Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Dennis Palumbo

"I assumed the burden of the profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well."—Agatha Christie

ROBERTA: Jungle Red Writers and readers, do we have a special guest for you today!

Dennis Palumbo is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. He’s the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, his credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots.

His short fiction and articles have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, EMMY Magazine, and many others. His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. Currently, he’s a contributing writer to The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, and does commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

I’m especially interested in Dennis’s career path, as it’s the opposite of mine—he started out as a writer and now works as a psychotherapist. Welcome Dennis! Since we have a lot of writers who visit the blog, could you start out by talking about writers’ block? Who gets it and why, and what can we do about it?

DENNIS: What does it mean if you get writer’s block? It means you’re a writer...and that’s all it means.

Unlike most people who talk about writer’s block, I happen to think it’s good news for writers! Why? Well, let’s look at the conventional view of a block...it’s a wall, or some other kind of unpassable space or obstacle. That’s why writers feel like they’re banging their heads against it.

However, I conceptualize writer’s block differently. If you look at the biographies of writers (and other artists) you admire, you’ll notice at least four or five major “blocked” periods, in which they either didn’t work, or else their work became stale and repetitive. And then, suddenly, a new, exciting phase of work began.

Simply put, I believe writer’s block is a natural, necessary developmental stage in the growth of a writer, similar to the developmental stages we all go through as we mature. Just as a toddler stumbles and falls repeatedly before learning how to walk, I believe writers must navigate and master similar developmental “steps” if they’re to mature as writers.

For example, maybe the writer is blocked (struggling with a character, or stuck at a point in the work) because what’s coming next represents a real growth spurt in the writing (i.e., maybe the writer is trying to structure a difficult plot for the first time, or is risking writing about personal or sexual issues for the first time, etc.).

This “block” then must be navigated, worked through, so that the writer’s work can grow in craft and personal relevancy. But do I have any proof that writer’s block is good news for a writer, and is actually a necessary part of a writer’s growth in craft? I think I do.

Just ask yourself: have you ever worked through a difficult block without thinking that you were a better writer for having gone through it? Almost every writer I’ve worked with who struggled to navigate a block has stated that he or she felt they were better writers on the other side of it!

ROBERTA: How does therapy with “creative types” differ from traditional therapy? At what point would one of us know we need to see you?

DENNIS: Doing therapy with creative people is both different and the same as doing therapy with non-creative types. (How’s that for a wishy-washy answer?)

Seriously, regardless of what issue a creative person—--let’s say, a writer---comes into treatment for (say, writer’s block or procrastination or fear of rejection), we usually find that these issues are inextricably bound up in the same personal issues that hamper other parts of their lives.

So, for example, if we explore procrastination, which is often due to a fear of shameful self-exposure, we might discover how the writer felt criticized and judged as a child, so that finally finishing a piece of writing now
as an adult leaves it open to criticism and possible rejection. Invariably, in such cases, I often find that the adult writer is likewise fearful of criticism and rejection in his or her personal relationships.

What makes my practice unique, I think, is that as a writer myself, I’ve struggled with and worked through many of the same issues my writer patients with. For instance, if a writer is anxious about pitching an idea to an executive at NBC, I can relate, having done so myself hundreds of times. Because even though some of the writer’s fears may have their roots in early childhood experiences, there are also plenty of non-psychological, pragmatic reasons to be anxious about pitching to a network (or editor or agent), and I feel I can help with both aspects of his or her dilemma.

Make no mistake, writing---and every other art form---is hard. The life is uncertain, the rewards often more personal than public, the financial realities sometimes pretty bleak. As Robert Frost said, “The one thing all nations of the earth share is a fear that a member of your family will want to be an artist.”

When will you know that you need to see a therapist? When the issues you’re confronting, personal or professional, interfere with your social, familial or professional functioning. When you not only are blocked, but begin beating yourself up for being blocked. When not only are you afraid of rejection, but you begin berating yourself for having such a fear.

Remember, feelings themselves aren’t the problem---it’s what you think those feelings “mean,” what you think they “say about you” that causes real misery and paralysis. If you’re experiencing anything like the above, it might be a good idea to consider seeing a therapist.

ROBERTA: Since your Jungle Red hosts are all mystery writers, we’re dying to hear about FROM CRIME TO CRIME. Why did you turn to crime?

DENNIS: I’m afraid it’s a life-long love, which started when my parents bought me a beautiful hard-bound version of The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes when I was 12. I’ve been hooked on the genre ever since.

Actually, the very first thing I wrote that got published was a crime story, “Many A Slip,” that appeared in 1978 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This was even before I was a writer on TV sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter, and before My Favorite Year. Then, throughout my career as a screenwriter, I enjoyed mysteries and thrillers.

Then, many years later, after retiring from film and TV writing to become a licensed psychotherapist, I returned to my life of crime by writing more whodunnits for EQMM, as well as The Strand and elsewhere.

What makes my new collection of short stories, From Crime to Crime, so unique is that most of the tales feature a group of hapless amateur sleuths based on real people---a therapist (me) and three of my friends. Like the Smart Guys in the stories, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred and I met every Sunday afternoon for deli and beer, to argue and debate and rant about the issues of the day.

In the fictional Smart Guys stories in my new book, I merely grafted this truth about us and our rowdy get-togethers onto the classic “armchair mystery” format---borrowing heavily from Agatha Christie’s Tuesday Night Club and Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers tales.

(Incidentally, it might amuse your readers to know that the real-life members of our old group have since enjoyed seeing themselves immortalized in print. The only complaint came from Mark, who felt I didn’t emphasize enough his great success with women. Poor deluded boy.)

Anyway, I’ve been gratified by the response to the Smart Guys stories, as well as the three stand-alone stories that complete the collection. Though even two of these stories also feature amateur sleuths: one, a female police psychologist whose session with a patient threatens to turn deadly; and the other, about a penniless patent clerk named Albert Einstein who gets caught up in the search for a turn-of-the-century serial killer.

Thanks for opportunity to answer your questions. I hope I’ve done a decent job. I also hope your readers will check out my new book, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). If they do so, I’d love to hear their comments about it.

They can contact me, or get more information about me and my work, by visiting my website, conveniently named www.dennispalumbo.com. Thanks again!

ROBERTA: And now the doctor is in, ready to take your questions....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On the Wedding Season

“Going to the chapel and we’re gonna’ get married…” The Dixie Cups

“Long-distance chats with Jeanine about the gowns had begun just after she and Rick made the formal announcement of their engagement. Recently they’d mounted into a daily blitz. Should she choose the purple, which she called “aubergine,” (appropriate for a fall wedding and guaranteed to burnish the bridesmaids’ complexions to glowing) or the forest green (best suited as a background for the golf theme tableware and centerpieces)? The aubergine, Jeanine informed me, would open the door to the lily family. The green, on the other hand, might call for white or yellow roses. And the roses would lend themselves to an elegant but more formal arrangement. She had been frozen. She obviously preferred the purple, but was unable to surrender the golf-theme tie-in. My best friend, Laura, hypothesized that brides frequently focused on this sort of detail in order to avoid confronting the enormity of the leap they were about to make.” Cassie Burdette in FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.

ROBERTA: Ah the wedding season—how many are you invited to this summer? We’re up to four, including a destination event in Homer, Alaska. Things are a little different from the old days—it seems to be de rigueur to have a wedding website, chronicling every personal detail from “the proposal” to bios of the bridesmaids. And never mind the one night out on the town for the “boys”—the bride has a bachelorette party, too, which can involve a separate destination weekend. One of my nephews attended a bachelor party that called for a week of surfing in Fiji. (OK, that’s tough duty for a surfer!) And did you see the Style section of the NYT last Thursday about brides who're insisting on botox or boob enhancement for the bridesmaids?

