Friday, August 31, 2007


Kathie Shoop

Hi guys and sorry if I'm remiss with this post. I was under the impression (and out of the listserve loop) that my post day was the first Friday of each month! I'm very sorry for being a blockhead. As for being out of the loop where the schedule is posted, I've been swamped with vacation, car-wreck issues and my son starting kindergarten.

No big deal, I know. I'm shocked at how I feel about the kindergarten thing. I've been waiting for this for a long time. My teeny premature son is finally out the door and I nearly passed out when the school doors swung open and he disappeared inside.

I feel like I'm the one who logged a week at a new school with big toilets (and lots of them), lots of kids and rules by the ton. Kindergarten is truly big business these days. Nurturing, smurturing, there's learning to do.

Seriously, I couldn't ask for a better school or teacher for my son. Even with all of my professional experience lying within the halls of education, I wasn't prepared for how it would feel as a parent to send my child into the abyss. And he's got it easy. Tiny classes, rated the sixth best school in western PA by the Pittsburgh Business Times. It can't get better than this. But my heart thinks different.

What a baby I am. How did you feel when your kids first went to school?

Again, sorry for the mishap on posting dates...


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Questions and Answers

by Joyce Tremel

Welcome to what I'm calling "Law Enforcement Thursdays." For the near future, I'll be posting every Thursday while our other Thursday blogger, mother-to-be Kristine, moves to Fridays--once a month. Hopefully, you won't be stuck with me every week--I plan on bringing in guest bloggers every once in awhile.

We'll start off LET with questions and answers. Is there some kind of police procedure you'd like to know more about? Is there a scene in your book that you'd like to make more realistic? Did you just get arrested and want to know what's next?

Ask away!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Disappearing Free Time

by Gina Sestak

I usually blog about the many jobs I've held but today I happen to be between jobs, so I've decided to do something different.

When I say that I'm between jobs, I mean that literally. My last day of work on my old job was August 10. I'm due to start another on September 5. If I were a rational person, I would be using this free time to plan for my future. I would reassess my life and get my finances in order. I would clean my filthy house and trim the wild things growing in my yard. I would write.

Instead, I've spent the last few weeks reading and re-reading the Harry Potter series. I'd read the first six books before, but I read them again before reading the final book, just to make certain that I had the characters, locations, etc. straight. Then I read them all again. Now I'm going through and comparing scenes from the various books.

People who know me well know that I sometimes get mesmerized by a movie or book. I view or read it over and over again, trying to recognize and understand the techniques that went into its construction. This is my first obsession with a series.

Why Harry Potter? Well, for one thing, J.K. Rowling is a very good writer. There is an immediacy to her scenes that pulls the reader in, and whether Harry is eating unfamiliar candy on a train or walking into the forest to face almost certain death, you feel like you are with him.

J.K. Rowling is an imaginative writer. For sheer weirdness, I love the whomping willow. But as a writer, I adore the pensieve, a wonderful device that permits one character to enter into another's memory, showing what happened in the past. It sure beats any other flashback technique that I'm aware of, and it can be plugged into the storyline wherever discovering the remembered information will be most useful. It's brilliant! I wish I'd thought of it.

J.K. Rowling is a skillful writer. This is important, because the Harry Potter series is really a mystery. Think about it. An amateur sleuth (Harry) investigates a series of crimes that are tied in with the murder of his parents. With every book, he learns a little more about who was responsible and how things came to pass. Clues are planted so seamlessly that a reader sometimes doesn't realize their significance until several books later -- at least, I didn't. Think of Snape. [Don't worry. I'm not going to give away too much of the plot to those of you who haven't read the books yet.] Severus Snape is one of Harry's teachers and, almost from the beginning, Harry suspects that he's up to no good although other characters keep telling him that Snape is trustworthy. It isn't until the sixth and seventh books that we find out what Snape is really up to. And it's wonderful to realize, when the revelations come at last, that all the groundwork has been laid. It's just been hidden in plain sight.

Finally, I'm in awe of J.K. Rowling's skill in constructing seven long books that tell one cohesive story and contain so much real wisdom. This isn't one of those good guys vs. bad guys stories in which cardboard cut-outs get together for a battle. The characters are complex, with realistic motivations. And, in the end, the series tricks you into believing that maybe, just maybe, love can be stronger than evil.

So, OK, I'm now a J.K. Rowlings fan. What do you think of the Harry Potter books?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Turkey Pot Pie and I Don't Care

By Martha Reed

A friend of mine from work came back from his family vacation, and I have to give the guy credit – he packed up his wife and kids and took them to Gettysburg, PA to visit the battlefield and talk a little about American history. At first, he worried his kids would get bored, but as they hiked the landscape and studied the monuments, and later listened to a CD in the car while they toured the larger area, he said the kids were fascinated and they asked a lot of pertinent questions that proved to him they were listening. It’s such a nice vision of a family vacation that it made me reminisce about a couple of mine.

We lived in northern Ohio, and since our extended family lived in Pittsburgh, we piled into our Country Squire station wagon and hit the road for every major holiday (think Thanksgiving, Christmas, some Easters). Mom always sat up front with Dad, but she brought a pillow so she could sleep (or at least pretend to) during the trip. This was in the Seventies before car seats, so us kids would unroll sleeping bags in the very back and play Battleship or Operation for the few hours it took to travel across the state. I remember one winter trip when the roads were so slick with ice we could only crawl behind the salt trucks, and being kids, we decided to see if we could push Dad over the edge by deliberately and repeatedly buzzing the patient in Operation. I have to give the old man credit; he told us to knock it off and didn’t stop the car and heave the game over the snowy fence line into the next county like I would have.

In sixth grade, we got big news: our class was going on a sponsored overnight bus trip to Gettysburg, PA. This was a big thing; it would be only the second time I had ventured away from my family, and I was thrilled. I was finally going to be independent – and the trip only cost $54. Isn’t that far out? And then my mother said we couldn’t afford it.

This was dreadful, because in my family no meant no. We had learned early on not to argue because an argument wouldn’t get you anywhere. So, and maybe I have the next bit wrong, but what I remember is that for the first time in my life I truly pitched a fit. I stomped upstairs and slammed a couple of doors – I probably slammed the same door two or three times to make sure my parents got the point. I stayed up in my room and even skipped dinner – and that never happened, because first off I love to eat and back then even when you were sick dinner came up on a tray. I can only imagine the thunderously black look I must have worn the next day when I came back downstairs for school. Knowing me, I was probably clutching the permission slip prominently in hand.

(One caveat: I am a much more reasonable person now.)

I planted myself at the kitchen table and got the shock of my young life: Mom said she had figured out a way to get the money. I was so surprised I actually won the argument I felt stunned. Mom went on to explain that she could squeeze the $54 out of the budget but we would all have to agree to make the sacrifice so I could go. Nowadays, I can see where Mom was trying to go with this, but my pre-teen brain said ‘Sure!’ and both of my sisters agreed, mostly because none of us had a clue what making a sacrifice meant. It turns out that sacrifice meant you have to eat a lot of turkey pot pies (Safeway, 3 for a dollar) and canned fruit cocktail.

Of course, in the end, it was Mom who made the sacrifice because she was the one who had to feed her kids a lot of cheap food, and I know she hated that because Mom was always proud about serving a good dinner: meat and two vegetables was our family standard. To cap it off, we kids elevated that to the next level by scrapping over who got the most cherries in their cup of fruit cocktail. Mom was reduced to picking cherries out of each can and dividing them into pieces to ensure a completely equitable distribution. What puzzles me now is why Mom didn’t just eat the extra one or toss it out? I can only speculate that maybe it was because her generation was raised not to waste the tiniest bit of food?

