Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day

The Working Stiffs are taking a well-deserved (well, we think so anyway!) day off for Leap Day. We'll be back on Monday. Enjoy your extra day of February (yeah, right). Feel free to read through the archives. See you next week!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

How I Left My Heart in Pittsburgh

by CJ Lyons

Thanks to Joyce and the rest of the Working Stiffs for inviting me!

I love Pittsburgh. I loved living there, I love setting my books there.

After all, what crime writer could ask for more from a city? Three rivers, bridges, tunnels, hills, mountains, inclines, any kind of weather you could ever want…typical inner city urban crime mixed with suburban woes and even rural traditions…wonderful architecture, diverse ethnicity, and oh yeah, don't forget the food!

Every time I write a story set in Pittsburgh I usually include someone from outside wondering that no one swipes the chairs used to mark parking places—and that folks respect their authority! Or I'll have them ask what Pittsburghers have against the verb "to be" and usually shut them up with a Reuben from Primantis.

But all that isn't why I set most of my work in Pittsburgh. The reason is much closer to home. You see, while I lived in Pittsburgh, I was going through the most difficult challenge any doctor faces: my pediatric internship and residency.

There were twelve of us interns, bound together by our trial by fire.

But, more than the usual intern hell that you see dramatized on ER or Grey's Anatomy, more than the gut-wrenching fear that you'll make a mistake and end a life, more than the sleepless nights and endless days, we faced a much bigger challenge.

One of our own was killed. Murdered in a fashion so horrendous that no writer would ever be able to get it past an editor without being accused of being over the top.

Those of us left behind faced our greatest challenge—how to find the courage to keep on living.

How to face the tragedy, the daily reminders of our loss, and still go to work day after day, night after night, trying to save lives and offer comfort to the dying and their families when we had no comfort ourselves.

All my life I'd told stories. Silly stories of superheroes and super villains and rescues and hope. But never before had I truly understood despair.

Never before had I really understood what it takes to dare to dream.


Courage to dare to live with an attitude that dreams are as real and as important as the people who dream them.

After Jeff's death, my writing—always an addiction—changed. I finally understood my obsession with heroes, why I was so drawn to pediatrics.

Why I decided to further specialize in Pediatric ER medicine even though it meant working with victims of violence and sexual assault and neglect, the sickest patients, the poorest patients, the dying and those left for dead.

My dream, my passion had crystallized.

I wanted to change the world. To fight for the little guy, protect the victims.

In my writing I created a world where no one was immune to danger, but also where heroes were born everyday.

And where better to place that world than in the city where my heart had been broken and healed once again? The city where I learned that true evil does exist but that there are people strong enough to face it.

When Berkley asked me to create a new medical suspense series for them, there was only one place I could set it. Pittsburgh.

And so the world of LIFELINES, specifically the Angels of Mercy Medical Center (located suspiciously near where the new Childrens' Hospital is being built ) was created.

When people read LIFELINES, I hope they fall in love with Pittsburgh as well as the characters. That they get a taste for the city and its richness, its sometimes bewildering extremes, its twisted and wry sense of humor.

So why do you love Pittsburgh? Why do you think it makes it such a great setting?

Thanks for reading!
PS: For some of the photos of Pittsburgh that inspired me while writing LIFELINES, go to my website

Award-winning medical suspense author CJ Lyons is a physician trained in Pediatric Emergency Medicine. She has assisted police and prosecutors with cases involving child abuse, rape, homicide and Munchausen by Proxy and has worked in numerous trauma centers, as a crisis counselor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), "a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at

Be sure to visit with CJ on April 17th when she will be at Mystery Lovers Bookshop along with several other writers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Reincarnationist

By Guest blogger, M.J. Rose

When I was three years old, I told my great grandfather things about his childhood in Russia that there was simply no way I could have known.

He became convinced I was a reincarnation of someone in his past. And over time, after more incidents, my mother - a very sane and logical woman -- also came to believe it.

Reincarnation was an idea I grew up with that my mom and I talked about and researched together.

For years, I wanted to write a novel about someone like my mother - who was sane and logical - who started out skeptical but came to believe in reincarnation. But I was afraid if I did people would think I was a “woo woo weirdo”.

I tried to start the book ten years ago after my mother died but I was too close to the subject and missed her too much to be able to explore it objectively. Every once in while the idea would start to pester me again but I still stayed away from it.

Then a few years ago on the exact anniversary of my mom's death my niece, who was a toddler at the time, said some very curious things to me about my mother and I - things she really couldn't have known -- and the pestering became an obsession.

Josh Ryder, the main character has my mom's initials, her spirit and her curiosity and like her, he's a photographer. But there the similarities end.

When Josh starts having flashbacks that simply can't be explained any other way except as possible reincarnation memories he goes to New York to study with Dr. Malachai Samuels -- a scientist and Reincarnationist who works with children helping them deal with past life memories.

In the process Josh gets caught up in the search for ancient memory tools that may or may not physically enable people to reach back and discover who they were and who they are.

Rather than me tell you anymore about it, let me pass on what a wonderful author, New York Times Bestseller Douglas Preston, says about it:

“The Reincarnationist by M.J. Rose has got to be one of the most original and exciting novels I've read in a long time, with a premise so delicious I'm sick with envy I didn't think of it myself. The novel's exhilarating story sweeps the reader across the centuries, from ancient Rome to the present day, with stops in between. It will open your mind to some of the incredible mysteries of the past and the greatest secrets of existence. The Reincarnationist is more than a page-turner-it's a page-burner. Don't miss it.”

The book has garnered stars from both Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal and was a BookeSense pick for September. I think of all my books, this is the one my mom would be the most proud of which is fitting since it's really the one she inspired.

Please visit M.J.'s website: for an excerpt, an interview with her about the book, a booktrailer and more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Slice of Life - Charting Dexter

By Martha Reed

I’ve found the best way to watch TV is to turn off your television.

When you hear about a great cable series like Sex and the City or The Sopranos, hold off on it until the DVD comes out and then schedule an indulgent weekend when you can watch three or four hours of straight programming free from commercial interruption. I usually wait until the middle of February, when the gutters are full of slush and it’s cold and nasty outside, and then I brew up a pot of tea and settle into my favorite comfy chair. It’s the best. I tried this a couple of years ago when I hosted my own personal Lost weekend, and now, this weekend past, I curled up and dug into the Showtime series Dexter.

Let me tell you first off that when I read the first two Dexter books I knew right away a whole lot of people weren’t going to be happy with the Dexter character. It’s hard to justify finding entertainment value in a hero who is a serial killer, and honestly, no one ever really tried it before except maybe - just maybe - when Thom Harris invented Hannibal Lecter. Oh sure, BH (before Hannibal) we had examples of human monsters like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, but this type of psychopathic character was more fascinating as a paragon of deviant behavior than as any example of sly humor.

