Saturday, September 23, 2017

Royal Pain or Royal Pleasure?


When the announcement was made that Princess Kate (officially the Duchess of Cambridge) was pregnant with her third child, the news was heralded around the world.  Our own Jenn McKinlay posted about it on Facebook, and I “liked” it.  But someone else wondered, who cared?  Who cared that a duchess in another country was pregnant again?

I care, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I grew up in the age of Princess Diana.  My fascination started with the announcement of her engagement on February 24, 1981.  I got up insanely early that same July to watch her wed Prince Charles, in her dress with a 25-foot train.  Everything about Diana was captivating—from her clothes, and jewelry to her independent streak and the joy she took from her sons.

Before Diana, I had little experience with the monarchy, but I knew that Diana was different, something that was confirmed on April 9, 1987 when she shook hands with AIDS patients without wearing surgical gloves.  This seemingly simple act made waves across the globe and confirmed that Diana was endlessly empathetic and brave enough to buck the traditional tide of the monarchy.  For the rest of her life, she was beautiful and best dressed, but she was also human and seemingly always chose to make a connection with her fellow man and women. After being raised in the age of Diana, how could I not love the monarchy?

This inclination has only been reinforced by Prince William and Prince Harry (and Kate, of course) who seem committed to continuing the good works of their mother and tackling issues that are meaningful to them.  Through their royal foundation, the Duke and Duchess and Prince Harry have declared their charitable focuses as the armed forces, conservation, cyberbullying, mental health, and young people.  They’ve already made a Diana-like impact with their “Heads Together” campaign which shines a light on the stigma of mental illness and works to connect individuals with the resources needed to maintain strong mental health.

But there’s another reason I follow the royals.  At a time when the world seems out of control, and the news is often bad, I welcome good news in whatever form I can get it.  A new royal baby is a cause for celebration, just like the wedding of William and Kate provided an escape from day-to-day challenges.  I got such a kick out of their recent trip to Poland and Germany; I loved seeing Kate’s outfits and the delight on the faces of the crowds who greeted her. Is it frivolous and superficial?  Of course, but what’s wrong with that?  I dare say the world isn’t suffering from too much joy and lightness these days.

So where do you fall on the spectrum of royal watching?  Do you marvel at the jewelry the duchess wears on state visits or do you quickly move on to other news?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Great Mysteries of Our Time


We’re all mystery lovers:  We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t!  Most of the mystery readers I meet also enjoy the puzzle of real life mysteries.  It’s not unusual to find kindred spirits at mystery conferences who also love Forty-Eight Hours and Dateline.  

Some mysteries will remain mysteries during my lifetime, and that's okay. But there are some questions to which I would love to get the answers. Here are some of them:

Amelia Earhart
What really happened to Amelia Earhart? Did she crash on an island and live for many years among the native population? Did her plane crash into the Pacific, the mystery of her disappearance far outlasting the length of her natural life? And did you know that she was married to George “G.P.” Putnam of the publishing house? The very house that publishes my books? Amelia was thirty-nine at the time of her disappearance. Can you imagine the things she would have accomplished had she lived?

D.B. Cooper
Living in the pacific northwest, I’ve found that D.B. Cooper has particularly captured the imaginations of local mystery fans.  On November 24, 1971, a man boarded a plane in Portland, OR, and during the flight to Seattle, WA, made a ransom demand.  The flight landed, refueled and took on board the requested $200,000 and four parachutes.  All the passengers with the exception of four members of the flight crew were released.  The flight took off again, and somewhere over the Washington/Oregon border, the hijacker jumped out of the plane with the money.

Fragments of the money were found in 1980, but otherwise, no remains or evidence have been discovered.  D.B. Cooper wasn’t actually the name of the hijacker who purchased his ticket using the alias “Dan Cooper.”  A man named Dan Cooper was cleared early on in the investigation, but a reporter misheard his name and from then on, the hijacker was known as D.B. Cooper.  Did he survive the jump out of the plane?  If so, where did he go?  If not, where’s the rest of the money?


