Monday, March 30, 2009

A Little BSP

Since Working Stiffs is without a blogger today and tomorrow, we thought we'd do a little bragging.

Two of the Stiffs, Annette and Joyce, have short stories featured in the Spring issue of Mysterical-e magazine. You can read them here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Good Fit


Kathie Shoop

It's strange how the little things always throw me off. For instance, today, I went to have my car inpsected and $1800 and 10 hours later, I got my car back. The shop was nice about everything, gave me a loaner, hurried things up as much as possible, etc. but the day, for me was not great at all. Besides the obvious cost giving me palpatations and a shot of depression, driving around in a car that wasn't mine was really unsettling. I was cranky, short, and all the rest. Besides going from driving perched in my minivan (yes, I know they're terrible looking, I swore I'd never have one, and now I love it like my spouse) to lodged in an Altima, it was one of those keyless starting jobs. You simply make sure the key fob is with you in the car and press a button to start and stop the engine.

No big deal. Well, for me apparently, it was. I kept getting out without turning the thing off, constantly felt my pockets, ferreted through my purse, making sure that damn fob didn't get locked in the running car...Yikes, am I fuddy, duddy, oldie or what? It was eye opening and I think helpful to my writing.

While big events clearly drive plots and character development and having a big concept is the desire du jour of agents and publishers, I think it's the little things that happen to characters that probably puts the spark in the action. Even for a person (ahem) character who doesn't fancy herself compulsive or rigid, leave it to the small stuff to show her the truth. Something to think about, anyway!

How do you and/or your characters handle the small stumbling blocks of life?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Glimpse Back

by Joyce

A month or so ago, one of my sisters found a box containing some of our mother's stuff that she didn't even know she had. Inside the box were pages and pages written in Mom's hand. Mom always liked to write, and I think if four children and being widowed at age 39 hadn't interfered, she would have been one hell of a writer.

She wrote on any kind of paper she could find. On some small scraps of three by five inch paper, I found the beginning of a novel. It was clearly autobiographical and even with some of the names changed I recognized some of the people she was writing about. Instead of Dolores McCloskey, she was Dawn McCrea. Her best friend, Catherine (Cass), was now Colleen. Her baby sister Joanne, she called Jane. She lived in a section of the city called Eden, instead of the real life Esplen.

Here's how it began:

"Perhaps you have never read a story without a plot, but I am about to attempt writing one. You see, my story has no end. I can't say "And they lived happily ever after," for my tale concerns not a few people, but my closest friends, our clique, modern youth as I've seen it. My real motive in writing this is to reveal the staunch and sturdy friendship we've built among us. Regardless of mistakes, folly, we stand together. Our future is before us. Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief--yet meanwhile we are living. "

Mom goes on to write about some teenage adventures, including one of her friends losing her virginity, which was quite scandalous. Her descriptions of two boys she had crushes on were cute. (One she called a "bronzed Greek god" and the other a "blond Adonis.") I was disappointed when I ran out of pages just after she shared a kiss with the blond Adonis in his dad's fancy Buick. I'd love to know if she ever finished the story.

I laughed at a shopping list on the back of one of the pages:
6 doz buns .90
1 can spiced ham 1.50
2 katsup .30
2 doz cakes .45
candy-peanuts .50
1# coffee .30
1 cream .15
relish .35

Another interesting find was a journal entry written on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. Mom would have been 21 years old at the time. This is what she said:

"Well, this day began as usual. Being Sunday, I arose late and just about made it to 12 o'clock Mass at the Point Church in downtown Pittsburgh. After Mass, I followed the Sunday routine by waiting on the corner of Ferry and 3rd Avenue for Cass and Peggy, the three of us then making a dash across the busy streets, startling Sunday drivers by our bold jaywalking, walking briskly up Liberty and into the Jenkins Arcade to avoid the brisk December weather. And as always we looked into the windows of a shop displaying novelty jewelry before leaving the Arcade for another mad dash thru the Penn Ave. traffic and into the lunch room at Walgreen's drug store. We even had our regular order of ham salad on toast and coffee, lingering long enough to smoke at least three cigarettes, tongues wagging while going over the current capers of our clique. Yes, it was the usual Sunday for us. We had nothing more important to talk of than the surprise party we were planning for Jimmy McCloskey's birthday on the 12th. Nothing more important in our frivolous heads than thoughts of Tom, Jack and Larry, members of our clique for whom we three were bearing torches.

We left Walgreen's and walked down Penn, stopping to look at the clever window display in Horne's dept. store. Christmas was in the air. Everyone pushing, crowding, but everyone gay as they watched the huge Santa Claus in the window. As each person turned away from the window, he turned away with a broad smile and laughter in his eyes for the laughter of the Santa Claus brought mirth to all.

We three crossed the street to our car stop, boarded our car and arrived home about 2 o'clock as we did every Sunday. Daddy left for work just after I arrived home, mother was out for the afternoon, and just Joanne and I were at home. We just sat around reading the funnies and after awhile I curled up on the studio couch for forty winks. Joanne woke me in time to start preparations for supper. Mother, Aunt Clara, Anna Mae, Jack and the baby came in around five. We were just about to sit down to the table when Joanne turned the radio on for some dinner music. The program was soon interrupted with special bulletins. This was no longer our usual do-nothing Sunday. This was history in the making. This was an outrage to our government. While the Japanese Consul General was having negotiations with our government for peace, Japan was bombing our territories.

What little supper that was consumed was done so automatically. The coffee pot was twice emptied and the ash trays held too many cigarettes. The thought of war made your blood run cold. I resolved then and there if my business is affected in any way I'll close, store my equipment and do whatever I can to help with defense work. Every able bodied American will be on their toes now.