I’m willing to argue that there’s a tipping point in Silence of the Lambs where readers are so skillfully brought to the realization that there is a crazy kind of logic behind Hannibal’s insanity that they found themselves sympathizing with a monster. I know it happened to me, and I’ll admit I caught myself smiling when Hannibal decided to invite the despicable Dr. Chilton to (be) dinner. That precise moment, for me, was the beginning of what I now see being more fully explored in Dexter.

Yes, Dexter Morgan is a monster. He’s cold, he’s calculating, and he’s emotionally clueless, but the distinction that makes Dexter funny is that he knows he’s missing something vitally important – an intimate attachment to another human being - and he wants it (or at least that’s what he professes). He’s a Pinnochio, a wooden boy trying to be real, and the humor is in watching Dexter try.

Why is Dexter so popular? Is it because in him we feel some human hope that he might still be redeemable? Or do we laugh with Dexter because we are all still trying to figure it out, we all still present our own protective masks to the world and that perhaps in Dexter we recognize a piece of our own lonesome selves?

Monday, February 25, 2008


by Brenda Roger

I’m a recovering handbag designer. I’ve decided to take a hiatus from sewing for a little while, or maybe I’m retiring, but like Celine Dion. You know, I go away for a while and then come back bigger and better than ever (debatable, I know). Who knows, maybe I’ll end up with a palace in Vegas.

During my handbag venture, British handbag designer, Lulu Guinness, was one of my idols. She has a quirky sense of style and the trust fund to back it up. When I was on my honeymoon in London seven years ago, I left behind a substantial quantity of slobber on the Lulu Guinness handbag display in Harrods. The only thing I love more than looking at Lulu’s handbags is looking at photos of Lulu herself. Her look will hopefully help me in the coming months with one of my many jobs –being my husband’s other half.

We are about to take off on the whirlwind that is the spring event season. This means traipsing around the city to various events and social functions. Choosing ensembles for these events is not as effortless as I would like. I decided this year, I am going to open the closet and say, “what would Lulu Guinness wear?” That’s my new mantra. WWLGW?

I should explain to our readers-at-large that Pittsburgh is a very conservative city. I should also say that Lulu Guinness is frequently pictured in ensembles that consist of a red satin dress, turquoise blue tights, and purple satin shoes –at the same time.

This time of year, I go a little crazy. I start wearing what I call “get-ups” to work because I’m so bored with how everything looks. That disgusting taupe color that snow turns when it’s been around a while is all we ever see, not to mention the crust on all of our cars.

Readers! Please! Go to your closet this week, fling it open, and ask yourself, “WWLGW?” Then go for it! We need color, and pattern, and bold fashion choices.

If you see someone in the east end of Pittsburgh today in a zebra skirt and turquoise tights, that’s just me! Please wave!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Working Stiff (Literally)

by Brian Mullen

I've noticed that many of our blogs recently have been about work and it made me hesitate because that is what my topic was going to be about also. But, after all, we are the Working Stiffs. This week, however, the term can be applied literally for me. I'm a consultant and our firm has landed a big job. What I do is confidential but it involves gathering lots of data, organizing it into some type of meaningful form, using it to determine which government forms need completed and then completing those forms to the best of my ability. As you might expect, the information is not always complete, is not guaranteed to be accurate and is often sent piecemeal. The forms are, of course, government forms which means they are not user friendly or remotely intuitive and the deadlines are always looming and unforgiving.

Fortunately I am not on my own in this project but that sometimes presents its own logistical problems. I am a morning person and arrive to work early. The project lead (for this phase anyway) operates from California. This gives me plenty of work time where I'm not interrupted but it also prevents me from getting data when I could use it. Further, sometimes our marching orders are handed out within a few hours of my normal end time and, due to the work load, we must stay when able to.

Now I'm not complaining as overtime has been approved and the thoughts of a paycheck larger than normal is more than enough incentive to keep me working away into the evening. But as I look forward to a lull in the work that coincides with the weekend I can't help but notice the stiff, aching muscles, the mental fatigue and the slightly upset stomach from the unhealthy munchie breaks.

This weekend may be the first weekend in 2008 where the wife and I have absolutely no plans whatsoever. And since the project started, I have not made a sentence's worth of progress on any of my writing projects. I've brainstormed and even jotted down some notes but the pages are still blank. I am hoping my passion for writing and a good night's rest will be enough to keep this workhorse plugging away - only this time, I'll be working on my own projects. Working myself stiff!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Delay Delay Delay

Kathie Shoop

In honor of all the school and work delays I am submitting my blog entry late, delayed, and really very poor. I normally think all month about the topic I'll blog on, but this month was a confluence of adjusting to a new part-time job, writing from home, having my kids schedules blown to bits, and my usual back-up being out of the state, country or commission depending on who I'm talking about.

So, though I kept reminding myself about the blog--I even attended the meeting at Mystery Lovers--I couldn't come up with anything that meant something to me, that would be interesting to you in the least. The only thing I've come up with is that for a person like me who views herself as basically unstructured, faced with complete lack of it, I'm no good.

I had no chance to settle in with thoughts of the day or mull over something interesting I saw or heard or watched or did. It was pure survival mode, get the next thing done, and I see how hard it is to be creative unless you carve out the time to just be.

So, whether it was the lack of schedule or simply the over stuffing of it, I've had a weird, uncreative month. How about you? How do you deal with the straining of your schedule?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

by Joyce Tremel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Anyone who reads police reports or even the local newspapers knows how true this statement is.

Donna Sturkie-Anthony of North Huntingdon, PA was arrested recently for aggravated assault, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. She allegedly took her sister’s prosthetic leg and beat her with it. When police arrived at the Lincoln Mobile Home Trailer Park, they found Donna outside the trailer. She told them she wanted her sister removed from the residence. When the police went inside they found the woman beaten and bleeding. She also faces charges for threatening to burn down her neighbors’ mobile home if they testified against her. To top it all off, Sturkie-Anthony is a former homecoming queen.

Honest. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. If I wrote anything even close, I’d hear members of my critique group screaming, “Cliché! Cliché!” And they’d be right. Can you get any more clichéd than a former homecoming queen living in a trailer park?

Another story that caught me eye was the murder trial of Patrick Jason Stollar. Stollar is accused of the beating death of a 78-year-old woman in 2003. Stollar is representing himself in his murder trial and last week he objected to showing the jurors the autopsy photos. He said “they denoted the appalling, horrific nature of this crime.” His objection was overruled. On Wednesday morning, Stollar gave an hour and a half long closing statement in which he compared his circumstances to Helen of Troy, the Crusades, and the Civil War. He said he wasn’t himself. I think he was hoping to convince the courts he was nuts. The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted him of first degree murder in less than an hour.

