Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Wilds of Madagascar

by Cathy Anderson Corn

My favorite novelist of all time--hands down, winner-take-all--remains Mary Stewart. For me and my own internal needs, no one else even approaches her magnitude of writing (Okay, I forgot Daphne DuMaurier and Rebecca,but that's it.).

This English woman, born in 1916, wrote romantic suspense novels that riveted the attention of a teenager growing up in a sleepy little farm town in Ohio. Later, in my twenties and thirties, they provided relief and sanity from a stressful life.

Even now, when I no longer have birthdays (let's just say I'm classic), the stories and novels are just as compelling as when they were first published fifty years ago. In my writing, if I could unlock the secrets of her literary genius, I would sell my soul(even at a huge discount, no one's interested).

It couldn't have been the romance alone that drew me to the public library and her books. In The Gabriel Hounds, the protagonist is twenty-two and falls in love with her cousin. That just doesn't get it. In her books, lovers yearned for each other without much touching or kissing. Certainly graphic sex didn't exist, a product of the times (50's and 60's) when she penned these masterpieces.

Without a doubt, Mary Stewart mastered exotic settings. Some books were set on estates in England, This Rough Magic on the island of Corfu, The Moonspinners on Crete, and The Gabriel Hounds in the Adonis Valley near Beirut, etc. This was the magic of Mary Stewart: a mystery with the protagonist a woman in peril, the setting exotic and exciting, the protagonist and her man full of romantic tension, but not in danger of needing contraceptives.

So, in honor of and emulating my novelist mentor Ms. Stewart, I try to incorporate far away places in my novels. My protagonists have flown to Kauai, Dublin, and now to Madagascar. And this, my Sisters and Misters, is where I gulp a big breath and hold it until I turn blue.

How can I write about Madagascar when I've never been there?

Oh, I've read guide books and pieces on the internet, but how can I capture the heart and soul of the country if I've never felt what it's like to be there, to travel the roads, experience the weather, meet the people?

Let's face it, round trip airfare is at least $2500, so I'm not going any time soon. What, esteemed writers, can a novelist do to make a setting not visited plausible? How far can one stretch the fiction aspect of setting?

If no one has any ideas, I think I'll call Mary Stewart.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Boss

by Mike Crawmer

A “working stiff”--for better or worse--works for a “boss.” He or she might be a supervisor, a manager, a leader, or (oh, horrors!) an editor. Some are good, some bad. I’ve worked for all types of bosses. Let me tell you about my “memorable” boss.

It was the second year of Gerald Ford’s unexpected presidency. Mr. G, a garrulous, hard-drinking Irishman from the old school of rough-and-tumble journalism, hired me to work as a reporter in the Washington, D.C., office of a New York City-based financial daily. A step up from my first job out of college, but still on the first or second rung of the journalistic career ladder. Still, the promise the job offered to jump start my career was great.

So what if my desk sat in the front room, where I sorted the mail, answered the phone, and acted as the first wave of defense against various characters and creditors. I also interviewed powerful committee chairmen on The Hill and evasive undersecretaries of the Treasury in their wood-paneled, high-ceilinged offices, and stood by in the East Room of the White House as Jerry Ford signed bills. Pretty heady stuff.

So what if the good assignments went to the other full-time reporter, who just happened to be Mr. G’s nephew. So what if I had to bar the boss’s door with my body against the knife-wielding cook from the downstairs restaurant. The mad-eyed cook was angry because Mr. G hadn’t followed through on a promise to sponsor a relative from Greece; now he threatened to use the rather large knife to separate the boss’s head from his body. It was all very exciting.

Eventually, though, I noticed that my assignments never changed. Then, Mr. G hired a third reporter—one with a background in finance—and I was still sitting in the front office. Hmmmm, not a good sign. But Mr. G never explained himself, or felt a need to. Still, I was surprised when, going through the mail from the home office on the Friday before Christmas, I counted only three year-end bonus checks. For our staff of five? That’s how I learned I was being laid off (along with Pam, a co-worker). For my last two weeks on the job, Mr. G remained holed up in his Eastern Shore home, sending in his copy through the mail and not answering our phone calls seeking an explanation.

Skip ahead about a year. I’m living a saner, if less financially secure, life in Pittsburgh. On a trip back to D.C. I bump into “the nephew” on the street. He fills me in on what had happened to the old office. Seems Pam and I were just the first two victims of a feud between the two generations of the family that owned the newspaper. A couple months after we were laid off, Mr. G was unceremoniously fired; a few months after that the D.C. office was shut down and the remaining staff thrown out onto the streets.

I don’t regret the experience, but I’m glad I had only one “memorable” boss in my life. Any in yours? Let’s hear about them.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Spring Stupidity

by Joyce Tremel

I'm convinced that warm weather breeds stupidity. Just ask any cop. Or come to work with me for a day. I really dislike going to work this time of year and it's not because I'd rather be outside actually enjoying the warm temperatures. Although our call volume is down, the types of calls we get makes me want to print some stupid stickers and slap them on peoples' foreheads.

For instance, recently a woman brought this huge dog into our station that she found near McKnight Road which is NOT in Shaler Township. First, why did she pick the dog up in the first place? Chances are it would have found its way back home all by itself, not to mention the dog's owner was probably out looking for it while this nitwit drives five miles and turns it in at our station. One of the officers then had to take the time to tie the dog up outside the station and call the service we use to pick up the mutt. Fortunately the dog was microchipped and they were able to locate the owner, who then had to pay a seventy five dollar fee to pick up their dog because of some idiot.

That same day, another woman picked up a dog in Shaler and took it to her home in the City of Pittsburgh and called us from there. I think she expected one of the officers to go there and pick up the dog. Didn't happen. I can just imagine the conversation when she called the Pittsburgh PD. Yeah, I'm sure they rushed right over.

Yesterday, a guy called about a barking dog. When the cop got to the complainant's house it turned out that the dog lived several houses away. He wanted the officer to tell the dog's owner to keep a muzzle on the dog all the time because it barks when people walk past it. The officer politely explained that the dog was doing what dogs are supposed to do. The man wasn't happy with that explanation.

Just so you don't think all we get are animal calls, car accidents also increase this time of year. We had a few where the drivers slammed into the back of the car in front of them because they weren't paying attention.

Yesterday a woman brought in what she thought was "suspicious mail." Her elderly mother received a form that she thought was a scam because it asked personal questions. I took a look at it. It was from the US Census Bureau, which was CLEARLY marked on the paper. I guess she thought reading the entire page was too hard.

If you get grossed out easily don't read this one. On Saturday night we had a call from our local McDonald's restaurant that a guy had just urinated on the counter. Yes, you read that right. On the counter. Guess where I'm never eating again? He was cited for disorderly conduct. I think he should have been made to scrub the place down with bleach. Twice.

Does anyone else think warm weather brings out the stupid in people? If anyone has any stupid stories to tell, I'd like to hear them. I'll get those stickers ready.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


by Tory Butterworth

Here's one of the comments I got on my last blog, "Why People Do Bad Things." (Thanks, Annette!)

". . . there was one guy who my husband and I thought was a friend. Very charming, very personable, BUT he then started luring other friends into money schemes in which he always came out ahead, but others lost their life savings . . .

The end result: he ended up going to prison for shooting an employee in the back during a fit of rage."

As a psychotherapist, what stands out for me in this example is the concept of impulsivity.

Impulsive people do things, well, on impulse, in the spur of the moment, without thinking ahead to their consequences. As little kids and then teenagers, most of us were more impulsive than we are now. The school of hard knocks teaches us the expected consequences of our behaviors (e.g. if I get drunk, I'll have a hangover the next day.) As adults, most of us think things through before making major decisions, sometimes too much. Even when we'd rather not, we imagine the horrible consequences of everyday actions (e.g. slicing our hand rather than the bread with a sharp knife) and hopefully take steps to prevent future physical or psychological injury.