The greater question, though, seen clearly now with the benefit of hindsight, is how on earth did we manage to survive our childhoods, being such perfect little monsters?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Nature or Nurture

by Brenda Roger

I’ve been considering the nature vs. nurture dilemma quite a bit in the past few weeks. It has always been interesting to me because I have only one sibling and she is adopted, while I am by parents’ biological child (or the extra special bonus prize as I sarcastically like to call myself). My sister’s choices and behavior have always been mysterious to me. She has four children, and their behavior and personalities suggest that certain personality traits are imprinted on a human being. They do things that she did when she was little that they couldn't have ever seen her do in order to learn them.

In an effort to better understand my sister, I’ve been trying to separate my own personality traits into two categories: inherited and experiential. If you never tried to do this, I would recommend it. It is fascinating because it is really difficult to differentiate between the two. This photograph shows me when I was about seven, holding a Springer Spaniel puppy. When my husband saw this photograph he said, “even your eyes look happy.” I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t like animals, but was I born with that, or did something happen that I don’t remember that made me interested in animals?

I'm not excessively neat. I like a good pile of magazines or fabrics going every which way. I would love to be neat, as I enjoy a well arranged and tidy space, but that is something that I have to work at. It doesn't come naturally. If I was only a product of my enviroment, then I would be very neat without much thought or effort.

It is valuable for a writer of fiction to consider what parts of personality are hereditary and what parts are formed by experience. Try to do this exercise with one of your characters. It is much easier to do with a made up person. Even if you never distinguish the source of your character's personality traits in your writing, it could be valuable for you know the difference when you are writing.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Requiem for a State Hospital

by Tory Butterworth

It’s been coming for a long time, but the final announcement was still a bit of a shock.

Perhaps, between presidential campaigns and other natural disasters, you missed the story. Mayview State Hospital will be closing at the end of next year.

Mayview was built by the City of Pittsburgh in 1897 and served as a home for the poor until 1941, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over its operations. The patient population reached a high of 3785 in June of 1967. There are slightly over 200 patients there now.

In the early 90s I had a job coordinating evaluation efforts for Unified Systems, a program where state funds were diverted to the county to pay for services that would, hopefully, help Mayview residents leave the institution. The basic question underlying this research was whether it was better for Mayview residents to live in a large state institution or the community.

Mayview became a state hospital in the era when the chronically mentally ill where placed in large, full-service institutions far from city limits. Many of these institutions encouraged residents to become involved in gardening, farming, or even operate small businesses. Directors often lived on the premises, adding to their insular feel. A friend of mine's brother who is schizophrenic still talks of his time in one state institution as, "the good old days."

Among mental health service providers, talking about closing Mayview can generate intense feelings. Some feel strongly that the state is “dumping” their responsibility for these patients, that many will end up in jails or living under bridges. Others look at a state hospital as the most restrictive and therefore least desirable form of care. The psychiatric medication available today allows many to live independently who couldn't have 40 years ago.

As an evaluator, I was expected to come from an unbiased position. I have to admit my one visit to Mayview didn’t leave me with any great love of the institution. And our data on community residences did seem to show more freedom there.

On the other hand, those still at Mayview are the lowest functioning of a very low-functioning population. Is moving them to smaller, community-based residences an improvement?

I think that part of the shock of Mayview’s passing is that it represents the end of an era. Nostalgia for the “good old days” can have a profound impact, even in mental health.

What do you think about Mayview closing?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Out of the Closet

by Cathy Corn

Two of my regular female massage clients tell me how they clean out their closets and give away items they no longer use. As a wave of envy overcomes me, I murmur, "How nice." I greatly admire these ladies, for closet cleaning doen't come naturally to me. Honestly, I've tried.

My clothes closet represents a feng shui nightmare. The eight-foot wide jungle is jammed with items depicting various eras of my life. When I've attempted deforestation, I pick out a few things to cast off, then conveniently forget to ever work on it again.

There's the bookcase jammed into the back with my nursing books from 1973. Let's face it, medicine's changed since then. I've collected the small boxes from all my jewelry purchases so that I could start a home boutique if I wanted to. Lost, uncatalogued treasures inhabit the corners as well as maybe six manuscripts in Kinko boxes.

The epitome of all this sludge, though, is the wedding dress from my first marriage, which was long and unhappy and provided me with suffering so I'd have something to write about (the marriage, not the dress, though it was long, too). My mother created the dress with loving care. Once I decided to get rid of it and made the mistake of first mentioning it to Mother. After her long, pained silence, I jammed the dress back into the closet right beside the prom dresses from 1968 and 1969. (Did you all wear those poofy updos to the prom? Those dos that rivaled that of the bride of Frankenstein? Lee, Brian, and Mike need not respond.)

On a happier note, when I left my first husband 23 years ago, I left a lot of stuff behind. It's a quick and easy way to declutter one's life on many levels. Alas, the clutter returned (but not the husband).

So my fellow Sisters, whether the glut of items is related to your writing space, your garage, or backyard shed, what confessions have you to make? Or what handy tips can you share?

Can you give us a story of how excess things inhabit your life? Or how you conquered the unsightly mess and still wrote, sold, and marketed the great American novel?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

For The Love Of Dogs

by Kristine Coblitz

I find it interesting that devoted readers have particular pet peeves when it comes to what they will and will not tolerate in books. For instance, some people refuse to read books where children are placed in jeopardy or killed. Others won’t read about grisly murders or crimes set in their hometowns. For as many topics as there are to explore in fiction, you’ll always find a group of readers who are opposed to the topic and will refuse to read a certain book based on that opposition.

I’m a pretty tolerant and open-minded reader. There’s not much I won’t read, except for anything related to history. (My apologies to all the history buffs out there.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a pet peeve when it comes to fiction. For me, it all comes down to animals, dogs in particular.

I have a hard time reading books in which dogs are killed or hurt, especially if it’s done with gratuitous violence. I once read a novel (written by a male author who will remain nameless but who is a household name) about a dog who served as a guardian and companion to a woman who lost her husband. The dog was a major character in the book and symbolized the main character’s growth and how she came to terms with her husband’s death. I grew to love that dog. But then the author did the unthinkable. Without warning, in the last chapter, the dog was brutally shot to death. Bam! I was so upset that I flung the book across the room and refused to read another book by the author.

When I read a suspense or thriller novel with a dog involved, I am suspicious and hesitant to continue reading in fear of what will happen to the dog. I’ll even go so far as to admit that I will look up the author’s website to see if the he or she is a dog lover before reading any more of the book. (It’s fair to say that most dog owners won’t murder their fictitious animals on the page, although there have been some exceptions to that rule.)

I write suspense fiction and have done my research, so I know the reality. Most serial killers or criminals have a history of animal cruelty and to explore a villain realistically in these novels, you have to touch upon this area. I’m hesitant to include animals in my books for the reason that some readers almost expect them to die. Sorry, but I can’t kill my furry friends, even in fiction. Thankfully I don’t have a problem knocking off people or else I’d have to find another genre.

So what are you pet peeves when it comes to fiction? What will you not tolerate in the books you read?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Country Mouse/City Mouse

by Annette Dashofy

It’s pretty well known that I’m a country mouse. I’m used to looking out my kitchen window at green pastures and a herd of cattle. The scene out my bedroom window is more green fields and an occasional Great Blue Heron. But every so often I’m forced to step out of my comfort zone of country life to spend some time in the city. With my mom in Allegheny General Hospital recovering slowly from major surgery, this week has been one of those times.

Anytime anyone in my family needs to go to Pittsburgh, I’m the one who gets the call. I like the city. I feel comfortable strolling the downtown streets, although it definitely feels like foreign territory.

I’m not crazy about rush hour traffic, but I can deal with it. I don’t panic if I get lost, even though Pittsburgh is notorious for making it difficult to find your way around. Most cities are built in squares. Make a wrong left turn? Make three more left turns and you’re back where you started. Do that in Pittsburgh and you’re likely to end up in Wexford. I’ve been lost enough in the city that I can usually find something that looks familiar and regain my bearings.

I have even learned how to negotiate Penn Circle, which I used to refer to as the Bermuda Triangle of Pittsburgh.

