a double bill of Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief, possibly the best double feature of all time. They’re running a Bette Davis retrospective now. The siren’s song of the Stanford Theatre is so alluring that my Massachusetts friends Bill and Susan keep talking about getting a place to winter here.

What else about Palo Alto? Oh, yeah. It is the center of world technology, the capital of Silicon Valley. What movie-making is to Hollywood, entrepreneurship is to Palo Alto. A creature of my environment, even I, a history major, started a software company here and sold it. Google headquarters is three miles away from my house and Facebook’s is one. There’s enough greed, money, and ambition around here to provide background for a library of crime fiction and yet, for reasons I don’t fathom, that vein has scarcely been mined by crime writers. And when I get an entrepreneurial itch, there are plenty of kindred spirits who are willing to join in and start a company in the same way Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney found friends to help them put on a play in the barn.

I’m heading to the Giants game this evening with my friend since fourth grade Loren. He and I used to take the bus to Candlestick when we were in high school.

Cue up the Boss here singing My Hometown:
I'm thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around
This is your hometown.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let the Feds Enrich Your Fiction

by Nina Wright

I’m as big a fan of online auctions as the next compulsive shopper. Way bigger than I should be, given the depressed economy and my modest advances to date. So imagine my delight when I discovered a secondary use for auction sites. One that costs me nothing except my time and offers limitless fictional inspiration. Although you can play this game at virtually any online auction site, it’s especially fun at

Here’s why: The U.S. Marshals Service offers an amazing, if not bizarre, array of articles for public auction: residential, commercial and agricultural real estate; timeshares; sport fishing vessels, aircraft, high-end vehicles and collector cars; artwork, antiques and collectibles; fine jewelry and financial instruments. Federal courts ordered these assets to be either forfeited or sold, so let the novelist’s fun begin!

Surfing the categories is diverting enough. Consider these samples from vehicles, antiques, and jewelry:
· A low-mileage black 2001 Chevrolet Corvette two-door convertible (minimum bid $11,000)
· A handmade knotted all-silk Oriental runner rug in excellent condition (minimum bid $800)
· A 7-carat Burmese ruby and diamond tennis bracelet (minimum bid $300)

Fusing these elements into a single story premise, I imagined a young auburn-haired woman receiving the Burmese ruby and diamond tennis bracelet from an older man with a mysterious past and dubious taste in jewelry; he collects Corvettes and inherited his late mother’s Oriental rug. Now what kind of trouble is he in with the Feds? Or, in my tale, did he murder his mother? Does he plan to murder the young woman? What’s his game?

My most efficient use of Bid4Assets is shopping for quirky character details. Let’s say I need a hobby for my antagonist. Or an unusual vehicle. Or, more exciting yet, a “prop” to launch the mystery or provide a valuable clue.

A random surf through Bid4Assets consistently yields intriguing possibilities. Imagine the criminal who would . . .
Drive this “old school” ’63 Chevy truck with camper trailer.

Or collect a “fine antique” Wagner Turbidimeter, manufactured circa 1925, which according to the post writer would be a “welcome addition to any museum, tech school, or industrial office.” (I must confess I had no idea what a turbidimeter was. But it's fun to pronounce.)

Or purchase a Pete Rose Gold Signature Series autographed baseball. Not just a signed souvenir, please note, but a GOLD signature on a dramatic BLACK leather ball. The perfect symbol of the dubious career of a flawed baseball hero. A “must have” for sports fans likewise inclined to bend the law.

But my favorite Bid4Assets story-starter this week is a replica of Jackie Kennedy’s Minaudier purse, gift from French President Charles De Gaulle in June 1961. That’s right, folks! With its dark red velour lining, push-open catch, and detachable 24kt gold-plated shoulder chain, it comes in the original gift box accompanied by a Camrose & Kross certificate of authenticity. Best of all, it’s “approved by the Jacqueline Kennedy Foundation.” I’m having too much fun imagining the person who prizes that item.

Enough surfing amid someone else's mistakes. It’s time to put these details to work in my mysteries. Any plot suggestions? What are your favorite online sources for fiction fodder?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Retreat doesn't have to be a bad thing

First, a contest! Everything you wanted to know about Terri Thayer. I’ve been interviewed by my critique partner, Becky Levine, over on her blog, Scroll down, leave a comment and get a chance to win an autographed copy of Wild Goose Chase. Comments over here don’t count (that’s too easy). Besides, I’d like to her to meet some of my new MI friends. She said she learned stuff in my answers about me she didn’t know, and we’ve known each for seven years. Just think what you’ll find out me. TMI, perhaps.

I’m off to quilt retreat at South Lake Tahoe. When I mention to my non-quilting friends that I would be spending four days, sharing eight meals, working twelve hours a day in a hotel conference room with twenty other quilters, their reaction is inevitable: Huh?

Working with friends who share your interest leads to a lot of laughs, a lot of work done, and new techniques shared. Getting together is the same spirit that brought prairie women together, the idea of community, camaraderie and kinship in an increasingly isolated world. Only we do it in air-condiitoned rooms, with coffeepots and home made cookies. And the talk is a lot more bawdy. Maybe not, maybe those prairie women were a raunchy bunch.

When I first started writing, a friend (b.c., before children) would open her house to writing retreats. Writers of all stripes—sci-fi, nonfiction, mystery, kids—would spread out around her home, sprawled on couches, hunched over the kitchen table, outside under the just-planted cherry tree. They arrived by car, by train, on bike. We had only two things in common – Susan and the desire to write. We’d start early in the morning, write for several hours in silence, or in whispered conversations, then meet up for a pot luck lunch. The afternoon was more of the same. The synergy of other writers working in close proximity seemed to help attract the muse. If nothing else, it kept the butt n chair.