Not that I didn’t have obsessions too: after all, I’d been through a divorce and was marrying a man with two young children who were none too happy about the addition of a wicked stepmother. But they were low-budget obsessions. I sewed the flower girl’s dress myself, along with a matching ring-bearer’s pillow. And we decided to throw the reception in our backyard and do most of the cooking. When I ran out of all those projects, I spent hours hemming 150 cloth napkins in various blue and pink flowered cotton fabrics. Honestly John began to think he was marrying a fruitcake.

Now it’s your turn, JRW, how did you manage your wedding jitters?

HALLIE: I don't remember why, but I do remember walking down the aisle in tears. My wedding was at my parents Manhattan apartment. Simple, low key--I sent the invites, my mother did the flowers, and people who came still remember the food which came from the Rainbow Grill (they were a client of my then brother-in-law). My dress was white crocheted cotton lace from Fred Leighton’s in Greenwich Village. I was so oblivious that I didn’t even have a slip to put under it or anything to wear on my head.

My father got a record of the bridal march from the library and played it on the phonograph, and I marched from the bedroom into the living room.

The rabbi from Columbia University officiated, and he’d just been fired for advocating for rioting students (it was ’69). He wore purple robes and cowboy boots, and went on and on and on while we waited to break the glass and be declared man and wife. He was probably more than a little drunk. In the middle of his speech or sermon or whatever the heck he was going on about, my father, not so sotto voce, asks, “Is he trying to marry them or talk them out of it?”

RO: That's a great line...but why am I surprised..?
I remember wanting to BE married, but not so much GET married. Early in the process someone asked me if I wanted little sprigs of rosemary stuck in the napkins. I thought she was insane (although now it seems like a nice touch..) After that, my husband's assistant - now a vice-president at Random House - planned most (all) of my wedding. I've often thought of it as a trial run for her own wedding ten years later.

We got married at the Central Park boathouse and gondoliers ferried guests around all evening. I pretty much just bought the dress, chose the flowers and showed up. I asked my bridesmaids to wear any long, dark blue dresses they liked. (I still have one asparagus fern and lots of baskets from that night.)

Showing up was a little harder since my husband and I went to a Knicks playoff game that afternoon - this was back in the day when they still had a good team. The Cleveland Cavaliers were in town and had lost badly in the first game of the series so they had something to prove. We were worried the game would go into overtime..and so was my (gorgeous) maid of honor and bridesmaid who were nervously waiting for me at the Plaza hotel. I finally got there, but hadn't had time to get hair done so my MOH rubbed a little Kiehl's Silk groom in my hair, gave me some bubbly and fluffed up my big white dress. It was like that scene in Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock looks frumpy at the beauty pageant and all of the other contestants help her look good.

In the lobby we bumped into the Cavs who were also staying at the hotel. BTW, they beat the Knicks 90-84.

HANK: I was 46. Jonathan 56. So I decided to go for it with the dress. My mother said, "You can't wear that! It's a Barbie dress!" But I loved it and still do.

My wedding jitters? Turned out to be lovely. We got married at the Four Seasons, just family, then had a big big big party at a wonderful restaurant called Salamander. The rabbi was half an hour late--he got caught in the traffic of a road race--so we had the champagne first. And talked and hung out and played Grieg's Wedding Day at Trollhagen, which still makes me happy when I hear it.

But the hour or so before the wedding, I was almost all dressed, and suddenly, I began to panic. Not about marrying my wonderful Jonathan, but about the production. What if--the food was bad? What if--the band was terrible? What if--the relatives didn't like each other? What if--no one had fun?

And then I thought--hey, every bride feels like this. Every bride in the history of the planet has had a moment when they have the jitters over something or other--the cake, the food, her dress, the flowers, the weird relatives, dancing the first dance, runny mascara. (Having no slip, or being late, or wanting to hem all the cloth napkins). And I was just filled with joy--to be so cosmically connected to all those other almost-brides--that I almost burst into tears.

And then I was fine.

JAN: I was the youngest and only girl. Plus, I put off my original engagement to my husband and made my parents wait an additional four years before I got married. They wanted to throw this party in the worst way. Although, I didn't know I was doing it at the time, I made a very strategic decision: I agreed to get married on my parents anniversary and wear my mother's wedding gown. My mother then took over the planning -- which was great because I was busy working at a paper in Worcester and the wedding was in Jersey. She picked a great location, a very classy country club with excellent food, hand wrote all the invitations and over-rode my instincts of frugality. The only thing I did was pick the band - which was Dixieland Jazz.

Probably the best part was at the ceremony when the priest made us take a moment and remember my brother who had passed away. My brother had set me up with my husband, who had been his college roommate. This moment made me feel like my brother was there with us, the missing best man. So, just like Hank and Hallie, I had tears running down my face. Really good tears.

ROBERTA: oh my gosh, every one of you is gorgeous, adorable, stunning...hope all the couples getting married this season will have the same kind of lovely memories ...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On the Name Game

Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's a waste of time. And we dare you to resist.

"Billy Billy Bo Billie Bananafanna fo filly, fee fi mo filly, Billy. The Name Game."

**Shirley Ellis

Names of book characters--how do you think of them?

HANK's here today: In my books, two things happen. One type of character appears with a name already in place. Charlotte McNally. It arrived, and I had not one more thought about it. Franklin was Franklin Brooks Parrish instantly. Names are so fascinating things to me, because a name has to work, and be the essence of the character, without being heavy handed.

So some I struggle with a bit. Penny, for instance. Was instantly Penny. Then I thought no, maybe that’s not a hip enough name for an eight-year-old with contemporary parents. So I changed her name in the manuscript to Emma. Then Annie. Then Ella. And all the while every time she showed up in the story, I kept typing Penny. Because, apparently, that’s what her name is—Penny. And so she stayed.

Anyway—the naming of Josh Gelston, the Atticus Finch looking college professor Charlotte is so interest in—was truly hilarious. My first boyfriend ever, I think when I was about seven years old? Was named Phillip Gelston. So I wanted a non-ethnic, sort of strong last name that wouldn’t instantly telegraph anything. Gelston worked.

But he couldn’t be Phillip, because of my own last name. So I started thinking about names that were one syllable, masculine, strong, traditional not trendy, very simple and that someone who is about 50 would logically have been named. So I thought: Ben. Luke. Jake. Max. Sam. Josh. Yes, Josh. Then Joshua Ives Gelston just came out of my brain. Which I loved.

So guess how I came up with the name of June Ridgedale? She's going to be--what else, a lovely and gentle prep school teacher or counselor in DRIVE TIME. I mean--you can tell by her name, she's not going to be a cop, right?

I found her via the fab Lorraine Bartlett. Because Lorraine's mother's middle name plus the name of the street where she first lived is June Ridgedale. The moment I heard it, I pounced.

And, because the fabulous Guppies had a completely hilarous discussion about it--I know a whole bunch of nom de Moms. Sheila Connolly has a good one. And Pat Remick. And many more.

Mine is Miriam Ritter. A thirties movie star if I ever heard it.

What's yours?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


“Compton’s debut is a taut, tense cautionary tale complete with courtroom drama and a surprise ending.”

-Kirkus (starred review)

Her first book. A starred review. What one reviewer called a "searing" novel about an up and coming attorney--who makes one wrong decision--and it's a big one. He becomes obsessed with a colleague. And Jenny's not his wife. What should have been a one-time fling turns disastrous-- when Jenny is accused of the murder of one of her clients, and Jack is her only alibi. Now Jack’s in the painful and precarious position of being trapped between saving a friend and protecting his family.