City life fascinates me. Or at least the vignettes I catch as I drive by: the residents sitting on their stoops which often are little more than a step down onto the sidewalk from their front door; the community of homeless folks camped under an overpass; the old man balancing his grocery bags on the handlebars of his bicycle, darting through traffic. I love driving the variety of cultures in the city’s neighborhoods. I’m looking at it all through the eyes of an outsider, I know. But my writer’s curiosity allows me to imagine what that kind of life must be like.

Then there are the little events that you only find in the city. I was driving home from the hospital on Saturday and stopped for a red light. Music filled the air, blasting through my closed windows. I automatically assumed someone had cranked up their radio. But it didn’t sound right. That was when I noticed that a band had set up in a parking lot to my right, with a good-sized audience gathered. It was a parking lot. Not your normal run-of-the-mill concert venue. I wondered if some local garage band decided to throw an impromptu show when they couldn’t get booked into the corner club. I don’t know. But I thought, “that’s not something you would see out in the country.”

The band was pretty good, by the way. Someone should hire them.

Monday, I had to contend with rush hour traffic on Liberty Avenue. I should have stuck with my usual route of Fort Duquesne Boulevard, but I was feeling adventurous. Pittsburgh is also notorious for jaywalkers. I encountered a few dozen of them. Then there was the lady who was crossing the four lane street (legally, at a light), moving at a pace that…well…do you happen to remember Tim Conway’s old man routine on the Carol Burnett Show? He’d have beaten her in a foot race. The lady was half way across when the light changed. A bus was coming.

I didn’t hear about anyone getting flattened on the news that night, so I assume the approaching bus stopped for her. If she’d tried to cross Route 18 in front of my house, she’d have been mowed down by a 4x4 pickup. No doubt about it.

I envy some things about living in the city. Stores, shops, restaurants, and theatres all within walking distance intrigue me. Where I live, I have to drive at least a half hour to get to anywhere worth going. If I run out of an ingredient when I’m cooking supper, there is no running to the corner store. Instead, I have to make-do without or change the menu.

Could I pull up stakes and live in the city? I think so. It would make for an interesting experiment anyway. But I do think I’d soon yearn for the green open spaces of my rural upbringing. What about you city mice? Would you be able to move to the country if you had to? Or would the quiet and spaciousness drive you bonkers?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Criminals I Have Known

by Mike Crawmer

Not that I’ve known all that many criminals, mind you. But my early career as a newspaper reporter—including a stint covering Congress—meant I encountered a criminal or two. To borrow a phrase, here are their stories.

The summer of ’75 I covered the trial of a woman charged with murdering her abusive husband. I can still picture her sitting at the defense table—slump-shouldered, scared, overwhelmed, older than her years. I remember her testimony—she spoke in her own defense—as she recalled the events that led up to the shooting: the fight that left her battered and bruised (again), the husband sleeping it off on the living room sofa surrounded by empty beer cans, the wife finding his gun, then pumping several bullets into his torso, silencing his snores and rage forever. I don’t recall her sentence, but in those days in that court, I’m sure it was a long one.

Several years later in another job I wrote about a university writing program for inmates at the old Western Penitentiary on the North Side. Getting inside entailed a harrowing passage through several intimidating metal doors. But once seated with the inmates, I felt comfortable. The two 30-somethings I interviewed were articulate and eager to talk about what learning to write meant to them. I waited until the end to ask them, in so many words, “So, what are you in for?” Murder was their answer. Two separate cases, same outcome: Life in prison with no chance for parole. (I was invited back to their graduation ceremony; most unusual “commencement” speech from the prison superintendent.)

Fast forward to this year. I’m visiting a friend serving out his sentence in a federal prison. It was a shock to see how much “Peter” had changed. He’d lost 60 pounds and grown a beard (he could shave only with an electric shaver, which prison rules barred, though safety razors were okay). At 78 he is the oldest inmate in a prison population split almost evenly between white-collar criminals and drug dealers. He ticked off the names of a couple ex-Congressmen he’d met on the campus-like grounds of the minimum security facility, and told us about the former Orthodox bishop who blamed his incarceration on “something to do with bingo.”

Mostly, though, Peter complained about the food. I couldn’t blame him; the main course on that evening’s dinner menu was deep-fried chicken livers. He was counting the days til his release to a half-way house. All pretty much to be expected of this Korean War veteran who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and had left behind a comfortable retirement, season tickets to the opera, and a loving family.

I’d like to think I left that courtroom and those prisons a little wiser. I do know that I left those sad places thankful to be free.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vacation Lust

by Rebecca Drake

Thanks to a long-standing family tradition, we spend a week every summer in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, which has gone from being a preppy little beach town to a preppy little beach town on steroids. Gone are the small summer cottages, shingles worn gray by the damp sea air. They’ve been steadily stripped away to build vast, multi-storied vacation homes with tiered balconies, gourmet kitchens, and manicured lawns kept uniformly green by water expenditure that must exceed the annual usage of some sub-Saharan nations.

My husband and I look and lust and tell ourselves that even if we had the money to afford these multi-million dollar properties, we wouldn’t buy one. Or, we would, but only if we shared it with family. This despite the fact that living with extended family for more than a few hours makes me feel like committing seppuku and forcing them to watch.

God forbid that we should even fantasize about an extravagant purchase without coming up with some moral justification for it.

Neither my husband nor I are comfortable with conspicuous consumption. We became friends because of a shared commitment to social justice and certain political and spiritual views that favor an outward eye and compassion over absolutism and personal gain.

We are not, however, at all immune to the desire for more, for better, for bigger things. Both of us are gadget junkies. (I read Wired magazine just to see the latest products and skip over the technical bits I don’t understand.) I like good shoes. He likes good wine. We both want to remodel our outdated kitchen and bathrooms and not on the cheap.

What this dichotomy means, at a practical level, is that we hold on to things far past their usefulness (my husband has super-glued his broken Razr cell-phone five times) and do not purchase anything over $75 without having done extensive research showing it to be a superior (and thus worthwhile) purchase.

For example, when our son desperately wanted a TV gaming system we justified what we considered a dubious purchase (i.e. it’s expensive and turns active child into couch-spawn) by finding numerous articles highlighting the educational benefits of video games (i.e. we’ll be the parents of a budding genius).

So we really, really want one of these mammoth vacation houses even as we mourn what’s happened to that sleepy little beach town and laugh at other people’s extravagance. Our own extravagance, of course, would have some sort of greater purpose attached to it.

I just have to figure out what that is.

I’m sure we could turn the 10th bedroom into an ashram for visiting monks or operate a soup kitchen in the 30-foot breakfast “nook.” Hmm…I’m sure we could even design a whole separate wing for the in-laws.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Wanna Be a Princess

by Kathy Miller Haines

“She wants to be a princess,” my sister announced. “Can you help?” She was talking about my niece, Boo, whose third birthday is rapidly approaching. Don’t worry: Boo isn’t her real name. It’s a nickname I gave her when she was a baby. And it’s much better than the name they were going to saddle her with if she was a boy: Mungo.*

(*in their defense, they live in the UK, where Mungo has a rich tradition that doesn’t involve Blazing Saddles, or so my brother-in-law claims.)

But back to Boo’s lofty goals to become royalty. Because there are so few times in a woman’s life that she gets to be a princess, and only a handful of occasions when one is encouraged to wear a tiara, my mother and I decided that we would outfit Boo with appropriate princess wear for her birthday (don’t worry: she’s getting boring things too). So I spent last weekend shopping for a pink tulle and sequined gown for the wee and worldly and was amazed to find the variety of inexpensive, ready-made costumes one can get for little girls in toy departments. These aren’t Halloween costumes, but elaborate make believe get ups that include shoes, jewels, and feathered boas.