Peggy and I went to church in the evening for our novena. After church we went to the show where we met Bobby, Cass, Ernie and Jimmy. We stopped and had hamburgers and coffee in a little shop in the Rocks and then came home where we all sat around."

Fascinating stuff. I only wish there was more.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mental Health Day

By Annette Dashofy

Several friends have commented lately about how calm I look considering the Pennwriters Conference (of which I am coordinator) is less than two months away. This usually makes me want to laugh. Then I consider the possibility that I should be an actor instead of a writer.

Some days the tension bubbles under the surface like a volcano about to blow its top. My current source of aggravation is people who do not respond to emails or return phone calls. Repeatedly. And I’m not just talking about the conference. At this very moment, there are three people I’ve been trying to get responses from. One of them has been avoiding me for more than three months. The other two have been dodging me only for a couple of weeks.

This makes me very annoyed. Do not make me come after you.

However, most of the time I’m coping quite well. Just the other day, I was exchanging emails with a friend (one who does actually reply to my messages) and we discussed methods of staying calm. Mine are: deep breathing, chocolate, yoga, chocolate, long walks, chocolate, and when all else fails, that bottle of Merlot in the fridge. And chocolate.

I’ve also started employing a weekly event I refer to as Mental Health Day. Now, I know lots of folks take these on occasion. But I’m talking about one every week. Usually on a Saturday or Sunday. During most MHDs, I don’t even turn on the computer. This makes for a very busy Monday, but that’s another story.

This past weekend, I took my MHD on Saturday and went to the track. Not to bet. Not to watch the races. But to renew my groom’s license and hang out in the barn with the horses and my friend, Jessi, a trainer at Mountaineer.

I first met Jessi and became a licensed groom when I was writing the veterinary mystery series set at a Thoroughbred racetrack. Research can be fun. Unfortunately, those manuscripts have yet to sell. So my time at the track is strictly fun these days. I brush horses. Sometimes I walk horses. Sometimes I help bathe horses. Always I dodge teeth.

Thoroughbreds bite.

Yes, to me this is fun. If I had to be there every morning even when it’s in the single digits in the dead of winter, like Jessi does, I’m sure it would no longer qualify for MHD status.

So what do you do for a Mental Health Day? And have you taken one recently? If not, WHY? Plan your escape NOW. We all need some time away, even if it’s not all that far away.

We also need chocolate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Turning the Corner and Heading for Home

By Martha Reed

About a month ago I sat down with the outline for my new novel just to see where it was heading and how the story was holding up. At that point I was about halfway done, writing Chapter 12, and things were looking pretty good and moving steadily along. I surprised myself by keeping up a steady pace, a chapter a week, which is a pretty good clip for me because I’m notorious slow and probably too meticulous for a writer but there it is; that’s the way I work, that’s my pace. I hit the next three chapters in a row and was heading for home when I caught that fearful cold everyone is getting and it cut me right off at the knees. I was down for four straight days of fever and when I tried to write for a week afterward my head felt about as creative as a bucket of paint.

I got a little depressed because I had been having such a rare good run but I’ve learned to give it time and not to stress out over things I can’t control, like colds. It’s one of those “inner critics” Anne Lamott talks about in her book Bird by Bird, which I recommend every chance I get to anyone who plans on writing. Stuff happens, and you have to allow yourself the time to get over it and then pick everything up again and move on. Luckily, there is an upside in that I’ve done so much writing I can trust myself to be able to pick the storyline back up again when I can, and not be afraid that I'll forget where I'm going. Having an outline helps hugely; I can review my notes to rediscover my thread and I'm back on track.

Oddly enough, having some down time away from my story and in the middle of my manuscript may have helped simply because it slowed me down. I’m very happy of where I was until the cold, and last weekend when I picked up Chapter 16 it was very slow going for the first couple of pages. It was downright hard but I’m sure every writer has been in that place where sometimes you just have to grind it out. So I dug in and started grinding out the paragraph transitions and a funny thing happened – when I got about halfway through Chapter 16 because I was working so slowly I had the time to realize that 16 was actually two chapters worth of information, 16 and a new 17 that hadn’t been planned in my outline but if I included a new and completely blank 17 it would allow a major character of mine to step out of the shadows and take on a whole chapter devoted just to her. Funny thing is, because of how powerful this character is in my mind, when she found out that she might actually get a whole chapter devoted just to her own particular splendor she ran with it. I actually felt the mental shift in my story line as it expanded to include the suggestion of a new chapter as a new idea as it took hold. Now, when I look back on my outline, I think ‘of course!’ adding that chapter makes perfect sense and I can’t imagine writing it any other way.

And now, just because I needed a lift and you may too, I’d like to recommend a great movie: Seabiscuit. If you ever wonder if your writing is important or if what you do has meaning, curl up and watch this movie about underdogs and the triumph of persistence and then get back to work!

Monday, March 23, 2009


by Gina Sestak

Why are computers so expensive? After almost 40 years of dealing with computers, I think I know the answer.

I first worked with computers in 1969, tracking data cards for a summer job in college. See my November 4, 2006 post In the Lair of the Beast for details. You'd think by now I'd be an adept, wouldn't you? I mean, I did my undergraduate minor in Computer Science. I have worked with computers for decades. I have owned computers. I have written entire novels on computers. I have taken computers into my own home. I spend a good part of my job drafting documents and entering case notes on a computer. So why won't computers cooperate with me? Why do they have to be so frustrating?