The police have to deal with nitwits like the above all the time. In a way, people like this make their jobs a whole lot easier. The cops get to know the local criminals so well, that half the time they don’t even have to do an investigation. We had a few burglaries recently and our detectives knew right away who did it. They had a description of a tan car with parts hanging off the front end. The car is owned by one of our locals who just happened to have been released from prison not long ago. You’d be surprised how often crimes are solved this way. It’s not always because of great investigative skills. Sometimes they just get lucky.

Speaking of lucky, a firefighter in South Carolina was leaving a Waffle House when two men came in who were fighting over a gun. The gun went off and the firefighter found out later that a DVD he was carrying in his pocket had stopped a bullet. When he was talking to police he realized he had a bullet hole in his coat and when he looked, he found the DVD case shattered with a piece of the bullet in it.

Have you run across any truth is stranger than fiction stories lately? Any dumb criminals? Crimes solved by pure luck? Do tell!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Animal Planet

By Annette Dashofy

(As you’re reading this, I’m mourning the passing yesterday of my 19-year-old pussycat, BooBoo, so I’m even more emotional over furry creatures in pain than I am most days.)

We don’t have access to cable television here at home, but since my mom’s been rehabbing from her latest hip surgery in a nursing facility, I’ve had a chance to surf more than our usual seven channels. Mostly, the experience has convinced me that cable only gives you more stations with nothing on, so making the complete round with the remote takes longer.

However, there is one station I can almost always rely on to offer something entertaining.

Animal Planet.

This Sunday, I tuned in to a show I have a love/hate relationship with. Animal Cops. It’s definitely my kind of show, except that I end up a sobbing wreck at some point during most episodes. I also end up homicidal when they’re going after the heartless, soulless creeps that do such things to animals. The latest episode involved a small, gray and white kitten whose owner had been heard threatening to throw it out the second story window. Apparently, he’d made good on the threat, because the little cutie was found seriously injured on the sidewalk. The heroes of the series whisked it off to the vets who determined that both back legs had been broken.

“I can’t watch this,” I said to my mom. But I did. And the scene that followed convinced me that I made the right decision long ago to NOT become a vet.

During surgery, the veterinarian discovered that the injuries were old. So old that she couldn’t reduce the fractures. Not only had this kitty’s owner tossed it from the window, the vet suspected he’d thrown the kitten against the wall, too.

She couldn’t save the little one. The happy ending I’d been hoping to witness didn’t happen. They had to put the kitten to sleep.

Did they catch the beast who’d done this? I assume so. Otherwise, why bother including it in the episode? But I couldn’t watch it anymore and shut the TV off. (If anyone out there saw it, please tell me they caught the guy and executed him on the spot).

To be honest, I’m a mess when fictional animals die, too. A couple years ago, against my better judgment, we went to see the Disney movie Eight Below. I began sobbing when the first dog died and didn’t stop until a half hour after the movie had ended. One of my earliest memories is of hiding under the dashboard of my parents’ car in hysterics while watching Old Yeller at the drive-in.

Another movie I should never have watched was Ruffian, the story of the great racehorse from the 70’s. I remember when the real Ruffian died. I cried then. I cried all over again watching the movie. Not just a few sniffles into a tissue. I’m talking full blown blubbering. Heaven help me if they ever make a movie about Barbaro.

What is it that makes me (and apparently lots of others) such a basket case over the plights of animals? Why do I become absolutely livid at the cruelty of some so-called humans who do such vicious things to helpless pets? Yes, I feel outrage over man’s inhumanity to man, but man’s inhumanity to the small furry (and larger hooved) creatures of the world really sets me off. Perhaps it’s the helplessness of animals. They have no choice in the matter. We’re their stewards in this world. And sadly, too many of us don’t take that responsibility to heart.

Rest in peace, BooBoo (one of the lucky ones who only knew love in his world).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Taking Work Home

by Mike Crawmer

Saturday morning I found myself doing something I rarely do—working at home on an office project.

I’ve always tried to separate my work life from my home life. Unlike my stressed out coworkers, I enjoy my life outside the office. That’s not to say I never took work home. When I first started at my job two-plus decades ago, 40-hour workweeks were pretty darn rare. In recent years they’ve become the norm. For one thing, the work is just easier for me—I’ve mastered the company’s arcane products and curious lingo and our devilishly complicated templates. Second, my department’s been creating web-based training courses, the software for which I can’t download onto my home computer. And, third, we just don’t have as much work as we used to—the company’s products have matured nicely, you might say.

But last weekend I had no choice: The workbook had to be ready by noon Monday for reproduction, and the coworkers who had dumped it on me had waited until the last possible day to figure out what it should contain and in what order. That meant slogging through all 129 pages Saturday, untangling the mess created by others (the very definition of editor, I guess).

Fortunately, deadlines inspire me, and I plowed through the document lickety-split. Then, again, it’s always been that way with me. In high school I put off tackling assignments until the night before they were do. (Typical teen, I assume.) Back in college after serving in the military, I worked full time (the GI Bill helped some, so for that, thank you, taxpayers) while carrying a full course load and reporting and editing for the university’s student daily. The crunch of time meant that I crammed everything in at the last minute.

As it turned out , all good training for my jobs as a beat and assignment reporter, where my continued employment hung on my ability to get the facts and pull them together into a coherent whole in time to make the deadline.
There’s an unfortunate flip side to all that deadline orientation, as those of you who share this trait know: Namely, when you don’t have a deadline, your project can go on and on and on and on. Till either you or the project dies from exhaustion or neglect.

So, I sit at my desk, computer on, staring at the synopsis or the query letter or chapter 1, version 74 of plot outline 3 yet again and realize, I NEED A DEADLINE. It’s not enough to produce a chapter or two each month for the critique group. No, I need a compelling deadline if I am ever to get this WIP beyond the “progress” phase.

Should I make that deadline a date on the calendar or a date with an agent? Or a date with the funeral director, cause I’m as certain as I can be that if my mortal days were numbered, I’d write the best damn book ever—and on deadline!

P.S.—That weekend scramble means I’ll be stuck in a workshop today and tomorrow, so I won’t be able to respond to your comments, sympathetic or otherwise. But, have at it.

Monday, February 18, 2008


by Gina Sestak

The toughest job I've ever held, emotionally, was representing indigent parents in Juvenile Court dependency proceedings.

"Dependent" children are those who are abused, neglected, or otherwise without parental care or control. So you probably think their parents are scuzzball slime, right? WRONG.