Apparently, we’re still firmly stuck in the fifties and, going by this store, the only options for dress up for little girls are princess, nurse, cheerleader, and flapper (bathtub gin sold separately). I guess the “teacher” and “trophy wife” costumes weren’t out yet. Given that choice, I would’ve chosen princess too since not only would that mean a certain amount of curtsying and groveling at my feet, but, if I should so choose, I’d also have magic at my disposal (a mo-hair covered wand was available for $2.50). You can do a lot with magic.

I don’t remember ever wanting to be a princess myself. When I wasn’t much older than Boo, my favorite game was publisher. I would “write” stories, illustrate them, and then work it through the complicated process of publishing and distribution (even my fantasies involved complete creative control -- you’d be surprised by the amount of red tape involved in getting book out of my bedroom and into the hands of my mother). Obviously that early dream of publication stuck with me, probably because nobody ever told me that it was silly or impossible.

I hope the same thing happens for Boo. Not that she’ll become an actual princess (though she lives in a country where such things exist), but that she’ll keep the fantasy alive that she has the option of becoming whatever she wants (even if that means cheerleader or flapper) and that her parents will continue to announce her goals without irony. That’s what a magical princess really is: a little girl who recognizes the possibility that anything can happen.

How about you? What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you ever stop believing it could happen?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Just Add Water

By Lisa Curry

Usually we spend a week at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, or Ocean City, Maryland, for family summer vacation. This year, for various reasons, we didn’t make beach reservations. Instead, this week we took a spur-of-the-moment trip north instead of east.

Tuesday we arrived in Niagara Falls. I’d been there twice before, once as a child and once with my husband when we first started dating. Our kids, 8 and 10, had never been there. I wasn’t sure how they’d like it. After all, it’s not like the beach – there’s not a whole lot for two active boys to do in Niagara Falls besides look at the falls.

But I’d forgotten. Forgotten the mesmerizing power of that water plunging over those cliffs – 675,000 gallons of water per second over the Canadian side of the falls, to be precise. Forgotten the lush green beauty of Goat Island. Forgotten the thrill of riding into the spray on the Maid of the Mist. Forgotten that Niagara Falls is something so spectacular that people come from all over the world just to look at it.

“You could just sit here and watch the water for hours, couldn’t you, Mommy?” said my firstborn, who never sits still. He pointed across the falls to a tall hotel on the Canadian side. “I wish I lived right there in the Embassy Suites, so I could just look out my window and see it every day.”

“Can we come back here next year?” asked my younger son as we took our last look at the falls before leaving town.

“We’ll see,” I said, as we climbed in the car for the drive south to the next stop on our vacation, Lake Erie. Not quite the ocean, but it has water, and I think that’s all you really need for a summer vacation.

How about you? What’s your best vacation memory? Did it involve water?

Anatomy of a DUI Arrest

by Joyce Tremel

The following is fiction, but details what a typical DUI arrest might be like—at least in Shaler Township. Definitely not great literature by any means, but you'll get the idea.

I flicked the switch for the overhead lights on my patrol car when the Ford Taurus that I’d been following for half a mile crossed the center line for the third time. When the car didn’t pull over, I turned on the siren. The Taurus slowed down, drifted toward the curb and stopped.

I pulled behind the car, leaving enough of my unit in the travel lane for safety. I notified dispatch of my location and gave them the registration number.

Dispatch repeated the plate information and my location. Another unit answered and said he was on his way to back me up.

I grabbed my flashlight and got out of the car. When I reached the Taurus, I pressed on the trunk. It was closed tight. No one in there. Not that there ever would be, but I didn’t like to take chances.

The driver spoke before I did, asking me why he was pulled over. His words were slurred and he reeked of alcohol.

I told him why. I shined the flashlight quickly around the inside of the car. There were four empty beer cans on the floor of the passenger side and an open can in a cup holder.

The driver fumbled with his wallet, passing over his license three times before he found it and handed it to me. He didn’t know where his registration or insurance card were.

I took his license back to my patrol car and entered the info into the MDT. His license came back DUI suspended. Surprise, surprise. Dispatch informed me his vehicle registration was also suspended. I had them notify the towing company.

As I went back to the Taurus, my back up arrived and I filled him in. He stood by while I spoke to the driver again. I asked if he had anything to drink tonight.

He assured me that he’d only had one beer with his dinner.

I suppressed a smile. Why was it they always only had one? Just once I’d like someone to say, “Hell, yeah, I’ve been drinking all night.”

I asked him to step out of the car. He swayed so much he almost fell. I asked him if he had any illness or disability which would preclude him from taking a field sobriety test. He said no and agreed to submit to the test. We moved to a well-lit parking lot nearby. I demonstrated the first one—the finger to nose test. Instead of listening to my instructions, he tried to do it at the same time as I did. The ability to listen to instruction was actually part of the test. He touched his upper lip with his left hand twice and the bridge of his nose, then the side of his nose with his right.

The second test was worse. I showed him how to hold his leg straight in front of him, six inches off the ground. He didn’t even make it to the count of one thousand two on either leg.

The third test was the straight line walk. He not only couldn’t walk heel to toe, he couldn’t even stay on the line. I placed him under arrest, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of my patrol car. The officer backing me up inventoried his car and waited for the tow, while I took the prisoner back to the station.

In the booking room I turned on the Intoxylizer machine to let it warm up while we waited the required twenty minutes before I could test his breath. In the meantime I read him the Chemical Testing form, which explained that if he refused to submit to testing, his license would be suspended for an additional year. Probably didn’t matter to him—he was suspended already and still driving.

He signed the form and I showed him how to blow into the machine. On his first reading, he blew a 0.25 and on the second, a 0.21. I gave him a copy of the reading and asked if there was someone he could call to pick him up. He arranged for his wife to get him. When she arrived at the station, I explained that he would be charged with DUI by summons and he’d be notified of the preliminary hearing. If he failed to appear, a warrant would be issued for his physical arrest and he’d be taken to the county jail.

That was one off the road. At least for tonight.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


by Gina Sestak

Of all the many jobs I've held, my favorites have always been the ones in which I've had to learn new things. One of the best of these was my position as an academic editor.

The company I worked for was essentially a one-woman operation that combined word processing with editing services, back when word processing was still a novelty. I heard about it through a friend and got the job because I knew how to type, although I had to teach myself WordPerfect -- I'd been using WordStar and Multimate until then. I found the experience of learning a new word processing program a challenge that was remarkably similar to learning how to drive a different kind of car: you know there's a brake there somewhere. You just have to figure out which pedal to push.

I took the job after I'd left private law practice (see my blog of June 6, 2007) and had been freelancing -- selling my services to law firms -- for a year or so. I was broke and exhausted. The job didn't pay much, but it was steady work and, best of all, I was constantly learning things I'd never known before.

Sometimes I just typed student essays, editing out the obvious grammatical mistakes and trying to figure out how to express mathmatical/Greek alphabet terms from a standard keyboard. One was entirely in French -- I had to trust the student's spelling and grammar because, despite having studied that language in both high school and college, I had no idea how it should be written in a college-level paper.

Dissertations and theses ran the gamut from religious philosophy to Saudi Arabian politics, with a dose of sociology thrown in. Every one I worked on was full of interesting information. For example, I'd heard the term "grass widow" many times without ever having a clear idea what it meant. One dissertation (about the development of social welfare policy) explained the distinction between "sod widows" and "grass widows" -- a "sod widow" is alone because her husband is under the sod; a "grass widow" is alone because her husband decided that the grass was greener elsewhere. A major distinction.

Working with theses and dissertations was a new world to me. My J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree hadn't required me to write either. In fact, aside from reading a few when I worked as a library page (see my blog of January 13, 2007), my only contact with such academic writings had been drawing pictures of partially dissected flat worms to illustrate a roommate's thesis. [I wasn't paid for that and, since I didn't have to draw the poor dissected little worms from life, did it for fun.]

So what did I learn from this job? LOTS!

This job helped me as a writer by giving me the opportunity to edit other peoples work. It let me develop my word processing skills -- it's easier to write when you don't have to put a lot of thought into the act of getting words down. Most of all, it exposed me to a wealth of knowledge that is now accessible as background for my fiction.