I thought PCs were bad, but this semester I've had my first contact with the Mac and, let me tell you, it is even worse. For one things, instead of ranging across your desktop, patiently waiting to be clicked upon, Mac icons congregate at the bottom of the screen. When you click on one, it gets excited and jumps around for awhile before it opens. I know what it is thinking: "Aha! A chance to turn another user into a quivering mass of confusion!"

Perhaps I might like Macs if I'd been introduced a little more gradually. Macs might have been polite if properly approached. But no. I jumped right in.

I'm taking two courses at Pittsburgh Filmmakers this term, using Photoshop and Final Cut Express on Mac. These are two of the most impossible programs ever invented. Honest. Both courses require out of class projects in which students are required to edit photographs and digital footage into little one or two minute movies. Doesn't sound too onerous, does it? Kind of fun, maybe? Don't you be fooled. It is hell on earth! Things that, in a straightforward world, would take two seconds tops morph into hours of intensive concentration and, once you have done everything exactly as instructed, the *!$%# thing refuses to come out right! It tells you it can't contact a device. What device? It says the files that you've been working on all day now contain "0 Kb." Nada.

This is what I call the "wonder of technology." You wonder why things never work the way they should.

So, to go back to the question I posed in the beginning: Why are computers so expensive? Because if they were cheap we would smash the ~!*#% things!
What do you think?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Clubs, belonging, joining, participating

Do you invest in the stock market? I know, at the moment, even if you do or did, you may be wishing you hadn’t. That’s because 401Ks and IRAs are fluctuating so dramatically, we almost don’t want to touch them for fear they will fall even further, or worse, skip up then drop back like a stone.
Some people are rather good at investing and do it all by themselves, while others either not being very good at it and/or knowing nothing about it have brokers to manage it for them. And if you did want to do it yourself, how would you learn? Buy a book? Right, that always works. Have you ever heard of a stock club? For the past twelve years, I’ve belonged to one that I helped form. It started out as travel agents and comic book writers and/or their wives. An odd mix, but that’s what we were. We still have travel agents, one Graphic Novel writer’s wife (don’t call them comic books anymore), but the rest are not. We meet once a month, and are part of the national organization of NAIC. National Association of Investment Clubs.
We pay a yearly fee to belong, which gets each of us a monthly magazine, and we can purchase software and do most of our accounting, taxes, and investigations of stocks on line. The national organization provided us with guidelines, and we wrote our own bi-laws and set up our minimum and maximum monthly investment amounts. We each received a handbook on the way the organization felt we should go about studying stocks and what we should consider before buying. We elected a permanent treasurer, and rotated our chairperson and secretary. We have a different foodie each month, though we always meet at my house for the meetings except for our picnic in the summer and our Christmas party. (Last summer we picnicked on my back deck, and several of the newer people thought I should take over the picnic again. Hmmm.)
Besides a very friendly group of women getting together to study and learn about stocks, we have a rather fun time. Once we started buying stock, we each had to take a stock to watch and keep up with their business progress and future prospects. We are all expected to have ideas about what stocks to invest in, and NAIC has two charts we can complete to show whether they would be a good, not so good, or bad investment. We all vote to buy and/or sell, and sometimes we vote to buy only when the stock has reached a certain price. We do the same with selling. We haven’t done too badly, even now during our country’s present financial dilemma. If we are down, it is because people leave the club and we have to cash them out. It wasn’t such a problem in the beginning, there wasn’t much invested, but now that the club is older and the investments are bigger, one big investor leaving will demand that we sell stocks we’d prefer to hold on to.
It’s surprising how much fun a learning lesson can be. I remember when I was younger, clubs were the rage. Even schools organized clubs and set aside times for them to meet, and the more successful ones scheduled activities after school. Doesn’t seem like there’s much of that anymore. So, do you belong to a club of any kind? Are you much of a joiner? Were you ever? Does that sort of thing appeal to you? And I talking about the up close and personal kind of meeting with people, not the on-line groups that we seems to have moved to. I love all my on line groups, try to go to conventions and conferences—love traveling to them—but I’m talking about the local club-sort-of-thing that may take you out once or twice a month.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking a Break

by Joyce

Working Stiffs is taking a break today. Well, maybe not all the Working Stiffs, but I sure am. I'm getting ready to leave tomorrow on my annual "Sisters Weekend" with my three sisters. If I don't kill any of them, I'll be back next week.

And be sure to check back here tomorrow when it's new Working Stiff Pat Gulley's turn to post. In the meantime, feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Parking Lot Rage

By Annette Dashofy

We’ve all heard the tales of “road rage” on the news. Around my area, the problem seems to be “parking lot rage.”

Last week, I witnessed what I was sure was about to turn into an item on the six o’clock news. My mom and I were loading up our trunk with the fruits of our shopping labors in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Two slots away, a vehicle was leaving. A lady in an old beater car sat with her turn signal on, waiting directly behind me. As the exiting vehicle backed out, a huge, shiny white SUV whipped into the slot.

The lady in the beater car went apoplectic. She started screaming to a guy walking by: “DID YOU SEE THAT? I WAS WAITING HERE WITH MY TURN SIGNAL ON! HOW RUDE!”

I kept my head down. You always hear about innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire.

Then the driver of the SUV climbed out. She was dressed more for Nordstrom’s than for Wal-Mart and wore perfectly coiffed blonde hair.

The lady in the beater looked…well…like me. And she turned her verbal barrage on the source of her aggravation. Loudly. She informed the blonde in the SUV that she had been waiting for the spot with her turn signal on.