(cue scary music)

Julie Compton was a huge hit at Thrillerfest..and now that she's back home, she's taking a moment from Mom duties to tell us about thinking in the shower and writing like a man.

HANK: You're a lawyer--have you always wanted to write mysteries? Do you remember when the idea for Tell No Lies came to you? If you can tell us your kind of eureka moment without giving away the ending--what was it?

When I first began to write the novel that eventually became Tell No Lies, I didn't intend to write a mystery or a legal thriller. At the time I wrote the first scene, I had no idea what the novel would be "about." I didn't even know whether I was starting a novel or a short story; I merely had a scene in my head of two characters arguing about the death penalty over lunch.

Those two characters eventually became Jack, my main character, and Jenny, the object of his obsession.

The idea for the larger story came only after I'd run across two news stories. One involved unethical behavior by a politician (imagine that!) and it got me to thinking, as so many of those stories do: Why would he do that? Why would he risk everything? I believe most people are good -- even those who do "bad" things -- and I wanted to explore how and why a good person ends up doing something so out of character.
The second news story involved a young man accused of a crime, and despite the mounting evidence against him, his mother continued to insist he was innocent. She was in complete denial. It was another aspect of human nature I found interesting and wanted to explore.

Interestingly enough, I heard the first news story on my shower radio while taking a shower! I started formulating an idea for the novel right then and there, and as soon as I dried off, I ran down to my office and wrote the idea in a stream of consciousness narrative so I wouldn't forget it. If you were to look at that "summary" today, however, it barely resembles the finished product.

HANK: Your main character is a man. Did you have to reset your brain to write from a male point of view? How?

JULIE: I didn't even realize my tendency to write from the male point of view until someone pointed it out to me! But it's absolutely true. Almost everything I've written and finished has been written from the male point of view. The few times I've tried to write something from the female point of view, I've run out of steam. For whatever reason, I hit a wall or became bored with my story, and I stopped in the middle.
The easy explanation,I think, is that I grew up with five older brothers. I spent a lot of time around boys! But in general, I just find it more fun to write about men. Men seem to keep a lot inside and that makes it much more interesting to write from the male point of view. What they say on the outside (their dialogue) may be completely different from what they're thinking on the inside (the narrative). It becomes more of a challenge to the writer, I think.

HANK: Are you still working as a lawyer? How do you juggle your lawyer/mom/writing time?

JULIE: No, I no longer actively practice, though I volunteer as a guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children. I'm not a lawyer in those cases, but it keeps me in the courtroom and I feel like I'm able to make a positive difference in the world, however small.Juggling my roles as a mom and a writer is a bit easier now because my girls are older. When I wrote Tell No Lies, my older daughter was in elementary school and the younger was in preschool, so I wrote when they were at school.

I do remember days, though, when they'd come home and I'd be in the middle of a scene and not want to stop writing. I'd encourage them to invite friends over, because although the house would then be crowded and loud, they would keep themselves busy playing and didn't care that I was still writing. I could see right into their playroom from my office, so I was able to keep an eye on them even as I wrote.
I returned to the practice of law for a few years after I had the first draft completed, and it took me a long time to edit because I simply didn't have the same amount of time to devote to my writing. I'm one of those people who require eight hours of sleep a night. I admire writers who hold another full-time job and still have the energy to spend their evenings writing. They must have incredible stamina! When we moved to Florida and I had the opportunity to stay home with my girls again, I jumped. I enjoyed being there when they returned from school, and I missed the long days of writing.
HANK: There's a lot of chat about the "surprise ending"--comparing your book with Presumed Innocent. (Nice!) Do you wish people would stop talking about the ending?

JULIE: Not at all! I love that they talk about it! The only downside is that now I feel compelled to have another surprise at the end of my next novel. My editor laughed when I told her this and said that I'll drive myself crazy if I put that kind of pressure on myself.

HANK: So you're working on a new book now? How does it end? (Kidding.)
JULIE: I finished my second novel and recently received the feedback from my editors, so I'm gearing up to work on the revisions. It's the story of a biker guy (there's that male point of view again!) whose girlfriend is mysteriously taken from him without so much as a goodbye. In his quest to find her and literally save her life, he ends up figuratively saving his own.

HANK: And finally, the Jungle Red Quiz!

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Poirot. It's the French accent. (Though I guess he was actually Belgian, right?)

Sex or violence?
Sex, without a doubt. I'm one of those parents who don't quite get the other parents who have no trouble with their kids seeing whatever level of violence, blood and gore -- whether in games, on the screen, books, etc. -- yet cover their child's eyes if they happen to see a picture of a naked woman. What's that all about??

Pizza or chocolate?
Hmm, that's a tough one. Pizza, but only if it's Imo's Pizza in St. Louis.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? (We won't even include Sean Connery because we know the answer. Don't we?)
You're killing me here, Hank! Can I take Pierce's face and Daniel's body?

Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Katherine, hands down.

First person or Third Person?

Prologue or no prologue?Depends on the type of book one is writing, but if I have to choose, I'd say no prologue.

Your favorite non-mystery book?
I don't know that I can name just one, but the book I'm telling everyone about right now is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Simply amazing.

Making dinner or making reservations?Making reservations. I'm a huge foodie, as long as someone else is the chef.

And now, of course, for your readers: The Jungle Red Quiz:
Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess

1. My house was once demolished by a tornado.
2. I'm a pilot.
3. I can play the saxophone.
4. Our family's menagerie of animals includes a dog, three cats, two turtles, two rats, a bird and an alligator who sits on our driveway.

Thanks Julie! I'm guessing: saxophone.

(HANK: Here's what I wonder, though, shouldn't every mystery have a "surprise" ending? I mean, if it doesn't, hasn't the author failed? I guess some are just more surprise-y than others, right? I mean--Presumed Innocent, yeah. That was a surprise. Roger Ackroyd, of course. And the movie the Sixth Sense. What makes them good? Is it--they they're fair? A surprise ending that's stupid is certainly a surprise--but not one you'd want.)

Though Julie Compton was born, raised, and educated in St. Louis, MO (the setting for Tell No Lies), she's had the pleasure of bouncing around the country for more than a decade with her husband Rick and daughters Jessie and Sally. After leaving St. Louis, she spent a few years in Boston and even more in Philly before her family settled finally in Florida. She's practiced law along the way, including a stint with the U.S. Trustee's Office in Wilmington, Delaware (part of the U.S. Department of Justice), but now she gets to pop out of bed in the morning to do something much more fun: write.

Visit Julie at http://www.julie-compton.com

Sunday, July 20, 2008


"Originality consists in returning to the origin."
Antonio Gaudi

HANK: The front of our house fell off.Well, not totally off. But pretty much.Our house, a three story not-quite Victorian was built in 1894. And when I moved in, in 1995 (which is kind of cool, coming in a hundred years later...and I'm still hoping there are many ghosts, but there seem to be mostly moths) it was white siding, that (kind of) looked like wood.

Well, last week there was a huge hailstorm here. Yes, hail, and I was home to see it. I took photos, it was literally white-out conditions. Here's the view from the front porch, through the roses. Then the hail on the porch, taken though a second floor window.
Here's a close up of the hail on the porch, with a little maple thing so you can see the size.

The next day, the front of our house was battered. The siding was pooching out, like it had a little belly. And the next day, the belly was bigger, and then bigger. Kevin our contractor guy came over, and shook his head. The siding is coming off, he said. No way to stop it.

Oh, man.

So. They started taking off the siding. And underneath? Are beautiful grey wood shingles. Beautiful, weathered, New England-y grey shingles. Fantastic.