Voluntary confinement can be a wonderful thing. Away from home, from familiar surroundings, we can see things in a new light. With a little prodding from like-minded friends or strangers, we can open ourselves up to heretofore unnoticed possibilities.

So as I struggle to pack my car with sewing machine, ironing board, Ott light, power strip and what feels like half the contents of my sewing room, I know that the efforts are worth it. I’ll have a lot of laughs, get to know new friends, and learn my craft a little better. Because I’m on book deadline, I will be writing every day, too, but the camaraderie of the quilters will something I look forward to each day after I finish my pages.

Oh, did I mention they're fodder for the next book.

Don’t forget to comment at Becky’s blog. I’m counting on you to be your usual witty selves. Let it fly. She can take it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Dana Fredsti Interview, by Jess Lourey

thelmalouiseIn May, I'm planning a pacifistic Thelma and Louise-type road trip from San Francisco up to Seattle with up-and-coming mystery author Dana Fredsti. The only problem is that we both wanna be the Susan Sarandon character, which is okay because even though we won't get laid, we won't get our money stolen by a sexy drifter, either.

Check out this recent interview with Dana, where you'll learn which movie this former actress is most proud of, and who in Hollywood is really an ass. Oh, and we'll cover her writing.

You've been an actress, an essayist, a fiction writer, and an exotic feline caretaker. Which has been your most rewarding pursuit?

DANA: Hmmm…that's a toughie because things can be rewarding in very different ways. As far as life-changing experiences that humbled me and didn't require me to show my hooters on film, I'd have to say working at the Exotic Feline Breeding Facility/Feline Conservation Center (EFBC/FCC) probably tops the list. The first time I held a baby Amur leopard (less than 200 left in the world), I cried, it was just so unbelievably amazing.
That being said, all of the things you listed have had an undeniable impact on my life. Not always good, mind you, but I don't regret any of them. Not even PRINCESS WARRIOR!

The Peruvian Pigeon, the first in your Murder for Hire series, features Connie Garrett, the director of an acting troupe that specializes in parodying various genres in the mystery field. She is a great protagonist, funny enough that your audience wants to hang with her and smart enough that we never have to roll our eyes at her. How much of her, and her job, did you pull from real life?

DANA: Phew! I'm so glad you didn't want to roll your eyes at Connie 'cause in the original draft, she was pretty much based entirely on me. Daphne, her partner in MFH, was based on my writing partner and best friend Maureen Anderson. She and I started a theatrical mystery troupe called (who would have thunk it) Murder for Hire, and our premiere show was, in fact, The Peruvian Pigeon, a not-too-subtle parody of Dashiel Hammet's famous The Maltese Falcon. By the time MFH was published, Connie and Daphne had both achieved a much greater separation of character and creator, but there's still a lot of both of us there. As far as the job goes, I did some stunt work while in Los Angeles, but Murder for Hire was never a full time job for Maureen or me. We didn't have a really cool landlady or a Victorian rental in 'Emerald Cove' (La Jolla) either. But we did do walking tours and perform for both the Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner festivals for the Florence Riford Library in La Jolla.

So, you originally started the Murder for Hire series with Maureen as your cowriter but ended up revising and completing it alone. What was the evolution of that process?

Maureen and I wrote the first draft of MURDER FOR HIRE: The Peruvian Pigeon in a month. We alternated chapters and character POVs and wrote the entire thing longhand. There were a few gaping holes in the story; places where we’d scribble "need action here!" or "This doesn’t make sense. Fix!" But we pretty much had what we thought was a smokin’ first draft. In fact, we thought it was so good, we sent out a slew of query letters before we’d even typed the thing up. We figured we’d have a few months before hearing back from any of the publishers (this was back in the days when you could still send manuscripts directly to publishers and have a shot at it being read), which gave us plenty of time for typing and tweaking. Imagine our surprise -- and panic -- when we got a reply with a request to see the entire book from an editor with St. Martin’s Press less than a week after sending out the first batch of queries.

This prompted a three day and night marathon of revisions and filling in those holes as we typed it up. We were hopped up on chocolate and/or Beringer white zinfandel for most of the marathon. The sugar/caffeine/alcohol cocktail combined with sleep deprivation made us very loopy by the last night (and all of this no doubt account for some of the things that made their way into the finished first draft). I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that St. Martin’s Press politely declined to publish the first incarnation of MFH. Maureen and I are still both a bit mortified we thought it was even close to publication-ready when we sent it in. But talk about a wasted opportunity. The mystery market wasn’t glutted at the time, we’d gotten a crack at a major publishing house without even trying…and we blew it because we didn’t have the common sense to make sure our finished product was a: finished and b: well written before sending off query letters. Points for hubris, same points taken away for stupidity.

It took me approximately 16 years from the time the first draft was written to get MFH published. During that time span the manuscript was: stuffed in a drawer (or the electronic equivalent) for a few years; underwent massive rewrites at least 5 times; waited patiently while query letters and the first three chapters went out to agents and publishers; collected many rejection letters, and was occasionally sent out in its entirety to interested parties. My break finally came because of a writer friend, Brad Linaweaver, who’d read every draft of MFH (except for the first one, which is buried in a secret crypt never to again see the light of day) and thought it deserved to be published. He championed it to James Rock with James Rock Publishing Inc. and after a long wait during which James Rock read two incarnations of MFH, it was accepted for publication in February 2007. It was a long road to publication, but so worth it to finally hold the finished bound copy!