Most of my clients were poor people caught in a system that employed just-out-of-college middle class kids to go out into homes and determine whether children were at risk. Turn-over in their job was tremendous. Most lasted no more than 6 months or, at most, a year. I handled cases in which these social workers deemed children to be at risk and had them removed from their homes by the police because:

* there was a cat seen sleeping on a child's bed

* the children (ages 11, 14, and 15) were home alone (at 3:00 in the afternoon while their parents were grocery shopping)

* the parents couldn't explain how a child had been injured (the injury occurred sometime during a two day period during which the child had been in the care of relatives on both sides of the family as well as with the parents)

* the child's burn wasn't properly treated for 5 days (but my client had taken her daughter to the emergency room right after the accidental burn happened; it was the hospital who sent her home with ointment instead of properly assessing the extent of the injury)

* the child has bruising on his lower back (this was "Mongolian spots," a dark pigmented area commonly seen on kids with East Asian ancestry)

* they were living in a shelter (their home had burned down)

These caseworkers also testified that parents were unfit because "the mother took that child on a city bus" and "although the children have proper beds, their mother is sleeping on a mattress on the floor" (my client's explanation: she thought it was more important to spend limited funds on the kids' needs rather than her own). When one mother did some wildcrafting (this was when "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" was popular), the caseworker accused her of making the children eat weeds.

All this was going on while real abuse and life threatening situations were being ignored. One caseworker failed to take action when, during a home visit, she noticed that a previously alert baby had become lethargic. "I just figured he was retarded or something," she testified, explaining why she left him there to die of a brain injury. And, in a case that actually made the newspapers (most Juvenile Court proceedings are kept confidential), three mentally challenged girls were sexually abused by their father and his friends for years, despite repeated reporting of suspicions by their school. Reported sexual abuse of a toddler was discounted when the doctor who was supposed to perform an exam refused because the child screamed and seemed terrified when he tried to examine her. So, without evidence, she was sent back to the abusive home.

Once the kids were in foster care, parents were limited to one one-hour visit per month, in the presence of a caseworker. One caseworker noted that my client seemed "unable to control" her 5 young children during these visits - the kids, who only saw each other during these visits, tended to get a little rowdy. Another faulted how my client interacted with her child - my client, who had been raised Amish, explained that she had not been raised to make a public show of emotion. A caseworker tried to stop visitation with my client (the father) because the child would be out of control when he went back to the foster home -- her example: the little boy didn't want to stop playing with a truck his father had given him. Another caseworker made my clients come to visits for more than six months "to prove they would show up," but never brought the children to the visits. Another testified that my client had failed to keep a visitation appointment without calling to cancel as if that were proof of irresponsibility, even though my client had provided her with a newspaper article showing that she (the client/mother) had been in an automobile accident and was in a coma on the day of the scheduled visitation.

I could go on for pages, but I'll stop here.

The job was a project funded by Allegheny County through the Allegheny County Bar Association. I and another attorney - Katherine B. Emery, who is now a Judge in Washington County -- handled all of the cases ourselves. It was described as "part-time," although hearings started at 8:30 a.m. every day and sometimes continued into the evening. We were expected to provide our own offices, etc. out of a small stipend that was often paid months late. Three judges heard cases, and Kathy and I were constantly running from one courtroom to another. The few minutes out of court were spent in a waiting area, interviewing our clients and trying to prepare cases on the fly. Research, appeals, etc. had to be done on the weekends.

After about two years, I walked out of a court room and punched out a window in the attorney waiting area. I realized that it was only matter of time before I hit a social worker or a judge.

The project is still in existence, but now it has funding, offices and full time employees.

And me? I'm still burnt out.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Bermuda Triangle

by Cathy Anderson Corn

To keep those creative juices flowing, writers need to periodically pack a bag and fly to where the palm trees grow. Besides that, who knows when you'll need a foreign locale for your next novel. Since Alan and I wed last year on February 8, this gives us a perfect excuse for a winter getaway. We just returned from a four-day trip to Bermuda to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.

So much to write about this island paradise. It's off the coast of the Carolinas, not in the Caribbean, so it's cooler in the winter (60-70 degrees). Once a British colony, this roughly crescent-shaped island 21 miles long abounds in spectacular views. We learned that a shipwreck of the Sea Venture, bound for Virginia in 1609, started the colonization of this island. John Rolfe, one of the survivors, later travelled on to Virginia and married Pocohontas. We saw buildings from the 1600's in St. George, and within a park nearby, the burial site of the heart of some dignitary named Somers. (What did they do with the rest of him?)

Everywhere we traveled on the bus system (on the left side of the road), we saw beauty. Houses of all sizes were painted shades of color pastel and bright--blue, yellow, pink, purple--over stucco. The local newspaper talked about poverty, but we never saw anything other than immaculately-kept residences.

We never before spied so many different varieties of palm trees in one place. Bermuda looks like a big park, with its beautiful vegetation. We visited Horseshoe Beach, one of the pink sand beaches, and were impressed by the scenery, the volcanic rock formations, and clear water.

Our strangest encounter happened on Saturday, as we rode public transportation to the beach, to dinner (Meals were expensive. Where do the locals eat?), and back to our hotel. By riding the bus, we mingled with the native Bermudans.

As we left Hamilton, a man behind us with white hair confined in a knit hat and only one eye started talking to Alan. Alan craned his neck to listen and nodded and occasionally made a comment.

"Can't understand very much of what he's saying. These people always seem to find me," Alan said during a brief intermission in the man's mostly monologue.

"I didn't know about this. How long has this been going on?" I asked him.

"All my life. Started when I was sixteen," he said before turning back to the man who'd resumed talking.

He said goodbye when we departed the bus for the beach. That night, as we waited for the bus in St. George for our hotel, it started again. This man was taller, his black hair peppered with gray, his attitude not as sunny as the first man's. He greeted Alan (the conversation magnet) and began to complain about every institution on the island, including the government and military.

Alan tried to ignore the second man, but he just kept talking, even after the bus came, and on an impulse we got off early at an ice cream shop.

"I just couldn't take any more. I had to get away from him. I could barely understand him, anyway," Alan said. We just had time for an ice cream cone as the shop was closing. We moved outside to wait at the bus stop.

The third man materialized out of nowhere and propped himself before us, asking questions. His voice soft and hypnotic, this boy/man mumbled more quietly than the other two had. We understood maybe one out of every five or six words. He was on disability, had an accident nine years before, paralyzing his left arm and affecting both legs. He fell into conversation with us like we were long lost friends. He'd been to Atlanta and San Francisco, and wanted to go to London. Eventually, he got up unsteadily and moved away, exposing the sling supporting his arm.

When our bus came, he jumped up from the side to wave goodbye to us, his face full of light and joy. His joy made it all worthwhile, Alan's ordeal by mumbling of the triangle of Bermudan men. Had we entered a Twilight Zone where one spirit shape-shifted, reappearing three times?