But some people just never seem to learn. I have clients like that. My more impulsive clients are, like the "villain" mentioned here, charming, spontaneous, personable. However, it is a struggle to help them develop what therapists call, "psychological insight," the ability to understand why they keep repeating the same costly behavior.

Did the villain above, while he was raising the gun on his employee, think, "Well, if I do shoot him, I'm likely to end up in jail for many miserable years?" Probably not. He acted in the moment, and may still be suffering the consequences.

Most impulsive people have certain areas of their life that they are impulsive in, and others they are not. So, some impulsive people tend to get involved in physical risks (e.g. extreme sports), others sexual risks, others financial risks, and still others risks of violent behavior.

As an author, if you have chosen an impulsive villain, you'll need to both establish that this kind of risk-taking is in his or her character, as well as the specific precipitating events that lead the risk-taking to get out of hand.

Any of you know chronically impulsive people? Where do they get themselves in trouble?

Monday, March 26, 2007


by Judith Evans Thomas

I am sitting on the porch of my Hilton Head home watching a crane, who I have nicknamed Helen, stalk fish in our marsh. Technically I don't own this marsh but considering I have a front row seat to all marsh activities, I feel as if it's mine... and Helen's of course.

It's so quiet and and I'm so relaxed that I have nothing to say... or maybe it's that I don't want to say anything; I just want to be here and enjoy. I could write about the value of solitude and relaxation but then I wouldn't be enjoying it... so I'm going back to my porch. Where do you go to be alone and zen out?

I Discovered a Character

by Brenda Roger

I’m currently working on label text for The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library, set to open at the Frick Art & Historical Center on April 21. In the course of working my way through the exhibit checklist, I discovered a character: Billy Sunday.

The most enjoyable thing about discovering this character is that my first look at him was through the eyes of painter, illustrator and lithographer, George Bellows. Like Bellows, I was intrigued enough to take a second look. When Bellows took his second look he was repulsed, and compelled to draw.

In 1915 George Bellows was sent on assignment to cover a revival starring extreme Evangelical preacher, Billy Sunday. Yes, I kid you not, his real name is Billy Sunday; William Ashley Sunday to be exact.

Billy Sunday organized camp revival meetings that were so well attended that large temporary wooden structures were erected as an arena for his mass-conversions. The floors were covered with sawdust. A regular part of the experience was a chance to walk up the sawdust covered center aisle and shake the very hand of Billy Sunday. Hence, “The Sawdust Trail” was born.

Sunday was against drinking and an outspoken supporter of Prohibition. His sermons included all manner of gyrations such as shadow boxing with the devil, as well as, but not limited to, pointing, kicking, and yelling. His preaching was physical to say the least.

The Bellows drawings of Sunday are dynamic; the compositions complex. At first glance, I thought dear Mr. Bellows was a follower of Sunday, and then I read what Bellows said about him:
I like to paint Billy Sunday, not because I like him, but because I want to show the world what I do think of him. Do you know, I believe Billy Sunday is the worst thing that ever happened to America?

My dear Mr. Bellows, come back from the peaceful slumber of death for a day and let me tell you what has happened since!

The modern political climate makes Sunday that much more interesting to study. Depending on where you land on the web he is either a hero or a circus freak. I think he was probably a little bit of both.

His story is irresistible. Billy Sunday was the orphaned son of a Union soldier, and a former baseball player of some talent and reputation. He was then "saved", and apprenticed with a very reserved traveling preacher. By the time he was headlining his own revivals he had learned every aspect of the camp revival business and what followed, I suspect, was somewhat like a preaching tornado.

I see a screenplay in here somewhere. Now if only I knew how to write one........

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Making a Lot of Dough

by Gina Sestak

My ex-husband used to be part-owner of a health food bakery called Simple Treat that specialized in whole-grain breads, including one extremely dense (and delicious) seasonal fruit-cake.

I never officially worked for the bakery, but I sometimes helped out when they were short-handed. This was a wholesale bakery only -- no retail outlet. Terry and his partners would bake all night, then deliver the fresh loaves in the morning to various grocery and health food stores. One of the high points of his career was when we stopped into a GNC in Oregon. Terry was talking bread with the manager, who pulled out a manual showing how products were supposed to be displayed -- there was a picture of Terry's bread!

Bread-making is fun, in a tactile sort of way. The dough was mixed in huge metal bowls, about 3 feet deep, each stirred by a "dough hook," an automated curved metal stick that rotated around inside the bowl, mixing the flour and water and yeast and honey. Then it was left to rise.

Getting bread to rise seems like a no brainer, right? You let it sit in a warm place until it gets bigger. Surprisingly, getting bread to rise -- which bakers call "proofing" -- is much more complicated than that. Different batches of the same type of flour may require slightly different amounts of yeast and/or rising times. Rising is also affected by elevation (number of feet above sea-level, because this affects the atmospheric pressure) and the phases of the moon! Since yeast is really a tiny bacterial plant, its use is almost like a bizarre form of gardening.

After the dough had been mixed and allowed to rise, it was kneaded. Being a natural foods bakery, all kneading was done by hand. This is the fun part. You squish one pound lumps of dough in your hands; it feels like playing in mud, but it's really much more sanitary. Terry could knead two lumps of dough at once, one in each hand.

Another fun step was forming the dough into loaves. This was done by machine. The kneaded lump would ride down a moving conveyor belt (like those used in supermarket checkout areas), which took it under a roller where it was squashed into a pizza-shell shape. Further along the belt, something that looked like chain mail hung down far enough to flip up the leading edge of the dough and roll it into a tube as it rode under the chain mail-thing. [I know, I should have asked what it was called while I was there.] At the end of the conveyor belt, someone would pick up the rolled up tubes of dough, push their ends toward the center until they were loaf-pan length, then put them into loaf pans to rise some more.

The final step was baking in industrial size ovens. This was the point at which the bread began to emit that wonderful aroma.

Working in a bakery sound safe, but there was danger all around. You have to be careful when working around automated equipment and hot ovens. One night, Terry cut off the tip of his finger with a dough knife, necessitating a quick trip to the ER. He and his partners wore masks to avoid "white lung," an occupational pulmonary problem brought on by breathing too much air-borne flour.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned all kinds of cool things about bread, flour, and yeast.

I learned that different professions can use the same words, but mean completely different things. I'm a lawyer -- to me, "proof" is evidence that is used to "prove" a fact. A baker "proofs" dough by letting it rise -- a process called "proofing." It can be done in a specialized warm enclosure called a "proof box."

I learned that it's true what they say about the shoemaker's children going barefoot. For years we lived on defective loaves of bread -- Terry brought home the ones that didn't rise right, or that came out of the oven looking weird.

Finally, I learned that bread-making, like writing, is really an art. It requires knowledge, patience, and skill. And every once in awhile, you have to let your work-in-progress just sit for awhile, to see what comes up.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Author, Author

by Rebecca Drake

The talented Jodi Picoult was in town last night to sign books and I joined 100+ other fans to hear her read from her latest book, Nineteen Minutes, and listen to her talk about the writing process, life on tour, and her interests in a multitude of subjects including the paranormal.

I admire her writing because she’s always grappling with subjects that are emotional, often divisive and always compelling. She obviously enjoys doing thorough research for her novels and she told interesting stories about the different ways this happens, from interviewing a survivor of a school shooting to joining a group of ghost busters on a professional expedition.

So here she was, the bestselling author on tour, keeping a packed audience of fans entertained for at least an hour, and then someone asked, “Who’s your favorite author?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Alice Hoffman,” and switching into fan mode she added, “And I got to meet her recently!”

I was struck by how quick she was to name the author and how utterly enraptured she obviously was with Alice Hoffman’s work and then I wondered at Jodi Picoult’s ability to limit the answer to only one author.