Congratulations on your perseverance! Okay, I laughed out loud at some of the intentionally over-the-top gangster dialogue the actors in the Murder for Hire theater troupe have to use, like this part from Chapter 2: "The goon dropped his roscoe when I crunched my grinders into his mitt. I cold-cocked him with a right to his smeller. The other baboon lunged for me and my legs turned to limp pasta as he sank a fist in my belly." What is your inspiration for that classic noir patter?

Both Maureen and I were huge fans of old movies. THE BAND WAGON, with the wonderful Manhunt Ballet segment (Fred Astaire as the gumshoe, Cyd Charise as both the leggy brunette siren and equally leggy blonde ingĂ©nue) was a huge inspiration. "She had more curves than a scenic railroad. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her…but…there was something about her." There's a wonderful book that celebrates the worst of hard-boiled mystery writing, Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini, and we SO used it as inspiration when we started putting on our shows. Hell, paraphrasing (and sometimes snippets of plagiarism) was our best friend when we were writing our first scripts.

What are you currently working on?

Murder for Hire: The Big Snooze, the sequel to MFH: The Peruvian Pigeon, and A BAD RAP, which is an urban horror/fantasy I hope to parlay into a series.

That leads directly to my next question. Where would you like to be in five years in terms of your writing career?

I'd like to have at least three more MFH books in the series out there, along with my other WIP (work-in-progress) series. Ultimately I want to be writing full time. Doesn't mean I expect to make tons of money, but I would dearly love to make enough to give up the day job and devote a lot more time to writing. I love working in my pajamas.

Your book jacket says you are fan of bad movies, especially ones with zombies. What are your three favorite "bad" movies, and why?

Oh dear…that's a tough one. There are just so many out there to choose from. I'll stick with the zombie genre for now. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD doesn't qualify as a bad movie, but it IS one of my top three favorite movies of all times. And it spawned some delightfully bad zombie flicks, such as:

  • ZOMBIE, an Italian offering directed by Lucio Fulci and starring the lesser Farrow girl, Tisa. I love it because it has: wonderfully bad camera work at times, zooming in on peoples' nostrils (Tisa has some BIG dang nostrils!) and bald patches; zombiekittypeople on the run from zombies who stop and make out in a GRAVEYARD, fer crissake!; bad dubbing; a couple of truly brilliant atmospheric shots; and a fight between a shark and a zombie. What's not to love?
  • NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. Another Italian film set in New Guinea that intersperses the action with stock footage of animals not indigenous to that part of the world. African elephants, anyone? A SWAT team member stops in the midst of exploring a zombie-infested house (the resident is a dead white woman with pearls…what she's doing in the middle of New Guinea is anyone's guess) to put on a tutu and top hat and do a little soft shoe before his totally deserved demise as zombie chow. REALLY bad dubbing and people who stand stock-still screaming, necks bared, when zombies approach, rather than running for the nearest exit. Oh, and SO much more.
  • THE DEAD LIVE, written and directed by Darrin Brent Patterson. I call this movie Man Boobs and Mullets. A must see only if you have a high tolerance for really bad sound quality and some hysterically bad acting.
  • No, wait…I must list another. FEMALE MERCENARIES ON ZOMBIE ISLAND. Truly the funniest, worst, most pathetic excuse for a zombie move ever made. It starts with the end of the world as we know it – a giant tinfoil meteor hits the earth with devastating results: causing men to crave human flesh; women to wear nothing but long T-shirts belted at the waist, knee socks, granny panties, and whatever shoes the actresses had in their closet; and the ability to act is evidently eradicated.

Yes…I own all of these movies. Pity me…or come over to my place, bring a bottle of wine and settle in for movie night!

princess warriorSpeaking of movie night with Dana Fredsti, I have your star vehicle, The Princess Warrior, sitting on my table and crying out to be watched (I had to buy the DVD because I missed it on Rhonda Shearer's UP All Night.) Is there anything I should read up on before I watch it to prepare me, and what's your favorite scene in the movie?

I can't think of anything you could possibly read to prepare yourself, other than a label that says 'DRINK ME' on your favorite bottle of alcohol. Don't ignore that label. My favorite scene…urm…well, it's a toss up between the one where the director is talking on a pay phone and the hero is supposed to go take the phone away from him and while the director is having his one-sided phone conversation, he stops, looks around and says, 'Are we filming? Are we rolling?' And they USED this take in the finished film! But my favorite favorite scene is the infamous 'white hot spoon' torture scene just 'cause it's so dang silly. I'm like a cross between Calista in XENA and Tim Curry in ROCKY HORROR. (interviewer's note: That is Dana on the cover of the movie case. When I opened up the DVD from Amazon, my six-year-old son said, "I want to see that!" I don't know if it was the two women in battle-ready swimsuits, the lightsabers, or a combination of both.)

What is the most famous person you've ever met, living out in California, and were they an ass?

Most famous would probably be William Shatner and no, he was not an ass. I met him on the set of STAR TREK V (and yes, I LIKE this movie – it's like a season three episode, so lay off, people!) when my then boyfriend was working as his driver. It was after a full night of shooting and Shatner was very gracious even though you could tell he was wiped. I also met DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy for you youngens') and he was a sweetheart. He let me hang out in his trailer while they were filming – it was butt-ass cold outside and I was miserable and freezing until he took pity on me.

I was a swordfighting Deadite in ARMY OF DARKNESS. Someday I'm gonna write an essay about the experience, but in the meantime I'll just say Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were great to work with and Bruce Campbell is much like his character Ash. I went to the 20th Anniversary screening of ALIEN and met Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Jeanette Goldstein (Vasquez, the coolest character in the movie aside from Ripley). Again, they were all very gracious and took the time to talk to people.