What jobs have you held that allowed you to acquire interesting information?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

All Will Be Revealed

By Martha Reed

Since I’m deep in my new novel, and the parts are humming nicely, I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the actual creative process, and where the originating creative source comes from. Readers ask me: “Where do you get this stuff?” and I have to reply that it’s always already there. As I construct each chapter, the next chapter is already gelling one step ahead. I’ve learned to trust that the next lovely little bit will be ready for me when I get there, waiting at the station, right on time.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King proposed his theory on the origin of creativity: “… stories are found things, like fossils in the ground…Stories are relics, part of a pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” This has been my experience, too.

The hardest part of living an artistic path is learning to trust it. Creative living is a faith-based process, and sadly this world tends to crush our faith out of us. But there is an active rebel alliance, like my Canadian friend the potter who runs a family friendly inn as a day job and started potting a few years back. This year, when we went to visit, she guided us down a narrow twisting staircase into a corner of her dark basement and announced, her face bright with pride: ‘Look! I have a studio!” and guess what? She does. It’s small, but it’s hers, and there it is: an active rebel base in Thorold, Ontario.

I also stopped by a painter’s studio way up in the north woods, and I was amazed at how this talented woman expressed such depth of emotion and harmony using abstract splashes of raw color. We talked for a good hour, and I asked: How do you get started on these? And she said: I just do. And when do you know when you’re finished? She smiled: I just am.

I guess the difference is in how you use the tense: passive future = to be, active current = just am. Personally, I’ve decided that I’m not going ‘to be’ an artist anymore, as of right now, I am. So where do you stand? And what will it take to get you to move from the passive future to the active present?

No one really talks about the benefits of living an artistic life, but I will. The part that brings me the most joy is the liberation I feel knowing I have learned to move my ego out of the way and get on with the actual work. And the more I labor at this idea, the better I realize that this is a path to happiness: work as service to a greater – artistic – whole. Talk about community! My artistic community goes back to the first human who picked up a shiny pebble or who painted their handprint in red against a cave wall. All the rest of it, the ten thousand years of buzzing humanity in its endless permutations, is simply a modern distraction.

And it is writing that taught me how to move my ego out of the way, because if I foolishly try to force my organic manuscript the way I want it to go, the storyline dries up under my feet like a dead river. I can tell it’s going wrong when my characters stop talking. Maybe this is what writer’s block is: when you try to force your characters against their grain down the wrong path. I can push my characters a tiny bit, interjecting a sentence here and there, but if I try too hard the story simply stops. Just like that. Instead, I’ve learned to go with the flow, to go with the story. When you flow with the story (or throw a pot, or paint a canvas), you are acting as an active instrument of the creative source, and great things will follow.

Think of it like this: you are a passenger on a train. You are not the engineer. You are not in charge of driving anything but you can ride along feeling secure that the train is running solidly on both tracks and that it will – eventually – get you where you’re supposed to go. The fun is in what you learn along the way, not in reaching your destination, and it’s the people that you meet and love, and the artistic expressions that you create (out of no-thing), that add the meaning to your ride.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Death by Ecstasy

by Brenda Roger

Until a few days ago, the extent of my knowledge of the idea of ecstasy was the image of this sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). I've been researching the physical symptoms of ecstasy and trying to determine if it can kill you. I'm working on a short story and I wanted to use death by ecstasy as part of the plot.

Perhaps, it was St. Teresa's image floating around in my mind that gave me the idea. She looks like she could die, but also like she doesn't care if she does. Bernini was a genius at dematerializing marble to look like folds of fabric and delicate pale skin. The tilt of her head and curling of her toes all suggest that she is at the mercy of something outside of herself. In all of my research, Bernini's description of ecstasy is still the most useful.

St. Teresa was a sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite nun. She was the first female to be named a Doctor of the Church (although, in true Catholic fashion, it happened hundreds of years after her death). She wrote extensively about her pursuit of spiritual perfection. She was a controversial reformer within her order, and on occasion, her writings are described as feminist. One does not think of nuns as rebels. How delicious. It is St. Teresa's descriptions of ecstasies and other mystical experiences that keep her in the contemporary consciousness, with a little help from Bernini, of course.

Ecstasy is defined as a feeling of oneness with God. It is a kind of spiritual perfection. The plot of my story requires something more sinister, so I think it will be closer to death by peak experience than ecstasy. A peak experience is not specifically religious. I haven't forgotten that my story is fiction, and it is up to me to create and describe the experience of my character. It is so because I say it is! Isn't it fun to be a writer?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Power of Prayer

by Tory Butterworth

A friend of mine saw a cartoon posted on someone's door. It shows a speaker at a convention of clergyman saying, "And now, let us pray. And for you Unitarians out there, do whatever you Unitarians do . . ."

I was raised a Unitarian. For those of you unfamiliar with the religion, not all Unitarians are atheists, but some of them sure are. My mom and dad were both agnostics, which meant (for them), "I'm pretty sure there's nothing out there but I'm not willing to stake my life on it." My mother's mother, on the other hand, was a tried-and-true atheist. She was damn sure there was no God!

I was taught as a child that Jesus was a great man but not the son of God, any more than we are all (metaphorically) sons and daughters of God. Comparisons with other great men, such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., then ensued.

But around 30 I began questioning my agnostic upbringing, and after much personal inquiry, decided I did believe in God. And I pray. And I see results of my prayers.

I sometimes pray as the "treatment of last resort" with my clients. What do I find? That God sends answers, but his/her/its ways are still mysterious, and that they rarely work out exactly as we expect.

A case in point.

One woman, very shortly after becoming a client of mine, decided to have gastric bypass surgery (colloquially known as stomach stapling.) I have to admit, I am not able to maintain my usual professional detachment about this procedure. Among my friends, I call it, "surgical bulimia."

Still, it's not my job as a therapist to make a decision for my clients. I merely encouraged her to take her time, allow our work to progress, and consider her alternatives before she engaged in this irreversible procedure.

No go. The woman was going under the knife.

The week before the procedure, she had a big fight with the friend who was taking her to the hospital and said she was going alone (a typical pattern for her.) I spent most of a session trying to suggest alternatives, but she was adamant.

Having used up my other resources as a therapist, I prayed. I was hoping that her insurance would not approve the surgery. But God had other ideas in mind.

Three days before her surgery, my client attended her class in publishing children's books. The professor brought in a speaker to talk about the book she had written on, get this, her own gastric bypass surgery. My client later commented, "Even I saw this as a sign from God."

My client talked to the speaker after class, explaining she was having the same surgery later that week. The author asked who was going with her. When my client said, "No one," the speaker announced, "I'm going with you!"

Whenever I tell this story, people always ask how it "ended." My client completed the gastric bypass, with more personal support than she had anticipated. She lost a large amount of weight (I think it was close to 100 pounds.) This enabled her to get into a very dysfunctional romantic relationship, and she started blaming all her problems on her partner. When I suggested her own behaviors might be causing some of her problems, she ended therapy with me.

Like I say, the ways of God are not our ways . . .

Do you believe in prayer?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Do You Know 50 Ways to Catch a Killer?

by Joanna Campbell Slan

Sisters in Crime’s Forensic University of St. Louis

Do you know 50 ways to catch a killer?

If you don’t, here’s help: Sisters in Crime’s Forensic University of St. Louis, November 1-4, 2007, at the St. Louis Airport Hilton, St. Louis, MO.

My co-chair Michelle Becker and I invite all of you to meet us in St. Louis for an entertaining and informative two and a half days of intense education in the fine art of…well, catching bad guys. Our fabulous four headliners will be: Jan Burke, Eileen Dreyer, Dr. D. P. Lyle, and Detective Lee Lofland (retired).