I couldn’t do it. I can’t single out one favorite author, but then I’m the sort of person who as a kid was utterly enraptured by the 31 Flavors of ice cream to choose on any one trip to Baskin-Robbins. No vanilla cones for me. No repeat cones. No single favorite flavor—I wanted to try them all.

However, at any given time, there’s always a least a triple-scoop cone’s worth of favorites. So here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite authors:

Ruth Rendell
Michael Chabon
Jane Smiley
Robert Harris
Elizabeth George
And, of course, Jodi Picoult

So who are yours? Can you name just one?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cherishing the Weekend

by Kristine Coblitz

You know how the old song goes: "Everybody's working for the weekend...."

When I worked outside the home in an office, I would count the days until Friday. You could usually pinpoint my mood depending on what day it was:
On Monday, I'd feel depressed, wondering where the weekend had gone.
On Tuesday, I'd feel a bit more stabilized, set into the routine of the work week.
On Wednesday, I'd feel as if the week would never end.
On Thursday, I'd start to feel energized as I was officially "over the hump."
On Friday...well, Fridays were party days. My coworkers and I would order lunch out. We'd dress a bit more casually, and our attitudes were a lot more positive.

Two days off! The possibilities of how to fill those weekend hours seemed endless. Usually they were spent performing household chores, such as laundry and grocery shopping, but as long as I wasn't working, I was happy.

Now that I work from home, things have changed. I no longer wait for Friday to arrive. Heck, half the time, I'm lucky I even know what day of the week it is. After a while, they all tend to blend together. I don't work 9 to 5 anymore. I frequently work in the evenings. Weekends? Yeah, I work during those sometimes, too, especially if I'm on deadline. But I won't think twice about running to the grocery store on a Monday afternoon or to the post office on a Wednesday morning. Getting used to a flexible working schedule was one of my biggest hurdles when I made the switch to working at home.

I've had to set time boundaries for myself. I try to limit my weekends to purely fiction writing (unless, as I mentioned above, I'm on an editing deadline, and then all bets are off). My main goal, however, is to relax and devote my time on weekends as much as possible to my family and my home. I only check my e-mail twice a day instead of every hour. I watch movies. I read books. I clean the kitchen. You get the idea.

I think it's important for writers to schedule downtime. We all need to recharge those batteries. What are your favorite relaxing activities?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring in the Country

by Annette Dashofy

I’ve lived my entire life surrounded by pastures and farmland and I suspect that life here has a few differences from life in the city. I could be wrong. I previously posted about the presence of coyotes and learned that they have encroached on town dwellers, too. So my musings on life in rural USA on this first day of spring may only serve to teach me that we city-folks and country-folks are more alike than not. Following are a few experiences from rural Washington County.

1. We’ve been awakened on several occasions by the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker pounding on the outside of our log cabin. Usually the feathered beast chooses the wall by the head of our bed. Not sure why. But let me tell you, woodpeckers are loud! And they leave a neat little pile of sawdust under their work areas. My hubby, the Great Hunter decided that the one little woodpecker (along with some assistance from a swarm of bore bees) was going to eat our entire house. He tied an old-fashioned mouse trap to a string and hung it outside our bedroom window at a site where the bird chose to frequent. He only intended on scaring it away, imagining the snapping trap would send it looking for bugs elsewhere. I, on the other hand, had visions of a flopping woodpecker stuck in a mousetrap tied to our house and me, the animal lover, desperately trying to free it. Instead, it moved to another part of the house and took up its search for a meal there.

2. I’m pretty sure those previously mentioned bore bees are not solely country pests. If you’ve got a wood house, you’ve likely got bore bees regardless of location. For the uninitiated, bore bees are those large, generally slow moving bees that sound like a military helicopter buzzing past. They drill precise holes in wood and deposit their eggs in them. Wood preservative does not deter them. Insect repellent only makes them mean. Once again Hubby AKA Great Hunter fears they will destroy our humble abode. His weapon of choice? A tennis racket. He’s creating a new sport called Whac-A-Bee. Similar to Whac-A-Mole, except the goal is to swing the racket, make contact with one of those buzzing menaces and send it, if not into outer space, at least into the next county. That would be Allegheny, so if you Pittsburgh folks notice an influx of large buzzing insects, blame my hubby.

3. With the arrival of spring also comes the arrival of spring peepers. These tiny frogs with very large vocal cords begin serenading me at this time of year. They usually start with one brave (foolish) peeper before being silenced by a blast of snow and/or cold. But they return and before long hundreds of voices fill the night air with their song of “Knee Deep.” Surely you’ve heard the ages-old question “How deep is a frog pond?” Peepers supply the answer. “Knee deep.”

4. I hate to admit it, but this time of year my shoes are always muddy. Just walking from the front porch to my car in the driveway entails two or three steps through what will be grass in another month or so. Right now with the melting snow and the early spring showers, it’s mud. If I need to look pulled together and must wear dress shoes, I carry them to the car, my feet encased in Muck Boots. If you don’t know what Muck Boots are, you probably live in the city. But mostly I have mud on all my sneakers and boots and shoes. If you see me anytime in the next month, don’t look at my feet.

5. Besides the spring peepers and the abundance of birdsongs, my favorite sound of spring is the call of baby calves to their mama cows. Baby colt whinnies are even better, but since we no longer have horses, I’m stuck with the neighbors calves. Newborn calves are adorable. And their adolescent “Maaa!” brings a smile to my face every time. Unless they’re “Maaa-ing” in my back yard. You see, baby calves by their very nature are small and curious and tend to find the tiniest breaks in the fence that have occurred over the winter, but no one noticed. Adult cattle didn’t find the minute holes…if they had, they’d have worked at them and made them big enough to escape through themselves. But the youngsters find them and end up in my yard with no clue how they got there or how to get back. Rule number one about cattle: they never return through the same hole in the fence from which they got out. Rule number two about cattle: they will not return to their own pasture through an open gate, regardless of the number of farmers or the amount of coaxing, swearing and herding. They prefer to make a new hole and squeeze through it thus creating more work for the cattleman.

Anyone have any urban spring tales to share? Suburban? Anyone else from the country want to add to my list?

Happy First Day of Spring everyone!

Monday, March 19, 2007

In the Limo

by Nancy Martin

My husband made me a sandwich on Saturday.

Ordinarily, this is world news--right up there with Britney going into rehab and Cate Blachette playing Indiana Jones's next squeeze. Normally, a husband-produced sandwich would be a knock-me-over-with-a-feather development at my house.

But I've gotten accustomed to people taking care of me.

See, I've been on a book tour to promote the newest Blackbird Sister release, A CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED DEATH.

For a week, I was flown around the country, chauffeured to luxury hotels, signed my autograph a few hundred times, been given gifts by booksellers. I've eaten room service for a week, flown first class, let others carry my luggage, done my makeup in television green rooms. I stayed in a suite next to Justin Timberlake and his entourage. (They ordered a lot of bottled water from room service. Not exactly rock star behavior, huh?) Desk clerks say, "Ms. Martin? Would you like a glass of wine while I locate the fax from your publicist?"

Yeah, it was a taste of the good life.

Mind you, it was also some of the hardest work I've done in a long time. Accustomed to sitting at my desk for hours--sometimes days--alone with my characters and my story outline, it's a stretch for me to be "on" for a week. I tried to be gracious to readers and booksellers and hotel employees. I tried to engage complete strangers in meaningful conversations. I needed to speak intelligently about books with writers. Be scintillating with a talk show host. I had to make my life sound interesting (!!) to people who are skeptical. Sometimes I "worked a room" until 11pm, then crashed into luxury linens only to get a wakeup call at 5am so I could catch another plane or get to a cable television station in the boondocks.