Any experiences of boosting your writerly creativity using a passport? Any strange events in your travels?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

More Than Crime Fighters

by Joyce Tremel

Ever wonder what else police officers do when they're not fighting crime? If you spent a day or two with one of our officers, you'd quickly learn that being a cop involves much more than what you see on TV.

On most days, there are no crimes to solve. We probably average a burglary or two a week, a couple of thefts, and a few domestics. So with an average of 25 calls per day, what else do we handle?

Well, pretty much everything. Over the weekend, when we had fifty mile an hour winds and falling temperatures, the officers spent the day outside. There were trees and power lines down all over the place. The three officers on the daylight shift had to block roads, direct traffic, make sure dispatch notified the power company, plus handle any emergency calls that came in. Since the power was out for an extended period of time, they also had to assist residents, especially the elderly ones, get to the warming stations set up in the local fire halls. When the power came back on, they even helped an elderly lady who couldn't figure out how to get her furnace to come back on.

During the snow storm on Tuesday, the lucky fellows spent another day out in the weather due to the numerous accidents and vehicles stuck in the snow. A few people even locked their keys in their cars. We're one of the few departments that still handles vehicles lockouts. The three guys on duty never complained once all day long. (But then, I usually complain enough for everyone.)

Back in September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan decided to blow through the area, we had what the experts call a "One Hundred Year Flood."
When the creek started rise, the Chief didn't have to make a single call for extra guys. One by one, they showed up at the station. One of our detectives made a spectacular rescue that night that I wrote about in the FBI Bulletin (scroll to the very end to the Bulletin Notes).

When they're not out in the snow, wind, and flood waters, the officers are catching up on paperwork. Every call they go on has to be documented, no matter how minor. Which is a good thing, otherwise I wouldn't have a job. I take the handwritten reports and enter them into the computer using "The Informer," our police report software. They also take phone calls from people, chase dogs running loose, pick up debris from the roadway and many other mundane things.

Do you have any questions on the day to day operations of the police department? Ask away!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Small Town Politics

by Annette Dashofy

Unless you live under a rock, you know that the nation is in its usual election-year frenzy. Everyone thinks THEIR candidate is going to change the world and make their life better. Well, guess what. Probably not. Regardless of whether the next President’s name is Obama, Clinton, McCain or Huckabee (President Huckabee???) odds are, not much will change that directly affects any of us. If you want to see government truly at work, you have to look closer to home.

I attended our local township supervisors’ meeting the other night. I’m ashamed to admit that the last time I went to one was back in the seventies when I was supporting the movement to start a real ambulance service in our area. At the time, our EMS consisted of a red hearse manned by firemen with basic first aid training. We succeeded.

I also attended local meetings a few years ago when we were trying to block the building of a State Correctional Institute a mile from the high school and then-proposed (now real) elementary center. We succeeded again.

On a local level, politicians and government can actually DO something.

My reason for attending the township supervisors’ meeting this time was much less activist in nature. In fact, I just sat in the back of the room and made comments about the weather with another township resident. My reason for venturing out into the cold was simply RESEARCH. My next novel involves local politics. Dirty politics in its grassroots form. So I figured I’d better spend some time in that world.

And what a world. Most of it was fairly boring stuff. The three supervisors voted to buy a new/used police car. A report was made on the new dump trunk they had recently purchased. A lawyer made a brief presentation regarding his bid to get nearly 80 acres of farmland rezoned so his client could build yet another housing development. Hunters in the audience moaned. There goes their hunting grounds. Others pointed out that our tiny corner of the universe desperately needs expansion and growth. Nothing was decided, but I’m willing to bet the hunters are out of luck.

Then the fun started. The public got their chance to voice complaints and get action. Most of the issues had to do with trash in the neighbor’s yard or a dilapidated house creating a hazard. These things seem small potatoes, but think about it. A concerned citizen can walk into a meeting and talk directly to the guy doling out citations, give him an address, and have the situation dealt with. One lady complained that local cops were griping about not wanting to respond to her neighborhood anymore (probably because this gal seemed to complain about everything from her neighbor’s trash blowing into her yard to the kids urinating next to her house). But she spoke up and the supervisor who deals directly with the Chief of Police promised to talk to the guys.

The evening was not without one major revelation for me. I’ve been told, though, that EVERYONE knows this, but I did not. When you see a pair of sneakers tossed over an electric line, that’s a sign that kids can buy drugs there. There’s been a pair of sneakers hanging on the line outside our yoga center for years! And (duh) kids hang out on the steps in front of the building all the time. Is there anyone out there besides me who DIDN’T know this!

Anyhow, research or not, I think I’ll be going back. It was interesting to find out what’s going on in the township. And I found some great new characters for my next novel. Besides, now I know what to do if the neighbor’s trash blows into my yard. Forget writing your congressmen. Go to a meeting of your LOCAL government if you want to experience REAL change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Walking the Line

By Martha Reed

I’ve been pretty busy lately, and although it’s all good things, I haven’t been able to get any new writing done. I’ve been at this gig long enough to know that if I don’t get sufficient writing time in I get cranky, and that can quickly mushroom into a full-blown hissy fit resulting in out-of-control sorties for iced lemon biscotti, dark chocolate, hot vanilla lattes, and a pack or two of Marlboro Lights. I struggle to maintain a schedule that lets me put in about 15 hours per week of writing time and if my output falls below that line, reality can turn ugly.

“It’s alright to let yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.” – Mick Jagger

I’ve finished the first third of my second novel, and had to take a pause to focus on my day job for a couple of weeks. Balancing my life, my profession, and my creative work takes discipline, and flexibility, but any less of an effort is not an option. I keep thinking of those skittle boards we had as kids, the ones where you stood a board on top of a big roller and then tried to keep from flying off and busting an arm. The trick was in coming as close as you could to the edge and then saving yourself just in time without swaying too far over in the opposite direction. Lately, this has seemed a fitting metaphor for my life.

Q: What is your favorite journey?
A: The years during which I am writing a new novel. I am wandering through a private and secret territory, nobody knows what I am doing, and I feel happy. -- Umberto Eco, Vanity Fair, July 2005

Luckily, I know myself well enough to know when to say ‘no’ to more new projects and when to pull back and regroup. This wisdom was learned late in life through hard experience and I admit, was a long time in coming. But dammit, Lafayette, I am here, and 2008 is a big number birthday for me. I certainly know where I'm going because I know where I've been.

Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! - Admiral David Farragut

Still, I dream of the day I discover that I’m just too busy with my creative projects to find the time to go to work. The hurdle, so far, seems to be that my projects don’t cover my mortgage payment.