Now, I didn’t really expect the SUV woman to get back in her car and move. In a perfect world, maybe. But a little contrition might have gone far. Instead, she thrust out her chest, hoisted her chin into the air and proclaimed: “Well, that’s not my problem.”

The exasperated lady in the beater repeated her complaint, this time with arm gestures.

To which, the blonde responded: “I guess that’s just your tough luck then, isn’t it?” And she marched into Wal-Mart leaving the lady in the beater car stammering and sputtering.

By now, I felt the beater car lady’s frustration. I offered her my spot since we were leaving, but she drove off without hearing me over her own rage.

I didn’t hear any news stories about homicide at the Wal-Mart that night. Nor did I hear about slashed tires. Unlike during the grand opening of the nearby Tanger Outlet stores last year when people “stealing” parking spaces sparked a rash of parking lot rage that actually resulted in police involvement and arrests.

Personally, I’m thinking that white SUV was prime material for a good keying. Better yet, letting the air out of the tires. Two tires. Not one. Few people carry two spares. If the SUV blonde was in such a hurry, making her wait for a tow truck seems like an appropriate and karmic payback.

What might you have done in such a situation? Have you ever accidently taken a spot without realizing someone else was waiting for it? Or are you willing to confess to intentionally resorting to the blonde SUV woman’s tactics? Have you ever been the victim of a parking space snatching? And how did you respond?

And the big question to all murder mystery writers: How do you WISH you’d responded?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A mysterious week

By Pat Remick

On this St. Patrick's Day, it seems appropriate to mention that I recently attended my first book event in a bar. It definitely was a "novel" experience.

It also was the beginning of a mystery-filled week that included learning from the Boston Police Department ballistics lab guys how to make bullets and guns nearly untraceable -- and being told that my award-winning mystery short story "Mercy 101" will be read aloud over the radio waves in Massachusetts today and is available for downloading as a "podcast" or listening over the computer anytime.

I wish every week had this much mystery.

The reading and signing at the intimate Red Door lounge/martini bar was part of a new series launched by my local independent bookstore and it featured genre-crossing debut novelist Jedediah Berry and "The Manual of Detection," which the Boston Globe describes as "surreal, absurd and cerebral."

The bar, otherwise empty on a weekday evening, offered drinks with names related to the book, while music appropriate to the novel played in the background. After Berry read excerpts, there was a musical interlude so the small audience could chat with him over drinks and submit questions to be posed later, with prizes awarded for the top entries. It was a delightful evening, but I wish the crowd had been larger.

I've often wondered why more people don't attend book readings. There's nothing like hearing an author read from his or her own work. Readings are always intellectually stimulating, even if you don't agree with the premise. You get to hang out with other people who like to read and sometimes there's even free food and wine. You don't even have to buy anything from the store. It all adds up to a perfect outing--if you'll forgive the pun--in my book.

It always shocks me to see empty chairs at events with New York Times best-selling authors. With millions of readers in the country who bought over $3.1 billion worth of books last year, why don't more readers come out to meet and listen to the people who wrote those books? I wonder if authors and bookstores should do more to let folks know how much fun it can be to attend a reading. Holding them in bars is one way to do that, so "cheers" to the "novel" concept.

The next night, I traveled an hour south to hear two experts from the Boston PD Ballistics Lab share some fascinating tidbits, including that the best way to make it difficult, if not impossible, to trace a bullet is to hide the corpse for a while because the markings on the bullet disappear the longer it's in the body. We also learned it costs $400 to buy any kind of illegal gun on the streets of Boston. Ever wonder what the price is in your town?

Speaking of crime, my short story "Mercy 101" is scheduled to be read aloud on a radio program called Lit103.3, "fiction for the ears," in Northampton, Mass., today but it also is available anytime on the web site in podcast form or can be heard online by clicking on the black arrow that comes up on the page. The story won the 2007 Al Blanchard Award for best New England crime story and was published in "Still Waters: Crime Stories by New England Writers." "Mercy 101" and its characters have been inside my head for so long that it was odd, but wonderful, to hear the story in someone else's voice. This is my first podcast. Can Hollywood be far behind?

Stranger things have happened on St. Patrick's Day....

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring Break

Wilfred Bereswill

Something that has never worked out in our household is spring break. Our school district never could get their act together, so the high school, middle school and grade school never seemed to work together. So we never took a spring break vacation as a family and this year is no different.

I remember when my oldest daughter was a senior in high school. My wife and I were much younger and not as smart and we suckered into letting her go to Cancun for spring break. She survived and I’d rather not know what went on, but soon after that year, many of the news stations broke stories about infamous Mexican spring breaks and that was it. Daughter number 2 was instantly banned. But the stage had been set and somehow we OWED her an equivalent vacation, so my wife served as one chaperone on a spring break cruise. Dad got to stay at home.

The plans have not been set for daughter number 3 since her big trip is a year away. However, this year it’s my turn. You see, last summer came and went quickly and while we took a short trip to Gulf Shores, the week was anything but relaxing with all the takeover rumors of the company I worked for. I never had that relaxing break. Yes, I spent two months at home over the holidays and into February, but it was far from relaxing. So, as a pre-condition of employment, I arranged a little getaway for me and my beautiful wife. A little alone time. My daughters have all expressed their opinions on the fairness of our trip, but, I’m having a hard time feeling sorry for them. You see, my youngest daughter is on spring break this week, my middle daughter next week, my oldest is working a full time job, so that’s my excuse. Like always, spring break timing is working against us. Actually, I think it’s working for us.