The most sinful part of a book tour has to be the media escorts. They're often retired TV news readers who are now stay-at-home moms who hanker to do some part-time work. Their job is to make an author feel like a celebrity. They have immaculate vehicles and know the short routes to radio and telvision stations--even the safest places to stash a car for a few minutes without getting a ticket. They drop me at the bookstore door instead of forcing me to walk 20 feet from a parking space. They keep me on schedule to the minute. They keep a cache of bottled water and granola bars in case I get a pang, but they don't let me hit the loo if we're running late to a signing. When I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, they bring me cold drinks, lend me their eyeliner pencil or fetch whatever my heart desires.

And I could get used to it.

So when my husband offered to make me a sandwich on Saturday, I didn't say, "Oh, no, let me make one for you instead," which would have been my usual reply. I let him do it for me.

I wonder how long it will last?

What's a novelist? by Pat Hart

When do you start calling yourself a novelist? Is it when you type that lame ass working title across the very first page and then insert those two little letters: “b” and “y” before your name? Or do you wait until the very first time you crack the spine of a fresh-out-of-the-shipping-carton book, look up into a stranger’s face and ask: “To whom shall I write this, hmmm?” Maybe you wait until Matt Lauer introduces you: "Next up, wife, mother, novelist and now convicted killer--”

Or, better yet, you find yourself on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and she asks, “So, you’re a… novelist?” with that going up inflection on the last word that says: I’m-charmingly-befuddled-and-not-quite-sure-I-used-the-right-…word?

My feeling is that I became a novelist when I finished my first manuscript or, rather, novel, now that it’s done. I met a writer the other day and as we talked I identified myself as a novelist. He snorted at me and said he would not call himself a novelist until after he had actually published a novel. But, I find the act of writing and the process of trying to getting published to be so completely unrelated that I can’t quite accept the causal relationship. Writing and pursuing publications require vastly different skills. They are diametrically opposed ambitions and while one requires you looking deep into yourself for validation, the other forces you to seek validation from strangers.

What I’ve kind of figured out is that the way to get published is to claim that your work is just like all other work in that particular genre while simultaneously claiming that your work is totally creative, unique, and different from anything else ever written, ever, really, for real, plus it’s just like that best seller from last year.

Anyway, what do you guys think? What makes a person novelist? When do you feel it’s appropriate to claim that title?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day Memories

By Brian Mullen (and special guest blogger: Jennifer Mullen)

By the time you read this, it will be St. Patrick's Day. It is fitting that it is my day to blog as I am part Irish (although I haven't yet narrowed down exactly which part).

I must admit that I don't know much about the holiday above the basics that everybody knows: that St. Patrick's Day was named after Saint.....uhm, I can't think of his name right at the moment (I think it starts with a B) but, anyway, this saint, who was also a leprechan I think, was famous for playing a kazoo and leading all the rats out of the city thus saving Ireland from the potato famine. To celebrate this victory, the population of Ireland went to the nearest pub and haven't left since. There's also something about kissing a giant rock too that I'm missing, but you get the general idea. Then the Irish crossed over the Bering Strait and settled on the East Coast of America bringing with them their whiskey, wolfhounds and green soap that smells "clean as a whistle."

I, myself, have never been to Ireland but I know (and married) someone who has. She wanted to share with all of you her memories of her visit so, without further ado, I'm pleased to introduce to you my beautiful (and Irish) wife...Jennifer. Take it away, Sweetie!

Three years ago today, I was on my way to see the Emerald Isle to see the forty shades of green. It was a break from the usual St. Patrick's Day in Pittsburgh, PA. Although in Pittsburgh, a St. Patrick's Day celebration proves to be fun every time with all of the hoopla, but this was a very special St. Patrick's Day in Ireland.

A Friend from the Emerald Isle commented that the security around Ireland's border is extremely tight, and after visiting the America's noticed that the borders were not nearly as controlled. My mom, sister, and I arrived in the Shannon Airport. Security was tough. We gathered our bearings after an extremely long flight, and moved towards our rental car.

It was great that my older sister was willing to take the risk to drive through Ireland. Driving in Ireland was interesting because a person drives on the opposite side as we do in America. Personally, I was not interested in the risk because the roads were very narrow, but my sister, with a not so perfect driving record was willing to take the risk.

Our first night, after hours of driving through forty shades of green while stopping for sheep and miscellaneous livestock arrived in Skibereen. We stayed in an old castle and the owner Kate and her husband had wisky from the jar. Boy could you smell the wisky when we arrived.

It was an old castle with water surronding the front. We scurried up a few floors to find our room. I felt like I was in a mystery house and I had much curiosity about the history of the castle and all of the old items. I could have stayed for weeks investigating.

St. Patrick's Day in Pittsburgh is very flashy compared to the celebrations in Ireland that are very simple; Irish music, dancing, drink and simple fun. St. Patrick's Day is considered a Holy Day in Ireland.

Throughout our trip, we stopped to visit and have the occassional Irish coffee in the many pubs across Ireland. From bed and breakfasts to an Island community with minimal motor vehicles to another castle we went. The people, ocean, music, culture, cliffs of mohr, Dublin and all of the wonderful sites were amazing. Most importantly, we traveled to see the forty shades of green with people I love dearly, and I will never forget the trip.

I was planning a trip to the Matchmaking in September, but in August, I met my lovely husband Brian right here in the USA. I would not trade him for anything. Before we met, he was Italian through and through, but we managed to bring out his Irish heritage and he now wears a PROUD TO BE IRISH shirt, and lives with shamrocks and Irish flags throughout the house from Valentines Day until March.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Religious Controversy – Cha-Ching

By Lisa Curry

Recently I was intrigued by commercials for the Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary on A&E. I mean, wow. I was raised strictly Catholic. If Jesus had a tomb – other than the one in which we’re told he spent three days – there went the Ascension as we learned it, right out the window. Further, the commercials spoke of evidence that not only did Jesus have a tomb of the permanent sort, but also a wife and son. The Church could not be liking this one bit.

Which meant I had to see it, because that’s the way I am. Tell me a television show, a movie, a book has morally outraged somebody, and I just have to see for myself.

I blame this tendency on my sainted mother, a good and faithful Catholic who made us follow every silly little stricture the Church imposed on us. But in 1972, when I was nine, my mother was a fan of the TV show Maude. One Sunday Father Biller announced in his sermon that in this week’s episode Maude would have an abortion, which was an abomination, and that to watch it would be a sin. During the drive home, I remarked to my mother that I guessed we wouldn’t be watching that show this week.

Au contraire. While having an abortion might be a sin, my mother informed me, watching a TV show was not, despite what Father Biller – who was not, after all, God himself – might believe. If God wanted us to let Father Biller do our thinking for us, he wouldn’t have bothered giving us minds of our own.

Well, knock me over with a feather.

And so we watched Maude, and if God minded, he didn’t manifest his displeasure by making lightning strike us – or our TV antenna – during the broadcast.

I didn’t think much about religious outcry over TV, movies or books again until 1988, which was a banner year in that arena. The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie directed by Martin Scorcese, had Christians in an uproar, while Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, gave equal time to Muslims. (Maybe better, because the Ayatollah Khomeini put out a contract on Rushdie.)

Of course I read The Satanic Verses. Even though I knew little about Islam, I understood the book enough to see why it ticked off the Ayatollah. And I truly wanted to see The Last Temptation of Christ, but my best movie-going pals were all Jewish, and none of them was interested enough in Christ or his temptations to see it with me. So instead I read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis on which the film was based.

Two things about the book surprised me. First, it was published in 1951. People were carrying on and picketing movie theaters over a story that had been collecting dust on library shelves for 37 years. Second, after reading the novel, I had to wonder if any of the protesters really knew anything about the story, which offered nothing to offend that I could see. Yes, it contained a sequence in which Jesus married Mary Magdalene, but that was a dream, a hallucination, a temptation offered by Satan to lure Christ from the Cross. A temptation he resisted. It wasn’t as if the author said Jesus actually did marry Mary Magdalene, of all things… No, we had to wait another 15 years for Dan Brown to say that in The DaVinci Code.