Biggest thrill for me was meeting and working with Ken Foree (DAWN OF THE DEAD), Josef Pilato (DAY OF THE DEAD) and Brinke Stevens, scream queen extraordinaire. They're not famous unless you're a zombie or horror movie fan, but I was far more danajazzed at meeting them than I would have been at meeting someone like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. I am a total geek when it comes to my beloved zombie and horror genres…

The biggest asses I met while working in the film industry were generally actors who hadn't made it yet, had a few low budget films under their belt and had started developing a sense of entitlement. Not to say there aren't a lot of high level asses on both sides of the camera in Hollywood. I just never ran into them. Maybe if I'd stuck it out in the Industry (note that capital 'I' please!) I'd have encountered a few. Damn. Guess I picked the wrong day to give up acting. And sniffing glue.

Haha! Don't even TRY to sneak an AIRPLANE reference past me, sister. OK, back to mysteries. I've heard you jazz up your signings a little bit, using your theatrical training. What did your last signing event look like?

My last signing event was for the Sacramento Sisters in Crime (a great group!) and it started with noir music playing and my friend Dave doing a monologue from the original Peruvian Pigeon script that segued into my introduction. I talked about the origins of MFH, both the theatrical group and the book, then answered a lot of questions. I love Q&A! I'm totally up for adding more theatricality whenever appropriate.

Where can our readers find your books and meet you in person?

I'm glad you asked that question! I'll be going on a signing tour up the northwest coast, starting in San Mateo on May 21 and culminating in Seattle with the fabulously talented and funny author of the Murder by Month Series, Jess Lourey (interviewer's note: awww!). We're planning a Thelma and Louise-style tour (sans guns, sexy albeit amoral drifters optional) at the end of May. Go here to see our schedule so far!

To win a free copy of Dana's first book, be the first to email her through her website with the name of Fred Astaire's character in THE BAND WAGON. Make sure to tell her Inkspot sent you!


Monday, April 21, 2008

What does it Feel like?

The other day, coincidentally on Earth day, I came to three realizations as I sipped my morning coffee and stared out the window at the pair of swans building a nest in the wetlands next to my home.

Realization #1: I am truly blessed to bear witness to the circle of life as the lake wakes up every spring.
Realization # 2: The most important question a writer asks is not "What if." The most important question is "What does it FEEL like. "
This happened as I glided into the point of view of the swan. I imagined the meditative, Zen-like repetition of plucking bit after bit of straw from the reeds around me, the security of my vigilant mate patrolling the perimeter, the anticipation of the eggs and the cygnets to come. Then two more swans soared overhead, and suddenly I was flying. In my mind’s eye, I saw the aerial view of the lake and surrounding countryside. I literally caught my breath as I felt that little bump of exhilaration when the wind picked up and lifted me higher into the crystalline, blue of the morning. I don’t think non-writers do this. I don’t think they know what it’s like to climb, really, into another living thing’s head. I think this is what makes writers special, different.
And then, realization #3: Things like this, the gifts this planet gives, are what makes nature and its varied settings special, different--especially to writers. We are all truly blessed to be the witnesses and the scribes for our surroundings and to be able to articulate these gifts in our work.
Happy belated Earth Day folks.
(P.S. If you read the comments, you'll know that when I wrote this, I jumped the gun on the date--I thought Earth Day was this past Saturday. It was/is Tuesday. The sentiment, however, is not time sensitive.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

InkSpot News - 19 April 2008

G.M. Malliet is guest blogging today at the Cozy Chicks blog on the topic of What Does a Cozy Make, courtesy of Midnight Ink author J.B. Stanley.

She will also be moderating a panel at Malice Domestic April 26 on this topic.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Not To Wear

by G.M. Malliet

I was fascinated to read that the new Newseum in D.C. features a pair of glamorous turquoise slippers worn by the Wonkette as she wrote her blog. Fascinated, and more than a little jealous. No one is ever going to ask me to donate my giant black furry writing slippers, which look like something one might wear to compete in the Iditarod. Still less, I imagine, would anyone, including me, want my yoga pants on display for posterity. But this, topped off with either a T-shirt or a sweater, is my writing uniform.

I also sometimes wear a baseball cap that says "Writer" across the front. This honestly helps when I get stuck for inspiration.

Since I can't find an image of the Wonkette's slippers, and I am not about to provide a photo of the real me at work, I will illustrate this blog with another interesting fashion statement - the Pope's red shoes, which are generating more press than any other aspect of his visit. (We saw him yesterday in his Popemobile [which is very cool], travelling down Pennsylvania Avenue.) I am trying to convince my husband that he really needs to own a pair of red shoes like these. Once seen, never forgotten.

Ok, the truth now. What stylish writerly apparel would you be forced to donate to the Newseum?

(Photo by Reuters)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Read a comic book.

That's my advice for the day to aspiring writers. Anyone interested in crime fiction should check out a comic book or graphic novel, even if comics weren't part of your cultural landscape growing up. Imagine creating a character so memorable, so resilient, and so compelling that it could remain fresh not just for the length of a novel but over the course of decades. That's what comics do, create characters that can somehow maintain their integrity despite being written by dozens of different authors over the years.

Read a classic hero turned contemporary dark knight and pick up Batman. Want something edgier try The Punisher. Like crime fiction, then check out 100 Bullets or anything by Frank Miller (Sin City). There are as many different comics as their are sub-genres, from strong heroines to vampires to romance. Even Archie and Jughead can teach us a few lessons about making characters quirky, distinct, and yet somehow fascinating enough to hold your attention and compel you to buy the next issue. No small feat in today's disposable culture.

A great American art form too often taken for granted, comics have changed the way we watch movies and defined some of the only heroes we have left in an all too cynical society.