See? Under the whiteTyvek, and just below, are shingles. The rest is gray clapboard.
It's hard to tell. But this house used to be all white siding. Now it's gray.
However. Not all of the shingles are in good shape. A lot of them are. A lot of them aren't. Around the windows is raw wood.How much would it cost, I asked, to just rip down all the siding and fix the shingles?
Jungle redders, you DO NOT even want to know.
So. Do we put up all new siding? Put back up the old siding? (Which would look terrible and patchy.) Have the shingles just in the front?

Now right about here, this blog could turn the corner into editing. How it's all about finding what lies beneath our over-written first drafts, and revealing the beautiful origins?

Or it could be about the money pit. You guys choose.

JAN: I'll go the editing route. Right now, I'm working on a screenplay and I've decided to just let myself get the scenes out. Every other one is too long, or too full of cliches, but I'm getting the conflicts in place. For me, writing is not so much about renovation - unveiling what lies beneath -- but reconstruction. Writing it wrong helps me see what would be right. Either way, the fun part is refinement.

BTW, to really understand Hank's post, you have to understand Hank's house, which is just a wonderful place with nooks and crannies and the details that obviously inspire all sorts of creativity.

RO: Bummer! Hank, I LOVE your house..every time I visit I discover another room that becomes my new favorite.

I'm going the money pit route. First, my first drafts are lean to the point of anorexic. I need to layer, not strip down. Second, I'm currently living in a house with no countertops, no kitchen sink and no floor in the kitchen. And the contractor just sent me an estimate that's double what I thought it would be. (This is why you should never have a handshake deal with anyone holding a sledgehammer..)

If you just replace the shingles in the front what would you have on the sides and back of the house?

HANK: Well, yeah, ain't that the question. I'm considering the "facade" approach. You know in vintage buildings, they leave the old front, and make the back new? So in our case, the back and sides would be from the 1960's, thewhite siding, and the front would be shingles. If you stand in the front yard, looking at the front of the house, you can't see the sides. And thanks for the kind words, guys, about the house. We love it, too. It just needs a little, um, facelift.

HALLIE: Old front, new back. Reminds of me of the wonderful Erma Bombeck essay about her version of home improvement: painting the the house down to the bushes. Our house must have been inhabited by her relatives--only the edges of the floor visible around rugs were finished.
In home improvement, I'm definitely a minimalist. Cheap and easy. But in writing, I tear it back to the studs if I have to...but save the pieces in case I decide to dial it back.
ROBERTA: Ay-yi-yi-yi, more construction metaphors. Recall that I am still a woman with a giant-sized dumpster in her driveway and dusty men tromping through all day! Pardon me while I wander and maybe I'll come up with something useful to say...Isn't it so odd the way the construction workers begin to feel like part of the family? The guys we have yanking off the front of our house love animals. If I take the dog out, they all yell out "Tonka!" from their scaffolding perches. The other day, one commented that they really needed a fourth person to wrestle the windows up the ladders. I demurred. "How about TONKA!" they yelled. "We want Tonka!"

Let's see, what was the question? Money pit, definitely! And Hank, just do the whole house. It'll be cheaper now than in a few years when you decide you made a mistake and call the contractor back to finish the job.:)

HANK: It just makes me think about writing. Yes, it really does. I'll be sitting at the computer--staring at a blank page. And I'll say to myself: what does this scene mean? And when pared down to my original meaning, my orginal goal, suddenly it begins to work.
Still. I'm not sure that means rip the siding from the whole house.
Come back Wednesday for a chat with a brand new mystery author whose book just hit the shelves...and Friday, we'll talk about names.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Awash in Kale

HALLIE: This bowl contains our glorious weekly share of organic produce from the Farm School CSA (community support agriculture ).

Mesclun greens. Check.
Green beans. Check.
Onions. Check.
White radishes. Check. Parsley and dill. Check check.
Carrots and cucumbers and squash and beets. Check check check check.

This bounty is just 1/3-share--we split a single share with two other families—and this week Michelle and Donna graciously took all the kale. The farm is in Western Massachusetts, the season runs from June until November, and this 1/3-share costs us about $10 a week (plus gas to get to the drop-off point in Watertown).

The down side is there’s no choice—we get what they’re growing. I’ll be happy about this once the tomatoes come in. But how many ways are there to cook the kale and swiss chard that I usually enjoy in winter with white beans and chorizo? And one box of the most delicious strawberries you’ve ever tasted, split three ways, amounts to a meager eight berries a family.

The most amazing part is how fresh it is. Even after a week of sitting in my refrigerator, the lettuce and greens remain crisp. Guess that's what happens when they don't travel halfway around the world to get to my fridge.

No, we don’t work the farm, though there are CSAs where you can do that. All we have to do is pick the stuff up when it arrives in single-share box loads in Watertown.
A story about CSAs was recently featured on the front page of the New York Times . In the early 1990s, the article says, there were fewer than 100 such farms. Today there are close to 1,500.

It’s awfully nice to be on the cutting edge of a trend that's in the right direction. Eat healthy. Save gas. Support small farms. It’s the old win win win. And in case you, too, are awash in kale, here’s a my very own, invented out of necessity, summer kale soup recipe:

Hallie's Cold Summer Kale Soup…

3 small peeled potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable)
1 bunch of kale leaves, washed, the stems removed
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cups Buttermilk
Olive oil

Simmer the potatoes in the broth until fork tender.

Sautee the onions in oil until transluscent
Add the kale and cook until limp
Cover the pan and lower the heat and continue cooking for about 20 minutes.

Let everything cool.

Dump the potatoes/broth and the cooked kale/onions into a blender (in batches if need be) and blend until smooth.
Pour the blended mixture into a serving bowl and stir in buttermilk (add less or more until it’s the thickness you like)
Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve chilled.
(Optional: garnish each serving with chopped scallions or chives or chopped sage)
(Optional: swirl a spoonful of Greek yogurt into to each serving)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


"From first page to finis, NOX DORMIENDA by Kelli Stanley is chock full of chills, thrills, and breath-taking adventure. Fueled by fascinating characters and rich details from Londinium in 83 A.D., this unforgettable tale brings the past eerily alive while leaving you hungering for the next book in what surely will be an exciting series. Stanley is a terrific writer."

Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Spymaster

HANK: I first met Kelli--on line, I think. She's one of the stellar debut authors of International Thriller Writers, and I had the delight to see her and her fellow debuters last weekend at Thrillerfest!

She writes mystery-thrillers in a noir tradition,and her first novel, NOX DORMIENDA (A Long Night for Sleeping), is out this week. Can you guess who her personal author-hero is? The answer is below.

NOX is the first of a new series in a new genre Kelli calls Roman Noir. Set in first century AD Britain and featuring Arcturus, a hard-boiled protagonist in the best Marlowe tradition, NOX is "a suspense thriller that combines a classic noir style with the rich texture of the ancient past." And the cover rocks.

HANK: Your book is--noir but not noir? Historical fiction, but not historical fiction? The very very first of the British murder mysteries? How would you describe it--or do we even need such labels?

Well, first let me thank you, Hank, for hosting me on the fabulous Jungle Red Authors! It’s so wonderful—and an honor—to be here!
I think labels can get in the way sometimes … but we’re stuck with them. Since Nox Dormienda is such a hybrid – ancient Roman Britain meets 1930s Los Angeles – I came up with "Roman noir." It’s really a pun on the French literary term for "black novel" – what French critics labeled many mysteries and melodramas of the 20s, 30s and 40s.