This is a mystery that’s new to me and one that was made by design, literally.  Outside of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there stands a sculpture by American artist Jim Sanborn.  There are four encrypted messages on the sculpture, three of which have been solved.  The fourth remains a mystery and a source of much speculation in the worldwide community of cryptographers. Kryptos is featured in Dan Brown’s novel “The Lost Symbol.”  This is a mystery that will perhaps be solved; Sanborn has given two clues to the "New York Times" to help puzzle fanatics solve the fourth message.

So what really happened to Jonbenét Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman?  Is Jimmy Hoffa really buried under the west end zone in Giants' stadium?  Will Malaysia Airlines flight #370 ever be found?  

What about you? Which mysteries would you love to see solved in your lifetime?

Thursday, September 21, 2017


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Craig Johnson tells the story about how the biggest lie in fiction is that disclaimer in the front of the book that says: "This is a work of fiction. All characters, locations and events portrayed in this novel are products of the author's imagination....."  Something like that. You've seen it.

Well, sure they are. Products of our imaginations. But as the incredibly talented Cate Holahan says the author's imagination gets fueled by reality. So what's real--and what's made up?

CATE HOLAHAN: The hilltops smoked. I watched the swirling vapor as my boots sunk into the spongy, moss-covered ground beneath my new hiking boots. The wisps rose, not fell. I couldn’t ascribe them to the clouds that tumbled over the tallest peaks ahead in a slow motion waterfall. This was different.
This, as I would soon learn, was dangerous.

"Watch your step and stay close behind.” Our Icelandic mountain guide shouted over his shoulder at me and my fellow travelers. His name was Helgy, and he nearly matched my pre-conceived picture of an Icelandic wilderness guide. Tall. Tow-head. A modern-day Viking complete with broad shoulders propping up a water-proof, Gore-tex jacket. Only the beard that I’d imagined would cover the face of any proper Norse descendant was missing.

Helgy halted at a ridge and motioned for the stragglers to join him. He pointed below. “It’s twice the boiling point. Maybe more.”

I peered down at the milky pool steaming in the crater inches from Helgy’s feet, fighting my insane desire to strip down to my bathing suit. The water beckoned, a private blue lagoon for the five people in our hiking party. An escape from the island’s frigid summer air.

“I want to get in,” a friend said, echoing my thoughts.

“Well, you’d never get out.” Helgy’s smile dropped into a serious line that made up for the lack of beard. “It would melt off your legs and then, since there is nothing to hold on to, you’d sink below and disappear.”

I looked from the bubbling pool to admire the bucolic landscape boiling before us. “Wow,” I said. “There are so many ways to get rid of a body up here.”

And, just like that, I had a story idea. Later that night, in the safety of my hotel room, I sketched out an entire novel.

I retell this vacation anecdote because it touches upon the theme of my latest thriller, Lies She Told (Crooked Lane Books. Sept. 12, 2017). Where do writers get their ideas? How do they twist the truth to create fiction? Where are the lines beneath the lies?
     Lies She Told concerns a suspense writer, Liza, whose work-in-progress novel points at clues to a disappearance in her real life. The story alternates between Liza and the tale of Beth, her novel’s protagonist. After a body is found, the lines between Liza’s real life and her fiction begin to blur, forcing Liza to question the origins of her ideas. Has she subconsciously picked up on details about the people closest to her that could reveal a killer? How much of her art is an abstraction from her actual life? What is her fiction showing about her latent desires, suspicions, and frustrations? 

Whenever I write, I ask myself these same questions. My characters, I know, are amalgamations of people in my real life, fictional folks in admired novels, and myself. As my protagonist says in Lies She Told, “to be a writer is to be a life thief. Everyday, I rob myself blind.” 

When writing, I continually wonder where I am drawing the line and whether I am crossing boundaries that I shouldn’t.