During the day: You’ll be learning side by side with multi-published authors seeking to improve their knowledge of forensics and law enforcement techniques. Choose from sessions on forensic entomology, odontology, toxicology, and anthropology; DNA; the use of force; trauma and wounds; cold case investigations; forensic canines; bomb and arson investigations; undercover tactics; police procedure; medicolegal death investigation; interpreting impressions; writing realistic fight scenes; warrants and searches; interpretation of blood spatter patterns; and a history of forensic sciences.

At the end of each day: You’ll hear tips for incorporating what you’ve learned into your work.

On Friday night, choose from a variety of great outings: Pick up Texas Hold’em tips from “The Pianoman,” and try your luck at one of our local casinos. OR if you are a music lover go to Chuck Berry’s Blueberry Hill or visit a local jazz club. OR contact our Forensic U concierge to plan the perfect outing for you! (Don’t forget St. Louis is the home of a fabulous zoo, art museum, history museum, botanical garden, and the Arch, as well as the largest collection of mosaics in the world. Just tell our concierge what your interests are, and she’ll point you in the right direction. From belly-dancing to breweries, we’ve got it all.)

On Saturday night, join us for A Muddy Brew-Ha-Ha, the auction and party to benefit the Crime Lab Project Foundation. Bid on such items as a Jack Reacher toothbrush,
signed books by a variety of authors, critiques from published authors, consultation time with a forensic scientist, a brick from Edgar Allan Poe’s home, and deadly jewelry.

There’s never been a conference like this—and we’re halfway to our maximum number of attendees, so go online to to sign up.

See you in St. Louis!

Joanna Campbell Slan
Questions? Email me at

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of numerous books on scrapbooking, including Scrapbook Storytelling and The Scrapbooker's Journaling Companion. She is also the author of I'm Too Blessed to be Depressed and Bless This Mess. Her first Kiki Lowenstein Scrapbooking mystery, Over Exposed will be published by Midnight Ink, Fall of 2008. In Summer 2009, watch for Scraplifted, the second in the series.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Fear Factor

by Kristine Coblitz

Fear has been a hot topic here at the Working Stiffs lately. As crime fiction writers, it's almost inevitable that fear will work its way into most of our conversations about writing and life, as it seems a big part of our job includes digging into the dark places that most normal people don't like to go.

Not that we have to look too far for material, of course. The world today is filled with scary stuff such as terrorist attacks, deadly hurricanes and storms, bridge catastrophes, and increasing violence in our cities and suburbs. Just turn on the news for an hour and you'll see what I mean. There are numerous occurrences where crimes that we once believed could only be written by the most talented crime writers are actually happening in our own neighborhoods, sometimes on our own streets or in our very homes.

Now that I'm preparing to bring a child into this world, I've begun to really think about fear and the role it plays in our society. I'm a fearful person by nature. I tend to worry about things, mostly about things that are out of my control. Perhaps that's why I have the stamina to write about the topics I write about. I don't run from my fear. I let it fester and manipulate it to my own benefit to enrich my fiction.

But when you become a parent, things change. I don't want my child to grow up chronically afraid, yet I want her to grow up with a realistic view of the world. But how much is too much? With the media bombarding us with bad news and scare tactics on a 24-hour basis, how do I shelter my child enough so she can enjoy the innocence of her childhood for as long as possible before seeing how dangerous this world can be?

It's one of the many struggles I'll face as a new parent, I suppose.

When I was growing up, scary movies and books by Stephen King used to give me nightmares. Now it's the news. Go figure. Is it because I've grown up or because there are more things to be afraid of in the real world than on the movie screen or in the pages of a book? Sometimes I feel it's because I know too much. One of the drawbacks of our profession is that we can't live in denial about the bad stuff and bad people around us, which in turn has the ability to transform us into paranoid, overprotective parents.

I'm still struggling with whether or not this is a bad or good thing. Knowledge is power, after all.

When I was young, my bedroom was on the third floor of our home. I was convinced a ghost resided in my bedroom, although no hard evidence ever proved me right or wrong. Just walking up the steps at bedtime had me shaking in my Barbie nightgown and slippers. My nightmares were usually about haunted houses. Even as an adult, as much as I love Halloween, you'll never catch me in a haunted house--even a fake one.

I invite you all to take a step back in time to your childhood. What scared you as a child? What gave you nightmares? How did your parents alleviate (or contribute to, in some cases) your worst fears?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Playing Carpenter

by Annette Dashofy

In the past, I’ve blogged about some of the jobs and careers I’ve had. Today, I thought I’d write about one professional that I never had. Carpenter.

I love creating things. Stories, of course, but other kinds of things, as well. Quilts. Photographs.


Granted my husband is definitely the handy one around here. He has a workshop out back and builds muzzleloader rifles, wooden storage boxes, and shelves to name a few of his specialties. He has a Shopsmith and loads of nifty tools and gadgets. Better yet, he knows how to use them.

As for me, I can’t even hammer a nail straight. Drills and power saws strike fear in my heart along with visions of blood and amputations. And after reading Rebecca Drake’s Don’t Be Afraid, no way will you ever catch me with a nail gun.

So, you ask, how can I possibly enjoy creating furniture? I have one word for you. IKEA.

I first discovered that I could put together a kit and create something that looks half-ways decent back in my teen years when my parents bought a do-it-yourself stereo stand for my bedroom. Unwilling to wait for Dad to get home the next day to put it together, I started reading the directions and figuring out what pieces were which. A little glue and a few dowel rods later and I had the thing built! I could even screw the hardware into the pre-drilled holes.

And I might add, that first creation of mine lasted for several decades until I sold it a few years ago at a yard sale.

Since then, I built the computer desk I’m currently sitting at. A massive chunk of lumber, I can honestly say that I did it all myself. Well, sort of. I followed the directions while my hubby was at work (we’ll have to discuss my impatience with waiting until the man of the house gets home another time) and put it together on its side. What I couldn’t do was tip it upright and hoist the upper part onto the lower part to bolt it all together. Hey, I work out, but this thing weighs a ton.

I also built the two matching storage cabinets that grace my office, but those were a joint effort. I’m not entirely sure it wouldn’t have gone a lot smoother, though, if I’d done it myself. Sometimes, hubby and I just don’t work all that well together. “Are you SURE those are the right screws?” “Yes, DEAR.” Sigh.

The other night, I went to IKEA once again. This time I brought home two hefty boxes containing what will be a three-door wardrobe. It will definitely be a two-person venture, especially since I want more shelves inside than what come with it. That will require cutting wood with power tools. I don’t do power tools. Maybe a rechargeable screwdriver, but that’s about it.

However, once we get all the pieces in the house, there is a good chance that I’ll be tinkering at putting it together as much as possible on my own. With no one to argue about whether I know the difference between sizes and types of screws and hinges. In fact, while you’re reading this post, I may very well be playing carpenter.

Did I mention we built our log cabin ourselves? Yep. It was a kit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Your Worst Fear?

by Nancy Martin

My worst fear (okay, maybe not my worst, worst, but next-to-worst) is driving off a bridge into a river. Naturally, I was riveted and horrified by last week's bridge collapse in Minnesota. And because I live in a city of three major rivers, not to mention countless tributaries, it's kinda hard for me to drive anywhere without my imagination taking an occasional plunge into nightmare country.

I was growing up in a rural part of the state when President Eisenhower decided we all needed an interstate highway to move bombs and troops that would keep us safe from the Cubans. I was a little girl when the bulldozers came to my town to start work on the very first section of a gigantic project that would eventually become Interstate 80. The initial plans, in fact, included bulldozing through our home--my parents' hilltop dream house. Only a huge lawsuit prevented its destruction, but I spent several of my formative years watching road construction just a couple of hundred yards from our front lawn.

The work included construction of twin bridges (two, because Fidel might be able to destroy one, but surely not both) that spanned the small creek (and the large valley it created) in our community. When the weather turned bitter cold, however, those bridges stood unfinished for a long winter. As a family, we took walks out to the end of the bridges and looked down at the water far, far below.