Nox is directly inspired by Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and a whole lot of film noir. Now, some noir purists don’t include Chandler into the noir pantheon, some do, and I’m one of the latter, so I’m comfortable in calling it noir … though it’s definitely not as black as, say, Jim Thompson or David Goodis.
My specific goal was to make history as compelling and visceral as a contemporary headline. I’ve heard too many readers automatically label historical fiction as "boring," and I wanted to create a book to challenge that assumption. So it’s really a historical mystery-thriller written for people who don’t like history!

JRW: Tell us about the title.

"Nox dormienda" means a night you sleep through … forever. Catullus, the Roman poet, wrote exquisite love poems and vituperative verse-attacks (to the same woman!) … "una nox dormienda" is a line from one erotic, romantic poem in particular. The idea is to make love now, since death is around the corner, and the sun will rise, but maybe we won’t be so lucky.

Poets have been selling that bill of goods for thousands of years!
Anyway, Raymond Chandler (an English-educated classicist) lifted the "nox dormienda" concept into popular culture with his first book, The Big Sleep.
So my Nox Dormienda is a tribute both to Catullus … and to Chandler, my literary hero.

HANK: Your main character--how did you "meet" him? And what's he like?

I’ve been told that Arcturus is a hottie! And I’m very relieved, for his sake!
I first met him in a class, when I was pursuing my degree … but I didn’t really "know" him until one night at the Noir City film noir festival in San Francisco … after several days of classic noir films, everything sort of gelled, and I knew the direction I wanted to go.
Arcturus is, for me, the ultimate outsider. Half native, half Roman, he’s not fully trusted by either culture. And his talent—that of healing, whether through medicine or investigation—sets him apart. Also his capacity for violence. Also his guilt, when he can’t save a patient.
He’s impulsive, compassionate, stubborn, sometimes arrogant. Cynical. But he also knows how to laugh … and cry. He’s the kind of man that you could know, and like, but who will always be alone, in his heart of hearts. He pursues what he considers justice, and because he is an outsider, and is alone, he’s sometimes successful.

HANK: How do you get your brain to let you visit first century Roman Britain? Are you in a different place when you write? When you go to Starbucks and use a computer or Tivo a TV show, do you feel as if you're just visiting?

I’ve always been comfortable in the past, though I love technology! And I’ve spent so much time immersed in Roman culture that I’m able to sort of pop myself there … as long as I’m writing in a quiet place. Fortunately, my neighborhood in San Francisco is out by the beach … nature sounds, not too noisy, so I do most of my writing at home.

With the book I’m working on now, set in San Francisco in 1940, it’s just the opposite … I like to have ambient city atmosphere around me. Old-fashioned family restaurants, the clang of the cable cars. And because the year is so close, within my parents’ lives, it sometimes does feel as though I’m "just visiting" contemporary society … especially when I’m at a department store, and there aren’t any shoulder pads!
HANK: Shoulder pads are coming back. I know it.
JRW: We can't imagine the research. Did you write your story first, then make it authentic second? Or, because you're already such an expert in the field--you've lived in Italy and traveled through Europe, learned Latin and Greek, got a B.A. in Art History and Classics and a Master’s Degree in Classics--did you just go with what you already knew?

The degrees gave me the ability to imagine … to synthesize what I’ve learned, and, like jazz, sort of riff on it. Human nature doesn’t—and hasn’t—changed, really. But what sorts of crimes, what forms of resolution, what kinds of justice can be attained … you have to thoroughly understand the culture to imagine that.
The specifics—even with a Master’s—always need extra research, particularly when it comes to daily life (something most Classics degrees don’t emphasize) … you spend your time studying the high art and literature of the culture, and you have to piecemeal the popular, the every day. I had to change a few things in light of what I learned later.

Authenticity is critical … and I really enjoyed using as many historical figures in the book as possible.

And now--speaking of classics! The Jungle Red QUIZ:
Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss Marple … because I’ve always loved the incongruity of the little old spinster lady with murder on her mind!

Sex or violence?
No contest there! Sex every time!

Pizza or chocolate?
Mmm … that’s a toughie. I’d have to go with dark chocolate, preferably Richart (French) or Belgian …

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? (We won't even include Sean Connery because we know the answer. Don't we?)
Ah, Sean … oh, sorry, we were talking Daniel or Pierce, right? Well, prior to that bathing suit scene in Casino Royale … oh, let’s just make it Daniel Craig. He’s like a rougher, tougher Russell Crowe, and SUCH a sexy Bond!

Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
I adore both actresses! And Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of my favorites … Kate’s like a Rock of Gibraltar for me, though, so let’s go with her.

First person or Third Person?
First person.

Prologue or no prologue?
No prologue. Straight, no chaser, too!

Favorite non-mystery book?
Hardest question of all, and impossible to answer … so I’ll pick a random favorite: Emma, Jane Austen.

Making dinner or making reservations?
Reservations, reservations, reservations!

And finally: The Jungle Red Readers Choice:

Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess.

Took Greer Garson home from a production of Sweeney Todd.
Sold escort service and massage ads for a phone company as a summer job.
Am reasonably sensitive to psychic phenomena, and participated in a ghost expedition.
Spent three years of my childhood on a commune in northern California.

Thanks Kelli! S0--any questions out there about the classics? Being a debut author?

I'm guessing--just from knowing her the tiniest bit--that she's reasonably sensitive to psychic phenomena--what do you all think?

(For more information about the world of NOX DORMIENDA (including excerpts) visit her website at http://www.kellistanley.com One DL reviewer says--If Raymond Chandler and Lindsey Davis collaborated on a book, this would be it. )

Sunday, July 13, 2008

On a wish and a dare...

HALLIE: I know Rosemary is going to beat us all to smithereens with this question, but what’s the most daring (or foolhardy) thing you’ve ever done? And getting married doesn’t count.

I am one of the most careful people I know. Even after I moved to New York, it was months before I could make myself cross the street on a red light. My nightmares as a kid involved being in the school hallway without a pass.
One of the dumbest things I ever did was hitch a ride home from with my best friend Carlynne Lampert (where are you, Carlynne?). We were maybe fifteen years old, and about a mile from home when we stuck out our thumbs. The car that stopped was a white Ford Fairlane with a Spanish-speaking family of four in it. We squeezed in and they dropped us four blocks from Carlynne’s house. The mother lectured us in Spanish before dropping us off.

“Nothing happened,” I later insisted to my mother. What were we thinking? It was just our lucky day that nothing did.

JAN: The foolhardy list is endless. Especially in my teenage years when it was a miracle that I wasn't the next Karen Ann Quinlan. I also hitchhiked, not just for transportation, but for sport.

But in terms of daring, where I actually THOUGHT about what I was about to do, there are two: Singing solo at the annual Follies production (a spoof of the news.)in front of one thousand people.The second is jumping off the bridge on Martha's Vineyard into the ocean on state beach. (remember the Jaws movie?) If you go there, you'll see a zillion kids doing this, but I am severely acrophobic, so this meant wrestling my biggest fear down to the ground.

RO: Jan's thrown down the gauntlet and now the pressure is on..
I'm tempted to say the most foolhardy/daring thing I've ever done is to send my book to an agent, but I don't think that's what Jan's looking for. In retrospect some of my African adventures have been...adventures. I did get frostbite climbing Kili, I did briefly take the controls of a small plane flying from Nairobi to Arusha. I/we did roll into a Tanzanian town after dark with no place to stay. But none of those things felt daring at the time.

OK, I got it...Bruce and I were in Zihuatenajo (I have a thing for Shawshank Redemption.) I think we were actually on the beach where Andy and Red meet at the end of the movie (Barra de Potosi?)and we had a few beers with this local guy who seemed very friendly. We told him the next day we were heading north to Michoacan to see the butterfly migration but connections were difficult. He offered to drive us - a short cut (!) and we said yes. It was eight hours of bad road and I bumped around in the back of a tiny rustbucket that had to be 20 yrs old. Pretty stupid..I don't know what we were thinking. He could have killed us and they never would have found our bodies.