And that’s when I finally got it – when The DaVinci Code stayed on top of the New York Times best-seller list forever. Religious controversy sells. Really sells. And that must mean I’m not the only person in the world whose curiosity is roused by what upsets religious leaders and the right wing.

I’m not alone. There are others out there like me. Are you one of them? Do you read the books and watch the films the religious faithful are instructed to avoid? Did you see Brokeback Mountain? Did you reflect, as I did, that the moral majority need not worry that some impressionable young person might watch the film and say, “Gee, being gay looks like fun. That’s the life for me!” (I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but it isn’t exactly a recruitment ad.)

I did watch The Lost Tomb of Jesus. It was interesting, but not entirely conclusive. And as much media attention as it seemed to stir beforehand, I have yet to talk to another person who saw it. Maybe we’re all jaded with the whole Jesus-marries-Mary-Magdalene business, because, fact or fiction, it’s been done to death. Maybe we’re ready for something new. What, I don’t know, but I’d love to figure it out.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Omaha Steak Incident

by Joyce Tremel

I haven't been able to come up with anything witty this week, so I'm recycling a post from last September from my own blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Writer. I hope you enjoy it!


No, it’s not the title of my next novel. It’s what happened when I gave Jerry the phone when the salesman from Omaha Steaks called. I don’t know how they got our number, unless we’re in the phone book under “these people will mortgage their house for steak.”

It started out innocently enough. We’d bought steaks from Omaha in the past, but we purchased them online. We got a nice package of filets and some other things for a reasonable price. They came in a nice little Styrofoam cooler and didn’t take up much space in our freezer. And they were very tasty.

After that, we’d get an occasional email with their latest “special.” Most of the time I’d look at it, then delete it. I think we ordered something once or twice.

Then came the phone call which went something like this:
“This is Omaha Steaks, can I tell you about our latest special?”
“We don’t really need anything right now,” I said.
“I understand that, but we have some really good specials right now.”

He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I handed the phone off to Jerry. Surely he could get rid of a pushy salesman.


The Omaha Steak guy and Jerry got along like they’d been best friends since kindergarten.

This is not good, I thought. Boy, was that an understatement.

After he hung up, Jerry said, “$154.00 for steaks is a good price, isn’t it?”

When I could speak again, I found out he’d ordered 12 filet mignons, 6 of some other steak and some hamburgers. After I figured out the cost per pound, it did turn out to be a decent price. It’s just that I’m not used to spending that much on steak. Not all at one time, anyway.

So the next time the Omaha Steak guy calls, I’m telling him that Jerry is not allowed to talk to him anymore.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why People Do Bad Things

by Tory Butterworth

On Saturday Gina's blog, "Skyscraper Cones and Motivation," discussed how seldom people ask the question, "Why is a person doing that?" I agree that too few people ask this important question. As a psychotherapist, however, I spend much of my professional time speculating on people's reasons for their actions.

As a writer, I think there's no place more important to consider motivation than in creating our villains. In order to make villains believable, we need to give them reasons for their actions. However, in order to make them villains, they need to be motivated to do things that your average person sees as at least morally incorrect if not reprehensible.

In May, I'll be presenting at the Pennwriters' conference on, "Creating Believable Villains: Why People Do Bad Things." I thought I'd use my blog space over the next two months to outline different types of villains in psychological terms.

I've decided start with the most "extreme" villains: psychopaths, people lacking any moral conscience.

Most people not only believe that certain actions are right or wrong, they also viscerally feel that they are. When people who are not psychopaths behave badly, they feel guilt or shame. Psychopaths lack these emotions, and so choose behaviors merely as means to ends.

Not all psychopaths are criminals. If they can satisfy their desires in law-abiding ways, they may choose to do so, simply because they don't want to risk ending up in jail. However, they wouldn't be bothered by doing something most people would consider "wrong" if they believed they could get away with it.

Unfortunately, psychopaths don't usually make the best villains from a fiction standpoint. They're very rare. Few people have met one, and if they have, they may not get close enough to them socially to realize what they were seeing. (Psychopaths don't have great desires for personal intimacy.) To make a villain work, the character needs to at least remind a reader of someone he or she knows.

So, the first question to ask when you are considering why your villain is doing bad things is: Do they have a moral conscience? Are they literally unable to recognize right from wrong? The second question is: Will they interest my reader? Then again, maybe you should reverse those.

Who are the "villains" from your own personal life? I'd love to hear about them!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Life and Death

by Judith Evans Thomas

I am going to make my blog short and sweet because I realized this weekend that our lives are just that. Here today.....

Our group has had a rash of difficult times, loved ones dying and stress. Somehow, we seem to keep going. Well, I am here to tell you that this weekend I was scared about my ability to do just that. My preggers daugher caught a cold which turned into a throat infection and we suspected strep. All of us (read guys) were in NYC for the Big East Tournament ( Pitt lost) so there was no local doc. I turned to my buddy and doctor who had moved from PGH to NYC only last year.

Howard called in a favor and got Lauren seen asap. Great. Steve and I were there, he did blood and swabs and then asked to see us. She's 30. This was strange.

"I hear a heart murmur." he said. SHITTTTT. Fast track. She has what I have a mitral valve prolapse which often presents with pregnancy. Whew. Lots of wine and deep breathing.

Next day, Steve and I are packing up to go home. I come by the bathroom to hear this little voice calling...."Judith". Those of you who have met Steve know there is nothing petite about him. I find him in the shower covered with shards of glass. His foot is pulsing blood from an artery....he can't step anywhere because of the glass.

Fast forward again. I get him out. He's not dying. I need a drink. No. I need lots of drinks or sedatives or melatonin. Life changes in an instant.

Enjoy the night.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

One of These Nights the Old Girl's Goin' Down

by Brenda Roger

She had me at “little pink dress.” That’s the opening line of a Patty Griffin song called, Trapeze that appears on her new CD Children Running Through. The first time I heard it was about a year ago at a live show here in Pittsburgh. She said she was about to go into the studio to start recording and just felt like going out and singing a little. Ah, just wanting to make art for the joy of it. I knew I liked her for a reason.

Something about the trapeze song stuck with me. For days afterward I would think of the last line of the refrain, “one of these nights the old girl’s goin’ down” and smirk. I understood what it meant. Completely.

When introducing the song, Griffin told the story of what inspired her to write it. She grew up in rural Maine. One of the only entertaining things that ever happened there was when the carnival or circus pulled into town. She remembers being taken to the carnival when she was really little and seeing this woman she described as “not young” on the trapeze in a pink chiffon dress. She went on to explain that when you are really, really little, you can tell when someone isn’t young. Since turning forty, Patty Griffin had been thinking a lot about the woman on the trapeze, so she invented a history for the woman and wrote a song about her.

My life in no way reflects the specific narrative of the trapeze woman, but I can recognize and relate to the truth of the song, and truth in art is what makes it valuable. The song is about being stuck someplace, frozen in time and crippled by circumstances. It is about lost chances and unrealized potential. The song ends with the line “halleluiah, the old girl’s goin’ down.” Why halleluiah? Because now she has broken the cycle and is out of the trap. It is time to move on and do something else.

No more dangling in the air.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Skyscraper Cones and Motivation

by Gina Sestak

A hundred years or so ago, I'm told, most men who lived in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas worked in the steel mills. When I was growing up, it seemed as if most students worked in one of two local restaurant chains -- Eat 'n' Park or Isalys. I never worked in Eat 'n' Park and it's still going strong. I haven't seen an Isalys in decades, although rumors persist that one or two have managed to survive.

I worked in the Isalys near Pitt campus the summer after I dropped out of college. I was in the process of worming my way back into academia, taking two night courses in the summer trimester, so a full-time day job seemed like a good idea.