In my imagination, of course, I went tumbling off the end of the bridge. I dreamed about it endlessly. How many different ways might I slip off the edge? On a bike? A skateboard? A runaway pony? In my mother's station wagon? I'm sure my childish mind combined the fear of losing our house with the natural terror of falling from a great height. Almost nightly, I had the recurring nightmare of being driven (I was totally helpless from the get-go, see?) off the bridge, falling through space, crashing through the ice where the car would immediately sink, trapping me as the icy water gushed in. Even if I managed to escape the car, I'd be stuck under the ice.

Even as recently as two months ago, I have had that dream. Sometimes it comes with permutations that reflect whatever conflict going on in my life at the time. (When my children were babies, I was compelled to sacrifice myself, of course, to save them.)

I am drawn to all the news articles written about last week's disaster. It seems most people were saved because they were stuck in traffic. (If they'd been traveling fast, they might have been propelled into the river.) Or by shock absorbers and air bags. (I think various new car design technologies helped, but these two are mentioned first.) And, of course, the quick actions of good Samaritans at the scene.

Am I going to buy one of those gadgets that can break a car window from inside? You bet.

Naturally, the persistence of my dream meant I eventually had to write about such a catastrophe.

I put it off for a long time, but finally I wrote the scene. It's in the book that will be published next spring. My protagonist, Nora Blackbird, is trapped in a car as it plunges into a river, and she must fight her way out of certain death. I found myself shaking as I drafted those pages the first time. My heart pounded. I had to get up from my chair to walk around my office to calm down.

Funny thing. Since finishing the book, I've been considerably calmer about the bridge-car-drowning scenario. In fact, I really expected the dream to recur after the Minnesota disaster, but it hasn't come back. Yet. I wonder if writing about it has helped me tamp down my fears? Or put them to rest, perhaps? Or am I just taking a subconscious break for a bit? Time will tell.

My worst, worst, very worst fear, however, is something I dare not even speak. Or type. Because it's too horrible for me to get my brain around. I will only say it involves reptiles. I don't think I can inflict it upon Nora Blackbird. It's too awful.

My daughter is afraid of bears and spiders. She says she can trace her terror of spiders to the time she was brushing her teeth at our summer cottage, and a centipede crawled out of the drain. (The bear thing started--I think--when we took her to a zoo, and the Kodiak bears had a fight. At least, we told her that's what they were doing. If we'd told the truth, her fears would--well, let's not go there.) My sister is terrified of mice. I mean bizarrely terrified. Pigeons, too.

What's your worst fear? And have you written about it yet?

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Citizen's Academy: A Win/Win Situation

by Donnell Ann Bell

When I started my fiction career, my protagonists consisted of lawyers, politicians, bankers and engineers. But I loved mystery suspense and naturally a cop or two always existed on the fringes. But I could never bring myself to make my hero a cop. Why? Because even though I’d watched every cop show from Dragnet to the Streets of San Francisco to Hill Street Blues to Law and Order, studied police procedure and bought every Deadly Dose book available, I didn’t know cops. What made them get up every morning or how they thought. And because I didn’t know them, how could I get into the head of one and create a three-dimensional character instead of a paper doll look-alike of one of these famous shows?

So when someone told me that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office had a Citizens Academy, not only did I enroll, I was the first in line. The secretary handed me the forms saying, “Don’t worry, you have plenty of time.” At that I smiled. She didn’t have a muse sitting on her shoulder arguing the point.

So how did the Citizens Academy help me bring a character from flimsy cardboard to dimensional? It started from the sheriff on down. He started out the six-week session and explained what it was like to be a politician, to answer to the county and its budget constraints, to oversee the massive Criminal Justice Center (e.g. the El Paso County Jail) and be held accountable. He also talked about personnel, he made us laugh, talking about how deputies can’t drive and how he wished he could take the reverse out of squad cars at times. And then he became serious and discussed the very human component and made us consider the issues we wouldn’t normally consider.

Next came the commanders and the workshops, and again the stereotypes were left at the door. When the Vice commander arrived in his tie-dyed shirt to talk about narcotics, meth labs and undercover work and showed up with a marvelous sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, he eradicated every preconceived notion I’d ever held.

On television we see the vice cops enter the premises and take the bad guys away. We know there’s often the risk of the lethal bullet. On the other hand, we don’t see the health risks they take entering these contaminated sites on call outs, or the mental anguish they face when they see what a methamphetamine dealer puts his child through, cooking crystal meth right next to the Frosted Flakes and his teddy bear.

Thanks to the Citizens Academy, I’ll never look at entering a hotel room the same way. One vice cop said even when he’s on vacation he carries a can of spray starch. When he enters the room he sprays it on the wall. It doesn’t hurt the wall he said, but if the wall turns black, he not only leaves the room, he goes to the front desk and demands his money back then leaves the hotel. Meth not only kills its victims, it leaves a trail of destruction from innocent bystanders, renters, landlords and neighbors. I can’t stress how aware this made me of this cancerous threat to society, or how much I support stiffer laws and penalties of both users and the greedy idiots who make the stuff.

The six weeks covered every department, from computer-aided analysis crime-scene re-enactment, the detective division, guns/shooting range, patrol, the victim’s advocacy, search and rescue, homeland security/emergency response, internal affairs to a tour of the jail and dispatch. And as I sat through these courses and learned what it took to run this well-oiled machine, I got a glimpse of what made these people tick. One, they were selfless, two they were fearless and three, they didn’t require much sleep or praise.

And the muse sitting on my shoulder went “Aha,” and my first cop protagonist came to life, resulting in a 2007 Golden Heart finalist nomination. Do I recommend the Citizen’s Academy? Heck, yeah. I also recommend taking it a step further. If you have the opportunity to get involved with your local law enforcement, do so. Become a volunteer or even a recruit. That’s what the Citizens Academy’s about, after all. I give you my word; you’ll get more than you’ll ever give back.

Donnell Ann Bell worked in nonfiction for years before trying her hand at her true love, fiction. A finalist or winner of several nationally recognized writing competitions, her most recognized work, Walk Away Joe, was a finalist in Romance Writers of America® prestigious 2007 Golden Heart competition for single title romance. Thanks to the Citizen’s Academy and the generosity of other law enforcement personnel, Donnell has gotten over her fear of writing cop protagonists. As a matter of fact, she now welcomes the chance to tell their stories. Check out her website at

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Subconcious Story-Telling

by Brian Mullen

I love dreaming.

I like the entertainment value that comes from being in absurd situations where everything is just taken in stride. No matter how weird things get, it all seems to make perfect sense during the dream. I remember a dream I had during the time of my first real career job where my boss was possessed by the devil and it was my job to fire her. She was slowly spinning in a swivel chair with fire shooting out of her eyes and uttering a gutteral moan and I'm like, "You know, things just aren't working out here." I remember waking up and laughing.

Periodically, however, I find my dreams to be wonderful sources of story telling. My very first attempt at a novel stemmed from a dream I had. I remember in the dream it was night time and I was walking down a crowded sidewalk. I came to this bar-type deal where the bar was in the exterior wall of the building. So the bartender was standing inside the building but the stools were outside the building. There were several barstools, maybe six or so, and all were occupied except one. As common in my dreams, I somehow knew the unoccupied one was MY barstool. On my barstool there was a stack of newspaper clippings and I remember thinking that, because this was my barstool, these clippings were meant for me. Someone had left them there for me to find. I don't remember what was on the clipping I looked at but I remember it was remarkably trivial - say "Bob gets a haircut." And I remember thinking the equivalent of, "Why, that's not true. I just saw Bob and his hair has never been longer." The dream continued on for some time but I remember waking up and thinking about this conundrum: a newspaper clipping regarding an exceptionally trivial matter that is incorrect. Is Bob lying about getting a haircut? Or did someone create a false newspaper article about a haircut? Why do either?

It took nearly a month of brainstorming but eventually I came up with what I believe to be a plausible rationale for one of those two possibilities and I sat down to write my first mystery novel. This happened about six years ago.