So think about your characters drawn in frames with balloons of dialogue next to them, moving through your story, and then ask yourself if you'd buy the next issue. It's a great catalyst for learning from a two-dimensional medium just how to create three-dimensional characters.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Magnum PI and other Fantasies of Youth

I was just a teenager when the television show Magnum PI first aired. And like most teenage boys I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to live rent free on an estate, drive fast cars - that I didn't have to pay for. To hang out with your friends at an exclusive beach club and never have to pay your beer tab. Yeah, that would be the life.

But it was a fantasy. A fantasy that seemed so far out of reach at 18 that when I got into my 20's, then 30's, now 40's I forgot how carefree and innocent it all seemed at the time. How, at 18, the world was full of possibilities and if you closed your eyes and thought deeply enough, you could put yourself on that estate or behind the wheel of that beautiful red Ferrari. How do I get that fantasy life back? Can I get that life back? Am I too old to dream the dreams of an 18-year-old?

As the great existential philosopher from Key West sings, "I'm growing older but not up." And it's a philosphy I'm adopting more and more lately. I'm trying to recapture those innocent days of youth while maintaining some dignity (I now only wear a coconut bra for special occasions) by tempering that spontaneity with the wisdom gleaned from my 40+ years on this planet. Life is for living right? And what good is living if you don't have any dreams? So, right now, as I type this, a very nice model of that red Ferrari sits on my desk reminding me that I should dare to dream. That the dreams of an 18-year-old boy can still be the dreams of a 40-year-old man - if I only shut my eyes and dream deeply enough.

The Writing Life

The writing life is very peculiar. Maybe you have to be crazy to do it. I don't remember when I first thought that I would like to write a book one day, but I know I was very young. As an elementary school kid I was always making up plays and putting them on. But I didn't really like to star in them. I was too shy. Maybe that's why I always liked to write. I was too timid to say anything in front of people, but I could write it. Then in high school I became a closet writer and wrote a lot of poetry that I kept to myself. All that adolescent turmoil bubbled up and out onto the page. It was a great vent and again I didn't have to say a thing. Then came college and I took a creative writing class that I almost flunked. I just couldn't agree with the teacher. I don't think there was anything creative about what she was teaching. Then I did what girls did back then when they graduated from college. I got married. I recall thinking I would write a book once I got used to this working and housekeeping thing. Then came the babies, so I would write a book after they were out of diapers, after they went to school, after I didn't have to run carpool anymore, after, after, after, after. One morning I woke up on my birthday (and it was a birthday that really got my attention) and thought to myself that I had about let time run out. So I went out and bought my first computer, brought it home, set it up, and sat in front of it. To my horror I realized I had nothing to say. It was a while before I hooked onto a story. I wrote every night from 9:00 pm until 1:00 am when everyone had gone to bed but me. Weekends were tough because the kids were all in sports. But, I managed to spit out a 100,000 word story in about 3 months. I guess I did it so quickly because I didn't know what I was doing. And I have to say, the story was awful. I still have it in a box high on a shelf. I never want anyone to read it, but can't seem to part with it. I wonder what that's all about. I look at my writing schedule now and it doesn't make sense how long it takes for a book to come out of me. Kids are grown and gone, I know more about what I'm doing, I have a great co-writer, and I only work part time. Now, finishing one book a year is tough. Go figure.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

American Idol - A Mystery Lover's Dream

By Felicia Donovan


A few years ago, my daughter introduced me to the talent show phenomenon, American Idol. It was season one and I planned on only watching one episode with her. Six seasons later, there we are, the two of us, glued week after week to see who will nail the song, avoid Randy's "pitchy" comments, suffer Simon's crude commentary, and get sanctioned by Paula no matter how awful the performance was.

American Idol. It's a mystery lover's dream. It has a plot that compels us to return not once, but twice, sometimes three times a week during American Idol Gives Back week. It has drama. Who will break down and succumb to the pressure? Will David Cook be rushed off to the hospital again? It has characters from all walks of life. Who can forget tough health care provider Amanda Overmyer who stood up to Simon's taunts about her hair. It has surprise twists - Carly Smithson, a sure bet who sounds like a young Celine tumults to the bottom three and is no longer "safe?" Dread Head Jason Castro pulls out a ukulele and unexpectedly wows all three judges with a rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Kristy Lee Cook reappears like the butler who keeps sneaking back into the story when she should davidahave been long gone. And then there's my personal fav, young David Archuleta, who just wows everyone with his incredibly seasoned voice every time which leads me to wonder if he's really only seventeen.

A mystery lover's dream, alright. The only problem with American Idol is that it's taking waaaay too much of my time and doggone it, I have these books to write. Fortunately, I can think and watch at the same time or I'd never have been able to finish the final proofs on the next Black Widow Agency book, SPUN TALES. Maybe I should have called it American Spun Tales or Idol Spiders. Either way, there's just a few more episodes of AI left to distract me and then they'll be no more excuses...

So what distracts you from writing?

Killer Woodpeckers

No, it’s not the title of my next book. In fact, I may not finish my next book in time because of the woodpeckers that have been plaguing me since January.

Back then, a red-headed woodpecker with the charm of dear old Woody began pecking at the birch tree outside the window where my desk is located. I thought, “What a cool bird. He’s gorgeous!”

By February, I wasn’t so fond of him. He had begun to drum on the gutters and then eventually made his big move: pecking the wood siding of our house. This was done brazenly, when it was abundantly clear that four humans and three felines lurked just on the other side of the wall which he was studiously chipping away.

My first step was to consult Wikipedia. From there, I researched several sites on controlling woodpeckers. Certain members of my household were all for purchasing a pellet gun, but I soon learned that ALL woodpeckers are federally protected and that one needs a federal permit (and sometimes a state permit as well) in order to “implement lethal control.”