On March 28th, my wife and I will be on Hawaii, The Big Island. We spend three nights in one of the most fabulous resorts I’ve ever been to, the Hapuna Prince. I just arranged a doors-off helicopter tour over Kilauea, the active volcano. We then plan to drive to the end of the road and hike out about a mile to see the lava glowing at twilight as it enters the sea. We really don’t have any other plans there, except maybe a casual drive in the convertible that I have reserved to South Point, the southmost point of land in the United States.

April 1st we take a small twin engine Cesena to Maui where we have an oceanfront condo for a week. There will be plenty of whale watching, snorkeling, waterfalls, and a special trip on a rigid inflatable Zodiac type boat to the island of Lanai to swim with wild spinner dolphins and sea turtles. I’m sure there will be a trip along the road to Hana in the convertible I have reserved there also, and a trip up Haleakala. We may even venture out to Little Beach in Makena. For those of you who don’t know, Little Beach is the unofficial clothing optional beach on Maui. It is quite a spectacular beach in it’s own right.
Do I feel guilty leaving my daughters behind while I go off to bask in the Hawaiian sun?

Not a bit.

So, I’m looking for ideas of things to do on the Big Island and Maui. Any suggestions?

By the way. On April 6th, I have arranged a special guest blogger to fill in for me. She tells me she has a real treat in store for everyone. I’ll try to check in with my new little Asus 10 inch Netbook, if I can get an internet signal while I sit on the beach drinking Margaritas’.


Friday, March 13, 2009


by Lisa Curry

On Thursday, February 26, my 16-1/2-year-old dachshund, Erma, took a sudden – if not unexpected, given her age – turn for the worse. When I took her to the vet for the big shot, he said he thought it was heart failure. Erma had a good long life, and we knew she couldn’t live forever. Still, it was hard to say goodbye and learn to live with her absence after so many years.

Today I planned to write about my little Erma. Not about what a great dog she was. She wasn’t. She was a feisty little pain in the butt from the day in October 1992 I brought her home until the day she died. She could have been a contender for the worst-pet-ever award.

But that’s a story for a different day, it seems, because last night, exactly two weeks to the day after we buried Erma, I took the remaining pets – two cats and our pound mutt, Brandy, to the same vet for their annual check-up and vaccinations. Brandy, a 4- or 5-year-old Norwegian elkhound/basenji/who-knows-what-else mixed breed, trembled with excitement when she saw her leash and I put her in my SUV. She thought she was going someplace fun.

When we left the vet’s office, she refused to get back into the vehicle. She clearly felt cheated – she wanted to go for a walk, not get back in the truck and go home. Fumbling with the cat carrier, my purse, and the bag of flea treatment from the vet’s, I said, “Come on, Brandy, get in, for God’s sake,” and yanked on her leash. She backed up, and the collar slipped over her head. That dog runs like a deer. I chased her into a yard, calling her name. She ran toward me, then dodged, “catch-me-if-you-can” style, and took off around the corner.

That was the last time I saw her. I walked around calling her name for hours. Then my husband came and did the same. We took turns waiting for her to return to the vet’s parking lot for 5 hours, until past midnight. I reported her missing to the police.

I can’t lose two dogs in two weeks. That’s too much. The husband’s gone to work, and the kids are gone to school. The house is too quiet. Now I need to call off work, get dressed, and go find my dog.

Think a good thought for the safe return of our Brandy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where Do They Come From?

by Joyce

One of the many cool things about being a writer is the luxury of playing around with words and phrases. Every once in awhile I'll look at a word or phrase and wonder where in the world it came from.

Did you ever wonder about the origin of the saying, Tied to her apron strings? You're in luck. I looked it up. According to the website,, the term has been in use since the mid-17th century: "An apron string hold or apron string tenure referred to property of one’s wife, which was controlled by the husband during her life but which afterwards would revert to her original family."

The term bigwig originated back in the 1700s, when men wore powdered wigs. Those who had more money could afford bigger and more expensive wigs.

Did you know that grandfather clause has its origins in the late 19th century deep south? Residents had to pass a literacy test or pay a poll tax in order to vote, but if their grandfather had been eligible to vote, they were automatically eligible.

The phrase head over heels was originally heels over head, which makes a lot more sense since the head is usually over the heels to begin with. The real McCoy should actually be the real MacKay (after a brand of Scotch whiskey)?

One that really surprised me was rule of thumb. I'd heard that it came from an old law that stated a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it was narrower than his thumb. Apparently this is a myth. That meaning for rule of thumb has only been around since the 1970s. It's really just a term of measurement, since many thumbs are about an inch wide.

So, how about you? Have any unique words or phrases to share?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conference Countdown

by Annette Dashofy

Sixty-seven days and counting.

I began keeping track of the number of days until my duties as 2009 Pennwriters Conference Coordinator end back at 154. At that point, it seemed as if it would never get here. I was buried under a mountain of tasks that needed done without a clue as to whether I was doing anything right. Would I ever see the light of day again?

Yes, I was overly melodramatic.

A few weeks into the countdown, I had an epiphany. Instead of looking at that huge number and thinking freedom will never arrive, I decided to think of it as all the time I had to accomplish the myriad of tasks on my plate.

That helped.

Until the number dropped under 100. Suddenly, I didn’t have nearly as much time as I thought. So much to do, so few days.

There’s just no pleasing me.

Now at 67 days, there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. And, yes, I realize it’s probably a train. But I’m calmer than at any point so far. The brochures have been sent. Registrations are rolling in. Of course there are problems. Daily. But I’m dealing with them on a case-by-case basis.

The fact that I quit my job at the yoga studio and freed up several more hours each week helps.

The fact that I’m never doing this again helps, too.