Recently I have gotten hooked on a television show that NBC has been gracious enough to post each and every Season One episode on their website. In the past week plus I have been watching them all. On Wednesday I had a dream that involved some of the characters from the show. I got up, walked to my whiteboard and fleshed out an entire character and character arc for the show. On Thursday after work I thought of another character that would make the perfect foil for the first character and plotted out his arc. I have decided to try to write a screenplay (more for fun and experience than anything else) using these arcs. If things turn out moderately well, I may try to track down the writers (the show is sci-fi and the writers appear at conventions and on blogs fairly often) and see if I can get it into their hands somehow. If not, I may be able to convert it into a novel. Most sci-fi shows wind up having fan fiction novels that accompany them. Stranger things have happened.

As I finish writing this blog, it is about ten minutes past midnight. I have yawned several times during the last paragraph and I am grinning. I'm about to crawl into bed, close my eyes and invite the next dream. Who knows, it may inspire yet another novel. But even if it doesn't, I know it will at least be entertaining.

I love dreaming.

Friday, August 03, 2007



Kathie Shoop

It always amazes me when I realize how powerful the concept of belonging--home--is. Whether it's your house, where the center of your being rests--or the sense of home you might find at work and with friends.

For children, it can be the place where they play most often outside the "real" home.

This summer, our swimming pool has been closed so my family has been given access to other pools in the area.

I never suspected that my children would need more than a body of water and at least some of their friends (and of course me) to feel comfortable at various places.

But I've found that everytime we try one of the new pools, the first time we go, stinks.

They kind of linger around me, ask me to play more, can't quite get into the type of groove that allows them to entertain themselves and have a blast with just their imaginations and their little bodies.

They can't and don't verbalize what's happening, that they feel a little out of sorts, but by the next few times we go (and remember they have friends with them each time--it's not a though they're relying totally on making new buddies) they're back to their old adventurous selves.

I don't quite know what to make of it, obviously, it's not life or death and certainly won't try their ability to function in the world, but it makes me wonder--or realize--just how important the component of place, especially home is in our lives.

Where do you find yourself most comfortable in the world and where do you find yourself itching to leave?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fatal Errors

by Joyce Tremel

I found the following posted in our squad room.


1. Your Attitude - If you fail to keep your mind on the job while on patrol, or if you carry problems with you into the field, you will start to make errors. It can cost you or other fellow officers their lives.

2. Tombstone Courage - No one doubts that you are brave, but in any situation where time allows, wait for backup. You should not try to make a dangerous apprehension alone and unaided.

3. Not Enough Rest - To do your job, you must be alert. Being sleepy or asleep on the job is not only against regulations, but you endanger yourself, the community and all of your fellow officers.

4. Taking a Bad Position - Never let anyone you are questioning or about to stop get in a better position than you and your vehicle. There is no such thing as a routine call or stop.

5. Danger Signs - You will come to recognize "danger signs"--movements, strange cars, warnings that should alert you to watch your step and approach with caution. Know your beat, your community, and watch for anything that is out of place.

6. Failure To Watch The Hands Of a Suspect - Is he or she reaching for a weapon or getting ready to strike you? How else can a potential killer strike but with his or her hands?

7. Relaxing Too Soon - The "rut" of false alarms. Observe the activity, never take any call as routine or just another false alarm. It's your life on the line.

8. Improper Use or No Handcuffs - Once you have made an arrest, handcuff the prisoner properly.

9. No Search or Poor Search - There are so many places a suspect can hide weapons that your failure to search is a crime against fellow officers. Many criminals carry several weapons and are able and prepared to use them against you.

10. Dirty or Inoperative Weapon - Is your firearm clean? Will it fire? How about ammunition? When did you fire your weapon last so that you know if you can hit a target in combat conditions? What't the sense of carrying any firearm that may not work?

(The above was published by the National Association of Chiefs of Police.)

Most of this seems like common sense to me, but just like any other job, after you do it awhile, you get complacent. In most other jobs though, you're not likely to end up in the morgue.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mental Health, Freedom and Abuse

by Gina Sestak

I blogged back on November 18, 2006, about working for Neighborhood Legal Services Association as a law student. I returned to Legal Services in 1980 as a lawyer.

Because I'd spent the last three years working on a research project in mental health, which resulted in the publication of my book, Informed Consent: A Study of Decision-Making in Psychiatry, Legal Services hired me as a mental health attorney. In that capacity, I was able to visit local mental health institutions and speak with patients about their rights. I even had a clinic key to the forensic unit at Mayview State Hospital, where the "criminally insane" were treated.

I also practiced family law, which eventually came to consume the bulk of my time. Initially, I supervised the law students working in the "divorce mill," but the need for representation in that area fell off after Pennsylvania updated its 1797 divorce law to permit no-fault divorce. Under the new Divorce Code, it was no longer necessary to have a hearing and prove that one party's bad deeds led to the break-up of the marriage. Spouses who wanted to divorce had only to sign a consent form and wait ninety days. My students and I shifted to domestic violence, handling nearly all "protection from abuse" cases filed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

At that time, the Protection from Abuse Act required that the abuser have legal access to the victim's residence. The remedy was to issue a court order excluding the abuser from that home for up to one year and directing the abuser to stay away from the victim.

An emergency ten-day exclusion could be obtained quickly. Clients would come into a Legal Services office for an interview, then a paralegal would prepare a Petition for Protection from Abuse, which would include a detailed description of the alleged abuse. My law students and I would take the client to Family Division Motions Court, an afternoon session in which a designated judge would hear arguments from attorneys about various requests concerning pending cases. When those were finished, a court reporter would be brought in and the protection from abuse hearings would begin. We would present the victim's sworn testimony under oath and the judge would issue a protection from abuse order good for ten days, after which another hearing would be scheduled so the alleged abuser would have the opportunity to present a defense. We then obtained a certified copy of the court order for the victim, who was instructed to take it to the local police department and request assistance in serving a copy on the abuser, as well as in removing the abuser from the home.

Local police generally did not like to do this, so I often found myself on the phone with the police or their local government solicitor, explaining the requirements of the Protection from Abuse Act. One of the deputy sheriffs assigned to the Court of Common Pleas Family Division, Lieutenant Parker, often helped me out by speaking to police -- with decades of law enforcement experience, he had the credibility I lacked.

Although entitled to bring attorneys to the final hearings, most abusers chose to represent themselves, which led to some rather odd testimony. I had one case in which my client's husband had allegedly beaten her with a vacuum cleaner. She brought the vacuum cleaner in as evidence. Her husband began his defense by trying to negate the vacuum cleaner's battered appearance: "Your Honor, I want you to take notice that this is a very flimsy vacuum cleaner. I only had to hit her two or three times . . ." Another defendant brought an attorney but did not put on any defense. The judge issued an order excluding him from the home. I later found out, though, that he managed to convince my client that his attorney had bribed the judge, and that was why he didn't have to testify. This was total BS, of course. Not only did the judge have a good reputation for integrity, but if he'd really taken a bribe, he would not have issued the order against the Defendant! I was occasionally threatened, and once had to duck quickly to get out the middle of a fist-fight which was broken up by deputy sheriffs before too much damage was done. The Sheriff's Office did a great job of keeping peace in "Loveland," as the Family Court area was facetiously known.

I left Legal Services in 1982 due to funding cuts. They laid off virtually my entire staff -- the law students, my secretary, and one of two paralegals, then asked if anyone else would like to volunteer for layoff. I raised my hand. There was no way I could have handled all those cases alone, so I opted to avoid malpractice or shoddy representation by ducking out.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned a lot about violence, both from the perpetrators and the victims.

I learned that there is a lot of domestic violence going on -- there were at least a few emergency petitions every day, often more than a dozen. We once had 27 final hearings in one day.

I learned that it's sometimes better to just walk away when it becomes impossible to do a job right.