So we chose the humane methods, which I found a relief. As much as that bird was bothering me and tearing apart our siding, I didn’t want to see him shot. Therefore, we hung several rubber snakes from the window. The snakes blew in the breeze and looked altogether ridiculous, but they seemed to work. For about a day. The woodpecker simply relocated to the back of the house. Thus, more snakes out that window. Even the mailman asked us what was going on…

March. Snakes are a total failure. Instead, we hang Mylar Elmo balloons and silver streamers from the windows and the birch tree. Woodpecker’s move: he gets a mate. Yep. Now there are two of them.

My deadline is approaching. Peck, peck, peck. I call an exterminator. “We don’t deal with woodpeckers,” he informs me. “Forget the birds!” I shout. “Kill the bugs they’re eating!” He promises to smear the walls with ant-annihilation paste.

Peck, peck, peck. Then, eureka! My cat kills one of the woodpeckers. But the feathered widow seems mad. He/she goes nuts just below the attic and finally, pecks their way THROUGH the house and inside. I hear them flying around up there, just above our bedroom. Now I can’t sleep or write.

“Buy the gun,” I tell my husband. He’s in the car within seconds.

April. The woodpecker has mysteriously vanished, but dozens of little wrens or finches or freaking chickadees are chipping away at the damaged siding. I call a carpenter. He replaces the boards. I call a painter. I call the exterminator. He’s dusting the foundation for ants again.

The cost of all this? $1200, a book that might be more violent than usual., a new pellet gun, and perhaps, therapy.

Have you ever had a negative brush with Nature?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Company You Keep

By Joe Moore

Who buys your books? If you write mysteries for instance, then the obvious answer would be mystery lovers. That's pretty easy. And to a certain extent you can identify male vs. female readers simply by the nature of your books. Action-adventure, techno thrillers don't usually have the same readership as cozy mysteries. But is there a better way to identity your readership. The answer is: sort of, thanks to Amazon. It's readership identity by association.

amazon1 Take a look at your book listings on Amazon. One of the first things you'll notice on your book's page is something called "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought". There are usually 6 books displayed with arrows on each end of the display. Clicking on the arrows shows 6 more books. There can be up to 9 pages of books to view. Are the authors of those other books familiar? Is there a thread running through the themes, titles and cover art? If you click on one of the other books, do you see your books displayed as being bought by their readers? If so, the audience that reads those other guys is also your audience.

If your sales ranking is good, you could be listed in popular categories which appear below your Amazon rank. Click on the last level in the category you fall into and look at who else is on the list. Do the names look familiar? If they do, then you can form a pretty good picture of who buys and reads your books--the same audience that buys your fellow author's books.

With even this most basic information, you can make marketing decisions on the theme of your blog posts, the look and feel of your website and display ads, your email newsletters and other promotional and collateral material.

Thanks to a few simple tools found at Amazon, you can come closer to answering the question of who is your audience and who buys your books.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What's Your Mystery Book-Q?

by Julia Buckley

I decided, since I was making quizzes for my classes (testing seniors who feel existential anyway on the existential-ness of The Stranger) that I would compile a quiz for thee, oh loyal mystery fans and Inkspot readers. Let’s see if you can match ten first lines with ten author/title choices. I will make number one REALLY easy. (And since I'm trying to be impartial, not one is written by an Inkspot author--that will be a whole different quiz. :)

1. “Alexey Fydorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day (and still remembered among us) owing to his tragic and obscure death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.”

2. “It was dusk when he came to the ferry. He could have been there much earlier. The truth was, he had put it off as long as he could.”

3. “Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM land. He’s on line one.”

4. “Memory makes desires of its own. Deep in the candle hours it casts Hong Kong up like a shimmering sea of color against flames of ache, fright and wonderment.”

5. “My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

6. “The night air was thick and damp. As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air.”

7. “Now there’s a pretty girl, Kenneth Strang thought, as he relaxed his efforts to open the porthole of his cabin and glanced down at the cluster of upturned faces planted along the pier’s edge.”

8. “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.”

9. “It was a dead time in the London underground—after lunch and before rush hour—when the last plaintive notes of a Chopin nocturne floated from Katie O’Brien’s violin down the tiled corridor.”

10. “Once you get past the overall irony of the situation, you realize that killing a guy in the middle of his own health club has a lot to recommend it.”

Choices: Helen MacInnes, DECISION AT DELPHI; Fyodor Dostoevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV; Jasper Fforde, THE EYRE AFFAIR; Agatha Christie, ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE; Martha Grimes, THE ANODYNE NECKLACE; Jonathan Gash, THE JADE WOMAN; Sara Paretsky, INDEMNITY ONLY; Craig Johnson, THE COLD DISH; Barry Eisler, HARD RAIN; Robert B. Parker, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT.

Okay, how do you think you did? Answers to be posted later. No fair cheating on the internet—but hopefully you’ll find a couple that are so interesting you just have to head to the library and take out those books!

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Creative Fugue State--A Holiday for My Brain

Blame it on Camille Minichino (aka Margaret Grace), my sister blogger on

I was on my way to Florida for Spring Break when I emailed her if she’d like some sea shells for her miniatures.

She wrote back, “Oooh, yes, I have a little beach scene on my bookcase, and it's seriously lacking shells!”

But somehow I read that as “ Oooh, yes, I have a little sea shell shop on my bookcase, and it’s seriously lacking shells!”

Funny how my mind works. I went to South Carolina and picked up tiny sea shells from the beach. But the whole time, I was thinking about a sea shell shop, which was something I’d intended to create for myself in miniature for years. In fact, I couldn’t get this project out of my brain. One night while I was listening to the ocean, I went online and found I entered a fugue state, which is defined as an altered state of consciousness in which a person may move about purposely and even speak but is not fully aware. My mind was buzzing with ideas. When we got home from South Carolina, I went to Michaels, coupon in hand, and bought a paper mache “hat box” plus a wooden hutch and several bottles of acrylic paint. (Total cost about $10 with coupon.)