I'm working on that one, too.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Imbued with Human Warmth

by Brenda Roger

Prized for its delicacy and imbued with human warmth, Washi paper is a much-admired expression of craftsmanship. When conceptualizing _________, __________ designers drew inspiration from Washi’s visual texture as well as the traditional humanistic values associated with papermaking, employing them to create a stylish, modern standard of design. …the tradition of Washi embraces apparent contradictions by seeking balance in the finished work. Thus, the artist’s hand is still felt in the warm, organic sensation evoked by the elegant construction, while its sleek, metallic sheen echoes the influence of clean, modern style. A beautiful, unified whole is expressed by bridging the old and the new.

I read this bit of “literature” recently and nearly fell off my chair. Regular Working Stiffs readers will figure that since I’m the art tart of the group that this passage probably came from the catalog of an exhibition. You are expecting me to tell you now about a Japanese print show, or a sculpture exhibition. Indeed, this is precisely the type of language found between the pages of an exhibition catalog, but alas, this passage is from a brochure.

Yes! A brochure! Well, then, it must be for a gallery selling prints and sculpture. Guess again. What do you think goes in the blanks?

I will tell you that the brochure is promoting a very common item. We all have one. Some of us have more that one. Some of us have had many over the course of our lifetime.

Who writes this stuff? An art historian is not likely to write a brochure for a consumer product, although, art history might be the worst paying career on the planet, and I couldn’t blame them for taking the paycheck.

I’ve decided to call the author of the brochure “Jake.” I can’t decide if Jake finishes a page and thinks, “I am the next literary genius of Western civilization,” or if he rolls with laughter on the floor of his cubicle slapping the floor, yelling “yuppie suckers!”

So, what goes in the blanks, and is Jake a genius, or a jerk? I will fill in the blanks before the end of the day, but please do some guessing!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Party Planning

Party Planning

by Nancy Martin

My new book, MURDER MELTS IN YOUR MOUTH, will be released in three weeks, a thrilling event in any author's life except for one glitch---I should have done all the advance work for this book at least three months ago.

But three months ago, I was getting ready for Christmas, my kitchen was under construction and my husband surprised me with a 30th wedding anniversary trip--the kind a girl just doesn't say no to. And now it's too late for book launch PR.

Good thing my publisher has assigned a topnotch publicist to do the basics: Send ARCs to all the big reviewers (PW, Library Journal--which, by the way, gave me a rave--whew!--syndicated newspaper reviewers, etc.) and to the smaller reviewers (local newspapers, genre magazines, independent mystery bookstores that publish newsletters, amateur online reviewers. The publicist also coordinates some visits to bookstores for me. (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Lansing, Michigan.) Plus he's sending postcards and doing a massive promotional mailing that has meant dozens of phone calls, not to mention hours devoted to packing, writing cover letters and doing the mailing. And putting up with me referring more and more jobs his way as stores and newspapers contact me personally.

This year, my publisher isn't sending me on the road to tour as they have in the past. Instead, they're putting the money into something new--sending little tins of promotional chocolate to booksellers. This sounded like a great idea to me. (The way it works is this: Your book hits stores and requires at least four weeks of intense promotion. But at the same time, you're frantically trying to finish writing the book that will be released a year from now. Ever try doing the best writing of your life while also planning multiple parties?? So staying home this year sounded like a blessed relief.

Fingers crossed that the chocolate draws attention to MURDER MELTS.

Of course, the really big task was accomplished months ago by a totally different department at the publishing house. That task is getting bookstores to agree to stock the book. (You think books appear on shelves by some kind of publishing osmosis? No. No and no and no and no.) My publisher creates and prints a catalog four times a year and sends it to bookselling entities. (Not just stores, but the buyers for the big bookstore chains and buyers for the huge wholesale distributors that supply big box stores, drug stores, grocery stores and whatnot, not to mention libraries and anybody else who requests one.) Then the follow-up phone calls begin. This year my editor personally called the buyer for the Borders group (which includes Waldenbooks) and scored a nice order.--Yay!

The sales department works really hard to get bigger and bigger numbers of my books into stores every year. Depending upon last year's sales, though, distributors want to buy exactly the number of last year's sales to avoid "returns"--unsold books that the store returns to the publisher for reimbursement. Returns are espensive for everyone, so nobody wants them. So orders are often smaller than they were the previous year. And because the publisher doesn't want to print too many more books than they can sell, they reduce the print run. Everybody's trying to save money, and who can blame them? The publisher wants a great "sell through"--the percentage of printed books sold. But for the writer, this is all very nervewracking. If my orders are reduced and my print runs get small, won't all these numbers eventually spiral down to zero?? At the distribution phase, the author feels entirely helpless---at the mercy of numbers.

Talk about nail biting. The joke among writers is that our publisher doesn't want us to know the names of the sales staff in case we camp out on the office floors and make their lives miserable.

The other big expense my publisher pays is co-op money, which nowadays is primarily spent on placement in bookstores. What does this mean? A couple of years ago, one of the big bookselling chains admitting that they're selling 80% of their books within 20 feet of the front door--in other words, the books that are on special display racks as you enter the store sell best. For those of us who write genre books that are generally shelved at the back of the store, that's not good news. How is a customer supposed to find a book buried in a dark back corner? So I'm pathetically grateful when the publisher agrees to pay for my book to be placed in that golden real estate. Not all books are treated so royally, and I'm lucky to get good placement.

What should I be doing to help all this happen?

First of all, my job is to write great books--each one better than the last. But I also maintain an email list, and I'll be sending notices to nearly 5000 formerly satisfied readers, asking them to please buy the new book within the first week or two of release. (After that, sales will be not nearly as important. A book needs to sell well right away, or it's stripped out of stores to make way for books that will sell.) I also blog weekly--which nurtures a community of loyal readers which--we hope--will buy the book when it's released. And I maintain a "fan" listserve of over 250 readers. In addition, I belong to various organizations, including Sisters in Crime which coordinated a nationwide promotion featuring member authors, and my books were widely displayed thanks to SinC's efforts. And I do set aside a small travel budget each year to make a handful of library appearances and attend a few conventions.

But mostly? I write.

Obviously, I rely on the team at the publishing house to do the lion's share of bookselling. As I strive to write entertaining stories, the effort it takes to sell tens of thousands of books would be beyond me. I must protect my writing time.

But we're having a launch party when the book is first released. If you live near Pittsburgh, I hope to see you at Mystery Lovers Bookshop on Sunday afternoon, March 9th. We're throwing a chocolate extravaganza! Please come, because I don't dare take home the leftovers.