So what have I accomplished? We have 33 workshops and panels lined up. Five top agents and three editors will be in attendance. The list of speakers is mind-boggling. (If I do say so myself.)

Are you trying to hone your writing craft? We have workshops for that. Need help with research? Covered. Do you need help with your pitch or query? At least three workshops are scheduled to deal with that. Perhaps you have your book finished and need help with marketing. There are AT LEAST four workshops dealing with promotion. We have panels dealing with romance, sci-fi/fantasy, crime fiction, and more.

And of course, there’s Lisa Scottoline speaking at the Friday night keynote dinner and Tim Esaias regaling us with his wit and wisdom at the Saturday lunch.

Interested? Click here to register.

Photo courtesy of April Narby.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Long Farewell to all Thy Greatness

By Martha Reed

During the stock market turmoil of the last year, my focus has been on researching the news and trying to make product forecasts that now change daily and sometimes twice daily so that my suggestions at breakfast often change before lunch. It’s been a very focused and difficult time and then something pops up on my radar that is so completely unexpected and extraordinary that I have to stop what I’m doing to stare at a headline like a blinking idiot.

Portrait of Shakespeare Unveiled, 399 Years Late
By Robert Mackey
On Monday in London, Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, unveiled what he claims is the only picture of William Shakespeare painted during the playwright’s lifetime.

Okay, so we all grew up knowing what William Shakespeare looked like, right? The Chandos Portrait that looks like someone’s hippy uncle, the guy with long hair, the relaxed collar and the pierced ear?

Or the familiar folio engraving of the poet with a mustache and the big dome forehead?

So what are we to do with this new officially sanctioned portrait of an amazingly robust William Shakespeare in living color, looking very wordly and wise and satisfied with himself and wearing some very expensive clothes? I want to argue with this attribution but it just feels so damn right.

(Plus I keep looking into the lace collar hoping to find some kind of secret message. That seems like a very Elizabethan idea to me).

I don’t mean to sound blasphemous in any way but I was as shocked by this portrait surfacing as if someone had suddenly discovered a true portrait of Jesus Christ. William Shakespeare is such a cultural icon I never expected to see Bill looking so, well, human. Okay, maybe I am a writer nerd, I admit it, but in that one moment this morning, in that one studied glance, this portrait changed my universe – it altered everything I knew of the man and the inhuman genius transmitted to us via his body of work. Up until now I had to try to discern the man through his words – sonnets, mostly, or an occasional couplet from one of his plays. This portrait today changes everything. From this point forward students will see a William Shakespeare with warm, intelligent eyes and just a hint of playful humor around his mouth.

Henry VIII, Act 3, Scene 2, 350-358
So farewell – to the little good you bear me. Farewell? A long farewell to all my greatness! This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth the tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms, and bears his blushing honors thick upon him. The third day comes a frost, a killing frost, and when he thinks, good easy man, full surely his greatness is a-ripening, nips his root and then he falls as I do.

Here's a nice newscast with even more surprising news about the Earl of Southampton:

Monday, March 09, 2009


by Gina Sestak

Last time I posted about my father's paper-hanger job. In the interest of equal time, I decided to write today about my mother.

My mother was a bookkeeper. [Don't you just love that word, the way letters keep repeating?] This was in the olden days, before computerized financial records. Her job involved filling out big wide pages called ledger sheets, with a pencil for easy corrections, and adding columns of numbers. I always thought that if I had a job like that -- filling in numbers all day long and spending hours adding and comparing -- I would have to shoot myself within a year or two. I really didn't think that I could stand it. My mother, on the other hand, appeared to find it fascinating.

Throughout most of my school years she worked for a money order company. Does anybody remember money orders?

You can still buy them, but they are not nearly as used as they once were. When I was growing up, few poor people had checking accounts. To pay bills, they would go to a local store and buy a money order. Say you wanted to sent $50 to the electric company. You would pay $50 plus an additional fee, and get a $50 money order, which the electric company could deposit just like a check. USN Company, my mother's employer, provided the money orders to the stores and paid when they were cashed.

There was some excitement in her job. Sometimes the stores would be robbed, losing the money they'd received for money orders. At other times, the store owners would steal that money themselves. It's tough to run a business and hard to resist temptation when the bills are coming due and there's a pile of cash waiting for the money order company's collector to come by. Yes, they really did send people to pick up the cash -- not an armored car, but just a guy on his own who might pick up thousands of dollars from a dozen or more stores each day. The Pennsylvania Lottery didn't exist yet, so most small neighborhood stores took numbers, an illegal form of gambling controlled by the mob. If for some reason a store owner hadn't turned in the numbers receipts and a customer hit (won), the store owner might dip into the money order receipts to pay off the bet. I remember hearing about a gun-wielding customer who went to the store owner's home demanding his winnings. The store owner paid him out of USN Company's money.

What did your mother do when you were growing up? Have you used that profession in your writing?

Friday, March 06, 2009

A few good men

by Jennie Bentley.

Last week sometime, I got suckered into responding to a discussion on Facebook about fictional—fictitious?—romantic heroes, and I thought it might make for an interesting blog topic.

The question that started the discussion was really simple—What makes for a good romantic hero these days? Does the tall, dark, and handsome George Clooney-type still work, or have the Brad Pitts taken over?—but the issue, of course, is a lot more complicated than that.

I don’t write romance novels, per se. I tried once, and discovered that while I could do it, I didn’t want to. That’s not to say I have anything against romance. Everything I write has romance in it, and I always enjoy reading books more when there’s a relationship developing along with the mystery. I’m sure the same holds for many of us. We may write thrillers or mysteries, or science fiction or fantasy, but relationships are a part of life, and chances are our protagonists have them too. Some of the most memorable love stories out there are found in books other than romance novels. Julia Spencer-Fleming comes to mind. So does Dorothy L. Sayers. And Deborah Crombie. So the question of what makes for a good romantic counterpart is something that should be of interest to all of us.