Isalys was a combination ice cream parlor/old fashioned deli/restaurant. There were strings of hot dogs in the front display case, from which we cut individual dogs to order. Customers might request 7 hot dogs, 3 1/4 pounds of chipped ham,* 1 pound of sliced Swiss cheese, 2 pints of potato salad, and a quart of hand-packed vanilla ice cream, and waiting on them was an exercise in mnemonics. I'd be halfway though slicing the cheese when they'd decide that they didn't want all that potato salad after all -- just give them one pint of potato salad and a half pint each of macaroni salad and cole slaw. Oh, and make that maricopa ice cream.

The job was also great for building estimation skills. It's easy to weigh meat and cheese when it's sliced -- there was a scale built right into the slicer. If anyone has never sliced things in a deli, let me describe the slicer. It was like a table saw, without the teeth, a smooth sharp blade that sat upright on the counter, perpendicular to the wall, and spun at high speed. The meat or cheese would be loaded into a metal cradle behind it, with the edge to be cut against the side of the blade. A worker would set the machine for slice width, then manually pull/shove the cradle back and forth, cutting off one slice with every pass. The slice would fall onto a scale, and you would stop slicing when the pile of slices on the scale reached the desired weight. The estimating skills came in when a customer wanted a pound of something unsliced -- you'd have to cut off a chunk and weigh it, trying to come out at exactly the desired weight. Customers get testy if you try to sell them 1.002 pounds of roast beef when they only asked for 1 pound -- they think it's some kind of scam to rip them off for an extra 2 or 3 cents. OK, you can cut off that extra .002 pounds. What really makes them mad is when the chunk weighs in at 0.99999999 pounds.

The most fun part of the job involved the ice cream. Isalys was famous for its skyscraper cones. A special scoop let you dig straight down into the ice cream and come up with a tall thin chilly mass that towered over the cone. Much better looking that the little round balls most scoops produce. Vats of ice cream lined the counter behind a glass shield so everyone could make their choices. We sold ice cream in cones -- both cake cones (the light colored squat ones) and sugar cones (the darker ones that actually had a cone shape). I got to make banana splits and hot fudge sundaes, milk shakes and malts (honest!), and to hand-pack ice cream (which was also weighed, to make certain we weren't selling a carton of air with a little bit of ice cream at the top).

Isalys sold hot food, too, including daily specials like beef stew and Salisbury steak, with overly cooked vegetables and cole slaw on the side. And of course, hot dogs, with or without baked beans.

In addition to working Monday through Friday, I sometimes got to come in on the weekend and work as porter. The porter is the one who gathers up the dirty dishes from the tables, then runs them through a dishwashing machine. I'd never used a dishwasher before, so this was an adventure -- stacking all the plates and cups and silverware securely, then pushing the rack into position before putting a metal canopy over it and pulling the black nobbed arm to start the hot water. The dishes would come out steaming, too hot to touch. What fun!

What does any of this have to do with writing? That is, unless a character is called upon to chip some ham? The most important writing-related thing I learned at Isalys concerned motivation.

Motivation is one of those words that are always being bandied about -- actors demand to know their characters' motivation. Prosecutors present evidence to juries about motive. Means, motive, and opportunity are the three pillars of fictional detection. At Isalys, I learned that, in real life, people never ask "why are you doing that?" They jump to an assumption, then they judge accordingly.

I mentioned above that I worked at Isalys the summer after I dropped out of college. Did anybody wonder why I dropped out? Did you assume motivation based on laziness, a dissaffection for the learning process, an unwanted pregnancy, poor grades, disciplinary problems, or too much alcohol and drugs? It was none of the above. I had to drop out because I was just too poor to stay in. Students who worked for Pitt were paid once a month. I'd worked for Pitt the first semester of my Freshman year (Hillman Library, see my December 2, 2006 blog). Due to the Christmas holiday, 1/2 of December's pay was paid in mid-December. The rest wasn't paid until the end of January. I didn't have the money to pay the second semester's tuition but managed to borrow enough from a friend to cover it. I couldn't afford to buy books. When I finally got paid at the end of January, I paid back the friend but still couldn't afford some of the books. When I dropped out after mid-terms, it was because I was too far behind to catch up. I'd tried to get Pitt to give me an advance on my pay, but was told that wasn't possible. Pitt's clear message to students, or at least to me, was: "Got a problem? We don't care." No one from Pitt ever asked me why I was dropping out, not even the professors who had to sign withdrawal slips.

When I worked at Isalys, I was trying to save every penny for the fall's tuition, so I could go back to school full-time. I had to spend some money on rent, but I didn't spend money on food. The only perk of the job was a free lunch. While my coworkers were sipping a cup of soup or nibbling on a sandwich, I'd be scarfing down a vegetarian Dagwood with mounds of potato salad and an ice cream sundae. A lot of people made critical remarks about the amount of food I managed to consume in one half-hour lunch break. Nobody ever asked why, and I was too shy to know how to explain that this was my only meal of the day. I weighed about 105 pounds then. If it hadn't been for those lunches, I'm sure I would have weighed much less. Nobody ever asked why I would come in on the weekends to do the grunt work portering. The reason was twofold: I needed the money for tuition and I liked to eat on weekends, too, rather than endure a two-day fast.

My glasses broke near the beginning of that summer. The legs came off, and the sections where the little screws fit broke, so I wore glasses tied to my head with yarn. A lot of people made critical remarks about my glasses, assuming that they were some kind of stupid fashion statement. Nobody bothered to ask why, and I didn't know how to explain that I couldn't afford to get them fixed.

For me, motivation is one of the scariest things about writing. I live in fear that, just like coworkers and customers in real life, readers will mistake my characters' motivation and so completely misunderstand my work. And yet, you can't just say, "John killed Mary because she ran over his dog in her truck." That would be the end of the story -- no more pages to fill (except, perhaps, to explain how his dog got into her truck in the first place). We fiction writers have to be more subtle and long-winded than that. And we have to hope that readers understand.

*I've been told that chipped ham is unknown outside of Western Pennsylvania. Being vegetarian myself, I wouldn't know, but just in case you're wondering what this stuff is -- it's pressed ham, sliced very thin, and put on sandwiches in heaps of thin slices rather than as stacked flat slices.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ah, bliss!

By Mike Crawmer

Last week I spent five days with my brother and sister-in-law on their sailboat off Great Exuma Island in The Bahamas. Nothing especially interesting happened. One day was like the next: one fabulously empty white sand beach after another, waters that went from aquamarine to deep blue, all of it under an endless sky of blue by day and star-sprinkled black by night. So boring.

Yeah, right! If this was heaven, I was ready to move in. Up before dawn every day, I would slather myself with sun blocker so I could soak up the rays without burning my winter white skin. I learned to snorkel, drank my first Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer) at a sundowner (boaters’ version of a cocktail hour), and gathered sea shells along the shores. Sunset meant a couple hours of card games, then early to bed. The only radio on the boat was the ship-to-shore type, and there was no TV. I didn’t miss either, but I did miss my daily newspaper (well, for the first day or so).

Boaters like Fred and Rose--and there were a couple hundred of them anchored in the many coves of Elizabeth Harbor--are an interesting breed. Most retired early and are now cheerfully spending their grandchildren’s inheritance. They leave their northern homes in early fall, returning tanned and white-haired in the spring. Between sailing, fishing, maintaining their boats, checking the weather forecast and visiting one another, they don’t have time for much else, and certainly no interest in what’s happening beyond their pleasant little world.

I learned how happily out of touch they are one night when I was trying to discuss current events. Imagine how amused I was when Rose mentioned that they’d heard something about some actor or actress dying. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. Then I had a “duh!” moment: of course, it had to be none other than Anna Nicole Smith.

When I mentioned to folks that I was going to The Bahamas, I was immediately asked, “Are you going to the funeral?” (I do not exaggerate; even my dentist asked me that.) Anna S. was the topic of the day (seemingly every minute!) for weeks up here; down there, on the beautiful blue waters off Great Exuma Island, the late, much-lamented (well, by some) celebrity was less than a footnote.