On Friday, my husband left town for a business trip. Since then, I’ve done nothing but work on my sea shell shop, ruining a perfectly good manicure but having a ball. It’s not entirely done…I want to add a few more things and then I’ll close it up and cover the outside and the lid. I made everything but the mermaid (I painted a statue of Ariel), the hutch, and the paintings.

I created the rug, the lights, the shell trimmed mirror, the table, the chair (except for the painted shells), the postcard stand, the plant, the shelving unit, all the shell displays and so on. In the "ceiling," I put tiny lights. (Picked these up on sale at Michaels after Halloween for $1.) Then, I draped the sparkling net over it to catch the 20 miniature "fireflies."I’m curious.

Do you enjoy more than one hobby? Do you ever get a creative impulse that’s so strong you can barely control it? Have you ever spent two days in your jammies working on a project and forgetting to eat? I feel so refreshed. I've been working on my writing for so long...I'm about 1/3 of the way through Book #3 of my scrapbooking mystery series...that this feels like a restful vacation. A holiday for my mind and my creative juices.

How do you like my sea shell shop?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

InkSpot News - 5 April 2008

Terri Thayer will be signing books at her local Starbucks on April 13th from 1-3pm.
North Park Plaza
1704 Oakland Rd
San Jose Ca 95131

Bill Cameron will be appearing at Murder With Friends, hosted by Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, Wednesday, April 9 at 7:00pm. The event will feature 13 Pacific Northwest authors in a casual, get-to-know-you setting.

Friday, April 4, 2008

OC Hobbit

All right, true confession time. I'm one of those people who emailed Peter Jackson to explain to him in fine detail all the many ways he got it WRONG! You know what I'm talking about here, and if you don't, you are banished! Actually, you're not banished. But come on, Peter Jackson? Lord of the Rings, the amazing three part spectacle of visual pyrotechnics that got it WRONG? You know what I'm talking about here.

Actually, he got a lot right. With the exception of Liv Tyler, whose probably fine in other things, the casting was superb. At times unexpected, but all the more delightful for the surprise. And I give Jackson credit for putting together a striking visual treat. I don't regret the missing Tom Bombadil or certain other liberties with the story. But, and I'm just being brutally honest here, he did kinda miss the major point of the book, as displayed most keenly in the first movie when Aerosmith's daughter zapped Frodo. See? She zapped Frodo, but when she did it, she wasn't Arwen, but rather Liv Tyler with a cheesy accent. How did that happen in a movie where everyone else was so spot on? That's what I want to know. And, yes, I was okay with raising the pulse rate of the Aragorn/Arwen love story, but she didn't zap Frodo. It didn't happen, it didn't happen, it didn't happen! And it rooooined it. It made trivial everything sacrifice Frodo made from thence forward. (Note the use of "thence" in an actual sentence in the 21st century).

Obviously I'm taking this too seriously. But I'm not, really. I have an out. You see, the movie, while delightful to look at, especially if you fast-forward through the Aerosmith parts, doesn't actually exist. The only movie less existent is the previous Ralph Bakshi variant, described at the Internet Movie Database as "Not As Bad AS I Thought It Would Be." Which is a charming sentiment, but also wrong. It was worse.

The thing is, I've read The Lord of the Rings about a hundred million times. Of course I've multi-read The Hobbit too. Hell, I've even read The Silmarillion — more than once. Why? you might ask. And even if you don't ask, I'm telling you. The Lord of the Rings is my comfort food. Anytime something bad is about to happen to me that I know about in advance (for example, gall bladder surgery or volunteering for the Army) I read The Lord of the Rings. I can probably recite whole sections of it from memory, though trust me, you don't want to get me started.

I'm thinking about this because I read this article today online about the travails of mixing literary tastes and dating, about the benefits and perils of judging a significant other by the books they claim. Not just the books they read, but the books they claim. Their significant books. The books that somehow touched them or shaped them (or, okay, sure, maybe didn't shape them at all). Got me to thinking about whether I would be married right now if I'd admitted to this Lord of the Rings thing while my wife and I were dating. I mean, seriously. Have you read what I said above? Am I out of my mind? Emails to Peter Jackson?

And here's what's worse. I didn't actually SEND the emails, I just fantasized about sending them. I let other people do the actually sending, and just applauded them from the safety of my basement lair. How pathetic is that?

Here's another book that is really important to me: The Mystery of the Witches' Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton. I first read it in fourth grade, and then proceeded to re-read it approximately as often as I've reread The Lord of the Rings. It's been a bit of a problem though, because it's always been published in a cheap paperback format which tends to disintegrate by the time I've gotten through it four or five times, which means I have to go back to the Amazon Marketplace well again and again for yet another battered used copy. Tragic, really. But then, the average price these days is 39¢, or nine dollars with shipping and handling.

Anyway. You should read it. Brilliant YA noir, if you can believe such a beast actually exists. It does. It's in this book, in fact. The Mystery of the Witches' Bridge. Remember that title. Tattoo in your arm, just in case. Well worth it. Great characters, taut plot, sleep-interrupting suspense, and unexpected redemption yet with a note of ambivalence and ambiguity. This is a book that deserves much more attention than it's gotten. It's a book I wouldn't mind being judged for one bit. Hell, I even tell my wife when I'm reading it again. And she rolls her eyes and pats me on the head — or maybe she's taking my temperature. I'll let you be the judge of that.