Good fiction must have deep characters that are more than fractions of their creator. My people have to come from me without being boring, old me—or my lovely, but far-too-functional for thrillers, friends. 

I evaluate my characters against what I believe to have inspired them, constantly checking whether I have abstracted enough. Is this character too recognizable as my best friend from high school or have I stolen her speech patterns but actually based the personality on someone/thing else? 

Is a character reacting the way I imagine that I would in a similar scenario or is she being true to her backstory and responding in a way that is organic to how her was raised? Are my characters actions naturally leading to plot elements or am I orchestrating from on high, forcing plot points and the story I want to tell instead of the tale that would flow from my fictional people?

I think all writers must do a similar kind of analysis to make sure that they are telling a rich story with varied characters that act in accordance with their invented histories. Just because I am writing the story doesn’t mean I get to control it. My book’s protagonist, Liza, certainly doesn’t.

HANK: Authors, how do you handle real-life characters who try to get into your books?  Readers, do you think authors are making people up--or stealing from real life? 

Cate Holahan is the USA Today Bestselling author of The Widower's Wife (Crooked Lane Books, Aug. 2016) named to Kirkus' Best Books of 2016. Her third suspense thriller, Lies She Told (Crooked Lane Books, Sept. 12, 2017) was a September pick by Book of the Month Club.  In a former life, she was an award-winning journalist that wrote for The Record, The Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek. She lives in NJ with her husband, two daughters, and food-obsessed dog, and spends a disturbing amount of time highly-caffeinated, mining her own anxieties for material.  

The truth can be darker than fiction. Liza Cole, a once-successful novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. Meanwhile, she’s struggling to start a family, but her husband is distracted by the disappearance of his best friend, Nick. As stresses weigh her down in her professional and personal lives, Liza escapes into writing the chilling exploits of her latest heroine, Beth.

Beth, a new mother, suspects her husband is cheating on her while she’s home caring for their newborn. Angry and betrayed, she aims to catch him in the act and make him pay for shattering the illusion of their perfect life. But before she realizes what she’s doing, she’s tossing the body of her husband’s mistress into the East River.

Then, the lines between Liza’s fiction and her reality eerily blur. Nick’s body is dragged from the East River, and Liza’s husband is arrested for his murder. Before her deadline is up, Liza will have to face up to the truths about the people around her, including her own. If she doesn’t, the end of her heroine’s story could be the end of her own.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The "A" Word


I was recently searching for a birthday card for my college best friend and one of my sisters.  I found one I thought would work for both (hope you’re not reading this, Kirsten!) and it features card producers’ favorite topic: aging.

A huge percentage of birthday cards focus on aging and the physical failures that come with it, but outside of the card aisle and the beauty aisle, there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about a process we will all experience (hopefully).

We all know that we’ll age and die eventually, but I’ve found over the past couple of years that knowing and knowing are two different things.  My own back surgery and chronic back issues, and the recent major surgery of a loved one, has forced aging to the forefront of my brain.  There’s no shortage of advice for staying and looking young, but what about best practices for accepting the aging process?

A friend suggested I read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, M.D., a book that takes an unfiltered look at aging.  According to Gawande, the average life expectancy during the Roman Empire was thirty-years-old, a far cry from the 81.6 years now predicted for American women by the World Health Organization. Gawande argues that the medical community fails elderly patients because doctors are trained to fix problems, and there’s no fix for aging.  Instead, he thinks that the medical community, and the rest of us, should reframe aging as a natural process to be managed, not ignored or discounted.

In our age- and appearance-obsessed society, who do we look to for lessons in aging?

Before her death in 2014, Maya Angelou was a stellar example of someone embracing aging and celebrating the wisdom that comes with a long life.  She was a woman who seemed to get better with age!

Helen Mirren seems to embrace her current age and continue to blaze her own trail, whether in the roles she plays or her choice to rock a bikini at aged sixty-two.