As a news junky, I usually could be counted on to utter a tut-tut at poor, clueless Rose (I say that with love and respect; she is a MENSA member after all). But in that setting, on their boat, it simply didn’t matter what was happening “up there.” The sun, the sky, the beaches, the impossibly blue waters were all that mattered. Ignorance, I found, is just the icing on the cake of true Bahamian bliss.

Walking Tour of a Writer's Life

by Kristine Coblitz

I read an article this week about the famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft that interested me. I must admit that I've never read his work nor do I know much about him. It appears, however, that he has somewhat of a cult following.

The article stated that Lovecraft had the words "I AM PROVIDENCE" engraved on his tombstone because he identified so much with the New England city. He grew up near Brown University. Some of his books were set in downtown Providence. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Lovecraft's death next week, visitors can participate in a festival and walking tour of places the famous writer frequented in Providence during the time he lived there.

The walking tour is what intrigued me, and I began to think about it in terms of my own existence. What would a walking tour of my life consist of? Hm. Most of us know that writers don't exactly live glamorous lives. Well, unless you're Janet Evanovich or Stephen King, I guess.

Most of my life is spent inside my home office, where I laboriously write articles and plug away at the pages of my crime fiction novel. A tour of my working space would reveal piles of magazines, a portable filing case that serves as my technical writing organizer, a filled bookshelf that covers an entire wall, my desktop computer (used for editing) and laptop (used for writing), some pictures of my husband and dog, and a half-empty cup of tea. Oh, and also my candy dish of emergency Hershey Kisses (but that's our secret, okay?).

A tour of my neighborhood haunts would include the local Walmart for supplies, the Starbucks where I occasionally go to write, and the Giant Eagle where I go grocery shopping every Friday night. Every month I travel the turnpike to Mystery Lovers Bookshop. I suppose visitors could tour the Shop 'n Save in Shaler where I worked after high school and met my husband, the University in downtown Pittsburgh where I went to college, or the nightclub in the Strip District where I got really drunk in public for the first time. Wait, that nightclub isn’t there anymore. Well, it is but under a different name. I'm sure the bathroom where I met my alcoholic demise is still in the same place, though.

Not exactly worthy of a festival or paid walking tour, I know, but kind of fun nonetheless. This exercise works well when creating fictional characters, too.

I invite all of you to brainstorm with this idea. Take us on a walking tour of your life. What would we see?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Boundaries and Very Happy People


Kathie Shoop

Are people who cross boundaries, physically and verbally, happier?

Maybe? Yesterday, sitting in Panera Bread, enjoying coffee while toiling away on my current novel, my attention shifted to two elderly (meaning mid-80’s) women and a young man (60ish) who approached them.

He boomed his hello to both ladies then squatted next to the one he was less familiar with, put his arm around her shoulder, made constant and hard eye-contact with her, and hung on every word she said. He spoke periodically, injecting words conveying admiration for the woman’s gumption, get-up-and-go and vigorous life. How does he know all this after just meeting her sixty-five seconds before?

Maybe he listened in on them for a while before approaching—-who would do that, be so rude and profoundly boundary-adverse?

I stared, waiting for a patronizing word, expression or eye-roll on the part of the man. Nothing. The guy was spellbound, absorbed in this woman’s words. For real. His eyes crinkled in laughter, he grinned and responded as though he’d waited his entire life to squat next to this woman and hear her theory on the merits of Groundhog Phil’s latest prediction.

Squatty-man made me think of another fella my husband Bill and I met years ago. We frequented—though often separately—the Brueggers in Shady Side. We compared notes on the new manager, Tom—his mega-watt smile, questions about our dog, the fact he remembered we had a dog and figured out Bill and I were married based on the dog’s description, the way our orders were ready upon arrival, but mostly his grin—his obvious joy at being alive.

“What do you make of that manager, Tom?” I asked.
“Got me,” Bill said.
“Got you, what? You think he’s actually that happy, that nice?” I said.
“Maybe. Probably.”
“Probably, my ass. Something’s up with that guy.” I said.

Turned out Tom was that nice. Too nice. He got fired for giving his favorite customers freebies (which turns out Bill and I weren’t on the list of favorite customers as he’d never even tried to force extra napkins on us, never mind the seven layer cookie by the cash register). But when Tom turned up at a competing bagel chain in North Oakland, he was just as happy, not a trace of bitterness that his overly solicitous nature had bitten him in the ass. Just more of the nice guy stuff.

These types of people never fail to make me smile and then I immediately, mentally drown them in suspicious thoughts. I wonder what came first—their open, joy at living then their push past the boundaries most of us observe out of politeness, laziness or unconcern? Or are these people boundary jumpers by nature and in the end their risks result in a richer happier existence even with occasional negative consequences?

Since Working Stiffs is the Mystery/Thriller Writer blog of choice, I must offer this brainstorm I had on the turnpike yesterday—I looked up at the man taking my money and the image of him as serial killer popped into my mind—I don’t know why. But, what if he started writing down license plate numbers, stalking people??? Just an idea. Maybe it’s been done, but if not, feel free to use it!

Sunday, March 04, 2007


by Pat Hart

Though I attended Catholic school and had been taken to Mass from my earliest days, I never had much religious feeling or natural belief except in my guardian angel. My reaction to religious teaching was to absorb the rules, like learning Monopoly, and then plot a winning strategy. Venial sins: disobedience, lying, stealing were erasable through a heartfelt confession. Mortal sins, murder, missing Mass on purpose, eating meat on Fridays (intentionally) were for really advanced players (adults). Wearing a scapular at the time of death was a wild card, guaranteed heaven.

My first grade teacher, Sister Donata, had used the tale of Machine Gun Kelly to impress us with the power of the scapular. Kelly, a murderous, 10 most-wanted criminal was gunned down in the street. With the machine gun still smoking in his hands, and at the very last moment of his life, Kelly called out for a scapular. A nearby priest rushed to his side, took the mini holy card from around his own neck and put it on the dying Kelly. Instant passage to heaven! Brilliantly played by Kelly! Eternity among the angels.
Sister distributed a “get-out-of-hell-free” card to each of us.

The scapulars are two mini holy cards, 1 by 2 inches, glued to a piece of felt and connected by a 1/8 inch brown ribbon. Mine was Mary with the sacred heart on one side and the scene of discovering Jesus’ empty tomb on the other. They were to be worn at all times --especially during night, but could be removed for bathing.

During my bath I hung my scapular on the closest towel rack and would watch it alertly, imaging scenes where I would be compelled to leap from the bath and whip the saving icon around my neck. Things like an atomic mushroom cloud in the distance, swirling black tornado, a vampire flinging open the warped metal casement window, the Blob’s killing ooze gushing out of the plumbing, would require quick action.

I would practice diving, wet and naked, for the scapular until the floor of the bathroom was flooded and my mother made me “knock it off.”

When it got hot that summer, I stopped wearing my scapular. An innovation of the 60’s, plastic lamination, had made the card incorruptible, but it also made it stick uncomfortable to my chest. When I pried the sweat-adhered card from between my breast there would be a red rectangle on my skin, cooling instantly when air hit it. But, it was not the discomfort of the scapular that prompted me to leave it hanging on my bedpost, it was the lighter clothes of summer. Skimpy tees and tank tops made the icon more apparent to my playmates and the non-Catholic kids thought it was very odd.

There was one boy who made such blasphemous comments about Mary and the bleeding sacred heart that I worried these remarks would go against me on judgment day. My plan was to get through summer on good behavior, frequent confessions and the hope that my guardian angel would intervene in any near death situations.