ROBERTA: okay, if getting married to a guy with two kids doesn't count as daring/foolhardy, I don't know what does! But I'll play...after college, I decided I needed to really leave home. So I loaded up my Chevy Vega with a tent, a Coleman stove, a hatchet, and my clothes and set out for Boulder from New Jersey with a girlfriend. (Actually the hatchet was a gift from my dad at the last minute--can you imagine how much he loved this plan??) Along the way, my friend decided she was going to marry her high school sweetheart. Although she wanted to stay with me until I was settled, I was too pissed to take her up on that offer. And not so crazy about Colorado--too far from the ocean and the mountains felt claustrophobic. So I drove to California by myself, found a campground in Santa Barbara, and lived in my tent until I found a roommate and a waitressing job. Whew, I wouldn't do that today!

HANK: So, Rosemary, did you see the butterflies? Let's see. I hitchhiked from Oxford, Ohio to Cincinnati to hand out campaign info for George McGovern. My college roommate and I were picked up by a nice man who looked like someone's father--he yelled at us all the way to Cincy about how stupid we were and gave us bus fare to get back to school.

And it wasn't on purpose, but I was flying in a tiny plane from Boston to Vermont to cover a story on some alleged cult that was abusing their cult children. We were going to touch down, meet a local videographer, run to the court, get the story, leap back into the plane and get to Boston in time for the 6pm news.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and so much fun to fly. SO I was looking out the window, watching the ground below, and feeling kind of glamorous.

Until I looked over at the pilot. And realized he was FALLING ASLEEP. I mean, his eyes were closed. CLOSED.

Me. And a sleeping pilot.

I have never talked so much and so animatedly in my LIFE. It was like Scheherezade, keeping the guy interested. To keep myself alive.

I also sang the entire song White Rabbit, (pulling out all the stops, and with new lyrics I had written for the occasion) with a whole band in front of a pretty big crowd. I literaly almost fainted afterwards when my adrenaline plummeted or something.

HALLIE: I knew you guys would show me up to be the piker that I am in the daring-do department. Jan and Hank, next time we get togehter you guys are singing a duet of White Rabbit.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A New Breed

This handsome devil is my dog Max, adopted from Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue three years ago this August. (I hope Roberta adds a pic of her beautiful doggie..)Max is my second golden after the late Patrick, who was a blond, not a redhead.

I think I'll stick with goldens although some of the following breeds sound pretty interesting...

Collie + Lhasa Apso = Collapso: A dog that folds up for easy transport
Spitz + Chow Chow = Spitz-Chow: A dog that throws up a lot
Pointer + Setter = Poinsetter: A traditional Christmas pet
Great Pyrenees + Dachshund = Pyradachs: A puzzling breed
Pekinese + Lhasa Apso = Peekasso: An abstract dog
Irish Water Spaniel + English Springer Spaniel = Irish Springer: A dog that's fresh and clean as a summer's day
Labrador Retriever + Curly Coated Retriever = Lab Coat Retriever: The choice of research scientists
Newfoundland + Basset Hound = Newfound Asset Hound: A dog for financial advisors
Terrier + Bulldog = Terribull: A dog that makes awful mistakes
Bloodhound + Labrador = Blabador: A dog that barks incessantly
Malamute + Pointer = Moot Point: Owned by...oh, well, it doesn't matter anyway
Collie + Malamute = Commute: A dog that travels to work
Deerhound + Terrier = Derriere: A dog that's true to the end

...have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

About those shoes . . . by Lorraine (L.L.) Bartlett

As promised, today we're lucky enough to have Lorraine Bartlett as our guest blogger.
Lorraine writes the Jeff Resnick paranormal suspense series and the Booktown cozy mystery series under the name Lorna Barrett. Her current books are MURDER IS BINDING and DEAD IN RED.

“My cousin is dead.”
Those words, in my latest paranormal suspense novel, DEAD IN RED, start Jeff Resnick on an adventure to find a pair of sparkling red, stiletto shoes--and possibly save a life.

Talk about a woo-woo moment, when I wrote that line of dialog, a picture flashed in my mind of these beautiful, sparkling shoes and I gave that image to my protagonist. Then I didn’t do anything with the story for several months. But I went on a quest for those shoes.

Unlike a large portion of the women our society, I did not receive the “shoe” gene. I don’t go shopping for them. I live in Crocs. I love them! (Hey, they cured my plantar fasciitis.) I haven’t worn a heel higher than half an inch in 17 years.

I remember watching MOONLIGHTING and checking to see if they filmed Cybil Sheppard’s feet, because it was well known she refused to wear uncomfortable shoes, opting instead for track shoes. She wasn’t about to abuse her Achilles tendons.

When I read that, it made a lot of sense. I started wearing more comfortable shoes. The hell with fashion, Cybil was right: comfort came first. I began to wear a hat and leg warmers in winter. too. (Okay, the leg warmers were a fashion disaster, but I wasn’t freezing in my pantyhose like the rest of the women at the office and it was a LONG walk from the parking lot to my building.)

Getting back to the new book… Why was I, who had no interest in shoes, so fascinated by those sparkling red ones? I did Internet searches. I printed out scores of pretty red shoes and I could find nothing like what I’d pictured in my mind. And what were those sparkles? Were they sequins, rhinestones, or just glued-on sparkles? I was never sure. I mean, I’d only gotten a flash of a mental image. (I’m not as good as my protagonist when it comes to tuning into woo-woo wavelengths.)

My publisher likes input on covers. I’d blown it last time by not sending a visual. Instead of one Phrenology head, I got four. Ick! This time, I had a concept and with the help of my former graphic-designer husband, we put it together. But the shoes didn’t work. I found a pair of black shoes with rhinestones, and they were the closest to what I think I imagined. A little Photoshop action, and voila! Red! We sent off the cover idea and crossed our fingers.

Well, you can imagine my surprise and delight when the real cover came through. The shoes were perfect! And they were stock photography. Add that to a cool blend of gray to black and I had a really wonderful cover. (My second this year. Do I dare hope for a repeat when my next book comes out in February?)

Everyone has commented on the shoes. Men especially seem to appreciate them. My husband in particular. “Can’t you ever wear something like that?”

Okay, I would--if you paid me a million dollars. (Okay, I’d do it for a hundred, but don’t tell my husband that.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


We love it, and we know you'll love it, and now, the Boston Globe loves it. And we could not resist sharing this wonderful review of Hallie's latest. We're still talking about "stuff" in the blog below...but take a look at this before you reveal your latest triumph of organization! (And this is not even the whole review--go to Hallie's site to read every wonderful word. Thanks, Chuck Leddy!)