And the queen of aging well? That would be the Queen, herself, in my estimation.   Queen Elizabeth II is 91-years-old and has held a most demanding job for 65 years.  Yes, she has lots of help (someone has to shop for those matching hats and outfits,) but she maintains a tough schedule and has to be “on” more than most people.

So, what are your thoughts on aging? How do you deal with the inevitable? Who do you think is aging well?

Eric Rickstad's prescription: Grab pencil & paper & GO!

HALLIE EPHRON: Today I'm happy to welcome Eric Rickstad to Jungle Red. He writes gripping literary thrillers, the kind that hook you on page one and don't let up until they gobsmack you with an ending you should have seen coming. Along the way, his prose dazzles.

His debut novel, a New York Times Notable Book, REAP, came out to critical acclaim in 2010; his fourth book, THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS, is just out. 

Eric sets his books in his home state of Vermont, this new one on a remote college campus. You can feel the poetry in his writing in this one-sentence introduction to Detective Frank Rath's niece, now his adopted daughter (her parents were killed):
Rachel Rath's flesh knew before her mind did that she was being watched.
I won't spoil what happens, but let's just say it's a page turner. Reading Eric's books is more like inhaling than reading... and I asked him what writing them is like for him.

ERIC RICKSTAD:  I write my novel’s first drafts in notebooks, with #2 pencils. I like the physicality, the feel and sound as graphite scratches paper. I like to cross out a paragraph with a dark, violent X, to circle a passage and draw arrows up to show where the passage really belongs, then draw more arrows. I like to doodle and to scribble notes, important notes like: This sucks, get a job. I like to write anywhere I want when I want, on a stream bank or on my porch steps, or perhaps your porch steps.

What I love about writing with a pencil is that the writing comes so much easier, in a surge I cannot replicate when click-clacking keys. The physical act of writing sparks a white-hot livewire from my mind to pencil to page.

There was a period when I “transitioned” to writing first drafts on my laptop. It was wasted time, I reasoned, to write a novel in a notebook only to then have to type into a Word doc what looked like a 100,000-word drug prescription.

During this period, the words still came. Yet, I found myself “stuck” far more often, staring at the blinking cursor, and, while stuck, I became tempted to “check” email, social media, and “breaking news.” When I succumbed to this temptation, it proved a shameful waste of time. We all do it, but I loathed it.

So, I made a pact: when I got  stuck staring at a cursor, I’d shut down the laptop, grab my pencil, pocketknife, and notebook, and venture to a comfy chair or under a tree. 
And. Voila. No longer stuck. Often on a day when I got no writing done in the first few hours on my laptop, I ended up writing 20 notebook pages in an hour. Not all of it was good, but all of it was useful. Every word we write is useful.

Long ago, I reverted back to writing first drafts longhand. I have boxes and boxes of notebooks of my novels. Even when working on a tenth draft in Word, I’ll go to the notebook to work out a plot point or to resurrect a dead passage by writing it anew on a real page with a real pencil.

I still get stuck writing this way. I still have atrocious days of dreck; yet, instead of staring at that blinking cursor, I get to see how fine a point I can whittle on my pencil tip. I get to study the wood shavings, which are far more fascinating than a cursor. Even when no words come, I’ve not wasted time, my mind, my subconscious, remains fully engaged as I tap my pencil on the page. And, much as one tries, one can’t surf the Internet on a notebook page. Not yet.

So, if you find your writing is stuck or uninspired, for any reason at all, change it up, unplug, go to a location that does inspire, get outside, grab a pencil and a notebook and see what comes when it is once again truly just you and the page. 

HALLIE: Great advice! What I want to know from Eric is: Pencil shavings? Don't you have a pencil sharpener (my electric pencil sharpener is my favorite time waster)? And how much of what you write longhand actually ends up going in the book?

And for the rest of us, does the writing implement make a big difference? Pencil? Sharpie? Fountain pen? Or keyboard?? What's your weapon of choice?