Summer ended, I went back to school but the scapular remained on my bedpost. I eventually moved it to my jewelry box where it still is today.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Rescue

by Cathy Anderson Corn

We'd been frequenting our local Petsmart store for months, visiting the cats in cages for adoption. I'd been studying these cats at least twice a week, peering in and playing with them, so that I knew their names and stories.

January a year ago, our Maine Coon cat named Anna passed away at home after a six week mystery illness. Just before that, she'd gone blind and all my love,devotion, and care couldn't bring her back. We made her comfortable and tried to let go. Letting go is not my strong point, so after she left us we searched the cat adoption places looking for a cat like our Anna.

A few of the inmates even looked a lot like Anna, but it wasn't the same, so we just kept searching. The cats benefitted from the hole in our hearts; my husband Alan is a wizard at playing with them using a feather wand. They perked up and came alive with his games.

Then one day last June before work, I walked our dog Gypsy behind our townhouses. A four-year-old neighbor girl, Amanda, yelled at me from the woods abutting our yards.

"Look! I found a cat!" she called. It looked like a small brown tabby, and the girl's mother said it had just appeared, and that she didn't want it with her two small children. I moved on and stared from afar, and then went to work.

That night, in the darkness, Gypsy and I cruised by the spot again, and I called for the kitten, with not even a rustle from the woods.

The next morning, I looked for the cat and called. This time the little bundle of energy shot out of the woods and hurtled toward me. She was very small and thin, this brown tabby with the beautiful green eyes and an open sore the size of a dime on her tail.

The wound gave me a sense of urgency. As she purred and rubbed me, the decision was instantaneous--she was part of our family if she wanted to be. She had a new home.

I worried if she would be hard on our elderly cat and dog, but in the end, things only got better. Geebles, the geriatric sister, started eating better and sleeping less, and Gypsy became more active. I increased my writing output.

And of course, Missy the new cat isn't Anna, but she's a wild little character, attacking birds through our window, sleeping with Gypsy, and eating every stray morsel in the house. She provides laughs every day, and our hearts are healing.

I suppose you can say we rescued Missy, but in the end it looks like she rescued us. The joy she's brought is boundless, and her energy and enthusiasm fill our home.

Friday, March 02, 2007

It Could Happen to You

by Meryl Neiman

I'm sorry. This post isn't about writing or my former day job. In fact, this post has nothing to do with crime fiction. It's about my sister.

My oldest sister lives in San Francisco. She's a partner at a large law firm. She loves to bike, ski, hike and travel. She's single. She'll turn 45 at the end of this month.

Last week she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My mother is a breast cancer survivor. My grandmother and great-grandmother also had breast cancer. Every year when Jill asks my mother what she wants for her birthday, she tells her to get a mammogram.

Prior to her diagnosis, my sister hadn't had a mammogram in FOUR YEARS. I don't believe it was because she was scared. I don't believe it's because she has large breasts and the procedure is uncomfortable. I believe it was simply a matter of time. She never seemed to have enough of it. She works hard (too hard) as a lawyer and just couldn't get around to scheduling an appointment.

Jill was scared to tell my parents. Scared of their reaction. So I volunteered for the job. It was the hardest phone call I ever had to make. My mother said, "how could this have happened?" And her next sobbing question was, "how long has it been since she had a mammogram? What made her go see the doctor?"

I had to explain that Jill noticed her breast getting larger, as she put it, a few months ago. She eventually tried to get an appointment with her ob/gyn, but they couldn't schedule her for several months. (She didn't explain the nature of her problem.) Finally, she went to see her primary care doc who sent her immediately to see a surgeon. He told her upon examination that he thought she had cancer and performed a biopsy.

There was no palpable lump. Jill thought maybe she was just gaining weight. The radiologist who performed the mammogram at the surgeon's request opined that she had inflammatory breast cancer. As an internet junkie, I had arrived at that same disturbing hypothesis myself.

If you've heard of inflammatory breast cancer, you are in the minority. It's a rare, but aggressive and very lethal form of breast cancer. It frequently goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and because it spreads so quickly, that loss of time can prove deadly. Up until a few years ago, the disease had virtually a 100% mortality rate. That has improved greatly and there is some treatment, but women need to be vigilant.

Spread the word. Here is what to look for.

As the National Cancer Institute states, "Symptoms of IBC may include redness, swelling, and warmth in the breast, often without a distinct lump in the breast. The redness and warmth are caused by cancer cells blocking the lymph vessels in the skin. The skin of the breast may also appear pink, reddish purple, or bruised. The skin may also have ridges or appear pitted, like the skin of an orange (called peau d'orange), which is caused by a buildup of fluid and edema (swelling) in the breast. Other symptoms include heaviness, burning, aching, increase in breast size, tenderness, or a nipple that is inverted (facing inward). These symptoms usually develop quickly—over a period of weeks or months. Swollen lymph nodes may also be present under the arm, above the collarbone, or in both places. However, it is important to note that these symptoms may also be signs of other conditions such as infection, injury, or other types of cancer."

IBC usually does not show up on mammogram. Often women (and sometimes their doctors) think they are suffering from mastitis (a breast infection) or some other condition.

My sister's breast was just large. She didn't have any of the symptons.

As it turned out, she does not have IBC. That's a relief. However, that means that she could have caught her cancer MUCH earlier had she gone for regular mammograms. And she certainly should have seen a doctor immediately when she noticed a change in the shape of her breast.

She has a LARGE tumor and will need to endure chemotherapy before surgery to reduce the size. She has not yet seen the oncologist, but her surgeon has told her she has stage three cancer.

She's young and healthy and I hope will pull through this. But it shouldn't have gotten this far.

I urge you all to tell your female friends and family about IBC. One mother of an IBC patient stops strangers on the street to spread the word. And ladies, schedule your mammograms now!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Boy in the Box

by Joyce Tremel

A fascinating article caught my eye earlier this week and I haven’t been able to let it go.

On February 25, 1957, the body of a young boy approximately 4 to 5 years old, was found in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia by Philadelphia Police officer Elmer Palmer. Police had received a call that there was something inside a J.C. Penney bassinet box that someone had thrown away. The subsequent autopsy showed that the blond haired boy was undernourished and had been abused. The cause of death was head injuries.

For the past 50 years, investigators have been searching for this boy’s identity. They thought the case would be solved quickly, but the boy was never even reported missing. Investigators have followed thousands of leads over the years. It is still an open case, now handled by Homicide Detective Tom Augustine, who first became interested in the case as a child when he saw the posters of the boy that were displayed all over Philadelphia.

The boy’s murder has been featured on America’s Most Wanted and 48 Hours, but most of the leads generated by these shows have failed to produce anything. One tip from an Ohio woman in 2002 seemed the most promising. The woman appears credible but investigators have so far been unable to corroborate her story. The boy’s remains were even exhumed in 1998 and an independent lab was able to obtain mitochondrial DNA from a tooth, but as long as he remains unknown, there is no one to match it to.

The sad death of this boy has generated interest all over the world. There is a website dedicated to solving the case and finding his identity--America's Unknown Child. This site has the entire case history, photographs, information on witnesses, etc. It is run by volunteers whose sole purpose is for this boy to rest in peace.

It is also being investigated by the Vidocq Society, which is an organization comprised of retired detectives and others, including a forensic sculptor who has made a bust of what the boy’s father probably looked like.

I think what intrigues me most about this case is the dedication of the investigators involved. Some of the retired detectives working on this case were the original officers assigned to the investigation. Many of them have worked on their own time studying evidence, looking through hospital records and interviewing witnesses. These seasoned cops remember this boy as if he belonged to them--and in a way he does. Fifty years later, they still attend memorial services at the gravesite.

As writers, these elements are all the things we should be putting in our own work. A victim that tears at your heart, numerous suspects, and detectives that won't give up. Unfortunately, this story is all too true. Maybe someday it will have if not a happy ending, at least a satisfying one.

How would you have this story end? Will there ever be justice for The Boy in the Box?