Sad, mad, glad, and beyond: What to read in any mood
By Chuck Leddy
July 7, 2008
Boston Globe book columnist Hallie Ephron's new book, a terrific reference guide for the mood-altering substances known as stories, offers a literary prescription for whatever ails you.
Ephron's book is organized into dozens of moods, and she offers several books to fit each of those moods. For every book, Ephron offers a capsule description and rates the book on its literary merit, level of reading difficulty, and other criteria. "Think of it as mood therapy in a book," writes Ephron, "and your personal guide to the outstanding, funny, sad, thrilling, inspiring, mind-bending . . . books of our times."
If, for example, you're in the mood for a good laugh, Ephron offers 10 books from Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" (a satirical skewering of British tabloid journalism) to Erma Bombeck's "If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?" ....
Taking the opposite tack, if you're in the mood for a good cry, Ephron offers 17 books from the obvious, such as Toni Morrison's "Beloved" ("It's one of those books that burrows its way in and takes up residence in a dark place in your soul," explains Ephron), to the surprising, such as Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" .....
Several of the moods Ephron describes are quirky. She offers, for example, six great books for those in a mood "to go over the edge." Among these books about temporarily losing your mind are Susanna Kaysen's unforgettable "Girl, Interrupted," a memoir set in Belmont's McLean Hospital......Another "over the edge" recommendation is Jay McInerney's classic "Bright Lights, Big City," whose Manhattan protagonist gets dumped by his model wife, "loses his job, buys a ferret, tries to kill himself, and takes a limo ride with a cocaine magnate." ...
Those in a mood for thrills are offered eight spine-tinglers, including Peter Benchley's "Jaws" and Thomas Harris's "The Silence of the Lambs," the novel that made Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter a household name. Ephron mixes in nonfiction books too, recommending Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster" for literary thrill seekers.
Whether you're in the mood for love, mystery, adventure, or inspiration, Ephron has a book for you. "1,001 Books For Every Mood" might best be described as a reference guide to great reading that acts as a best friend or a friendly, phenomenally well-read librarian who's there to point you in the right direction for reading pleasure. If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, books are like sailing ships, then Ephron offers one that will transport you to wherever you'd like to go.
And Hallie always wants to know--what books would you have included?
PS: Tomorrow--the delightful (and very successful) Lorraine Bartlett!

Sunday, July 6, 2008


..."that's the whole meaning of life isn't it, trying to find a place for your stuff..' George Carlin

RO: All right, maybe not the whole meaning of life, but there are times when the dear departed GC seems to be right on the money.
I suffer from it in silence all year long, but once or twice a year I have a full-blown outbreak of TMS - too much stuff. Which, as Carlin pointed out, you have to store, move, clean, worry about, etc.
My solution to this affliction hit me a few years back when I had some work done on my house. There was a giant dumpster parked in my driveway for months. One day I tossed in a small item, ...who remembers, a broken flower pot or garden tool. A light bulb went off. I started combing the closets looking for small things to throw away that wouldn't get in the way of the sheet rock. Then I asked the contractor if it would be alright for me to throw in a wicker lounge chair that was threatening to fall apart. He looked at me like I was crazy - "It's your dumpster."
I flung the rickety chair into the dumpster. I was briefly overjoyed. Then I climbed in and took it out. Had I made a mistake? I'd made a similar one when a friend told me he knew how to use a chainsaw and the sight of him shirtless caused me to say "sure, take down that one, too." (I've spent five years trying to fill in that spot in my garden.) Two days later the lounge chair made it back into the dumpster.

Now every 2-3 years I rent a 6ft dumpster. But I'm smart enough to have a staging area. If an item sits in the driveway for 2 days, it goes in the dumpster. I've had neighbors come by and ask if they can go dumpster diving.
The dumpster is in the driveway....

JAN: I have often thought that the real appeal of vacation homes isn't the fabulous beach or ski mountain. It's the fact that there isn't that much of your stuff there. So you feel so much freer.
At any rate, I once subscribed to Flylady, which is sort of a manic housewife gone wild. She sends you daily emails, which can be irritating. But the one of most value was the one that made you go throw out something like 33 things in your house each week. It's so much easier than you think and it feels really good. Unfortunately, Flylady also wanted me to keep my kitchen sink clean and POLISHED. And when I tried that, I started to develop hostility toward anyone else who used the kitchen sink. Husband, kids, strangers who wanted to wash their hands.... Anyway, Flylady had to go. But now that you mention it....maybe I'll go throw out 33 things in her honor.

RO: Any significance to the number 33? Was she drinking Rolling Rock at the time? I think that's the number on the back of the bottle. BTW..I threw out 6 pairs of shoes and 4 handbags today. I feel as if I lost weight. That means I have 23 items to go.

JAN: I'm guessing Flylady for a daiquiri girl or maybe a whisky sour or mint julep. Definitely not beer. And I'm not exactly sure it was 33. It could have been 27. It was definitely a two digit, odd number, though. Memory is good for that much.

HALLIE: When Jan started saying "the real appeal of vacation homes isn't the fabulous beach or ski mountain..." I was sure she was going to say that the appeal is that they provide space for all the overflow junk that has no place in your home.
My husband has a terrible time throwing things away, and I try to ignore it--seems trivial relative to the pleasure he brings me on most other fronts. But we did have a small breakthrough when he threw away a teeny weeny red polo shirt that his mother had sewn a nametag into the collar. We're talking junior high. I told my daughter Molly about it and she immediately asked if it had already been picked up because she wanted it.
Definitely genetic.

RO: Oooh, I can't believe he threw that away. That was a keeper.

ROBERTA: OOh Ro, we have a dumpster in our driveway too. But I would never order one on purpose! This is related to construction to repair some chronic leaks. I'm going down to the basement now and start to work on my 33/27. Question: if you throw away a pair of shoes, that counts as two items, right? And do they count double if they belong to my husband? (Ro: Absolutely!)
And this brings up a separate but related question. When is it ok to clear stuff out of your grown kid's room and make it into a decent guest room? I was astonished to learn that one of my friends completely renovated her daughter's room last summer as she was getting married. (She was 22.) I'm not suggesting tossing those grade school soccer trophies into the dumpster, just maybe move them to a box in the attic???

And hey, we can make this topic into a pact: In order to post on JRW, you have to report what you threw out:)

HANK: Whoa. Am I the wrong one to talk to. I have: playbills from all the plays we've seen. That's LOTS of plays. Tee-shirts emblazoned wtih every event I've gone to. I mean: BOXES of tshirts. (Bruce Springsteen at Fenway. The Police at Foxboro. The original HELP T-shirt with the Beatles from 1967 or whenever. The 1980 Olympics/CBS News (I worked for a CBS station then) when it turned out the US didn't go.)

It's Mom's fault. She threw away all my Beatle magazines and DC comics and MAD MAgazines from the 60's, and wouldn't they be worth a lot now? So you never know what's going to be valuable. I always say.

Our problem, if it's a problem, we have a third floor. It used to be an apartment, but after the lovely teacher who lived there moved, I decided we needed the room. Rooms. So: the living room is now a guestroom. One bedroom is storage. We won't go into that. (Wrapping paper. Gifts for all occasions. Stacks of books written by pals that I give as presents. Toys for all ages, jsut in case somene comes over who needs a toy.The out-of-season slipcovers.) One room is a cedar closet. One room is: oh, I can't even reveal this. Shoes and purses.

Last week I gave ten mammothly huge bags of clothing to a church charity. I mean--lots of great stuff. And it was so exciting. I'm now craving to get rid of stuff. Can't wait to clear it out. Shoes count as ONE thing, you guys.

And let me tell you--it's fantastic karma to give things away. Do it.

So question for you. How many white tee shirts does one person need?

And I agree, Roberta. Tell.

RO: And what gave you the most pleasure to get rid of...This time it was a chaise cushion that had somehow turned into my husband's blankie. It was disgusting. And now it's gone :-)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Happy Fourth!

Happy fourth of July weekend everyone! we'll see you back here on Monday...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Elizabeth Lyon

ROBERTA: When I began the quest to get my first mystery published back in 1998, I didn’t know a soul in the publishing business. I did all my research like the lifetime student I was: Locate the best books on the subject and study their advice. One of the most useful books I found was Elizabeth Lyon’s THE SELL-YOUR-NOVEL TOOLKIT. And I’ve recommended it to hundreds of aspiring writers since then. Now JWR is absolutely thrilled to have Elizabeth as our guest blogger, here to talk about writing and her brand new book, MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER.