First off, I have to confess that I don’t particularly swoon over either Clooney or Pitt. Or Hugh Jackman or McDreamy or McSteamy or whoever the latest Hollywood heartthrob is. I prefer my crushes fictional, thank you very much. And I’ve certainly had plenty of those up through the years, from Rhett Butler and Sir Percy Blakeney to Janet Evanovich’s Ranger and Elizabeth Peters’s John Tregarth. And for that matter J.D. Robb’s Roarke and Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen. And that last one is in spite of avoiding crushes on the undead as a general rule. I don’t really like vamps.

Lots of variety there, physically speaking. They’re not all traditionally handsome, either. But then, the question isn’t really about the physical, is it? Any type of man (or woman) can be sexy and attractive. Doesn’t matter whether the hero has smoldering dark eyes or dreamy blue ones; whether his hair is the color of sunlight or a curtain of black silk. Or for that matter as red as the setting sun. (Jamie Fraser, anyone?) Whether he’s tall or short, stocky or lean, muscular or a bit of a weenie. Fashions change, and so do people’s perception of beauty. All that matters is that the protagonist finds the love interest attractive, and if he/she is the love interest, then we have to assume that it’s so, don’t we?

For the record, I’m a sucker for the hero with a secret, past or present, that he has to keep hidden. I particularly like the scenario where he plays the part of an ineffectual fop but turns out to be the big hero in the end. (Yes, that’s why Sir Percy’s on the list.) He doesn’t have to be on the side of the angels, either; I’ll take a not-quite-rehabilitated but dashing thief over a plodding policeman pretty much any day. Not that a policeman can’t make a fine hero in his own right. And he doesn’t have to be an alpha he-man type, either; brain over brawn is just fine with me. The one thing I insist on, is that he be charming. I’m a sucker for charm in real life, and it sure helps if a fictional character has it, as well.

So what about you? What do you think makes a perfect love interest? Do you have any fictional crushes you want to share? Who’s the love interest in your WIP, and why did you make him/her that way?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A 52 Year Old Cold Case

by Joyce

I originally posted this two years ago in March 2007. It's now been 52 years since the Boy in the Box was found. It is still an active homicide investigation.

The Boy in the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Critter Sitter for Hire

by Annette Dashofy

I’m in the middle of my final week teaching at the yoga studio. My class tonight is going to be a tough one. I’m calling it Weepy Wednesday. Tomorrow won’t be much better.

Since regular paychecks are going to be a thing of the past, I’ve already started accepting odd jobs. For the next two weeks, I’m kitty sitting.

I’ve known these three fur balls since they were kittens. And since there are usually two rowdy little girls in the house, I think the cats are looking at the experience of being home alone as their own vacation. I show up every other day and fill their food and water bowls, clean the litter boxes, and scratch their itches.

This is Cocoa and Tigger.

And this is Chili.

Chili, again.

They love me.

I’ve done kitty sitting for friends and family for years. Sometimes, I think I should start a business. And since I don’t just do cats, I think I should call it “Critter Sitters.”

Friends of mine have a small farm a couple of miles from here and I have a nice little barter exchange with them. When they go away, I take care of their cats, dogs, horses, cows, chickens, and fish. When I go away, Sara checks in on my kitty, Skye. And my mom. You may think I get the better end of that deal, but I’m thrilled with it. Skye is picky about people, but she adores Sara. And, seriously, how many people can you trust with your mom?

I have other important qualifications. I can give shots. I can administer fluids subcutaneously should your cat be in renal failure. I have experience with oral meds, too. Dogs are easy. Stick a pill in some burger or one of those pill pocket things and they wolf it down. Cats require some finesse.

Actually, quite a bit of finesse.

The weirdest critter sitter job I ever had was on a nearby farm that raises miniature horses. While the owners were out of town, I fed, watered, turned out, cleaned stalls, and brought in about 20 of the little guys. But that wasn’t the weird part. Theirs is a breeding facility and I was also required to take one of the studs out to “tease” a mare. For the city folks amongst you that basically means finding out if the mare is interested in a hot date.

The stud is ALWAYS interested. Surprise, surprise.

What do you think? Should I print up business cards?

Or maybe I’ll just finish the short story I began a while back that involves a pet sitter finding a dead body.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Confessions of an Historical True Crime Junkie

by Kathryn Miller Haines

I’ve been feeding an obsession of mine for the last few months: historical true crime non-fiction. I tend to read non-fiction when I’m writing (my May deadline feels painfully close) since I find it helps me generate ideas more quickly for some reason, even if I’m not reading about World War II. As the “crime” part of my fetish implies, I have dark tastes that skew toward the bizarre. Nothing is more exciting than reading about an event or a personality I’ve never heard of doing things that I never knew occurred. All the better if my mouth drops open while reading them.

I think there’s a reason why the highest praise lobbed at non-fiction seems to be “it reads like an engrossing novel.” The best non-fiction borrows from our narrative skills and weaves a yarn that is less about dates and names and more about the motivations of the people inhabiting the story. And just as good non-fiction has learned from us lie-tellers, I think we can learn from the best among them. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far in my trip through macabre true crime history:

1. You must have an anchor into your story. A fascinating plot (a doctor who implants goat testicles in men to help them regain their virility) isn’t enough to maintain reader interest – there must be a “character” they can root for.