Take My Wife – Please (Maybe)

By Lisa Curry

The year 2008 brought big changes to the Curry household. After 22 years with the same company, Mr. Curry (a.k.a. my spouse) joined the growing ranks of America’s unemployed as a result of corporate merger/acquisition. After 10 years of freelancing and part-time employment, Mrs. Curry (that’d be me) rejoined the full-time workforce, primarily to gain health insurance coverage and avoid those COBRA premiums that would eat up all Mr. Curry’s severance.

Now, I am not and never have been a lesbian, but I always thought it would be a fine thing to have a wife. Not a wife like me, who hates housework and can always think of a dozen more important things to do, but one of those housewifely wives who cooks and cleans.

And guess what. Now I have one. It’s Mr. Curry, who has turned out to be a way better wife than I ever was. (Although he prefers to refer to himself as “Lisa’s bitch.”)

I leave for work in the morning before the kids are out of bed. After I’m gone, Mr. Curry wakes them up, makes their breakfast, and gets them on the school bus. And when I say he makes breakfast, I mean he actually cooks breakfast, and not in the toaster or microwave like I always did. The other morning he got up early and baked a batch of big, sticky cinnamon rolls in time for me to have one fresh out of the oven before I left for the office.

After the kids leave for school, he gets on the computer, searches for job opportunities on, and applies for ones that look likely. Then he cleans. And when I say he cleans, I don’t mean he just washes the dishes and vacuums.

First he cleaned out the silverware drawer. Took out all the cutlery, vacuumed out the crumbs and such, wiped it thoroughly, and put all the cutlery back in. I think the last time I cleaned the silverware drawer was when we moved into this house five years ago.

Two weeks ago, he took on the linen closet. Now we don’t have to use one blue pillowcase with the floral sheets because the other floral pillowcase is missing in action somewhere in a tangled jungle of linen. All towels and sheets are folded and stacked on the shelves in orderly, color-matched sets.

Last week he tackled the cabinet in the bathroom vanity. No more ooey-gooey bottle of Nyquil that expired six years ago under a heap of assorted bottles and jars. All medicine, bubble bath, hair gel, and other personal-care items are lined up in tidy little rows on a pristine surface.

Today his conquest was the kitchen pantry. I received an email at work from him that said, “Found something in a produce bag that was very flat and brown but otherwise unidentifiable underneath about 3,000 plastic Giant Eagle bags. I expected it to stink, but surprisingly, it doesn’t.” I suspect the unidentifiable substance was potatoes or onions, because any other kind of produce would surely have been in the refrigerator. I also suspect it didn’t stink because it’s petrified, like fossilized dinosaur poop.

When I come home from work at the end of each day, the children’s homework is all done, the pets are fed, and Mr. Curry has dinner simmering on the stove. Frankly, I don’t know how he manages it. When he worked and I was home, the kids and I were always still wrangling over their homework when he walked in the door, the dogs and cats were yowling to be fed, and we rarely ate dinner before 8 p.m.

Would I like Mr. Curry to find a job? Well, I can pay the bills, but if we’d like to send our children to college or retire someday, we’re going to need his income, too. And I know it isn’t very much fun for him being stuck home alone all day while the kids are at school – believe me, I’ve been there. Once he’s vanquished all the hidden messes in our house and figured out which aisle the Giant Eagle stocks the pancake syrup in, what’s left to give purpose and meaning to his life? So, yes, I guess I want Mr. Curry to find a job.

But maybe not just yet. And in the meantime, like a 1950s husband, I’ve got it made.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Police Records

by Joyce Tremel

A lot of people are surprised when they walk into the police department to get a copy of a police report and I tell them they can’t have it.

“What?” they sputter. “I was the one arrested! Why can’t I have my report?”

I calmly and politely explain that police reports are not, contrary to popular opinion, public records, especially when there is an arrest involved. Even the arrestee’s attorney is not privileged to see the report before the preliminary hearing. Sometimes the arresting officer will let the defense attorney view the report at the prelim, but he doesn’t have to do so. If the charges are waived to court, the officer will prepare a pre-trial packet containing all pertinent documents which is then sent to the district attorney’s office. The defense will get a copy of the report and other documents from the DA’s office during this phase (known as discovery).

There are other types of reports I can’t release. Our department has a policy that we won’t release any reports involving domestics or child custody issues. One reason for this is sometimes one party will change the report or cut out things to suit themselves. (The police chief in a neighboring jurisdiction who was going through a nasty divorce, was fired last year for changing one of his own reports.) Or they want to dispute what is in the report (“I never said that!” or “That’s not what happened!”) We require a court order or a subpoena and release the report directly to the attorney.

Come to think about it, there’s not much you CAN have. Let’s say the police showed up at your neighbor’s house at three in the morning and the next day you show up and ask for the report. Nope, sorry. For privacy reasons, we can’t even tell you WHY the police were there. And because of the ridiculous HIPAA regulations, when the police go on an EMS call, they can’t even write what was wrong with the patient on the police report. All they’re permitted to write is that the person was transported to the hospital.

Every once in awhile we’ll have a parent come in after their child has been involved in an incident and ask for a copy of a report. The answer is always no. Juvenile records are sealed—period. Even if there’s no arrest, if the report has a juvenile’s information we aren’t permitted to give it to anyone—not even a parent.

Occasionally we’ll release a redacted report when an insurance company or similar entity needs a copy of a report that we normally wouldn’t give out. When we redact a report we take a black permanent marker and black out any identifying information that the insurance company doesn’t need. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it serves its purpose.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Signs of Spring

by Annette Dashofy

As far as winters in southwestern Pennsylvania go, we’ve had a fairly mild one. Snowfall has been minimal. Spells of bitter cold haven’t dragged on endlessly. Still, I’m ready for spring. To be fair, I’m ready for spring as soon as the holidays are over. Winter is my least favorite season (memories of breaking frozen water buckets and chiseling at frozen bedding and frozen manure haunt me even though I haven’t had horses for nearly ten years). Spring, with its promise of rebirth, mild days, and fresh flowers is without a doubt my favorite season. Therefore, I start searching for signs of spring as early as possible.

Last Saturday, the stupid rodent, also known as Punxatony Phil, saw his shadow. Not that it matters. If he sees said shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, it’s about a month and half. But the very idea that we’re now officially counting down sets me into a search for anything spring. And this year, signs are everywhere.

February is known around these parts for mud and gray snow melting into slop. This year we definitely have the mud. My black high-top sneakers are currently brown, thanks to a stroll through my front year. We could hold a mud wresting match out there. Temperatures would not be an issue. Yesterday’s torrential downpours occurred while the thermometer climbed into the low sixties. In FEBRUARY. All of that was accompanied by a whopper of a thunderstorm that knocked out my satellite Internet service for a time.