All the way from Oregon, welcome Elizabeth! I have so many questions. Let’s start with this one: Can good writing be taught or are you born with talent?

ELIZABETH: Yes and yes. We all learned how to write the equivalent of “See Spot run.” We can all learn the fundamentals of good writing. We are all born with talent--differing in degrees and manifestations. I don’t believe you need talent to get published. Polished good writing founded on authenticity of character and author passion can win the day.

ROBERTA: When we hear panels of agents talk about what excites them, the number one answer is probably “voice.” Please talk about what that means and where the heck we can find ours.

ELIZABETH: Voice is the expression of individuality in a writer’s choice of words that is appropriate to her characters and stories. We’re each unique so in theory all writing should be stand-out original. But for the fact that we learned how to write through conforming--to grammar and syntax, diction of the culture and times, and other forces of expectation, social mores, and censorship.

We can find our original voice behind the big rock of these factors--by practicing riff-writing--free-associating and pushing what you let out on the paper to an extreme. Take tight or “right” writing and open it up by letting the outrageous come through. Later you can revise to delete what you don’t want. We’re great monkeys, too, so imitate by replicating or modeling other authors’ writings. Imitate to then innovate.

ROBERTA: What would you say are the top mistakes beginning writers make?

ELIZABETH: Quitting. Expecting instant success. Not finishing a first draft. Revising till the cows come home. Not revising till the cows come home. Writing in a vacuum--without critique, support, or editing. Repeating the same mistakes but expecting a different outcome and blaming the agents for rejection. Using “look” too often.

ROBERTA: Any advice for writers who are discouraged about the publishing business today?

ELIZABETH: Broaden your repertoire; write in a different genre. Write as much as you can as often as you can. Study marketing and get savvy. Go to workshops, author talks, conferences, and get-away retreats. Enter contests and apply for fellowships. Study and apply what you learned. Use your connections and be as helpful to every other writer you encounter as you can. Use a print-on-demand outfit like Lulu to complete the artistic circle and share with family and friends. Then keep writing; keep marketing. Be as flexible as Gumby and as persistent as Wiley Coyote.

ROBERTA: What are you working on these days?

ELIZABETH: I’m writing a memoir set in 1967, in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was 17 years old, and the only white student at a summer humanities program. I’ve started this memoir in various forms at least half a dozen times over the years, never finding “the voice” or the entry into the whole piece. Now I believe I have found both. That experience was my coming of age about race, about community, and about writing. After completing this work, I have two other memoirs, one novella revision, and a new novel all circling O’Hare waiting for landing instructions.

And drum roll please, for the JRW quiz:

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss Marple. She’s fearless at examining corpses, including autopsied body parts.

Sex or violence?
Pizza or chocolate?
Dark chocolate with Grand Marnier at its core.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? (We won’t even include Sean Connery because we know the answer, don’t we?)
None of the above, even Sean Connery. After Johnny Weismuller, I didn’t “bond” again.

Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Katherine Hepburn, who was a great Taurus role model, throwing her little body into the ice cold Atlantic every day. I always admired her pluck.
First person or Third Person?
Yes, one or the other or both in the same novel. I love first-person protagonists and third-person viewpoints used in the same book and even with different tenses. And if a work has many characters, third-person often works best, I think. I don’t like multiple first person.

Prologue or no prologue?
That is the question. A prologue can be compelling and necessary. I dislike the big, indigestible block of narration types, however.

Making dinner or making reservations?
Wanted: a chef who uses primarily locally grown and organic foods to cook for me every night. Sadly, I make my own dinner 99% of the time.

And finally: STUMP THE READERS in The Jungle Red Quiz: Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We’ll guess.

I was detained and questioned at Checkpoint Charlie as the unaccounted for person on the bus from East Berlin.

I wore two different shoes to a College Board Entrance Exam.

I got a 4.0 throughout high school, college, and graduate school.

I exist because Dale Evans dragged my sailor father to Marble Collegiate Church in NY, where he met my mother.

Thank you so much for coming Elizabeth! Now the floor is open for questions....

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On What's in a Name

From our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues our honors. ~Proverb

ROBERTA: I was standing in line at Southwest Airlines a couple of weeks ago. With the new SW procedures, you have to cram into the holding tank according to the section letter on your ticket. And you’ve received your section letter because you logged onto your computer exactly 24 hours in advance of the flight to get it. If you care about where you sit on a plane, it’s an obsessive’s nightmare. Anyway, I digress. I was in line and a woman tapped me on the back.

Le crap, I thought, she thinks I’ve pushed in ahead of her. Instead she showed me the name on her ticket: Roberta Gilbert.

“You don’t meet too many of us,” she said. I laughed and asked her if she’d grown into the name.

“Finally,” she said.

“What was your nickname?” I asked.

“Bert or Bertie,” she said, shaking her head grimly.

“Did your father want a son?”

“I was the sixth child,” she explained. “And three of them were already boys!”

Which got me thinking about my name—Roberta Ann. I was the second child of four, following my sister by 11 months. I was definitely supposed to be the son, named after my dad, Charles Robert. Then my brother came along and could have absorbed his legacy quite nicely. Though the other name my parents considered was Priscilla…so in the end I feel lucky. (No offense to any Priscilla’s out there!)

It’s not been an easy name to carry—half female, half male, closely tied to my father, but not exactly, as it’s his MIDDLE name: he goes by Bob, not Charlie. People often need me to spell it: “Robert with an ‘a’,” I tell them, dreading the move to my last name.

Next week I’ll be visiting my dad, who’s in an assisted living facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But I can picture exactly how his face will light up when he sees me. “This is my daughter, Roberta,” he’ll boast to anyone who enters the room. And I’ll be grateful for the connection of our common names.

How about you guys? Where did your names come from and how do you feel about them?

RO: I was named after my father's two sisters Rose and Mary, which is, I suppose better than being named after any of his six brothers which could have made me Lou Bob or worse, Ben Ludovico. My sister got the cool name, she was Paula, named after my mother's brother.

I hated my name growing up - there weren't any other Rosemarys - except for Rosemary Clooney or Rosemary Kennedy. And neither of them made a hot role model when I was sixteen. I've gotten over it though.

HANK: Yes, okay, fine. I know this is just a sneaky way to get me to tell.

My name is Harriet Ann. Apparently there was a great uncle Harry, who was not in good shape when I was born. So Mom decided to give him a gift, and told him she and my Dad were naming me Harriet. In his honor. Mom tells me--and maybe this is one of those possibly-apocryphal family stories we were talking about last week--that his response was "Oh, that poor girl."

He was so right. When all the cool girls are Debbie or Linda, you don't want Harriet. (As in Ozzie and.) So, until college, I was always called Ann or Annie. When I go home to Indianapolis, I still instantly answer to Ann. Here in Boston, if someone says "Ann" I don't connect at all. (I now think Harriet is kind of hip and competent, and wouldn't mind being her.)

To make things worse, Mom and Dad had decided on Alexandra, a perfectly wonderful name, until the Uncle Harry thing came up. And then, Mom told me, she had decided I didn't look like an Alexandra. I was ONE DAY OLD, for gosh sake.

To make things better, my Dad was the music critic at the Chicago Daily News back then, and he was pushing to name me Harmony. Yikes. But, in the funny way the world has, perhaps little Harmony still would have turned out to be Hank.

ROBERTA: Ro, actually Rosemary is the perfect name for a master gardener and the author of PUSHING UP DAISIES! And Hank, you dodged a bullet with "Harmony." But we'll start calling you Harriet whenever you're ready--just give us the word!

Name stories, anyone?