2. Pick and choose what historical information needs elucidating. Not everything requires four paragraphs of description and explanation (seriously, we know Hitler was a bad guy). Trust that your audience comes in with a base of knowledge and that, if they don’t, they have the wherewithal to pursue the topic on their own.

3. That being said, if it’s unusual information and integral to the story, explain away. I never tire of reading details of how art forgers work, especially when they use Sanka as one of their ingredients.

4. Be balanced in your portrayal of your “characters.” No one, save perhaps serial killers, is all bad. Showing us the dimensions of a person is what makes them fascinating to us, and much more real.

5. Structure is everything when you tell a story. Even real life possesses it. We just don’t tend to notice it until we see it in retrospect.

So what about you? Are you a historical true crime junkie? What lessons have you gleamed from reading the genre?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

I'm a PC


Before I get into the blog, I have to report on this news story. Stupid driver or Queen of Multitasking, you decide.

Breast-Feeding Driver Cited
KETTERING, Ohio (AP) — Police say an Ohio mother has been charged with child endangering after another driver reported she was breast-feeding and talking on the phone while driving. The caller told police in suburban Dayton that he spotted the minivan-driving mother dropping off children at a school Thursday morning. Officer Michael Burke says authorities used a license plate number to track down 39-year-old Genine Compton, who told them she was breast-feeding and wouldn’t let her child go hungry. He says the child was under 2 years old. Burke says the legal concern is that Compton had a child in her lap, not that she was breast-feeding in public. He says she faces up to 180 days in jail and a $1,800 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor.

Now back to the regular program.

How many of you reach for a pen and pad of paper when it’s time to write?
I thought so. A few occasional holdovers, but the majority use advanced technology.I’m going to show my age, but I’ve grown up with computers. In fact I can still remember my first. Well, the first computer I saw in person. It was an IBM 1620. A room full of heavy processors, tape drives, card reader, key punches and those CRT screens with the green letters. It touted a whopping 4,000 bytes of memory. OK, these days my car key has more memory, but in 1968 (I just started high school) it was da bomb.

The room was elevated to take care of all the wiring and they installed a separate chilling system to keep the room cool. I remember writing my first Fortran program to add 5 numbers and spit out the answer. I believe the actual program took 12 or so computer cards and with 4 K of computing power, the Fortran compiler (I suppose what we would call an operating system) had to be loaded each and every time for well over 100 cards. Total processing time? About 20 minutes.

It was real fun when we hung the processor in a do loop. For those less tech savvy folks and anyone too young, getting hung in a do loop was getting caught in a vicious circle that the computer couldn’t get out of. By the way, it happened all the time.

While co-oping through college with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I got to play with a GE 6000 that was housed in a remote location at The Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Yes, I occasionally caught that monster computer in a do loop. They didn’t have the sense of humor my high school teachers had. Not with the entire Corps of Engineers worldwide fighting for computer time. But the ladies that yelled at me on the phone had the most beautiful southern accents.

I even got to write a program for a Kray Supercomputer, which ain’t so super by today’s standard.

Four years after I graduated from college, I received my first PC. It was 1984 and that beautiful machine was an IBM 8088, with two 5 ¼ inch floppy drives and no hard drive. You loaded DOS, (pre-windows operating system) and then slid the Wordstar disc in and you were off and running. Of course when it came time to save a file, you swapped discs and then saved. Oh, no internet connectivity way back then. Al Gore still hadn’t invented it yet.

I think I pretty much had every version of PC as the industry blossomed. Hardware drove new developments in software and then software pushed hardware development as processing speeds got faster and storage grew from K’s to megabytes, to gigabytes and now to terabytes. Somewhere in there, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs came out with a revolutionary machine called the Apple Macintosh. I remember thinking that their endeavor would flop like a lead balloon. Of course, Mythbusters proved that a lead balloon could fly and the Macintosh is considered top of the line and preferred by the journalism industry.

So these days I write exclusively on my 5 year old 17 inch Toshiba laptop. I’m running Windows XP and forbid my family from using it. They have a tenancy to download trojans and other nasty viruses. However, my display is starting to flicker, I just spent $100 for a new battery and I’m realizing, it’s not all that portable. So, I just pre-ordered a new ASUS Eee PC 1000HE 10-Inch Netbook (1.66 GHz Intel Atom N280 Processor, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB Hard Drive, 10 GB E-Storage, Bluetooth, XP Home, 9.5 Hour Battery Life) Blue. It doesn’t ship until mid-March, but for $375, I couldn’t resist.

SO what do you use to write? Laptop, desktop, Mac, PC, Word, Open Office, Wordstar, notepad?

Tech tip. (DISCLAIMER: I am not recommending this product or suggesting you should use it, but it worked for me.

Is your PC notably slower than when you bought it? There are many reasons for slowdowns, including upgrading to new products like Office 2007, but for some, it’s likely to be anything from spyware to Windows Registry problems.

I just had my desktop machine “FIXED” after my aforementioned daughters downloaded a trojan that stopped my computer in it’s tracks. The trojan un-installed my virus protection and crashed my home office. The company that repaired it for me installed a little freeware program called ccleaner. You can find it on Cnet’s if you’re so inclined.

It takes care of a multitude of issues and cleans up cookies and a host of other things that could be slowing you down. It also has a Registry cleaner. Windows Registry is the heart of Windows, so be careful when messing with it. What happens over time is that programs leave remnants in the registry that Windows has to go through every time it runs something. These extraneous lines of code just start slowing the machine down. For me, running the registry cleaner on ccleaner brought my PC and my laptop out of the thick mud and brought new life to them.