Two days ago, the distinctive chirp of a robin redbreast taunted me. I usually hear them long before I see them. And I don’t generally hear them until March. But there he was, perched high in my maple tree.

And are those buds on that tree? I could be imagining them. Am I?

But in the season of new life, nothing says spring like baby animals. The neighbor’s cows are beginning to pop out calves. I’m keeping an eye on a breeding farm a few miles away, watchful for the first foal. None yet. But it could happen anytime now.

Of course, the best sign of spring are flowers. In that regard, I come up short. No daffodil greens poking up from last fall’s leaf mulch. No crocuses. Even my snowdrops, which bloom regardless of snow coating them and wither when spring really gets a foothold, have yet to appear.

So maybe it isn’t spring yet. Maybe Phil’s right and it’s still six—make that five and a half—weeks off. But maybe he’s wrong and it’s just around the corner.

Your mission today is to seek out evidence of spring and report back. I’m sick of winter!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Thanks, #@!*!

by Kathryn Miller Haines

I’m in the middle of writing a new book and I’m having that wonderful schizophrenic experience where one day I think I’m on the right track and the next I’m convinced that, for the good of humanity, I should throw it all away and stop pretending I’m a writer. Also I’m fat and I shouldn’t have cut my hair.

It’s an exhausting state to live in, especially when the same sentence can elicit joy and confidence one day and despair the next. I find myself absolutely crippled by uncertainty at times, so unwilling to face the computer that I do anything to avoid it. Including picking up dog poo in my yard.

I know I’ll get over it eventually. It’s part of my process -- the least favorite part of the process -- though I suspect if I wasn’t experiencing it, that would be a sign that I was really in trouble.

Jennie Bentley’s post last week about criticism reminded me of my own watershed experience. I was in the first year of an MFA program, toiling away in workshops where I silently receded into the background and watched, with a mixture of fear and relief, as other writers were torn apart by their peers. Eventually it was my turn and in anticipation of my work coming up, I’d written a terrible short story. To start with, it wasn’t a fresh idea, but rather a fictional take on something a friend of mine had gone through that I thought was amusing enough to become a story (for whatever reason, that never goes well for me – if the idea didn’t start with me I just can’t write it). I think I chose to do that because I didn’t have as much invested in this idea that wasn’t my idea; if they tore it apart, if they questioned its logic, if they accused it of being an unbelievable experience. I could always remind myself that it had really happened and that would somehow mute their criticism. Of course, if it was the way it was told that was the problem, I only had myself to blame.

Mercifully, I don’t remember much about that workshop except I didn’t eat that day. And I had to pee. A lot.

On the bus ride home, I poured through the written critiques. Some were kind, most were not, but one in particular made my eyes well up in tears (there are few things as disconcerting as crying on public transportation). After tearing apart the story in every way possible, this fellow writer scrawled, “Why even bother writing? This is awful.”

I was devastated. No one had ever told me that I should stop even trying.

And because it was very easy give up, that’s exactly what I decided to do. I was going to drop out of the program and go to law school or something that didn’t involve the same level of personal criticism. My husband convinced me not to, but I was deeply wounded for the rest of that semester, believing that it was some sort of class-wide assumption that I didn’t belong there (as though I were important enough for them to reach this consensus). My stories were weak, toothless attempts to fly under the radar. I just wanted to survive.

And then the semester ended and my mother-in-law, quite unexpectedly, died.

We lost a brilliant, creative woman and my entire life was thrown into turmoil and suddenly that cruel, terse sentence no longer mattered to me. Put in perspective with everything else we were suffering that summer it was so inconsequential.

I think I became a better writer at that point. Or at least a braver one. That fall I approached my ideas, my way, and sought out peers who weren’t afraid to criticize me but at the same time recognized what I was trying to do and pointed out what could help me achieve that. I figured out which workshop leaders fit me better and realized that evenings in their company didn’t have to be experiences full of fear; they could be exhilarating sessions after which I went home revving to rewrite. Don’t get me wrong, I still never felt like I fit into that program, though I was starting to finally make friends. And every time I saw the man who eviscerated me, I fantasized about ways to return the favor.

To this day I wonder where his writing career is and if he’s aware of what I’ve achieved with mine. I wonder if he realized how much what he said affected me.

Mostly though, I want to thank him.

Monday, February 04, 2008


by Gina Sestak

Watching other people drive renews my faith in miracles. We ought to all be dead.

That's why I'm convinced that, of all the things I've learned in all the jobs I've held, the most important was the Defensive Driving course I took while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole. [For more about this job, see my post GUNS AND REPORTS, February 10, 2007.]

The course was mandatory. No one could use a state-owned vehicle without it and I hope it's still being required. It ought to be required for every licensed driver.

It's been awhile since I took the course - more than 30 years, in fact -- so I don't have a clear recollection of specifics. Any written materials I may have retained were lost in a house fire. I just remember spending two days in in a large room with other state employees, watching films and listening to people talk.

There were a few basic principles:

* Be aware. This means more than just avoiding distraction. It means paying attention to the cars around you and what they are doing. Pay attention to the road and traffic conditions. I was almost killed several years ago when the person I was riding with failed to notice that we'd entered a construction zone in which the divided highway we were on changed to one lane in each direction. She pulled out to pass the car ahead of us (which had appropriately slowed down), right into the path of an on-coming 18-wheeler. We zigged around the road for a second or so, went airborn, then landed nose down in a ditch, stunned but uninjured. That was a miracle.

* Consider the possibilities. Just because another driver has a stop sign or a red light doesn't mean that driver is actually going to stop. Be prepared to react to the unexpected. While merging onto the Turnpike, I pulled out behind a passing car just as it lost a wheel and came to a virtual stop. I credit the Defensive Driving course for my ability to react effectively. The meant I was able get around that disabled car without hitting any of the cars in the left lane. The alternative would have been to scream and crash.

* Let other drivers know your plans. This means signaling when you intend to turn or merge, flashing the brake lights when you intend to stop, etc. I am amazed at how many people have told me that other drivers "know" what they intend to do. Other drivers are not psychic. They don't even know who you are. They can't read the signs you're seeing, so they don't know that you're in the left turn only lane. They may not know that you have a green arrow -- they might be watching the cross-street light and preparing to pull out as soon as it turns red. So signal.

* Be courteous. You are not the traffic police. Everybody makes mistakes. If someone rolls through a stop sign, it is not your job to chase that car for miles, honking and cursing. If someone is trying to merge into your lane, let them in. If someone is going slower than you think they should, let them go slow. Keep a safe distance between your can and their car and, if you really can't stand following them for another second, pull over and chill out. It's safer that way.

* Proceed with caution. Cars and trucks are big and heavy. They can kill you and, once you're dead, it doesn't really matter which car had the right of way.

Comments, anyone?