So now, I've confessed. Your turn. What's yours, the book or books for which you're okay about being judged?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

This One's for YOU

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

YOU know who YOU are.

YOU are the one who budgets money for books, understanding that they are a necessity and not a luxury. YOU are the one reading books, devouring them, digesting them, living them, making them your friends. YOU are the one who looks forward to the next book and the next and the next. YOU are the one who tells your friends about favorites, both new and longtime.

YOU know who YOU are.

YOU would rather turn pages than turn channels.

YOU are wonderful.

YOU are a reader.

YOU are appreciated.

And YOU are one of the main reasons I pursue this madness.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Instant Gratification

Cricket McRae

The day before yesterday I cooked up a big ol’ pot of that Colorado staple, green chili. Chopped up a pile of pork, chilies, tomatoes and garlic, then browned and seasoned and cooked for four hours. Slow food. Not to mention how much time it took to grow the tomatoes and chilies, roast them and process them for the freezer last fall. All this for what is, more or less, a sauce.

A really good sauce, mind you.

Yesterday three men came and spent two hours laying five thousand square feet of sod in the backyard. There had never been grass back there before. I’m not a lawn person, but my guy is, and I had to admit the weeds were getting old. At least we put in a super hardy fescue blend that will require half the water. For the last twenty-four hours I haven’t been able to pass by a window on that side of the house without stopping and admiring the expanse, dreaming of bocce ball and badminton and evenings spent with friends around the fire pit.

But a whole lawn in two hours? That is SO cheating! There’s a tiny part of me that’s actually offended by the notion. I know that’s a little nuts in this snappy, wi-fi, buy it now pay for it later, let’s just go through the drive-through on the way home world, but there you go.

Is that why the first thing I ever wrote, other than the required stuff in school or for work, was a full-length novel? Or why writing a series of homecrafting mysteries about the same character is so comfortable?

I’ve tried short stories. They always explode into long stories. I’d really like to craft delicate essays, precise poems, and meaningful shorts, but the idea of “and then what happened?” has always made me go further. At least so far.

Most people don’t work into their writing career that way. It’s not even advised. But the fact that I’ve gone about choosing my writing projects in a bass-ackwards way is not entirely surprising to those who know me.

How about you? Do you find the short form easier or harder to write? Are you good at both? Do you read both?

'Scuse me. I have to go start another flat of vegetable seeds now.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Justice Department Targets Writers Using Performance-Enhancing Drugs

I thought I'd pass along this article from the front page of today's Palo Alto Times.

Justice Department Sniffing Out Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Writing Industry

Palo Alto – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Midpeninsula District of California today announced that it is launching an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) by well-known authors around the country.

“We have convened a grand jury that is taking in camera testimony from authors, editors, and agents,” said Hamilton Wiener, U.S. Attorney. “It appears that some authors have been resorting to PEDs which give them an unfair advantage over their colleagues who play by the rules.”

According to grand jury transcripts obtained by The Palo Alto Times, many authors, especially of mysteries and thrillers, do their writing under the influence of a pharmacopeia of stimulants, opiates, and such. Moreover, Times sources expect a perjury indictment this week of one prolific author who has set sales records for his books and denied using any PED while writing them.

“We’ve got this guy, whose latest book was about to be named an Oprah’s Book Club choice, dead to rights,” boasted Michael Jovert of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General. “He relaxes at night by smoking marijuana according to his mistress. He denies it but she has phone tapes. He’s going down. Oprah’s so grateful that we saved her from the embarrassment.”

"The results of this investigation show our commitment to protect the integrity of America’s reading pastime from deceptive and fraudulent practices," said Inspector Jovert. "We have an obligation to pursue and bring to justice those who prey on vulnerable readers and place profits before public health.”

Bud Taper, commissioner of the Major League of Writers (MLW), said that PED use is unfair to those authors who have been writing while “clean.” He promises to rule shortly on requests to strike the books of an authors found using PEDs from bestseller lists. With the focus of the investigation on crime fiction, such lists may be drastically altered. The New York Times list of the top 15 hardcover fiction books for the week of April 6 contains nine instances of crime fiction.

Industry observers are wondering if Taper will lend his presence to the Edgar® Awards ceremony, crime fiction’s “Oscars,” on May 1.

“He can’t win either way,” said 2007 Edgar Award nominee Cornelia Read. “If he does show, it will look like he doesn’t care which of the nominees have been smoking dope or whatever. If he doesn’t, it will be disrespecting the game of crime fiction.”

In addition to its grand jury investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice is asking for reciprocity from its English counterparts. The Times has learned that descendants of Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, will be asked to forfeit the royalties the book has earned over the last century and a half.

Comments from writers have been mixed.

Jeff Shelby, the best-selling mystery author, said, “Late at night, I’ve seen my colleagues take amphetamines to stay up and hit their deadlines. It’s not fair to those of us who scrupulously follow the law and still write great mysteries. I’m sure Wicked Break would have hit the top spot on the Denver bestseller list if only my fellow writers had played fair.”

Author of the hot new mystery Thugs and Kisses, Sue Ann Jaffarian, said, “Dude. I live in LaLa Land, where we do what it takes to get the muse up off her lazy ass. Sometimes that means more than sugar and chocolate. Readers benefit. Where's the harm?”

Keith Raffel, the Silicon Valley mystery and thriller writer, has concerns about the investigation turning into a witch-hunt. “I have been questioned by the grand jury,” he told The Times in an exclusive interview. “What I don’t understand is if only illegal PEDs are being looked at or if any foreign substance that enhances your writing is taboo.”

Raffel estimates that he drinks up to 15 cups of green tea each day he writes. “If that’s outlawed, I’ll be driven back to the software industry where the rules are far laxer.”